Breakthrough Leader Aimée Eubanks Davis of Braven
"I built Braven because I knew I had a unique understanding of the challenge and the potential solution to help put hundreds and thousands of students on a different economic path not in 20, 10, or 7 years — but in a matter of semesters."
We caught up with Aimée Eubanks Davis, Founder and CEO of Braven, a New Profit grantee-partner, to talk about her organization, her vision for the future, and why she does this work. Braven is a breakthrough organization that uses a scalable coaching and fellowship model backed by technology to bridge the education to employment gap for first-generation college students.
What problem did you see that led you to create Braven?
An unexpected collision happened in 2005. It was the year of Hurricane Katrina and the senior year of college for my first group of 6th graders who I’d taught in New Orleans years earlier as a Teach For America (TFA) corps member. It was also my first year in a new major role at Teach For America, leading the organization’s Human Assets work. TFA was growing at an astounding rate and we were also on a mission to ensure the teaching corps and staff was more representative of the communities in which we partnered. That year we saw 17,000 diverse college graduates apply to the teaching corps and thousands of others apply to join our staff.
Big numbers can sometimes obscure the individual people behind them.
As the data started to come in, it was apparent that students who were first in their families to go to college, on Pell grants, and/or from underrepresented backgrounds were not doing as well in the Teach For America selection process. Big numbers can sometimes obscure the individual people behind them, but several of my former students were in the applicant pool.
I’ll never forget the day that one of our most talented and kind Recruitment Directors came into my office and informed me that one of my former students, Ketica Guter, was not looking promising in preliminary screens. The wind was knocked out of me. Ketica was and still is an amazingly talented human being. She was among thousands of other students in the recruitment pipeline who had done everything right and was on the cusp of what should have been her opening to the American Dream.
And here is the kicker, TFA’s selection bar wasn’t unique — it was similar to the bar at other top companies. I knew I couldn’t ethically coach Ketica through the process. But I did the next best thing and asked my younger sister who was in the teaching corps at the time to help prep her. I did what all of us do to help a young person we love attain their dream job — we use our knowledge and social capital to help them advance.
I built Braven because I knew I had a unique understanding of the challenge and the potential solution to help put hundreds and thousands of students on a different economic path.
Ketica got into Teach For America, won various teaching awards, graduated a few years ago from Harvard’s Master’s of Education program, and is now an incredible educational leader in her own right. The promise of our country held true for Ketica, but it could have easily not.
I built Braven because I knew I had a unique understanding of the challenge and the potential solution to help put hundreds and thousands of students on a different economic path not in 20, 10, or 7 years — but in a matter of semesters. This is why I started and continue to do the work.
Our students' success fuels our country’s success.
What is the transformative vision behind Braven?
In deep partnership with higher education partners and employers, we work to empower first-generation and low-income college students with the skills, confidence, experiences and social capital they will need to land strong first jobs that put them on the path to upward mobility and the American Dream. Our students’ success fuels our country’s success, ensuring that our large public higher education institutions become ever stronger engines of mobility and that our companies have the diverse talent they need to thrive in the modern economy.
Braven’s mission is to empower promising, underrepresented young people — first-generation college students, students from low-income backgrounds, and students of color — with the skills, confidence, experiences, and networks necessary to transition from college to strong first jobs.
Can you share a story of a student’s success?
In the Fall of 2015, Jalil transferred from De Anza Community College to San Jose State University. As a transfer junior, he spent 3 hours each day commuting back and forth to campus and paid for school with grants and scholarships. Jalil did everything right. But as a junior, he had far fewer connections and career-related experiences than many of his more affluent peers. He just worked incredibly hard and stayed incredibly focused — which we know should be enough, but often isn’t.
Jalil’s dream job was at Google, but when he applied, his application was rejected. In the Fall of his transfer junior year, he took the Braven course at San José State University. His Braven Leadership Coach helped him get an internship elsewhere instead, where he built up his network, spent time understanding his personal leadership assets, and developed his skills. And Jalil’s hard work paid off. A year later when he reapplied to Google he became the first San Jose State University student to receive the Google Bold internship. He went on to earn a full-time job at Google, get promoted, and continues to work there today.
What do you see as the biggest barrier to achieving Braven’s intended impact that you are facing right now? What is your call to action for our community?
The current health and economic crisis will have a devastating impact on the health and wealth of our most vulnerable citizens, including the thousands of low-income, first-generation college students that Braven and our partner universities have served to date. We know that recent college graduates are disproportionately impacted during a recession — the effects on earning potential are immediate and last longer. Now more than ever, college students from humble beginnings need to be prepared to compete for strong jobs.
While there is more we need to do for all low-income, first-generation and underrepresented college students amid this crisis, we are particularly worried about the 500,000+ low-income and first-generation college seniors who are graduating into this unprecedented economic moment. These students have done everything right, earned the right to compete, and have an outsized ability to fuel the economic recovery of their communities and our nation.
In an effort to support these graduating seniors who are navigating the hardest job market of our lifetime, Braven is launching the Career Booster, a short (2-week) online and virtual boot camp with content focused on strong career artifacts (i.e. resume, LinkedIn profile), networking and interviewing, the application process, and contingency planning in this new labor market. The core of the Braven Booster will consist of two online modules and two interactive webinars with online peer interaction throughout the experience. When all are completed, participants will unlock post-program bonuses: access to the Braven National Network and a 1:1 coaching session with a professional from the workforce.
Please consider volunteering with Braven to help students land strong jobs that will put them on the path to economic mobility and the American Dream.
Who has helped you along the way on your path to becoming a social entrepreneur?
We have a core value at Braven called Live Your Legacy. It means “We align our actions with our beliefs and have the courage to do what is right even when it is hardest to do so. We are transparent about our decisions and actions, and authentic in all that we do. Others paved the path for us; we must do it for others.” It’s inspired by the mentors and leaders who paved the path for me. One of those people is Wendy Kopp, the Founder and long-time CEO of Teach For America and now the Co-Founder and CEO of Teach For All. Wendy took an enormous bet on me when she hired me to be the Vice President of New Site Development, and then asked me to oversee half of the TFA regions, which led me to my next breakout role as TFA’s head of human capital. I worked for Wendy for a lot of years, and I learned so much about strategy and execution from simply being in her presence and watching her operate. One thing I unfortunately never learned was how to wake up before the sun rises and go for a long run.
What is inspiring you right now?
The American Dream, in the simplest of economic terms, is the ideal that you’ll outearn your parents by the age of 30. My parents generation had a 90% shot of doing just this. For the generation who just entered their 30s their odds have dipped to 1 in 2. Forty-nine percent of Braven Fellows, not by age 30 but in their very first job out of college, are already outearning their parents. At Braven, I am inspired by our Fellows, coaches, staff, board, employer, and donor partners who have decided that in partnership we can reconstruct the American Dream. This is the America I love!
Why do you do this work?
In addition to the moral imperative that I feel having worked with students like Ketica, Jalil, and thousands more, this is a highly solvable societal challenge. It’s not a lack of talent, effort or intellect. Rather, the resources for college students in the Mighty Middle to develop the soft skills or build the social capital needed to launch from college to career have been limited. The good news is that with some intentionality, we can help students close these gaps. Just like we can teach a five-paragraph essay or algebra, we can teach students soft skills, namely, to communicate professionally, work in teams, and learn career-oriented problem solving frameworks like design thinking. Additionally, we can teach students how to build relationships beyond their immediate family and friendship circles. This exposes them to professionals and in turn enables them to get in the door and get the attention they deserve from hiring managers.