Rafael Alvarez, founder and CEO of Genesys Works, returns to The BusinessMakers Show with updates for his innovative nonprofit. This man is as inspirational as he is clever. Genesys Works trains economically disadvantaged high school students, gets them paid internships and then provides college admissions guidance, in effect changing the trajectory of their lives. He believes he is breaking the low-earning/underachieving cycle of the inner city by exposing kids to the economic mainstream and jobs they never dreamed possible. Since his BusinessMakers appearance in 2010, he has continued his expansion to other cities, still pushing the envelope and involving more kids and sponsor corporations in his life-changing operation.
Russ: This is the BusinessMakers Show heard on the radio and seen online at thebusinessmakers.com. It's guest time on the show, special guest, because I have a repeat guest from almost three years ago, the founder and CEO of Genesys Works, Rafael Alvarez. Rafael, welcome back to the BusinessMakers Show.
Rafael: Thank you. Good to be back.
Russ: You bet. Well I tell you, you've accomplished a lot before I was here the first time and I think you've even accomplished more now. But let's just say we've got somebody that is not up to date with Genesys Works, tell us about Genesys Works.
Rafael: Genesys Works is a nonprofit organization that changes the trajectory of life of high school students from one where they would pursue perhaps a dead-end occupation for the rest of their life to one where they'll be able to live in the economic mainstream. And the way we do that is by training them and engaging these students to do meaningful internships in their senior year in high school in corporations here in Houston and other cities in America and discover through the experience that they can succeed as professionals.
Russ: Rafael, that's just incredible. In this era where we're sort of struggling with employment and jobs in general and we're concerned more than ever of the growing distance between the haves and the have nots, I don't know of a more effective program that could be taking place. I'd love to see you go much further, even though you've been getting out there pretty broadly than you have in fact. Where all do you do this today?
Rafael: We started in Houston now almost 12 years ago and then opened, expanded to Minneapolis, St. Paul in Minnesota. When you came three years ago I think that's all we had.
Russ: You were talking about it I think. I don't even know you were really there. It was close though.
Rafael: And then that organization is very, very successful now. And then ever since, we opened our Chicago office.
Rafael: And then this year we opened our San Francisco office.
Russ: Oh wow. Impressive. Well keep going. So the way you describe it is just so accurate and wholesome. But get specific. You know, how do you, how do you go and find people? How do you place them in internships, and what type of companies agree to take them on?
Rafael: You know Russ, people say that it's so hard to have an effect on somebody's life because they have a lot of baggage and they grew up in environments that don't provide for a lot of support that they need. But we have found that that's not true. It is so easy to change the trajectory of life of a young person by exposing them to the reality that they can succeed as a corporate professional. So the way it works is we engage and we admit them into the program the spring semester of their junior year in high school. Grades are not even part of the criteria to come into our program. In fact, very little is. All we need them to do is to be able to invest their summer in training, that summer before their senior year, and be willing to follow our lead and do what we ask them to do to become this professional. They go to a training, eight weeks, during that summer, and during those eight weeks they learn not only the technical aspect of things like information technology, or accounting, or engineering and drafting, but more importantly they learn how to be a professional in a corporation. Once they finish their training we assign them to work at one of our clients, and we are fortunate to have most of the large companies in Houston be our clients, and we engage them to work in a meaningful internship for their entire senior year in high school. Now these are not the menial clerical internships that perhaps many people think of when they think of high school internships. No, these are meaningful internships in information technology where students are really fixing computers, doing deployments, loading images into computers. Really being part of the IT department in companies that truly value their services. And then during the year they continue to provide those services and come to us once a week where we guide them on what's life after Genesys Works, after high school. So we help them first identify what is it that they want to do in life, then what colleges are right for them. And then the hard work of guiding each and every one of them on the college admittance process, the applications, the essays, all that work followed by the scholarships, and all the hard work that's required there. And at the end of the year students have a) gone to discover that being a professional is not that hard, b) they've been admitted to several colleges, c) they have money to pay for it, and d) they have skills to be able to get a job so that they can live while they're going to college as well. And so it's no surprise that 95 percent of our graduates end up going to college.
Russ: Whoa, 95 percent?
Russ: Okay. Well it sounds like you've covered all the bases there. Let me roll back a couple of questions. The internships with the corporations, are they paid internships?
Rafael: Of course.
Russ: Yeah. That's good.
Rafael: Yes. Yeah. I still don't understand students that go into unpaid internships.
Russ: I totally agree.
Rafael: Beautiful thing about America is we live in a market economy.
Rafael: Students have something to offer.
Rafael: Valuable services.
Rafael: Companies are willing to pay for that.
Rafael: We're able to pay the students a good wage, compensate them for their work, and we're able to use a margin to be able to fund our organization. So even though we're a nonprofit organization, 75 percent of all of our expenses come from the earned income that we charge companies for the valuable services.
Russ: Okay. That is neat. Now, when the student is going through training their summer year after their junior year in high school is that a paid training session?
Rafael: That is not.
Rafael: It is free to students. It doesn't cost them money, but it costs them sweat equity. They, that is the skin in the game that they have to invest that summer to show us that they really want to become a professional.
Russ: Okay, now Rafael, you said that grades didn't count. So does that mean anybody that shows up that's a junior that's getting ready to go into their senior year that commits to go through training, you bring them on?
Rafael: The most important criteria to enter the program is that they need to be able to do a meaningful internship during their senior year in high school, which means that if they're very far behind in their credits they can't work in the afternoon because they need to have time catch up. But if they're pretty, pretty current on credits, they may only need to recover one or two, they can do that easily. Then they can come into the program. They need to be legally able to work in this country, and have the attitude to be able to come in and work hard. Our program is not a handout. It's a hand up. And so as long as the student wants to say you know what, maybe I messed up in the past, maybe I wasn't dedicated to my schooling, maybe I didn't have positive role models, all that is in the past. What's important is that from this point forward they're dedicated and they're committed to becoming the professional that we know they can be and they do it. And that's the beauty of our program. It is not that hard to change the trajectory of life of all the students.
