The following is a conversation between Aimée Eubanks Davis, Founder and CEO of Braven, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Aimée Eubanks Davis, Founder and CEO of Braven

Denver: In 2013, CEO and Founder, Aimée Eubanks Davis launched Braven, having identified the education-to-employment gap faced by some of our most promising young leaders. What does Braven do to address this challenge, and how has their work been impacted by the pandemic? Well, we’re going to find out now from her. 

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Aimée!

Aimée: Thanks so much for having me, Denver. I’m excited to be here. 

Denver: I always find founding stories to be of such interest; so share with listeners yours. 

Aimée: Sure. So I grew up in Chicago on the South Side of the city, which now is famously known for being the birthplace and the hometown of former First Lady, Michelle Obama. However, if you’re from Chicago, or even have followed Chicago news, often, the South Side is thought to be one of the most economically devastated parts of our country from a cost and an income standpoint, where the cost of living in a city like Chicago with the incomes of people living on the South Side do not match up. And so, there’s a lot of economic hardship. 

However, that said, what I saw was that there were just incredibly talented people where I lived. My parents were very hardworking like many people on the South Side of the city, and they happened to purchase a piece of property over 40 years ago now that sat five blocks away from a notorious gang headquarters. And then over the course of the last 40 years, it now sits seven blocks away from the Obama home and a neighborhood that has gentrified pretty dramatically. And so, my older sister and myself got to experience what it meant to be economically mobile, and not in a philosophical way. 

So after college, I decided I wanted to pay it forward and make an impact. And so I was a part of the Teach for America program in New Orleans, Louisiana, where I taught an amazing group of sixth-grade students whom I fell in love with. And I actually ended up living in New Orleans for seven years, which was unheard of when I did Teach for America– for an alum to actually live in New Orleans and continue to work in New Orleans for that period of time. It was actually before Hurricane Katrina. So I made the decision after seven years to finally move back home to Chicago so I did not have to vacation in the frozen tundra that we’re in right now. And at the same time, I also moved into a role, actually working at Teach for America, overseeing all of the human capital efforts of the organization. 

And basically, at that same moment, my first group of students, had they decided to go to college, were coming out of college. It was their senior year, and Hurricane Katrina hit in August. And even though it was such a horrific moment, very similar in some ways to what we’ve seen with the pandemic, the racial reckoning of this past summer, I’m Black… and to watch that happen in the streets of America was just reminding me of how much we had to do as a country to really provide a quality of opportunity for everyone. But basically, I really believe that my students who had made the choice to go to college were going to come out OK economically, maybe not into the New Orleans labor market because it was underwater at the time, but in other places. 

And basically, I had some students, and one in particular who started to say, “I think I want to make Teach for America my next step.” And she was coming out of a fabulous college called Northwestern University, which just sits right outside of Chicago.

Denver: Great school. Yes.

Aimée: Great school. She was from the Lower Ninth Ward where all of the news helicopters were flying over, just watching not only the devastation, but seeing the economic divide in that community. And I paired her up with one of my favorite recruiters for Teach for America, who was amazing. She was an amazing recruiter, Laura. And Laura comes to my office and says, “Hey, I met Katika. She’s amazing, but she’s likely not to get into Teach for America.” 

And actually, that is when I started to wonder “What could be going on?” This young person had been doing everything right for 10 years since I’ve known her, really for 20 years. When I thought about her and her mom, they were just incredible. Her mother is such a hardworking person and has been working in the service industry for much of her career. They’ve done everything right to get her on the path to economic mobility, and it was about to fall out from under her. And I knew if she was going to struggle to overcome the Teach for America criteria, she would struggle with other great places to work as well. 

And so, I talked to my younger sister, Adrienne, who happened to be a Corps member around that time as well. And she just said, “Hey, what do you need me to do?” And I was like, “You know, Katika is struggling, and we’re really worried about her financial prospects. And I do think Teach for America would be a great next step for her. I need you to coach her.” And actually, let me be clear. This was actually 2005. Hurricane Katrina hit in August of 2005 so she was coming out in 2006, and my sister was a 2004 Corps member. And so, I was like, “Adrienne, I owe you a lot.” 

