CEO of the Year, Large Nonprofit

Center of Innovation

By
From the December 2013 issue of Columbus CEO
  • Photo by Ryan M.L. Young

David Chesebrough has the coolest office in Columbus. The president and CEO of COSI comes to work every day with a mission to make science and education accessible and fun for visitors of all ages.

As COSI approaches its 50th anniversary, Chesebrough says it’s finally grown into its home on the Scioto Peninsula where it relocated in 1999. “We’re really looking at being a lifelong learning center and an anchor for the development of this community and an absolute essential resource for early childhood education,” says Chesebrough.

His passion is contagious: during his tenure, Cheesebrough has built partnerships with notable institutions including the Ohio State University, Battelle, TechColumbus, Mt. Carmel and many others. These accomplishments have earned him the appreciation of his peers as Large Nonprofit CEO of the Year for 2013.

*Interview has been edited for length

It’s an honor to be at COSI. Innovations like overnighters—which originated here—are world-known. And we think of this as just our little Columbus science center, but COSI’s been an anchor on the international level since at least the ’80s.

As we approach celebrating our 50th, we’re actually going to tell the whole story of 50 years of innovation. It started with (COSI founder) Sandy Halleck  having this crazy idea of building a science center before science centers were really even a known commodity in the world. That’s why we’re the third oldest science center in this modern era.

I can’t image a better job for myself. I blend my education, my science, my engineering, my entrepreneurial, my technical, my commitment to education and making a difference…into one job here. I don’t have to go outside of a job and add elements elsewhere.

 It’s the perfect job, but it has been an incredible amount of work to rethink COSI so it can be successful. We went from in 2004 a failed levy that ended up with us getting to point where our budget was almost a half of what it opened up with, where a third of the building was shut down, a third of the staff was let go. We were at that low ebb. And here we are seven years later ranked number one science center in the country for families by Parents magazine.

We made this subtle but very important shift from being a standalone science center in a building that was fundamentally too big for what we could offer right now to a Center of Science. We said we should be the place that not only offers what we do, but also lets the public engage in technology.

(It’s) all about how people learn and how we can evaluate for ourselves and for others the effectiveness of learning in an informal setting.

We’re getting more and more into how…the innovation sector and the entrepreneurial sector in this community have a home here at COSI. One of the things we’re doing now is engaging that sector with a whole rethink of the area that you know as Gadgets right now, so have that become more of a playground for innovation. We have partners like Idea Foundry. They’re moving in a couple blocks down the street. We’re hosting their Maker Faire.

I think COSI has always been a success. I think we’ve had it under wraps a little bit during our challenging years, but I think we’ve reemerged with the same level of success that we’ve had before.

We talk about this with our team—we are a business. We’re a $17 million business. We are 75 percent earned revenue, which is extraordinary for a nonprofit. Actually, the way we’ve been able to stay healthy during the recession as all of the sources of income were reducing was we kept investing in ourselves and adding programs and emphasizing the elements that I’ve talked about. Those have allowed us to actually grow our revenue. I think the revenue number that we grew is over $2 million just in the last couple of years in earned revenue. 

COSI’s been blessed not only with a long heritage but with some great team members. We have folks who have been her for 30 year, 20 years, 15 years, so my job has really been to sometimes provide a vision when maybe a vision wasn’t quite as evident. This whole Center of Science concept we had to evolve that after I came. All we knew was that the building was too big for what we were doing in it at that point in time.

We have an incredibly strong management team, and dedicated team members right down to volunteers….we’ve got people who put in 5,000, 6,000, 7,000 volunteer hours. We had over 100,000 volunteer hours last year. So I really represent a pretty incredibly committed team of both paid team members and unpaid team members.