The Opportunity Network’s AiLun Ku on the Importance of ‘Unstoppable Learning’

As President and CEO of The Opportunity Network, AiLun Ku has devoted her professional life to harnessing the inherent talent of every young person of color from historically underrepresented backgrounds, matching their talent with access to resources and helping them thrive in both college and career.
NationSwell spoke to Ku about the road she’s walked along her professional and personal journey, what she and The Opportunity Network have been able to accomplish, and what the future looks like for her and her organization.
This is what she had to say.
NationSwell: Thanks for taking the time, AiLun. When did you first know you wanted to devote your life to purpose-driven work?
The Opportunity Network’s AiLun Ku: We moved to the United States from Taiwan when I was 10, and we moved to a predominately white town in New Jersey. The culture shock was real. It was a hard transition for my family to leave our communities and our families back in Taiwan and to move to a town that seemed… really different. Yes, we had our aunt and uncle there, and my cousin. We didn’t really have a full community like what we had in Taiwan.
When we moved to the United States, we attended your typical small, suburban public school. They hadn’t had to welcome an immigrant family for probably decades before we arrived, and so the teachers weren’t prepared to support us to learn English or to just become a part of the learning community. The teachers would say things like, “Why are you talking to her? She doesn’t speak English.” One time I used the word “yeah” instead of “yes,” and the teacher reminded me, “That’s an American word.” It made me feel like, “Oh, that word is not for me,” essentially.
It was a hard thing to come from a public school in Taiwan where everybody pitched in as a community of learners, and to come into the American public education system being singled out as an outsider who was made to feel like, “You’re not worthy of the learning resources.”
That was a tough thing for us to reckon with. Then, we just persisted because that’s what you do. That’s what you do when you move to a different country. And having experienced both that overt and underlying racism growing up and as an immigrant, I quickly realized I didn’t want anybody else to have to feel that way again, and that I wanted to prevent others from feeling it.
NationSwell: Part of the work that you do is so that people who come from other countries, who speak English as their second language, it’s so that they can move towards sort of thriving from an earlier age, rather than persisting, I imagine.
Ku: Thriving should be the absolute norm of the education system; but it’s often an exception to the rule when somebody thrives in the American education system. Especially if you look at really segregated communities in urban areas, and if you look at historically under-resourced, underserved communities — that continues to be the case. I think it’s the fact that only few people thrive in the American education system from preschool, from early childhood, all the way through post-secondary, is all the evidence we need to see that the system is designed to leave many of us behind.
NationSwell: That’s a perfect segue into my next question, which is, what is the opportunity gap, and how is The Opportunity Network working to close it?
AiLun Ku:I define the opportunity gap as something that was systematically, historically produced in our social context. That means between systematic oppression, systematic racism that has created generations of resource hoarding and gatekeeping that prevents young people of color and first generation students to access the resources that match their ambitions and talents, to thrive. That is the opportunity gap. The opportunity gap exists both in resources as well as in relationships, and in social capital as well as financial capital. That’s what we’re working to address.
The Opportunity Network works to close it from a few different entry points. From a direct service entry point, which is meeting students’ immediate needs. How do we serve young people of color in high school all the way through college graduation, open up access that provides them with awareness of all the college and career opportunities that are available to them, and then secure those resources and support them on their self-directed journeys toward college and career success?
We also change the way people think about what opportunity and access look like from an institutional level as well as the systems level, which is why we also have a capacity building program. We work with other non-profit organizations and schools to reimagine what college and career look like when your young people are the center of decision-making. The Opportunity Network is doing that work across 18 cities in the United States. This year, we’re slated to serve 5,000 students. Those are the ways that we’re working to address the opportunity gap.
NationSwell: What’s a touchstone that shows you that you’re on the right track here, even if there’s still so much to be done?
Ku: One of the things I’m really proud of is building an asset oriented and asset-based space for all of our young people, all of our staff, all of our stakeholder groups. I think it is important that we continue to underscore that every person inherently has something to offer, and every community inherently has something to offer. It’s a belief and a core value that we continue to nourish within the organization and with our partners, and also in the broader social change conversation and narrative. We know that it matters because our students, our young people and our partners enter spaces knowing their value, and are unapologetic for activating their agency because they know that they have value in every space that they enter.
NationSwell: What is the Purpose Library? Why are you launching it?
Ku: I think “purpose” is an evolving thing. It almost feels like a privilege when you have time and resources and the access to live your purpose. That should be a right for every person on the face of this planet to live fully into your purpose, and to lean fully into your purpose. One of the things we believe really firmly at The Opportunity Network is the more you can hear about stories of purpose, the more you can self-reflect, and self-direct, and shape what that purpose means for you, and it doesn’t have to be a privilege.
The idea of purpose, it’s embedded in stories, it’s embedded in storytelling. I think the only way we learn about how people have arrived at their purpose is through storytelling, and so what a better way than to create an entire library of people telling the stories of their journeys from their roots to their purpose, so that young people, as they’re on the road to discovery, their own purpose, they can learn from everybody else’s experience and activate the power of storytelling, and be authors of their own futures.
The Purpose Library will live on OppNet’s brand new open-access platform, UninterruptED: Unstoppable Learning, which we launched in response to COVID-19. The platform will help first-generation college-bound students and young people of color from historically underserved communities to stay the course in their postsecondary and career goals.
About The Opportunity Network 
The Opportunity Network (OppNet) ignites the drive, curiosity, and agency of students from historically and systematically underrepresented communities to connect them to college access and success, internships, career opportunities, and personal and professional networks. We work with 950 students in our direct service OppNet Fellows program for six years—from the summer after 10th grade through to college graduation, and into careers—with remarkable results: 92% of OppNet Fellows graduate college in six years; 93% will be the first in their families to graduate from college; and 89% secure meaningful employment or graduate school admission within six months of college graduation. Additionally, OppNet drives national student impact through Career Fluency® Partnerships, our capacity-building program for schools and youth-serving organizations across the country looking to boost college and career readiness in their young people. To date, OppNet has worked with over 60 Partners to support thousands of young people in 20 cities across the country reimagine college and career success.

