09/04/2013 12:13 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2013

Showing the Disadvantaged a Path to Opportunity

It is a hallmark for the Taoist strategist to turn a disadvantage to an opportunity. A 3000-year-old Taoist classic advises, "Concern is a way to success delight is a way to loss. Therefore the skillful make weakness into strength and turn calamity into fortune. The Way is unimpeded harmony and use of it can never be full."

The ability to make these shifts is a function of positioning and execution. Because of the interactive payoff nature of strategy, changes in behavior can alter payoffs. As previously discussed, Taoists believe the world is of a continuous nature. So any definable situation can be reversed. The strategist's goal is to devise a strategy that changes behavior so a disadvantage becomes an opportunity. The reality of a Taoist is constructed and purposeful.

This fall we are piloting the full six-course Building Bridges to Wealth Program in West Philadelphia. We are part of an innovative program being developed by Principal Simon Hauger and his team at Workshop High School. One program theme is the collaborative nature of the student-parent-teacher triad.

Effectively managing behavior in this triad has proven elusive as evidenced by the ongoing debate in both academic journals and the general media. And while some programs are more effective than others, our execution will differ from most. We base our strategy on two deliverables: A clear vision of what to expect and effective programs to cope with the obstacles.

Our vision is focused on creating a path of opportunity for the disadvantaged. Most elite-level private colleges offer financial aid on a need-basis. Generally speaking, the lower the family's net worth the higher the tuition discount. Being at a financial disadvantage presents a quick (four years) subsidized means to significantly change the socio-economic status of students. Of course, the success of the strategy is pivotal on the ability of students to get accepted to the elite schools.

This brings us to a key issue which is, "why do we see so few inner-city students make the leap to elite colleges?" And while I cannot yet answer this question, I know one reason we can eliminate. Based on my experience teaching in inner city high schools for five years, and Wharton for more than a score, I recognize no significant difference in the "natural intelligence" of students. My definition of natural intelligence is the ability to understand and apply concepts taught.

One example stands out in my mind. We cover game theoretic ideas in our decision-making course. The ideas are taught using interactive exercises. One of my high school students was behaving as if he had calculated a fairly difficult equation. He exhibited this behavior across a series of exercises using different contexts and equilibria. It was a memorable feat as I had only seen it a couple of times in my years at Wharton. Yet, he would never get to an elite college, and even worse, he had no vision of what he was foregoing. It is difficult to motivate when the students (and parents) have little idea of the goal's value or form.

Our vision to parents and students will follow the script above. The increasing disparity in wealth between white families and minority families, especially black and Hispanic; elite schools offer a quick, subsidized means for students to vault this gap; this is our vision to help you succeed.

Our first program will focus on financial literacy. Both students and parents will attend classes with graduates being eligible to join our Building Bridges to Wealth investing groups. These investing groups will enable and encourage participants to set up college funds.

Our goal is not to solve the issue of, "why do we see so few inner city students make the leap to elite colleges?" It is to increase the number of students who do make the leap. We believe forming this triad with a common vision, coupled with our innovative programs, will increase the ability of students to get accepted at elite colleges. As previously discussed, the great begins with the small.

We face many obstacles. Despite these, we are confident we can turn a disadvantage to an opportunity. It is a matter of positioning and execution. Future blogs will report the effectiveness of the program.