In 1998 I was offered the first-ever sales position at Next Jump. My then boyfriend, Greg Kunkel, and NxJ Founder Charlie Kim, had gone to high school together, and Greg had joined Charlie in working out of their apartment on this startup venture. At the time, NxJ “sales” meant walking door to door in Somerville, Massachusetts, asking business owners to offer discounts coupons for their products (“A dozen buffalo wings at just half the price!”). The discounts were offered in small books that were most commonly distributed to local college students – often with the student phone list tucked somewhere in the middle of hundreds of these rip-away coupons. The company made little to no money. But there was passion and fire and vision.
I declined the generous offer – not easy to do if you know anything about Charlie Kim!
Years later after teaching sexuality education, assisting adults living with HIV/AIDS in their medication adherence, going to grad school for public health and marrying said boyfriend (who was STILL at NxJ), in 2005, I was offered the sixth-ever mentor position at Summer Search New York City. I was immediately drawn in by the mission to work with students living in underserved communities who showed a capacity to ignite change for themselves and their families by going on to college and committing to a life of leadership, thereby breaking the cycle of poverty.
Fast forward once again to the summer of 2013 when my worlds collided as the New York NxJ office became the new home for Summer Search New York City. What resulted was a real-life testing ground for the vision of Better Me + Better You = Better Us. Very simply - if you can holistically invest in an employee, and they have tangible and effective opportunities to exercise their generosity, then that employee will be motivated to work harder. The bottom line improves, the cycle continues, and the world is a better place. So what happens when you move from the individual level to that of two entities – one with the resources for the holistic investment and the other with ample opportunity to give back?
Next Jump = Better Me: Roughly $25,000 is reinvested into each staff member annually with a range of comprehensive supports – things like a free gym, free dinner, nutritious snacks, fitness classes are more obvious. Perhaps more unique is Next Jump University and “CEO talks” - where outside (often famous) leaders speak to staff and clients about topics ranging from personal improvement to effective leadership skills. With a robust team mentality and framework for all elements of their work, Next Jump is constantly pushing their staff to develop their own leadership skills – they coach and are coached as they work in groups, because they believe it makes their output better. Not only does Next Jump place value in helping their employees improve their skills, but they also provide the resources that allow them to think creatively about doing so.
Summer Search = Better You: As a non-profit organization in New York City, it will not surprise you to learn that Summer Search did not have access to this type of comprehensive investment in staff. Instead, our resources are primarily directed to our students, and staff members typically struggle with the desire to ensure that our students have all the opportunities they deserve. The mission is compelling and staff are driven to maintain it – 84% of our students go on to graduate from college compared to 11% of their low-income peers. Our staff has always been careful to nurture themselves, but there is a limit to what is possible, and burnout is an ongoing discussion and fear.
Housed under the same roof, we have a new opportunity that I believe is yet untapped. There is kickboxing midday and dinner every night for Summer Search staff members, which makes a very real difference to a non-profit salary. There are students to see and get to know, students who would greatly benefit from Next Jump volunteers sitting by their side to help them with a college application. These are students who have stories that are familiar for many NxJers who have also fought hard to change their circumstances. Greg and I often discuss the similarities of our two cultures – and, alternatively, the times when we each think the other is totally, annoyingly crazy. I am not saying it’s a perfect match, but I think the foundation is there for something unique and powerful.
I am no longer a mentor. Now I ask people for money to fund more students in this program. When I think about what I love most about this role, it is the chance to give people access to student stories and achievements – not because I want their funding, but because it is truly motivating, and a privilege, to be part of the transformation process that Summer Search students embark on. Last week one of my first mentees called me. She graduated from Dartmouth college in May, came home to the Bronx – and no one cared. No one else in her family had gone to college and no one else had a job right out of college that was as consistent as the one she had already secured with Teach for America. I could tell her she wasn’t alone. I told her to come to the Summer Search office to sit down with people who will understand how she’s feeling and honor her achievement. When she comes in, I hope she will appreciate that there are now more than just 15 Summer Search employees who believe in her. I hope she will also meet the NxJers who believe in giving back to help people like her have a different life.
I am still glad that I didn’t take the job from Charlie in 1998. I suspect I’d have spent most of the time eating the wings. I am, however, glad that the values that guide my position, and that of my beloved colleagues – leadership, trust, grit, risk, and resiliency – are the same ones that guide my husband, and his colleagues, every day in their own work at Next Jump.
Here’s to Better Us.