This podcast is made possible with support from HP.

Following is a transcript of the conversation.

If you’re really honest with yourself and you step back and you think about how you get to wherever you’re trying to go next, it is often through someone else helping you somehow. … If you do not have a network in the professional work force, you are really at a significant disadvantage. — Aimée Eubanks Davis

Goldie Blumenstyk: Welcome to Innovation That Matters a Chronicle of Higher Education podcast, sponsored by HP. In this special series, we’ll be sharing the stories of change-makers working to improve equity in higher education.

Hello, I’m Goldie Blumenstyk. And the voice you just heard kicking off our show is Aimée Eubanks Davis, the founder and CEO of Braven. Aimée, thanks so much for joining us today.

Eubanks Davis: Thanks so much for having me, Goldie. I’m superexcited to be here.

Blumenstyk: No, it’s really cool for us to have you here, too. I was thinking I should introduce what Braven does, but I think maybe you should introduce what Braven does. I suspect you’ve done this elevator pitch once or twice before.

Eubanks Davis: Braven works alongside typically large state universities that have a majority of their students identifying as first-generation Pell eligible. We help them go from college into strong first jobs. We do that through partnering with the universities to run a course for credit, when students are often sophomores and juniors in college, but we then work with them until they’re six months out of college, and in the work force.

Blumenstyk: Don’t college career centers do that? Why is there a need for something like Braven?

Eubanks Davis: So the career centers at our colleges are just really amazing and really worked so hard at what they do, and the colleges where we’ve chosen to partner are colleges that are not as well resourced as some other colleges in our country. For example, our Lehman College, which is in the Bronx, has 10,000 or so students, and maybe they will have a career-services team of three to five people at the most. And yet over 50 percent of their students are first in their families, not only to go to college but also on the Pell Grant, which means that their families are living at or below the poverty level when they enter that institution. And they’re there to, of course, get a great education on the path to a strong job that really allows them the economic mobility that they’ve earned the right to. And so we really are just coming alongside the universities, including on the career-services side to really bolster their really critical, important work around this group of young people.

Blumenstyk: So you sort of step in and maybe supplement what colleges can’t generally provide themselves for students. But I feel like it’s a little bit more than that. You’re kind of teaching something that maybe career centers don’t necessarily even teach, or they don’t call it that. You teach students how to acquire social capital. What does that really mean?

Eubanks Davis: So one of the unique innovations that we have had the deep privilege of doing alongside our college partners is actually bringing Braven in on the academic side. And so we have strong partnerships with the career-services offices, but our relationships with the universities really are on the academic side. The students who we have the privilege of working with are in need of more than just what a typical career-services office might give in terms of résumé prep or cover-letter prep or LinkedIn prep. That they are coming from some of the most hardworking families in our country, who are betting the entire thing, and often with no life savings, on their young person, going to college and coming out with a degree that puts them on the path to economic mobility. And that means that they often don’t know anyone in the professional work force.

And so being able to put it in on the academic side, where there’s real rigor in terms of teaching students how to ensure that they have the networks and the mind-sets and the skills that they need to be ready, also allows us to bring in this group of dynamic volunteers from the employer world that actually coaches a team of five to eight students through the course. And why that is so important, Goldie, and I think people have a hard time believing this, but if you’re really honest with yourself and you step back and you think about how you get to wherever you’re trying to go next, it is often through someone else helping you somehow, that network effect.

Blumenstyk: Those networks, right. Yeah, yeah.

Eubanks Davis: It’s the network effect; if you do not have a network in the professional work force, you are really at a significant disadvantage. If your application went in cold, you were like [a] one in 400 shot of getting a strong interview, let alone a job. Whereas if it went in warm, like someone was recommending you, you were on their referral line, that dropped to like one in 20. Partnering, not only with the university, but also with employer partners, has been critical to this group of students in terms of really manufacturing social capital for them.

Blumenstyk: So you literally teach students how to network?

