Greenhouse Scholars' Pete Burridge

By Scott Jonlich

Nick Tarleton is a Greenhouse Scholar who graduated as the first African-American male with a Bachelor of Food Science and Human Nutrition from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

On Sept. 6, he was one of a handful of college students that attended a block party at the Burridge residence on a beautiful street in Hinsdale. It was geographically 20 miles from where Nick grew up in the Humboldt Park neighborhood—but to him, it might as well be millions of miles away from where he wanted to be someday.

Pete Burridge is the founder of Greenhouse Scholars, and his vision is to help underprivileged kids graduate from college and become leaders. That idea came out of his desire to “make an impact that spans multiple generations.” Pete, along with his father Dick Burridge Sr., stood with his family, and watched Tarleton as he presented his speech to a room filled with mostly Hinsdale-area guests and fellow Greenhouse Scholar students.

“I am the first person in my family to ever attend and graduate from college, and I also grew up just a short, 50-minute drive from where we stand today, Tarleton said. “I am often asked the question, ‘Nick, did you know or did you believe you would achieve so much in your four short years of college?’ I always respond to the question with a saddened sigh and the word, no,because of obstacles I faced starting at the end of my freshman year of high school.

“My family had always struggled to make ends meet, but during two years of high school, everything completely fell apart. First, I came home one day after school to find the house had been completely emptied out. Without any warning to me at all, my father had moved out, and my parents got divorced.As a single parent, my mom struggled mentally, spiritually and financially.”

As the audience listened to Tarleton’s speech, all eyes were on this 22-year-old, as he stood at the podium shuffling papers and cleared his throat several times. The room was lively during this perfect September evening under a white canopy. Then, as Tarleton acknowledged the Greenhouse  Scholars program, the room became quiet as his voice trembled, recalling the hardest day of his life. Tarleton recollected when he came home from school with half of his family’s belongings gone. His parents divorced.

Tarleton remembered days he had to choose if the $2.50 in his pocket would buy him breakfast or lunch. His Greenhouse Scholar mentors Brian and Janet Weed looked on from across the room with watchful eyes and supportive nods.Tarleton now controlled his emotions, and in that pause, his shoulders raised. He looked out at this audience, and told how he would use his memories to empower himself to do more. But this Greenhouse Scholar was not thinking only of himself—consistent with the mantra of the Greenhouse Scholars organization, he set his vision on not having another kid experience the pain of deciding which meal he or she will miss. As he scanned the room now with a more commanding posture, Tarleton went on to talk about his dream to help end child obesity in his community and in communities around the world. Tarleton shared his college success with his captive audience, and credited his Greenhouse Scholars family for all the success and confidence in him.

Tarleton also recounted his college days.

”Checking in with Brian [Weed] every two weeks, listening and writing down the advice he provided, and having face-to-face check-ins when I was home is one of the ways I was able to get through college—with his wife Janet’s everlasting support,” he said.

Brian and Janet Weed live in Clarendon Hills, and Brian recalled the talks and visits he had with Tarleton as he embarked on college life and his goal for his future.

“Nick is a very capable kid, and even more important than his capability is his grit,” Weed said. “It’s inherent to him, and it paid off in spades. It’s interesting that he jumped to the idea of mentoring other kids, because that’s what Greenhouse Scholars program is trying to reinforce. ...

“The mentor relationship we had with Nick was steady. We talked every couple weeks, and got together in person when we could. Little things like being able to balance school and the college experience, expectations around interviews, building a network—I was able to encourage and help him in that way. Nick deserves all the credit.”

The impact the Weeds had on Tarleton was essential in the Greenhouse Scholars program Pete Burridge built.

“I’m a big believer in the concept of ‘impact’ concept—the concept is where it starts and ends for me,” Burridge said.

Greenhouse Scholars was developed out of his for-profit company Greenhouse Partners, a brand strategy and communications firm he created with the support from his wife Maria and his late mother Leslie Burridge.