How Adrian Haro Is Fighting to Bolster the Power of Workers Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

There’s never been a more urgent time to talk about the workers of America. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the structural inequities of our society, where workers in essential services — like grocers, delivery people and laundry attendants — risk their lives to work the frontlines of this crisis, despite the fact that they’ve been largely excluded from the economic growth of the late 20th and early 21st century.
As interim CEO of the Workers Lab, NationSwell Council member Adrian Haro fights the good fight for the workers of America. This is what he had to say about the novel ways he and his organization are innovating to not only consolidate and bolster worker power, but to provide immediate relief to those who need it most.
NationSwell’s Anthony Smith: Can you please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about the work you’re doing, and a little about how that work has pivoted amid this pandemic?
The Workers Lab’s Adrian Haro: Our purpose as an organization is to give new ideas about increasing worker power a chance to succeed and flourish by taking highly flexible, bold dollars and shooting those out to innovators all over the country — and on the ground — who are really enabling experimentation around new ideas about workers and worker power, and learning from those experiments.
Last year, we partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation and with to stand up an experiment about something that is now very much on the minds of the American people, certainly public sector and public sector leaders alike, which was to try to get $1000 in emergency cash to gig workers. Through that experiment, we were able to get $1000 in emergency cash to over 400 workers — and we learned that $1000 isn’t enough.
Emergency cash, I suspect now, is being thought of as like a necessity. But it was a necessity before this. Emergency cash, like emergency savings, like easy emergency loans should all be a part of a renewed or re-imagined social safety net. And we are now seeing why.

“What does it mean that workers are being deemed essential, but are not given essential safety gear or equipment?” — Adrian Haro, Interim CEO, Workers Lab

