Interview with Genesys Works: Supporting Houston’s Youth Supports Houston Business

Posted on Categories Culture/Employee Engagement

Robin Tooms interviewed Marian Davenport, executive director of Genesys Works – Houston, as guest host of The BusinessMakers Show. The two talked about how Genesys Works is benefitting Houston, both through its empowerment of at-risk youth and its benefit to its corporate partners.

Robin: Hello, I’m Robin Tooms with Savage Brands and this is The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business. My guest today is Marian Davenport, Executive Director at Genesys Works Houston. So Marian, I’m so pleased that you’re here on The BusinessMakers Show.

Marian: Well thank you for having me Robin, really thrilled to be here.

Robin: Well, Genesys Works has done some wonderful things for Houston, and I’m not sure that everyone is aware of this. So perhaps you give first a little bit of an overview about the purpose and mission of Genesys Works, just for the benefit of our audience.

Marian: Sure, I’d be really happy to do that. Genesys Works works with underserved high school students to help them enter and thrive in the economic mainstream, and the way that we do that is by providing them the skills, the professional background and the work experience that they need to be successful in a professional environment.

Robin: Well, how do you do that?

Marian: The beginning of our program is an 8-week-long training that we put the young people through. They come to us for 4 hours a day, 8 weeks during the summer between their junior and senior year in high school, and they get training in two different areas. They select one of our technical areas, either IT, Engineering/Drafting or Business, and in addition to that they all get training in professional skills. So that combination of knowing how to do something and then knowing the right way to do it is, we find, really pretty magical in terms of helping the young people get the confidence that they need once they go into this work environment, which is something completely new and foreign to them. So they can be successful.

An example would be, if you have a question that’s really important, you ask your supervisor about it, right? And so we practice that; we role model it and we practice it. We talk to them about taking notes, and they practice that; so if your supervisor’s giving you an assignment, we practice writing down what the assignment is and asking those follow-up questions. So those professional skills combined with technical skills I think are really critical. And the students who successfully complete that summer training then are placed in paid internships for their senior year of high school.

Robin: Well, that training sounds like it would be very effective.

Marian: I think it really is effective. In fact, we’ve even had our corporate partners say to us, could you provide that professional skills training to our employees? So, another story I always hear is we work a lot on dress code here at Genesys Works, and many times employees will say to the students, you have to stop wearing that tie to work; you’re showing us all up here. So it is fun. I think it’s fun to know that the students can walk into a work environment and can be polished and can present well, to the point where that attracts attention.

Choosing Their Audience

Robin: Well Marian, one thing that you’ve talked about is the audience. And, you know, when you think about how many underserved there are here in Houston, how do you really go about making those tough choices about who can actually get in the program?

Marian: They are tough choices. We target high schools that have the population of students that we want to serve, and they’re traditionally underserved high schools; students have low income and ‰- and generally a very diverse population of students that I think is representative of Houston overall. We try to talk to every junior in that high school and tell them about Genesys Works and what the program would be. There’s an online application, and students can submit that. We have champions in each of the schools that help us with that application process, and then we review the applications. So this year we got almost 900 applications. We review every single one of them, and probably 80% of those young people are invited to come here to our office for an in-person interview. So we do very short interviews with the students.

We’re looking for a young person who’s got a spark and a drive, and really some kind of commitment to doing something more with their life. We narrow the pool down: we actually have a group interview as well where we’re looking for, how well do you work with other people, what are the team dynamics like, how shy are you, how forthcoming are you? And then we invite a large number of students ‰- I think this year we invited 375 students ‰- to come to summer training. Some of them will figure out it doesn’t work for them; that they can’t take that much time out of their summer.

Robin: It’s a commitment.

Marian: It’s a big commitment on the student’s part. We started the summer this year with 310 students out of that process starting with the 900 applications and then throughout the summer ‰- again we have very high standards. We weekly give the students feedback on how they’re doing on their technical skills training and their professional skills training, and the students who successfully complete the training then are offered positions. And we are going to have about 230, 235 students who will be in jobs this year.

