Aimée Eubanks Davis: Reimagining College-to-Career Success With Braven

Aimée Eubanks Davis: Reimagining College-to-Career Success With Braven

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.

Aaron Walker: Changing Education By Changing The Face Of Social Entrepreneurship

Aaron Walker: Changing Education By Changing The Face Of Social Entrepreneurship

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.

Consider the facts that 87% of venture-backed entrepreneurs are white, while less than 1% are black, and less than 5% of ventures that receive equity capital have women on their teams. Entrepreneurship — and the many sectors within it, including social innovation — has traditionally been predominantly led by white males. Aaron Walker, founder and CEO of nonprofit social venture fellowship and seed fund Camelback Ventures, has a new vision for the future, though — one with diversity and inclusion in the ranks of leadership.

Walker is a man on a mission to change the face of entrepreneurship and social innovation in one generation, in order to ensure that every child receives a high quality education in communities across the United States.

Camelback Ventures is his answer. Launched in 2013, Camelback Ventures seeks to diversify and close the opportunity gap within the social innovation and entrepreneurial space by providing coaching, capital, and connections to local entrepreneurs of color and women who are creating social impact in their respective communities.

Walker and I sat down to discuss his work in education and social innovation, how he got to where he is, and where Camelback Ventures is heading. Here’s what he had to say.

This Story Begins With A First-Generation College Graduate

Aaron Walker Law School Graduation
Aaron Walker with his wife Ify Offor Walker at his graduation from the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Born in Irvington, New Jersey, his parents moved to South Orange, New Jersey at the age of five to provide him and his brother with better life opportunities. Irvington, like most American cities, was devastated after the 1967/68 riots, struggled during the drug epidemic in the 1980s and still lives under the weight of lack of investment in urban centers where people of color often live. In retrospect, although he had fond memories of growing up in Irvington, he attributes his parent’s move to South Orange instrumental in his education trajectory. “We lived on the street that divided South Orange from Newark, New Jersey,” Walker says. “I have always seen this as a metaphor. We all walk a thin line. One block in the other direction, and I am assured that the opportunities afforded to me would be drastically different.” South Orange and Maplewood shared a school system, which instilled a college-bound mentality, he explains, while Newark, then as well as now still faces challenges that impacts the education it provides to its children and their families. Opportunities should not exist based upon what side of the street you live on, it is truly the responsibility of all of us to ensure that we pave the paths of opportunity for young people.

With the encouragement and guidance of his family and teachers, he became the first person in his family to attend and graduate college; he attended the University of Virginia and subsequently became an English teacher in Philadelphia through the program, Teach for America (TFA). His TFA experience exemplified the following, “My classroom teaching experience taught me the importance of cultivating an authentic leadership presence, collaboration with my colleagues to drive student achievement, and the realization of the African proverb, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’”

Going Fast And Going Far

That African proverb and Walker’s work with TFA, it turns out, drive much of Walker’s present-day decision-making processes. While collaboration was a huge part of his teaching experience, it also inspired him to “go fast alone” at times — he, for example, took the personal journey of attending law school at the University of Pennsylvania. Through that experience, he gained a deep working knowledge of how legal systems and structures affect our current education ecosystem. After law school, it was time to “go far,” he says — by joining forces in numbers to innovate. He worked at a large law firm for a short stint before returning to the education field as a Portfolio Director for the Fund of Public Schools. In this role, he raised more than $30 million in private investments for education reform efforts for the New York City Department of Education. From there, he founded two entrepreneurial ventures focused on talent management and student success within the education sector before heading his latest venture, Camelback Ventures, with his wife, Ify Offor Walker, as his first investor.

Camelback Is Born

“When I initially pitched the idea to my wife, we were thinking about having another child,” Walker says, noting the financial burden of both potential endeavors. “She was very supportive of my idea, which required us to use a majority of our savings to start. My inspiration for Camelback Ventures stems from the notion that we can elevate the genius of all people. For far too long, women and people of color have not been heard in this space. Yet their voices are needed at the table to ultimately change our current educational landscape for all children, not just a select few.” Subsequently, many have lent their support to make Walker’s vision a reality, including New Schools Venture Fund, Walton Family Foundation, Kapor Center for Social Impact, among many others.

Aaron Walker, Camelback Ventures founder and CEO
Aaron Walker, Camelback Ventures founder and CEO
The heart and soul of Camelback Ventures is its Fellows Program, which “offers seed-funding and support to new leaders with promising ideas, and empowers them to enact change within their communities.” It is a seven-month program that currently prioritizes education related ventures. They are particularly interested in education ventures that touch on the following areas: STEM, Innovative School Models, Higher Education, and EdTech. Uniquely, the fellowship doesn’t have a residency requirement like most venture philanthropy fellowship programs. In addition, Fellows receive a $5,000 matching grant and the opportunity for up to $40,000 in additional investment, strategic coaching and leadership development opportunities in partnership with education nonprofit City Year, and networking opportunities with investors, tech talent and other partners. In five to 10 years, Walker hopes to develop a network of 100-150 Fellows in addition to the 11 Fellows currently enrolled in the program. He hopes to change the narrative regarding women and entrepreneurs of color — he hopes all aspiring entrepreneurs one day know that their ideas and dreams, too, are valued and supported in our society.

When asked what habits and mindsets have attributed to his successes, he thoughtfully responds “Get clear on vision. Start small and enlist the help of smart people, people who believe in you and your idea. Take each mistake and failure as an opportunity to begin again. Rome was not built in a day. Keep trying. Keep trying. You also have to adapt to unexpected changes strategically while keeping your end goal in mind. Maintain a high level of quality and consistency in how you approach your work. And always approach your work from a learner’s mindset. And, spending time with your family or pursuing an avocation, in my case, reenergizes me after a long day of work, to keep going.”

Moving forward, Walker hopes to expand Camelback Ventures into other major cities in the United States as well as growing its coaching team, which provides entrepreneurs with the guidance in numerous expertise areas, including technology and financial modeling.

Building a new Rome brick by brick, day by day.

Photos courtesy of Aaron Walker