What we’ve been thinking a lot about since this pandemic began is what work looks like now, and how the supports workers need are perhaps important now more than ever before.
Particularly I hear things like how in some states, the process and infrastructure for claiming unemployment insurance is breaking down; when we’re having to rethink what childcare looks like; or trying to rethink what it looks like to go to the grocery store. I know there are innovators all over the country who right now are being forced to be super creative about how to solve problems that are rapidly revealing themselves, and the need to be able to respond quickly with new ideas that reflect responses to new challenges that have been exposed because of this crisis.
So the innovation and experimentation we do as a lab is more important than ever.
NS: What are some of the new ideas out there that you’re supporting?
AH: We are actually currently in the middle of the Innovation Fund, a grant competition we host two times a year. It’s our signature program. It is the main way that we put out a big open call and source innovative ideas from all over the country.
Once the pandemic really took hold, we were smack dab in the middle of that open call. What we’re doing now is doubling down on that program and asking for folks to think about the solutions that they’re submitting to us not necessarily as tools to respond directly to what’s going on, but certainly to be grounded in this moment, but also tied to a broader vision that extends beyond this moment, and where they sit in relation to the kinds of tools that need to be included in our social safety net once all of this blows over.
NS: How do you define a worker?
Workers for us are arguably one of the most powerful constituencies in this country, and I don’t know that they’re talked about in that way enough. Think about what workers need in our communities as citizens. When you think about the potential they have in our democracy as a powerful voting block in policy and advocacy, when you think about given the right conditions and access the role that workers can play in exerting corporate control — and we forget that workers are also moms and dads in our communities that need time, and space, and motivation to do things like the PTA, to run for office.
Workers are all of these things, and indeed because of all of that, because we think about workers as a massive constituency in this country within which myriad issues intersect in their lives, and what we’re working toward in our vision is that workers play an outsized role in determining how our society works more broadly.
NS: What does worker power mean at a time like this, when there are so many different types of jobs that have been classified as essential services, but the workers that work those jobs don’t get the essential support that they might need from their companies or from our governments to work those jobs and live their lives?
AH: We think about power for workers as what are we building in service of all of the outcomes that workers envision for themselves in their lives?
And so you can talk about safety as one of those outcomes. You can talk about recourse in the form of rights. You can talk about pay and benefits as outcomes that folks envision for themselves, mobility and control in the workplace; how much power do they have to participate in their democracy?
Workers need all of those things to be active and able members of our society. We are seeing now not just how unprepared our society writ large is, but how unprepared workers are in this moment to respond at work, or to respond personally on the family side — and how does that inform how we’re thinking about solutions? Where do workers sit in the conversation about the solutions like paid sick leave, the expansion of paid sick leave and the accessibility of unemployment insurance?
These are not new ideas. These are things that advocates have been asking for, demanding for decades. And what we’re looking for are, what is the solution to the problem of an overloaded unemployment insurance claim infrastructure? Who on the ground is thinking about how to fix that problem to achieve impact now and beyond? What does it mean that workers are being deemed essential, but are not given essential safety gear or equipment? When you look at an industry like care — my heart breaks for care workers for whom the notion of social distancing is really, in many cases, not an option. It’s just not an option to maintain distance when it’s your job to help somebody get out of bed or to give somebody a bath. And so in many cases the problems that are being surfaced now, the crux of them is as old as time.
There’s like this misconception that innovation and experimentation is only about solving or addressing challenges for a worker is unique to the 21st century, in gig, in tech, in digital.
Innovation is very, very much also a tool to make sure that all the workers that didn’t benefit from the policy gains of the 20th century can do so now, that they are included in those laws and in that progress. I mean I could go down the list of queer people, people with disabilities, immigrants, farm workers, domestic workers — all groups of workers that in some way, shape or form have been excluded from the progress of the 20th century. And we should be using innovation and experimentation to solve those problems as well.
NS: You mentioned that we’re at the crux of a moment right now with respect to workers and their future in this country. Is there anything that you’re seeing right now that heartens you, that says this is sort of the reckoning that needed to happen to make sure that workers get the support, the recourse that they deserve — that they’re the beneficiaries of past and present policies? Or are you more disheartened? 
AH: In many ways, this is both a heartening and a heartbreaking moment. We are seeing workers be the heroes of this crisis, on the front lines of this crisis in many ways, right? As nurses, as domestic workers, as caregivers, as the folks who check us out at the grocery store, as the folks who feed us via whatever platform. That heartens me because I feel like there is a national resonance and recognition — that in normal times largely often doesn’t exist — that workers are in fact critical and integral to the lives that we live and benefit from every single day.
At the same time, you are seeing in a matter of weeks the rapid construction and revision of the social safety net that we would argue should have been in place decades ago. And so, for me, when I see how workers are finally being given their due, so to speak, are being seen for the value and the critical nature that they play in society in normal times, and you talk about what I imagine is going to be a tremendous opportunity through legislation, through organizing, creating a new social safety net that recognizes that value of workers — that heartens me, and we are doing everything we can in the way of funding experimentation and innovation to prioritize workers in the conversation about what happens now, but also what happens in the future after this.
Adrian Haro and his team encourage NationSwell readers to subscribe to receive updates on their experiments, learnings, as well as opportunities to get resourced for their ideas on their website. If you’re able, they also encourage you to make a donation to help support workers amid the COVID-19 epidemic.
Haro is a member of the NationSwell Council. For more information on the Council, visit our hub.

Summit West 2020: Why DeNora Getachew Leads With Purpose

Ahead of Summit West 2020, NationSwell is profiling leaders and luminaries from a diverse array of fields to discover how they lead with purpose — and inspire others to do the same.
For DeNora Getachew, the professional is personal. As the New York Executive Director for Generation Citizen, she’s leading the charge to help young people to see their own civic stake in our democracy and empower them take action on behalf of themselves and their communities. NationSwell spoke with Getachew about what fuels her commitment to acting with purpose in her professional life. She shared with us a pivotal moment from her teen years that showed her how powerful results can be achieved when advocating for action.
NationSwell: Tell us about a moment from your personal or professional life when you acted with purpose, and how acting with purpose made a difference.
DeNora Getachew: For me, my professional purpose is a direct result of my own personal purpose. I found my own civic voice as a pregnant teen at a high school in Harlem, and at the time didn’t realize what it meant to be civically engaged and to advocate for oneself. And when I was encouraged to transfer to an alternative high school for pregnant girls because my pregnancy was a distraction to the community — they were worried it was something that could be caught in the water — I decided to launch an advocacy campaign to stay at my school and graduate on time with my peers.
That was two decades ago, and I didn’t realize at the time that that was what I was doing, but it’s been powerful to think about how that moment as a self-interested young person sparked my own civic journey. About how that has manifested itself and the work that I do, how it helps me be more mission driven.