And so she did it! She coaches Katika, and all of a sudden, she gets in, of course, because she’s amazing. And then she goes into the Corps; she starts to win all of these teaching awards, all these Teach for America awards. And then, a few years ago now, she goes to Harvard to get her master’s degree. I go to her graduation. She’s walking across the stage with a gold stole as a leader of her class. And honestly, all I could think was the lost talent that we almost had in her.

But really, we were seeing at TFA, 50,000 young people who were applying to the Corps every year to teach, another 30,000 people are applying to our staff, and young people like her were applying in the numbers of thousands. And we had a data set that was telling us– and I sat in that role for eight years– that that group of young people was struggling to come into the workforce strong. And that’s really where Braven started. 

I wrote a paper for the Aspen Institute where I was a fellow in the paraeducation program there about the lost talent of the country; that was going to be my project. And it happened to catch the interest of a Teach for America donor who said, “You know, I think this is an important thing to explore. We think you should explore it.” And it was a very lucky chance/ gift that allowed me to really look at the education-to-employment pipeline, and in particular, refocus that to this college to career transition moment that brought Braven to life. 

We have a real challenge in our country that is prior to the pandemic, the pandemic has compounded this challenge, where by and large, the majority of that 1.2 million young people will not graduate from college. And if they do, they won’t come out with a strong job where they earn an entire dollar instead of 66 cents on the dollar.

Denver: Fantastic. It’s funny how so many founding stories are personal stories, and you see it, and you experience it. 

Well, let’s talk about the two challenges that your organization addresses. And before we get to people getting jobs, let’s talk about college itself. About 1.2 million low-income and first-generation students enter a four-year university every year. What would you say about how many of them or what percentage of them graduate?

Aimée: So, we have a real challenge in our country that is prior to the pandemic; the pandemic has compounded this challenge- where by and large, the majority of that 1.2 million young people will not graduate from college. And if they do, they won’t come out with a strong job where they earn an entire dollar instead of 66 cents on the dollar.

So, you’ll watch about half of them drop out, not for really good reasons either. A lot of times people will try to say, “Well, they’re just not prepared.” No, that’s not the case. Usually, it’s food insecurity or housing insecurity, not being able to figure out how to go to school full time, go to work full time. Those sorts of barriers are often the barriers that make it so a young person just says, “I just can’t. I can’t do it all.” And then on top of that, what we’ve seen in the world of Braven is even if they persevere, they’re highly likely not to end up earning the full dollar, and we just think that is so unfair after they worked so incredibly hard. And we think that this is a very solvable problem.

Denver: And also, they probably have a lot of debt, and many of them have debt they have to deal with as well on top of it.

Aimée: They’re often shackled with debt, and that was a part of the whole impetus with my former students as I was watching them. I had told them as their former sixth-grade teacher, “Go to college. You should go to college, and that is ‘good debt.’” And all of a sudden, to be like, “Oh my gosh. You’re in a lot of debt, and the job that you might get is not going to be able to help you pay that debt off. You’re then going to be shackled with debt for the rest of your life.” I felt a moral obligation to really try to figure that part out for them.

Denver: So you have that challenge and the challenge you just spoke about in terms of making that transition from those who graduate to good jobs, first jobs, which lead to careers. So Braven addresses this through something called this Accelerator Course. That’s one of the ways. Why don’t you begin to tell us about that and some of the elements of that curriculum?

Aimée: Yes. For sure. So basically, the Accelerator Course is a very rigorous academic experience. I’m a former teacher and a talent nerd, and I really believed that there was a way of going at teaching a set of skills that are often called “soft skills.” It always bothered me that they were called soft skills, mainly because I was like, “Well, I was an English teacher. If you can teach a young person how to write a five-paragraph essay, and you’re judging that based on a rubric, and strong sentence structure and grammatical structure, et cetera, is a part of what they’re going to be graded on, you can teach a young person in college how to write a strong cover letter.” It is the same underlying principle, and you can do that rigorously. And so, basically, the course is 15 weeks typically, if the school is on a semester system. Students receive three credits for the course because it is so rigorous, where the students, often in the beginning, were saying to us, “Oh my God. This is actually harder than some of my other courses, but I’m not getting credits.” 

