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Life can change in a single moment when the right opportunity comes along. And creating that moment by supporting BIPOC small business owners, low- to moderate-income individuals, and teammates in need was our focus in 2022. By investing in innovative non-profits, we create career pathways to economic mobility, strengthen small businesses, and build thriving communities.
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BB&T and SunTrust formed Truist with a shared purpose—to inspire and build better lives and communities. By providing grants in support of nonprofit organizations through the Truist Foundation, we can help grow their impact.
Interviewee: Mark Little, Executive Director at NCGrowth
Lynette Bell: Good morning and thank you Mark Little for joining us today and welcome to the Truist Foundation audio series. Today our featured guest is Mark Little, Executive Director at NCGrowth of the UNC Kenan Institute. Mark, welcome to the conversation today.
Mark Little: Lynette, thanks for having me. Excited for the conversation.
Lynette Bell: Great. Before we dive into the conversation, could you give us a brief introduction? Tell us about yourself.
Mark Little: Sure. I may have to explain it two ways. One – I am from North Carolina. Parents grew up in rural eastern North Carolina and the work that I do now is very much rooted in places like the towns that my parents came from. Try to bring power and resources to those types of communities. On the flip side, I am a trained geologist and have lived in a few different places around the world and, so in that way, the work I am doing is a little unexpected for myself but I think both aspects of it come together nicely in the work that I get to do both having this personal connection to the people and places where I work, but also having spent some time in other places to really see the connections between communities and people all around the world.
Lynette Bell: Mark, thanks for sharing that. A trained geologist – that means you should have an interesting background. So, I would love to talk about that offline sometime!
Mark Little: Sure, anytime you want. Happy to!
Lynette Bell: So, let’s talk about NCGrowth today. What does NCGrowth do and why? What is at the heart of the work that you’re doing at this organization?
Mark Little: Well, the heart of the work really is envisioning, imagining an economy that has opportunities for everyone to prosper. And, as you know, we have an economy where some people can prosper. And so, we are not too worried about those folks. And all of our work really is focused on the people who aren’t able to reach that dream of community or individual business - that’s where we focus our work and our effort.
We started…well actually before we even started work on the ground, the original vision for the geography of where we would work was actually the Black Belt. So if you don’t know what this is, if you google Black Belt, if you look at a map of the United States on the county level and you map which counties have the highest percentage of African American population, there is a belt, essentially, that goes starts in the Hampton roads area in southeastern Virginia, cuts through eastern North Carolina down through low country and Pee Dee region in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and then up the Mississippi river on both sides. And that was our original actual idea of where we wanted to work, in part because of the historical connections to the founders of NCGrowth but really because if you overlay on top of that all of the things, those numerical quantitative things that people care about, poverty rates, unemployment, etc. they track a lot with that same map.
But, we started in northeastern North Carolina for a few different reasons and over time we have started, been able to expand the work outside of that region and also expand beyond just African American communities because as you know, while some groups may be more disadvantaged than others there are people that look all different kinds of ways who aren’t able to achieve the dreams and realize the ideas they have for themselves and for their communities. And so that’s really the vision we have and where we think about the most important places to do our work.
Lynette Bell: Yeah, thanks for sharing that. Really important work for sure and the Black Belt… I don’t think I knew that fact about that area. Of course, knowing a lot of history being raised in the South myself, but didn’t realize that and so the inequities that exist today are very apparent across various geographies, both urban and rural. So, it’s great to know that you all started that way using that historical perspective.
Can you speak to some of the clients that NCGrowth has helped today? For example, I know that you have a century farm as a client which has been owned in the same family for over 100 years by ancestors who were previously enslaved. Can you speak to us about that?
Mark Little: Yeah, definitely and maybe just take a step back before that particular example, just briefly. A lot of the work we do – so, I mention this geography we are interested in, basically places that are economically distressed. The way that we approach the work is the businesses that are in those places, local governments that are in those places, the large institutions that are in those places – what do they need to increase the amount of good jobs, the amount of wealth generated, etc. And so, one of the ways we do that is working directly with small and medium-sized local businesses that are located in economically distressed communities.
And so, this particular farm that you’re referring to is Footprints in the Garden farm. And to make a long story short, we started working with this farm a number of years ago on a project and reconnected with them recently and as you mentioned, the family that owns the farm, were, their ancestors were enslaved on that land and after the civil war gained that property. And their family is still there. Last year we had an event where the state of North Carolina recognized this farm as a quote unquote century farm. This is a designation for farms that have remained in the same family for more, at least a 100 years, and I think it was actually 120 years for them.
But, what’s interesting about it and this is very indicative of many of the places we work, particularly rural communities. You think of it as an old place – it’s been celebrated for being in the same family for 100 years and has this deep connection even before that. But what the farm is trying to do is quite interesting and dynamic and very connected to a lot of the conversations people are having on the national level about getting healthy food into food deserts, finding ways to increase the value that small farmers get in the food system that we have, as well as reconnecting with traditional African American foods and African foods, etc.
And so, we worked with her to develop a business plan, so new logos – she came to us in part because she is working with a number of other farmers in her community, African American farmers, white farmers, Latino farmers to get enough volume of produce so that they can actually together be a reasonable player and actually sell to more intuitional buyers. And so, we have helped her think through some of those things.
And so, another connection that has come out of this is a grocery chain in North Carolina that is looking to grow. Is also trying to figure themselves out, how can they purchase more products from Black-owned farms in particular. And so, all these different elements are coming together in this very rural place and as I mentioned, we had this wonderful event off of a road, off of a road, off of a road in rural eastern North Carolina – we brought together 70 or 80 folks from across the state and some outside the state, both business leaders, educators, etc. just to talk about what is so exciting that is happening in this one particular place. And how it is similar to exciting things happening in other forgotten or underappreciated places around the United States and how can we get the right people there to make the right connections so that they can be connected into these, you know the broader economy. So back to the point of all this work we are doing – how do we create those real opportunities for people because of the geography they are in, because of what family they may have been born into, etc. – how do we get them connected into this broader economy so they have those opportunities.
Lynette Bell: Mark, that is so fascinating. As you were talking, you know, I was just contemplating that the work you are doing is providing not only kind of that baseline of helping businesses understand their model and how do you operationalize the model, but then you started providing advisory services which is what banks do a lot of the time. Saying hey how do I connect you to the B2B, how do I help you create that supply chain. And in this whole era now of everybody really being concerned about the economy, and not only that, but our environment and going green.
And so, some of the restaurants that are kind of farm to table, so sitting here thinking about wow, there are so many supply chains that are diverse in this spectrum that you are providing that guidance and advice to, just to this one family, I can only imagine the benefits so many of the businesses that you are helping get to that place of resiliency. I know during the pandemic there was a lot of concern about small businesses, and they were not going to be able to rebound as quickly from that economic disruption. Have you seen resiliency in some of the businesses you have supported over the past year as we are still kind of coming out of that pandemic?
Mark Little: Definitely. Fortunately, the portfolio firms that we started working with at the beginning of the pandemic – all of them survived the pandemic. I won’t take credit for all of that. But I’ll give you maybe one or two examples of some things we are doing that shifted in real time because of the pandemic.
We had one interesting business client in South Carolina that was a translation service and training. So, it was a woman who both did translation work and had folks working for her doing that, but she also trained people particularity in the healthcare area. And this was all done face to face. Pandemic hit and she was in the middle of a course that she developed and what we essentially did is convert all her trainings to a virtual space.
And as we all know now, it’s not just as simple as a Zoom link. You really do have to change the structure of the instruction to make it viable. But we were able to do that in real time in I think, April or May, in the thick of it in the beginning. So just gives you one example of how one of the businesses we worked with really pivoted. Another quick example is a business in North Carolina that we’d worked with in the past, weren’t working with at the time, but everybody that we’ve worked with, whether it’s a business or community, they are kind of part of the NCGrowth family forever until they tell us to stop inviting them to things.
But this is a business that focused on U.S. grown cotton, stitched into U.S. stitched fabrics in U.S. made clothing. And, the project we had worked on them with is how could they think of shifting from their ownership model to an employee shareholder or co-op model. But the shift that they made during the pandemic was face masks. And you’ve heard that this is something that a lot of organizations did. But just like a real example of a business we were working with that just shifted all of their production to making face masks and shipping them across North Carolina and outside of the state at the beginning of things before those supply chains got figured out.
So yeah – just a couple of examples of how some of the companies we have been working with have pivoted during that time. But fortunately, none of the ones that we have been working with failed. So that was very fortunate.
Lynette Bell: Yeah very fortunate indeed. And I think that’s a testament to that advisory service you are providing to them, really understanding their business model and how to navigate during that very difficult time. So, as I lead into the next question, what are some of the most valuable lessons you have learned in this role? And how has the work changed your organization?
Mark Little: Well, so one of the most important things that I have just relearned and just have to keep telling myself is that we are very focused on this end goal, and we are very flexible about the pathway to it. You know, our center is based in university. One of the valid criticisms I think about a lot of university programs is there is a lot of bureaucracy, and there are very specific things they do or ways that they work. And this probably extends to some different government agencies as well.
If you want help, you got to do it this way, this form, this process. If it doesn’t fit, it’s not going to happen. So, from the very beginning of our work, we realized that if we wanted to actually have an outcome in the places we wanted to work, we had to be very flexible with what we did. So that has continued and changed you know how we work, what we work, what we do. So, just maybe the most obvious example is really just the work that the Foundation is funding us to do right now is really supplier diversity work. So far, I have been talking about individual businesses we have been working with which have been the bulk alongside working with local governments and tribal governments.
So, the lesson that I have kept learning throughout this work is we need to be very flexible in how we work with the communities that we want to work in. When we first started, if you looked at the very first grant that we ever wrote to anybody, we never even really did any kind of work that resembles what that initial grant looked like because we realized that we just had to be changed, we had to be very flexible. If we wanted this outcome of working in economically distressed communities, we had to really just be flexible with what we did and how we did it.
The most recent example of this is the work that is actually funded by the Foundation right now – when the pandemic hit, like many of us, we did recognize that the impact on businesses was very disparate. The businesses we worked with fortunately didn’t have closures, but as you know Black-owned businesses, Latino-owned businesses, Native American-owned businesses, rural businesses were disproportionately impacted.
And, large institutions, while had significant issues did remain constant through this. And some of those institutions are physically located in some economically distressed communities. Institutions like military bases, like universities, hospitals. And we thought that this could be an opportune time to reengage those institutions in work that they’ve been doing around supplier diversity but with a new reason for it, a new motivation. Which was how can these institutions use their purchasing of goods and services, but do it in a way that drives economic development in the places that need it the most.
And so, after that revelation, after realizing that we’d actually had a project that was that exactly a number of years before, but it was just one small project, so we had that experience. Worked to build out a really robust program which is now a very important part of the work we do. Working with institutions to help them be very deliberate about spending their dollars in ways that have impact. And so, if you had asked me three years ago, this would not have been at all been on mind as something that would be a large part of what we are doing.
And I’ll just lastly just say, the latest piece of work that is starting to bubble up is on the workforce development side. And I’ll say, when I first started this work 10 years ago, the one area I said we would not work is workforce development. But, over this past year we have actually started getting significantly involved in a number of workforce development activities and so, we are just moving and growing to wherever the need really presents itself.