Eubanks Davis: We teach them how to network, absolutely. And we also — through having these folks from the professional world, often who are young professionals who are looking to learn how to lead and manage a diverse team — actually getting them to come in and really help deliver the course content. We’re also giving them a network. We’re allowing that group of people to have the privilege of getting to know this group of young people. And then all of a sudden this group of coaches has been really saying to their networks, “Hey, I met this student who I’ve been coaching in this program called Braven. I really hope that you’ll think about giving them a mock interview.” Right? “Or I really hope you might let them shadow you, when we’re able to be in person at your company or jump on a Zoom and just tell them what it’s like to be an X, Y, or Z career.”

Blumenstyk: I actually saw a little bit of that myself. I visited one of your sites at Rutgers-Newark, just about a year ago, actually. So I remember one young man was telling how he felt like such a VIP because he went to the Prudential headquarters, and they had his name at the front desk and they escorted him upstairs.

Eubanks Davis: And that’s where my own personal story really meets the Braven story. So I grew up in a family that has worked ridiculously hard over the course of over 40 years to give, my parents did, their four children opportunities in life. But they were not sitting on what is considered to be the professional work-force side of that equation. And so I saw for myself, coming out of college, that I was just kind of stumbling to try to figure out what next. And my parents are awesome, but they couldn’t help. They just really couldn’t help.

When I had the ability to sort of get on my own short footing, and I was looking at some of my former students who had done everything right, because I taught sixth grade, a long time ago now, but as they were coming out of college, and then watching them struggle because they also didn’t have the network effect working on their behalf. That’s when I was like, “You know what? We just got to figure out something here. This is a solvable problem. This is a way for our country to completely live out its creed in terms of equal opportunity. But we are going to have to think a little differently about how higher education works, at least in terms of this little bitty part of it. But also, honestly, in terms of how companies engage with young people at that moment in time.”

Blumenstyk: Let’s talk about that for a little bit, because I think one of the really interesting things to me about Braven is its connection with employers, their employer mentors are an integral part of actually the course and the process, but what do the employers get out of any of this?

Eubanks Davis: Yeah,hey actually get a ton. When I first got started, we were a very scrappy start-up with one donor, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, we’re not going to make it. We’re just not going to survive as an organization.” I did believe that a part of the magic, to helping this group of young people come out of college and into the work force strong, actually did lie in the world of employers and their talent. I wanted to convince folks, especially those who had not yet managed yet, that actually coaching this team of young people in Braven was their own professional development for themselves, like a way to develop themselves in terms of leadership and management of a diverse group of people. And honestly, Goldie, at the time it was completely self-serving on the student’s side, completely and also on the financial side of the organization.

And then after that first group of coaches got midway through the experience, they started to say, “This is some of the best professional development I’ve ever had.” A tangible experience in leading and managing this kind of a team and being held to outcomes and goals for this group of people on this team. The very happy byproduct is access to a diverse group of young people who they might not have seen and, or, honestly, considered from an employment standpoint.

Blumenstyk: One thing that I’ve been watching about Braven, that’s been curious to me, I think right now you’re at four campuses. I mentioned Rutgers, San Jose State, which is where you first started the National Louis University in your hometown, Chicago, and …

Eubanks Davis: Lehman College. in the Bronx.

Blumenstyk: Right. So how do you think about scaling this? You’ve been a pretty much a campus-based program; is that how you want to continue to grow?

Eubanks Davis: Yeah.So unlike many social entrepreneurs, and probably entrepreneurs in general, I always have taken a bit of a philosophy of “go slow to go fast.” Because we’re in such deep partnership with these schools, I wanted to make sure that we really understood how to partner well with them, because we are on the academic side. And because there are career-services offices, and these really hard-working people who are in some pretty resource-constrained environments that us, being humble enough to say, “We don’t know at all.” I came from K-12. I taught sixth grade. I worked in the K-12 sector, the majority of my career. To really understand and be in true partnership, honestly, takes time. And I think a lot of times people don’t like to take that time because it’s inefficient, to some degree.

That said, we went from 17 students at San Jose State, in a boot camp, to now we have close to 500 students a year coming into the Braven experience at that campus. There are 1,400 students on that campus alone who are in the Braven experience, whether they’re in the course or now in the postcourse experience. And so my first belief is that we should scale and grow up our work at our current institutions. And then also at other colleges similar to them in their cities.

