This post is part of our Education Innovators Series, which highlights today’s top leaders, innovators, and educators who are making a noble impact in the education sector.

It is often said that college education is the ticket to upward mobility, the American Dream. While some believe that the American Dream still exists, others believe that soaring student loan debt and the shortage of post-college jobs undermine this very ethos. Contributing factors– such as a lack of a professional network or the inability to obtain the “right” type of relevant work experiences in one’s desired field of interest while in college, –further compound the difficulty of obtaining one’s first professional job, the first step towards economic freedom.

This is where Braven, an educational nonprofit founded in 2013 by Aimée Eubanks Davis, comes in. Braven, a college-credit leadership and career Accelerator program, seeks to equip college students — primarily students of color, students from low-income communities, and/or first-generation college students — with professional skill-building, networking, and learning experiences to ensure participants complete college and land strong first jobs in fields of interest — ultimately creating pathways for long -term sustained careers and increased economic independence.

Gaining Motivation From Life Experiences

Aimée Eubanks Davis as a child
A young Aimée Eubanks Davis.

Much of Aimée’s professional and personal experiences inspired Braven. When Aimée entered the world, her mother was staying at home and her father was working. Her father was a community college professor, Greyhound Bus driver, and an aspiring dentist. Yet, things changed when her father died unexpectedly when she was two years old; it prompted her mother to go to a local college to figure out a career path that would be flexible and support Aimée and her older sister. Her mother obtained her real-estate license; met Aimée’s future father;and together they started a very small and often shaky real estate business in the low-income and high crime southside of a Chicago neighborhood. With the subsequent shooting of a young person within feet of her family home, Aimée’s parents decided to move to the suburbs of Chicago where she would attend high school.

Aimée’s experience in her new school was jarring in the sense that her guidance counselor made assumptions about her academic ability based on her background and thus discouraged her from taking challenging classes until her mother intervened. It was also during this time that she observed that access to opportunities often has a profound affect one’s trajectory. Her suburban peers, who often hailed from upper middle to upper class backgrounds, were formulating networks and participating in and out-of-school settings to prepare college and work success — they were taking part in “the invisible education,” which is not learned in the classroom. Low-income peers often did not have access to the same opportunities — experiences critical for long-term career success.

Creating equitable opportunities in education — re-imaging talent systems — became her mission.

So how did Aimée take on that mission? She graduated from Mount Holyoke College, was a 1995 Teach for America corps member in New Orleans, a former program officer at the Breakthrough Collaborative (formerly Summerbridge National), and was the executive director, at the age of 23, for Summerbridge New Orleans, which became one of the most successful sites in the Breakthrough Collaborative history. Most recently, she served as the Executive Vice President of People, Community and Diversity for Teach for America; she led the initiative to create systematic ways to attract, engage, develop, and retain young, diverse professionals inclusive of backgrounds and experiences and to build an organization that is a model for equitable opportunities from a staff of 200 to over 2,500. And then, in 2013, she founded Braven.

Braven is Born: Demonstrate, Don’t Debate

Aimée began her work with Braven during her time as a Fellow in the Aspen Institute’s Pahara-Aspen Education Fellowship, which enables entrepreneurial change agents to transform public education, so that it serves all students well. She focused her project on reimagining talent systems for the professional workforce.

Aimée Eubanks Davis
Aimée Eubanks Davis

With the changing demographics of America — one that is increasingly Latino, Black, Asian, and mixed race — and unemployment rates that disproportionately affects young people of this particular demographic, Aimée knew where to start. “More than ever, we need the American dream to be real for a country with changing demographics,” she told us during an interview. “I believe that we can create a new talent system for the country where 100,000 young people from often overlooked backgrounds graduate from college and are also landing first strong jobs which leads to increased leadership responsibilities over time; this is urgent work and can be done. And the reason why I believe this can be done is because there are talent systems that create the 460,000 young people who play NCAA sports as well as the 90,000 young people considered to be in the school-to-prison pipeline — not a positive talent system, but one that exists. Braven knows that next generation of leaders truly comes from everywhere and we must nourish and develop this talent now — people from humble beginnings can reach the American dream — with access to preparation for professional workforce opportunities. ”

As a part of her Aspen Fellowship experience, Aimée presented her idea, which would later become Braven. Her idea piqued the interest of grantmaking organization Startup:Education — which became her first investor shortly thereafter. Subsequently, other partners and investors such as Teach for America, Draper Richards Kaplan, Camelback Ventures, Aspen Institute’s Braddock Scholars, and other family foundations joined in to support Braven’s mission and vision.

Re-imagining a New Talent System

Braven primarily works with large state universities to administrator The Braven Accelerator — a 15-week course that is followed by a campus-based alumni program. Students, primarily college sophomore and juniors, are put in a cohort of 5-7 with a young professional coach who leads and manages the students. During the experience they do the following to start “putting their educations to work”:

  • Simulate real-world work experiences
  • Discover what types of careers they want to pursue
  • Build professional soft and hard skills to ensure preparation for the workforce
  • Create professional portfolios to demonstrate a record of achievement
  • Engage in meaningful networking experiences to build camaraderie among fellows, coaches, and the greater community

Aimée believes that networking and collaborating during the fellowship is key to a Fellow’s success. “Sixty to 80 percent of jobs are secured through referrals,” she says. “Networks help to validate you and get your foot in the door. Furthermore, people are often incentivized by employers monetarily [to open up their networks to business opportunities]. Much of business is done through networks.”

Furthermore, 88% of Braven’s Leadership Coaches are extremely or very likely to professionally endorse their students to their own networks of friends and work colleagues, an important indicator since relationship building plays a critical role in having access as well as securing various types of career opportunities. Opportunities tend to be hard to come by without a supportive network.

A Look Into the Student Experience

Braven Fellows
Teambuilding among the Braven Fellows

For the last five weeks of the Braven Accelerator, students focus on working on a culminating project called the Capstone. Alongside their Leadership Coaches, each cohort of students provides innovative solutions to capstone topics generated by Braven staff. For example, during the 2014-2015 school year, Braven’s San José State University site, the Capstone topic was, “How might we increase diversity in the workplace?”

Students formulate their own conclusions to the questions posed by interviewing stakeholders who have worked in a variety of industries about their thoughts on this matter as well as drawing upon their own experiences. From there, utilizing design thinking principles, present their solutions, in this particular case, by creating a Powerpoint presentation as well as conducting an oral presentation to Braven staff, leadership coaches, and greater community members who all serve as judges for the Capstone competition.

During group’s oral presentation, groups are evaluated on the quality of the information presented, level of clarity and organization, as well as their presentation presence. Students, as in the real world, are graded as a group, for their written and oral presentations.

As the result of simulating such real- work experiences,across Braven’s three 2014-2015 school year sites, 73% of Fellows agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “Braven greatly increased my chances of getting my desired job after graduation.”

A Vision for Success

With early success of their model, Braven will continue to partner with more state universities and implement its Braven Accelerator model, recruit coaches, and increase the number of professionals who advise Fellows throughout the course and during their alumni experience. And driving the narrative that with access to opportunities and a network, young people primarily of color, low-income, and first generation backgrounds can achieve the American dream.

When asked what she attributes Braven’s early success to Aimée states, “I attribute much of my own success to the guidance and mentorship that I have received from others. I also deeply believe and have a strong conviction in the mission and vision of what we are setting out to do here at Braven even in the face of cynicism. We have seen early success and this gives me fortitude to keep going.”

Surely, Braven is onto something here.

By Olu Ibrahim

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