Lynette Bell: Yeah, Mark that is really important the last statement you made…is that your organization is not only sticking to its mission but is evolving as the communities’ needs start to shift and move in a different way. And so that flexibility of your organization is really a testament to being present and proximate with your communities and knowing them well enough to know that that might be our mission and values that we will adhere to, but the evolution of the community is what really drives our work. So, really important. And I think that that is exciting.
What is the one thing as we are talking today that I haven’t asked you that you want people to know about your organization? And what do people get wrong about the communities that you serve?
Mark Little: So, our organization really is people. And while our team, every person, everyone has very different technical skills, I still think the most valuable and amazing thing our team possesses are the relationships that they have. Kind of referencing the last comment you made, with real people and places across all so many geographies. And it is really just amazing because beyond the work we do –we are now a resource to other organizations, to other policy makers. Like can you introduce me to a tribal council member in this place? Or do you know a manufacturer in rural South Carolina? All these different sorts of connections that, the people on our team, not me, I’m part of that, but the ten other people on our team who are physically located in different places actually. Very intentionally so. And so those relationships are really the golden nugget of what we do. And I want to recognize that.
The second part of the question I think is one that you may have heard before and some of the other folks you’ve worked with – when I talk to say faculty members on the campus here at UNC Chapel Hill. Or, I was recently at a geology conference in Denver, Colorado. And I was telling folks a little bit about the work I do. The initial response when I talk about what we are doing and where we are doing it, seems to completely ignore the power and promise and potential of the people and places where I work and focuses on the deficits and the need for some kind of handout. And not in an ill-mannered way, it’s like “oh here is my check, you know, who can I donate to”. That is kind of the mentality. And that’s the wrong one to have. And so, I really try to work when I talk to other people that that’s not the way to think about it. The way to think about it is imagine yourself but I just took your bank account and your house away. Right. You still have whatever… you still have your family, you still have the education that you have, you still have a number of tools and relationships. And while it may be difficult, you have power and you recognize all these assets that may not be financial but get you where you want to go.
And a lot of the people and places we work with are essentially that. Like they have so many things, but what they don’t have prevents them from getting where they want to go. And prevents folks from outside of those communities from seeing them as people with full agency or at least potential to have full agency over their lives, and visions, and dreams. And so that would be the thing that I would say is a misperception about a lot the people and places where we work.
Lynette Bell: Thank you for sharing that. I think you are exactly right – the amplification of your work will help to kind of eradicate some of those misconceptions you reference as people look to those communities that are BIPOC-led and BIPOC-served. So, thank you for doing this really exceptional work.
And my final question to you today is imagine a world where your mission is accomplished and your work is no longer necessary, that’s a great fantasy. What does reaching your organization’s ultimate goal look like?
Mark Little: Well. I think what it looks like is a world where the only... the kinds of power that can produce outcomes continue to be financial and political but include other types of power as well. As I mentioned, the people and places where we work are well-endowed with many other things. And, I think a future world where we are no longer needed or out of a job. Well one difference would be I would be unemployed. But that main difference is that people and places really have the agency and power to realize their dreams and visons for themselves and for their communities.
Lynette Bell: I would like to thank Mark Little and we will conclude Mark with that great statement – the work that NCGrowth is doing in the Black Belt and communities like that to eradicate barriers of inequity is really critical. And I think your quote was perfect to end our series today --- the people and places where you work have the agency and the power to realize their dreams. Thank you Mark Little at NCGrowth – really appreciate the insight that you’ve given us today about the critical work you are doing in our communities. Great having you on, I’d love to have you back!
Mark Little: Whenever you’re ready, I’m here! We can talk about geology.
Lynette Bell: Yes, we can talk about geology. Thanks so much, Mark. This has been the podcast of the Truist Foundation.
Interviewee: Aarti Sahgal, Founder and CEO, Synergies Work
Lynette Bell: Hello and welcome again to another episode of Truist Foundation's Conversations with our grantees. I am Lynette Bell, President of the Truist Foundation. Truist Foundation's purpose is to inspire and build better lives and communities. And we do this by partnering with nonprofit organizations that support this mission. During this audio series, I will be sitting down with various partners of the foundation to give them the opportunity to share the amazing work they are doing to make a difference in their respective communities. Today, I have the pleasure of being joined by Aarti Sahgal. Aarti is the founder and CEO of Synergies Work, an organization that was recently selected as the second-place recipient of Truist Foundation's inaugural Inspire Awards as a grant recipient, synergies work will receive $150,000 in capacity building to bring their innovative solutions of bridging the gap between entrepreneurs with disabilities and the business community fostering growth through a long term commitment to success. Welcome to Inspiring Conversations, Aarti!
Aarti Sahgal: Thank you so much, Lynette, for this opportunity. I'm looking forward to talking to you.
Lynette Bell: Great. Before we dive into the conversation today, Aarti, could you give our audience a brief introduction? Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Aarti Sahgal: So. Well, I am an Asian woman with dark hair, shoulder length hair, wear glasses. I have two sons. My youngest son has Down syndrome. And when he was born 22 years ago, my husband and I made a simple promise that we provide him with the same resources that we do for our older one. And that really was the promise that has guided my journey so far. I spent the first few years of my life in the business world and then after, I've spent the last 18 years just working in the disability sector, trying to understand why there are so many opportunity gaps that exist in our world. Apart from being the founder of Synergies Work, Lynette, I'm also the president of Georgia APC, an association of people supporting employment first. I sit on the state board's state rehabilitation council. But I think the biggest and most important hat that I wear is that of being a mother.
Lynette Bell: Aarti, you seem to be very, very busy. And being a mom and sitting on boards, and kind of doing this great work around bridging the gap between the business community and those who suffer, who have disabilities is really critical. What does your organization do and how will you support from Truist Foundation's impact of your work through the Inspire Awards? What problem are you trying to solve today, based on when you created synergies work? What did you identify and what are you trying to solve?
Aarti Sahgal: So as we started synergies work started six years ago and at that time there weren't any incubators, accelerators in the country that was supporting entrepreneurs with disabilities. You know, even today, as I talk, entrepreneurship has a bad rep in the disability community basically. That's just seen as something that you do when everything else fails. In fact, in the vocational rehabilitation world, it is called not entrepreneurship, as we do for the rest of the world. We call it self-employment, we called it supported self-employment. The terms that I really don't understand, because is there any employment that is not supported, you know, I would not be sitting here and talking and working if I did not have a family and a whole team supporting me, I'm not good at everything. So, we all have support, and we work with it. But because you have a label of a disability view, it becomes kind of an if you're not able to do, you're not a master of everything you are deemed as less than. So, in other words, there is a lot of ableism that exists. So, we started, I started synergies work six years ago at the time when my oldest son was also getting into the entrepreneurial world. I looked around and I saw that entrepreneurs were being celebrated all around us. They were being festooned with recognition and lavished with funds. And what are we doing for entrepreneurs with disabilities? We have put them in a box. We think that they are less than or they're not capable of doing innovative, creative works. When we know that most of the innovative solutions that we today take for granted have come from the diverse and the unique skillset and experiences of folks with disabilities. Whether it is today, you know, voice to text, it is audio books, all of them are rooted in the technology that has been created by and for folks with disabilities. So that's where we stepped in as synergies work to bridge that gap and looked around and there was nobody serving this community. We at synergies work provide free resources for people from idea to exit, provide them with resources on an incubator program, impact grants, and then continue to support them for the next two years till they are able to build a sustainable business.
Lynette Bell: That is so helpful. What you're doing in the work in this space, and I know that one of the things that I was really impressed with was the fact that you help people with disabilities take ideas or concepts, right? Take that idea and concept and build it into a sustainable business. And I would really want to know Aarti, from you because you've done so many really interesting things in this space. What is the most rewarding moment in your work thus far?
Aarti Sahgal: Well, that's a tough one out there because I am every day. I'm happy to say that. I'm just excited to get up in the morning and see what the day will bring for me, because I get to meet really innovative people. And I think the most, you know, very early when I started, just around the time of COVID, was that the pandemic was hitting us. I met a young man who was looking to set up his own business. He came to me, we met one on one with a bag full of crocheted items that he had knitted. He had scarves, Afghans, you know, caps, beanies, but there was nobody who was giving the time, giving him the time of day. And I learned that he had spent many years in, eight years, actually, in the state Florida hospital he was had mental health issues, had autism, PTSD. And after spending eight years, when he got out of the Florida State Hospital, his mother and he moved to Georgia thinking that they'll find better services here. And he was put in an assisted living center where he had a dream of going to college, which was never fulfilled. After moving from various organization, he got to meet synergies, heard about synergies work and we met and I immediately saw that this man had really the gift of hand. And as he said that whenever there is anything that traumatizes him or upsets him, all that he needs to do is sit in a corner and knit. And that's what he'd like to do. So, we helped him set up his business, his Esty shop. But I think the most important thing for him and in his own words, was finding a purpose in life. And I think that's what gives me a lot of happiness. Yes, we want them to be economically independent. We want them to have to grow their businesses from micro-businesses to small businesses, all of that. But I think all of us, irrespective of what we call ourselves that is disabled or otherwise. The real reason that makes us happy is finding that purpose in life. And to hear him tell us that synergies work has given him a purpose in life is what makes my heart sing. And, you know, Lynette, every cohort that we go through, which is a ten-week program, the first part and right through the entire cohort, we always try and help people articulate what is there why? You know, it's not what they're doing, but why they are doing. Because if you are able to pinpoint that and put it in to help them articulate it, I think life just becomes better.
Lynette Bell: That is such a touching story, Aarti. The fact that, you know, parents get so involved in their kids lives and so, what the child with special needs or disability is trying to find that supportive services to help them. You know, and I don't know if he had the idea of, hey, I want to start my own business, or company, but wanting to go off to further his education and find purpose. I'm so glad that they were able to find your organization, synergies work, because as you stated, you helped him to get his purpose and cultivate it and then execute it out in a way that actually was going to create that independence for him. So, I love hearing those types of stories that is really very, very powerful, is not just it's a nonprofit that you have providing that kind of supportive services to businesses, but it is helping individuals really lean into their purpose, but giving them that economic vitality, so that they can grow as well and just create a different life for themselves. And I guess my next question is based on some of your learnings and insights and stories, Aarti, what are some of the most valuable lessons you've learned in this role? Because you were the creator, you were the creator, you're the president, you're the CEO. I would also think you're probably the COO and CFO, but you have done a lot in this space. But what's the most valuable lesson, if you would tell our listeners today that you've learned in this role?
Aarti Sahgal: I think the most valuable lesson that I've learned is that sometimes when you hear I've heard a lot of no’s in setting up my own business, a lot of no's from the business community, also because they think that just because you're supporting entrepreneurs with disabilities, that they might not be as good as. What I've learned is that that no doesn't mean no forever. It just means no, not yet. So just get up and do it again and do it again. I think the other thing that I've learned is that a lot of times, especially in the disability community, you know, sometimes it becomes about building silos or if somebody don't agree with somebody, you want to call out someone. So, I think the better way of doing it is by calling in them or calling in people rather than calling them out and that's I think, my biggest learnings. And never, ever doubt and judge the book by the cover. I found that you think you know might look different, think differently than us, behave differently than us. There's a lot of commonalities between all of us, so just focus on this. Yeah.
