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Review: Year Up by Gerald Chertavian – how to close the opportunity divide & the skills gap

This review first ran in the Sept. 24 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

A Year Up: How a Pioneering Program Teaches Young Adults Real Skills for Real Jobs with Real Success

By Gerald Chertavian

Social entrepreneur Gerald Chertavian is singing for his supper in Microsoft’s corporate dining room. The event is being hosted by one of America’s leading venture philanthropy organizations.

Chertavian, a Harvard Business School grad who made his fortune as a technology entrepreneur and Wall Street banker, is founder and CEO of                                Year Up. Launched 12 years ago in Boston, the nonprofit now serves nearly 1,500 students annually in nine U.S. cities.

Not only is Year Up free to recent high school graduates, they’re also paid a daily stipend and can earn up to 23 college credits.

Half of Year Up’s funding comes from fees paid by corporations that hire student interns. Less than 10 per cent of the program’s funding comes from     the government. The balance is covered by donors like the ones Chertavian is meeting with at Microsoft.

“The food is superb, the talk earnest and civil,” says Chertavian about the dinner. “Until I get the question that always kills my appetite.”

One of the donors questions the $25,000 per student cost for Year Up. Chertavian asks if the donor’s children went to private school and does a quick calculation that pegs four years of tuition at $260,000.

“Why then do we think that spending one-tenth that amount on a young adult who has no opportunities or advantages is somehow expensive? Why is one person worth 10 times the investment of another?”

Chertavian then cites a 2009 study by an economic consulting firm that shows Year Up grads in Boston boost their lifetime earnings by more than $1 million and contribute a commensurate amount in taxes.

Nearly 70 per cent of Year Up students graduate and the majority land high-skilled, high-paying jobs or continue their education at college.

So here’s how Year Up works its magic. Students must first pass a rigorous admissions process and sign a contract. “At Year Up, there is no tolerance for what’s been called the soft bigotry of low expectations,” says Chertavian. “We expect a lot from our students because we respect them.”

If accepted, students spend their first five months in the classroom learning marketable skills in information technology, financial operations and quality assurance. The curriculum is tied to the changing needs of the local job market.

Students also focus on mastering the ABCs of attitude, behaviour and communication. They hone their soft skills in everything from dressing and communicating professionally to managing their finances and having a positive attitude.

A mentor is recruited for each student, who’s also plugged into a peer support network. On average, a Year Up student is wrestling with three major challenges outside the classroom, from homelessness and domestic violence to lack of child care and undiagnosed mental health issues.

Students then spend the next six months completing internships at blue-chip companies. For these firms, joining forces with Year Up is a smart business decision. “It’s a source of young, ambitious, smart labour,” says John Galante, chief information officer for Chase Wealth Management.

“It’s worked out very well for us in terms of being an excellent business case for certain skill sets. It’s a great way to reach out to close the divide. It’s also a great energizer for employees around the interns as they come in. I tell anyone — there’s not a big risk here. Add it up: a great business case, great for the community, an energizer for your staff — it’s really a win-win.”

And therein lies the key to Year Up’s success. The program narrows the opportunity divide for its students by closing the skills gap for employers.

“In so many ways, they’re just what our economy needs,” Chertavian says about Year Up students who overcome adversity to become remarkably resilient, resourceful and motivated. “Despite the nation’s high unemployment rate, jobs are going begging — the very jobs our graduates learn the skills for. There are plenty of jobs out there now, many of them information-based that don’t require college degrees. But they demand skills not taught in high schools.”

Inspired by his experience as a Big Brother, Chertavian created Year Up and wrote this book to challenge and change perceptions. “Year Up’s talented, successful workforce is made up of individuals too many of us have long been conditioned to see as liabilities. Our young adults are huge assets to an ailing economy once they’re given an opportunity. Far from being a drag on our economic engine, these skilled new workers will be the key to its future.”

There are two reasons why you should read this remarkable book.

First, all net proceeds are donated back to Year Up.

