This year, the SCI AmeriCorps Program entered into a new partnership with BUILD Greater Boston and placed two members who are currently serving as Youth Leadership Coordinators with the organization. SCI interviewed the Program Director at BUILD Greater Boston, Kenny Roberts, who shared a bit about BUILD’s mission, program, and the impact of the current pandemic. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
What is BUILD’s mission?
BUILD is a four-year elective entrepreneurship program starting in the 9th grade. Students begin by working together in teams to launch a start-up business. Students start by pitching their idea for investments, then they participate in a series of events which leads to them finalizing a full business plan where they take their idea from concept to customer. In their sophomore year, students focus on trying to expand their business either through acquisition or mergers. Then they have the experience on how to not only take the skills that they’ve developed in the initial launch when applying to their existing business, but also using those skills for college & career access as a viable source for them through internships and other professional development opportunities. Juniors and seniors in the program move towards college exploration where they look towards developing a succinct post-secondary plan. Our Mission is to use entrepreneurship to unlock the potential of young people in under-resourced communities and equip them with high school, college and career success.
How does your Program work?
We have a direct service model in the 9th and 10th grades with a teacher who teaches the BUILD curriculum as an elective course in school, five days a week, where they get credit towards their semester grades by participating in BUILD. So that’s one element of our program that makes us different from other nonprofit programs who are involved in the school system. Our after school component is geared directly towards juniors and seniors.
What role does social capital play in the success of BUILD’s program model/mission?
Social capital, for us, actually plays a huge role starting with our students when they enter the program. Students are introduced to at least two professional mentors that are placed with them and their classmates. Typically we have teams of 5-6 students paired with mentors who hopefully, if their professional responsibilities allow, stay with these students all through high school from 9th to 12th grade. In the event that they can’t, we do a good job of placing new mentors in their lives year-to-year, and students are still able to keep in contact with their original mentors. In regards to social capital, what that does is allow students as 9th graders to begin to expand their networks, to be able to have these professional relationships develop over time so when they become ready to start the college process or enter the workforce, they have recommendations already lined up and they have someone who can give them perspective on navigating a career path. It’s something that for 13 and 14 year old students is pretty unbelievable and unprecedented. Many of them have that experience or have access to that resource — it’s something that we’re proud of and excited to be able to give that to our students.
The other piece of this is we are able to leverage our advisory board, composed of former students who have gone through our program and become alumni, to expose our current students to internships and different career fields. As students move through college we want to make sure that they have the opportunity not only to figure out where they want to end up when it comes to their careers, but also understand that path and why. Having these two direct forms of networking opportunities for our students are the key aspects of social capital that we are excited about offering and exploring with our students.
How are the SCI AmeriCorps Members serving at BUILD Greater Boston supporting your youth this year?
We know with COVID-19 there’s been a bunch of challenges, not only with society in general but especially with high school students in the public school system. Most of our students have had to navigate, since March, being completely remote and some of what our AmeriCorps Members are assisting us with first is student outreach: being in constant communication with students about what needs they may have, if they have all the resources & information they need whether that’s food distribution, laptops or wireless internet. Outside of that the Members are specifically helping with our juniors and seniors.
One of the Members is focusing on our Social Entrepreneurship Curriculum: how do we deploy that virtually, being able to track students’ progress in the Virtual Design Challenge — where students are focused on developing virtual ideas to solve issues that many community members are facing due to the pandemic.
Our second AmeriCorps Member is really helping us leverage the college process: understanding the drawbacks of having to do everything virtually and not having the 1-on-1 in-person interaction, and understanding the landscape on how college admissions are taking the pandemic into account when it comes to college applications. One of the other pieces that we are looking at with our AmeriCorps Members is seeing how we can leverage our college alumni in that process and staying in contact with them — because we know that they are also dealing with the pandemic, whether they are studying on campus or attending classes at home and trying to navigate their college experience.
So our Members are very active and very busy, but they are extremely passionate about their service which makes our lives a lot easier and we’re very appreciative of the energy that they bring to the table. They have been valuable assets to our team.
What challenges is BUILD Greater Boston facing this year due to COVID-19?
So one of the main things we’re seeing is families and students are trying to really understand how to leverage this virtual learning environment, whether it is on a Zoom call to using Google Classroom. We are understanding that a lot of students, based on their parents being essential workers or just a difficult work schedule in general, are dealing with a lot more at-home responsibilities — having to take care of siblings, grandparents, or just having to manage helping to take care of the household by running errands, etc. So understanding the time constraints with that is important: a lot of students aren’t able to log on consistently or get assignments in on-time. One of the things we’re trying to do in response is be more realistic about the importance of really solidifying the relationship piece, moreso now than ever before. The more we know about our students the better we can serve them, and we identified the need to really focus on that over the first 3-4 months of the school year. Because if our students aren’t in a good place and we as staff aren’t in a good place to connect with them, then all of it really matters at the end of the day.
Does BUILD Greater Boston have any current or future needs for volunteers/resources?
At this time we’re always looking for volunteers in the form of mentors, our mentoring program is very robust and connects 305 students who all have a mentor. We would love to have that student enrollment grow with more mentors to follow students from 9th through 12th grade. We ask our volunteers to dedicate 60-90 minutes a week to our students — with the pandemic we have added a virtual component to our mentoring program, so now we can engage volunteers who are working from home or not necessarily in close proximity to Boston.
In terms of resources, we are looking for externship and internship opportunities for our upperclassmen students. Our students are traditionally able to participate in on-site internships in different career fields, but to expose them to those opportunities virtually would be highly beneficial as components of remote workplaces will continue to be a part of professional experiences moving forward.
Professionals interested in volunteering as a mentor can go to our website, BUILDinBoston.org, there is a link near the top of the homepage on how to get involved as a mentor, continue to the link to sign up to participate. From there our Community Engagement Manager, Joelle Paolino, will reach out to coordinate an informational call to further understand the potential mentor’s interests to see if they align with our program. You can also contact me directly at KRoberts@build.org. We are looking for individuals who are excited, high energy and motivated to work with young people. That’s the biggest thing — the 60 minutes a week is not a long time, but being able to bring a lot of energy to the space, especially virtually, is something that we’re always looking for. That excitement really gets our students geared up and really puts them in a position to get a lot of work done in a short period of time.
Companies and organizations interested in offering internships to our students can contact me directly through email to let me know what type of opportunities you can offer. For our seniors and a small percentage of other students who can balance an after-school internship with their other responsibilities, second semester opportunities would be welcomed. For our rising Juniors and seniors, summer internship opportunities are most important because that is really the time where they have the most bandwidth to get involved with professional development.