“For Greenhouse Partners, I looked back over our first five years in business, we have a chance to give back and make a big impact, so I thought about the things I was most passionate about, and one was the idea of leveling the playing field for young people, and the idea that everybody deserves an equal chance to build a life that they wanted. And the idea of education and its ability to span all kinds of different things came together to build our program model.’’

Burridge believed by working with the highest performing of the under-resourced young people in different communities and cities across the country, that he would be able to leverage them to make a broader impact in lower-income communities.

“This was the best idea I had to make the broadest possible impact to communities across the world eventually,” he said.

The evening’s event was themed “glass half full,” and was hosted by Pete’s brother Dick Burridge Jr., the founder of RMB Capital and a supporter of Greenhouse Scholars. His independent investment advisory firm has a commitment to philanthropy, which includes Greenhouse Scholars. The foundation expanded to Illinois in 2012 and doubled in size, while cultivating the next generation of community leaders in low-income areas. According to Pete Burridge, each scholar that joins the organization is selected based on incredible academic achievements, demonstrated leadership skills, and a commitment to bettering their communities—despite being from under-resourced backgrounds. 

SCOTT:Pete, what was the inspiration for you in starting Greenhouse Scholars?

PETE:My folks (Dick and Leslie Burridge) were extremely involved with philanthropic causes, and were on the boards of national and international charities which instilled a sense of community and locally here in the Hinsdale community, such as Wellnesshouse and The Community House. My father is 88 years old, and still is involved and lives in the area. So, there is a real connection to growing up in the Hinsdale community, and for me, I’m a big believer in impact, and I think about how I want my life to look like—how I can make an impact with my interactions with people.

SCOTT: I’m sure you thought about the generational benefit of Greenhouse Scholars program, and the long and enduring effect that education has. Is that the reason you chose education as your impact vision?

PETE:Yes, that’s right. There are two things there. In regards to families, there is a statistic that siblings are 75 percent more likely to go to college if the older sibling went to college. Then, if you carry that forward with college educated parents, their kids are four to five times more likely to go to college. So, there is a multiplier effect. The second thing is the only way to create lasting change in low-income communities is from within. I think a lot of people have thrown a lot of money to quote: fix low income communities, and at the end of the day, you can work with the genuine role-models in those communities to go back and give back, to pull up the generation behind them to make the change become lasting.

SCOTT:Your Greenhouse Scholars like Nick Tarleton have taken on the role of mentors within their own communities. Nick actually told me that during his college years, he began mentoring high-school kids that he knew, as well as fellow college students. That’s impressive that he has taken on that mentoring on his own from learning from the people that mentored him.

PETE:Scott, an interesting statistic so far, together with our scholars, we have now mentored over 11,000 additional middle- and high-school kids from low-income communities, because it’s core...to being a part of our program. We actually screen for it. We are looking for heads-up leaders and people that are out to inspire others. We work with these people from the beginning to help them understand that they have the potential to create that broader change. And that’s a great example. Nick is a special kid. He’s a great proxy for all the kids in the program. They are really all high achievers, and come from extremely difficult circumstances.

SCOTT:What was going through your mind when Nick was thanking everyone?

PETE:I’m really proud to be involved with these young people that are dealing with things that most of [us] cannot fathom. I came from Hinsdale, and 99 percent of us have trouble relating to what they have gone through and overcome, and then to come out on top to change their lives. Secondly, they all look at it with an obligation to bring others with them. So, I’m proud that I get to be a part of it. It’s pretty neat.

SCOTT:At the night of your “Half Glass Full” event, I was watching Nick’s body language at the start of his speech. And at first, he naturally appeared a bit nervous in the beginning; but as he moved forward with his speech, he raised his shoulders and chin as he confidently addressed the room with such conviction and with passion. I never met Nick before that night, but I was proud just to see how he delivered this speech, and how he captured the room. I think he has a gift and will go a long way to make Greenhouse Scholars very proud of him.

PETE:I think so too. He’s a great guy. His mind is in the right place and really driven in all the right ways.

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