19 Nov 2014
Man of the Year-Up: Creating Opportunity for Young Adults

We hear it all the time. There is a long-standing shortage of skilled workers in the United States. At the same time, there are millions of young Americans who are out of school and out of work. What’s wrong with this picture.

The Business is a podcast from Harvard Business School that ran through 2015 and took a unique look at the business world through conversations with HBS faculty and entrepreneurs. It has since been replaced by Cold Call, a new podcast that distills the legendary HBS case method into digital form. Subscribe to “Cold Call” on iTunes, and iTunesU or follow us on SoundCloud.



Brian Kenny: I’m Brian Kenny Chief Marketing and Communications officer at Harvard Business School. Today on The Business the Wall Street veteran who is linking young people who have barely dreamed of getting ahead with Fortune 500 companies looking for untapped talent. That man is Gerald Chertavian. He is the founder and CEO of what’s called Year Up. It’s a one year program that prepares 18 to 24 year-olds who seem to have the odds stacked against them and gives them skills, high end contacts, and hope. You might have seen Year Up and some of its successful graduates profiled this year on 60 Minutes.

Morley Safer: Jonathan Garcia is a graduate. Raised in Harlem by a single mother who died when he was 14, Garcia is now doing computer technical support for the top executives at American Express, including the CEO, Ken Chenault. Jonathan says getting accepted into "Year Up" saved his life.

Jonathan Garcia:Back then I had no ambition. My ambition was just to make money now, so I can eat tonight and tomorrow.

MS:How far did Wall Street seem to you then.

JG:Oh, it was no where near New York.

BK:We profiled Gerald on The Business one year ago, but a lot has happened since then. The program admitted its 10,000th student this fall. Not bad, considering that it started up in the year 2000 with only 22 students. And Year Up has grown even larger. It’s in 13 cities across the country and will launch in Jacksonville, Florida and Phoenix, Arizona next year. And Harvard Business School gave Gerald our highest award, the Alumni Achievement Award, in recognition of his groundbreaking work creating this nonprofit. It’s not easy being accepted into Year Up. You’ve got to be motivated with a goal of having a professional career, and this is key, you’ve got to have the odds stacked against you. It’s designed for young people at risk. Many of those accepted into Year Up are impoverished; some have a record of substance abuse, or criminality. One current student is a 20-year-old who lives in a homeless shelter and has a young child. Year Up provides people like her with six months of intensive training toward a job or college degree. It’s high pressure, it demands high performance and expects high achievements. Graduates go to American Express, J.P. Morgan, and elsewhere. And Year Up has just launched a campaign to get more businesses to buy into this under appreciated pool of talent.

[Year Up radio advertisement]

BK:With so much buzz about Year Up, we decided to bring you an encore presentation of our talk last fall with founder Gerald Chertavian. He told us that public and corporate managers who believe that young people, especially the urban poor, are liabilities are just plain wrong.

Gerald Chertavian: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.

BK:We’ll go from modern day visionary Gerald Chertavian, to twentieth century explorer Ernest Shakleton next time on The Business. Listen in early next month, the 100th anniversary of Shakleton’s legendary attempt to be the first to cross the continent on Antarctica. It’s a story of colossal failure, stunning survival, and lessons in leadership. Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn has documented it in all its color and calamity.

Nancy Koehn:Very early November, the men are on the ice, they’re living in tents, they’ve saved three life boats that went on the Endurance and one day Shackleton sees the ship is starting to sink through the ice and he says, ‘Boys, she’s going down.’ And in the course of about 12 hours, the ship slips through the ice, the mast is the last thing to go, and the ice closes completely over. There is nothing but their tents and the life boats, empty life boats, and their supplies and their dogs. And he has got to get them home safely. And he, that night, he paces the ice, unbenounced to the men, and talks to himself. “A man must shape himself to a new mark once the old one goes aground.” And that is Shackleton, trying to get access to his own courage muscles and thinking, very strategically about how he must show up to his men in order to elicit their support and trust.

BK:You won’t want to miss it. That’s coming up in two weeks. By the way, later next month we’ll tell you what books about leadership and business our guests on The Business think are worth reading, or giving, this holiday season. We’ve got a good list going and we’d like you to add to it. What’s your favorite book pick? Tweet your answer to us at #TheBusiness and we might include some of your picks in our podcast. The Business is the official podcast of Harvard Business School. We publish twice monthly at hbs.edu/thebusiness. You can find all of our interviews there. If you’ve got a topic you would like us to address, tell us about it. Again you can post your comments and questions at #TheBusiness and subscribe to The Business on iTunesU or follow us on SoundCloud. Thanks for listening.

Post a Comment