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The Future Giver

In the 10 minutes or so it’ll take you to read this article, 23 kids will quit high school—one new dropout every 26 seconds; 1.2 million students a year. For many of those still in school, but on the edge of leaving education behind, life can seem to offer few prospects. Ayele Shakur (BSBA’87) directs a nonprofit that uses entrepreneurship to teach some of Boston’s hardest-hit youth that they can defy the odds. She takes the city’s worst-performing students and helps them build and run their own businesses. Along the way, she’s learned a lot about measuring success in unconventional ways, shaping the next generation of leaders, and taking advantage of opportunities, no matter what life throws your way.

The CEOs of the businesses incubated by the entrepreneurship nonprofit BUILD Greater Boston aren’t gunning to compete on Shark Tank or prompt frenzied stock offerings.

These young capitalists—all formerly low-performing high school students—are striving for a different mark of achievement as they create, design, and sell their own products. A group of them, whose company pitched scent-infused stress-relief balls, won a youth business plan competition. One, who led a profitable seller of ecofriendly office products, landed a four-year college scholarship.

The students who participate in BUILD, a California-based program with five regional centers, are encouraged to think beyond traditional measures of success, to look past academic test scores to find their way into higher education and a career. Since becoming BUILD Greater Boston’s founding regional executive director in 2010, Shakur has drawn on her own life experiences to help shape this next generation of leaders.

A native of Roxbury, Massachusetts, Shakur was an aspiring screenwriter and a single mother before heading her own nonprofit at age 30. Along the way, she came to see the value in recognizing your opportunities, finding your team, and asking for help.

“I think there’s a lot of power in intention,” Shakur says. “But you have to be aware of when doors are opening for you, and have the strength to walk through.”

A Change of Plan

The daughter of two Boston University graduates, Salim Shakur (LAW’63) and Carolyn Tutt Shakur (SAR’60), Shakur grew up in a middle-class enclave in an otherwise low-income community. Accepted to the College of Communication, she planned to become a screenwriter. When she became pregnant before graduating from high school, she thought she’d have to give up on college. But her mother refused to allow it, offering to care for Shakur’s son so she could attend school full time. The opportunity, and the offer of help, made her newly aware of the obstacles that can easily derail promising students. The desire to offer others the opportunities and advantages she enjoyed would later become the keystone of her business practice.

Shakur transferred into Questrom her sophomore year—again, at her mother’s urging. “She said, ‘Everything’s a business, so you should major in that,’” Shakur recalls. But she couldn’t shake her early hopes, and after BU, she moved to Hollywood to begin her career, writing scripts on her own time while working as a copywriter for a distributor to Blockbuster Video. At the time, Los Angeles was in the middle of a major teacher shortage, and had initiated emergency credentialing that allowed anyone with a bachelor’s degree to apply for a classroom job. Shakur, intrigued by the steady paycheck and flexible schedule, was promptly assigned to teach first and second grade in Compton, California—named the nation’s murder capital in the early 1990s—at a time when gang violence was rampant. For someone who’d attended private schools, it was a new world.

“I remember my first-grade students saying they passed chalk lines, where there had been a shooting, on the way to school,” Shakur says. “It was really my first awakening into what was happening in many urban school settings.”

She returned to Boston to enroll in graduate school at Harvard, and found a job at a private tutoring center that offered academic support in underserved neighborhoods. When the owner and founder decided to close the business, Shakur, fearful of the impact on the neighborhoods, bought the business, and reincorporated it as a nonprofit educational center—all without ever having run anything before. “It was trial by fire, figure it out as you go,” she says. “But it felt like the right place to be.”

Shakur led the organization, renamed the Boston Learning Center, for 15 years, expanding it to serve 700 students annually across the state. But as the student population grew, Shakur became focused on a broader issue: how could they help students learn to care about their education? Many had already become so accustomed to failing that they had little faith in the value of education in their lives. Still others were motivated, but struggled with homelessness, hunger, poverty, or family illness.

When BUILD’s leaders approached Shakur about launching a Boston outpost, she was wary, viewing the national model as a possible competitor to her tutoring center. But then she clicked with its mission: use experiential learning to motivate struggling students—“ignite youth potential”—with an eye on their success beyond high school.

“I had that internal tug, that this was something I was destined to do,” she says.

Fail Fast

The strength of BUILD rests on principles of control and empowerment—qualities that most teenagers covet, Shakur says, and that low-income and underperforming students may lack. The students invited into BUILD have entered high school as the lowest performing in their class, and are soon immersed in the program. In their first year, BUILD is a five-day, in-school elective class, where they work in teams to create a product, draft a business plan, and begin investor presentations. For the next two years, the team focuses on bringing their product to market and generating sales. By their junior year in high school, many students are earning a profit. The incentive is simple: real money.

“A student becomes a CEO, or a COO, and they go from something in their head, to a business plan on paper, to having an investor, to standing in front of a customer,” Shakur says. “There’s this sense of agency. And the payoff is tangible, you’ve earned some money, so the market reinforces it for you.”

That’s not to say every business is viable. For every Cookie Boss—a company that creates custom logo cookies, now in its fifth year—there’s another that doesn’t go the distance. That’s where the teachable moments that all entrepreneurs need come in.

“Many young people internalize failure, and it paralyzes them. In entrepreneurship, we have a saying, ‘Fail fast.’ Because failure is part of the process, and you need to accept it and ask, ‘What did the failure teach you?’”

Every BUILD business requires risk-taking on all sides, from the venture advisors—local businesspeople—who agree to provide the funds to these young entrepreneurs, to the teenagers themselves, who have to gain the confidence to promote their own ideas. The lesson? Failure is an option.

“Many young people internalize failure, and it paralyzes them,” Shakur says. “In entrepreneurship, we have a saying, ‘Fail fast.’ Because failure is part of the process, and you need to accept it and ask, ‘What did the failure teach you?’”

When the young CEOs learn that a setback doesn’t have to be the end of the road, they often apply that understanding to their academic careers as well. The results speak to the program’s power: between 10th and 12th grades, BUILD Greater Boston has a 60 percent retention rate, and 61 percent of its first class—again, once the lowest-performing cohort in the freshman class—is enrolled in a four-year college. BUILD says 97 percent of students who complete the program graduate high school on time; it puts the national average on-time graduation for low-income students at 73 percent. The program also encourages its students to think beyond high school and envision a fulfilling career; through corporate partnerships and mentorships, students visit companies and present their results, ensuring their familiarity and comfort with a corporate environment.

“It’s important that they don’t think business is a world they don’t belong to,” Shakur says. “This is about getting them to see that they belong in corporate America just as much as they belong in their neighborhoods.”

Shakur has her eye on expansion; the program, in five schools in 2016, will add another school in 2017, and plans to be in eight by 2020. But she knows she can’t do it without help from her team. She learned that lesson when she took charge of BUILD, and had to shutter the Boston Learning Center because it couldn’t function without her.

“When you start out, it’s very easy to micromanage, and continue to hold the knowledge and relationships within your own person. But if you’re managing something top-down, and the manager leaves, the information leaves with them,” she says. “At BUILD, it’s a shared decision-making process.”

That brings her back to the lesson she learned even before enrolling in college: ask for help, and be prepared to give it.