Lynette Bell: I think you're leaning into that human aspect. We're all human beings are part of the human race. And I might come packaged it a little differently, but in the core of who we are, it's all the same. I love when you first started out, Aarti, talking about the first lesson that you learned, which is no today, does not mean no, it just means not yet. You know, when we talk about in banking the lifecycle of a business and at different points the lifecycle is different. You have a low cash flow or a heavy cash flow, and therefore you need different needs or responses to the changes that are occurring in your business. And for you to have one identified that so quickly as leading this organization, but also to help those entrepreneurs realize that you're in a lifecycle for your business and your needs. And the ability to get that access may not come to fruition today, but it does not mean no permanently. And I think that is a clear, valuable lesson for you to continue to take and to promote with your entrepreneurs, It's really very insightful. So, what is the one thing that you want people to know about the work your organization does? You've done a lot of conversation today, given us a great story, a real-life story, an indicator of how you're impacting and changing lives. But what else would be one other thing you want people to know about your organization?
Aarti Sahgal: I think the one thing that we want everyone to know is that, you know, there are a lot of people around you. There are bound to be someone that you either have, if not a loved one, someone in your family, your friends, your schools who might identify themselves as disabled. So look at them as people with gifts, people as innovators, people as creators, and see what you can do to bring them to build this one world. We are launching, Lynette, the EDDIE Awards. These are entrepreneurs dedicated to diverse and inclusive excellence. So, this is going to be the first of its kind awards in the world, if not in the country where we are celebrating entrepreneurs with disabilities who are doing innovative work, whether they are in the creative field or technology, social impact or are new startups. And we want you and our listeners to nominate an entrepreneur that they know of who might qualify to become an EDDIE recipient of the EDDIE award.
Lynette Bell: Awesome. Is that going to be televised? Is that going to be broadcast live, livestreaming or have you decided?
Aarti Sahgal: We have already opened the applications and we are going to be hosting this in Atlanta, and it'll be on April 27th. It's going to be, as we are envisioning it, as the Oscars of the celebrating entrepreneurs and disabled entrepreneurs. And that's where it is. We're going to fly in entrepreneurs from the whoever the winners are into the country, just as the Truist Foundation did for us and put them up for stay. And then bring in the business leaders and bring in the disability leaders and create that little synergies right there at that time, because that's a great way for people to see and hear and talk to them, to know that they are doing some great work.
Lynette Bell: Well, I hope I get an invitation to the EDDIE Awards. I can't wait!
Aarti Sahgal: You know that Lynette, you'll be the first person there, don't worry. I can't wait to get you!
Lynette Bell: So final question as we wrap up today, Aarti, in your mind based on all that you've accomplished, imagine a place where your work is no longer needed. What would occur in your perfect world?
Aarti Sahgal: I dream about it, and that's the reason we call it synergies work. We say that we are the bridge makers, we are the catalyst between the disability community and the business community. And the definition of a catalyst, if I remember, my chemistry is right, is that it burns itself. It no longer exists in the system if it has done its if it does live up to its purpose. And that's what I see the world. You know, we, I say that there are two worlds that exist currently amongst us. One for folks with disabilities and one without. In the one world, there are unlimited opportunities, you know, there is money to set up your business, there are networks. And then if you fail, you're patted on your back and yet given more money to say knowing that one's your field or you'll be successful the second time. But in the other world, the world where the folks with disabilities live, it has limited opportunities. There is no funding to set up your business. And if you're failed you think that's because of, you know, we knew you would fail. So, in my ideal world, there should not be any place for synergies work to exist. Just as we provide resources and fundings that celebrate entrepreneurs, it should include all entrepreneurs, including entrepreneurs with disabilities.
Lynette Bell: Wow! I think that is a great way to end this conversation today, that catalyst and thank you for the refreshing on the chemistry lesson. But a world where everything has been normalized and there is no separation. I love the one world, and that this responsibility you have today no longer exists because you've actually helped to uplift, not only the messaging around providing support with those who don't look like you and who may have a form of disability, but also have a form of purpose and are riding towards it and meeting those goals. I love that catalyst idea and think that it is a great way to end. So, thank you again, Aarti, for all that you're doing with synergies work. Looking forward to seeing what other trails you blaze in the future.
Aarti Sahgal: Thank you so much, Lynette. And thank you to the entire Truist family for supporting us and talking to you was a real pleasure.
Lynette Bell: Thank you so much for joining me today, Aarti, and sharing more about synergies work. Truist Foundation is excited to be on this journey with Synergies work and your efforts to empower entrepreneurs with disabilities to build sustainable businesses. We look forward to sharing more stories of the impactful work of the Truist Foundation and partners across the country. Be sure to stay tuned and visit our website to learn more.
Lynette Bell: Hello, and welcome again to another episode of Truist Foundation’s conversations with our grantees. I’m Lynette Bell, President of the Truist Foundation. Truist Foundation’s purpose is to inspire and build better lives and communities, and we do this by partnering with nonprofit organizations that support this mission. During this audio series, I will be sitting down with various partners of the Foundation to give them the opportunity to share the amazing work they’re doing to make a difference in their respective communities. I'm so excited! Today, I have the pleasure and joy of being joined by Jason Hudgins. Jason is the director of strategic programs at Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative, an organization that was recently selected as the first-place recipient of the Truist Foundation’s inaugural Inspire Awards. As a recipient, AWBI received $250,000 in grant funding to bring their innovative solution of employing a community wealth building framework to bolster one thousand Black businesses in a thousand days to life. Welcome to Inspiring Conversations! Jason, so glad to have you.
Jason Hudgins: Lynette, it’s really great to be with you.
Lynette Bell: Before we dive into the conversation today, could you give a brief introduction to our audience of yourself?
Jason Hudgins: One hundred percent. I will answer four questions that we ask at AWBI when we do introductions. Which are: who are you the descendants of? What land raised you? What are you the smell of? And what are you the sound of? So, I am the descendant of a people born into a system that sought to oppress them, who overcame through innovation, faith and connection to a community that built upon itself and didn't tear itself apart. The lands that raised me were the hills of Georgia stained by red clay and the hills of Kentucky covered in bluegrass. I am the smell of macaroni and cheese at Sunday dinner and the unmistakable smell of success that accompanies a man who lives with a determined mindset. Finally, I'm the sound of a thousand hands clapping during Sunday morning service in a church with a wooden floor, homecoming celebrations at my home by the sea, and chatter and conversations in front of Founders Library at Howard University. My name is Jason Hudgins. On the practical side, Lynette, I am a former community leader – that's how I came to AWBI – being connected to the community, and I have the privilege of living, working and playing in southwest Atlanta, where our solutions for AWBI live every day.
Lynette Bell: Jason, first of all, I am blown away. You had me all the way from who raised you, what land you came from, and then the macaroni and cheese kind of stumped me because now I have a visual.
Jason Hudgins: That is my grandmother's favorite dish, and I am looking forward to the next meal at her house.
Lynette Bell: Oh my god! That's so great that grandma is still here. I also love mac and cheese that my mama makes. But I love the fact that you introduced yourself in a way that shows the complexity of us as individuals and humans. But also, you tied it into you what your principles are and what you stand for. So, thank you for that really unique introduction. I am going to steal that. And thank you for sharing the work of AWBI. We were so excited to have you as a finalist at the inaugural Inspire Awards and to go through that process with us. We found an organization, and as the audience saw, that brought the different scale to life of what you do. So as part of AWBI, how will you continue to support, from Truist Foundation’s impact, your work? What is a problem you want to solve that is at the forefront?
Jason Hudgins: Yeah, it was awesome to be part of the Inspire Awards and the entire process from beginning to end. We found so much support as an organization. The cohort that we were part of are some of my best work friends now. The Truist team from top to bottom, from your team Lynette, and your support, but just the Truist employees, as a whole, have been amazing in the last couple of weeks. I've enjoyed the conversations and look forward to digging in deeper with them. When we talk about Atlanta, and our solution, Atlanta is the number one city for income inequality in America. In fact, if a person is born into poverty in our city, there's only a four percent chance of that a person escaping poverty in their lifetime. And across all the measures when it comes to financial security, households of color really do fair worse than our white counterparts. Almost seventy percent of Black families are liquid asset poor compared to twenty two percent of white families. When we look at the solutions that we have tried to embed for AWBI, we are a community wealth building organization. We focused in on the systemic wealth gap for Black people in the city of Atlanta, and I know that is sometimes jarring to hear me say it that way. At AWBI we’re very race explicit. We talk about Black communities and Black people, because in the city of Atlanta, Black people are the majority of the city and the citizens. So, when we talk about economic viability of our city and solving the racial wealth gap, if we're not talking about Black communities, then no matter what solution that we embed, we are going to miss the mark there. Our approach is to apply as many people and systems as possible to convene as many partners together around workforce development, around anchor institutions, as well as data and information to make sure that we are creating and telling the correct story around the narratives that we are finding from the lived experiences of the communities that we work with. That's where the one thousand Black businesses pilot comes into play. It is the mechanism, the vehicle by which we embed our community wealth building strategies in the city of Atlanta through business development.
Lynette Bell: Jason, you started off so very strong stating that Atlanta, which is the hub for a lot of large companies, fortune 100 companies, but also small businesses, that you have the highest income inequality. AWBI is trying to help build opportunities to help those businesses tackle some of the systemic barriers that have existed there. But it’s surprising that Atlanta would have the highest income inequality, again, because of all the hubs that are there. You have the largest and busiest airport in the country, you have fortune 500 companies relocating their headquarters there, and surely, a lot of logistic firms are there as well in Atlanta. So, what is surprising to you about some of the work that you still are trying to carve out in a space that is dominated, as you stated, by African American constituents?
Jason Hudgins: I think it is that dichotomy that we see Lynette. It is the idea of the Atlanta that you see on TV, there's the lived experience of Atlanta of those who live here, and then there's the Atlanta of the statistics. It is one of the things that we say at AWBI – it is not about assigning blame to any one group or individuals. There are systems that were put in place that have perpetuated these gaps that we are seeing in the data and the information. What we want people to see, and one of the things that we lifted during the Truist Awards and during our process, was the idea of making sure that we are presenting the narratives, not just the ones that we would love to tell about our city but also where the gaps live. That yes, you will see Black people doing very well in the city of Atlanta, you will see Black millionaires, you will see television shows based around Atlanta, but the lived experience of the average Atlantean that makes under $30,000 per year is very different than sometimes what you see in the statistics and what you see on television. I think it's very important in my role, and I said it during my introduction, that I'm a community leader first. Because at the end of the day, keeping the community in focus, and I said this after we were named the first-place winner for the awards, it is not just about seeing businesses as a whole, it is about looking and understanding who those business owners are. Who are the children that they raise? What are the communities that they live in? And how an investment or solution cannot just change that one business but potentially can change a family and an entire community for generations to come.
Lynette Bell: Yeah, that is so critical. As a former person living in Atlanta for double digit years, I clearly could see the dichotomy that exists in the city and so to know that AWBI really has a strong understanding and grasp on some of the demographic factors that influence your work, it is really very confidently giving us the opinion that we made the right decision on supporting your efforts and your work. So happy that you guys are leading the way but also trying to eradicate and build the change we want to see. So, great job on that. Let me ask you a different question. You've been doing this work for a minute. You say that you're a community leader first, but what has been the most rewarding, Jason, moment in your work thus far? And I know you do a myriad of things as part of this work as you uncover some of the systemic issues, but also start creating and building sustainability and growth, what has been the most rewarding moment for you?