“Every once in a while you should write your own personal mission statement.” — DeNora Getachew

NS: What’s your advice to others on how we can all better act with a sense of purpose?
Getachew: We live in a fast-paced world, and I think that’s more true than it ever has been. I think many of us don’t take the time to reflect on what it is [we’re doing] and why we’re doing it, reflecting on our own mission statement and why it is we’re called on to do the things we do, and whether we’re doing it in the most impactful way possible. Every once in a while you should write your own personal mission statement, and write why it is you’re doing what it is you’re doing and whether you’re using all the tools in the toolbox to advocate for that and harness that. I think if we were all more conscientious about doing that it might be more visually impactful, and seeing it will make a difference.
NS: Who are the other leaders and luminaries who inspire you to keep acting with purpose in mind?
Getachew: I am inspired by so many leaders, but especially leaders who don’t take no for an answer and, like me, are “ninjas” for what they believe in. I recently joined the board of Higher Heights for America, an organization committed to building the political power and leadership of Black women from the voting booth to elected office. I call myself a democracy ninja because I use all of the tools in my toolbox to advocate for an inclusive and reflective democracy. I am most inspired by leaders like Shirley Chisholm, who paved the way for me and my peers; young leaders like Yara Shahidi, who is a tireless advocate for young people participating in democracy and registering to vote; and Michelle Obama, who is an all around #BlackWomenLead.

At a time of extreme tension and uncertainty, people are losing confidence in traditional institutions’ ability to solve bigger problems facing our communities and environment. To fill the vid, leaders and organizations are expected to make a commitment to a purpose that benefits all stakeholders.
NationSwell’s Summit West will bring together a diverse group of impactful leaders and organizations. Together, we will learn from the people practicing purpose every day.
DeNora Getachew is a member of the NationSwell Council. To find out more about the NationSwell Council, visit our digital hub. And to learn more about Summit West 2020, visit our event splash page

Leading With Purpose: How Amy Nelson, CEO of ‘Venture for America,’ Stays Connected to Her Work

Ahead of Summit West 2020, NationSwell is profiling leaders and luminaries from a diverse array of fields to discover how they lead with purpose and inspire others to do the same.
As CEO of Venture for America, an organization that empowers the next generation of our nation’s socially minded business leaders, Amy Nelson knows that walking the path of entrepreneurship will help new opportunities flourish around you. But she also knows that, traditionally, there hasn’t been a clear path towards becoming an entrepreneur. Nelson and Venture for America have changed that through their commitment to equipping business-minded youth with the skills they need to succeed in an ever-changing economy. Nelson and VfA’s impact is staggering: The 129 fellow-founded start-ups have created over 360 jobs and employment opportunities in cities that stand to benefit greatly from them.
NationSwell recently connected with Nelson by email to ask her three quick questions about how putting purpose into action has made a meaningful difference. Here’s what she had to say.

NationSwell: Can you tell us about a time in your professional or personal life that you made a difference by putting purpose into action?

Amy Nelson: Most of the work I have done has been in education or leadership development; so the most impactful results are years in the making. I’m in a space now where I have mentored or coached hundreds of young entrepreneurs, and seeing many of their businesses flourishing is hugely gratifying. For me, there is nothing better than receiving a heartfelt thank you note from someone whom you worked with in the past. A nonprofit I’ve been advising for awhile wrote to me, “I smile when I think back on those conference calls we had when Bench Mark Program was just beginning. Your advice meant the world to me, and I am so incredibly proud of you for rising to the role of CEO at Venture For America. I know that now so many others are benefitting from your insight and advice.”

I have really made a point of carving out time to stay close to the work and the individuals we support even as I’ve become CEO so that I can maintain that connection. Yes, it helps me be a better leader, fundraiser and ambassador for the organizations — but it also just feeds me personally and allows me to stay in the work.

“We need to understand that purpose-driven work is a marathon and not a sprint — building coalitions and social change takes time, and there will be setbacks. Accepting that … is absolutely key.” – Amy Nelson

NationSwell: What advice do you have for others on how they can better act with a clear sense of purpose?

Nelson: There is no shortage of worthy causes to get behind, which can be overwhelming. Add to that the relentless barrage of the 24 hour news cycle, and it’s easy to feel discouraged. I think it’s critical to really zero in on and deeply understand your own unique abilities and how they can help move us forward, and then line that up with your sphere of influence. We might not all be addressing the same issues or operating at the same scale, but everyone can be a part of this work. At the same time, we need to understand that purpose-driven work is a marathon and not a sprint — building coalitions and social change takes time, and there will be setbacks. Accepting that, and finding space for rest and reflection, is absolutely key.

NationSwell: Who are others leaders or luminaries who inspire you to act and lead with purpose, and why?

Nelson: Reading Jacqueline Novogratz’s The Blue Sweater when I was an early career professional inspired me to return to school to get my MBA so that I could better apply business skills and free market tactics to purpose-driven work. She remains a huge inspiration for me.

More recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Equal Justice Initiative’s Museum and Memorial in Montgomery, AL and left absolutely floored by the leadership of Bryan Stevenson. He manages to put his whole being into the work of racial justice while maintaining tremendous humility and groundedness. He sets a high bar for all of us.

The job of CEO, even in a smaller organization, can be quite isolating. NationSwell has introduced me to a community of peers across multiple landscapes that has been incredibly valuable, both for building community and gaining perspective on different areas of work.

