A letter to MacKenzie Scott: Gratitude for the freedom to be prepared & seize the momentPosted on
Dear MacKenzie Scott:
I’m brimming with gratitude for the $11 million contribution to grow Braven’s future and the futures of young people from humble beginnings and underrepresented backgrounds. I’m also beyond grateful to the courageous champions who have been with me and the Braven team over the last 9 years. When we set out to launch Braven, we created a new market in which there were few champions at the time, and you are–and will continue to be–instrumental in carrying our work forward.
Braven is about the power of a diverse group of people and institutions coming together to help ensure economic mobility and the narrowing of the pernicious Black and Brown wealth gaps in this country. We believe equality of opportunity should be alive and well in America, regardless of starting point, background, or unexpected life circumstances. Our mission and work are personal for me.
Through my family’s experience, I know both the preciousness of time and the importance of having the resources to navigate uncertainty, regardless of whether it is a medical crisis, layoff, or other type of emergency. In that same vein, this incredible gift will allow us to more fully seize the moment in front of us as well as ensure our Fellows and organization are equipped to navigate a rapidly changing future and maximize potential.
THE PRECIOUSNESS OF TIME & THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING PREPARED
My first living memory at 2 and ½ years old is being held up to my father’s casket. The day I turned 6 months old, my father was diagnosed with a childhood form of leukemia that in adults was lethal. Six months was the number seared in my mother’s memory: six months to live, and six months from obtaining his dental degree. Loss and opportunity cavorting heartlessly.
If you know my mom, Sharon Rebecca Gibson Eubanks-Pope, you would not be surprised that she along with his doctors managed to significantly extend my father’s time on earth. As the eighth of nine children, she learned at an early age to defy the odds. She was a sickly child who spent a lot of time in the hospital with chronic asthma that nearly killed her and then a back injury from a car accident. Her spine is severely curved to this day as a result, and even in her younger years, she often had to sit down from the pain after being on her feet for a long time. Born right after the Great Depression, her parents instilled in her and her siblings that the only way to manage as African Americans was to grin and bear it. Make your stumbling blocks your stepping stones, as my grandmother used to say.
The way my mom handled that life-changing experience of my father’s death – and many more following it – completely shaped how I view the world. On the day my dad died (21 months after his diagnosis), my mom was left with $24,000 and my older sister and I were left $9,000 apiece. While she mourned the man she loved and the future they had envisioned together, my mom knew she had to figure out how to create a different life of opportunity.
She decided to go back to school at night and take a business class. In this class, she met a classmate, Otis Pope, who was dabbling in real estate, and she found what he was doing interesting. Otis somehow also thought my sister and I tagging along to class with her was interesting. Through conversations and curiosity, they decided to go into business together, and eventually get married and have two more children.
My family stood six months from the verge of economic freedom when my dad died. Over the next 45 years, my mom and bonus dad would methodically and relentlessly rebuild that path. We went from living in some of the most resource constrained African-American communities in Chicago to an upper middle income nearly all-white suburb. We started to travel out of the country; and my schooling got fancier.
But along the way, I never forgot the families we’d grown up with who never had the chance to explore the world beyond the South Side. Over the years, I’ve been drawn to young people who had enormous potential but whose starting points hadn’t given them a fair chance, first at schools and eventually at jobs. I also realized that luck and my mom’s dogged determination to beat the odds should not be the X-factor.
Now I have spent my entire career trying to support as many young people as possible to do for their families what my mom did for me and my siblings: provide the resources and freedom to go after their dreams in good times and bad.
My family’s story isn’t unique. It is one of tragedy altering a family’s path. But it is also one of resilience–and for me, the American promise and economic mobility are not aspirational phrases but my concrete life experience.
THE FREEDOM TO BE PREPARED & SEIZE THE MOMENT
The Braven team and I wake up everyday thinking about the 1.3 million students from humble beginnings each year who bet their futures on a college degree. Without support, only 30% will see that bet pay off with a strong first job, meaning we’re not maximizing the talents of nearly one million students annually.
If a Black college graduate from Spelman College or Rutgers University-Newark, or a LatinX college graduate from Lehman College, San José State University, or National Louis University can’t earn the full dollar compared to their white wealthier peer, then we’ve got no real shot at closing the pernicious racial wealth gaps that persist in this country. Bachelor’s degree holders from humble beginnings and/or those who are underrepresented in the professional workforce, with intentional support around career, can see one of the surest paths to catalytic economic mobility and the American promise.
Braven has the results to prove that we can play a meaningful part in our country’s work to build a more equitable future. We have to keep growing. Period. We already offer best-in-class career preparation for students through deep partnership with institutions. And the last two years taught us that our model is flexible and resilient in a broader set of environments, which will allow us to expand into more geographic markets, reach more HBCUs in particular, and test an online-by-design version of the model.
In the next decade, we aspire to reach at least 40,000 students. These future Fellows–like our more than 5000 Fellows to date–will see a 20-25% uplift in strong first job attainment over the national baseline for all college graduates, and the impact for those Fellows will be $15-$20B in cumulative lifetime earnings increases.
MacKenzie, your catalytic gift is allowing us to move with greater speed towards our ambition, take strategic risks to open up more potential impact, and make critical infrastructure investments much sooner. At the same time, Braven is at this moment of opportunity because of daring champions – the colleges and universities, employers, volunteers, and philanthropists — who have taken big bets on me, our team, and our mission to empower Fellows on their paths to economic mobility (and not just economic stability) over the last 9 years. The 7 higher education partners (including our two newest partners Northern Illinois University and City College of New York), 75 employer partners, hundreds of donors, more than 5,000 volunteers, and thousands of students who have carried our work this far, will be more important than ever in this next phase of our work.