Jason Hudgins: It comes to mind instantly, Lynette, when you asked that question. There was a business that AWBI worked with and with our partners. Brown Toy Box is a business, if you are someone who loves toys, and toys that are diverse, I want you to check them out. Terry, who is the founder of Brown Toy Box, had a purchase order from a large national retail giant, and she could not find funding. Her business had been in business for a couple years. An executive found her toys, loved them so much and wanted to make sure they were on the shelves of this retail giant. She could not find funding. She went to every bank in the city of Atlanta, CDFIs, and could not find anyone, with the purchase order in hand saying can we scale this business to get these toys onto the shelves. AWBI, and my team, was able to work not just with Terry and her team, but also with some of our partners in the ecosystem to convene partners to tell her story and to make sure that they were not only able to meet that financing need for that one product line, but I am so happy to say that I had the opportunity with Terry and her team to celebrate the opening of their national headquarters in downtown Atlanta earlier this summer. It was so amazing to see not just how it impacted her and her family, but also the employees that Terry has now hired. She has started a global foundation that works with public schools in inner cities, specifically Atlanta Public Schools and others, and her impact is being felt not just in our city but across the world now through the supply chain just because we were able to find a solution for one business owner. So, when I look at the successes, she is someone who is not just a former partner, I consider her a friend. You see her kids grow up, and you see the impact on the family and the community that she lives in. I could give you a hundred of those stories of who I've worked with, that started out with a conversation and ended up with a major investment or a major solution for one person that cascaded through a community.
Lynette Bell: Jason, I will tell you, that is very awesome that you guys are pushing that narrative of sustainability and growth that way. I'm glad that you can do a hundred stories, I can't wait to hear the thousands of stories and hope that we'll be on the journey with you as you help to drive that impact, but also to help elevate the storytelling for you. I will tell you, I already bought a toy from her for my little niece for the holidays. It is in my closet right now. I'm getting ready to wrap it up, I'm taking it home at Thanksgiving so that will be under the tree for her. I already bought her a toy, from the Brown Toy Box!
Jason Hudgins: That is awesome. That is one of the things that we love to do. As you're telling the narrative, people find themselves in the stories of these businesses and feel connected to them. So, that makes me so happy! There's the biggest smile on my face right now hearing that.
Lynette Bell: So Jason, how has the work changed your organization? We know that you guys are really leaning in. Trying to help, as we state, reconstitute and redevelop systems so that Black and brown businesses have that equal opportunity to thrive. What are you going to change in your organization? And maybe even more importantly, what lessons have you learned that might have been mistakes along the way that you then changed the model so that you drove the right efficiency to get to the goal?
Jason Hudgins: I will say this about the process of the Truist Awards and the process that we went through, it really allowed us to test and to be challenged along the way. Our first presentation was very different from our last one and that is a huge shoutout to the judges and everyone that was involved in the process who challenged AWBI along the way. No one loves criticism in the moment or even constructive criticism, but it helped strengthen us as we went through. When I look at the history of our organization and what we want to change going forward, one of the things that we lift, and I said it earlier, is about being race explicit in our organization. But I learned through our cohort, and I want to shout out our cohort member Christine Laughter (she's a First Nations person from the Navajo Nation in Arizona), Christine talks a lot in her solutions about bringing culture to the forefront. I think that it’s one thing to talk about race when it comes to solutions, but when you talk about culture, that adds another set of layers. I think that's one thing that we're talking about in AWBI, as we embed one thousand Black businesses in our solutions going forward is how we keep the cultural aspect at the forefront. I think that is something that, if you look at Atlanta, the first thing people think about in our culture is how people think of our city and what our exports are. To bring that lens and that mindset to our day-to-day work even more explicitly is going to be very powerful for the narratives that we craft and the stories that we tell going forward. I think when we look at the mistakes that we've made in the past, and it kind of connects even with that idea of culture, is being very honest about who are the partners that are coming to the table as we're coming in. One of the things that makes the partnership with the Truist Foundation so powerful is that Truist has been very honest about where it's got it right in the past, and where it was not so right in the past. We have not always as an organization been as explicit there. I think being very clear with our partners around wanting to know where did you get it wrong? Where can we help? Where is our part in the process as we go forward together? It's going to be very important. That is a mistake that we want to rectify going forward – choosing the right partners at each step along the way to make sure that we're not short-circuiting our own success in the narrative that we're telling so that people cannot point to the story or the process of AWBI and say that doesn't match up with the values that we state. I think it's very important that not only you say what you're going to do, but people should be able to see that going forward. That's something that's a point of pride for our organization and we want to make it even more so as we go forward.
Lynette Bell: Yeah, it really sounds like you got the full paradigm of one, establishing the business model for the nonprofit to support the constituents you want to serve. But culture, right, is an equal part of strategy as you build that out. The fact that you've identified that up front is part of a design mindset that you all have utilized to create AWBI. I think you're on the right track, and so similarly with the Truist Foundation we did the same thing. Because you know, it's been three years since we've merged and along the way, we clearly made some mistakes. But there’s some things we got right. But those mistakes were needed for us to put that fine point or drive that clear line of strategy to the way we want to see the outcome. So, thank you for sharing that with us. I guess one thing that I'd like to ask you, everybody has a tagline these days, or everybody has their 10-second elevator pitch. What message about the work, Jason, do you think everyone should hear?
Jason Hudgins: Everyone should hear that it's going to take a village and a holistic approach. None of us can solve this issue alone. I would say, if I were to give it a line, there is a quote that I love, “We are all angels with only one wing and we can only fly by embracing each other.” That is the idea of AWBI and how we engage in this work, and why it is so important. The issue is large, however, the solution can also be large if we are willing to set aside personal agendas and the agendas of individual organizations and connect in together. Lock arms around a set of solutions that work for the community and not just for the individuals.
Lynette Bell: I love the fact that you have the symbol of an angel with one wing, that it takes everybody to fly. So, thank you for that. That's an exploration that a lot of organizations never consider in their process or when they're building out their model. The fact that you guys have done that and realized that the collaboration is the key to success, is really outstanding. So, my final question to you Jason. We could talk all day, quite frankly. I could take this off for another 30 minutes but I have a finite amount of time. Imagine a world where your mission has been totally accomplished and your work is no longer necessary, what have you defeated to get there?
Jason Hudgins: I think when I think of that world – and I'll be honest, Lynette, that question is what my dreams are literally made of – it is the idea that communities of color have all of the resources they need and thrive without any barriers. We will have overcome the systemic bias, racism, systemic issues, but also, we will have overcome, as an organization and as a people, the barriers that only exist in our own minds. Saying that we are worthy to thrive. That we are worthy and have the ability, and should be, thriving. Not just for ourselves, but for the generations that come after us. I think in the perfect world, all people regardless of the color of their skin, or their socioeconomic background, are going to be born with the same quality of education and the same opportunities and pathways forward with absolutely no barriers. It is not about where you are born. The only limit would be your dreams and where you decide that you want to go. My view is that if we do this right at AWBI, if we do it right in community, that I will at some point put myself out of a job. Maybe I can come work for you one day, Lynette? The idea is that we should be actively working to solve these issues so that I have to go find something else to do. I'll be honest, that's a reason to dust off my resume that I would love to have in the future.
Lynette Bell: I would love to have you on the team, how about that? But, I will say, what you painted is exactly that, a world where there is equality and everybody has the same equitable opportunity to thrive. So, I envision that with you and concur that we should see that in the future based on what AWBI is doing right now. I hope it gets to that place in time. Well Jason, thank you so much for joining me today. It was really a pleasure!
Jason Hudgins: Lynette, it was a pleasure. Thank you so much for all of your support! I look forward to being able to come back at the next Truist Awards and tell all of the successes and the stories that are connected with all of this.
Lynette Bell: Great! I can't wait for you to do that too. To the audience, thank you so much for joining us today. Jason, again, leading the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative and the work of the organization. Truist Foundation is so excited to be on this journey with AWBI in your efforts to strengthen Black businesses across the community. We look forward to sharing more stories of the impactful work of Truist Foundation’s partners across the country. Be sure and stay tuned and visit our website to learn more. Thank you.
Lynette Bell: Hello, and welcome again to another episode of Truist Foundation’s conversations with our grantees. I’m Lynette Bell, President of the Truist Foundation. Truist Foundation’s purpose is to inspire and build better lives and communities and we do this by partnering with nonprofit organizations that support this mission. During this audio series, I will be sitting down with various partners of the foundation to give them the opportunity to share their amazing work and what they’re doing in the communities to make a real difference. Today, I’m joined by James Burnett, Executive Director of VestedIn. Welcome, James!
James Burnett: Thank you! Happy to be here.
Lynette Bell: Great, happy to have you. So, James, before we dive in the conversation today, could you give the audience a brief introduction of yourself and your work.
James Burnett: Sure, I am currently the executive director for VestedIn. We are a CDFI based in Philadelphia and serving seven counties including four counties around Philadelphia – Camden County in New Jersey and New Castle County in Delaware. We provide small business loans to businesses primarily less than a million dollars in sales, and then we also run a youth entrepreneurship, real estate investing and other investing accelerator internship that runs during the summer months for about eight weeks.
Lynette Bell: So, James, you clearly indicated that your organization, VestedIn, is a CDFI – and for the audience, that’s community development financial institutions, which is a special designation from the office of treasury to help reshape and rededicate resources to communities that have been underrepresented and underserved. So, James, what is at the heart of the work that you’re doing and what are the conditions that make this work really, really necessary in our communities.
James Burnett: I think at the heart of our organization is community, but we like to think about it from community, business and you. And what that means for us is the business owner who we work with doesn’t exist in a vacuum – they actually operate in communities; they have impact on that community; ideally, we want those impacts to be positive. But, also, it’s the individual business owner who we’re trying to help grow their business and so that business can have those positive impacts, so we like to look at it as business, community, you. That being said, the communities that we typically do business in are low-income; they tend to be African American or Hispanic. We lend probably 60% of our financing goes to women-owned businesses; about 20% of our lending goes to startup businesses – with a goal of, really, how do we impact and grow. So, some of our initiatives right now are really can we get those businesses to a million dollars in sales. If we can get you to a million dollars in sales, it’s more than likely that you’re going to start to hire people. And in Philadelphia in particular, Philadelphia County, you have a poverty rate of about 25% - and that’s been a persistent poverty rate for probably the last 20 years, unfortunately. And so, we like if we start at the bottom - and when I say bottom, I’m only talking about size of business, then if we can get those businesses to grow - they’re going to hire people in the communities where they’re located so then you go back to that business getting strong, that community getting strong and the people they’re hiring again being strong, which is also that you.
Lynette Bell: That’s really, really great that we are looking at, not only, changing conditions for individuals in communities in Philadelphia, but you’re really talking about how do we build sustainability and growth opportunity for small businesses, which as we know during the pandemic that small businesses really drive the fabric and DNA of this country. So, the work you’re doing is really, really crucial. What would you tell me, James, about – what’s the most rewarding thing that you’ve done or the moment that you’ve had in this work thus far?
