Lessons in social entrepreneurship from Year Up’s founder

Yesterday Gerald Chertavian flew into New York City to give a very inspirational talk about how he started Year Up. He had really solid advice about filling the gaps in your knowledge by hiring a diverse team of people and being very selective when it comes to assembling a board, but all those things are a bit farther down the line for me. What occupies me now are networking and creating a sustainable business model, neither of which come naturally or easily to me, so I’m still wrestling with what Gerald had to say about all that. I see how his approach has worked out tremendously for him, but am very ambivalent about applying all of it to my life.

On networking

Be relentless. In the first three years of staring Year Up, he would go out 4 to 5 nights a week in Boston. His aim was to know who influenced the city, who his potential donors were, and who could help him grow the program.

I am exhausted just thinking about the sheer amount of energy that involved. Gerald admits that he took networking to an extreme because he had just moved back to Boston from London, was starting from scratch, and wanted to ramp up pretty quickly. When I set out on this path, I, too, started from knowing zero people in youth development and child welfare. I started from my comfort zone—by doing a lot of research—and then just started sending emails and making phone calls. Initial meetings led to more introductions, and so on. I’m quite proud of the network I’ve built. Compared to Gerald, however, my pace is glacial. I’d already resolved to ramp up my networking this year, but now I see that I have to double those efforts, at least (he recommends doing 5x whatever it is you’re currently doing).

How did this play out in his daily life? A typical day, he said, involved squeezing in networking events and meetings in between family dinners and tucking his kids in bed with a bedtime story.

Have I mentioned that it exhausts me to think about this? I would love to be the tireless networker that he is and make friends in high places, too, but I need to find a way that fits my disposition and energy capacities.

Gerald, by the way, exudes passion and energy. When he says that he would crawl for miles on his knees and walk through walls for his youth, he is convincing. Zeal can certainly fuel much of that, but the mind and body have their limits. Gerald didn’t mention what physically sustained him during this period—caffeine, a great workout regimen, a whole foods diet? And what kept his mind from getting frazzled? How did he decompress and rejuvenate himself?

This brings me to a related point:

Work-life integration

The preceding is a phrase Gerald uses in place of work-life balance, a concept he rejects for its either/or mentality. If you love what you do, the logic goes, hard work feels neither “hard” nor like “work.” He gives a concrete example: family dinners almost always include a guest related to Year Up. This has the benefit not only of efficiency, but of exposing his kids to all kinds of people. Gerald says he can think of twenty five other examples of how he integrates his work with his personal life.

I need to say this, but perhaps in a whisper:

I don’t want this.

I’ve spent years (YEARS!) of my life trying to drive a wider divide between my personal self and my professional identity. I have finally mastered the art of feeling that evenings and weekends are truly mine (even if I choose to work in my “off hours”), and I’d like it to stay that way. Inviting guests over to talk shop over a meal is one thing, but making it a regular part of my lifestyle is another thing entirely.

Outcomes

This was central to Gerald’s message, and really at the root of why Year Up is a phenomenal success. Their business model has been data-driven from the start, and their outcomes speak for themselves. Early on Year Up invested in a $300,000 management information system that tracked each of their students. He gets push notifications whenever anyone gets a job. The numbers are astounding:

  • They place 100% of their students into internships.
  • Over 90% of their corporate partners would recommend their services to their friends.
  • 84% of their graduates are employed or attending college full-time within four months of completing the program.
  • Graduates who are employed earn an average of $15 an hour, or the equivalent of $30,000 a year.

If you’ve been following this blog (or know me in real life), you’ll know that the topic of assessment weighs heavily on me. I’ve been learning a lot about the ways that educators, both in the public school system and in higher education, have gone about setting concrete goals and measuring for such seeming intangibles as “critical thinking.” That piece will take work, but at least it is no longer an enigma to me.

Funding

What indeed continues to escape me is how to get a sustainable level of funding for teaching skills that don’t have an immediate and obvious impact on the “bottom line.” Year Up has two major revenue streams: roughly half of their operating costs are covered by internship fees, and almost all the rest comes from philanthropy. The way it works (at least back in 2011, per this Times article) is that corporate donors pay them about $875 a week for six months, for every intern they place. Getting the first cohort off the ground took a lot of persuasion, but once the program was up and running, the performance of Year Up grads has been speaking largely for itself. Gerald explains that it’s easy to approach private donors when you don’t frame it as “asking for money,” but as “giving them an opportunity” to be part of an exciting and effective movement for social and economic justice.

The formula is simple: turn out value from an untapped resource. And you can see why it’s compelling to all its stakeholders. Young people get access to all kinds of resources and opportunities. Corporations get employees who are bright, ambitious, rigorously trained, and positively hungry to perform. Ditto with the universities. And everyone who contributes to Year Up’s efforts gets to feel good about it.

The pitch, roughly, is this: There are 6.7 million disconnected youth in this country and there are 3.4 million open job vacancies. Year Up taps into this population (Gerald calls them “opportunity youth”), and puts them through an intensive, yearlong program with the goal of placing them into college or a white-collar job. After training students in technical, business, and people skills, the program places them in internships with some of the biggest, most successful corporations around the country. Throughout this process, the youth can rely a strong support network of teachers, mentors, advisors, and social workers. After twelve months, they walk away with job training, work experience, and college credits.

From a youth development perspective, what is commendable about Year Up’s job training program is its combination of hard and soft skills (or as Gerald puts it, “hard and harder” skills). So along with classes in computers and accounting, for example, students also take lessons in how to present themselves professionally, manage time, and resolve conflict. Year Up’s handy rubric for this set of skills is ‘ABC’: attitude, behavior, and communication.

What are my ABCs and who will pay for them?

Even the most parsimonious bureaucrat would have a tough time arguing against the value of teaching young people the ABCs of people skills—especially since they are framed as tools for professional and economic success.

I’m wondering, however, if there is a paying market for my ABCs. (Bear with me as I work them out right at this very moment.) Considering my interest in the transition to adulthood, my ABCs could go something like:

  • Autonomy (Who is my unique self? How do I learn to be self-reliant?)
  • Belonging (To what communities do I belong? How do I build my own support network?)
  • Commitment (What is my passion? What are my promises to myself? Whom do I wish to serve?)

If I wanted to aim a little higher, my ABCs would be:

  • Authenticity (and integrity: an alignment between one’s beliefs, character, words, and actions)
  • Beliefs (and values: what we hold true and dear)
  • Character (our moral, spiritual, innermost, or highest self)

When concerned adults talk about teaching young people “life skills,” these are the questions that should be at the root of those conversations. All the resume-building experiences in the world would ring hollow to an individual who has not worked out for himself who he is, what he stands for, and where he belongs. I am committed to giving young people a space to give contour to their fullest selves. Now if I could only figure out my revenue stream…

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