And so we were able to partner with really innovative institutions like San Jose State, Rutgers-Newark, National Louis University here in Chicago, and then Lehman College in the Bronx, where we had this interesting moment with not only their senior leaders and their presidents or chancellors but also with some really innovative faculty members and deans who said, “We got to bring this in.” So we teach young people how to network and communicate for the workforce; build and be a part of teams in the workforce setting; how to network and communicate for the workforce; how to use data to tell a story and to analyze data to solve a problem in the workforce. 

And then, Denver, there’s a fifth bucket of skills called asset-based leadership, which is really a group of skills around stereotype threats, and how as a young person, if you don’t have anyone in your family who has been in the professional workforce, you might tell yourself a story that you don’t belong. When really, if you have gone through college on the Pell grant, your family’s earning $50,000 or less for a family of four, you’re going to school full time and you’re working full time, getting a strong job, then accelerating in it should not be the hardest thing for you to do. And so, that is the fifth piece of the course content, and it’s really a really important piece. 

And then the big innovation though, because I always say the content is the content when you’re teaching, but the delivery is what matters most, we were able to convince professionals, mainly young professionals… but not all who were on the path to more management responsibilities… to actually coach teams of five to eight students in the course experience. 

Our students are 22 percentage points, even during this pandemic…over the national average for attaining the entire dollar instead of 66 cents on the dollar as well.

Denver: That’s great.

Aimée: And the reason that was such a huge innovation was, one, we’re allowing that group of people to learn how to lead and manage a diverse team to outcomes, but also all of a sudden, our students have access to a network, a professional network they didn’t have access to before. And why that is just so important is when I think about our Lehman College site, for example, where we started with 150 students, and now, we’re up to 235 students in total, 72% of them come from low-income backgrounds; 54% of them are first-generation college students; 89% of them identify as people of color; and 90% of them identify with at least one of the above criteria. And the other thing that we hear from them all the time is that they don’t know anyone in the professional workforce.

And so, what we realized is that we’re able to help manufacture social capital because what happens on the back end of the experience is, after they get strong internships… so 72% of our students get a strong internship that’s based on their interests and their majors but also paid in comparison to 46% of our students like them. But then our students are 22 percentage points… even during this pandemic, which is wild to us…. above the national average for attaining the entire dollar instead of 66 cents on the dollar as well. And it’s really this network effect with these leadership coaches that’s the big driver of that outcome. 

The first thing that they have to do is reframe their story to understand the assets that they will bring to the professional workforce.

Denver: That’s great. It is funny how these soft skills have now become what people realize are the hard skills, and they’ve actually been the hard skills all along. And they’re the ones, too, that sort of distinguishes us from robots, in some ways, and AI. They’re the kinds of things that are going to last. It’s that ability to connect the dots and do things of that sort.

So let me pick up on a little bit what you just said. What advice, Aimée, would you give, let’s say, to a young person who has a lot of self-doubt as they venture forward and apply for a job? As a matter of fact, they may have so much self-doubt, they’re not even going to apply for the job because they don’t fit those traditional credentials that they think they need to have to have a chance. What would you tell them? 

Aimée: So, Denver, I had the opportunity during the pandemic to do a mini-TED talk actually on this. And basically, in that talk, it’s what I absolutely believe, is that the first thing that they have to do is reframe their story to understand the assets that they will bring to the professional workforce.

We are sitting in an America that is only going to grow more and more diverse. Our employer partners tell us all the time about how it’s such a privilege to be able to work with and get to know our students. And often, they didn’t hire them because they have to make sure that their businesses stay relevant and resonate for a tapestry of a country that is changing.

And so, the first thing that I say to our young people is, “Seriously, you have come this far. You’ve overcome so many barriers to get to this point. You need to frame yourself and your narrative in an asset-based way.” The second part that I really, really stress with young people is how they need to also tell their stories through a goals-based lens. A lot of times, our students will say, “Well, I haven’t been able to have an internship at a very “well-respected company. I mainly was working at the bodega and supporting my parents’ business.” And I’m like, “Well, can we dig into that a little bit? Let’s dig into that because what were you doing there?” 

