One-line solution summary:
Overcoming underemployment for underrepresented college graduates through digital skills and peer connections
Pitch your solution.
COOP’s (“ko-op”) mission is to overcome underemployment for underrepresented college graduates through digital skills and peer connections. Across our sites in New York and San Francisco, we’ve launched 100+ cohorts since 2014, welcoming 1,300+ alumni. 80% of alumni overcome underemployment within one year, earning an average of $45,000 after 12 months and almost $60,000 after three years. COOP aims to reach 10,000 alumni in our first decade, fueling upward mobility and fulfilling the promise of higher education.
Following a decades-long push for greater college access, Americans are more educated than ever before (Census)—yet upward mobility has decreased every decade since 1940 (Brookings). Our organization seeks to close the social capital gap that exists between talented, yet disconnected, low-income and first-generation college graduates, and careers in the digital economy that can provide them with a pathway towards a bright and stable future.
What specific problem are you solving?
Nearly half of recent college grads (ages 21-27) are unemployed or underemployed, and these statistics are even higher for recent black grads (Vox). With almost 400,000 Black and Latinx college graduates (NCES) entering the workforce every year, this crisis only stands to grow. This is a recipe to deepen trends of downward mobility for people of color (WaPo).
Segregation, income inequality, education, family instability, and social capital all play a role in the downward mobility of this population (Chetty). COOPers left college with fewer than three meaningful peer or career connections, affirming that social isolation was a factor in their path towards underemployment. Furthermore, informal relationships dominate our labor market. Referred candidates are nine times as likely to get hired (LinkedIn). and currently only 30% of employee referrals go to people of color (Payscale).
A Bachelor’s degree is necessary, but not sufficient. We need connections and referrals as much as skills. A labor market powered by relationships will reinforce the status quo, but we know that this is only a symptom of a segregated society. We believe that by cultivating social networks and closing the referral gap, we can make an impact on the underemployment epidemic.
What is your solution?
COOP serves as connective tissue between universities and employers. More importantly, COOP connects underrepresented college grads to each other. Below are descriptions of our program:
Community: underemployed recent grads feel a sense of isolation—removed from peers and demoralized by professional rejections. COOP addresses this by recruiting cohorts of 16 college grads with common backgrounds and goals. We facilitate bonding throughout the program—and we foster ties between cohorts.
Captains: Each cohort is led by four captains, returning COOP alumni who serve as coaches. To date, almost 200 alumni have “paid-it-forward” as cohort captains. Captain teams teach 100% of COOP’s 200-hour curriculum, and they are the hallmark of COOP’s model.
Curriculum: We design our curriculum with input from practitioners at our industry partners. The curriculum is divided into Head, Heart, and Hustle—digital “hard skills,” professional “soft skills,” and the grind of the job search. Our cohort captains are also backed by social workers.
Connections: Finally, we work with employers to hire COOP candidates. While we don’t guarantee positions, we do make as many connections as possible. 200+ employers have hired COOP alumni since 2014. Many opportunities come through formal events , but at least as many come through informal peer connections.
Who does your solution serve, and in what ways will the solution impact their lives?
COOP is built to serve BIPOC (90% of alumni), low-income (75% of alumni), and first-generation (70% of alumni) college graduates, who have done exactly what society has asked of them, yet still are struggling to launch meaningful careers. Even with a college degree, our COOPers didn’t have the right connections to get a good job. They felt disengaged, isolated, and broken. Like they were the problem, when in actuality our labor market is to blame.
Our access to good jobs is determined by who you know, and if we don’t create the right relationships the problem will persist. COOP builds a community of underrepresented college grads who empower each other with the tools to achieve their dreams and ambitions.
Everything we do at COOP is focused on engaging our alumni community, and our growth is determined by their involvement. 20% of alumni have “paid it forward” as Captains since 2015. Perhaps more than any economic outcome, this is a signal that our approach has a deep impact on our alumni. Equally important, over 60% of our full-time team members are also COOP alumni. Finally, according to an independent analysis, every $1 invested in COOP creates a permanent $9 wage increase.