That said, Covid threw us all a serious curveball, six to eight weeks into what became one of the most unpredictable and really worst economies for a young person coming out of college because of what was happening on the employer side. Like, people were so unsure, they were rescinding offers or freezing hiring or what have you. And so our school partners asked us what we might do for their existing seniors that was different than the Braven experience, as we know it, which is a three-year experience. And so we did feel compelled, just like Ford started to build masks and ventilators, to stop and build a two-week booster for current seniors at that time, to help them land as strong as they could in a crisis situation.

Blumenstyk: So instead of a few hundred students that you knew pretty well, suddenly you’re working with thousands of …

Eubanks Davis: Thousands. Yeah. And then we got asked by some universities outside of our current four to run the booster for their students, like Spelman College, in Atlanta, and Metro State, in Denver, and Middle Tennessee State, in Tennessee. And I couldn’t not say yes, I knew we had the content and the infrastructure because of the technology, and honestly, that we had access to the talent on the employer side. And so all of a sudden we’ve now opened up access to the booster, to like 85,000 students, which has been really great.

That said, it redoubled my belief in the Braven model itself being not only campus based, but really city based, because talent is local, even if companies are national or global, it’s still local. And so we will now work, I think, more nationally and virtually. But we’re not going to lose sight of, the real magic happens in these partnerships with these great American universities that have the most significant ability to deliver hundreds of thousands of young people from humble beginnings into the path to the American dream.

Ultimately, I do look forward to the day when maybe the booster is something that we’re doing for students who are in the alumni programming, who need a little bit more of a boost, but is not necessarily our main show. The main show will be on the campuses and with campus partners and maybe some form of a virtual national model where we’re able to work with universities that are more rural, that are in smaller cities where the employer market isn’t quite as big.

Blumenstyk: And on that note, let’s take a moment now for a message from our sponsor.

Mike Belcher: Hello, my name is Mike Belcher. I’m the director of edtech innovation for HP. And I just wanted to share a little bit around the topic that’s really important to us here at HP, and we think will be for you as well. It really revolves around this power of how we get students, and particularly students who may not have access to a network, to truly find work experience and internships. This pandemic this past year gave us the ability at HP to do something a little bit different. The program that we started, is called HP Summer Scholars. Summer Scholars really started from our human-resources division and our CEO, Enrique Lores. Enrique is an HP intern who started in Spain and is now our president and CEO. Enrique was so enraptured with this program that he wanted to be involved as well, and is actually part of the program.

So what it was really about was knowing that we were all going to be at home — almost all of our students were going to be learning from home or from a remote location. We thought we could design a six- to eight-week program with about 80 hours of instructor-led content to help ground these Summer Scholars. They were all over the world, they were from freshmen in college, all the way through grad-school attendees. So at different sorts of levels. And so this ability to connect with HP senior leadership, to grasp and understand a culture and a work culture in a different way, was really what we were looking for. In addition to having them come away with some really valuable skills.

So we gave them the opportunity to go through this 80 hours of instruction, to work on some capstone project, as well as to earn badges. And once they were completed, they were actually able to post those badges on LinkedIn. There were a number of areas we worked on, from business and financial acumen to marketing and sales, networking, organizational design, product development, etc. And then we match them with a mentor, someone that they could connect with, ask any of the questions that they’d want to ask, be there for them in their process in getting immersed into our culture, and joining the team meetings that that mentor could invite them into.

And so our scholars were actually able to realize that their talents, and maybe their interest areas, fit inside of a tech company, even though a tech company may not have been their first choice. And so it was really good for HP, it was really great for the scholars as well. This is something that I think almost any business could look at and begin to think through. We’ve pulled together some resources for you here; I’m a resource as well. My email address is mike.belcher@hp.com. Thanks so much.

Blumenstyk: Thanks for that. And hello again, this is Goldie Blumenstyk, back to continue the conversation with Aimée Eubanks Davis, the CEO and founder of Braven. You know a lot of the students who participate in Braven also have to be people of color, and obviously this has been a year where the racial tensions in our country have become a lot clearer, and the racial inequities in our country have become a lot clearer. Have you seen any increased interest on the part of universities, or some of your employer partners, particularly because of that?

