Not many people can say they’ve been an engineer, an educator, an entrepreneur, an unabashed geek and a U.S. National Junior Figure Skating Pairs Champion during their lifetime. Not to mention earning 13 patents and authoring four books.
Unless you happen to be Luke Hohmann. And if that weren’t remarkable enough, Luke is also the founder and CEO of FirstRoot, a public benefit corporation focused on improving financial literacy and economic equality for people around the world.
Before founding FirstRoot, Luke got his start in technology at Electronic Data Systems, the famed IT services company founded by Ross Perot and later acquired by HP. “I was a floor grub, meaning my first job was crawling underneath raised floors in data centers cabling computers,” Luke says. Eventually, Luke says, he worked his way from “beneath the ground up into tech support.” Though he lacked a college degree at the time, Luke says he got “a couple of lucky breaks from people who believed in me at EDS.”
Case in point: After working at EDS for a while, Luke decided he wanted to go back to school, but he wasn’t sure how he could afford it. EDS offered him a smart deal: The company would pay for Luke’s degree, but only on the condition that EDS got to pick the school and the degree—and for every year EDS paid him, Luke would give the company a year of employment.
The deal paid off for both parties. Later, Luke went on to start Conteneo, an enterprise software platform for collaborative decision-making based on game theory. But behind the scenes, Luke was looking at solving larger problems—like economic inequality and its impact on health and social trust. Ever the engineer, Luke wanted to understand the “root causes of societal problems,” he says, and in the process, “help drive economic equality and positive civic engagement.”
When Luke discovered the concept of participatory budgeting in schools, the idea of FirstRoot blossomed. “It’s a process endorsed by the United Nations in which we go into a school and we give kids money to invest in that school,” he explains. “We support them as they learn how to manage money and they learn how to make real change happen in their school. It’s a very exciting opportunity, and the market is absolutely substantial.”
Although Luke is proud of his success at FirstRoot, he prefers to talk about the people who helped him get there. “For the leaders who are listening to this story and for the people who are emerging in their leadership skills, my story is about other people giving me opportunities,” he says. “I really believe that it's our responsibility as leaders to pay those opportunities forward.”
Rooted in Ethics
In everything Luke does at FirstRoot, he seeks to place ethics at the forefront. His considerable engineering ability comes in handy, for sure, but he makes an effort to go further and ask, “what can I do with my talent to benefit society?” Luke thinks it's “worthy to look at the notion of an ethical construct and decide what am I working on, what is ethical and what is the potential outcome of what work I'm doing?”
Not surprisingly, these are frequent topics of discussion at FirstRoot. “I don't know what goes on in other companies,” Luke says. “I naively sometimes hope that people are sitting around at the table and asking questions like this.”
Like the roots of a tree, a community is only as strong as its people. Luke sees that spirit of camaraderie in the DevOps and Agile communities, in which he's played an active role. “You've got this community of people, a warm group of people who are united in common values, common practices and common desires,” he says.
It’s no wonder Luke has developed an optimistic outlook on life. “I am a big optimist,” he says. “People I work with will say to me, ‘dude, how can you come into work every day with a smile on your face?’”
Luke doesn’t like to crow about his achievements, but his undeniable success proves that paying opportunities forward can also come back around. Luke’s roots in technology, education and entrepreneurship run deep, and the positive impact he and his teams have made in so many communities runs just as deep.