Be Inspired | Do Good
Aaron Dykstra confesses, he just didn’t enjoy school. He says he “never lived up to his (school) potential,” however today he is living up to his life’s mission and journey potential. His negative school experiences are one of the reasons he knew Roanoke Valley needed The Making Foundation. He knew kids were out there, just like him, who thought differently. Many who are, “not successful in their school education because they don’t test well, aren’t great at memorization and constantly get in trouble.” You see Aaron didn’t fit well into the “normal” education model, he was a spatial thinker, and just needed to do school differently. Those past experiences have made his journey to build The Making Foundation worth it… “seeing the light bulb go off [for the kids] and [the kids] realizing no, I’m not ‘dumb’. I just think differently.”
The Making Foundation was founded in 2016 to provide a hands-on after-school enrichment program that strives to expose kids to a non-traditional environment by focusing on hands-on, project-based learning. Aaron was propelled forward by his passion for the trades but fueled by the realization that there exists a vast generational gap in manufacturing. Solutions were needed to recruit a new generation of manufacturing employees, and for Aaron, he knew his contribution would be to expose and educate kids about the skilled trades early enough in their lives that they didn’t have any predetermined thoughts or opinions on the skilled trades.
Before Aaron was championing and creating skilled trades education for youth, he followed his path as a tinkerer. On his 17th birthday, Aaron joined the military. Following his service, he moved to New York and then Chicago. Then, realizing that Roanoke was the ideal environment for him to start his business, Aaron settled back in the Roanoke Valley and opened 611 Bicycle Company. As a custom bicycle frame builder, Aaron won five best of show awards at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show all by the age of 30, being the youngest ever to do so. His highly sought after bicycle frames carried an 18-month waiting list and can be found all over the world.
As Aaron settled into life in Roanoke, Aaron found himself getting more and more involved with the manufacturing community. A visit to the Manufacturer’s Summit one year offered him an eye-opening experience, “I wanted to go because I cared about it, American manufacturing. Not just as a veteran but as a citizen. I wanted to get away from a disposable culture.” Passionate about scaling up his business, he thought the Summit would provide him some insight. However, once there, Aaron realized he was the only millennial in the room, a room full of baby boomers confused by the impending decline in the manufacturing workforce. By the time Aaron attended the Summit the following year, he had realized that “there’s such a need and identifying how to address the issue of how to make manufacturing interesting to a younger generation.”
Over the course of the next year, Aaron moved his business to a new part of town and found himself teaching neighborhood kids who stopped by to learn how to work on their bikes. By chance, Simon & Schuster contacted Aaron to make a children’s book titled “Bicycles Made by Hand,” an experience he loved. Much of the book’s content now underscores the curriculum of The Making Foundation today. The progression in Aaron’s professional growth – from the Summit, networking in the manufacturing industry in Roanoke, his businesses growth and interest in education – culminated to a tipping point. Aaron saw the opportunity to make a difference. It was hit home by a Harvard study Aaron read about upward mobility, “I learned Roanoke City is amongst the worst in the nation for upward mobility. If you were born into poverty in Roanoke City, you are 18% less likely to leave poverty than the previous generation.” Rallied by this call, Aaron put together a contact list of those who would be interested in manufacturing education for kids and started knocking on doors, asking only for feedback on his idea.
Aaron’s idea had fantastic feedback, which formed what we now call The Making Foundation. Thanks to supportive confidants and stakeholders, Aaron successfully filed for a 501(c)3 and hired a Board of Directors, including four educators, two ex-superintendents, Aaron’s step-father John Hagmire and a pool of business owners and manufacturing professionals.
Key to The Making Foundation’s success is partnerships with school boards. Early on, local superintendent, Rita Bishop, invited Aaron to pitch his idea to her. She so firmly believed in his mission that The Making Foundation is now part of their 21st Century after-school enrichment program. Currently, 65 kids are referred each school term by guidance counselors who select students who are determined to be a good fit. An ideal fit are kids between 6th and 9th grade. Why? To teach kids early enough before they have formed preconceived notions about the trades, manufacturing and hands-on learning. It’s also the best age because high school aged kids begin to feel embarrassed or insecure about their lack of skills, “if you’re a kid with no background in it, it takes a lot of guts to get outside of your comfort zone.”
Fostering relationships with schools has been challenging, “Digging into public schools is a rabbit hole of small issues that can be overwhelming from nutritional issues, attention issues with students and […] communication has been a huge challenge to communicate with schools and getting all pertinent information I need from schools to be able to predict what students I’m working with.” Although he notes that despite the challenges, he is prepared to handle it, “owning my own business before starting the nonprofit, I got a lot of my challenges out of the way. Learning the management skills and working with different personalities […] prepared me to work in the nonprofit and education world.” Aaron so aptly puts it, “Owning a business is a trial by fire. It constantly pushes and challenges you, tries to break you and occasionally does.” Aaron now can put himself out there without coming up with reasons not to, “you have to lean into your vulnerabilities of putting yourself out there.” His business provided him immensely with the skill set to run a business but to also sell, “If I can convince someone to spend $10,000 on a bicycle, I can convince someone to donate a little bit of money for an at-risk kid who wants to learn skills that would have a great impact on the economy.”
As for Aaron’s bicycle business, he has decided to put it on hold for a while as he reconnects with his passion for it, “I found myself not wanting to get on the bike. I found myself at the point where I didn’t want to do what I love professionally.” He says he will be back at some point or in some capacity. He’s okay with this adjustment as he recognizes how rewarding his work has been for him and the difference he has made, “Having kids who pushed back early on, who threatened to hurt me. Having kids who were so challenging and now seeing the turnaround.
Having those kids come to me after school, after a full day knowing they have less than ideal nutrition, probably not sleeping well, who knows what their home life is like. Having to kick these kids out at the end of the day and they’re saying no let me stay a little longer. It’s great because these kids did not want to be here at the beginning. I’ve had parents come up to me and tell me they’re so happy to see their child excited about something.”
As a business owner and founder of a nonprofit, Aaron has some nuggets of wisdom to offer. The mantra he tells all of his students is, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not learning” because building skills are meant to be iterative. Another piece of advice Aaron received from his grandpa sat with him as a business owner, “Never name a business after yourself.” You have to separate your ego from your business because if you do, it becomes a part of you, it gets too close to home, and there’s no scalability. The key piece of advice he takes with him now is, “Ultimately in growing something is knowing what you don’t know, knowing your limitations and knowing when you’re not the right person for the job.” He noted that trying to do too much and cover too many bases on your own can be limited; it’s essential to put your ego aside and ask for help because so many people are willing to help.
Aaron can’t help but be grateful for the journey he’s on. Professionally, he thanks his “board of directors, students, and the school system for believing in my work, […] I’m grateful for the opportunity to have an impact in these kids lives, even if it’s fleeting.” As for his personal life, Aaron is grateful for his amazing daughter and recent fiancé. He’s taking it all in and not taking it for granted, “I am fortunate to sit back and enjoy this amazing world we live in.”
How can you help Aaron? The Making Foundation is always looking for support. If you’d like to offer a financial donation, share your expertise, or any leftover building materials (wood, steel, metal, wood, glass), get in touch with Aaron.
Listen to the full interview to hear Aaron share his story.
About Roanoke Podcast for Good:
Each week, you get a look inside the lives and minds of Roanoke Valley business owners, entrepreneurs and thought leaders. Subscribe on Stitcher or iTunes to hear us weekly, or check out our archive for more great podcasts.
Written by: Emma Shulist