And then all of a sudden, it starts coming out. “Well, I actually was the person in my family who really could communicate with many of the folks who came in, especially if it was about the business side, whether that was our accounting, or whether it was about how we were getting food and our supplies in.” “Oh, OK. Well, then, you actually have learned how to communicate across lines of difference. You need to name that as a skill. And then did your parents’ business increase its revenues over time?” “Oh, actually they did. It became stronger.” “OK, well, then, you actually played a role in helping the bottom-line increase. You need to talk about that in a concrete way. Those skills are valuable and just as good as if you had gone to some well-known company and been an intern. Do not sell those skills short, just like, ‘Oh, I just kind of went and helped out at my parents’ business.’ Actually, you were helping to drive the business forward.

And then, finally, the thing that I say to people is: get to know other people who are like you. That’s why I love the cohort approach at Braven and the students being in teams of five to eight. I also love that we bring in a group of people who our students might not know or might not be in their network. And I really encourage our students to really, really, really think about: how do they strategically meet new people at their places of work or on their college campuses and strategically build out their networks?  And that they can really measure that as well, which seems like one of these soft things that’s hard to measure, like whether or not your network is expanding. Well, there’s a tool called LinkedIn that can help you see whether or not you’re actually expanding your network.

Denver: And I’ve seen that employers are really beginning to look at LinkedIn because they’re thinking when somebody is going to come to the company, they just don’t want their skills; they want to know the network that they’re going to bring into the company as well. So, it becomes another one of those assets.

And I love the way you just framed having them tell their story. I’m an executive coach, and often when I’m coaching a client, they’ll start with a parenthetical, which is kind of a throwaway line. And I’ve noticed that if you ever go back and do that little parenthetical before they tell you their story, there’s a lot in that.  And it seems that what you’re describing a lot of what these students are doing… they have parentheticals in their lives — Oh, I helped my parents and I did this and I did that — which are kind of throwaways because they’re looking at that traditional rubric. And you’re saying, “No. There is gold in those parentheticals. If you frame it right and you do it, you’re really showing who you are, your character, the kind of person you are.” But they’re not trained to think that way because we’ve all been put into this box that I have to check off. 

Aimée: That’s right. And I would say also, our students often think, ‘Well, I am at a Lehman College, or I’m at a Rutgers-Newark, and I’m not at a “flagship university” or an “elite university,” and that the employers are going to pick someone else over me because of where I happen to be going to school.” And I’m like, “Yes, that should not be true either.” Because again, if you’re at a Lehman College, you were actually getting to know so many diverse groups of people and engaging with such a diverse group of Americans, and your context and your understanding of what is needed is so important.

So, I’m going to come back to LinkedIn. They actually do a capstone project. At the end of the semester, all the students have to work on a real-life business problem for a business. And LinkedIn was a capstone sponsor one year, and they asked our students a question about how to get more young people who weren’t fully connected to school, maybe, or to work to actually get on their platform as a way of helping young people see the different jobs that they might have. And the LinkedIn contact, he was like, “Oh my gosh! We got so much great insight from the students. 

We’ve had banks do the capstone project as a sponsor and ask our students about “We really want to help people who are not a part of a traditional financial institution be able to be a part of the institution because we actually think it would help with some of the predatory practices that happen elsewhere.” And our students then worked on that as an issue area, proposed solutions, and the banks have been like, “Wow! These are just things we have never thought about.” And so, it’s just been really wonderful to see how we can help connect our students’ experiences to why they could be great in the workforce as well.

Denver: Wow! I’m beginning to see employers — I had a conversation the other day about that — who are not really looking at where you went to school. They’re looking at distance traveled, where you started from, and where you went to school. And very often, the distance traveled between where a person started in Lehman is a lot, lot greater than somebody who may have gone to Harvard where the distance wasn’t that far. And I think as that calculus and those algorithms begin to change in people’s minds, this is actually going to just become more of an asset as we go along. 

Aimée: Absolutely. When you think about that, a young person who steps up to bat at Lehman is stepping up to bat; a young person often, not always, but often who’s at a school like Harvard is on third base, maybe even already at home plate. You’ve got to look at that distance traveled. 

Denver: Absolutely. You are somewhat fanatical about impact, I’ve noticed, probably started from the beginning, so let’s talk about a couple of them. Let’s start with graduation, in terms of we were just talking about that, how have you been able to move the needle for the people who have been the Braven fellows? 

Aimée: So let me be clear that persistence and on time to graduation, which is measured in six years, is a happy byproduct. We’re very happy about the byproduct, but it’s a happy byproduct of the main goal, which the main goal — and you’re right, I’ve been absolutely fanatical about — is: Do our students come out and earn an entire dollar instead of 66 cents on the dollar? 

