April 1, 2009

Bailing Out our Youth…

posted by: Jim @ 4:16 am
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As an entrepreneur with a decent understanding of finance, I must say the size of current government spending and the proposed deficit is alarming—particularly because we’re borrowing the money which will increase our national deficit to a whopping $9.3 Trillion as stated by the Congressional Budget Office. The federal government is depending on China and other countries to bailout corporate America and to stimulate our economy but what if they decide mid stream that this is not in their best interest—what if they stopped loaning us money? Or better yet, what is the cost of this level of borrowing to our children? The current strategy is dependent on a number of variables and it is the unknown and unintended consequences that I believe will truly define our ability to be successful. Ron Paul and other conservatives who are in opposition to the bailout are accurate in their view that in a free market economy, we would allow those companies who make bad management decisions to fail. The obvious lesson to others is that taking on significant risk can have devastating consequences; companies should be a bit more conservative in their approach to creating value. We are doomed to repeat the same behaviors and mistakes that led to the economic collapse without enforcing consequences. By definition, the inherent forces of a free market economy will reward those who have planned well and penalize those who have miscalculated. But if you bail out corporations, you create a financial option that mitigates downside risks and allows for unconstrained upside potential—we should anticipate that companies will have a higher risk profile under these circumstances. Inherent in our current solution is an incentive to replicate the behavior that got us here—we should let the market forces clean up this mess and the stiff penalties suffered would be the deterrent necessary to keep the checks and balances in place.

Competing with the conservative perspective however, is the liberal view that we must do everything in our power to prevent the markets from falling to protect the individuals on Main Street. As a native of Bridgeport, CT who grew up in subsidized housing and benefited from social welfare programs like food stamps, I am acutely aware how today’s economy is impacting low income communities. If companies fail, then unemployment skyrockets, foreclosures increase and the dependence on social welfare programs places additional financial strain on the federal government. We have begun to see the downward spiral. The U.S. Labor Department reports an 8.1 percent rise in unemployment as of February and according to the Mortgage Bankers Association of America, U.S. home foreclosures are at their highest level in 30 years. It is clear that we have to do something and that it will cost us money so why not be proactive in implementing a solution that stimulates the economy to reverse the current crisis we find ourselves in? Building confidence in the economy, increasing consumer spending, improving access to credit are steps that would certainly stabilize things in the short-term. The federal government is the only entity that has the ability to address these challenges and financial stimulus is the appropriate response to the current situation.

How do you reconcile these two perspectives; the conservative focus on the free market vs. the liberal perspective on the social challenge Americans are confronted with on a daily basis? The solution is a compromise of perspectives and requires a commitment by all Americans working collaboratively to return our economy to a strong and vibrant state. Everyone’s concern should be focused on how we get out of the current economic crisis rather than how we got into it. As Americans we must ask ourselves what can we do individually and collectively to assist in reversing our current course—particularly if we want to stop sending our tax dollars to companies like AIG to pay for corporate bonuses.

So what can I do…how can I help? Given that the current administration is taking the liberal path, a further review of the current crisis and how it impacts families in local communities is in order. Foreclosures, unemployment and lack of credit markets are devastating for families and particularly for children. Complete disruption of a child’s normal routine is the likely result when their parent’s home is foreclosed upon. Today’s youth already face a growing number of social crises that make navigating adolescence difficult and impede the path to successful, independent living. Consider these findings compiled on negative youth outcomes:

  • Over 1.23 million high school students failed to graduate on time;
  • More than 32 million youth were under juvenile court jurisdiction;
  • An estimated 3.75 million teenagers contracted STDS; and
  • Approximately 900,000 girls under the age of 19 became pregnant

These statistics are not only startling but also illustrative of the measurable effects of failed education policies, unstable home units, increased crime, and media oversaturated with sexual imagery. Negative youth outcomes have severe economic consequences to society. Juvenile crime, teenage pregnancies, and high school dropouts cost taxpayers billions of dollars a year and contribute to a weakening American labor pool. Estimates place federal government spending on youth development between $60 billion - $120 billion depending on what service you include in your analysis. A review by the Carnegie Council on how negative youth outcomes impact society provides context for the true costs:

American society pays heavily for such outcomes. We pay in the diminished economic productivity of future generations. We pay the increasing bills for crime, welfare, and health care. We pay the immense social cost of living with millions of alienated people. And we pay the moral cost of knowing that we are producing millions of young adolescents who face predictably bleak and unfulfilling lives.