Robin: Wow, that’s amazing. Now the team here has been doing this since 2002, and I’m not sure that everyone’s aware that you’ve been here that long.

Marian: We were a very entrepreneurial startup organization back in 2002. We started with a class of 10 high school students that we trained and found jobs for in the workplace. I think we had one or two corporate partners at the beginning. And since that time, we’ve grown to the place where over the years we’ve trained over 1,700 students and placed over 1,100 students in paid internships during their senior year of high school.

Growth of Genesys Works

Robin: What would you say is different from, say, the Genesys Works of 2002 to the Genesys Works of today?

Marian: Well I think part of what’s happened that’s been wonderful is that we’ve, over that time, been able to build really deep, long-lasting relationships with our corporate partners. We now are partnering with almost 60 different companies in the Greater Houston area.

Robin: Oh wow, okay.

Marian: We’re in 22 different high schools and 5 different school districts, so I think the reach has expanded a lot, and we have recurring internships year after year. So we’ll have a great corporate partner who has 5 interns this year, and next year they’ll take another 5 interns or maybe even more. So I think we’ve become part more of the institutional framework for workforce development for young people here in the Houston area.

Robin: So it’s kind of a great win/win scenario; we’re helping these underserved high school students find the work that they need and really become contributing members of the community here, and we’re also helping these businesses get great talent from inside Houston and not have to go seek elsewhere.

Marian: Absolutely, we think it’s such a win/win. There are so many young people who live in the shadow of Downtown Houston or wherever our business centers are who’ve never had the opportunity to come inside one of our corporate business offices and understand what happens inside that world. So by bringing young people into the workplace, giving them meaningful work to do, they get to see a whole other world of possibilities that they didn’t know anything about. And our hope and goal is that that gets them inspired to succeed in their education and to become one of those professionals that they’ve had a chance to work with.

Student Success Stories

Robin: I’m really excited to hear maybe about some of the personal stories of the students that we’ve helped. So is there ‰- when you’re talking to the business community, do you relate any of the personal stories about some of the students?

Marian: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. One young woman who comes to mind for me is a recent graduate of the University of Houston. She went through our program, got introduced to accounting and finance, which was not something she really knew anything about, and decided while she was doing her internship that that was a career that she wanted to pursue. That particular company decided to continue to employ her part-time while she was going to college here locally, and they’ve now given her a full-time job. She came from a family of hardworking parents who really wanted her to be successful but didn’t really know what that pathway looked like, and I think what she got from Genesys Works was a roadmap that sort of helped her connect the dots between education and career, and what those possibilities might look like.

Robin: I’m thinking since you’ve been around since 2002, you probably have so many great stories of where you’ve really been able to follow students throughout every stage of their career now to being working professionals. What’s it like?

Marian: Right. Well, it’s inspiring is what it’s like. One of the stories we love to tell is of a young man who is now on the Board of Directors of Genesys Works Houston who was in our very first class back in 2002. Not only does he now work for a major company here in town, but both of his younger siblings graduated from college or are in the process of graduating from college, and he says that it’s, you know, it’s changed the cycle of poverty for his entire family. I think one of the things that’s wonderful about Houston is we’ve got marvelous academic institutions for young people to stay here locally if that’s what works best for them, so we get to stay in touch with them and see what’s happening in their world.

Robin: So I was reading that 100% of the interns that have gone through the program have graduated from high school; how are we taking that result further on into the college programs?

Marian: So we work very hard to make sure that the students stay on track and do graduate high school because otherwise it doesn’t make sense for them to be working, if we can’t get them successful in school. We have over 90% of our students who are accepted into college after they complete the Genesys Works program, and a very high percentage of them actually enroll in college as well. We’re really proud of the fact that looking back to 2002, 82% of program graduates of Genesys Works have either graduated from college or are still in college

Robin: Oh wow, that’s amazing.

Marian: So we feel ‰- yeah, we feel like that’s really hugely successful. And many of them, of course, are working as they go to college; they almost all needed to do that. So it’s not the easiest thing in the whole world, it requires a lot of persistence and determination, but we’re really proud of the work they’re doing.

