College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Get to Know a C.E.O., with Gerald Chertavian

By Tom Segal — October 26, 2012 5 min read
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This is the first installment in what I hope to make a continuing series called “Get to Know a C.E.O.” First up is Gerald Chertavian, founder and Chief Executive of Year Up , a one-year education and professional job training program for urban young adults. I met Gerald for the first time about a month ago at Rethink Education headquarters and was instantly captivated by his story and what he and his team were accomplishing. Inspiring is an understatement.

Having grown up in Massachusetts, Gerald worked for years on Wall Street and in London before co-founding Conduit Communications in 1993. After the sale of Conduit in 1999, Gerald turned his attention to social entrepreneurship and started Year Up in 2000.

The inaugural Year Up cohort of 22 students began the program in Boston in July 2001. Since that class, the organization has served over 4,000 students and partnered with over 200 major corporations, with sites in Atlanta, Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Washington D.C., New York, Providence, San Francisco Bay Area, and Seattle.

According to internal statistics, 84% of alumni are employed or attending school full-time within four months of graduating, earning an average wage of $15/hour ($30,000/year for full-time employees). 100% of qualified students are placed into internships, and 95% of interns meet or exceed partner expectations.

Without further adieu, let’s get to know Gerald Chertavian:

In a nut shell, what is Year Up and what are you seeking to accomplish?

Year Up is a national nonprofit organization that works with low-income 18-24-year olds, and in one year we are able to take these individuals from poverty to a professional career.

What sort of careers do your participants generally wind up in?

We currently prepare people for entry-level careers in both technology and finance, and in doing that, we work with more than 250 companies across the country.

What do you think is the most crucial element of the program to your students’ ultimate professional success?

The most critical aspects of our program are threefold.

First, we focus heavily on what we call “ABCs,” or attitudinal and behavioral communication skills, and ensure that our young adults are prepared to enter into some very rigorous knowledge-based environments like the LinkedIns, the Googles, or the J.P. Morgans. We focus very heavily on what some people call the “soft skills” or non-cognitive skills, and we are very good at preparing young adults for those professional environments.

Second, we are well-connected to those employers and both understand their needs and are able to satisfy those needs with a type line of pre-trained, pre-screened, entry-level talent.

Third, we practice a combination of what we call “high support” and “high expectation,” which is all about ensuring that we provide our young adults with the social and emotional support that they need, while also holding them highly accountable to meet the standards we know they will have to meet in order to be successful in corporate America.

What is an example of a true success story coming through your program?

One young man, and in fact I was just speaking with him last night, he had some challenges growing up. He had dropped out of high school, he had a family that was physically abusive, and he really didn’t understand how he was going to find his way in life.

He heard about Year Up, came to us, and did incredibly well in the program. He ended up getting a job at State Street, did very well there, and most recently he was headhunted to come work at Bank of New York Mellon, where he is now managing fourteen people (three of whom are Year Up graduates and two of whom are Year Up interns). He has his college degree now having graduated with a 3.96 GPA. Very few percentage points of G.E.D. holders even get a college degree: this young man has his degree, he’s employed, he’s making really good money, and he’s married (with a beautiful new son). He’s happy, stable, contributing to the community, a tax payer, and at one point in his life he was in the adjudication system and, without a high school degree, dropped out at age 16.

That’s a pretty significant transformation.

How can the idea of presenting young students with a personal mentor and giving them opportunities for internship be scaled across the country, particularly in less urban settings?

Right now, 50% of the youth in this country who are called “disconnected” live in thirty cities. When looking at the challenge of disconnected youth (we prefer to call them “opportunity youth”), I would argue that if you want to focus on solving the problems, you know which cities to go to in order to solve that problem. Having said that, world poverty is obviously a significant issue, and there are many cities that are not large cities but still have a significant amount of disconnected young people. Part of what Year Up is doing to address that challenge is to create a model that can scale much more quickly into cities that don’t have significant bases of fundraising through our new professional training core model - an attempt to create something that can scale both more quickly and into places that may not be as large of urban areas. Part of our longer term plan is to take that model to 100,000 people, which clearly brings us beyond those initial cities we talked about.

In what ways could you envision technology helping to spread the core goals of Year Up?

If you thought about taking Year Up to rural areas, it would only be accomplished if you used technology to disaggregated knowledge-based work. Let’s take the example of the high-value customer service agent who works out of their home because they live sixty miles away from the nearest town. This is happening in many industries today, and in fact often leads to increased productivity. So, if one were to try to push Year Up to that place, it could not be done unless you used technology. We are not doing that today, but it is a viable thought process.

If you look at Year Up as it exists today, we see technology as a huge opportunity to increase the effectiveness of pedagogy and also reduce some of its cost. We are actively experimenting around the country with different forms of educational technology. At this stage, I think it’s more a “let a thousand flowers bloom” in individual classrooms, allow early adopters to move forward, and then try to capture that progress and figure out what from an enterprise solution might make sense to help the organization take advantage of what technology can do to help the learning process.

What teacher was most influential in your development?

My most influential teacher is my 10-year old little brother from the Dominican Republic, David Heredia (note: Gerald became active in the Big Brothers Big Sisters mentorship program in the mid-1980s). It wasn’t a college professor or a high school teacher or even a grade school teacher: he was a 10-year old boy from the Dominican Republic who taught me what the opportunity-divide is in this country and how it manifests itself for millions of Americans who don’t have access to the opportunities that they need in order to realize their potential.

The opinions expressed in Reimagining K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.