Amy Nelson is a member of the NationSwell Council. To find out more about the NationSwell Council, visit our digital hub. And to learn more about Summit West 2020, visit our event splash page

Leading With Purpose: Insights from AiLun Ku, Opportunity Network President and CEO

Ahead of Summit West 2020, NationSwell is profiling leaders and luminaries from a diverse array of fields to discover how they lead with purpose and inspire others to do the same.
For 15 years, the Opportunity Network has empowered students from historically underrepresented communities by providing them with the support needed to succeed in college and thrive in evolving workplaces. NationSwell spoke with Opportunity Network President and CEO AiLun Ku, a Council member, about how she’s been able to lead by putting purpose into action throughout her entire life.
NationSwell: Thanks for speaking with us, AiLun. How does your current role position you to lead with purpose?
AK: As the president and CEO of  the Opportunity Network, I have the privilege to lead with purpose every day. As an immigrant to the United States from Taiwan at a young age, it was quite tough navigating the American education system and finding a place of belonging. And in my self-discovery journey, I learned that I am good at building and growing community-driven organizations, and given my lived experience, I care deeply about work that sits at the intersection of social justice and education, which OppNet provides me the opportunity to do. My vision is that not only will first-generation students and young people of color influence the future of work and learning, but we will be represented at every level and in every space leading those conversations. And that’s pretty much sums up my job description and the work we do at OppNet!
NS: Can you tell us about a specific time in your professional or personal life that you made a difference by putting purpose into action?
AK: In high school, I worked as an interpreter for a social worker whose job was to check in on the sponsoring families of individuals coming to the United States seeking asylum. Mandarin is my native language, so at 16, I was responsible for giving voice and information to Chinese children and families that have gone through unimaginable hardship in their pursuit of safety.
This job was an early and formative contradiction to how I was treated in the school system. My family and I moved from Taiwan to New Jersey when I was 10. We all had to learn English. In school, with Mandarin as my first language and English as my second language, my first language was deemed a deficit in the American education system instead of an asset.
So, being an interpreter at a young age really helped me transform a part of my identity into purposeful action.
NS: What advice do you have for others on how they can better act with a clear sense of purpose?
AK: While I think striving for clarity is important, I also think doing purposeful work with a little bit of fuzziness around your own vision is okay, too, because self-discovery takes time.
I think self-discovery is such an important practice that takes time, patience, mistakes, generosity and a lot of grace to perpetually make happen. I believe that self-discovery builds the foundation for one to identify and hone strengths and skills that can then be applied to something that gives those strengths and skills meaning — which, to me, is purpose.
One way to consider striving for more clarity in one’s own journey of self-discovery is the practice of inquiry. I am a big fan of asking questions and charging myself to finding the answers. For everything you do or want to do, ask questions, investigate, take action and harness those insights found; check in with yourself, and then do it again.
The next time, though, ask tougher and more complex questions, investigate broader and deeper, take bolder actions based on you insights and challenge yourself to act with more clarity, even if it means stepping back from something.
NS: Who are others leaders or luminaries who inspire you to act and lead with purpose, and why?
AK: There are so many! Alaa Murabit, a medical doctor, Canadian Meritorious Service Cross recipient, one of 17 Global Sustainable Development Goal Advocates appointed by the UN Secretary General and a UN High-Level Commissioner on Health Employment & Economic Growth. She is someone who lives her purpose and speaks truth to power thoroughly and deliberately. She is one of the most steadfast advocates for women and children’s rights and security at the global scale. I learn from her every time I listen to her or talk to her.
Amanda Nguyen, Founder and CEO of Rise, an organization that “organizes and empowers citizens to pen their own rights into existence.” She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her work in organizing to pass numerous state-level Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights and also the United Nation’s Universal Survivors’ Bill of Rights. She is one of the kindest, most fashionable, smartest and fun people I’ve had the chance to meet. She is someone who personifies leading with purpose.
Ai-jen Poo, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Domestic Workers Alliance. I learned about Ai-jen when I was very early in discovering the alignment between my strengths and purpose. It has been enlightening to watch her organize, stay true to her values and partner with incredible social justice activists who also lead with purpose, like Alicia Garza, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter and Principal of the Black Futures Lab, and Cecile Richards, former president, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund to co-found Supermajority, “a new home for women’s activism, training and mobilizing a multiracial, intergenerational community that will fight for gender equity together.” She is always about the collective “us.”
I think it is important to note that there are also leaders across our organizations that lead with purpose at every level. We not only should look outside of our organization for examples of leadership, but also from within and deep inside our own communities and spaces.

AiLun Ku is a member of the NationSwell Council. To find out more about the NationSwell Council, visit our digital hub. And to learn more about Summit West 2020, visit our event splash page

