Gerald Chertavian is founder and CEO of Year Up, a one-year professional skill development program for low-income young adults. He talks with Brian about why four years of full-time higher education just won't work for a majority of Americans.
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Brian Kenny: Our guest on this edition of The Business is Gerald Chertavian. He is the founder and CEO of Year Up, and author of the New York Times bestselling book, "Year Up, How a Pioneering Program Teaches Young Adults Real Skills For Real Jobs With Real Success. Welcome Gerald.
Gerald Chertavian: Thank you Brian for having me.
BK: Can you just give us kind of a brief overview of what Year Up does?
GC: Sure. At its highest level, Year Up works with low income 18 to 24 year olds. And in one year takes them from poverty to a professional career.
BK: I saw a blog entry that you did on the Huffington Post where you wrote that, "An errant point of view has taken hold in the public and corporate spheres that America's young people, especially those who grew up on the wrong side of the opportunity divide, are not assets to our economy but liabilities, ill—suited for the work demanded of them and not worthy of investment. That's really kind of at the heart of Year Up. Can you explain a little more about what you mean there?
GC: Sure. We have 18 percent of all young adults--that's 16 to 24 year olds--who are out school, out of work, and don't have more than a high school degree. That's a recipe for not getting into the mainstream of this country and not being able to earn livable wages. These young adults are talented, hungry, motivated, smart; so it wasn't a character defect that was preventing them from realizing their potential. And so we knew this challenge is large. It's a threat to your global competitiveness. I mean think about it. We compete in this country on human capital. Our current educational systems aren't keeping up. Either our community college or our four-year college system in no way shape or form will produce the number of graduates we need. And so we said well what are we going to do on our watch to try to lean into this problem? You know because it is our watch. The concept of multiple pathways post-high school is a deeply important concept for this country. Now there is a perception problem today. You know, we have bastardized, often, vocational education in this country. What we need to do is recognize that everyone needs postsecondary education, but to view that through the myopic lens of four—year college does not suit the needs of all Americans. We all need college, the question is when you say the word college what does it mean? It can be a certificate, a certification, an AA degree, a Bachelor's, a Master's; but to see it as a path that you go on that isn't fixed and finite in four years and starts and stops with a residential experience - you know half the people who go to college today in America work full—time, half! - so we have got to think about what systems, what Pell granting, what support does our citizenry need to gain the education they need to earn wages in a knowledge-based economy. And it's not, unfortunately it's not Harvard's model that is actually the model that is going to suit the majority of Americans.
BK: You grew up about 45 minutes north of Boston in Lowell, an old textile town. It's a town that has always had a large immigrant population, and you describe yourself as the Armenian dentist's son in the book. And you talk about the fact that your grandfather came over from Armenia. So how do you think those sorts of experiences early in your life kind of propelled you on the path that you're on today with Year Up?
GC: My grandfather was a cobbler and with shining shoes and fixing shoes was able to put four kids through a postsecondary education so that that American dream was alive and well for one who wanted to work hard and get access to the social mobility that America has delivered for many folks over the years. Unfortunately if you look today and say how easy is it to be as socially mobile, to work hard and get ahead, that's getting harder - not only for folks who are, quote unquote "low income." It's getting harder for the middle class as well. So I think you've seen a change in that for the worst not the better. It doesn't have to be that way. I think Americans can rise above that. And having been a big brother for 30 years to low income young adults and youth, and to see how things like their ZIP Code, the bank balance of their mother, the school system they attended, and indeed the color of their skin was limiting the access and the opportunity they had. That, I think, increasingly stiffened my resolve to say what can we or can I do to hopefully lean into this issue? Which has really manifested itself at an opportunity divide between various folks in this country: who has access to opportunity, who has less access to opportunity.
BK: So was this always something in the back of your mind this idea of, you know, social entrepreneur- or using business as a way to solve societal problems?
GC: So I worked on Wall Street and absolutely loved the intellectual challenge of Wall Street, but I certainly didn't find it meaningful. And at that point, you know, I think a lot of folks questioned what is meaning in their lives? How do they derive meaning from their daily work lives? And so that was part of the essays that I wrote to get into HBS, was someday starting a program to address the opportunity divide in whatever way I could. Unfortunately when I graduated from HBS I was six figures in debt and had to get myself stable and stumbled into technology. I won't give myself great credit for much more than listening to the smartest people I found here who said go into technology and I believed them. So we were fortunate. We did sell our business at a good time, but what that did is put me in a position to now focus on the essays I wrote in '89 and say now how do you devote your time and your energy to building a program that can close that opportunity divide for thousands, if not indeed at some point, tens if not hundreds of thousands of young people who need that access and opportunity in this country.
