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.