'Future CEOs' discover their potential to succeed in business

September 1, 2012

Bon Secours cosponsors skill-building course for low-income students


It's a refrain that many high school and college students are hearing as they close in on graduation: It's a down economy. The prospects are bleak for new graduates. The American Dream is harder to achieve now.

The future can seem particularly gloomy for low-income students and youth at risk of falling behind in the school system.

But Paul Kolaj, the head of an international pizza chain, sees a much rosier picture, and that's why he agreed last year to talk to a group of high school students in a skill-building course about how he succeeded in business — and how they could as well. "It's an opportunity I have to send a message out there to these young folks on the fact that there is hope and on the fact that there is opportunity out there and on the fact that they can one day be the future business leaders we so desperately need," said Kolaj, cofounder, president and chief executive of the Famous Famiglia Pizzeria chain headquartered in White Plains, N.Y.

Kolaj spoke to the 11 students as part of the curriculum of "Future CEOs," a free, semester-long course that teaches students business skills such as planning, budgeting, time management and customer service while also imparting to them the value of building character. Bon Secours Health System facilities are co-sponsoring Future CEOs programs — held primarily in schools and churches — in New York City and in the Hampton Roads, Va., area.

During the course, students establish and manage bare bones businesses — with each running an eBay sales operation. They pass or fail the course based on their performance in class and their ability to please their online customers, but they do not earn high school credit for participating.

Future CEOs is about much more than learning to post a smart eBay item description, add the right product photo and deliver an item to the buyer on time, said Jody Gettys, of Operation Blessing, an international humanitarian organization based in Virginia Beach, Va., that cosponsors Future CEOs. She said, "We wanted to give teenagers and young adults the opportunity for growth and development and education and entrepreneurship — give them the opportunity to make money in ways that would make them successful in life."

Grassroots relationships
Gettys helped to create the first Future CEOs program in Norfolk, Va., in partnership with Steve Zollos, executive director of healthy communities for Bon Secours Hampton Roads Health System, a Bon Secours region with four hospitals and a network of other facilities. Gettys directs U.S. disaster relief for Operation Blessing. She met Zollos in 2009 while doing recovery work following flooding in the Hampton Roads region that impacted a food pantry run by a Bon Secours ministry. The two began talking about how Bon Secours and Operation Blessing could partner to benefit local youth in a particularly depressed area of the community called the East Ocean View neighborhood, near Norfolk, where annual incomes averaged about $15,000.

They created a course structure for Future CEOs, a class that would expose youth from hard-knock backgrounds who may not be on the traditional college track to the work world, and do so in a way that would build their confidence and get them thinking about their own potential to shape their working futures. Rather than get stuck in a dead-end job, why not create a business or two?

Partnering with local churches that helped them recruit the inaugural class, Gettys and Zollos launched the first Future CEOs course in 2010. Operation Blessing funds the $11,000 per semester budget in Hampton Roads, which covers the cost of an instructor and course materials. Partner churches host the classes — there is one class per semester — and church members donate the items for the students to sell through their eBay businesses.

The students attend evening and weekend classes during the school year or in a summer session, learning business basics, how eBay works and how to follow ethical practices in their businesses. At the end of the course, students receive a gift card loaded with the profits they made. In Virginia, Future CEOs has completed three semesters in three communities, with more than 30 students finishing the course.

Gettys said students told her the course gave them confidence to pursue their goals. "A lot of kids — they just need somebody to believe in them, somebody who will give them resources. So for us it's about giving them opportunity — not just educational opportunity, but emotional support and (access to) people who can believe in them because a lot of them come from families that don't have a big support system," Gettys said.

Branching out
Pleased with the results in Hampton Roads, Gettys and Zollos created a "program in a box" for use in other cities where Operation Blessing and Bon Secours have a presence. Both organizations operate in multiple cities, including in many low-income communities where job prospects are bleak for young people. The kit contains materials explaining how to establish a Future CEOs program and tailor it for a particular community.

Sarah Shaikh, a liaison for the Healthy Communities Initiative for Bon Secours New York Health System, a Riverdale, N.Y.-based long-term care network, learned about Future CEOs at a gathering of Bon Secours community benefit leaders. "I immediately knew we needed this," said Shaikh.

Forgotten students
Shaikh struggled to find organizations interested in partnering on the project in New York City until she connected with Pastor Walter Sotelo, the senior pastor of Inwood Church. His nondenominational Christian church was working with Bon Secours on some healthy food initiatives.

Sotelo said when he heard the idea, "I was super excited. I said, 'This is a no-brainer.'"

New York City's school system is failing many students, he said, adding that about one in four New York high school students does not graduate. And studies have shown that many students are ill-prepared for higher education. "Some are meant to go to college, and some are not. Those who are not, are really forgotten" often in the school system, Sotelo said.

He added that in the low-income areas his church serves in Manhattan's Inwood and Washington Heights neighborhoods, many students do not eat well, so they may not have the stamina to learn. Or, they may not learn in the way the school system teaches. "They want to be viable citizens, and they want to help the economy. (But many are) tied down by the system and their surroundings."

They need to be shown opportunities, Sotelo said.

Sold out
The New York program that began last year took a slightly different form than the Virginia program. It was held in a school; it was funded by a Bon Secours grant; and, instead of providing students with products donated by churchgoers, the program challenged students to secure their own inventory. Students started out with $100.

Some sold make-up through eBay, some computer accessories, some basketball equipment. They learned to market the products on eBay and fulfill customer requests as they came in. They also learned to resolve problems – eBay's seller rating system proved to be a good motivator for students, said Shaikh. "The beauty of eBay is that it forces you to be honest," she said. "The goal is perfect customer feedback, and this forces you to follow through on what you promise."

Shaikh said many of the students were so successful that they sold out of their inventory. Some have kept their online businesses open after completing the class.

She said the work allowed lackluster students to discover a love for hands-on learning. Sotelo said family members who formerly were chronic no-shows at parent-teacher meetings, eagerly participated in an end-of-the-course celebration. "They were so excited," Sotelo said of the students and their families.

Shaikh said without intervention, so many students "get lost in the system for many different reasons. But if we give them skills, they can take things in a creative new direction.

"We're helping provide a new vision of the future for them," she said.


Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Donna Troy or call (314) 253-3450.

Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.