Eubanks Davis: When the pandemic hit, and we’re a nonprofit, and we had worked so hard to start a lot of partnerships with companies that are also donors of ours, I was like, “Oh my gosh, we might have to close. How are they going to see their way clear with everything that they’re faced with?” And I have been so heartened by how they have said, “We’re doubling down, because it is so important to our businesses, it’s so important to our country, it’s so important actually to our employees, especially as we hit the summer and all the things that we all saw play out.” And I’m African American, I’m Black. And so 400 years of racial oppression is real. But then to see it play out in the way that we saw this summer, just to hear the company say, “We want to do more, and we’re not going to scale back here,” was very, very, very heartening. And so I have a lot of optimism, even in a moment that we’re still muddling our way through. I see the light at the end of the tunnel. And I think on the back end of this, we will see more young people from first-generation college-going backgrounds, who happen to be Black and brown, actually have a more fair shot at strong job.

Blumenstyk: Well, we all could use a few signs of optimism right now. So grateful for that one. This term you’ve used, “strong jobs,” it’s an important term for you, I think, because when I’ve looked at some of the research that you’ve done about how your program works, that seems to be, that’s your unit of measuring.

Eubanks Davis: And is our absolute North Star …

Blumenstyk: What’s a strong job?

Eubanks Davis: Yes. For us that means that the job is one in which that young person will be on a path to economic mobility. It’s not a dead-end job. And when I say that, people are going to change jobs, all the time now. It’s just the time that we’re living in. But there are certain roles that you can go into that then you get stuck there, there really is not a next step for you. And so we really want to make sure that it’s a job that allows for economic advancement and professional advancement over time.

The second thing that we really believe is so important, especially in today’s day and age, where we’re all going to have to be continual learners, is it’s a job where there is learning and development in the role. Because if you’re not learning and growing, then your ability to get that next role is going to be limited.

The third dimension in terms of a strong first job for us is really also brass tacks around health and wealth. Not only do we want them to earn a strong income, we also want to make sure that they have strong benefits; a 401k plan; like really, the ability to build wealth over time.

The final dimension is whether or not their company that they’re going into has a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, like really has a commitment to wanting to see the tapestry of our country on display, where they are.

Blumenstyk: And just to be clear, generally speaking, when you measure the effectiveness of your program, if I’m remembering right, you’re basically finding that compared to students from similar family situations, maybe lower-income students, first-generation students, that the students from Braven land better in jobs, as it were?

Eubanks Davis: I’m sure. Students like them, often who identify as Black or brown, at large state universities before the pandemic, about 49 percent of that group would come out with a strong job, in comparison to Braven being at 75 percent, and often above that.

Blumenstyk: When I hear you talking about this program, you talk about the efforts that you have there as being “poverty-breaking” efforts, that your strategy is a poverty-breaking strategy. How does that change things?

Eubanks Davis: Goldie, one of the most humbling parts of all the things in the world of the pandemic was being at Lehman College. We had just started there in January. It was our newest site. I was there at week seven, and then by week nine, I couldn’t go to New York and see our work there. Lehman College sits in one of the poorest congressional districts in the country. We know from being so close to students, and why they’re in school and where their financial starting points are. They’re low-income students. Often, their families are living at or below the poverty line. When they were in K-12 schools, they were mainly on free lunch, sometimes on reduced-[price] lunch.

And so the moment they have, and they have earned the right to, to come out of college. And it’s the reason they are often there. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all about their majors, too. But the major is on the pathway to a job that is going to allow them and their families to boast with pride as they should, that they’re able to live a more economically free life. And maybe that’s why it’s so clear to me that Braven is a poverty-breaking organization, because we are so close to students who are living at or below the poverty line.

Blumenstyk: And I think when you sort of take this in an anondyned way,people talk about that as, “Oh, well, these students have grit, they can certainly accomplish things.” One of the things I appreciate about Braven is you actually teach students to take this experience of theirs and use it to help them show themselves to employers or to prospective employers, in a way that maybe they were maybe embarrassed to or afraid to, or they didn’t realize it was valuable.