We have an opportunity to not only stimulate our economy but also an obligation to do so in a responsible way that addresses the challenges our children are facing on a day to day basis. As President Obama has outlined in his policy on education, our society needs to focus on rebuilding our schools and developing twenty-first century skills for our children. What are tactical items that we as Americans and the administration can do to address this need and further the administration’s goal? Here are three recommendations not presented in any particular order of importance:

  • Attract top talent: Incentives for students and young professionals that are passionate from the top universities and Corporate America who find themselves without the traditional marketplace for their skill set. Loan forgiveness, housing incentives and other programs that encourage commitments by America’s top talent are the type of incentives that will stimulate innovative solutions in the areas of education and developing 21st century skills in our youth. The current economic crisis is analogous to a corporate turnaround (but more complicated)…individuals with strong academic and professional backgrounds would prove a valuable asset to right the ship and there is currently an abundance of capacity; truly an opportunity for some win-win proposals.
  • Invest in Service Integration and Technology: The issue with the youth development market is that it is very fragmented with lots of suppliers and people throwing money into a black hole with no oversight. As a result, an inefficient use of capital is created. By focusing on improving the marketplace, we get more bang for our buck at a time when capital is very scarce. We have to use the resources already allocated in a more efficient way as a fundamental building block to improving youth development. Integrated solutions that scale through the use of technology reduce the cost of service but require strong governance. Industry standards, consistent performance metrics and effective oversight are critical elements as we seek to implement innovative solutions to the current challenges confronting local communities.
  • Encourage Parental Responsibility: Children need two active parents who serve as productive and positive role models in their lives—surrogate parenting through social welfare must become the exception not the norm. Fathers must be more active in their children’s lives and serve as equal co-parents. Rush Limbaugh might be on to something when he spoke at CPAC about the correlation between welfare and the lack of involvement of fathers in their children’s lives, “The fact that they have destroyed poor families by breaking up those families by offering welfare checks to women to keep having babies no more father needed”. I do not know how to accomplish this goal but given the high divorce rate and single parent households, a review of antiquated child custody laws seems a reasonable first step. We must adopt a policy of equal parents and enforce shared responsibility of both mothers and fathers—because when we do not, the government will pick up the tab and I think the statistics shared above illustrate that this approach is not the most effective.

President Obama, as a fellow Occidental Alum who is deeply concerned about the issues impacting local communities, I am committed to the cause and supporting your vision of the future. You are an inspiration for all Americans, but particularly for African-American youth who come from the inner city. President Obama represents and has raised the standard for African-American males–father, husband, professional, community organizer, a true inspiration. I hope to contribute to your focus on rebuilding America by working in the three areas listed above. As an African-American father, I too join you in improving the quality of family for our children. I hope the ideas expressed in this letter are viewed as constructive and provide additional thoughts on opportunities to assist in rebuilding America.

Your presidency provides evidence that it is possible to change your circumstance and I hope the “Yes We Can” slogan that was the centerpiece of your presidential campaign becomes the battle cry for those students currently outside the American dream—to develop a belief that with focus and dedication they can be much more than they are today. I hope the administration heeds President Clinton’s advice to establish predicable systems that have a strong correlation between ones input and expected output.

Yes We Can and Yes We Will!

October 7, 2008

It’s the System, Stupid…

posted by: Jim @ 11:01 am
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I think Bill Clinton gets it. I watched him recently in an interview on CNN with Larry King where part of the discussion focused on his work with the Clinton Global Initiative. Larry asked President Clinton what the most important lesson was he learned since the inception of CGI in 2005 and he responded:

“That you can make a difference, because intelligence and effort and dreams are even — are equally distributed throughout the world. But systems investment and opportunity aren’t, and that people who are given the chance to make something of their lives and to rebuild their countries and communities will more often please you than disappoint you if they have a system where there is a predictable connection between the effort they make and the result they get.”

EXACTLY!

As someone who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, I completely agree with President Clinton—it is the predictable nature of what you “put in” and what you “get out” that provides the underpinning for the “you can be anything you want to be” speech that so many kids are bombarded with on a regular basis. Really, how? What’s the path from the ghetto to Wall Street? That’s the question, how do I become an Investment Banker, Doctor or Curator? Who shows me these role models—what qualifications do I need? How do I even know these professions exist?

Individuals who grew up in households with significant earning potential generally don’t live in the hood for obvious reasons. They live in communities around other people who have significant earning potential and enjoy great schools, low crime and their kids have access to a diverse set of professionals to emulate. These are the attributes of “socio-economics” that define the haves and have-nots—those whose networks provide the systems and resources to make regeneration a predictable process and those who do not. I have lived on both sides of this coin and have come to conclude that it is possible to change any circumstance—that is my personal testimony—but significant change is no easy undertaking. Clinton emphasized that most in need are motivated to change their personal circumstances but often the obstacles that they face or the lack of a defined pathway overshadows the ambitions. In essence, who doesn’t want to live in a community with low crime, great schools, nice houses, have disposable income and a sense of security about their future? That’s human ambition and it does not belong to any one group of people. So why do the disparities in socio-economics persist if everyone is equally motivated to succeed? Maybe we have to look at some who have made this transition to get a better understanding of the task at hand to change your circumstances.

