Spotlight: Bridging the Education-to-Employment Gap to Build Equity at Braven

Monday, November 2, 2020
Tiffani Williams
Associate Director

While we know that education and training beyond high school is now necessary to secure a well-paying career in today’s labor market, a postsecondary credential alone is not a guarantee of success. The ability to tap into a network—a group of people you are connected to personally or professionally that can provide information, counsel, and inroads to employers—is critical. We wrote about this type of “connection currency,” known as social capital, earlier this summer and wanted to take a deeper look at how social capital connects to the ongoing struggle for racial equity in the United States. To begin digging into this topic, we spoke with Aimée Eubanks Davis, founder of Braven, an organization dedicated to bridging the education-to-employment gap for first-generation, underrepresented, and/or low-income students. 

Please tell us a bit about your role and background. What led you to found Braven?
I grew up on Chicago’s South Side and personally experienced economic mobility thanks to a property my parents purchased. After college, I wanted to pay it forward; I joined Teach For America and taught 6th grade in Pre-Katrina New Orleans before moving into various senior leadership roles at TFA. 

When I was leading Teach For America’s human capital work, each year we were seeing around 40-50,000 individuals apply to the teaching corps and another 30,000 apply to the staff. I saw former students, who had made it to some of our country’s great universities, struggling to get over TFA’s recruitment bar not because of lack of talent but rather because no one had prepared them with the soft skills needed for their launch from college to career. 

I became fixated on this problem and got the opportunity to dig in more through my Pahara-Aspen Fellowship, where learned that this was not an issue of thousands – but millions! In pre-COVID times, an African American with a B.A. was twice as likely to be unemployed as their White counterpart, and a Bachelor’s degree holder from a low-income background started their career earning only two-thirds as much as those from higher-income backgrounds. While education has the potential to be the great equalizer, today, only 25 percent of our country’s 1.2 million first-generation or low-income college enrollees will land a strong job after graduation and be on a path to the American Dream. That’s the challenge Braven is working to address.

What is Braven’s mission? How do you approach your work?
Braven’s sole mission is to ensure students, especially those who are first-gen, underrepresented, and/or low-income, graduate from college and obtain strong first jobs within six months of graduation. We support untapped students from college to career by partnering with universities, employers, and college success organizations to offer a two-part experience that begins with a credit-bearing college course followed by a post-course experience that lasts through graduation. Fellows emerge from Braven with the skills, experiences, and networks they need to land a strong first job and get on a path to economic freedom. Braven has worked with more than 2,300 students at four campuses at Rutgers University-Newark, San José State, Lehman College, and National Louis University to date.

What is your view of the relationship between social capital and racial equity?
Unfortunately, racial inequities and a lack of social capital go hand in hand. First-generation college students, many of whom are students of color and low-income, typically do not have the same access to a network of professionals as their wealthier peers. Julia Freeland Fisher writes, “More educated parents know more people working in the knowledge economy; in fact, according to Robert Putnam’s analysis in his book Our Kids, college-educated parents on average have social networks that include at least twice as many politicians, CEOs, and professors than those who received only a high school education or less.”

How have you prioritized increasing access to social capital in your work at Braven?
The Braven experience intentionally helps students grow their social capital. During the semester-long Accelerator course, Fellows learn and work together in cohorts of 5-8 students led by a professional from the workforce (known as a Leadership Coach). Fellows share personal stories to build community, practice their networking skills, tackle a real-world problem an employer is facing in small groups, and more. The professionals who they meet during the course, including Leadership Coaches, are willing to make their own professional networks available to Fellows, opening doors to new opportunities.

After completing the course, Braven Fellows receive ongoing support through graduation. One example of this is the Professional Mentor program, where Post Accelerator Fellows are paired with a mentor during the internship and/or job application processes. Finally, Braven provides Fellows with opportunities to meet prospective employers, volunteer professionals, and others in the Braven Network.

