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How Giving Back Can Heal -- The Story of One Entrepreneur: Kevin M. Burke, Founder/Owner of Centuria

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I recently met Kevin while attending the Washington Area finals of the Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship. Kevin was there to judge our business plan competition. He has gone into several classrooms in the D.C. area to tell at-risk kids his story. In the process of doing so, he's uncovered a gem: helping kids like himself heals his soul.

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Kevin with Dagim Girma, Founder and CEO of the Audible, NFTE DC Region Business Plan Winner 2013.

SM: Please tell me a little bit about yourself?

I'm the founder, 100 percent shareholder and CEO of Centuria. Centuria is a government services provider. Our services range from managing the nation's weather radar towers and the data they generate, to building and managing the systems that track the nation's natural resources. When you check the weather forecast, or visit a national park you're benefiting from services we provide. From 2008 to 2012 Centuria grew from less than 3 million in annualized revenue to over 29 million, providing us three consecutive years on the Inc. 500 list of fastest growing private companies. But, that's the boring stuff.

SM: OK, so what the interesting stuff?

I'm a survivor of abuse. My childhood was one tortuous event after another at the hands of a family member who suffered from crippling depression. My childhood was a roller coaster of physical and emotional uncertainty and I rarely knew what to expect next. One minute the house was full of laughter, the next my head was being smashed into a counter top corner requiring a lie to the doctor and 20+ stiches across the bridge of my nose. When I was old enough to stop the beatings, I was left almost entirely alone. With very few exceptions from 12 to 18 I had no guidance and no love. All I received was hatred and disgust and a constant reminder that I was garbage. It was no surprise by 18 I was using drugs to dull the pain, had a long list of police charges, felons for friends and I'd been kicked out of school.

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Kevin talking to the class at Cesar Chavez

SM: So what turned it around?

A fantastic judge gave me a chance. All of my charges came to a head on the same day in court. I told my attorney if I was not sent to jail, I would join the Marine Corps. The judge brought me up to the bench and told me the Navy had saved his life. He gave me one chance, and I took it. I found my pain useful on Parris Island to get through basic training. It was a nuclear power plant I could tap into to find strength when I had nothing left to give. I began to realize I had something of tremendous value. Twelve weeks later, when I earned the title Marine I felt pride for the first time in my life. I knew instantly that pride was more addictive than any drug I'd tried. That pride has never left me. I was stationed at Marine Corps Headquarters in DC after training. I noticed the computer guys were making good money when they left the service, so I taught myself how to program. I automated my job by working evenings and weekends. In exchange, I received a Navy Achievement Medal and the freedom to learn more. After four years I was qualified enough to pick up a GS 7 - GS 13 "ladder" position at the Department of Health and Human Services. Between DHHS and the education dollars provided by the Marine Corps I attended college at almost no cost and obtained several technical certifications.

SM: How did you get from federal employee to business owner?

In 1996 my wife and I had our second child on the way, and I didn't want that child growing up in daycare. So I found a consulting job that doubled my pay, allowing my wife to stay home. It didn't take long to realize the company I was working for was making as much money on my work as I was. So I founded Synapse and placed myself as a consultant. In doing so, I doubled my pay for the second time in 12 months. Less than a year later I had enough consultants billing that I was able to focus on building the business. I've been self-employed ever since. Synapse ultimately failed in 2001. The dot com bomb crushed my consulting business and I panicked my way into a cash-intensive business model I did not fully understand. I founded Centuria in 2002. Centuria struggled for several years. It was a lot harder to build the foundation after the dot com collapse. But after four difficult years, Centuria finally took off in spectacular fashion.

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Kevin at the Centuria offices.

SM: How does NFTE help you heal?

I went into the first classroom comprised mostly of seniors in April. I introduced myself and my company and then I asked the seniors to raise their hands. I told the seniors they were all far ahead of where I was at their age, as I'd already been kicked out of school for two months by April of my senior year. I asked them -- so why can't you be me in 20 years? They were hooked. I told them my story, in all of its unflattering glory, I told them how I felt, I told them how much it hurt. And then I told them how valuable all that pain can be, how to use it to succeed instead of fail. When I was done one young man raised his hand and said, "That's my story, and I've never heard of anyone like us getting anywhere in life." He floored me. I spent the rest of my time in that classroom just trying to keep my composure. Touching that one young man gave my personal pain value, tremendous value. It stopped being about me and how I can overcome it, and it started being about how many kids can I help turn the light bulb on for with it. I got a note from that young man's teacher two months later. After doing no work, at all, in her class prior to meeting me, he made up all the work, was holding an A and received second place in the business plan competition. All that kid needed was some hope, and I gave it to him. How many hundreds, how many thousands more like him are out there? My biggest question now is -- how many can I reach?

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