Notes from the Case Files: The Passion Behind Year Up
Meeting amazing entrepreneurs—whether they are born social entrepreneurs such as Adam Braun, innovative “intra-preneurs” like Sy Friedland (who I will write about soon) or grassroots founders with truly astounding instincts and drive, like Jon Feinman—is hands down, the best job in the world.
In 1991, I was a summer intern at Inc. Magazine, and my job was to help screen thousands of hopeful applicants for the next year’s Inc. 500. My most memorable interviews include Pleasant Rowland, creator of a then little-known series of books for girls: American Girls, and Steve Marriotti, the legendary founder of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, which has reached half a million young people across the globe. At the end of every day, our motley crew of interns (I remember one meeting where editor-in-chief George Gendron had to castigate someone for not wearing shoes) would compare notes on interviews. We always agreed—these entrepreneurs were the people who were really changing the world. Nearly every entrepreneur we spoke to told us they just wouldn’t take no for an answer, did things their own way when they couldn’t find what they needed, and most of all, would never give up. Even better, they loved their work—to the point where they would start venture after venture, regardless of whether the last one had gone bankrupt, or enabled them to retire. These were people who had found their passion.
Gerald Chertavian of Year Up is one of these phenomenal entrepreneurs—just a few minutes with him leaves most people wondering why they are not doing more to change the world.
Professor Ed Marram and I met Gerald at Year Up’s national headquarters in Boston in March of 2011. (We soon made the connection that Gerald had had my dad, Jeff Timmons, as a professor at HBS in the 90’s—I could immediately see they shared that uber-positive entrepreneur personality.) A highly successful tech entrepreneur and a longtime volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters, Gerald had always dreamed of founding a social venture to address what he perceived as one of the greatest challenges facing our economy: the “skills gap:” the gap between available American jobs and the skills and experience of the existing workforce. Gerald explained how his experiences volunteering with troubled urban youth inspired the creation of Year Up:
You have these really smart, talented people with absolutely no idea how to get into the mainstream of this country—and neither do any of of their family, or any of their friends. It just struck me as a huge waste of human capital, in a country where we have no human capital to waste. I wrote my essay to get into HBS back in 1989 about how to start a program to somehow close what we now call “the opportunity divide.” I said to HBS, let me in and this is what I’ll do someday.
Today, Year Up runs eleven sites nationwide and graduates over two thousand young people every year. Most intriguingly, Year Up has developed a sustainable revenue stream by providing trained workers to white-collar employees who are desperate for reliable help. Next month, I’ll write about how Year Up is achieving the goal of closing the national skills gap by providing training and opportunity to disconnected young people across the country.