Over the past few months, race and equity have been at the center of national conversation. How has Braven embraced this particular moment in time? How has it impacted your work?
The last year has magnified the long history of systemic racism, ongoing inequity, and injustices that Black Americans live with every day. And across lines of difference, we are seeing the devastating impact of the pandemic on the health and wealth of our most vulnerable citizens.

Daily at Braven, we are fighting for equality of opportunity and economic justice. In our work, we are constantly reminded of the resilience of our Fellows who continue to overcome the challenges stacked against them. These students, and their families and communities, deserve a more just America in every way—and it’s up to us to be a part of the solution to create it.

What are some of the most important strategies that institutions can use to increase their students’ access to social capital – particularly for students of color who may lack the built-in networks of (potentially wealthier) White peers?
Institutions of higher ed need to intentionally teach—just like they do English and General Chemistry—students the professional competencies like networking, communicating, working in teams, and problem solving that are required in the workplace. Plus, they need to create opportunities for students to build their networks, whether through events with working professionals, a database of alumni that students can reach out to for informational conversations, or other ways.

What role can policy play? What are some key strategies for policymakers?
First, I think we need to revisit the narrative so that policymakers understand the challenges that undergraduates who are first-generation, low-income, and/or underrepresented minorities face in the college to career transition. For example, students from a low-income household earning a BA earn only 66 cents on the dollar to their peers who come from middle or upper-income households. Recognizing this, there are many actionable solutions. We’ve identified four key opportunity gaps as skills, confidence, experience, and networks, and underlying all of them is a lack of resources.

To remedy this, it would be terrific to see Title I for Higher Ed as part of Higher Education Act reauthorization. As we’ve seen in K-12, Title I would provide critical, flexible funding for universities to invest in wraparound supports for students receiving Pell grants. This list should be flexible and allow dollars to be spent to help students persist, such as textbooks, transportation, and childcare. It should also support their career preparation and transitions.

I would also love to see a modern-day New Deal that puts college students and recent graduates from humble beginnings to work in career accelerating opportunities. We know many internships and entry-level roles are being rescinded or cut as companies and nonprofits face the challenges of the pandemic. This is the ideal moment for the government to provide funding for internships (full or matching depending on non-profit, government or for-profit) or offer tax incentives to employers who offer internships and entry-level roles to under-represented, low-income and/or first-generation college students and recent alumni.

How do you view the role of places like HBCUs in creating social capital?
Historically Black Colleges and Universities, in particular the most well-resourced, have a track record of success in terms of preparing, developing and connecting their students to strong career pathways and networks post college. For example, graduate schools and employers go to Xavier University of Louisiana for talent in STEM and health sciences. So simply being a student there ups your social capital.

HBCUs often have strong alumni networks they can mobilize to provide their students with more easily accessible social capital and inroads to jobs. These institutions can create authentic opportunities for alumni to meet and engage with students, which would hopefully lead to organic mentorship. This said, most HBCUs and Predominantly Black Institutions alumni networks and financial resources do not generate and pull in the amount of social capital that Xavier’s does.

In your view, what role should third-party and/or community organizations play in facilitating access to social capital as a means to achieve equity?
Every organization and individual can take actions—both big and small—to help students from humble beginnings build social capital. Companies need to ensure that their workplaces mirror their communities, top to bottom. This means genuine change in how employers recruit, retain, and promote great talent. Employers can also incentivize referrals for people of color, end employer practices such as only hiring interns who are family members, and ensure people of color have sponsors and advocates in the workplace to help them advance. 

In addition, shared value partnerships between employers and schools serving students of all ages facilitates access to social capital. Across the entire Braven experience at our partner universities nationwide, partnerships with employers play a key role. For employers, these partnerships provide meaningful employee professional development experiences and offer early access to diverse talent. And, for Fellows, these partnerships build their professional networks and open doors to strong internships and jobs. This is one example of how we can intentionally ensure equity when it comes to who has access to the social capital networks needed to advance one’s career.