And second, Chertavian makes the business case for a similar investment that’s badly needed in Hamilton’s own Code Red neighbourhoods. His stories about Year Up students and grads prove that investing in young people is always a smart, safe and sure bet.

And Chertavian reminds us that, as a community, we simply cannot afford to continue wasting so much promise and potential.

Review: Brand Like A Rock Star by Steve Jones

This review first ran in the Sept. 10 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Brand Like a Rock Star: Lessons From Rock’n’Roll to Make Your Business Rich and Famous

By Steve Jones

Greenleaf Book Group Press


We’re headed back for another sermon at the Church of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

My wife and I will be in the stands and out of our seats when Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band bring their Wrecking Ball Tour to Copps Coliseum Oct. 21.

We caught their Toronto tour stop last month. Over three hours and 45 minutes without a break, the world’s greatest bar band tore through a playlist spanning four decades. The concert closed with 40,000 fans singing and dancing to Twist and Shout just 15 minutes shy of midnight.

So let’s imagine a world where all of us love our jobs the way Springsteen still loves performing Thunder Road for the 10,000th time. Where we treat our customers the way Springsteen treats his fans.   Where we hold nothing back, consistently turn in an inspired performance and never fail to surprise.

There are business and marketing lessons to be learned from the Boss and his fellow musicians, says Steve Jones who’s spent close to 30 years building radio brands across North America. If you want to build a great brand, look to great  bands.

It all starts with passion. It’s the stuff that legendary bands and brands are made of. “When you create something out of a deep desire to change the world, people pay attention. You believe; we believe. That root passion is where your rock star brand begins.”

From Springsteen and the Beatles to AC/DC and U2, great musicians and bands consistently meet their fans’ expectations. They deliver want their audience wants. Brands need to do the same, says Jones.

“When any brand creates a product that isn’t congruent with what their fans expect, it interferes with the mental real estate the brand already owns. It diminishes the brand’s value.”

Great bands and musicians know better than to try to appeal to everyone. Don’t expect a hip hop or death metal record from the Boss. Springsteen knows his fans want songs about promises kept and broken in Small Town USA where the rain’s cold and hard and the love’s mean and true.

“If you build your brand to appeal to everyone, you’ll never be the brand that people fall in love with,” says Jones. “You’ll never be their first choice. You might become the fallback second choice when the brand they love isn’t available, but that’s about as much as you can hope for.”

While Springsteen has legions of fans, there are some misguided souls who don’t yet appreciate his music. But this doesn’t bother great performers because they know the opposite of love isn’t hate.

“Love and hate aren’t really opposites in the branding world,” says Jones. “They go hand in hand. There cannot be one without the other.

“The opposite of love is simply not caring,” says Jones. “The opposite of love, when it comes to building a strong and powerful brand, is indifference. Any brand that stirs up attention is bound to have detractors.”

Great bands engage their fans and build tribes. What business wouldn’t want the equivalent of Dead Heads and Parrot Heads? “By not getting in the way of their fan’s passion, the Greatful Dead and Jimmy Buffet both created massive networks of passionate people to help spread the message about their music. That’s the opportunity brands have today if they are willing to lose some control and let the fans take over and own their experience.”

And while it starts with passion, it all comes down to your customers’ experience. Great brands deliver great experiences.

“The world  didn’t listen to Jimi Hendrix,” says Jones. “They experienced Jimi Hendrix. Watching him on stage coaxing the fire from his guitar was an experience. Experience is a vital word for brands, and not nearly enough brands understand that. No matter what you sell, it is all about the experience: the emotional reaction that your customers have when they use your brand. Rock star brands realize they don’t sell products or services, they sell experiences.”

Competitors can easily sell cheaper knock-offs of your services and products. But they can’t replicate the one-of-a-kind experiences that you consistently deliver and that your fans happily pay a premium to enjoy.

While there are almost as many marketing books as songs in Springsteen’s discography, this is the first to put a rock ‘n’ roll spin on brand building. It’s an informative, insightful and entertaining read.

@jayrobb lives and works in Hamilton and still finds reason to believe at the end of every hard-earned