But what I started to see very early on, Denver, and really it was from working so collaboratively and closely with the various faculty members and deans at our university partners, was we started to see data that students who were going through Braven were actually coming through universities that we were partnering with at a higher rate. Same kind of young person, all the additional barriers that we talked about earlier, and the question became: Why? I was like, “It’s a good question.” I was like, “I think purpose drives persistence.”

And I think if you realize that in five semesters, five semesters, you could be outearning your parents and sometimes your entire family unit, that you will figure out… alongside your school and other resources that are there… how to get yourself out of school instead of sort of putting up a mental block that “I just can’t. I just can’t do it again. Another semester, full-time school, full-time work.” Some of our students work two jobs. 

I really think there is something in the psychological spirit of having such close proximity and tangibility to the final outcome of the job through the leadership coaches. And we also provide professional mentors when students need them, and then they start getting these internships that are actually paying them what they deserve to be paid. That all of a sudden, you start to say, “Oh my gosh, I’m so close. Let me do this.” And so, 80% of Braven fellows actually get out in six years, which is a very, very big deal, and we’re very proud of that. 

We studied the great recession of 2008, and we realized that a young person who doesn’t come out with a strong first job, and then if they don’t have a pathway job, it will take them five times longer and sometimes never to get on the path of economic mobility.

Denver: Fantastic. How about the first jobs? That’s 60 cents versus a dollar. Are they getting good first jobs that are putting them on a career path?

Aimée: Oh, yes. For sure. So we’re also fanatical about measuring that. So before the pandemic, we were 22 percentage points above the national average for that. That said, to show just how much the floor has fallen out from under us… Before the pandemic, you would have about 49% of young people who shared the racial backgrounds of our students, be able to do that. 72% of Braven fellows would do that. Now, in the world of the pandemic, that has gone way down for young people who don’t participate in Braven who share the backgrounds of our students, and it’s gone down for Braven fellows as well to 58%. 

However, we’re still 22 percentage points above the national average. And we have a lot more students right now in what we’re calling “pathway careers.” And we studied the great recession of 2008, and we realized that a young person who doesn’t come out with a strong first job, and then if they don’t have a pathway job, it will take them five times longer and sometimes never to get on the path of economic mobility. And so, we’ve been really dogging it with our data collection, but also really dogging it with saying, “OK. In the New York market, where are their jobs? Let’s put those in front of our students and their coaches or a professional mentor to help them maneuver to those jobs.”

And so, we’ve been very, very successful with the goals that we’ve set out, but what makes me even more proud is there are these other leading indicators, including: Do the students believe that Braven is worth their time? We’re taking up a full course for them for an entire semester, and then we’re supporting them for another two-and-a-half years. And we’re asking for a chunk of their time on the backend, too. 

And basically, when we look at our net promoter score, the average net promoter score for most organizations, so lots of people measure customer satisfaction is about 50. The net promoter score for our students is 80. And at Lehman, for example, 87% of the Lehman fellows said Braven was one of the most valuable, personal, and professional development experiences they’ve ever had, and 91% of them agreed that we increase their chances of getting the job that they desired after graduation. And that’s why I wake up every morning. 

Denver: Absolutely. And talking about the pandemic, what impact has it had, let’s say, on your fundraising? 

Aimée: Oh, my God. I was so… I think all of us went through some form of like a panic attack when the pandemic hit.

Denver: I think I’ve spoken to every one of them. It’s been tough. It has been tough. 

Aimée: Oh my gosh. It has been tough. And I got to say… we were talking earlier about trying to create a home office for yourself and all of that. And my desk, I was telling you, used to face the window. I had to change it to give it my lighting. But literally, Denver, I remember one day, mid-March being so panicked that I opened the window because I felt like I wasn’t getting enough air for some reason. I was having a panic attack, and it was all rooted in whether or not we were going to fiscally be able to get through the pandemic because we’re a pretty new organization, and we’re brand new in New York. We had just started in January. I had been at Lehman in week seven. It was one of my last trips that I did, and we were fully on track, looking really good, but we hadn’t raised all of the money that we needed to keep that site going. 

