By Shelley D. Harper
Submitted by Cisco Systems, Inc.
“Things outside of a young person’s control can create an environment for underachievement,” says Daquan Oliver, founder and CEO of Cisco nonprofit partner WeThrive Education.
Historically underrepresented youth often face many challenges, such as a lack of academic preparation, mentors and role models, and opportunities necessary to succeed later in life. In addition, sometimes parents and teachers don’t push them to reach their maximum potential, so they don’t expect much from themselves. The same held true for Daquan, but he began an amazing, life-changing entrepreneurial career while still in grade school, so he knows that self-empowerment and success can come from building your own business and achieving a solid economic foundation.
Drawing from personal experience, Daquan started WeThrive Education in 2014 to deliver online entrepreneurial education, which helps young people build skills they can use down the road — whether to get a job or develop a business that spurs economic growth in their own communities.
In its commitment to Powering an Inclusive Future, Cisco began supporting WeThrive Education in 2021 with a social impact grant to help the organization increase its impact on low-income communities and expand their operations across the U.S.
We recently met with Daquan to learn more about his journey and how Cisco’s grant has impacted the nonprofit.
Can you tell us about your background before you founded WeThrive Education?
Daquan: I grew up in a single-mother household in a historically underserved community and unfortunately, too many adults underestimated my potential. Despite this, my entrepreneurship journey started when I was 7 years old and ‘needed’ to have a toy that was popular at that time, but it wasn’t in the budget. I knew money buys toys, so I grabbed a stack of free newspapers and sold them in my community, using my earnings to purchase that toy. Later, I continued this trend by selling breakfast tarts in high school, eventually making upwards of 250 dollars a week. I discovered that as an entrepreneur, I had power, and my own community was a pathway to prosperity.
I ran other businesses throughout my middle and high school years, then later at Babson College in Boston, Massachusetts, which is known for its entrepreneurial curriculum. During my four years there, I co-founded three start-ups on campus.
After graduating in 2014, I founded WeThrive Education, running the company full-time, and in 2018, WeThrive Hub.
What inspired you to establish WeThrive Education?
Daquan: Running the other enterprises was fun. However, it wasn’t fulfilling my vision to help students in historically disenfranchised neighborhoods overcome systemic institutional shortcomings, such as barriers to meaningful economic training or an educational system that only engages the ‘A’ students. The social injustices from my own childhood made me hungry to deliver a solution for societal changes so everyone feels — and is — valued.
One reason underrepresented youth come to us isn’t about creating a company, but about seeking agency. However, as they learn skills, such as public speaking and personal finance, and they start generating revenue, they get what they need to take action.
Can you tell us how the online platform and app work?
Daquan: The entrepreneurial training program, delivered through a website and mobile app in a series of interactive, self-paced, self-guided modules, is a catalyst for youth to create revenue-generating social enterprises with profits they get to keep.
With the app, our youth also engage in Virtual Office Hours, a place to connect with mentors from both the public (local governments, schools and school districts) and private sectors (financial, technological, science). Once they graduate from the program and launch their own businesses, they enter our alumni portfolio program, which connects them to vital resources to scale their companies, such as seed funding and speaking opportunities. In addition, we answer their questions and hook them up with independent project, content, and subject groups, where they can network.
As they follow their passions and creatively fill needs in their communities, they’re gaining valuable hands-on experience while reinforcing STEM-based, critical thinking, and other skills, which they’ll need for future jobs and/or businesses. These skills will also help them to develop into changemakers and business leaders who’ll transform their communities as they create inroads to socio-economic success.
What impact does the app have on the communities it serves?
Daquan: The social entrepreneurial skills youth gain — which they’re otherwise unlikely to learn during their K-12 years — are a catalyst for reversing economic injustices by preparing them to lead a wave of economic revitalization that is owned and controlled by their communities.
For school partners and community-based organizations, the training keeps students engaged for long-term development and economic advancement, which can have a lasting impact for years after first accessing the program. Then as they grow up, they become role models to mentor the community’s next generation.
How has Cisco’s support for your organization and the app made a difference in replicating and scaling programs nationwide, and what new opportunities have opened because of that support?
Daquan: Cisco’s financial investments enable us to improve and scale the app’s infrastructure for better response to and from workforce development boards, corporate partners, and public education, allowing us to reach more underrepresented students across the U.S., where they live.
In addition, since we’ve proven the model works, we’re getting additional partners interested in funding our app development to ultimately reach more youth.
What is WeThrive’s greatest challenge?
Daquan: We’re a hybrid organization, both a tech company with an app and a nonprofit with a mission. Our greatest challenge is balancing our two-sided strategy: We continue to build our technology and work towards market penetration while simultaneously pushing educational systems to make modifications that serve the changing needs of underserved youth.
If we were solely a tech company, we might not always make decisions that lead towards change and vice versa; if we were solely working towards systems change, we’d be more focused on transforming public policy so by the time our technology reached students, we risk it becoming stagnant and not accomplishing its purpose.
How do you envision WeThrive Education five years from now?
Daquan: Our target is to reach 1.2 million active users monthly, which reflects the tipping point in education culture required to reach sweeping, systemic policy changes. So far, we’ve trained over 7,500 students in 20 major cities, and 92.6 percent of the students are from diverse backgrounds. We also plan to activate in ten additional flagship city districts within five years to achieve sustainable, economic, and educational policy changes. And we’re already realizing some district wins.
We’re also building a hub through our platform for interventions and resources, such as our seed fund, giving youth access to a full suite of tools they’ll need in their entrepreneurial journeys.
Can you share a success story?
Daquan: One student team built their company around creative, strategic ways to stop bullying in their school, and they were selling a reusable water bottle imprinted with the slogan ‘Be the change.’ To emphasize ‘change,’ the bottle changed colors when liquid was poured into it. They also produced a series of humorous, informative videos to teach their peers how to recognize bullying, because according to their market research, bullies often don’t see their behavior as bullying. That team brought in over $2,000 in revenue their first month of operation and ended up donating all their profits to a bullying prevention center. A year later, a middle-schooler who was the youngest on the team delivered a TEDx Talk around teenage mental health and wellness.
We’re striving to ensure the success of youth leaders by building systems designed just for them. That’s the WeThrive magic.
Learn more about WeThrive Education’s programs and app:Visit TeamWeThrive.org
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