Funding the Social Causes Worth Fighting For

Kim Syman has lofty ideas about how New Profit, a social-impact funding organization that she helped get off the ground 20 years ago this week, can do better work. Much of it involves changing perceptions around the role of business in social enterprises, which can be a daunting task. Case in point: New Profit’s mission to finance nonprofits in an unconventional way — that is, with venture capital funding. But venture capital is usually designed to make the rich even richer, while social-innovation organizations tend to address systems of inequality and oppression — systems that can be exacerbated by those very same investments.
Yet Syman is a firm believer that the tools of business can and should be used to propel people toward social and financial stability. So when New Profit founder and CEO Vanessa Kirsch proposed the idea of the organization to her, as a way to bridge the gap between investments and impactful nonprofits, Syman jumped onboard.
Part of the problem is that investing for social good is still a relatively new idea. “Venture capital, as a concept, wasn’t known in the philanthropy world, especially 20 years ago,” says Syman, New Profit’s managing partner overseeing field leadership. She also helps with the nonprofit’s annual Gathering of Leaders, taking place this week in Boston. “The idea of venture capital for nonprofits still sounds kind of crazy for a lot of people.”
Syman’s ambitious goals include getting nonprofits to refocus how they deploy their funding. Syman worked in media before transitioning into a role at the education nonprofit City Year, so she knows firsthand how hard it is for fledgling social-impact companies to create capital (spoiler alert: it’s not easy).
“There was this mind-set that the best way [traditional funders and philanthropists] managed risk and made sure their dollars were well used was to support direct service provision instead of, say, building internal capacity to grow and achieve more impact,” Syman, a NationSwell Council member, says. “Overlooking the latter can be a huge barrier to success on the former, but capacity-building is still an under-leveraged and underfunded approach in philanthropy.”

Kim Syman 2
“The idea of venture capital for nonprofits still sounds kind of crazy for a lot of people,” says social-impact investor Kim Syman.

Typically, nonprofits have relied on creating their own endowments — be it from fundraising or donors — that amass principal over a number of years and help finance the organization for the long term.
But even with endowments and other grants, there are often restrictions imposed by donors, such as only being able to spend the principal or only spending specific amounts on certain programs.
The problem with that, Syman says, is that the conventional wisdom where philanthropists double down on funding specific programs doesn’t help solve problems on a larger scale.
The reality New Profit found was that nonprofit organizations — just like their peers in the for-profit business world — needed to scale their brand and operations in order to be effective, but that requires lots of money, with fewer restrictions than what is typical with grants.
Besides challenging traditional funding models, Syman is focused on increasing diversity in the social-impact space. And she is doing this in part by formally recognizing her own organization’s lack of diversity.
“We saw that implicit biases come from within our sector and we needed to begin to tackle them, which meant holding a mirror up to ourselves and really asking the question of how much are we paying attention to this, each of us?” she tells NationSwell. “It’s clearly a work in progress on every level, but I will say that we have changed every aspect of how we work to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion, and we’re working to make continued progress.”
To that end, New Profit is making a concerted effort to partner with organizations that are actively engaged in the communities they serve; they’re also taking into account gender and racial diversity with almost everything they do, says Syman.
But a lack of diversity is hardly unique to New Profit. Studies show that despite overwhelming representation of women in the nonprofit workspace — which bodes well for general gender equality — the majority of executives in those companies are white men, with minimal representation of black or Hispanic men and women in top roles.
Syman says there are ways to fix that, even for organizations that have little capital to invest in diversity action plans. One idea is to partner with other organizations to help provide mentorship on hiring or training — a concept inspired, in part, by a NationSwell Council event — or use firms that specialize in helping companies achieve more diversity.
Syman says her biggest lessons haven’t come from New Profit’s numerous challenges, but rather from the joy of the work she does, and from the connections she’s made with other people in the field. “It wasn’t a total surprise, but how deep and consistent those relationships have been with our [organizations] is the engine that really drives our work. It’s always a little bit surprising. But it’s always very real.”

This post was produced in partnership with the NationSwell Council, a membership community of service-minded leaders committed to moving America forward. To learn more about the Council, its members and signature experiences, click here.

Putting the Power of Positivity Into Focus

It was 2012 when Nicole Riggs decided to seriously reevaluate her life. The year before, her mother passed away. So did her mother-in-law, a friend’s young daughter and the family dog. As 2012 got under way, Riggs’ fifth-grade son fell victim to school bullies, her stepson’s mother succumbed to ovarian cancer and Riggs’ marriage ended in divorce.
A renovation consultant at the time, Riggs began questioning her career choice, realizing that she no longer cared so much what color toilet someone wanted in their bathroom. “I saw no value in what I was doing. It wasn’t helping people who needed help,” says the New York City-based Riggs, who is also a NationSwell Council member. “It wasn’t offering a shining light to me, my sons or anyone else in the world dealing with loss or trauma.”
Riggs had always made time to volunteer with various nonprofits, including producing events for Team Rubicon, an organization that encourages veterans to serve on emergency teams that respond to natural disasters. But she found herself drawn to the idea of making documentary films ― specifically, she says, “issue-based films that do more than entertain.”
In 2015, Riggs founded Make It Happen, a transmedia production company committed to creating films that educate, engage and build solutions to social challenges. Inspired by her volunteer work with Team Rubicon, Riggs chose to center her first project ― a social campaign featuring 10 short films ― on the mental health of veterans. After hiring a videographer, she traveled the country, conducting interviews with each service member herself.
Instead of spotlighting the many difficulties facing soldiers as they transition back to civilian life, “we focused on their futures,” explains Riggs. “I wanted people to see positive role models they could emulate.”
The campaign, called Empower Our Vets, launched on Veteran’s Day in 2015. The first film profiled a retired Army sergeant who had struggled with survivor’s guilt after a grueling tour of duty in Iraq’s “Triangle of Death.” The turning point, he admitted, was finally talking to a therapist.
Soon after the three-and-a-half minute film was posted on Facebook, another veteran left a comment: “I’m getting ahold of the VA finally in the morning,” he wrote. “Seeing this made it sink in … I can only thank you.”
“That’s my proudest achievement as well as my greatest hope,” Riggs says. “If I saved one young man, maybe he’ll help somebody else.”