Which dimension of the Challenge does your solution most closely address?Increase access to high-quality, affordable learning, skill-building, and training opportunities for those entering the workforce, transitioning between jobs, or facing unemployment
Explain how the problem, your solution, and your solution’s target population relate to the Reimagining Pathways to Employment in the US Challenge and your selected dimension.
Reimagining pathways to employment requires scaling not just what you know, but who you know. At COOP, we understand something that’s always been true: relationships pull us much more than skills propel us. In 2020, we have lost nearly all the jobs created since 2008, and in 2021, there will be even fewer good jobs —and two million new graduates.
The Great Recession failed to protect black and brown graduates. Who gets the coaching, favors, and referrals will determine the impact of this recession, and our proven solution can effectively support new employment pathways.
In what city, town, or region is your solution team headquartered?New York, NY, USA
In which US state(s) will you be operating within the next year?
What is your solution’s stage of development?Growth: An organization with an established product, service, or business model rolled out in one or, ideally, several communities, which is poised for further growth
Who is the team lead for your solution?
Kalani Leifer, Founder & CEO
How many people work on your solution team?
- Full-time: 35
- Part-time: 90-120 (seasonal)
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: What is your approach to building a diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization?
COOP is deeply committed to embedding DEI into our culture by leveraging our unique differentiators, particularly alumni leadership, into our organizational practices. This begins in our talent acquisition practices. The vast majority (70%) of our full-time staff are program alumni. Additionally, in the past year we have made great strides to solidify our professional development, compensation, and performance management processes that are built on DEI best practices and designed by experts in the field. Finally, we are undergoing an intentional DEI discovery process led by an external firm that will advise us on ways in which can continue to become more equitable as we grow and scale.
Which of the following categories best describes your solution?A new business model or process
Describe what makes your solution innovative.
Starting with our pilot, COOP’s program outcomes have been consistent. Over 90% of participants complete the program and 80% of all alumni are fully employed—earning $45,000 in year one and $75,000 by year four. We are guided by our core values of head, heart, and hustle that we have embodied as a kickstarter funded pilot to the national program we are today.
A few innovations have positioned us to solve the societal challenge of underemployment:
Overcoming underemployment in real time: Unlike most organizations focusing on the college-to- career transition, COOP doesn’t limit its intervention to pre-graduation. COOP’s intervention is most effective for college graduates—right when they’re most isolated from each other and institutions, ready and urgently motivated to seize full-time opportunities.
Alumni leadership in our DNA: Since the end of our first year, every COOP cohort has been led by alumni captains that serve as near peer coaches. We have doubled down on alumni leaders, introducing two new layers of alumni leadership in 2019, and are piloting even more alumni specialist roles. Of course, our full-time team is dominated by alumni. And equally important, most of the jobs our cohorts secure come through alumni referrals.
Relationships over skills: We believe credentials matter less than relationships to achieve economic mobility. We have scaled access to skills training and education for low-income individuals, but not the social capital necessary to enter living wage industries. By focusing on building social capital, we create the relationships that can be transformational for upward mobility.
Describe the core technology, if applicable, that powers your solution.
While our program does use a specific piece of software or program delivery technology that would be classified as cutting edge, we instead look to a much more community focused and somewhat intangible concept that guides our solution: the power of community. Social capital and networks drive our program model with near peer coaches coming back to coach, mentor, and endorse new generations of COOP participants to get their first good industry job.
The power of favors and networks is woven into the fabric of our social contract and labor market. At least a third and potentially up to three-quarters of workers secured their job through a referral (Business Insider). Referred candidates are nine times as likely to get hired than non-referred candidates (LinkedIn). And those referrals are serving to entrench racial and class divides, making hiring less and less diverse and leaving out the communities we serve. Currently, only 30% of employee referrals go to people of color (Payscale).
We need advice, favors, and referrals as much as we need skills. Ultimately, a labor market powered by relationships will amplify residential and school segregation in the professional sphere. Yet, we also see that if we can intentionally cultivate this behavior for undernetworked groups it can be used as a force for good. We believe that by purposefully cultivating social networks and closing the referral gap, we can build more inclusive pathways to employment for our target populations.