James Burnett: I love that fact that we built a shopping center that created over 700 jobs, eliminated a huge amount of blight and really brought retail into a community where 400 million dollars a year was being spent in other communities. But the thing that really gets me is working with the young people. We have an amazing amount of talent in Philadelphia and the surrounding region with young people, but we don’t cultivate it as much as we should. So, what we’ve been trying to do for the last thirteen years is make sure young people learn how to believe in themselves and understand that they have a voice. So, in our case – which we call our WesGold Fellows program, which started with the development of our shopping center – we’re giving them exposure to major real estate development. So, for example, Tishman Prosperities in New York that owns Rockefeller Center, our WesGold Fellows – 45 students or so this year – were up in the development that they’re doing for Pfizer’s new headquarters. So, this is a $3 billion property that high school students from Philadelphia are now going to – meeting with the project managers; meeting with some of the tenants that will occupy that space; understanding why it’s important for them to be in these particular spaces; and then, feel like they belong, which in a lot of cases has been the big challenge. So, I love my lending and I love working with small businesses, but I think if we really want to impact, in particular communities of color, we really have to start younger, and start to build the framework of those young people that they can be a part of this, that it’s not a surprise and they feel valued in those spaces.
Lynette Bell: I think that is so good that you built a fellows program that the organization identifies how do you help young people understand the paradigm that exists in the commercial real estate space. I love the fact that you are like hey Lynette, we put this shopping center here; we have $400 million recirculating in our communities, which is phenomenal – but then you’re like, that’s not the joy, that’s not what my real mission is. My mission is to reach back and pull that next generation forward to see here’s other opportunities that are not visible to them in their community – from just what’s walking on the street or what they see on the street corner – but things that are happening that are based in an asset like land. If you’re like my Dad you say, if you have land, you have wealth. Land and asset accumulation with wealth is really important, so you’re teaching them those fundamentals in high school. I just can’t imagine the trajectory that places them on when they’re thinking about “how do I go forward in the future?” You’re exposing them, to like you said, Pfizer building a multibillion-dollar facility and bringing in all the tenants – and they’re looking at this going “this is commercial real estate; an area that I’ve never even considered. Even though I might have passed it on the street or passed it in my community, I never knew the nuances that went into that.” I love that you’re taking it and pulling it forward by reaching back – that is really phenomenal. So, what are some of the most valuable lessons, James, that you’ve learned in your role? It sounds like you are applying them across the board in really reaching out in the community and pulling it through to build that infrastructure that’s needed for the next generation. But what did you learn is the most valuable lesson in this role?
James Burnett: I think for me it is to listen, and I think that goes with regardless of if we’re talking about small business owners, whether we’re talking about funders, like Truist – and how do we really identify the challenges that those business owners are going through. In a lot of cases, as a practitioner, we use jargon – use a lot of ratios, what’s your ratio or what’s your quick ratio, and I need to get paid back with my debt service coverage. And, at the end of the day, the borrower just wants to know how much do I need to write a check for and when do I need to write it for. But at the same time, we have to listen to what they’re challenges are as finance people. We kind of know how to deliver capital, but in some cases, we don’t take the time to listen to the real problems. And then, for the businesses that we work with that are under that million dollars, in a lot of cases they are not able to articulate it in the way that hits our ear – it’s not comfortable for our ear. It’s sometimes, they’re talking, not a different language but it’s with an accent. So, with that little bit of accent we have to listen a little bit more, so that we can develop products and services that actually meet their needs and are not just creating products that meet our needs.
Lynette Bell: That’s very powerful. The thing that stood out to me is that listening is the key to provide that kind of guidance and advice to small businesses because articulating the demands of the business as the operationalize and run it from day to day are different from what you as a lender need. You’re right – we love our old jargon, even in banking, we’re like “oh, what’s your capital ratio; what’s your investment ratio?” You’re exactly right – you got to be able to meet them where they are and get proximate with your client – and it sounds like you then provide that guidance and advice that they need so that they can think in the infusion to build sustainability, do payroll, do operations, or to grow and maybe even acquire other businesses. So, if you had to, James, say Lynette “what’s the one thing I want people to know today about the work that this organization, VestedIn – we recognized right away that you guys were driving and really building impactful work as a CDFI, which is why we said we need to support you and co-create based on the initiatives and goals of the organization – but what's the one thing you want people to know about the work the organization does?
James Burnett: Our organization started with a goal of Black ownership, and so we’re trying to drive that with everything we do. That being said, not everything we do is exclusively for Black businesses. And because in a marketplace that you’re trying to grow, you want to try to grow your marketplace. It’s not exclusively for businesses in poor communities – because in poor communities there’s not enough resources to sustain those communities, so we have to go actually outside of those communities in order to get some additional capital to make sure that those communities have the capital because we’re going to be investing in there. So, one of the things that we did is expand. When we started, we were only in two census tracks and now we’re in seven counties. And the reason that we’re in seven counties is because I can make more loans to more businesses and the return on that investment now allows me to reinvest in those two census tracks. So, we haven’t left our roots in terms of where we want to go, but we’ve left – kind of – how do we get more revenue; how do we get more profitability, and that profit is being reinvested. So, the cool things that we’re working on, and the thing that we’ve partnered with Truist on is the creation of a business score line. And in this case, we’re excited for this particular tool because it does something for the small business; it does something for lenders (and I say lenders as a CDFI); and it also does something, in our mind, for banks who have been traditionally they haven’t been really out there in the small business space – they’ve done some challenging things in terms of not allowing capital to be accessed by Black and Brown folks. But what our tool is saying is banks do business in a particular way; CDFIs do business in a particular way – if you’re looking for capital, again let’s go back to the listening, if you’re looking for capital, let’s analyze how you are right now as a business. So, our business score line, that we’re partnering with Back Squirrel Collaborative on, that business score line if small business goes through it maybe it takes them half an hour to complete it. Once you’re completed with that, it’ll give you that basically tells you the things that you need to improve your business. But it also tells you the areas that you should be approaching for capital, and for us, it’s about building an efficiency. So, if we can say to that person “don’t go to the bank right now because, unfortunately, you’re not ready – and it’s not a negative, it’s just where you are. Let’s get you ready! And right now, you may need to go to friends and family; right now, you might need to go to crowdfunding; right now, you might need to go to a CDFI; right now, you might do SBA funding.” In those cases, let’s not go to the bank – because you go to the bank and the first thing you’re going to do as a Black man or a woman: “well the bank didn’t fund me.” And you’re going to tell your friends and your family and community groups and anybody else and all of the sudden there’s this big roar to go to the banks and say hey, they’re not funding us. But the reality was something different – I wasn’t ready. So, on both sided of these things, we want to make sure that we’re helping everybody. So, for us, I actually just had a conversation today with somebody – your regional leader – about hey give us all of the deals that you guys just turned down because now we can analyze why, why didn’t you get this. And now you’re providing additional support to this business – I may not be able to give you a loan – but I can provide you with the support to tell you what you need to do, so that you can at some point in time grow to the point where Truist or any other financial institution is able to support you.
Lynette Bell: It sounds like that innovative tool that you all created helps build the business life cycle for the firm, right.
James Burnett: The exact phrasing that he used.
Lynette Bell: That’s exactly right. I love that you are using innovation and technology – and I also love tat you said something very early in the response is that Lynette, we had to leverage the resources that we were using – we didn’t lose that, the base of our roots – but we extended ourselves outside so we’re in multiple counties now, so that we can then drive that ROI back so that we continue to support that micro to small business that is not ready for the type of capital it think it needs, but we’re going to help them build that with this tool that we created to get there. So, I love that you’re still listening and providing that guidance and advice but helping them through their business lifecycle, so that’s really important and really valuable. Alright, so my final question to you, James, as this conversation – which is so great today and so robust – if you could imagine a world where your mission has been accomplished, you put your cape down and you’re like I did that, what obstacle would you have defeated to get there?
James Burnett: I think the biggest obstacle we have to defeat is the perception that Black and brown businesses are charity. And that if either give them a contract or you buy from them, that you’re doing so and you’re going to get some charitable reward. And if you don’t, then it’s really not a thing – it’s like the guy standing on the corner, did I give him a dollar I feel a little bit better; did I not give him a dollar I feel okay – but the reality is, this is part of an economic engine that’s being underestimated and not seen as a value to the entire whole of the ecosystem. And so, in my scenario when we’re done and we don’t have to do anything, there’s no longer an issue – it is everybody going to the best provider of the good or service, in the way that they teach us in economics class, and you’re doing that moving forward. So, hopefully we get there sometime soon but we’ve got a little bit of a ways to go.
Lynette Bell: I can imagine that world with you because based on what you’re doing at VestedIn that you’re listening, you’re getting proximate to the needs and providing guidance and advice, and you’re using innovation and tools to help them understand where they are in the life cycle of their business – I think we’re going to eventually get there, James, I just hope we’re both around to see it.
James Burnett: I hope so too. It’s been a pleasure.
Lynette Bell: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much for joining met today, James and sharing more about VestedIn and your work for the organization. Truist Foundation is so very proud to be a partner of VestedIn and I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to have this dialogue with you today. We look forward to sharing more stories of the impactful work of Truist Foundation’s partners across the country. Be sure to stay tuned for more and check out our website to learn more.
Lynette Bell: Hello and welcome again to another episode of Truist Foundation’s conversations with our grantees. I am Lynette Bell, president of the Truist Foundation. Truist Foundation’s purpose is to inspire and build better lives in communities. And we do this by partnering with non-profit organizations that support this mission. During this audio series I will be sitting down with various partners of the foundation to give them the opportunity to share the amazing work they’re doing to make a difference in their respective communities. I’m so excited, today I’m joined by Alan Alvarez, Director of Educational Programs for the Miami Bayside Foundation. Welcome Alan.
Alan Alvarez: Thank you so much Lynette.
Lynette Bell: Before we dive into the conversation Alan, can you give a brief introduction to some of our listeners?
Alan Alvarez: Sure, so as you mentioned my name is Alan Alvarez, I was born and raised in Miami Florida. Studied sports management and business in college, quickly thereafter joined the Miami Marlins baseball team here in South Florida where I worked in our division of community relations and the foundation. Was with the Marlins Foundations for approximately 10 years and then because of covid, like many, had to find a new passion, a new career. And it led me to the Miami Bayside Foundation where I am now. Joined the Miami Bayside Foundation at the start of 2020 and have been working with the organization since then. You know, fundraising, non-profit work, community work, has always been a passion of mine. Being able to work with community partners throughout South Florida, being able to join an organization that does so much in the community was the natural transition for me. And just a little tidbit on the personal side, I can't not plug the fact that my wife and I had our first newborn son three months ago, so we are happy parents of a healthy boy, Aaron, and so that’s definitely keeping us busy and up at night.
Lynette Bell: Well Alan you’ve had a lot going on and so a newborn, Aaron, and covid. How exciting is that? That you got to bring new life into the world. I'm sure he’s keeping you up at night because that’s what a newborn does. But how exciting for your first born. I must say I'm a first-born child as well and I'm a native of Florida, so you know, you’ve hit two very important things that are consistent with me. Being a first-born and a native of Florida. So that’s another Floridian coming into the world. I must say that the South Florida market is so diverse and so dynamic from a cultural standpoint to economic and just the diversity that exists in South Florida is so unique, but it is also representative of this country. What is at the heart of the work that you do? And why is it so important to you?
