I grew up as the son of an academic, hopping from campus to campus while my father pursued tenure. It was a charmed gypsy life, as I had the pick of the litter of cute undergraduate babysitters. The thought never crossed my mind that I would not go to college.
For many inner-city high schoolers, further education is by no means a given. The desire may be there, but an uncomfortable reality tends to get in the way.
I live in California, a state heralded for its top-notch public universities, but 47th in state spending per public school student. So while the world looks to the glorious left coast as a dynamic power of industry and culture, its local development of young minds is rather lacking. I don't know precisely how many of those inner-city kids can see beyond the horizon of a high school diploma, but whatever the number is, it's clearly not what the promise of America is supposed to mean.
That's why this year my colleague Zach Fishbain and I founded MyPi, the Millennial Youth Professionals Initiative.
We're always hustling after something -- we both work in business development to pay the bills. Mentoring an underprivileged 14-year-old, Zach was eager to find a fun activity and leveraged our business contacts at Electronic Arts to take "Andy" through the halls where his favorite video games are made. He met with artists, developers and programmers. Zach couldn't introduce young Andy to Blake Griffin, but he did introduce him to the men and women that made NBA JAM, the idea being that with a lot of hard work, Andy could do the same some day.
At one point during the experience, Andy was very quiet. Pensive. When asked if everything was okay, his soft-spoken response was:
"Man, I'm just thinking how I have to make it to college."
Zach raved about the experience the next day, and we started thinking about how we could reach out to inner-city youth and repeat the process on a larger scale -- show them firsthand that anything was possible if they stayed in school.
So we formed a 501(c)3, leaning on professionals who could guide two fledgling entrepreneurs from a good intention to a realizable venture. Recently, MyPi had its pilot trip, bringing eight kids from south central Los Angeles to TOMS Shoes. We wanted to inspire an entrepreneurial spirit in these middle and high schoolers, and TOMS' model of conscious capitalism was the perfect catalyst. If you don't know their tale, with every pair you purchase, TOMS will give a pair of new shoes to a child in need. "One for One." And the shoes are really cool.
As the kids arrived, they were mostly quiet. They stuck close to their mentors and chaperones (we envisioned this trip to be a shared experience). Much love to Jake Strom, our contact at TOMS, who conveyed his enthusiasm as he told the stone-faced young crowd the company's history. Then we toured the facilities.
We impressed upon these young minds that work could be fun, not just something that old people drudged through between breakfast and dinner. When the tour ended, they were led into a room filled with shoe boxes -- one fresh pair of white kicks for each student. It was a "Style your Sole" party, and as they started to paint, pen and tag their own custom canvas, we brought additional employees from TOMS to talk about their work and how they got there.
This was an opportunity for the kids to express themselves outside of the classroom, an open place to get creative and show off their interests. Some young artists showed love for their city, some made stylish cleats for their sport of choice. However poker-faced they were during the tour, they were chatterboxes talking about TOMS the whole way home. Many slapped the TOMS motto on their shoes, along with their names, hoping to start a conversation and tell the story of barefoot children in Africa that had it even harder than they did.
Skills have value in the workplace: that was the main message. My hope is that each student understood that he or she has options and that college was the logical next step.
As co-founders of a fledgling NGO, Zach and I learned so much from our first event. As we navigate this new world -- establishing a board, attracting new companies, constructing an engaging curriculum and partnering with new mentorship programs to fuel our events -- our narrative is continuously shaped by all of those involved. And we love the art of improvisation.
In a perfect world, teenagers like the initial eight students we brought to TOMS will find internships at the companies we introduce them to, and some day, perhaps, lead new groups of MyPi kids through the halls of a forward-looking company, of which there are many.
I'm interested in education reform, and a true believer in the axiom that ingenuity is to be found in all strata of society. So as MyPi explores ways to incubate an entrepreneurial spirit, I open it up to debate how to explore and enlarge this vision.
For more content from our trip to TOMS, visit MyPi.org, follow us @mypidotorg and like us.
Follow Josh Burstein on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jburst