BK: So when you first started down this path were people skeptical of you? 'Cause like here comes this Harvard Business School grad, and how could he possibly know, you know, what challenges I'm facing growing up in an inner city environment? You know, were people hesitant to believe in your vision?
GC: I think it's pretty natural for people to question one’s motives especially, you know, I wasn't from the inner city. I mean going to Lowell High School is as close as I got probably to urban environments. But the fact was is people did question, and I know whether they verbalized it not, and said, you know, why is this well-off white guy coming in and looking to serve the neighborhood. I often said look, don't judge me by anything other than my actions. And in five years' time let's look back and see whether our actions were authentic, whether we actually served young people, whether we created opportunity. And all I would ask you to do is suspend judgment and judge us purely by what we deliver. And, in fact, I remember turning down interviews back in 2000 with the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and I just said, we have nothing to say. We have done nothing. We have an aspiration, which you know talk is cheap. So why don't we wait a few years and see whether we have delivered something and then be happy to talk about it and hopefully prove the causality of what we do so we know that investing in these young adults is a good return not only for them but for society in general.
BK: There are a lot of companies that you partner with as part of Year Up, what has their experience been as you talk to them about, you know, how this program has worked for them? Are they finding it meeting the needs that they have?
GC: Year Up has always been positioned as a way for a company to invest in a talent pipeline. You know we place up to 100 people, young adults a year in places like State Street, in J.P. Morgan, in Bank of America looking for areas where our young adults can meet the needs they have at the entry level of the professional career path which is a tough place to recruit for many organizations today.
BK: So how does it work?
GC: We have six months of education, and six months of experiential learning at an internship. The whole time the student's earning credit, college credit, through our arrangements with community colleges across the country. They also receive a mentor, someone who is matched with them who can be an added adult in their lives, who gives them the confidence, the belief in what they can achieve, perhaps addressing everything from ‘how do I format a resume?’ through to ‘how do I answer an interview question’ Our students also have advisors, which are internal staff to Year Up, who are really that individual who looks in your eyes to see how is, how are you today. Our young adults if you imagine we serve a population that on average has three barriers when they come to us. And a barrier could be former homelessness, former adjudication, severe family dysfunction, single parent, immigration, English as a second language. They need the relationships in their lives from adults who care about them and help them realize their potential. So yeah, caring adult relationships are integral to why Year Up has been successful over the past 13 years.
BK: Is there one particular case that stands out for you as a really great example of how Year Up has changed somebody's life?
GC: We don't change anyone's life. Right, we provide--we're the runway, our students are the planes. It's their engine. When they take off, we take no credit for that takeoff. What we say is you're going to get the best, safest runway in America. If you choose not to take off, that's your responsibility. If you choose to take off, that's your credit. And so that it is--I think it's a really deeply important concept around service is we're not changing anything. We don't do anything to anyone. We provide a context, which is not provided across many places in America today. One young man who is actually on our board today, Greg Walton, he told his story in our book. Greg said ‘you know I made a mistake when I was 18, and yes that cost me more than a year of my life in prison. And he said I knew I was a smart young man. I knew actually I had never been in any trouble before. I didn't think this defined me nor should it define me. But the day I got my acceptance letter at Year Up, it meant more than you probably could imagine in terms of I was accepted back into mainstream.’ Greg did his internship, did incredibly well in his internship and then worked to get a job at MIT, where he has now been there for the past five years, having been promoted, having continued now with his college education. And he said to me the other day, he said ‘you know Gerald’ - and he's married now, a beautiful wife and a son. And he was doting over his son. And he said, ‘you know what it feels like Gerald? When you carry your son over the threshold of the home that you own, when you grew up in shelters? Do you know what it means when you cook the meal in your stove in your house with your wife, when you grew up never having any of that security yourself? Now here is a tax-paying, hard-working, college-educated professional young man whose past does not define him today, who is one of the board members of this organization. And I could name hundreds, literally hundreds of stories equally as impactful about giving someone an opportunity to realize their potential and holding them accountable as they do that. That's what our young adults want. They want to be held accountable.
BK: And those are things that we all take for granted, most of us.
BK: That is Gerald Chertavian, founder and CEO of Year Up and author of Year Up: How a Pioneering Program Teaches Young Adults Real Skills For Real Jobs With Real Success. You can find out more about that with at www.yearup.org . Gerald thanks for joining us today.
GC: Brian, thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.