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.

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