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

Review: UnMarketing – Stop Marketing. Start Engaging by Scott Stratten

This review first ran in the August 27th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

“UnMarketing is all about engagement at every point of contact with your market.”

Unmarketing: Stop Marketing, Start Engaging

By Scott Stratten

John Wiley & Sons


I finished reading Scott Stratten’s book while my kids did a craft at a store here in Hamilton.

A mom and her preschool daughter arrived after us. They were first-time customers. They stood at the counter and patiently waited for a painfully long time while the manager ignored them and continued talking on the phone about a payroll problem.

I felt bad for the mom and wished John was behind the counter. John works as a slide attendant at The Fallsview Indoor Waterpark. My son and I had gone to the Niagara Falls waterpark a few weeks earlier.

John welcomed us to the park during our first hike up the stairs to the slides.  He later gave us the rundown on all the slides while we waited in line. In the afternoon, John asked my son if he was having a great time. John gave us a thumbs up after one of our more awesome wipe-outs at the end of a slide.

John could have adopted a dead stare into middle distance and treated us all like an inconvenience. But he never stopped smiling and striking up conversations. John clearly enjoys working at the waterpark and he’s happy we’re there.

While John’s a slide attendant, on that afternoon he was the waterpark’s chief marketing officer for me, my son and hundreds of other guests.

Stratten, a social marketing guru who calls Oakville home, had a similar experience at the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas.  While walking through the lobby, one of the employees stopped cleaning a carpet and went out of his way to greet Stratten.

“His welcome changed my entire perception of the Wynn. Almost $3 billion went into making this megacasino resort and it was one guy who made me want to stay there. This gentleman, who made me feel welcome at his place of employment, was not only exceptional, but he was extremely rare.”

And it’s these exceptional people who get us talking. Not only do we tell family, friends and coworkers. We tell our Twitter followers, Facebook friends and YouTube subscribers. Smart business owners are joining these online conversations, connecting with prospective customers and converting current customers into fans through the power of engagement.

“If you believe business is built on relationships, make building them your business,” says Stratten.

Social media offers unprecedented opportunities to do exactly that. “I love the fact that with social media I get to know business owners. I can learn not just about their businesses but also about them personally. Sharing this type of connection builds greater trust than any brochure, logo or company mission statement could.”

Many business owners and entrepreneurs initially get it wrong when it comes to social media, says Stratten. “The problem with the term social media is that whenever people see the word media, they automatically think push. Media has been classically linked as a way to push your message out through a variety of methods such as television, newspapers, radio and online. However, social media isn’t media at all – it is simply a conversation between two or more people.”

Be prepared to invest a lot of time, freely share your wealth of knowledge and engage in many conversations before ever pitching your product or service. Stratten posted 10,000 tweets before making his first sales pitch online.

“You wouldn’t open a business bank account and ask to withdraw $5,000 before depositing anything. The banker would think you are a loony. Yet people go on social media, open their account, send out a few pitches for their mediocre ebook and then complain to me that this social media stuff doesn’t work.”

Along with building relationships, social media has the power to destroy reputations, cost you customers and even put you out of business. Failing to connect with unhappy campers can cause you a world of hurt. “One person calling your customer service line to complain may not have much impact in your mind, but throw in a handful of people with the same problem, an influential blog or two, and a Twitter army, and you have a good old-fashioned revolt on your hands,” says Stratten.

If you’re running or about to launch a business, you need to do two things right now. Read Stratten’s book to shamelessly steal his ideas for building relationships and engaging with current and future customers. And when you’re not reading Stratten’s book, log on to Twitter and join the conversations that are happening right now about our community and maybe even your business at #hamont.

As for the owners of The Fallsview Indoor Waterpark, they should give John a Twitter feed and Facebook page where he can continue the conversations that made me a fan of their business.

@jayrobb works and lives in Hamilton and blogs at


Review: Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit

This review first ran in the Aug.13th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Business, in Life and Business

By Charles Duhigg

Doubleday Canada


Looking to change your corporate culture? Follow Paul O’Neill’s lead and set a goal that’s all or nothing.

O’Neill was appointed CEO of Alcoa in 1987. In his first meeting with Wall Street investors and analysts, O’Neill didn’t talk about higher profits, lower costs and maximized shareholder value. Instead, he told the confused crowd that he planned to make the aluminum manufacturer the safest company in America. “I intend to go for zero injuries,” said O’Neill who then pointed out the safety exits in the hotel ballroom and what to do in case of an emergency.

One investor recalls running to a lobby pay phone, calling his 20 largest clients and telling them to immediately dump all of their stock in Alcoa. “It was literally the worst piece of advice I gave in my entire career,” the investor tells author and New York Times investigative reporter Charles Duhigg.

The Wall Street financiers were baffled but O’Neill had done his homework. “I knew I had to transform Alcoa. But you can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”

O’Neill also knew that a journey to zero accidents was a keystone habit that all workers, the union and management would support.

“If we bring our injury rates down, it won’t be because of cheerleading or the nonsense you sometimes hear from other CEOs. It will because the individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important: they’ve devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be the indicator that we’re making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution.”

