About Genesys Works
Genesys Works changes the trajectory of life for underprivileged students by providing them a meaningful internship during their senior year in high school. After an initial eight-week intensive training on technical and soft-skills, students are assigned to work in a year-long internship at one of over a hundred participating corporations. As a true social enterprise, three-quarters of Genesys Works’ budget is provided by partner companies, who benefit by engaging their trained “young professionals” at below-market rates. As students recognize their potential as professionals in the corporate world, their future is forever changed. More than 95% of graduates go on to college, and over 70% persist in their college career.  genesysworks.org

About Founder Rafael Alvarez
Hector Avellaneda was preparing sandwiches at Subway making $5.15 an hour when he was robbed at gunpoint. In that moment he realized the only life he really knew wasn’t for him. Luckily, he had an option. Hector had recently completed an intensive summer training program offered by Genesys Works, a group that enables economically disadvantaged high school students to discover, through meaningful work experience, that they can succeed as professionals in the corporate world.

Avellaneda called Genesys Works’ founder, Rafael Alvarez, the day after he was robbed and, a few weeks later, he walked into his first day of work in IT at Reliant Energy. He was part of Genesys Works’ first group of high school students in 2002. Today, he has a degree from Texas A&M University in business administration and is a software program manager at Hewlett Packard. Avellaneda is the first in his family to graduate from high school, the first to get a corporate education, and one of a few not to join a gang. “You wouldn’t have wanted to know me before. I had the shaved head, the goatee, the ghetto talk,” he said. “It’s an incredible life change being a corporate employee, and we’re changing the lives of not just ourselves but our families. It rubs off. My siblings and cousins are all talking about college and careers after college. It’s extraordinary that that conversation is even happening.”

Today, similar conversations are taking place in homes in Houston, the Twin Cities, Chicago, and the Bay Area—everywhere Genesys Works has programs. And it’s all thanks to the inspiration and dedication of Rafael Alvarez. In the early 2000s Alvarez was a corporate strategist for Compaq. He also sat on the board of a local charter school. What he learned on that board discouraged and disheartened him in a life-altering way. He determined then and there to devise a way to open up a pathway out of poverty.

Alvarez reasoned that he could provide intensive soft skills and technical training to promising high school students the summer between their junior and senior years and then engage these newly trained workers into large corporations for substantially less than the going rate. It was a win-win in his mind: the students, who were bright and able but caught in a generational poverty loop that doesn’t provide access to living wages, would enter into a path to a professional career that would allow them to earn far more than their families have historically earned. The corporations, in need of precisely these kinds of entry level skilled workers, would pay Genesys Works $20 an hour for these workers, about half their normal rate for IT workers (this value proposition allows Genesys Works to have 95% renewal rate among its corporate partners). Schools already had cooperative education provisions in place that would allow for afternoon or morning internships to be combined with senior year academics. The most ingenious part of Alvarez’s plan is that the nonprofit would be largely supported by earned income. Seventy-five percent of Genesys Works’ $14 million budget comes from earned income, with the other 25% coming from institutional and private donors.

Fueled by the promise of his newfound passion, Alvarez left his lucrative and successful career at Compaq to start Genesys Works in 2002. He began with just 10 students and one corporate client. In 2014, Genesys Works provided jobs training and internships to almost 1,200 seniors in four locations across the country.

Teachers at participating schools in low-income neighborhoods refer the students who they believe have the desire to succeed in life, just not the opportunity, and encourage them to apply for the program in the second half of their junior year. In June the kids who are accepted begin what the folks at Genesys Works refer to as an “eight-week job interview.” For those eight summer weeks, while their friends are hanging out and enjoying the slow pace of summer, the soon-to-be seniors dress in work attire and attend training from Genesys Works employees and technical specialists five days a week. Half of the training is technical (at most sites it is exclusively IT training, but in Houston, drafting and accounting training are also offered). The other half of the time is spent on soft skills/corporate culture training—how to speak and behave in order to succeed in the corporate world and how to write résumés, prepare and make speeches and dress the part (Genesys Works avails itself of the local chapter of Dress for Success). “I was dressing up to go to work and not dressing up to go before a judge,” mused Avellaneda. “And that was hugely empowering.”

