In 2017, Kansas native and UNC-Chapel Hill student Joe Nail wrote the first business plan for Lead For America from his college dorm room. Joe grew up with two service examples in his parents––his dad works for the Army and his mom is a middle school nurse––and first committed to a life of military and public service in high school during his dad’s deployment to Afghanistan. At the same time, growing up in Kansas, Joe had internalized the idea that success would require leaving his community and home state and never coming back. As soon as he left Kansas he began to appreciate the community and people that had raised him, and felt a call to one day return and contribute.
In college he tried to surround himself with other young people who aspired to careers in public service and civic leadership. But during his fifth semester of college, he started noticing a disturbing trend. So many of his peers who had wanted to enter public service, serve in the military, or even start a business were opting to do none of the above after graduation. Even worse, they especially weren’t working or leading in the places that most needed their talents. Instead, it seemed most everyone was moving to the same three or four cities and working in the same industries––often finance, consulting, or technology. Rather than serving in the military and then returning home to serve just as one person, Joe instead envisioned an organization that would help thousands of his generation’s most exceptional young leaders enter public service in the communities they call home across all 50 states.
Joe spent his last semester as a UNC student in Silicon Valley building Lead For America and then graduated college a year early to start working on Lead For America full-time. While in California, Joe recruited a team of four additional 20-something co-founders––Reed Shafer-Ray, Kinsey Morrison, Benya Kraus, and Dylan Russell––who had roots in Oklahoma, Kentucky, rural Minnesota, and Appalachian North Carolina. All five members of the founding team had observed the same challenges of brain drain in their communities and college campuses and were driven to build a program that they themselves wish they could have joined at graduation to serve their hometowns. By the fall of 2018, Lead For America had five full-time staff and launched its very first national search for the inaugural cohort of National Hometown Fellows.
From a pool of more than 500 exceptional applications, the founding LFA team selected 54 Fellows and the program officially began with LFA’s first Summer Institute in Washington, DC and Boston, MA in the summer of 2019. In the time since, LFA has grown to become one of the nation’s fastest growing nonprofits. To date, Lead For America has created more than 300 paid, full-time Fellowships in more than 40 states nationwide, and has helped launch the public service careers of hundreds more through summer Fellowships, civic case competitions, and job placement support. After recording less than $190,000 in revenues in 2018, LFA has grown to revenues of more than $8.5 Million in 2022, and the organization and its leadership has been profiled in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and CBS This Morning. Fellows and alumni have gone on to win elected office, start award-winning nonprofits and businesses, serve in the military and otherwise continue as exceptional civic leaders for their communities and our country. And today, Lead For America team members include Richard Swarttz, former CFO of the Peace Corps, Michael Brown, Co-Founder and former CEO of City Year, and Chester Spellman, the former National Director of AmeriCorps.
The Lead For America team continues to work tirelessly to realize the founding vision of exceptional leaders serving our country and the places they know best across all 50 states. Moving forward, Lead For America envisions two flagship programs: a continued national service corps, the American Connection Corps, that specifically supports young leaders returning to rural communities and emerging cities and towns; and a flagship program, the National Fellowship, that recruits exceptional military veterans and enlists them to return to their hometowns and home states on a path to positions of executive civic leadership. And with roots in Kansas, LFA will continue to live its mission, investing in initiatives to help Kansas attract and retain its most exceptional leaders across industry, government, education, and more. Five years in, we know that the best is yet to come.