Russ: Okay, so how big is like a summer training class, in Houston let's say, how many, how many students would you have?
Rafael: Yeah, so our classes are relatively small. They are not bigger than 20 students per class.
Rafael: We have a dedicated professional to at least 20 students. And then throughout the year as these students work in the industry and they continue to learn about professional skills and college admittance, we have a ratio of 20 students to one corporate professional that we hire. It's what we've learned is necessary to have the impact that we have on the students.
Russ: Right. So, but how many students go through the program? How many new students show up each year to go through the program, in Houston?
Rafael: In, in Houston this year we had 250 students come in through the training and 200 were assigned to internships.
Russ: Okay. Okay. And the other cities that, you know Chicago and Minneapolis, St. Paul, I wouldn't expect that they're this big that quick, are they?
Rafael: Well actually this is the first year Minneapolis, St. Paul surpassed our Houston operation.
Russ: Oh wow.
Rafael: By about three students. By about three students. So there's some healthy competition between our sites, which is all, is really good. And I know that they've been working hard to catch up and surpass, and I think this year they did it, which only makes it for a good context next year, good contest next year where now Houston needs to pull together and regain the No. 1 position, right?
Russ: Absolutely. All right, now I remember very well the discussion almost three years ago about sort of what motivated you, the experience that you had with these young people that motivated you to start Genesys Works. Share that with us again.
Rafael: Yeah, I was a corporate strategist in a big company. I never in a million years thought that I would work in a nonprofit, let alone quit my job and start a nonprofit. But I was on the board of directors of different entities that served kids always, and one of them was a charter school, Southwest Schools here in Houston, and I was on the board and I went to a graduation ceremony and I saw these kids graduating from high school very, very happy about doing so. So I went down to the floor to congratulate them, share in their happiness, and I asked them, "What are you going to do now?" And I didn't like the answers. What they said one by one, they said, "Well I'm just going to continue my job." And I said, "Well what do you do?" "Well, I'm a cashier. I'm a hand bagger. I work in fast food." Now don't get me wrong, these occupations are good and honest.
Rafael: When you're in high school they're great. The problem is that once they get into these occupations there is no way for them to get out into an occupation that allows them to live in the economic mainstream. They get caught in the cycle of under achievement paycheck to paycheck for yet one more generation. And yet, from a corporate job I knew that if I could just train these students on a valuable skill that a company needed, and kids have this opportunity to be an intern, to work in these environments that perhaps we could change their way of thinking, that perhaps we could change their thinking in terms of what their future is and their ability to succeed in this corporate world, and that would affect their decisions that they make at the end of high school, which is what they do for the rest of their life.
Rafael: And so I had that idea the summer of 2001; but again, I wasn't about to quit my job. But then September11 happened, and a week after September 11 I decided to put my corporate career on hiatus. I was, I told my wife I was only going to take a five year break. I was young. There was plenty of time. I could always go back to my career. Get this off the ground. And well, like they say, the rest is history.
Russ: Right. And the company you were with then was?
Rafael: The company was Compaq Computer Corporation.
Russ: Oh yeah, quite a company too, you know. An exciting company as well.
Rafael: Well, you know, it was a good place to work. Yeah.
Russ: Yeah. But so you must just feel great about the accomplishment so far and passionate as ever about the cause.
Rafael: Yeah. You know somebody said yesterday, "You know, wow, what you achieved was so much." And I looked at him seriously and I said, "Well you know success is only relative to your potential."
Rafael: And so yeah, I can be happy about this year reaching 1,000 students, and that's great. That's better than we did the first year. The problem is, that the problem we are trying to address is much, much bigger. And so we have both an honor and a responsibility to attack that problem and to really become this bridge between education and business so that the new generation coming out of our high schools is engaged to occupy those jobs that are 21st Century American companies now in need of them. And as you know, the jobs have changed. We're in an information economy. The jobs that were here a generation ago that provided for a good living are gone. And now if these kids are to live in the economic mainstream they need to be prepared to be successful as professionals, and that's what we do.
Russ: So that explains why the offices, the headquarters for Genesys Works is in a skyscraper downtown up on the 39th floor.
Rafael: Yeah. So the beauty of this program is most of our students live within ten minutes of downtown and they might even be able to see the skyline from their bedroom window, right. And yet, they grow up believing that this is not their world, this is not a world they can enter let alone succeed in. And we on purpose have our offices here on the 39th floor of this corporate tower because when students come in through the elevator on Day 1, they get, they get to realize that this is their world, that this is not the strange place that they think about as a mean, ugly world. No, no, no, this is their world too, and they come to understand that regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds or the color of their skin, Corporate America today is a place where they can enter, they can succeed. And in fact, what I tell them all the time is that because they are minority they have an edge. Why? Because Corporate America likes the underdog story. They like these kids to come in and show what the American spirit is all about, which is I want to work hard, become a contributor to society, not a drain to society, but a contributor to society. And that's what these kids want to do. And so they start right here in this corporate office with this new mindset that this is their world.
Russ: Absolutely. Well Rafael, I congratulate you for what you've been doing and I like your enthusiasm about continuing to grow it for sure. And I thank you once again for sharing your story with us.
Rafael: Thank you.
Russ: You bet. That's Rafael Alvarez, the founder and CEO of Genesys Works, and this is the BusinessMaker show heard on the radio and seen online at thebusinessmakers.com.