Chris Rock in his recent stand-up “Kill The Messenger” discussed how he lives in a very affluent community in Alpine, NJ that has only three other blacks amongst hundreds of residents—Mary J. Blige, Jay Z and Eddie Murphy—all individuals who have achieved monumental success and are arguably in the top 10% for their individual crafts. Chris juxtaposed this to his next door neighbor who is a dentist—not in the top 10%, but just a regular dentist. And here we begin to see in action the discrepancy in the systems. Chris’ point is that if you’re someone who comes from the hood you have to be a superstar to achieve the same level of success as your counterparts, “the haves” who only need to be average. “Do you know what a Black man would have to do to move into my neighborhood…he would have to invent teeth”. This is the practical outcome when you lack the systems and processes that deliver predictable outcomes—“have nots” who succeed today do it through herculean efforts and are truly superstars at what they do. Is that fair? Of course not, but life’s not fair and you have to play the hand you’re dealt and learn the game quickly.

The focus of my work is to level the playing field by developing technology and systematic processes that deliver predictable results and are based on sound economic principles. This is the essence of the Kinetic Potential Mentoring System, to provide the technology, processes and roadmap to help navigate what is for many a monumental journey. The reality is that the process of graduating from high school, identifying a college to attend, obtaining a scholarship, selecting a major and securing a career with high earning potential is not rocket science. But without a guide or a mentor to show you the way, without predictable systems, hey, it might as well be. Clinton is right, ambition is a human trait and if we utilized the resources available today in a more systematic and efficient manner, we would produce better outcomes. That’s why we developed the Computer Assisted Mentoring System and we are excited about its prospects to significantly impact the lives of the have nots throughout the US.

But we have learned that developing a system with predictability is not enough as my colleague Vik Kothari wrote in a recent blog posting—“I am not Complaining”. Our students live in environments where the glass ceiling is defined by the four corners of their city blocks—and their attitudes towards education and work ethic leave much to be desired. The sense of entitlement is remarkable—is this generational or socio-economic? I’m not sure and I think it would be fair to say that it’s likely a combination of the two. How do we break out of the pervasive cycle that has become an acceptable expectation of under performance, entitlement and increasing negative youth outcomes (i.e., high school drop-outs, teen-age pregnancy and criminal activity); all of which limit upward mobility and continue to plague our communities? As with any other significant change that is ingrained …we must first address the self-esteem and motivation issues that limit the belief that “I can be anything” and provide examples of individuals that have come from the same socio-economic conditions that have successfully made the transition—the superstars. Today’s youth need role models and mentors who have overcome the obstacles without the requisite systems in place. We have to raise the expectations of our students to WANT MORE. DO MORE. BE MORE. That is our slogan for the 2008-2009 academic year.

We believe that providing a predictable framework and the resources required to support demonstrable change is a critical catalyst to reversing decades of under performance but not a sufficient solution without the involvement of citizens within the community to reach out and challenge the coming generations to fulfill their Kinetic Potential. Please join us in encouraging our students to Want More. Do More. Be More. To put their vision into motion. Let us know what you think by leaving a comment about our future generations and how we turn the tide of negative youth outcomes and rebuild our communities.

I am not Complaining…

posted by: Jim @ 10:59 am
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This post was written by Vik Kothari, a colleague at Digital Network Group…

In the recent press, we have been having a huge debate about “US being a nation of whiners!” It all started with a comment from John McCain’s financial advisor, Phil Gramm who claimed that “we have sort of become a nation of whiners.” He later had to resign because many people whined about him making this statement. This blog is not about Gramm or McCain or whether we are in fact a nation of whiners. It is about whether we are nurturing a generation of complaining young adults under-appreciative of what they have and harboring a feeling of entitlement for much more. It is not about our present but about our future. Most people with a teenager in the household might relate to this rather directly. What can we do about it?

I had the distinct privilege of running a very successful summer program for a group of high school youths in Washington, DC (Kinetic Potential Scholars). Participants in the program were very diverse - from the underprivileged to those with a middle class background. Not only was the program free to the participants but most of these ‘scholars’ were also paid for their participation. You can learn more about the context and goals of the program at www.kpscholars.net.

