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"Achieving The American Dream Is Hard": How One Nonprofit Is Helping Underserved Women "Move Up"

02/10/2015 04:40 pm ET | Updated Apr 12, 2015

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As most millennials can attest, the job market is rough. Attempting to navigate it is, at best, an enervating challenge. And that's for Americans who speak the language and understand the job searching tools at their disposal. Even those privileged enough to have graduated from college, with the support of family, friends and a vast alumni network can -- and do -- struggle.

But what if you're new to the American system? What if your background in another country -- even if it involved an advanced degree and years of professional experience -- failed to prepare you for life in another nation where the language and customs are foreign? What if you have children to support? An abusive marriage you can't leave for lack of financial independence?

Enter: Move Up, a nonprofit that's revolutionizing life for the Bay Area's most underserved population. Already, in just a year and a half of operating, the organization has worked with over 120 women, giving them the tools and network they need to succeed -- to find work, to care for their children and for some, to even leave domestic violence situations.

Founded in 2013, the Mountain View-based nonprofit seeks to provide economic empowerment and support for the area's most marginalized women.

And the support is having significant results.

Move Up's first client was an Indian woman who loved cooking and had always dreamed of owning her own food business. But, in her own words, "achieving the American dream is very hard." With Move Up's help, however, she pieced together a business plan, designed menus and went on to win a place in a highly competitive incubator program. She's had a thriving food business, Rasoi, for six months.

She's only one of many women who've benefited from the organization's help.

In the wake of this success, Move Up founder Nikita -- a UC Berkeley grad with a background in business -- began looping in friends to build the organization. She told me that we all, even those of us fresh out of college, have skills to contribute: "Being well-versed in the job application process, my friends could bring their understanding of the American system to bear for this community."

Reaching out to local nonprofits and religious centers, the tiny nonprofit -- now comprised of eight core members -- was connected with women who were struggling due to lack of knowledge about the American system . . . often totally isolated from any kind of professional network.

Working with these clients to discover their needs, Move Up designed a curriculum. The organization's mentors are paired one-on-one with clients to help guide and problem solve whatever hurdles stand in the way of financial empowerment -- be it knowledge about job searching, help securing a driver's license or studying for a vocational exam. This one-on-one work can range from four weeks to three months, although the relationships formed with the clients have proven evergreen, mutually rewarding for both parties. Move Up mentors are young working professionals at Bay Area companies such as Google, McKinsey, Jive, Nutanix and other up-and-coming startups. Mentors volunteer with Move Up in the evenings and weekends, so they can give back within the confines of their busy daily schedules.

The organization now offers a range of services -- from help creating a resume, identifying possible career paths and job interview prep, to website development, loan applications and basic negotiation skills. Through both their one-on-one mentorship program and various workshops, women from all over the South Bay are receiving tailored support. Even more, they are gaining a network. As Nikita explained to me, "This is about giving the women something we already have -- a group of people to rely on."

It was something I was lucky enough to witness for myself at the group's year-end party. Mentors and clients alike caught up, mingled and noshed on samosas, the excitement in the room palpable. After a round of getting-to-know-you exercises, the group sat in a circle to reflect on their progress and goals.

One woman expressed her gratitude to the organization. In India she had been a high-level customer liaison. But in the U.S., shy and uncomfortable talking to strangers, she struggled to find a job and support her two teenagers. Yet find a job -- and flourish -- she did. Because of her work with Move Up, she landed a gig as a receptionist at a top local hotel, quickly rising among its ranks and increasing her salary three-fold. As a result, with a sly smile on her face, she announced that she "trusts in God more," and now "likes communicating with all people."

Her goals? To take the initiative and help other single moms get a good job. "Tomorrow," she announced, "I'll speak with the manager about it."

The volunteers themselves take away as much, if not more, from these interactions. As one of the volunteers, Akhila Iruku, said:

"We see the selfless women who come to us for help, working multiple jobs, giving everything they can to their children and still they have the most positive attitude about making their life better. A few hours of our time a week to change someone's life is truly priceless and rewarding."

Another woman was recently single, had no job and was living with her former in-laws. "There's no job here I can do," she was convinced. Then she met with Move Up.

Now she has two jobs, a driver's license and her own apartment. And she's not stopping there. Her goals? "Maybe take a CNA course -- I want a degree," she expressed to the crowd.

Asked how she has changed since her work with the organization, she described her confidence as "too much" and said: "Now is the happiest time of my life." Her advice for the other women in the room? "Don't be stressed. Don't be sad. Anything in your past, please forget it."

And, directing her comments to Move Up:

"I want to tell this group, you are all so awesome. Because of you, I understand what people expect here. You have very good information and tips. My mentor keeps pushing me and I can't thank you enough for your help and motivation."

She, too, was one of the many women who offered to reach out to her employer about possible job opportunities.

Before my eyes, a network of ambitious, committed women was blooming.

Move up, indeed.

To learn more about Move Up, its team, their clients and all of their inspiring stories, you can check out their website and like their Facebook page. If you would like to volunteer with Move Up, send them a note at moveuporg@gmail.com.

This story by Kelley Calkins first appeared on Ravishly.com, an alternative news+culture website for women.

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