OUR PLAN: SPEEDING THE PACE OF GROWTH & PREPARING FOR THE FUTURE
Below is how we plan to deploy the $11M. This plan might shift as we continue to identify the areas of greatest need in catalyzing our growth, but we nevertheless thought it was helpful to mirror your transparency and share our current thinking.
The last two years have given us a lot of practice in being agile and responsive and in helping our Fellows be prepared to succeed in uncertain times. As we grow, there are a few areas that will be of particular relevance in ensuring we remain responsive to the times. These are all items that are above or beyond what we would be able to do with our current resources.
- $4M to speed up our expansion to additional HBCUs, Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) & Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs)
In addition to growing our five existing regions — Atlanta, the Bay Area, Chicago, New Jersey, and New York — we have honed in on a set of ideal regions that have strong university, employer, and philanthropic markets for the classic Braven model. We are eager to start more proactive exploration in parts of Texas, Southern California, Massachusetts, and the Mid-Atlantic.We have also started to do a lot of thinking about how to reach more HBCUs more quickly. Spelman College was our first HBCU partner this past January. This gift gives us the start-up funding to add one to two additional HBCU, HSI & MSI partners in new communities over the next three years.
- $2.5M to do more to prepare our Fellows for uncertain times through data & research
Data and insights are at the heart of every decision we make at Braven. I have always been intentional about this because I know that the right information, used in the right way, is critical to offering best-in-class career preparation for students. Though data-driven continuous improvement has been the backbone of our success to date, there is much more to do when you’re moving from 5,000 students to 80,000-100,000. We must build new and better data infrastructure to deliver on our model with the same high quality but in more efficient ways; we must also develop deep analytics capabilities to directly fuel our ability to intentionally support our students at scale; and we must execute research initiatives in partnership with the leading external evaluators in the college-to-career and economic mobility space to improve our own model as well as generate new knowledge to benefit the broader field.
- $2M to support learning & development and health & wealth for early career staff
Braven’s staff is incredibly diverse in every sense of the word. Looking around the room at our recent conference, I felt so proud — our team is beyond talented and comes from myriad racial, ethnic, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds. A growing number are former Braven Fellows. We have grown from 40 staff members to 85 at the start of this year and we’ll be close to 110 by the end of our fiscal year. We need to invest more in our learning and development capacity to support them. We also will invest in helping our early career staff get advice and guidance to build their health, wealth, and professional brands as they transition into and assume greater levels of responsibility in the professional workforce at Braven and beyond.
- $1.5M to build our thought leadership muscle
- Policy. Given the set of critical but under-resourced schools Braven has chosen to partner with, opening up more public funding for our school partners is an important strategy. We will grow our work to increase funding for existing higher education programs that benefit our partner institutions and ensure that post-college labor market outcomes are a key focus in new funding sources in the higher education space.
- Capacity to share learnings and amplify our Fellows’ stories. The bachelor’s degree (with intentional career support on top of it) continues to be one of the surest paths to financial freedom. That said, there are a lot of misconceptions around the return on investment of a bachelor’s degree for our Fellows. This funding will allow us to invest more in debunking these myths, in addition to featuring the successes of our Fellows.
- $1M to make an initial investment in testing a digital-first model
The pandemic taught us that our model is incredibly resilient in a remote and online environment. While I’m one of the biggest believers in human-to-human connection and the social capital those connections create, I also have seen the power of technology (when used with intentionality) to create efficiencies and scale. This gift will allow us to bring on a product manager with a budget for a small team to start to explore what a digital-first version of Braven might look like. This could be a new standalone product over time or simply infuse our other offerings, all in ways that could dramatically impact our reach.In addition to being thoughtful about how we’re deploying this incredible gift we also want to ensure this money is working for our communities before we spend it. To that end, we’re committed to putting a significant portion in a Black-owned financial institution(s).
A SOLVABLE PROBLEM
Every year, as I see another class of Braven graduates land economically transformative jobs, I’m reminded that this is one of the most solvable challenges facing our country. For instance, Fidel, a Chicago native and first-generation college graduate, landed a role at a leading financial services firm as an analyst after participating in Braven. He is now paying it forward by advising his younger brother on the steps he needs to take to become a pediatrician. “Braven pushed me outside of my comfort zone,” he shared. “It helped to reduce my imposter syndrome by giving me tools to start my first job strong and have less fear.”
Fellow Christelle Louis, an immigrant and the daughter of a single mom, knew that her college education someday must lead to a strong career so she could give back. “I wanted to do as much as possible to make sure I was setting myself up for success, and I knew that Braven would allow me to do that,” she shared. “Braven allowed me to outsource of all the possible resources that I could possibly have through networks and career opportunities.” She is currently an EdTech Global Program Manager at Amazon Web Services.
We have incredible talent everywhere, but lasting change is going to require hard, intentional and bold work from players across our higher education, employer, civic, and philanthropic systems. Our college students from humble beginnings and/or underrepresented backgrounds present one of our very best shots for closing damaging racial and gender wealth gaps as well as one of our very best shots for proving that the foundational promises of our country are alive and well.
As a Black CEO, I am acutely aware that Black leaders make up 10% of nonprofit leadership but receive only 4% of the philanthropy. Being a Black woman CEO widens that gap — in 2016, Black female led non-profits got only .06% of foundation funding. It is gifts like this one–and ongoing support from so many of our champions–that will allow us to play a critical role in creating a more just America for all.
Warm regards and immense gratitude for your trust and leadership,
Aimée Eubanks Davis
Founder & CEO, Braven