A Guide to Building a Business That Matters
Gerald Chertavian is the CEO and Founder of Year Up, a non-profit organization that provides intensive professional education to urban young adults. His organization was recently recognized by Fast Company and The Monitor Group as one of the top 25 organizations in the nation using business excellence to engineer social change. Prior to starting Year Up, Chertavian co-founded Conduit Communications and served as the head of marketing at Transnational Financial Services in London. He has been an active member of the Big Brother mentoring program since 1985, and was awarded New York’s outstanding member in 1989. He was also awarded the 2003 Social Entrepreneurship Award by the Manhattan Institute and the 2005 Freedom House Archie R. Williams, Jr. Technology Award. A graduate of Bowdoin College and Harvard Business School, Chertavian was born and raised in Lowell, MA.
Question: What challenges did you face in raising funds for your company?
Gerald Chertavian: I had lived for ten years abroad, in London, where my private company was. We sold that and moved back to America. So I left America when I was twenty-five and came back when I was thirty-five. I didn't have a heck of a network when I came back, and so had to, from scratch, find people who believed in the business plan I wrote and believed in the conviction in my voice, to say I will walk you around to meet the right people. So I remember back to when I was just myself and a phone, the people who said, we'll take a chance on this; we'll introduce you to the right people; we'll get you in front of the CEOs -- so those early champions -- I think of people like Craig Underwood, Tim Dibble -- they actually believed in us when there was nothing. And they had no right to believe in us per se. I mean, it was just me. So the challenge was -- you know, it's also an inspiration to me -- yes, it's a challenge to find those people, but it's inspiring to me to think that those people out there exist. Both of those gentlemen worked in the private sector and said, we'll actually give you a hand to try to do this.
So I think establishing a network took a lot of effort early on. Asking people for money is all about how you think about it. You know, I don't -- I think I'm -- I'm providing people with an opportunity to invest in something which works really well. You know, I'm providing people an opportunity to release the trapped energy in their money. I mean, money's only trapped energy, and you can untrap it a lot of different ways. But we're going to give you a way to invest in something that works. And you can see the results; you can see someone get a job, someone do well, someone get a college education. That's a great opportunity. If you are blessed enough to have capital that you can give away, you want to give it to the highest return, where it does the most good. Well, I'm fortunate in that Year Up is a great return on investment that is very demonstrable. So I think raising money can be hard if you think about it the wrong way. I think you have to think about it and what it is: is you're providing people with a beautiful opportunity, and you're brokering their desire to help and their desire to create change, with something that actually creates positive change and is very outcomes-driven and verifiable. So I think that, in terms of raising money, is not so hard.
I'll be honest with you: the only thing that I've found hard in the last ten years -- and I mean this sincerely, because no other part of Year Up I've found difficult in terms of what keeps me up at night. You know, these are little -- you know, how to grow a business is a problem; you manage around it. How to hire people -- well, you work hard and you find great people. They're business problems. If there weren't problems, you wouldn't have managers, right? What's hard for me -- the only thing that's hard for me -- is when one of our students gets hurt, or, God forbid, killed. Those are the only days when I feel like someone really hit me hard in the stomach, is when one of our students is physically or deeply emotionally damaged by the kind of wanton acts of others. So that's the one thing I find hard; nothing else, you know -- if you find those things hard you shouldn't be in business; that's just part of being in business, is you solve problems, and that's just the way it is.
Question: How does working for a non-profit differ from working in the corporate world?
Gerald Chertavian: The way in which we're treated, it's different in some respects in terms of who we're speaking with. So in the for-profit sector we tend to talk to the chief executive officer of an organization. So we'll work really hard to get that thirty minutes with someone like Jamie Dimon or Ken Chenault, someone who's really significant. And what I've found is, many of those leaders have a deep understanding of the social responsibility that they carry being leaders of large organizations. So for us, if we can get to the right individual, I've been very, very impressed with, one, the amount of time they've taken, the care and the thought they've put into thinking about can we pilot something like a Year Up in our companies, and also their willingness to champion it when it's the first time through the organization. So I think they also sense a genuineness in the work we do and a lot of demonstrated success from many of the corporations around America.
Whereas in the private sector, when I was working in technology -- it was the early days of technology -- and so there was a lot of stumbling, learning. There was motivated buying from, I'd say, fear -- where if I don't do this thing called the Internet, that might hurt my company, or by greed -- if I do it I'm going to get rich. But it was very early days when we were first getting into the Internet, and there was a lot more confusion, a lot less clarity. And certainly I don't think we ever had a proven model that we could offer to someone that we now have in Year Up, where it is a proven model. It's worked for thousands of young people, and we know we can look a senior executive in the eye and say, we can provide you with a long-term successful pipeline of talent to help fuel your need for skilled workers, and to know that we've done that for thousands of young people across hundreds of organizations.
Question: Why do you think your company has thrived?
Gerald Chertavian: So Year Up is successful largely because we're able to provide value to a business. And the way in which our model works is, our corporations contribute quite a lot of money to us for the benefit of having access to this talent pool, to develop that talent pool, to find sources of talent out into the future. It's priced in such a way that no one would do it for charitable purposes alone. And that was very conscious. So it's -- I would say 80 to 85 percent of what we do is down to providing businesses with valuable employees for our pipeline of talent, and I think they would pay a premium to do this of probably fifteen to twenty percent more than they may work with a company that wasn't serving this population because it has good value for the community, it has value for the sense of responsibility for the organization itself, and really we've measured the satisfaction level of employees who work with our students, and it's been demonstrably higher. So I think there's an internal motivation that this creates happy employees, it gives opportunity to young people in our community, and ultimately we as business people know that you cannot have a healthy economy without a healthy community.
Recorded on: October 29, 2009
Returning to America after 10 years abroad, the founder of Year Up found himself alone and with nothing but a big idea. Here he explains how he turned this situation into one of the most renowned non-profits around today, sharing his strategies on everything from fund-raising to ensuring employee satisfaction.