One night a week the group gets together for an evening of fun, and several of times over the summer, they bond over community service projects. Typically about a quarter of the kids feel they can’t meet the rigors of the summer-long training process and the high expectations others hold for them. But for those who do, internships with many Fortune 500 companies are theirs for the taking in September.

“From a capitalist perspective, an important part of the Genesys Works story is that we get good value for the dollars, based on the work we get out of them,” says Steve Willburn, NRG Energy’s senior vice president of information technology, who hires four or five Genesys Works interns every year. He adds, “The social merits are harder to quantify, but participating in the program provides leadership opportunities for people on my team who wouldn’t otherwise have that opportunity. There’s an enormous social benefit of helping to train up the next generation of IT workers who are absolutely capable to work in a Fortune 500 company but who might not have thought it was an option available to them.

Alvarez’s initial goal was to provide an on-ramp to high school graduation and trade school, where these promising kids could earn $40,000-60,000 a year without a college degree. But then a curious thing happened. “As they advanced on their own journeys, they discovered they were able to do more and more: they could get a job, they could go to trade school, they could go to a four-year college,” says Dan Wampler, executive director of the Houston office of Genesys Works. So, today, the program provides career and college preparatory training and is building an alumni support program. With the help and guidance of staff mentors, Genesys Works students now eagerly strive for acceptance into two colleges and then work on securing the funding to actually go to one of those colleges. In fact, 97% of its students matriculate college directly from high school. These are kids who had no intention of going to college just a year earlier. Wampler adds, “Being treated and paid like adults helps connect the dots for the kids…What we provide these students is relevance.”

In 2011, Alvarez made what was a difficult decision for him, to leave behind the day-to-day operations of the Houston site (and the opportunity to interact with the kids on a regular basis), to run a new national office. He hired directors and started programs in the Twin Cities and Chicago and physically moved his national team out of the Houston office. The national office manages the common entities like financial and legal issues, as well as the core programmatic items, while each city has its own board, although all under the same 501(c) 3 group exemption. They have identified eight to nine more cities in which to expand. Alvarez’s vision for Genesys Works going forward is to serve as a catalyst for major education reform, with the goal of changing the school culture in low-income neighborhood schools, making the pursuit of a professional career a “given” for all students, regardless of their economic status. That kind of thinking has earned Alvarez the distinction of being named by Forbes Magazine to its 2011 list of the world’s top 30 social entrepreneurs.

Each fall, a month or two into their work internships, each Genesys Works city holds a “Breaking Through” ceremony at which they celebrate the successes of their students. The students get to practice the public speaking skills they spent much of the summer perfecting, they are given a certificate of completion of training and, importantly, a box of their very own business cards, legitimizing their entry into the corporate world. At Chicago’s 2010 Breaking Through ceremony, high school senior Tiana Ghazzali said,

The only thing people around me said was ‘Just be sure you graduate from high school.’ That’s the only goal we were taught to have. Corporate America, and the thought that we could fit in, never crossed our minds. I promise you, if you asked three out of four kids from my neighborhood what corporate is, they wouldn’t know. That’s the beauty of Genesys Works. They’re making the impossible, possible; the unthinkable, thinkable; and the unreachable in our minds, finally attainable in our lives.

Behind every life-changing story at Genesys Works stands Rafael Alvarez. “He is a man of great ideas, passion and commitment,” enthuses Dan Wampler, who gave up his senior vice president position at Hewlett Packard to join forces with Alvarez—and wishes he’d done it sooner. Hector Avellaneda adds, “It’s hard to put into words the impact Rafael has had on hundreds of young lives.” It’s a sure bet that he’s offered them that pathway out of poverty he dreamed of more than a decade ago. [August 2012]