Alan Alvarez: Certainly. So, the Miami Bayside Foundation is a non-profit and certified CDFI designed to advance economic development in South Florida. We do this through the support of minority businesses and minority education. Um, specifically on the business side is supporting minority and woman owned businesses through our loan program. This is small business loans designed to help support these communities, low interest loans. We do this additionally through our technical assistance programs, workshop programs, training programs, capacity building, teaching small business owners how to grow and scale their businesses. And then on the educational side it’s supporting youths through grants. This is grants to non-profit organizations that are impacting them in a positive way as well as scholarships for minority students, so we refer to that part of the work that we do as almost the future workforce involvement, building our future to hopefully become the future entrepreneurs and small business owners which is the large contingency of what we support. You touched on an aspect about the unique population of our region and of our community down here. Miami-Dade County is composed of close to 2.7 million residents, and of that, 70% are Hispanic and 18 are African American and black. So, when you talk about supporting minorities and supporting minority owned businesses, that is the landscape and the footprint of our county and the population that we serve, so certainly something that we keep top of mind and hopefully create programs that help eliminate a lot of the barriers to entry that minorities face when trying to launch a business or start a business. You know, we hear from some of our business owners that there's discriminatory lending practices. So, they're trying to get a loan but they're not being considered the same way that somebody else might be and that might be because of the lack of their qualifying credit scores, the lack of their financial education, the lack of their background financial status. So, we try to eliminate those barriers to entry that the minority community faces here in South Florida and hopefully create opportunities for them to pursue their dreams. Have access to resources, access to educational opportunities, access to capital. Areas that help them formulate and grow their businesses to hopefully in turn be able to provide for themselves and for their families.
Lynette Bell: Yeah, that’s really important work and I know that the one thing the pandemic taught all of us, and surprisingly so, is that you know, the DNA of this country relies so heavily on micro to small businesses, particularly businesses managed by women and BIPOC individuals. And so, the fact that your geographic market is so diverse but you’re supporting the growth and development of minority and women owned businesses is so critical to the fabric of what we are in America. And so as you think about, Alan, the work that you do and some of the systemic barriers you're trying to eradicate in this particular ecosystem, I know at Truist Foundation that is one of the things that we want to lean in on, as we have conversations, particularly with CDFIs and non-profits is that we know that barriers exist today in the ecosystem and trying to eradicate those in a systemic way so that it opens up a portal for access and for businesses to build sustainability and growth is really critical. And I know that you have a great story or story that you can share with the listeners around one of those rewarding moments that happened with one of those minority or women owned businesses. Want to share a story?
Alan Alvarez: Sure. No, you know, it's definitely fitting that I'm able to share a story and it’s actually tied directly to the support that we received thanks to the Truist Foundation and your generosity and your organizations generosity to invest in one of our existing programs and impact small businesses directly. So, one of the areas we focus heavily on is our technical assistance and workshop program. That is targeting the same minority businesses that we just talked about and offering them a comprehensive 5-week deep dive into all areas that a business owner should know and be familiar with when running a business. So, anything from establishing a business plan to understanding how to operate QuickBooks, to hiring practices and legal considerations that they should keep in mind when growing their companies. How to market, how to develop a sales strategy, how to, how to engage potential clients and close leads. So, a wealth of knowledge and a wealth of information that they receive and in turn can implement into their businesses. However, in 2020 we took this a step further and we said not only are we going to give you the classroom instructions, the information on paper and the PowerPoints and have you sit and learn, but we’re going to hold your hand and we’re going to help you in the mentorship and the implementation of what you’ve learned. And thanks to the grant that we received, we were able to put forth a program that impacted 70 small businesses in South Florida who were facing hardship as a result of covid. These were 70 businesses that did not have the digital footprint or the digital mindset to survive in a point of time where businesses were being forced to pivot. They were being forced to operate strictly online, have strong social presence, be able to process orders electronically, and these businesses were not in a position to do so. So, we were able to work with these 70 small businesses, put them through 28 hours of instruction, targeting areas such as marketing principles, marketing strategies, how to sell on Amazon, how to develop websites, enhance your LinkedIn, establish Instagram and Facebook. And then we put them through one-on-one mentoring. This was over 500 hours of one-on-one mentoring with industry experts. Experts that were helping answer their questions, helping guide them in establishing these processes. And then lastly, providing small business grants to them to invest in actual resources and software systems and digital platforms so that they could do business and so that they could pivot out. And, you know, I reference this as one of my most rewarding moments because I got to meet Jose and Odette Trigo. You know the owners of First US Linen Services, a linen company in Opa-Lacka in our community, who didn’t have a website, didn’t have a social platform. They were providing linens for restaurants and for hotels and all of a sudden nobody's visiting the restaurants, nobody's staying at hotels, and what are they doing? You know, how can they sustain their livelihood? So we got her a website, we got them an Instagram and a Facebook expert who helped them with ads and how to market on those platforms. They established LinkedIn outreach methods. They got a promotional video, a video that they could put on their website, a video that they could use on social ads, so now they were empowered with that digital marketing toolkit. And you know, hearing from them a year later, cause we had touchpoints in both 2021 and now again in 2022. Hearing that they survived, hearing that they grew their businesses. Hearing from other business owners that in some cases they have doubled their business because of the ability to pivot and survive during such difficult times. That right there is a rewarding moment. Being able to hear from a business owner and say that we were at, we were at a standstill. We didn’t know what we were going to do. We didn’t know where to start, and thanks to the support of organizations like the Truist Foundation and the Miami Bayside Foundation, they were able to find the solution and are now seeing and reaping the benefits of having an effective digital marking strategy.
Lynette Bell: Wow, Alan that is such an impactful story. The resilience of that small business to take that mentorship that Miami Bayside Foundation offered as well as the wrap around 360 speed supportive services to help restructure their business model so that they could sustain the downturn in the economy through the pandemic's disruption. And then come out on the other side, I mean I think that is such a unique piece of what you offer from a programming standpoint, that you were able to help them elevate not only their reach, but also elevate their business model so that they can now, you know, survive anything that disrupts the normal activity of day to day, and it’s an new way to have them start shifting that paradigm thought of I can do my business in multiple ways versus in a singular straight line kind of way. I really think that is just really dynamic and something that we look for to have continued engagement with partners who are thinking in an innovative way, like Miami Bayside Foundation. So thank you for sharing that great story. So one of the things that I will say that I learned a lot during the pandemic, a lot during the social and racial justice movement, as a new foundation that was standing up in the with the closure of the merger in December 2019 to where we are today. What would be some of the lessons learned in your role? I know you were at the Miami Marlins and that foundation was just so different cause you were a sports and entertainment major and you got to actually go work for a sporting firm, and then to shift to a non-profit foundation to actually continue to do that mission related work. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned in your role?
Alan Alvarez: Certainly. So I joined the Miami Bayside Foundation at a very interesting time, a time where the small business community was going through probably its most challenging moment in American history, and we were in a unique position to leverage that need and leverage the challenges that the small business community was facing and learn and grow from it. You know, and the last couple years we were able to expand the geographical area that we served. Previously we were serving just Miami-Dade's County but we were able to expand to cover both Broward, which is the Northern County of us, and Monroe which is the county south of Miami-Dade County. So now encompassing a tri-county area in South Florida. We were able to increase technical assistance programs to the small business community, offering them both an English and Spanish language. Our lending budget increased, you know, from back in 2018 we were lending, our lending budget was approximately $800,000 to now in 2022 it’s a lending budget of three million. And a lot of that was our, our challenge and internal challenge to say we understand that there's a great need in the community that we’re serving and we need to do our part to grow, we need to do our part to be able to partner with other organizations, expand our support network, provide the resources that these organizations are seeking during this current time. And that’s exactly what we did. We relied heavily on the support of other community partners, learning that this was something that we weren't able to accomplish on our own. So we sought out the help of organizations, such as the SPDC at Bayou, Prospera, Score, another group locally called Access Help. These are all small business resource partners of ours, organizations that provide capital, provide mentorship, provide implementation, other types of small business support so it was bringing in that holistic approach, the community focus approach. And then thankfully, you know, we all learned how to work electronically, and work via Zoom, work via Microsoft Teams. That allowed us to expand the support network that we were providing our small business owners. Now they're receiving support from experts all across the state, experts all across the country. We have presenters and specialists from as far as California, as far north as Canada, just being able to grow our footprint where, yeah, it’s always been centered around the community that we serve but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the partners and the resources are limited to just that immediate circle. And that immediate silo. And so it was, it was being able to provide additional support, being able to meet the unmet need, and understanding how more than ever, our organizations and our small businesses were looking to us for stability. Looking for us to provide what we could, and what we’ve knowingly done for so many years, but be able to provide it in a clean and effective way for them to hopefully grow and benefit from it.
Lynette Bell: You know, I heard a lot there that you just unpacked and two things that stood out to me was that you repivoted your own business model as Miami Bayside Foundation, but in addition to that you realized that this is a unique moment in time and we need collaboration with other partners, so creating that synergy with other non-profit entities whether it was federal, you know, NPOs, or a non-profit in the local non-profit and in the market to help you continue to deliver on the services in a way that uses that, you know, virtual and social platforms so that you could have and expand your regions. I think that is so and really what was needed in that moment, so those are great lessons learned as you kind of take your new model forward. And I will say that I think that your organization has done a very outstanding job in such a unique way and in such a very timely way. So, as we think about the thing that people want to know the most about your organization or the thing you want them to have as a leave behind as we wrap up this conversation. What's that one thing you want them to know about Miami Bayside Foundation?
Alan Alvarez: Certainly. So, you know, the one thing that I think is important to point out and we didn’t get a chance to talk about it as much is that there's a, almost a misrepresentation or a misperception of the reality surrounding my immediate county or Miami in general. You think Miami and you think Miami beach, you think the glitz, the glamor, you think the beaches, the sun, the celebrities. The yachts, the homes, but Miami-Dade County has the second highest income inequality in the country. There are close to 20% of our residents are living under the poverty line. This is well below the national average, and certainly is why there are so many, or there is a need for organizations such as ours to help bridge that gap. To hopefully help create more jobs, help impact the economy in a positive way by supporting our small business community. And we’ve talked a lot about all the resources that we provide small businesses, whether it’s through our loan programs or technical assistance programs, or mentoring or coaching etc. But one of the areas that I think folks don’t understand about the Miami Bayside Foundation is that we focus a lot on minority youth as well and that’s an area that goes overlooked I guess, and seeing that we are CDFI and that we support the small business community, it’s often overlooked that we make an investments in youth as well. And we’ve done so in a predominant way, you know, close to 2.3 million in scholarships. Another 2.6 million in grants. These are all gifts going towards that same minority business owner. He might be, he or she might be in a different stage in their life. They might be a middle school student that is part of a after school program, or they might be a senior at Miami-Dade Community College that is seeking a degree in business and entrepreneurship. But they have a passion, they have their side hustle, they have that yearning to hopefully develop this business at some point in time. And we want to ensure that not only are we doing our part to work with established small business owners and provide them with that support, but to hopefully inspire others to develop their own businesses. And I think our investment in youths is an area that often gets overlooked and, and lastly you know, one thing that I have to point out is all of our programs are free. And I think, you know, when you hear the term free, sometimes there's that immediate catch or immediate thought of well what’s the catch? How can I approach Miami Bayside Foundation, and they do lending and they do training, how can that possibly be free? And the reality is that yes, it is free, and that’s what we want and do and the services that we provide. The small business community, we want to ensure that it doesn’t mean that they have to take out a loan with us. It doesn’t mean that they have to pay for any of the courses or the programs. We want organizations, or I'm sorry, we want small business owners that need the help and need the support, to keep our name top of mind and know that we’re here to help them through their endeavors, whether it’s at the startup phase, whether it’s as the growth phase, or just being able to be a sounding board and provide them with additional resources to help their business.