Eubanks Davis: We say to them, “Not only do you belong, but you really earned the right to be there.” And you need to tell your story in a really powerful asset-based way, because I’m sorry: If you can get through school full time and work full time, and in some cases, working another job, some form of part time, your ability to get a strong first job and then do really well on it should not be that hard, it just should not. But you do have to be comfortable in your own skin in telling that story, and honestly understand the value that your experience brings.

Blumenstyk: So it’s not just let them know that they have it, but also let them know how to tell it, right?

Eubanks Davis: Yeah. How to tell it. Yeah. And how to be proud of that. It’s a part of what makes them unique. It’s a part of what makes them valuable, honestly, inside of companies that are trying to figure out how to make sure that their products are going to resonate with a more diverse America. Even on the banking side, for example. Some of our banking partners, they really want to figure out how to help families and people who are unbanked. Well, you can actually solve that problem a lot better if you have people who deeply understand that experience, versus are philosophizing about it.

Blumenstyk: What have you learned along the way that you didn’t know when you started Braven in 2014?

Eubanks Davis: And with humility, I knew very little about higher ed, other than telling a bunch of students to go there and get me A’s. And so one, I just think I have really learned about a set of schools in this country that have very little resources but that are some of the largest door-openers, that I absolutely believe we have to decide are worth more investments. The other thing that I’ve learned from, Goldie, is when I got this going, it really was a little bit by accident. It started out as a paper that I was writing for the Aspen Institute, through a fellowship I was in called Pahara, about the last town of the country. I’m a former sixth-grade teacher, a talent nerd. I ran a huge human-capital machine in the world of Teach For America and got this really unique opportunity to end up starting Braven. And I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be a Black woman social entrepreneur, to be totally frank, asking people for money, where I don’t look like their daughter or niece.

And that came with its own set of complications, I think, from my own self-confidence. Nonprofits that are run by Black and Latinx people, and also women, are not as invested in as others. I wasn’t quite getting my head around that part of the journey.

And then the other thing that I learned is that there wasn’t anyone in this space really, trying to bridge from higher ed to employers. And so I felt like for many, many years, and still am on a convince campaign, that this group of Americans is completely worth the investment. They’re this mighty middle group of students, the vast majority of first-generation low-income students. There are huge assumptions that because they’re in school, and because they’re on their way to getting a B.A., that they’re set.

Blumenstyk: I feel like maybe now it’s 2021, in the last, certainly, three to five years this whole college-to-career conversation has gotten a lot higher on the national agenda. Are there some principles of that mentoring, particularly for mentoring low-income students or first-generation college students, that colleges and companies that are doing this work should fundamentally keep in mind?

Eubanks Davis: One of the things that I always say to other entrepreneurs is like, “Be humble, know what you know, and what you don’t know. And there is expertise, even if it’s in a place that’s far less resourced than maybe where you went to school, etc., that you need to honor.” The other thing on the mentorship side is, intentionality matters. We are not willy-nilly at Braven, at all. The course is very structured. It’s very rigorous. There are outcomes attached to it every single week; I’m obsessed with data. But also, in terms of mentoring on the other side, from the employer-partner end, and their talent, they need to be able to get something out of this too. And so really constructing an inexperience that’s a win-win on both sides has to be done really intentionally. It’s not like, “Oh hey, go mentor X person.” That’s not how it works. And that’s why I actually would argue that mentoring doesn’t always work. And in particular, around first-generation low-income students who are often identifying as Black and brown, like having cultural competence is also very important.

Blumenstyk: This is an actual discipline. And particularly if you’re working with lower-income students and first-generation students?

Eubanks Davis: Absolutely. I love thinking about talent as deliberately as we think about on the professional work force, as we do with athletes and athletic talent. I just feel like it should be cultivated and treated and grown in an intentional way, like we do our sports teams.

Blumenstyk: Terrific. This has been really fun talking with you today. Thanks so much for joining us on the podcast.

Eubanks Davis: Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate the invitation.

Blumenstyk: This has been Innovation That Matters, a Chronicle of Higher Education podcast sponsored by HP. For additional episodes, look for us on the Chronicle website or on your favorite podcasting app. I’m Goldie Blumenstyk.