Lehman College comes under, so you’re like literally spinning. You’re like, “Oh my God. It’s all going to fall apart.” And then, we sent out a memo to our donor partners and to our employer partners saying, “Here’s how we’re going to pivot in this moment. Here’s what we’re seeing from our students.” Our students started to say to us, “This is the class that’s kept going. This is such an important community to me.” So I was like, “OK. If they can figure out how to still engage fully in this course that they’re still going to get a grade on, then we have got to figure out our own other challenges.” So we went donor partner by donor partner, employer partner by employer partner, and said, “Here’s our plan.” And Denver, we were really, really lucky that everyone not only stuck with us, but many people were so impressed with our ability to pivot so quickly that they doubled down, which we’re so thankful for. 

And then, after I think the summer hit and the country just started to, yet again, understand the inequities, including in the world of the workforce, many of our employer partners started to say, “We want to do more because this is a shared-value partnership. You are helping to professionally develop our people through this leadership coach role. They’re learning how to lead and manage a diverse team that is important to our business. And you’re giving us early access to a set of talent we might not see, and we want to be seeing that talent. It is deserving of real looks at our companies, and you make that possible for us.” And so, knock on everything. So we have come out strong, but there definitely were some scary, scary moments. 

Denver: And just to show how dedicated you are to impact, you actually measure shared value among your university partners and your employer partners, correct? 

Aimée: Oh, for sure. We are diligent about making sure that our employer partners really understand the shared value proposition of our partnership in a really tangible way. One, literally, again, from the professional development that we do of their folks, but also the proximity that they get to have to a group of young people who they do want to see working in their companies over time. 

Denver: More so now than ever, I think. I’m just so encouraged by and what these companies are doing in terms of racial equity and racial justice. So, in terms of looking for pipelines like yours, that’s a real positive going forward.

Aimée: For sure. We have a thousand volunteers right now in the Braven model, so it is just incredible. And I will say also, Denver, this was one of those other silver linings of the pandemic is: because Zoom makes it possible for you to volunteer from wherever, we just had so many people come out and say, “Hey, I want to be a coach. I can do it online. Again, I don’t have to fight the traffic or get on a subway or what have you. I want to be a professional mentor. I can do that after I finish my workday,” et cetera. So that’s just been really heartening, not only to see our company partners, but their employees step up to the plate.

Denver: Being a relatively young organization, talk a little bit about organizational design and your culture there. Because I’ve talked to a lot of organizations who’ve been around nonprofits for 50 or 100 or 150 years, and sometimes they have a little bit harder time pivoting. I was just wondering, in terms of the way Braven had been designed, how that may have worked to your advantage when something like this comes along? 

Aimée: Yes. And so, this was pretty accidental, I will say, in the sense that when we got started, we had four pilots running because we got this gift that did allow us to study the education-to-employment pipeline. I’m a former sixth-grade teacher. If you had asked me to place a bet on which of the four pilots would be the pilot that we really built an organization around, I would have said, “Oh, it’s middle school. It’s middle school.” Somehow, I didn’t do something right. Somehow, I should have been introducing my students to more people or something went wrong when I was teaching them in middle school. 

So, Denver, early on, we had an elementary,/upper elementary pilot. We had a middle school pilot. We had a high school pilot, and we had a college pilot. They all had these three dimensions that were the same. Cohort, five to eight students, a coach that was a near-peer. So in the younger students’ case, it was more like a high school or college student. In high school students’ case, it was more college students. And then clearly, in the college students’ case, it was more of these career professionals. So that was the second dimension. And the final dimension was really rigorous content that could be measured. So that was the same. 

That said, the college pilot took off in a way that we were not anticipating. My entire career to this point had been in K-12. So again, I thought we would have built something in K-12, and all of a sudden, there were all these college students applying for this leadership and career accelerator that didn’t have a real website. And we all know that we all go check out websites to see if something’s real. And it was just really unproven. And we had a waiting list of students, and this was before there were course credits. And I was like, “Why are you here?” And what we heard from the young people was, “Where else am I going to get this?” I’m at a school where at the career services office, there are 10,000 students, for example, at Lehman College. They’re probably four people who are so hard-working in career services. At our big state schools like San Jose State, there are 26,000 students, and there might be 10 or so people in career services, and they’re doing all they can.