Lynette Bell: Alan, I did not know your reach for young people and so thank you for sharing that information. It sounds like you have such a multidisciplinary program that reaches not only that young person in the form of scholarships, but also that adult learner that is actually starting out the business and I love that you brought it back to the continuum of a business from a startup to your midways and your growth process. Being that conglomerate I think it is important to know that these services offered by Miami Bayside Foundation are there and available in all aspect of business but also, hey let me help reach that young person as they’re thinking about what is going to be the next step for them once they get out of high school or go out of college right. I think that is very important to bring forward because it was not part of what we looked at when we looked at your mission, we looked at supporting small businesses cause again, we were trying to align it strategically for us cause that’s what we were focused on, eradicating the barriers systemically in the ecosystem of small businesses, so thank you for sharing that piece of information with us. And finally, so if you can imagine a world where your mission today has been accomplished in perfect Zen state. What has occurred in your perfect world and what obstacles have you defeated?
Alan Alvarez: That’s a tough one. I, you know, I think we all agree that small businesses are a backbone of America, so we certainly want to see the continuation of small businesses and small businesses opening in our country, but I think, as I think of what is that perfect world and what would the ultimate goal look like, it’s eliminating the barriers that we talked about. It's bridging the gap of income inequality. It's eliminating racial inequality. It's creating and allowing everyone that dreams of becoming an entrepreneur to achieve that. Let me start that again. It's allowing everyone that dreams of becoming an entrepreneur to achieve that dream. It's having access to resources. It’s having access to education. Having access to capital. Building stronger communities. Building a stronger economy. Creating more jobs, lowering the unemployment rate, reducing poverty, you know, all of these things that we all would love to see in America. Specifically in this case in Miami-Dade County. But certainly, eliminating all those gaps. All those issues. And what prevents a small business owner from making their dream a reality. Being able to provide for their family. Being able to grow and thrive, thanks to the success of their dream and their small business.
Lynette Bell: Wow. You have packed a lot in right there. I would say that one of the things that you stated was that everyone who has a dream of being a business owner will be able to achieve it in your perfect world. And then you started rambling off all of the things that had to happen to get there. Access to capital. Access to resources, technical assistance, building better communities, creating that wealth. That’s why we were so excited to have conversations with Miami Bayside during the pandemic to talk about what you guys were doing, as you were pivoting as well. But the continuing partnership, you're the type of partner that at Truist we want to see because you align so perfectly to our mission and goal, which is to inspire and build better lives in communities. And building better is just what you described in that perfect world scenario. So, thank you so much for joining me today, Alan, I hope this was worth your time.
Alan Alvarez: Thank you Lynette, it was a pleasure and I loved talking to you.
Lynette Bell: Thank you once again for sharing some great information today about the Miami Bayside Foundation and the work of your organization clearly is very impactful in South Florida, very diverse community with the opportunity is endless for you all to continue to make a difference and an impact. Truist Foundation is proud to be a partner with Miami Bayside Foundation. So, we look forward to sharing more stories of the impactful work of Truist Foundation’s partners across the country. Be sure to stay tuned for more and check out our website to learn more.
Lynette Bell: Hello, and welcome to the first of Truist Foundation’s conversations with our grantees. I am Lynette Bell, the President of Truist Foundation. At Truist, our purpose is to inspire and build better lives and communities, and we do this in the foundation by partnering with nonprofit organizations that support not only this mission, but their mission and vision to build better communities. During this audio series, I will be sitting down with various partners of the Foundation to give them the opportunity to share the amazing work they are doing, making a difference in their respective communities. Today, I am joined by Dr. Timothy Renick, Executive Director of the National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State University. Welcome Dr. Renick.
Timothy Renick: Thank you, Lynette. It’s a pleasure to be here with you today.
LB: Before we dive into this conversation, could you give our listening audience a brief introduction, Dr. Renick, to who you are, and tell us a little bit about yourself.
TR: Sure, thanks for the opportunity. I’m Tim Renick, I’m from Georgia State University, and a longtime faculty member here, I actually teach Comparative Religious Ethics. I’m a professor of religious studies. I chaired the Religious Studies Department, directed the Honors Program. But my career took a shift about fifteen years ago as I was appointed Georgia State’s first administrator who was in charge of student success, in charge of supporting students from the time they first enrolled to the point of graduation, and over the last fifteen years, we’ve done a lot of pioneering work at Georgia State in using data and analytics, most recently AI and other technologies, to provide wraparound support in a systematic way for our students, and we’ve seen transformative outcomes. So, you know, basically half-way through my career, I’ve kind of reinvented myself, and I’ve become a data person who helps lead conversations nationally about how to support especially students from underserved backgrounds. And most recently, I’ve become the first executive director of Georgia State’s new National Institute for Student Success, dedicated to helping campuses, especially institutions that enroll large numbers of low-income, minoritized, and first-generation college students, develop supports for those students so that they can graduate at much higher rates.
LB: Wow Dr. Renick. That is really amazing. To have the opportunity to shift in your long tenure at Georgia State University to do something so impactful and worthwhile is really heartwarming. But when you think about your work, and what your organization is trying to address, what would you say is that top priority on that scale that you’re building to increase the graduation rate for low-income, first-generation college students? What is the heart of your work about, and why are you so passionate about it?
TR: Good question Lynette. A lot of my passion flows out of my work for many years in the classroom. I taught thousands of students at Georgia State over basically a twenty-year period. I saw first-hand the potential they have, and I also saw first-hand the struggles and how many talented students never made it to the point of graduation. There are few things more important today than higher education when it comes to social mobility and life opportunities. It’s currently the case that the college graduate is 1/3 as likely to be unemployed. The college graduate will earn about 40% more in the early years of their careers, and over the course of their careers will earn about a million dollars more than the high school graduate. But those are just the raw numbers. It’s also the case that college graduates have more options. They have more mobility geographically, and longer life expectancy on average, because they have access to better healthcare. Their children will have better life opportunities, better healthcare, and better education, and so forth. Suffice to say, there are few things more important than a college degree, and yet there are few things at this point less equitably distributed across the economic spectrum in the US than a college degree. It is right now about eight times more likely that if you’re among the 20% wealthiest Americans you’ll attain a college degree, than if you’re among the 20% least wealthy Americans, and that’s not how it should be. We all know that if we’re going to create an equitable and just society, we need to make the opportunities that people have available across the economic spectrum. So, you ask what is the heart of my work. The heart of my work is saying, “We can do better.” We not only can, but we must, do better as a nation, as communities, in providing educational opportunities to all people. What we should be rewarding is talent, not zip codes, not – you know – birthrights and so forth. The National Institute for Student Success is dedicated to producing stronger and far more equitable outcomes across the economic spectrum. I mentioned Georgia State has been working in this space for fifteen years, and I have been leading the efforts. Our most proud accomplishment in this time-period is that we have improved graduation rates by more than 70%. That is fantastic. But what is almost unheard of is that we have eliminated equity gaps. At Georgia State now for seven years, our low-income students, our black students, have all graduated at or above the rate of the student body overall, meaning that if you are an incoming student to Georgia State this fall, regardless of whether you are black or white, Hispanic, low-income, or middle and upper income, you have an equal chance of attaining a college degree. That is the way it should be. That is the way we need to make it nationally.
LB: Dr. Renick, the bragging rights… I was taking great notes here, and the great graduating rates and great wraparound services provided to students, especially who are first-generation or who come from lower-income means, providing an equitable playing field for them to succeed, especially as you look to their future as these individuals change the situation they may have started in and build that generational wealth for future generations, and I love that Georgia State has really taken this – kind of – social impact mission of providing education and using education as that baseline for students to succeed. It’s really phenomenal what you’re doing and it’s so very unique. I heard you say “hey, we’re helping other universities” who have these populations of minority students, as well as first generation and low-income students to do the same thing and replicate this work. But as you think about this and if you want to humanize this for our listening audience, do you have a story that you want to share about a student success that is telling? I’ve heard stories before, and I can pull one out, but I’m not going to pick for you. I’m going to let you pick. I’m sure there are probably thousands of stories you can pick that humanizes it today for our listening audience.
TR: Yeah, it’s a great question Lynette. And you’re right, there is a personal side to all of this. We’re graduating at Georgia State alone 3,500 more students every year than we were 10 years ago, but each one of those 3,500 additional graduates is an important and compelling story about the power of education, but also about the power of needing to guide and support students through that whole process. One of my favorite examples is of a student named Austin, who we got to know quite well a few years ago. He was a first-generation student a couple of years ago who probably shouldn’t have been in college in the first place if you just go by the national odds, because he was low-income, he was first-generation, and he was the subject of a really difficult childhood. You know, his father contracted ALS when he was in middle school. His life changed at that point. He was the oldest son, and he became responsible for helping the family get through the father’s illness. Sadly, the father eventually died. What Austin was facing in trying to get to college as a high school student facing all these hurdles was beyond what any of us would really want or wish upon anybody. And yet he persisted, he worked hard, got good grades, he qualified not only for the Hope Scholarship but also for the Zell-Miller Scholarship, he got into Georgia State, and he was ready to go to orientation and begin his first fall semester, and he got his first bill and realized it was many times larger than he had anticipated. At first, he blamed himself, like a lot of first-generation college students do. You know, “it must have been some mistake I made.” “I was foolish to think that I could go to college under my circumstances.” But being a smart individual and a very persistent one, he wanted to find out where he had gone wrong in his calculations. The summer that Austin was going through this process, we had just launched a ChatBot at Georgia State: an automatic texting platform available to our incoming students 24/7 to answer any question they have. It’s AI enhanced. It goes into a big knowledge base and it pulls out answers to the students’ questions. We know from the electronic record that over several days Austin began asking this ChatBot to try and figure out the bill and why it was so much more than he anticipated. Turns out that there was some system at the state which had transposed a couple of digits on his social security number, and the Zell-Miller Scholarship he qualified for wasn’t being applied to his account. Once he saw that problem he was able to resolve it. He came into campus with his mother, paid the relatively small balance remaining on that bill, and enrolled at Georgia State. He not only became one of our star students, but he ended up interning in Senator Isaacson’s office, graduated in the minimum time in four years, and he is now working in a policy center in Washington, DC. What that story indicates is what many students are grappling with behind the scenes. Right? There’s this complex system in front of them. They are limited in the resources they have available to them, and even small supports that we can offer, like a 24-hour texting platform that can answer questions when the students are actually asking them, often times after hours when the offices are closed and so forth, that can be the difference. And if this one thing can make a difference for Austin, what can be the difference if we could take this nationally? If we could scale these kind of programs? That’s the mission of the National Institute for Student Success.