The program focused on career development with the objective of exposing participants to the world of career opportunities by helping them to identify the steps necessary to achieve their career goals. My colleague Jim Smith, a fellow Wharton graduate and creator of the Kinetic Potential Mentoring System, invited me to join him in delivering this program. Free to the scholars, they got a virtual education, which included a social entrepreneurship conference for youths, room and board, and lunch. Participants were exposed to role models including NFL players, Entrepreneurs, and Entertainment figures. Five days a week, all day long, no cost to participants. Before you read ahead, consider the lifetime value added for these participants by such a program. Remember, the program is one that pays you for participating while helping you to plan ahead for your future career.

Now, here is an analogy that helps to illustrate some concerns I have regarding today’s youth. You are out dining at a fine restaurant and you are given a complimentary cake after the waiter realizes it is your birthday, what would be your natural reaction? A normal person (from my generation anyway), might simply accept it with a ‘Thank you’ and a smile. But what if we are a nation of whiners as Phil indicated? Well, in that case, the reaction could range from complaints about the quality of the cake or the desire for a different flavor. At an extreme, you could also complain that offering the cake for free is discriminatory since it gives the impression that the owner doubts your paying ability based on your appearance – after all, if you really wanted it, you could have bought it, right? This leaves us with the following predicament - if one does not truly appreciate what is being offered, should it be given for free? In fact, should it even be given at all?

To our chagrin, the program we conducted was this free ‘birthday cake’ offered to many under-appreciative scholars (many others took full advantage of this opportunity). For the dissatisfied though, the program was met with many complaints – the site was ‘too hot’, the computers were ‘too slow’, expectations of them were ‘too high’, the virtual education was not ‘entertaining enough’, the food was not ‘tasty enough’, the sessions started way ‘too early’ at 10 AM on a Saturday (don’t they know that teenagers are used to sleeping until noon on weekends?). You catch my drift - Clearly, for some, we did not have the right flavor cake.

Our program assessment indicated that those who saw value and participated fully in the program did extremely well, regardless of capability. But the question is whether the appreciation for the program diminished for others because it was being offered free of charge? Is this part of the reason why programs offered by competent people with reasonable resources sometimes fall short of desired results? The dilemma is acute because a better part of the population that needs these kinds of interventions cannot fully afford it to begin with!

It is my personal belief that by not fully emphasizing the great opportunities that such intervention programs offer, we do a disservice to our target population. The more motivated and appreciative the participants are to take advantage of an opportunity that they consider a privilege (and not a right) the better they can leverage the services of any program. Consequently, the outcomes of the program would improve. Given that most of these programs need to reach people who do not possess enough financial means, and hence must be subsidized, the programs must focus on motivating participants by emphasizing the overall benefit to them thereby increasing the overall ‘appreciation factor.’
I propose that youth development programs, or any other community based programs, should do at least one of the following:

1. Include a component in the delivery of the program that emphasizes to the participants the privilege of being there and help them appreciate the value-added benefit, whether the opportunity is free or not.
2. Introduce a mechanism that easily identifies those participants who appreciate the opportunity the most, filtering out the rest (for example, giving them responsibility to have a stake in the delivery of the program). This is especially true for the programs with capacity issues.

With all the good intentions of many youth development programs, these services can be viewed by the benefiter as a right, that can be demanded, and not as a privilege, that should be cherished. At an aggregate level, one can possibly argue in favor of society’s role in helping the underprivileged where help becomes an expectation from the society, but at an individual level, it could potentially cause a moral hazard. The ‘free’ factor does cause the value of the program to be diminished by some. However, the outcome could be different if the participants themselves, not their parents, were asked to have a stake in it. This can be done, for example, by having participants raise say 50% of the fees themselves (utilizing program resources) to continue in a program, even if the program itself is delivered for free at the beginning. That was a component of the KP Scholars Program—that each individual would be responsible for raising a portion of the cost of their program fees.

In our zeal to help others, by reaching out to those most in need, we must not forget that we still need to instill the basic principles of hard work, persistence, responsibility, respect, and discipline that are required for success. Nothing comes for free, even if appears that way sometimes. We must not forget that teaching to appreciate what we have is the first step towards making sure that we are not raising a generation that wants more, but whines at the idea of being expected to do more. We must also not feel apologetic about expecting more out of our youth. No civilization has ever become great or stayed at the pinnacle based upon low expectations! “Want more. Do more. Be more.”* Appreciate. Leverage. Compete. Expect. Win. Not complain! I am not sure if this is what Phil was trying to articulate.

Got comments? Please post them here and let us know what you think.

April 14, 2008

Busing Programs…are they worth the trip?