A Win-Win for Houston Businesses

Robin: Yeah. Well and it sounds like, going back to some of the partnerships, that’s what’s unique about the program is you’re not just working with these organizations – they’re not just funding us and we’re doing all the work – they’re really kind of collaborating with us for the success. They’re offering up their own internal resources and their mentors and their programs to help make sure that these students follow through with all of these skills.

Marian: The internships that we place students in, we always like to say, needs to be a meaningful job; a meaningful piece of work to that company.

Robin: Yeah, not the coffee internship.

Marian: So the company is getting real work done, and the employees and the supervisors of that intern have a chance to be mentors, to help coach the student through what they need to know about how to work in the work environment and help them make the decisions about college. Most of our interns tell a story about, well, I talked to my supervisor about should I go to this college or that college, and of course they’re an alumni for this one so that’s where they want me to go. But I love hearing those stories because our interns often are first-generation college students, so if they’re the first in their family to go to college, they don’t have anybody else to ask these questions of. So I think for our companies, it not only serves a need that they have to get this work done, but it also provides them an opportunity to give back to the community in a way that’s really personally meaningful.

Robin: Well I love what you’re telling me about the professionals working at these sponsor companies and the partnerships you have. It sounds like they’re taking some personal responsibility as well. You know, just the fact that they share and show support personally, that’s amazing.

Marian: And I think that’s why we have such a high renewal rate year after year of companies saying yes, this really worked for us and we want to be part of it going forward.

Robin: Well Marian, as you know, this is a business-focused audience that we’re talking to today, so I’m sure they would want to know how is Genesys Works funded?

Marian: That’s a great question. One of the fun things about Genesys Works is that we really fit into the social entrepreneurship category of nonprofit organizations, which means we have earned income that helps pay for our program costs. We’re like a staffing agency; the students are employees of Genesys Works and then we assign them to our corporate partners and charge a bill rate that not only pays the student but covers about 80% of our program costs. The other 20% we fundraise just like any other non-profit would.

Robin: Yeah. Well let me ask you personally; you’ve been here for a little over a year now?

Marian: A little over 2 years. Time goes so fast.

Robin: A little over 2 years, okay. Oh my gosh, yes, time flies. You’ve been here ‰- so you’ve not been here since the inception in 2002. So I guess I’m curious: before you came here, what really attracted you to the organization? Why did you say, that’s where I want to be; that’s who I want to support?

Marian: I had a whole career in the energy industry, and when I left what I was doing in the energy industry, I did decide I wanted to work in the nonprofit world. My first stop was at Big Brothers, Big Sisters. I love mentoring; I think it’s so important, and I think it really does make a big difference in the lives of young people. And at the end of my time at Big Brothers, Big Sisters, I had gotten really focused on high school students. Sometimes it’s a real challenge to attract mentors to mentor an older student as opposed to a grade school or a middle school student, and so I was really focused on, how could we make a mentoring program for high school students work? And when I heard about Genesys Works, it was just like the perfect combination of all of my background — not only in the business world but in the nonprofit world — came together with this mission to work with high school seniors and to expose them to our business community.

As soon as I heard about it, I knew it was where I needed to be.

Robin: Yes, it sounds like the perfect marriage of your professional skills and personal passions.

Marian: It really is. I love it here, and I love this work.

The Future of Genesys Works

Robin: Tell us a little bit about what’s on the horizon. I mean obviously it’s been a tough year economically for Houston, but how are you trying to grow and help make sure you’re continuing to serve the students?

Marian: We have historically grown by 15% a year, and we would love to continue to do that even in these tough economic times. If there’s a company out there that’s interested in participating with Genesys Works, they can certainly reach out to us through our website, which is www.Genesysworks.org. We would love to visit with any company that’s interested in having high school interns. About the future, we also have college students that we’re continually looking for placements for, and as I mentioned those alumni are really experienced and great workers as well.

Robin: Well, Marian, thank you so much for sharing all that, and thank you as well for all the good work that you guys are doing. I’m so pleased to have spent this time with you today.

Marian: Well, thank you for inviting me! I appreciate it.

Robin: Well, great. This wraps up our discussion today, and this has been another edition of The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business.

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