As wealth and income inequality continue to climb in the United States, some employers are developing innovative models and catalytic partnerships designed to bring new skills, job access, and ultimately economic opportunity to financially vulnerable and historically marginalized individuals.

In a new interview series, Pathways to Economic Opportunity, NationSwell is taking a closer look at some of the solutions companies are pursuing in service of leveling the playing field and expanding their talent pipelines. In spotlighting some of these partnerships, this series hopes to uncover the “secret sauce” that makes these solutions successful for the benefit of other employers and their leaders.

For the first installment of the series, NationSwell spoke to Ruthe Farmer — founder & CEO of the Last Mile Education Fund — and Fabio Mendes, Global Citizenship Manager at Dow — about their talent pipeline partnership, the Dow Last Mile Fund for Manufacturing & Skilled Trades. 

Here’s what they had to say:

Bird’s Eye View:

The Last Mile Education Fund works to identify students in the “last mile” of their education journeys and provide them with no-strings-attached, grants to help them overcome any financial hurdles standing in the way of the finish line. Through its partnership with Dow, Last Mile recently expanded its scope to include grants of up to $5,000 for low-income students specifically nearing completion in manufacturing and skilled trades programs at institutions in Dow communities.

Fast Stats: 

  • Launched in 2023, the Dow Last Mile Fund for Manufacturing & Skilled Trades currently services talent populations in ten key markets: California, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia.
  • On average, the grants Last Mile awards are less than $4,200. Unlike traditional education grants, Last Mile’s investment model specifically incentivizes the use of the money in any area a student needs it, including groceries, gas, childcare, or anything else serving as a roadblock to completing their education.
  • Founded in 2019, Last Mile has awarded more than 5,132 grants to date. Grantees are 42% Black, 19% Hispanic or Latinx, 12% Asian, 16% White, and 1% Indigenous.
  • Last Mile awards three types of core grants, all of which manufacturing and skilled trades students are eligible for: rapid-response emergency financial assistance (mini-grants); bridge grants; and larger Last Mile grants.

1) NationSwell: What helps to differentiate Last Mile’s approach from some of the existing investment models designed to support educational attainment? 

Ruthe Farmer, Last Mile: 

I sometimes refer to our model as universal basic income for students. Scholarships are typically for tuition, housing, maybe some books, but there are other parts of life that require financial resources, too. I just approved a Dow grantee who has been on a long journey of trying to cross the finish line in her education, but the cost of living — medical bills, insurance, all the things that are not part of the scholarship landscape — had just become too much.

She also shared that she had an old laptop from 2017 that was barely functioning and needed a better device. Those are the kinds of gaps that Last Mile fills — the same gaps that are sometimes filled by a student’s parents. 

The other thing we do differently is that there are no deadlines; the application is rolling, and students can apply any day, all year. We’re not comparing the students against each other, we’re looking at them as individuals. 

We’re also very fast. If a student is facing a housing or a food crisis, they cannot wait months to hear back from a scholarship. Many scholarships can be really wonderful, but it takes months of process to get selected — they’re not designed to address immediate, pressing, basic human needs, which is what we’re doing. 

2) NationSwell: Adaptability, open communication — are there any other key lessons that you’d like to impart on other nonprofits or companies hoping to form a similar type of synergy? 

Ruthe Farmer, Last Mile: 

There’s been tremendous participation and engagement by the local Dow team members. We’re not physically on the ground in all of those communities, but they are, and they have relationships with, you know, the local colleges and institutions. They have relationships with the local chamber of commerce and the local media, and they also have relationships with the folks that are already in their apprentice pathways.

Fabio Mendes, Dow:

Like Ruthe said, we took an existing model that was initially for computer science graduates and we said, “Hey, maybe this could be a fit for skilled trade students, which are completely different.” 

When working with four-year graduates, Last Mile usually works with them on the last two years of their educational journey. So initially we were working with that same mindset for skilled trades, but along the way we realized those audiences had very different needs, so we switched to supporting students from the very beginning. That openness to adapting the program to a different set of needs in real-time — that has been one of the great successes of this partnership so far. 

3) NationSwell: What are some of the biggest roadblocks you’ve encountered?

Fabio Mendes, Dow:

I think one of the things we realized early on is that a lot of times the students don’t necessarily think this program is for real.

Ruthe Farmer, Last Mile: 

We’re so different from what students understand scholarships to be that they can sometimes be very skeptical. I remember one grantee told me that she had let that application sit on her desktop for three weeks because she was ashamed to ask for help, she didn’t think we would say yes. And then when she finally did, we were like, oh, absolutely, yes, here’s the money. Four months later, she’s graduated and she’s in a full-time job.

We don’t have any kind of GPA gatekeeping, your grades are not a factor in whether or not we say yes to you. The only thing we’re interested in is, are you enrolled and are you on track to get this program finished? 

We’ve had to re-train the educators, too, because they’ve been taught to only send their select best students for these opportunities. We want every student who is striving to have the resources they need to finish; we see value in every striving student. Getting over that hump has been a really big challenge. 

4) NationSwell: What have been some of your most significant learnings or unlocks in the course of doing this work?

Fabio Mendes, Dow:

I think one of our biggest learnings from Last Mile has been the perspective that a life-changing investment in a student doesn’t need to be gigantic — it can be a $200 grant that you promote to someone because they don’t have food for the day, and that alone could lead to them completing the course that they are on, completing the major that they’re in, and potentially securing a life-sustaining job in the future. 

Ruthe Farmer, Last Mile:

I would say the thesis that we’re trying to prove is that there is better ROI when we invest in what we call “striving students” versus the historically dominant model of rewarding outliers for prior success. If you only pick the students who have the best grades, the best GPA, have never missed a class, then you’re picking the ones who can afford that, and you’re not recognizing the immense value and problem-solving skills of a person who has struggled and persisted. 

I think a company that figures out how to bring that talent into their workforce is going to be building an incredibly strong, resilient workforce, which is what all innovation-based companies need.  

5) NationSwell: What are some of the ways this partnership is mutually beneficial — how do each of your organizations work together to advance a shared goal? 

Ruthe Farmer, Last Mile:

Our partnership with Dow is unique in that we’re specifically targeting students that physically go to school and live in Dow communities, where Dow is one of the biggest employers in the field in which they are studying. This is very specific: Dow is helping you graduate in a Dow community, hopefully into a Dow job. 

It’s not a direct ask for the students, but we do have that expectation that they become at least an available pipeline for the company. That’s one of the reasons we’re geographically focused with this funding. 

It’s a great example of the spirit of our work: It’s local investment to solve local workforce issues, and you’re really investing in your own local economy. It’s really kind of working hand-in-hand to solve this gap in tech and skills, but then simultaneously investing in communities. 

6) NationSwell: What’s one call to action that you’d like other leaders or organizations like yours to heed as they consider their own opportunities to improve educational attainment and economic mobility? 

Fabio Mendes, Dow:

I’d say to be more creative around some of these things. One of the crucial things Last Mile did was immediately ask how they could make the student support process more accessible. They could have just thought, let’s do a scholarship program for low-income students that have struggled throughout their journey. At Dow, we were creative in thinking that if this was designed for one specific audience, maybe we could apply the same mindset to a different audience. 

I also want to say you don’t have to start big, you can just start with a pilot. We started with a small fund in select communities with very different perspectives and contexts, and we said, let’s see if this works out, then we expanded it. 

Ruthe Farmer, Last Mile:

I think my call to action is simply for everyone to please take an abundance viewpoint as to who has the potential to be successful in your organization, and in the field broadly, whatever your field is.