Cinematographer and editor Codi Barbini on the Greek set of My Intention Was Not to Leave.

Make It Happen’s most recent film, “My Intention Was Not to Leave,” tells the stories of three adolescent refugees ― one teenage boy from Iraq and two more from West Africa ― and their harrowing journey as unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Europe. Riggs and her film crew spent five days in Athens last summer, listening to the boys talk about their experiences with child slavery, brutal violence and ethnic cleansing. Despite the solemn subject matter, the film strikes an optimistic tone.
“It’s true I don’t have all the money and resources to succeed,” one of the boys acknowledges in the film. “But I have all the people I need to succeed.”
Riggs has a similar mission for Make It Happen.
“These films are vehicles to start conversations,” she says. “We want to engage regular audiences, policymakers and fund-raisers.”
Currently, Riggs is working with the nonprofit Concordia, which promotes public-private partnerships that drive social change, to screen the film in several cities across the globe, beginning with New York in late January. She’s also in talks with other organizations about not only sharing her films, but helping viewers understand how to take action.
“How can we teach adolescent refugees skills? How can they get an education? How can we engage communities to help?” asks Riggs. “I’m a big-picture person.”
Each of her films, she says, “offers hope that even in the face of something awful, there is the potential to overcome. It’s just a matter of hearing something positive.”
Nicole Riggs is a NationSwell Council member and the founder of Make It Happen, a transmedia production company that aims to inspire large-scale social change.

Teetering on the Digital Divide

At Jameira Miller’s high school in Lansdowne, Pa., using technology means punching buttons on a calculator. To use a computer, the soft-spoken senior has to give up lunch to wait in line at the media center, which only has a few desktops. Yet five miles away, students at a different school enjoy courses in computer-aided drafting design, engineering and robotics.
Welcome to the “digital divide,” the alarming technology gap in our nation’s public schools that threatens to leave children in disadvantaged districts behind. It’s the focus of Academy Award-nominated director Rory Kennedy’s new documentary, “Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America.
The one-hour film, narrated by actor Jamie Foxx, profiles schools, teachers and students, including Miller, who are hurt by a lack of technology access. The hardware shortage is just the start. Approximately 6.5 million U.S. students still lack connectivity to the Internet. Half our country’s teachers lack the support to incorporate technology into their lessons.
The digital divide cuts across small rural towns and big cities alike. The only common denominator: a lack of federal, state and local funding. Live in the “wrong” zip code and not only will your child’s ability to learn be affected, but her odds of thriving in the future will also be impacted, explains Rose Stuckey Kirk, president of the Verizon Foundation, which produced “Without a Net.
“There isn’t a single industry that hasn’t been touched by the innovation of technology,” Kirk points out. “How can we not give kids the skills and tools they need to succeed as adults?”
The argument, “Well, I didn’t have technology when I went to school,” isn’t valid, she says.
“When people ask, ‘Is it really necessary?’ my answer is yes,” says Kirk. “And then I ask them, ‘Who are you hiring today who can’t type on a computer?’”

UP TO SPEED: The Digital Divide in America

Through the Verizon Innovative Learning initiative, the company has committed $160 million in free technology devices, connectivity, teacher training and hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning for kids in need. So far, the program has helped 300,000 students in 1,900 schools and clubs. After measuring its impact, Kirk says, Verizon knew it was on to something big: 64 percent of kids who participated were more eager to go to college. And 53 percent decided to pursue STEM careers.
Still, “the answer to the digital divide isn’t as simple as ‘let’s give away technology to everyone,’” Kirk notes.
That’s where “Without a Net” comes in.
“We wanted to tell a story,” Kirk says. “Not about Verizon, but about the bigger issue. We wanted to take a closer look at the ecosystem [of the digital divide] — the students, parents, teachers, schools, government, curriculum, zip codes — and shine a light on what our opportunities could be.”
Kennedy was the perfect filmmaker to take on that challenge. “Giving back is in Rory’s DNA,” says Kirk, a NationSwell Council member. “She has incredible compassion for the underserved.”
The film’s narrative, and Kennedy’s focus, remains firmly on those teetering closest to the digital divide. A sixth grader in New York shows how she types out school assignments on her mom’s phone. (“A 10-minute assignment can take her an hour,” her teacher worries.) A frustrated principal in rural Pennsylvania shows off a storage room filled with brand new Chromebooks — which can’t be used since his school can’t afford Wi-Fi.
In Coachella, Calif., one of the poorest school districts in the state, teenagers spend their weekends sitting inside parked school buses outfitted with Wi-Fi routers. Since their families can’t afford Internet access at home, these buses are their only chance to go online and finish homework.