To better protect workers, the company needed to know why injuries were happening. And to know that, managers and workers had to study how manufacturing processes were going wrong. Fixing those processes would lead to safer, more efficient operations and higher quality.

O’Neill gave workers his home phone number and told them to call if their managers weren’t following up on safety issues. “Workers started calling, but they didn’t want to talk about accidents. They wanted to talk about all these other great ideas.” Managers who tried to cover up accidents were fired and those who embraced the journey to zero were rewarded and promoted.

Alcoa was one of the first companies to use email. The company built an electronic network so its worldwide operations could share real-time safety data. O’Neill logged on every morning and sent messages. Managers then started to share best practices and ask for help in solving issues beyond worker safety.

Within a year of O’Neill’s meet and greet with panicked investors, Alcoa’s profits hit a record high. By the time he retired in 2000, the company’s annual net income was five times larger than before he arrived. Market capitalization had risen by $27 billion. Some of Alcoa’s factories would go years without a single employee losing a workday due to an accident. The company’s overall worker injury rate fell to one-twentieth the U.S. average.

Transforming organizations by honing in on a keystone habit is one of many stories Duhigg tells to drive home the big idea of his book. Any personal, organizational or societal habit can be changed if we understand how they work. “Transforming a habit isn’t necessarily easy or quick. It isn’t always simple. But it is possible. And now we understand how.”

If you’re a fan of Freakonomics and the work of Malcolm Gladwell, then this book’s for you. Along with the Ballad of Paul O’Neill, you’ll learn how a hospital repaired toxic nurse-physician relations, how Target studies buying habits to identify and then market to pregnant women and new parents (the holy grail of retail), how football coach Tony Dungy turned around the sad sack Tampa Bay Buccaneers and led the Indianapolis Colts to the Superbowl, and why stressed Starbucks baristas don’t dump low-fat iced caramel macchiatos on the heads of obnoxious and rude customers.

Social media at the water’s edge (review of Michael Hyatt’s Platform)

This review first ran in the July 30th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World

By Michael Hyatt

Thomas Nelson


A quick look at the books for the Hamilton Waterfront Trust shows there’s a big problem.

The Waterfront Trust needs to spend a lot more money on advertising. Last year’s ad buy was a meager $37,000 for seven Trust-run businesses with combined revenues of more than $2 million. Eight out of every 10 ad dollars went to the Hamilton Harbour Queen. For those of you not in the know, that’s a boat and not the winner of a nautical beauty pageant.

The Waterfront Trust can’t cost-cut its way to financial sustainable. Revenues need to grow. That means more of us need to spend more of our money at the water’s edge. But we won’t go if we don’t know what’s there.

Not only does the Trust’s brain trust need to double down on its ad buy. They need to invest in social media and build a bigger and better platform beyond a website that has all the charm and personality of an instruction manual.

“A platform is the thing you have to stand on to get heard,” says author and social media expert Michael Hyatt, who has more than 400,000 monthly visitors to his website and 50,000 subscribers to his daily blog posts. “It’s your stage. Today’s platform is not build of wood or concrete or perched on a grassy hill. Today’s platform is built of people. Contacts. Connections. Followers.

“In today’s business environment, you need two things: a compelling product and a significant platform.” Hyatt says business competition has never been greater and consumers are more distracted than ever before.

A well-built platform delivers on three fronts:

  • Increased visibility that elevates you above the crowd
  • More amplification so you can be heard over the roar of the crowd
  • And greater engagement with current and prospective customers

Social media makes up the main planks in your platform. These planks include Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Pinterest, YouTube, blogs and websites.

Taken together, social media gives you a platform to start and join conversations. Share ideas. Champion a cause. Lead the charge. Offer solutions. And build an ever-expanding tribe of raving fans and loyal followers.

“Marketing may not be dead but, in the world of social media, it has morphed. Dramatically. Tribe-building is the new marketing. Marketing is no longer about shouting in a crowded marketplace; it is about participating in a dialogue with fellow travelers. Marketing is no longer about generating transactions; it is about building relationships. Marketing is no longer about exploiting a market for your own benefit; it is about serving those who share your passion – for your mutual benefit.”

An engaged tribe will sing your praises to family and friends, fans and followers both online and off. They’ll happily offer up testimonials and endorsements. They’ll share their stories and experiences. They’ll shoot videos, take photos and create some amazing social media content that casts you in favourable light.

Hyatt cautions that you must have a wow before figuring out how to build a platform and connect with your tribe.  Twitter and Facebook won’t save a lousy product or disappointing service. If anything, it will hasten your demise. To borrow a line from marketing guru David Ogilvy, “great marketing only makes a bad product fail faster.”

The Waterfront Trust has a real wow at the water’s edge. With the right social media platform, the Trust could easily connect and engage with a pretty passionate tribe. A tribe who’s looking for a safe and scenic place to run, walk and bike. To entertain in-laws and impress out-of-town guests. To go on dates. To get the kids unplugged from their iPads and Playstations and connected with the outdoors and. To throw cool parties, events and offsite retreats. And to foster an even greater sense of community and civic pride.

@jayrobb works and lives in #HamOnt and blogs at