Genesys Works provides economically-challenged students with opportunities in IT

Genesys Works enables economically disadvantaged high school students to thrive as IT pros. 95% of the students that complete the program's IT internships enroll in college.

Image: Genesys Works

Dorothy O'Berry walked to the podium prepared to tell 400 IT professionals her life story. O'Berry was also there to thank them. Taking a deep breath, O'Berry began by saying her story was about doors: revolving doors that offered limited hope, inviting doors that changed her life, and open doors to a world where she can contribute and be valued.

Revolving doors and limited hope were a reference to O'Berry's not so distant past. It is hard for most to imagine attending high school while living in a homeless shelter. O'Berry does not have to imagine -- it was real for her. As for hope, studying at night in a homeless shelter could not have offered much.

Summer IT program

Inviting doors that changed her life presented themselves during O'Berry's junior year at Como Park Senior High School in St. Paul, Minnesota. One day during English class, several well-dressed students walked into the room. They were there to talk about the summer program that prepared students for a part-time "paid" internship working in IT departments managed by many of the IT professionals now listening to O'Berry talk.

Until then, O'Berry never gave much thought to a career in IT, but Molly McCurdy, her mentor and school counselor, encouraged O'Berry to apply. O'Berry, realizing what the offer could lead to, accepted. The next summer, O'Berry spent eight weeks learning skills that would help her function in an office environment, including IT fundamentals, communication skills, and how to dress and act professionally.

O'Berry remembers her first day of summer training. "I noticed something special. I smelled success in the air." After a busy summer, O'Berry was awarded an internship at Deluxe Corporation working with the desktop-engineering team. O'Berry's internship was more hands on than one might expect. For example, O'Berry gained experience administering servers, Active Directory, and SharePoint -- important skills culminating with O'Berry obtaining her A+ certification.

Genesys Works

The program that helped O'Berry and almost 600 other Minnesota high school seniors is Genesys Works.

"Genesys Works is a non-profit organization dedicated to building bridges between economically-disadvantaged high school students, businesses seeking technology-proficient workers, and inner-city public education systems struggling to produce high-quality, market-ready graduates."

Before receiving my invitation to Genesys Works' Annual CIO Luncheon, I was unaware of the nonprofit. That must have been obvious, because within seconds of my arriving at the luncheon, a woman introduced herself as Jennie Tollefson. She glanced at my press ID, and asked if I would like to talk to her husband, Jeff, who is the Executive Director of Genesys Works.

Before I could say sure, a tall, lanky gentleman walked over, offered his hand, and thanked me for coming; Jeff Tollefson then explained the premise behind Genesys Works and why he became involved. "After achieving a certain level of financial success in my life, I felt compelled to do something that was more about personal significance." After a slight pause, Tollefson continued, "The something I was looking for confronted me when I met Rafael Alvarez, Founder, and CEO of Genesys Works."

What is the story?

Genesys Works currently operates in four metropolitan areas: Houston (2002), Minneapolis/St. Paul (2008), Chicago (2010), and the Bay Area (2013). The number of students trained is 2,416; the number of students placed into IT internships is 1,756; and the percentage of interns enrolled in college is 95%. The 95% is significant, because the bachelor's degree attainment rate for the demographic Genesys Works serves is only 11% nationally. I asked Tollefson what the secret was to their success. He said:

"Genesys Works is unique in that it works with high-school students in a deeply engaging way. This program is not a summer internship that ends up with the student job-shadowing. The selected student spends the summer learning how to act in a professional manner that will carry over when the student is interning for the entire year."

I then asked Tollefson why they chose IT -- didn't doing so limit student options? Tollefson said just the opposite is true:

"Choosing IT was the perfect choice for several reasons. First, IT is a very in-demand profession and offers our students a relatively quick pathway to prosperity. Companies also want to see greater diversity in their workforce for multiple reasons. And, finally today's young men and women are very interested in digital technology; it is a lifestyle they have grown up with."


While at the luncheon, I talked to Luz Lopez Rosas and Ashley Lee, two smiling, confident student interns. Rosas's internship is at Travelers Insurance, where she works in the data-analysis department. When I asked Rosas how it was going, she responded:

"Very busy, they keep us busy with school work, interning, and after school CCC (College, Career, Connections) classes. There the instructors help us with FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) forms, scholarship applications, and most of what we will need to get into college."

I also asked Rosa how she felt about Genesys Works. With no hesitation, Rosas replied, "Before I became a part of Genesys Works, my attitude towards life was pessimistic. I felt I was never going to do anything with my life. But now, my life has changed tremendously."

Ashley Lee, a senior who is interning at Patterson Dental in the quality-assurance department, echoed the same sentiment, crediting Genesys Works for her newfound confidence, and making college more than a dream.

Partners play a key role

Besides the Genesys Works team, there is another group that is vital to the success of this program -- the partners. Every indication I have seen has the high-school partners completely behind what Genesys Works is doing. Dan Wrobleski, Principal of Columbia High School, had this to say:

"Our school is definitely experiencing the Genesys Works culture change that comes with having 24 of the 166 members of our senior class in the Genesys Works program. They talk of important projects they work on at companies like Target and Medtronic, and the relationships they have developed with coworkers. They are truly proud to be part of Genesys Works and take their roles as student ambassadors seriously."

Corporate partners are the companies that commit to providing internships for students who pass the summer training program. Many of the partners also donate funds that cover a significant portion of the program's cost. From the slide below, you can see it is an impressive group.

Image: Genesys Works

One partner is Medtronic, Inc. Michael Hedges, Medtronic CIO, has a special interest in this program. During the luncheon, Hedges shared that his background is similar to the student interns, and it took a fortunate break for him to claw his way out of poverty, eventually studying at Oxford, and now CIO of a premier medical-device company. Hedges had this to say about Genesys Works:

"Medtronic has been with the Genesys program for a number of years, and it has not only met, but exceeded our expectations. The Genesys Works students have had a very positive impact on our people, our organization, and the community."

Final thoughts

I heard a number of attendees say the program is a "continuous positive cycle." A student gets into the program, learns, achieves success, and tells other students about the program.

In his closing speech, Tollefson echoed this sentiment. He wanted us to look further than the benefit to the student intern. The student intern's newfound attitude affects family and the intern's circle of friends, giving them hope and a glimpse of what might be.

Tollefson then mentioned the student intern also affects the sponsoring partners in a very positive way. I have to agree. From what I heard at the luncheon, the people who train the interns are learning as much if not more than the students. This has to be a good thing for the IT profession.

As to O'Berry's third door, open doors to a world where she can contribute and be valued, one contribution stands out: Her younger brother, Vincent, has chosen to follow her footsteps and join the Genesys Works program.

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