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Finding fuel for the spark
Shawn K. Woods is a high-energy example of how a good influence on one life can reverberate through the lives of countless others. A sought-after speaker, trainer and coach—as well as an author and an entrepreneur—Woods is an expert on rising above challenges and is eager to pass the lesson on.
Woods was raised with 10 siblings, and everyday life in a housing project on the West Side of Chicago was dominated by drugs, gangs and violence. “We lived on the dividing line between the Disciples and the Vice Lords,” Woods recalls. “I saw my first homicide when I was 6 years old.”
In high school, Woods started playing football for John Marshall, facing powerhouse teams including Sacred Heart and Whitney Young. He received several full college scholarship offers to play at Division I schools. However, faced with difficult choices every day, Woods made some juvenile decisions that cost him those scholarships, and a serious injury as a result of a car accident after high school graduation put an end to the football goal altogether.
At that point, Woods recalled a conversation he’d had as a freshman, when his high school guidance counselor advised him that he had two choices in life: the military or the penitentiary. “That comment ignited a spark in me, but at the time I had no fuel to keep it going,” Woods says. “My girlfriend gave birth to my daughter after the car accident, and one day I looked at my baby girl and knew I wanted a different life than hanging on the block.”
He got a job as a cashier at Builders Square and earned his associate degree in Criminal Justice from Triton College. “I figured I’d seen a lot of that field up close already!” he jokes. Woods became a correctional officer at Stateville Correctional Center, then a sworn police officer, and then a student at Northeastern.
Woods served as a police officer from 1996 to 2001, worked in the narcotics, auto theft and homicide divisions, and became a decorated detective. During that time, Woods says, “Northeastern was accommodating to students who had demanding full-time jobs, but still, there were times I hated school. Lucky for me I ran across some professors—Angelina Pedroso, Shelley Bannister, Bernard Headley, Wamucii Njogu, Dragan Milovanovic and others—who really cared about my future.
“At Northeastern, these professors gave me the hope, encouragement and tough love I needed to stick with it when things were hard.
“I tell young men like me that if you like nice things you may be able to get them short-term, but without an education you can’t have long-term success. Inner-city kids don’t have the mentoring and contacts middle-class kids have, but we have to make our own choices and put ourselves in situations where those mentors and contacts can show up, like at Northeastern.”
Woods graduated in 1998 with a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice and Sociology. In 2001, he left the police force and became the assistant human resources director at a school district. He went on to earn a master’s degree in Human Resources from DeVry and an M.B.A. from the Keller School of Management.
But he didn’t stop there. “I got the skills I needed to handle school really well and attain stability and success in my career, but I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” Woods says. He started a trucking company that failed, so he bounced back and became an investigator for the Illinois executive inspector general’s office, learning all the time. In 2005, he developed his own real estate investment and property management company. Despite having little start-up capital and a below-average credit score, Woods used a blend of school smarts, street savvy and personal drive to acquire numerous properties in five states and become a partner in several thriving business ventures.
In 2007, he started Shawn K. Woods and Associates, a leadership development, talent management and executive coaching resource. With his staff, Woods provides motivational lectures, seminars and workshops as well as executive, life and career coaching that inspires and encourages people to find their passions and purpose, execute their plans, and make decisions that will let them fulfill their potential.
The firm also helps organizations increase productivity, improve communication and decrease absenteeism and turnover. Shawn K. Woods and Associates has served corporations, nonprofits and government agencies as varied as General Nutrition Centers, the University of Dayton and Springfield Housing Authority. Woods also has expanded his business to serve international markets and recently facilitated leadership workshops at the U.S. Embassy in the West African country of Senegal.
Woods’ powerful ambitions never eclipsed his sensitivity to the painful challenges people face. In 2013, he published a book, “Bullying Exposed in Schools, Workplaces, Cyberspace and Against the Elderly.” “In the ’hood, you are prey or predator, and I saw my older brother bullied unmercifully. I know firsthand how systematically destructive that is to any person’s potential. I wanted to help people develop tactics and strategies to cope and change the dynamic. The book has been the basis of one of my workshops.”
Northeastern helped Woods learn how to make the most of his opportunities. “Nothing you learn is wasted,” Woods says. “I realized that my interest in sociology, justice and human resources were all pointing me to my mission: to help people turn their own dreams into ideas, their ideas into actions and their actions into MBAs—Massive Bank Accounts!”
Woods’ re-engagement in Northeastern began after he conducted a Leadership Roundtable and Dialogue for NEIU Foundation board member John F. Roskopf of Educational & Institutional Insurance Administrators (EIIA). Through Roskopf, Woods met other board members and attended board meetings. Says Woods, “I thought, why not come back to my roots at Northeastern, where it all started for me?
“No matter where or how we grew up, we’ve each had to overcome obstacles and adversity. We each have a story and we all have some greatness in us.
“I hope other Northeastern alumni who’ve become successful will use what they’ve been given to help fuel the spark for the next generation. If we keep the torch going, we will help a lot of people who then can help a lot more. What we do along the way will be a really powerful and precious legacy.”