Suzanne McKechnie Klahr
Founder & CEO, BUILD, build.org
Redwood City, CA
Technology and entrepreneurship are synonymous with Silicon Valley. Yet, for a substantial percentage of youth in the Bay Area’s under-served communities, they are buzz words with little significance or relevance to their day-to-day existence. Suzanne McKechnie Klahr, founder of BUILD, is working to change that.
In 1999, as a recent Stanford Law graduate, she won a coveted public service fellowship from Skadden to serve as a staff attorney at the East Palo Alto Community Law Project. Her assignment was to help entrepreneurs in East Palo Alto through the legal steps of starting their own businesses. By her own admission, it wasn’t going well. That all changed the day that four high school students came to her for help with filing the paperwork for their hoody sweatshirt business. They were planning on dropping out of school to launch the business. Her mind racing, McKechnie Klahr offered to help and mentor them—but only if they stayed in school.
Those four young men not only stayed in school, they improved their academic performance and all four went to college. And so, BUILD was born. Its mission is to use entrepreneurship to engage students in under-resourced schools through high school and to prepare them for college and career success. Today, BUILD serves more than 1400 students in 24 partner high schools in the Bay Area and in Oakland, Washington, DC, and Boston. In Fall 2016, New York City began a fully operational BUILD program (bringing the number of students served to 1900), and the gears are in motion to partner with schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District by Fall 2017. There is huge competition in these markets to become BUILD partner schools.
BUILD partners with schools (on the San Francisco Peninsula, Woodside, Sequoia and Menlo Atherton high schools are part of the BUILD network) to offer a district-approved, credit-bearing elective on the fundamentals of entrepreneurship. Participating BUILD schools have lower-than-average high school graduation rates and are classified as Title 1 schools.
Each school signs a memorandum of understanding with BUILD. Teachers attend a rigorous week-and-a-half-long teaching institute during the summer in which they are trained in BUILD’s experiential learning model, given a crash course on entrepreneurship, and provided with training in BUILD’s proprietary spark skills: Collaboration, Problem Solving, Communication, Innovation, Self-Management, and Grit. BUILD’s programming builds on those soft skills to form the building blocks for high school success and college and career readiness. Trained BUILD program teachers are paid a $10,000 stipend each year as compensation for the extra time and effort that goes into teaching the course.
The kind of experiential teaching that takes place in BUILD schools is not what teachers trained in our current educational system are generally taught, but there is a dawning understanding that our system needs to pivot from a focus on an education that values what you know above all else to one in which we teach our young people what they can do with what they know—and that’s where experiential learning comes in.
The culmination of the freshman year course is the Youth Business Plan Competition. The student entrepreneurs present the business plans they’ve been perfecting all year, and reflect on their experiences in front of an expert panel of judges. It is a transformative experience. Cathya Lopez, who now works in community operations at Facebook, won that competition in 2010, when it was held at the Stanford Business School. “I had never won anything of that sort before, and it was in front of such esteemed business people. Winning that competition told me I was capable of doing anything I set my mind to…I don’t know where I would have been without BUILD,” she reflects. Lopez and her business team continued to work on their business, a pet clothing purveyor, over the next three years. When they graduated, they each realized $1500 in profits. Lopez used her share of the profits to pay her housing deposit at Pace University.
After freshman year, BUILD works as an optional after-school incubator program where students further develop their entrepreneurial skills. Twice a week, students head to the BUILD office to work on their businesses—producing and selling their products under the tutelage of their mentors. As they move into junior and senior year, they gain experience and increasingly focus on things like standardized testing prep and the college application process.
Mentors are an important fixture in BUILD’s high-touch model. They meet in pairs with between four and eight students for two hours weekly, to help the students hone their entrepreneurial enterprises and serve as sounding boards for whatever issues the sometimes-struggling students might be facing.
The model works. Since 2012, ninety-seven percent of BUILD’s four-year students graduate high school and virtually all of those are accepted to college. Chuck Salter, BUILD’s CEO, explains that they don’t emphasize four-year colleges for all of their students, citing a Harvard Business School study that showed that demand is growing for “middle skill” jobs—those that require less than four years of post-secondary training. It’s estimated that that sector is growing, and already comprises a quarter of job openings. BUILD’s goals, instead, are to promote capable people with personal agency who have an opportunity for post-secondary education.
BUILD has just begun looking at college persistence data for its students. While preliminary, “and messy, it looks like our second year college students are persisting at 20-30% more than ‘regular’ college students from the same socioeconomic status,” said Salter.
The students aren’t the only beneficiaries of BUILD’s model of success. Nicole Ramos is BUILD’s VP of programs and evaluation. She reports that teachers and schools are eager to be BUILD partners, adding that teachers have told her that BUILD gives them more support and professional development than they’ve received in their entire careers from their district. “In some small way, we may be keeping teachers engaged as well,” she concludes. Ramos also mentioned that teachers change their narrative about who their students are after they’ve been through BUILD. Teachers report that they can identify the sophomores who were in the freshman entrepreneurship elective by their increased level of engagement and their strong presentation skills.
BUILD’s $16 million budget is currently funded through traditional philanthropic means: foundation and corporate dollars, and fundraisers. The organization is currently reviewing possible earned income streams that would provide a base as BUILD scales. Recently, BUILD instituted a fee structure for its partner schools, giving existing schools a grace period of several years.
Because of its success, there is enormous demand to bring BUILD’s brand of entrepreneurship pedagogy to a broad swath of schools, many of which are “off mission” (high performing and private schools). The organization is currently evaluating the viability of selling their curriculum to these schools, who see the value in offering the one-year course on entrepreneurship as a stand-along offering. Chuck Salter comments, “Of course, our promised outcomes would be much less.” They’re also exploring a licensed partnership model that would allow schools, districts, and even other non-profits to operate the program at mission-aligned schools with minimal support from BUILD’s national office. “The trick—since it’s our target demographic—is that we want it to have transformational impact,” remarks Salter. “Will that happen with the lighter touch?”
BUILD continues to hone its processes and streamline costs as it matures and scales. There is an ongoing push to drive down the cost-per-student by outsourcing elements of the programming that are equally well done by others (SAT prep, for instance). And in each new market, BUILD’s first step is to ensure a three-year flow of funding before any operational work begins.
And what of the woman who found her own purpose through founding BUILD? She is described by Kristina Ver Foley, BUILD’s VP of Development and Communications, as “fierce, on a quest for justice and equity. She is relentless, in a good way.” Salter echoes Ver Foley, “She is bold and fearless…and she is devoted to the people involved.”
The guests at BUILD’s 2016 gala were given a glimpse into her motivation. McKechnie Klahr shared her childhood story of frequent visits to her mother’s classroom in Harlem, where she watched the deep struggle that her mother’s under-resourced students were having with their studies. She was struck by the same disparities when she moved to Palo Alto for law school. Her commitment is bone-deep. For years, she lived in East Palo Alto, so that she could better understand BUILD’s constituency.
But the true story of BUILD can be seen in the BUILDers themselves. Ver Foley watched them pitch their products, along with hundreds of seasoned entrepreneurs at the NFL and Tech Crunch’s “First and Future” event over Super Bowl weekend. “Businesses in the thousands competed for the opportunity to pitch to the panel of judges, which was a ‘Who’s Who of Silicon Valley.’ Our kids were SO much more poised than the seasoned entrepreneurs. That’s what BUILD does; it empowers them to emerge as impressive young adults who become agents of change.”