LB: That is so amazing that the National Institute for Student Success has used innovation and technology at Georgia State to help students grapple with the complexities of financial aid. I just remember I was a first-generation college student, and financial aid and scholarships were critical to me going on to continue my higher education. The fact that you were smart enough to think about “How do we address the system which we created, the system around financial aid and financial resources so that students can use that technology in a way they understand which is texting?” That’s what they understand all the time. They always have their phone in their hands. To put a Chat Box in AI, which we clearly use in the financial services industry as we try to get clients and business, and to know that universities are going down that same pathway to try and address some of the basic core needs to erase and eradicate those barriers that exist to continued higher education and success I think is really phenomenal, and that that continues to be something you strive to scale across multiple platforms and institutions and I’m hoping those institutions are open to it. But along the way, Dr. Renick, and I know when you talk about technology, and AI, and innovation, and people, there are probably some lessons that you’ve learned in this role, and that you guys have been doing for 15 years, and something that you’ve leaned on. I know we’ve had the pandemic happening, and social and racial equity happened. What are some of the lessons you’ve had to lean on during these very trying and difficult times that may have affected these students trying to come into this system with the National Institute for Student Success?
TR: I think that’s an important question, Lynette. I think the most important lesson we’ve learned over the last decade-plus is that it’s often the simplest things that are the obstacles, and often the simplest forms of supports are the most important. We have a very high-tech platform that we’re using at Georgia State and we’re sharing these technologies and approaches with our partner campuses as part of the National Institute, which is tracking students using predictive analytics. We’ve looked at historical data, determined what tripped up students in the past, what behaviors predate students dropping or flunking out of the university, and instead of waiting for those same mistakes to happen with our current students, we’re tracking the students on a day-to-day basis as we update our information systems to track these behaviors. And point of fact, for nine years now, we are monitoring every single graduate for about 800 risks factors every single day. We’re looking at their registration, their attendance, and so forth, and making determinations about what we can do to intervene to help these students. But the lesson has been that its often really simple things that trip up students. So some of the most impactful interventions we’ve had using this platform are things like, first, looking at students’ registration records, and making sure they’re registered for the right courses. It’s complicated to get a college degree. Right? There are lots of courses, lots of options, lots of electives, lots of prerequisites, and helping students get into the right courses in the right sequence may seem like a no-brainer, but when you’re dealing with 50,000 students at a place like Georgia State, that can be really complicated, and making sure that the students are registered for the right courses before the semester begins is critical. Looking at course attendance: so, we’re not able to get faculty members to take course attendance, and relay that information on a daily basis, across 10,000 course sections that we offer every semester at Georgia State, but we are able to use electronic data to help us in this regard. Almost all courses now have a learning management system or a platform that students can log on to to talk to other students in the class, get assignments, learn about their grades, and sometimes take quizzes and so forth. What we’ve started to do is monitor that learning management platform to look for students who are not logging onto their classes. We’ve got them signed up for the right class. The next question is “Are they engaged with that class that they are rightfully signed up for?” And as early as three days into the semester, we’re tracking students down who haven’t logged onto their class recently to see what’s going on. These are not truant officers, we are not penalizing the students in any way, these are counselors designed to help the students figure out what’s going on. Are you having trouble with your technology at home? Are you having financial issues? Are you academically overwhelmed and need tutoring support? Why don’t we have that conversation three days into the semester, as opposed to after the semester ends and the student has achieved a non-passing grade or has already dropped out of the university. It’s those sorts of things that we need to take care of, and the encouraging thing about this approach is that it is very common-sensical. This is not requiring high-level systems to necessarily look at every detail to help the student. If we can help them be in the right classes, if we can look at their attendance on a regular basis, if we can track their financial well-being, something that Truist cares greatly about. We’ve begun tracking our students for certain financial analytics, if they’ve begun to have holds on their accounts for balances that they can’t pay of, or if they’re at risk of losing their full scholarship or some other institutional scholarship. Why don’t we reach out at the first signs of financial instability, instead of waiting for the student to drop out of flunk out of the university? It’s doing those things at scale, and systematically, that’s part of the approach that we’re sharing with all of our partner institutions. The Institute for Student Success is currently working with 30 institutions across the US to try and help them and train them, to disseminate such best practices, so that the learning curve will be much quicker for them than it was for us at Georgia State.
LB: Yeah, that’s really important work, and I really believe that the use of data helps drive informed decisions, and, you know, the fact that you’re looking at potential risk factors that show up immediately when students have not logged in or logged back into classes or this kind of analytical assessment has really been critical to the work and really shows how strong the components that you’ve put in place as you’ve thought about this program that the National Institute for Student Success has created, and implementation addresses not only the human side of it but the behavioral side of it as well. You guys have really unpacked so much and then synthesized it in a way that makes it easy and accessible for students to stay connected, bringing in those human elements as well as the technology elements. I think that is something that is far above what I’ve seen in any institution and now that other high learning institutions are participating in learning this process, because the goal as I understand it is that graduation rates, not only in your particular university system, but across the country, improve, and as you think about that, Dr. Renick, what message about your work do you think everyone should hear? I’ve heard a lot of messages today, and I hope I’m summarizing rightly what you’ve shared, but what do you want people to know about the work that your organization does, as a huge takeaway to talk about scale and growth?
TR: Yeah, I think one of the most important lessons about the work we’ve done at Georgia State and now through the National Institute for Student Success is one that turns responsibility for the inequities that currently exist in higher education attainment. For a very long time, they basically blamed the students, right? If they don’t complete their degree program, if they don’t graduate, if they drop out, if they flunk out it’s a failing of the student, or so the narrative went. But Georgia State has shown in very strong terms that much of that is a lie. It’s a lie to blame the student. We, in many higher ed institutions are accomplices to the student dropping out, and in many other instances we’re really primarily to blame. We’ve shown, for instance, that lower-income students can graduate at the same rate as middle and upper-income students. In the past the narrative was that low-income students don’t graduate at the same rates because they’re low income and because they have certain disadvantages in life including, obviously, financial ones. Therefore, we shouldn’t be concerned about the fact that they’re not graduating at the same rate. It’s fully explainable. What is the reality though is that it wasn’t fully explainable. By intervening with these students early on, to give them the supports – we’ve talked about several of them today: The Chat Box information 24/7, the tracking and making sure that they’re logging on to their classes, the looking at early grades to make sure that students have the support they need, the financial wellness component to make sure that students are financially on track. By tracking those sorts of issues, and by giving students support in a timely fashion, we have leveled the playing field, raised the graduation rates of low-income students to the same rates as upper income students, which shows in effect that it was, in effect, us all along. And part of the mission that I think is so important to do is to convey the message that we in our hands have a lot more power than we give ourselves credit for. If it really is the case that low-income students, minoritized students, or disadvantaged students are destined to succeed at much lower rates, then we’re not responsible. But it is not destiny. It is not demographics. It is in many cases issues that we have under our control as higher ed institutions, and we can do a better job of – as you put it, Lynette – using the data and providing wraparound supports for our students, level the playing field in a way that will have profound implications for our students and communities. One of the most important indicators that I think is underappreciated nationally is social mobility. We pay attention to how much college graduates earn, but what is equally or more important than the raw salaries they’re earning after graduating is “How impactful was the college experience in taking them from one economic standing they were in when entering college to a higher economic standing after graduation?” That is what is called social mobility, and one of the markers we’re using to track in our programs how effective are our campuses and our partner campuses on helping students improve their economic standing. Georgia State right now is in the top 1% of all US colleges and universities when it comes from taking students from low-income backgrounds and moving them fifteen years later – or helping them move fifteen years later – to the upper half of Americans by annual household income. That is what we need to replicate across the US, again and again, to create greater social mobility, greater life choices, greater health opportunities, and stronger educational opportunities for the next generation.
LB: Dr. Renick, you just blew me out of the water with the last commentary that you made. The premise was that students fail because of the environment they came from. What you’ve done is eradicate that myth, based on what you’ve put into the National Institute for Student Success, surrounded by these higher educational institutions’ organizational complexities and constraints, based upon what the end user clients, your students, don’t even have an understanding or an inkling of how to navigate. So you’ve now created a different pathway for them to navigate the system that exists, eradicating barriers [to] their success so that they can have that social mobility to change dynamics for themselves and their families. They can clearly eradicate those barriers to continue to help students evolve and grow. And I think what you’ve done from a scale perspective… and you’re in the top 1%, we need to have this happen across the United States in higher education institutions. So as you think about this, I want you to make it that your job is no longer necessary, that the National Institute for Student Success has done exactly that – been successful, and now you’ve accomplished your work and the goal and the logical conclusion of your work. If that happens, what obstacles do you think you’ve defeated?
TR: It is a real question for me. What is the end goal for the National Institute for Student Success? And I say quite seriously that I would be very happy in ten years from now if there was no need for this Institute to exist. What we’re seeking is to give college students equal footing, equal opportunities to succeed, especially college graduates from low-income and minoritized backgrounds, we’re also committed to reducing and then eliminating equity gaps based upon race, ethnicity, and income-level across higher education institutions. That seems an incredibly lofty goal, and it might seem utterly unrealistic to attain over a ten-year period, but I want to suggest why that’s not necessarily the case. Georgia State has been at the front, and we’re not the only pioneering institution using data and AI to support students, but what we’ve basically done is borrowed some of the techniques that are a part of the commercial world now. You know, you go onto Amazon or other websites and there’s analytics being collected and proactive outreach being done to you, often times to maximize profits. What we’re doing through these approaches is using the same techniques to maximize, not necessarily profits, but to help students attain what is an important goal which is “I want a college degree, and I’m willing to pay for it. Help me attain this.” The reality of it is that a lot of what Georgia State has done over the last decade, especially the last five years, wouldn’t have been doable a decade ago or fifteen years ago, because its using AI and predictive analytics and platforms like a Chat Box that didn’t exist. The nice thing about these approaches from a long-term perspective is that they’re imminently scalable. We see that in the corporate world. You can use these techniques to provide services to not just hundreds of customers, but to thousands and then tens of thousands. I’m optimistic that the next decade will be one of great progress in improving graduation rates at post-secondary institutions and in reducing equity gaps, precisely because I think these new approaches, these new technologies, these new data insights, are going to be able to be scaled across multiple institutions, they’re affordable, and in many cases they provide a positive ROI, meaning that you invest in doing some of these things, and the revenues created actually outpace the costs of the intervention itself, because holding onto additional thousands of students on an individual campus means holding onto those tuition dollars as well. I think the timing is right for the scaling of these approaches, and I think there’s every possibility of improving these programs at the institutional level, and of reducing and then eliminating equity gaps.
LB: Dr. Renick, this has been such a great opportunity to speak to you. I will say what drew the Truist Foundation to the National Institute for Student Success was just what you described, in this imaginary world in the next decade, we have the opportunity to scale, driving technology and data to change the social mobility of minoritized students, low-income students, and first-generation college students so that they can change the economic mobility of their families. So I want to thank you so much Dr. Renick for coming here today to share your work with the National Institute for Student Success and Georgia State. The Truist Foundation is proud to be a partner of NISS, so thank you so much for your time today.
TR: Lynette, thank you, and thanks to the Foundation. The Truist Foundation has been a great supporter of these efforts for a number of years now, and is a critical partner in this very worthwhile goal that we share.
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