As president of the Verizon Foundation, Rose Stuckey Kirk believes that giving children access to technology puts them on a path to success, both in school and in life.

Kirk knows putting an end to tech inequality requires many factors, including reliable connectivity at schools and homes, mobile digital devices, immersive teacher training, tech-ed focused curriculum — and plenty of visionary leaders. (Those Coachella buses tricked out with Wi-Fi? They were the brainchild of a principal who saw his students struggling.)
That’s why Verizon is committed to continue handing out tablets, training teachers and offering free tech labs to kids who need them the most. And it’ll continue giving a voice to the issue with its campaign, #weneedmore.
When Kirk saw the final cut of “Without a Net,” “I cried,” she admits. The scene that touched a nerve: When Miller learns all those lunches she missed for the opportunity to use a computer were worth it — because she’s been accepted to college.
“Without a Net” recently premiered on National Geographic and is a selection at the New York Film Festival. Watch the film now at
This post was paid for by Verizon.

Meet the Privacy Expert on a Mission to Protect Your Digital Footprint

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a new breed of nationalism took root that trained its attention on the foreigners among us. In response, the federal government adopted a set of strict policies and legislation that tracked immigrants in general and Muslim communities in particular.
“I felt like the whole country was in turmoil and at risk of abandoning its values for a false sense of security,” says Tim Sparapani, an expert in digital privacy and a NationSwell Council member. “I was always taught at moments like that you don’t look away; you get involved.”
So Sparapani did, finding his passion for social impact and public service within those tumultuous days. He joined the American Civil Liberties Union as senior legislative counsel and later helped establish Facebook’s presence in Washington as its first director of public policy. These days, the D.C.-based Sparapani leads SPQR Strategies, which he founded in 2011 as a consulting firm focused on online and digital data privacy.
It was at the ACLU that Sparapani gained his reputation as a fierce advocate for individual privacy, becoming a protector against what he says was unconstitutional policies. That included the Real ID Act of 2005, a significant piece of 9/11 legislation introduced and championed by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), which required people who applied for a driver’s license or a government ID to produce five types of identification to prove their identity, such as a social security number, birth certificate, proof of citizenship and home address, and a mortgage statement or utility bill.
Democrats and the ACLU, along with moderate Republicans and a handful of libertarian organizations like the CATO Institute, thought the statute was “deeply unconstitutional,” says Sparapani. “Once you pulled back the layers, you saw it was based on nativism and ugly xenophobia.”
After the bill passed, Sparapani and his team at the ACLU spearheaded a campaign that urged states to resist the federal regulations. They made their push to the public by highlighting how the new driver’s licenses mandated under the bill — which would have electronic chips that stored a person’s name, address, birth date and social security number — were prone to identity theft, could be used to track individuals’ travel, and would cost taxpayers billions of dollars.
“We were able to get dozens of states to independently enact legislation resisting the federal statute. That hasn’t happened since the Civil War,” Sparapani says. “It was our strategy to have state-by-state resistance to something that was tremendous overreach.”
Though the Real ID Act is still enshrined in federal law and, starting next year, will bar certain state IDs from being used to fly or gain access to federal buildings, Sparapani credits the campaign as his “a-ha moment,” when he realized there was a need to protect all U.S. residents’ privacy, especially from a government that he saw as wielding too much power.
“There was this new opportunity in the computer-database era for the government to exercise control over people in all sorts of nefarious ways by using technology for ill,” Sparapani says, adding that he’d like to see more people take up the cause for privacy rights online. “It’s kind of up to all of us to decide the rules for how we use technology as a society and put limits on it that are aligned with our constitutional values.”


Tim Sparapani is a NationSwell Council member and the founder of SPQR Strategies, a consulting firm that works with startups, established companies, and consumer and privacy advocates on the policy challenges raised by emerging technologies.

Profile: Hadi Partovi

As the son of a college professor who helped establish Iran’s Sharif University of Technology, Hadi Partovi has always had a deep-seated appreciation for teachers.
“Passionate teachers have been my biggest inspirations,” he says, noting that while he was always trying to pave his own path, he’s now doing something very similar to his father.
Partovi’s nonprofit,, provides computer science curriculum to tens of thousands of educators, empowering them to teach coding in their classrooms. The organization reports that more than half of all students participating in high school courses are African American or Hispanic and 37 percent are female.
Through the years, Partovi’s appreciation of the impact teachers can have on their students — and the world — has only grown. He illustrates this point with a story he recently heard about a junior high school teacher in Auburn, Wash., that he doesn’t even know.
According to Partovi, this teacher noticed that one of his students regularly missed school two or three days each week. Concerned, the teacher reached out to the child’s family to inquire about having him attend computer science classes (which were introduced into the school’s curriculum with the help of, Partovi’s organization).
The student started having regular attendance, and his father called the teacher to report that his son liked school, thanking him for recognizing the need for his son to be exposed to new subjects, like computer science.
“The student went from almost dropping out to learning code,” Partovi says. “That, to me, is the strongest example of a change in somebody’s future — because of the teacher.”
Hadi Partovi is a NationSwell Council member. In addition to co-founding, he is also a tech entrepreneur and investor.