In March of 2021, Roz Brewer became the CEO of Walgreen Boots Alliance. She will be the 3rd Black woman in history to lead a fortune 500 company. Though this profound example of representation is no small feat, the need for increased examples of Black people in leadership and entrepreneurial roles persists. According to Fortune, only 19 of the 1,800 Fortune 500 CEOs have been Black. This small 1% points to a need for increased Black leaders of industry and innovation. It also reveals a gap in entrepreneurial role models that are available to Black children who aspire to be Entrepreneurs.
Despite these barriers, there are groups and leaders that are leading from the front and empowering the future leaders of tomorrow. BUILD, a nonprofit that uses entrepreneurship to empower students is driving long-term change through educational programming across the nation.
We sat down with Ayele Shakur, CEO of BUILD, to explore how they are empowering students and preparing them to be the CEOs and leaders of the future.
Brittney Dias (BD): There’s a noticeable lack of representation for Black entrepreneurs in the media, especially women entrepreneurs. What impact does this have on the students you come in contact with?
Ayele Shakur (AS): At BUILD, we use entrepreneurship as a vehicle to re-engage young people and get them excited about learning to get them on a pathway to success. Incredible things happen when a teenager, especially those from Black or other traditionally underrepresented communities, can proudly say they are the CEO or CFO of their own company. It changes how they see themselves, the world and opens up their minds to what is possible in their lives. It is clear that there aren’t a lot of African-American women serving as CEO of multi-million dollar organizations. Only recently did Thasunda Brown Duckett, current CEO of investment company TIAA, become the second present Fortune 500 Black female CEO (Hinchliffe, 2021). As a Black female CEO myself, I’m always thinking about using my mantle to make a difference. Advancing the cause of racial justice and supporting other students, especially Black women, to develop a strong sense of identity and understanding of the role that they can play in making their communities a better place has always been a key driver for me personally.
BD: In what ways have you seen mentorship opportunities + social capital impact BUILD’s members?
AS: One of our core values at BUILD is to bridge communities. It is simply not enough to prepare our next generation with the hard and soft skills that they need to succeed in college and their careers. We believe that there is a critical need to support young people in increasing their social capital and growing their professional network with a community that can open doors for them in the future. Each year, our entrepreneurship programs rely on hundreds of skilled professional volunteers who dedicate countless hours to mentor our students to develop their businesses, persist in school, increase social capital, and grow their professional network. Our students come from backgrounds that traditionally would not have access to such an expansive and supportive network, while our mentors also learn from their student engagement. Mentorship has provided our professional volunteers with the opportunity to develop empathy and a deeper understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion on a personal level.
BD: What opportunities has BUILD’s COVID-19 Virtual Design Challenge opened for your organization?
AS: In May 2020, in response to the pandemic, BUILD launched the COVID-19 Virtual Design Challenge, inviting students from across the country to develop innovative solutions to the challenging question: How might we help people thrive mentally and physically amid the pandemic? Students learn about the human-centered design process and how to empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test their ideas as they come up with products, services, and campaigns to address the biggest challenge of our century. Before the pandemic, BUILD programming was solely limited to students in the communities we serve - the Bay Area, Boston, New York, and DC. Now, with the COVID-19 Virtual Design Challenge as a digital offering, BUILD has the opportunity to reach thousands of more students from across the country and around the world.
BD: How has Covid-19 impacted BUILD’s influence on school curriculum?
AS: Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, BUILD has been committed to creating engaging, digital content for young people from underserved, overlooked and underestimated communities. Through the development of our COVID-19 Virtual Design Challenge, we learned about the power and importance of creating culturally responsive content that reaches and resonates with diverse young people. More than ever, schools and educational organizations need to create culturally responsive, open-source educational content designed with the experiences and perspectives of Black and Latinx youth in mind. At BUILD, we know this is the first step in championing access and equity in our education system. To date, 3,500 + students have completed our COVID-19 Virtual Design Challenge facilitated by over 380 educators from 53 cities across the U.S. Interested high school educators can sign up to participate in one of our free virtual trainings!
BD: What opportunities are available for BUILD's members after graduation?
AS: In BUILD, entrepreneurship is the hook - college, career, and life success are the ultimate goals. 81% of BUILD seniors enroll in college, surpassing their peer group’s 67% enrollment rate. 79% of BUILD alumni become the first in their family to attend college. We’re a BUILD Family, so we stick with our students well into adulthood, providing the support and guidance they need on their life journey. This year we’re creating an Alumni Network to be even more intentional in how we’re supporting our young people, including with paid internships and jobs. We have so many incredible corporate partners connected to BUILD, and now they’re beginning to see us as a pipeline to increase diversity in their companies.
BD: What are some anecdotes of cool, creative ventures that BUILD’s members have created?
AS: We have over 200 student-run businesses each year. They include everything you can imagine a 14 or 15 year old creating, from fashion accessories, to sports gear, kitchen utensils, and school supplies. In 2012, a BUILD student team of 9th graders at Another Course to College High School launched Cookie Boss, a Boston-based cookie company that bakes and sells gourmet, fresh baked cookies with designs, corporate logo, and personalized customization. Cookie Boss was led by then CEO Cendy Moliere, who was 14 and terrified of public speaking. She decided to give BUILD and their business idea a try, and to her surprise, Cookie Boss received an overwhelming amount of community support. In time they had over 30 clients like Bank of America and Boston Red Sox ordering their delicious cookies with company logos monthly. When Cendy graduated, she and her team passed the business on to the next class of BUILD students, and Cookie Boss has now become the longest-running and highest-grossing business in BUILD history, bringing in over $40,000 in gross sales to date!
I’m really excited that this year when all schools switched to remote learning, our young people pivoted from making physical products and started creating apps - it's moving our BUILDers into the 21st century.
As we reflect on our conversation with Ayele, we can unequivocally say - Mentorship matters. The work of nonprofits and organizations, such as BUILD, ensures that Black & Brown youth can access the networks, resources, and curriculum needed to succeed as an entrepreneur. Not only does this lead to increased college success and career readiness rates, but it expands innovation for all and challenges what is possible. As COVID-19 shifts the way we operate, virtual resources are more available now than ever before and more students from more locations can be impacted now than ever before. BUILD’s free curriculum and educator training are now available to educators nationwide. An investment in our youth is an investment in the future.
What will you do to invest in the future today?
A Note About Ayele Shakur
Ayele Shakur is the CEO of BUILD.org and brings over three decades of experience as an urban education innovator. Before becoming CEO in 2018, Ayele served as the founding Regional Executive Director for BUILD Boston for seven years. Before BUILD, she was President and CEO of the Boston Learning Center. A veteran classroom educator, Ayele taught for 11 years in the Los Angeles area and the Boston Public Schools and co-authored the book Boost School Performance – A Parent’s Guide to Better Grades Fast.
Ayele is a motivational speaker whose writing has been featured in the Huffington Post, The Hill, WBUR, Commonwealth, and Entrepreneur Magazine. A native of Boston, she holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Management from Boston University and a Master’s degree from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
At Ratio, we believe in leveling the playing field for innovators and entrepreneurs accessing the Federal Government Marketplace. We founded BlackFocusX to equip Black founders with equitable access to opportunities. Learn more here: https://www.blackfocusx.com/