And so, that ability to pilot early on to see the entire sort of education-to-employment moments throughout the continuum, made it so that we always operate it with some level of — I don’t want to overuse this term because I think sometimes it gets overused — of nimbleness and openness to pilot things. And so, it really helped us because that’s how we ended up being really open to always experimenting with what needed to happen online versus in-person. And then when the pandemic hit, that was in our favor that we had decided that 80% of the content was actually online. 

The other way in which we’ve always been disciplined now, so in the beginning, I’m not going to say it was as digital as it is now. When the pandemic hit, our school partners are like, “There are all of these young people who’ve never been through Braven that are in their senior year, sitting six to eight weeks at max away from what was supposed to be the best economy. Now that we’re looking at the worst economy, can you do something to help them?” 

So we did take our course content and say, “Look. If we had to boil it down and give a booster, literally a booster shot, what would we do for a young person who hasn’t been in the experience?” So we created a two-week booster and opened up that content and got professionals to also participate in that for any senior at any of the colleges where we were currently working. And then, we had a lot of fortune where donors made it possible, in New York City, for example, to open it up to any student in the CUNY system who was graduating. And I do think just sort of starting it with these four pilots does allow us to be more open, to being nimble in a moment where we really needed to be.

Denver: That is so true. I’ve always believed that when I can’t figure out an organization and how they operate, I always ask them about their founding story. Because people don’t appreciate how the DNA of the organization is baked in at the founding, and the pilots and the data was really baked in and then allowed you to do all that.

And I would have, unfortunately, lost my money with you because I have always thought there’s — I don’t want to say too much attention — but an obsession with young kids and an obsession with high school, and I’ve always looked at the Bermuda Triangle of our society to be middle school because no one pays attention to middle school. There are no sports teams, there’s no nothing, and that’s the time you’ve left mommy and daddy, and sometimes the horse has left the barn by the time you get to high school. And I would have been in there putting the money down, losing it, just like you did. 

Aimée: Me, too. I taught middle school. I taught sixth grade. I taught eighth grade. I have an eighth-grader now, so I’m in the world of middle school right now. I have a rising sixth-grader. And you’re absolutely right. I would still say that there’s a lot more that could be done in that sort of Bermuda Triangle. 

That’s what we learned in those pilots early on was that the college students also didn’t have anything. There was no other organization really focused on the college-to-career moment, and definitely not focused in a scalable way, thinking about real big partnerships with some of the most amazing institutions in the country but that do not have large endowments, instead in some of the poorest congressional districts in the country like Lehman does, that that was not even a group of schools, I would argue, a group of young people other than watching my own students grow up that I had really thought about as well. And it did create, I think, a real opening for Braven to then emerge. 

We had made this decision that we were only going to really have a shot at solving this problem that we would argue is a solvable problem… but in order to solve it, we’re going to have to be in full partnership with higher ed institutions and be humble enough to know that we don’t know all that they know about their students and the dynamics of their institutions. 

Denver: But these are, again, the assumptions we make. And we assume that at this age, they know it already, or we assume that he’s 6’3″. He understands all of this or whatever, and they don’t because no one’s ever taken the time to help them with it.

Let me close with this, Aimée. Do you see a new model of leadership emerging from the events of this past year? And is there any change that you’ve seen in you, in terms of the way that you plan on going about leading Braven into the future? 

Aimée: I do think we will see some new forms of leadership. I honestly believe — and this was something that we received quite a bit of criticism for on the front-end of Braven, and I actually really get it. I never agreed with it, but I totally understood where it was coming from — was that we had made this decision that we were only going to really have a shot at solving this problem that we would argue is a solvable problem. There are a lot of problems in education, and I know you know them, too, that are really hard to figure out, like can you solve them? I often say I’ve seen a lot of those problems, and this is what scares me in a beautiful way about Braven. I’m like, “But this is actually a solvable one, given where these students are at this point in their lives.” But in order to solve it, we’re going to have to be in full partnership with higher ed institutions and be humble enough to know that we don’t know all that they know about their students and the dynamics of their institutions. And yet, we’re going to have to figure out how, even with all of their fiscal constraints, how to have a really strong partnership and collaboration.