As creator of Social Light, I felt it appropriate to inaugurate the site by sharing my personal experience with social programs.

In 1979, I was chosen to participate in Project Concern, one of many desegregation social experiments implemented during the sweeping idealism of the 1960s. Based in Connecticut, Project Concern was a program that bused minority students living in impoverished inner cities to wealthy communities in the suburbs. From the third to the 12th grade of my education, I was bused nearly 25 miles from the city of Bridgeport, CT to what seemed like a completely different world–the affluent town of Westport, CT. Even today, the disparity between Bridgeport and Westport remains the same; by 1991 Bridgeport was listed as 5th in the nation for cities with the highest homicide rate per capita while Westport remains one of the wealthiest communities in the United States. It was my experience in Project Concern that taught me the true meaning of “the other side of the tracks”.

Today, researchers and scholars’ evaluations of Project Concern suggest a number of positive outcomes. Program participants pursue higher education at higher rates, perceive less discrimination, and feel more comfortable in predominately white environments. (Check out the following links for more expected outcomes: “ Finding Niches: Desegregated Students Sixteen Years Later” and “School Desegregation and Black Occupational Attainments: Results from a Long-Term Experiment”)

In many ways, I am a living testament of these positive outcomes. Nearly 20 years after I was bused daily from Bridgeport to Westport, I am an entrepreneur, motivational speaker and graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. I certainly recognize the significant contributions Project Concern played in my ability to achieve key milestones in my life.

With all the positive outcomes of Project Concern, you would think that I would be a fervent endorser of the program. Ironically, this is not the case. When asked whether programs like Project Concern should be replicated in urban cities across the country, my answer is always a hesitant “I’m not so sure?” Why? Simply put, with the benefits come the tradeoffs…and the unresolved question in my mind is always, “was it worth the trip?”

In the example of Project Concern, the city of Bridgeport funded the buses to transport inner-city children to schools in Westport but did not monetarily contribute to the Westport school system. Despite the busing program, Westport schools remained financed solely by the taxpayers of Westport. Needless to say, Westport parents expressed a little more than frustration over having to spend their tax dollars to have their children socialize with inner-city kids. Let’s just say that they had strong views on the subject.

Besides backlash from the “receiving” communities of busing programs, programs such as Project Concern have other problems as well:

  • Logistics: Imagine yourself as an 8 year old Project Concern kid catching the bus to go to school in Westport, CT. You arrive at the bus stop a little after 6 a.m. to catch the 6:15 school bus. Once on board, your bus then takes approximately 60 minutes to pick up the other Project Concern kids. At 7:15 a.m. you begin the 25-mile journey to Westport, which takes approximately 40 to 45 minutes in rush hour traffic. At 3:00 p.m., the process is reversed and you arrive back at the original bus stop around 4:30 p.m. (traffic’s a little bit better in the afternoon). Oh, and don’t ask what happens if you miss the bus because you arrived at the bus stop at 6:20 a.m.
  • Participation in extracurricular activities: Since there was no funding for a “late” bus to provide transportation back to Bridgeport, participating in extracurricular activities was nearly impossible for Project Concern kids. Limited extracurricular opportunities and lack of time to socialize with fellow classmates amplified the differences between Project Concern kids and the kids resident to Westport.
  • Lack of strong advisors: The presence of mentors or counselors to help Project Concern kids and Westport resident students deal with cultural differences was nearly nonexistent. While coordinators were available periodically, I personally do not recall a strong support structure to deal with adjustment issues. Survival skills were acquired over time, and the experience was more difficult for some than others.
  • Alienation from home community: Arriving home at 4:30 pm (best case scenario) didn’t facilitate the bond between the Project Concern kids and the Bridgeport community. There was always a sense of being between two communities but belonging to neither.
  • Being a desegregation pioneer: Very difficult stuff. Given.

Regardless of these tradeoffs, my experience with Project Concern has shaped who I am. “Crossing the tracks” on a daily basis for 10 years provided me with a broad comfort zone socially, lead to excellent educational opportunities, and allowed me to navigate within different racial and socioeconomic worlds with ease—an invaluable skill that I am glad to possess.

So the question I pose to this community is what’s your opinion of busing programs? Do the long-term outcomes of busing and similar social experiments outweigh the short-term sacrifices? Are busing programs really worth the trip? Please leave a comment and answer our brief, three question survey by clicking the following:

Surveymonkey: What’s Your Opinon Of Busing Programs

April 8, 2008

Welcome to Social-Light!

posted by: steven @ 10:16 am
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Glad you stopped by…we’re working on our first post! Stay tuned and please sign-up to receive our RSS so you’ll know when our post is available!