A woman who has worked with young people in Chicago her whole career walked into the convention center room at McCormack Place on August 12 and started to cry. Looking around, she couldn't believe something that looked like this was being done for the kids she loves.
Her reaction underscored just how impressive the Starbucks 100k Opportunities Forum and Fair was. It was so comprehensive and beautifully executed that it is hard for me to think of the concept of a job fair the same way again. Starbucks and their partners have joined to employ and skill up 100,000 young adults at the nation's major businesses. Together, they have resolved to take on many of the challenges that opportunity youth face --the 5.6 million young people who are disconnected from employment and education and are therefore shut out of the American Dream. According to a recent report from Opportunity Nation's research partner, Measure of America, nearly 100,000 of these youth live in Chicago's Cook County, and a disproportionate number of them are African-American and low-income.
The 29 employers represented in the room--including Walmart, Walgreens, Target, Macy's and Lyft, just to name a few--had clearly bought in to the fact that there was untapped talent in the thousands of young adults who attended the event. These companies were actualizing the belief that these young people mattered and they could succeed if given an opportunity to have their talent cultivated.
I work for Opportunity Nation, a campaign partnering with more than 350 organizations and businesses to increase upward mobility for young Americans. This event was a realization of so much of what we champion: collaboration between employers and nonprofits that serve young people; employer leadership; and getting the talent we are leaving on the sideline into the game.
The first thing that struck me when I walked into the expansive convention space in downtown Chicago was the quality and hands-on nature of the booths. Young people were getting the chance to make coffees with Starbucks baristas. JC Penny set up a whole salon so people could try out working alongside their associates. Microsoft had products to demo there, not so much so people could check out new technology, but more to give them an idea what it would be like to help customers with them. There were also local colleges and college access programs and nonprofits like Year Up and Youthbuild, which support and train young adults for careers. Whether it was hotels like Hyatt, restaurants like Chipotle, or drugstore chains like CVS, there were a range of industries with eager representatives talking to young adults.
In fact, they did more than talk. They recruited and interviewed young people at tables reserved for that purpose. There were stations set up where young people could knock out the online application of a company they had just gotten exited about, where they could print their resume from laptops - right there. LinkedIn representatives helped them get their professional online presence set up. There were two stages for speakers and panels on career development topics, plus curtained off sections for workshops on skills like telling your narrative, interview tips and professional dress.
All of these elements reflected the emphasis that Starbucks and their partners, such as Leaders Up, The Aspen Institute's Forum for Community Solutions, The Joyce Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and others, have placed on listening to young people themselves on what they need and consulting with leading nonprofits that serve youth. The event highlighted this priority by having CEOs meet with groups of young people to hear their perspectives. I spoke with one young man who was getting ready to go into such a meeting and he was still pretty amazed that a powerful business leader wanted his views (though he was unafraid to give them). He wanted the CEO to know how much dedication he and his friends had, but they just needed a chance to work and develop professionally.
Celebrities also came to demonstrate their belief in the talent and potential of young Americans, and to lend their support. Influential singers and musicians Common, Usher, T.I., Will.i.am and Rhymefest inspired the attendees and gave them candid advice and encouragement.
Common, who emphasized the brilliance of young people in Chicago, brought up to the stage a young woman who nearly left school after becoming pregnant, but who wants to get a college degree and was one of the young adults who was offered a job at the job fair. He let her read off the teleprompter which, to her amazement, directed her to introduce Usher.
Usher commended the young people on their courage to be here, a message echoed by Master Sergeant Cedric King, who lost both legs fighting for our country in Afghanistan. Master Sergeant King said he was embarrassed when he was first attempted to walk with prosthetics, and maybe, he said, the young adults in attendance had their own moments of discomfort as they interviewed and drafted resumes at the job fair. But if you stick with it, he told them, you learn how to do it, and you improve and succeed.
Will.i.am pushed the audience to pursue the thousands of good-paying jobs available in technology and to help make Chicago a high-tech hub. Imagine if some of the top innovations of the last few years, such as Snapchat, had started in Chicago, he said. This was why he started a robotics program for young people in Ferguson, MO.
Finally, T.I. spoke from the heart about overcoming mistakes and not letting anyone pull them back and down and being sure to step up and help others. "Anything is possible that you want in this life," he said, as long as you understand how much hard work goes into it.
There was a strong focus on outcomes with every leader of the event that I talked to, in terms of number of interviews and hires that happened, as well as commitment to follow up with every young person who walked into the room. It left me excited to not only hear what happens next for the young people that were here, but how other places can adopt some of these approaches and concepts and offer similar hands-on job fairs in other cities around the country.
After all, this was not an end, but a kick off for 100k Opportunities and its lessons can be utilized by anyone. There is a growing realization that we must do more to help young adults find a path to a career. When youth do well, our communities do well. As Common told us, the future starts now. I left the event excited for the future, for 100,000 American youth and for all of us. The young people I met in Chicago inspire me and make me confident that together, we will restore the promise of the American Dream to the rising generation.