And you probably know that partnerships, collaboration are often the place where results go to die, where people feel like it can’t happen, like you don’t know who’s exactly responsible. And yet, I really did feel like there was a way to partner and collaborate in a way that would be a win-win-win — win for the college, win for their students, win for employer partners — but we were going to have to decide to go slow to go fast. That we were going to have to get to know, first and foremost, our school partners really well, figure out how to partner together, help bolster what they were already doing that was great, help put in infusions into places where they just do not have the same level of financial resources as schools with a lot more money from tuition and from an endowment. And honestly, it’s allowed us to scale over time. 

And I have to say, I really believe that those kinds of models can work. They take more intentionality. You have to go slow to go fast. But I have to say, given that we’ve seen that a pandemic impacts all of us in the world, there have to be solutions that are more collaborative. And I’m always, always, always very, very, very conscious that Braven plays one part. We play one part of helping a young person get fully through college and out into the workforce strong, but we have to be a part of a bigger pie and a bigger engine that has all of the different pieces working together, but we’ve got to decide that we’re going to work together in a fundamentally different way.

And when I think about in New York some of our employer partners, like Montefiore and Weight Watchers and Lehman College, and then us, just how we’ve been able to work together to produce outcomes, I have a ridiculous amount of optimism that we could see that happen with other problems that should be solvable.

Denver: And picking up on when you said, we need a society that redefines the metrics of success because funders are looking for growth and therefore, they’re almost pushing you out before you’ve really tested it… you haven’t done all the iterations of it. And as you say, that ability to stay patient and stay disciplined will allow you to grow much faster down the road and not overextend early on. But everybody wants, “Oh, they’ve been doing this. Where? What other cities?” Every time I hear: What other cities?  I say, “Head for the hills.” 

Aimée: We just released our jobs report, and then we do an impact report in another six months. So we have these two big reports, and we always release them. And beforehand, our college partners know what’s coming out. We’re always talking about the partnership. Because our results are their results; our employer partners’ results, so it’s everyone’s. We’re all producing a really fantastic outcome, not only for the young people who are working alongside, but we would argue for the country. 

Denver: Yes. I would agree.

Aimée: We all believe that it’s so important for people to see the American Dream in action, in a very tangible way, and that’s what I love about how we’ve been able to structure our partnership and the leadership of it. And I really do believe that we’ll see other people try this kind of a real collaboration-partnership model and not feel like you can’t produce results. 

Denver: There you go. My theory on partnerships is: always give the partner 100% of the credit because they like it, and I’ll end up getting the credit anyway. It will come to me regardless.

Aimée, tell us about the Braven website, the kind of information visitors can find there, and what they need to do if they want to financially help support your work. 

Aimée: So the Braven website really is designed, first and foremost, for our fellows because it’s often the way that they are getting into the course and signing up and doing what they need to do through our portal.

And honestly, Denver, one of the things that I decided, again, this is another area where, for a little bit, I was getting a lot of constructive feedback — I didn’t agree with it. I understood it, but I didn’t agree with it — which was that people would go to the Braven website, and they’d say, “Well, gosh. These students don’t look like they are in distress or that they have great needs.” I’m like, “Yes, we need to tell asset-based stories about people who are accomplishing extraordinary results.” So one thing that I always hope is that when people go to the website, our fellows first and foremost, but then other people as well, is that they see what is possible in a really optimistic way.

Then there’s facts, information about the model, how it works, what to expect. There’s also very clear information for employer partners, if they want to engage, if they want to get involved. And then, finally, of course, there is information for people who want to donate. And we’re so fortunate to have people who give us $10, and people who give us $1,000, and people who give us $10,000, and people who give us $100,000.

We view this as an American effort. I always talk about we’re building like a stadium of supporters, and everybody has different seats in that stadium, but we’re all there to watch this great game that we ultimately want to win and a problem that we want to solve. And so that’s what people will find on the website along with, again, more inspiring stories about our fellows and what they’re doing, or tips to them, et cetera.

Denver: Well, you’re well on your way. Thanks, Aimée, for being here today. It was a real delight to have you on the program. 

Aimée: Thanks so much for having me. I’m glad that we got to meet right before the pandemic hit in person, and so a year later, it’s nice to be able to sit and talk. 

Denver: Maybe we’ll be able to say someday, “And we had our interview right before the pandemic ended!” Wouldn’t that be great?

Aimée: Exactly! Amazing. That’s what we’re hoping for. All right. Well, thanks so much for having me.

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