Provide evidence that this technology works.
As mentioned above, job applicants with an employee referral are nine times more likely to be hired. Relationships still matter in the digital economy. But, in our country the people we know and trust and recommend tend to look just like ourselves. This is the Network Gap: “Where you grow up, where you go to school, and where you work can give you up to a 12x advantage in gaining access to opportunity.”
Social capital is highly connected to upward mobility, and suggests that your personal network can have lasting impacts on your life trajectory (Atlantic). An early survey of COOP participants indicates that most of our participants left college with fewer than three meaningful peer or career connections, affirming that social isolation and disengagement was a factor in their path towards underemployment.
What our outcomes are telling us is that our theory of change is working. 80% of our alumni are attaining a job that pays a living wage within one year of completion. After 3 years that employment rate for alumni remains at or above 80%, while wages increase by almost 40%. This demonstrates that the pathways we are building are both sustainable and upwardly mobile. Furthermore, almost 20% of our alumni come back at captains and employees of the organization showing that giving back to this community and offering both knowledge and favors is deeply ingrained into their personal lives.
Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:
What is your theory of change?
Black, Latinx, low-income, and first-generation college grads face significant barriers to promising entry-level jobs:
Social capital gap: Most lack the personal and professional connections and casual favors that provide a foothold in the digital economy.
Overstretched institutions: Many attend city and state universities ill equipped to provide industry informed curriculum, high-touch career services, and wrap around support.
Legacy hiring practices: Referral based recruiting reinforces the status quo, amplifying residential and school segregation in the professional sphere.
We close the social capital gap by recruiting and investing deeply in underrepresented grads from urban public universities:
Peer Cohorts: 16 local grads meet nightly for 17 weeks (200 hours) to learn digital skills like Google Ads & Analytics, build relationships, and pursue full-time opportunities.
Near-Peer Coaches: Teams of four alumni Cohort Captains lead all 200 hours, serving as coaches and mentors on top of busy day-jobs in digital economy.
Alumni Community: Alumni freely provide each other with a steady stream of insider advice, practice interviews, peer support—and job referrals.
COOP has over a thousand alumni in NY and CA. Thanks to their leadership, we spend less than $5,000 to launch a career.
Full employment: 81% of alumni work full-time, overwhelmingly in digital marketing and data analytics; 70% reach this milestone within six months.
Upward mobility: Average alumni earn $45,000 in year one (triple our pre-program average) and $60,000 after three years.
Forward-on-investment: According to independent analysis, “every $1 invested in COOP creates a permanent $9 wage increase.” (Arbor Brothers)
Select the key characteristics of your target population.
How many people does your solution currently serve? How many people did your solution serve in 2019? 2018? 2017?
2020: 700 2021: 1,150 2022: 1,700 2023: 2,450 2024: 3,500
What percent of the people you served in 2019 were between the age of 15 and 30?
What are your goals within the next year and within the next five years?
The past five years have proven that COOP is a vital part of the conversation surrounding upward mobility in America, and over the next several years we are determined to show that our work can grow across the country. Since our founding in 2014 we have grown at a rate of almost 90% annually, while still achieving stellar outcomes. Google, LinkedIn, Salesforce, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Robin Hood Foundation, and the Christensen Institute have recognized us as the innovator in the social capital movement. Furthermore, COOP’s Founder, Kalani Leifer, was selected as one of 20 Obama Foundation Fellows in 2018, beating out over 20,000 applicants.
Our aspiration is to launch 10,000 careers in the digital economy and grow to five cities in our first decade, realizing 10x growth in the next five years.
What barriers currently exist for you to accomplish your goals in the next year and in the next five years?
Alumni employment during a period of recession is our largest barrier to growth at the moment. Based on our most recent alumni survey, those that were underemployed before the pandemic have suffered the worst economic consequences. 27% of underemployed alumni were laid off, 26% were furloughed, 20% lost some compensation, and 35% are worried about losing their job in the next quarter; 33% of interns were laid off or furloughed. Conversely, only 9% of our fully employed alumni are reporting being laid off during COVID. These results are remarkably consistent in New York and California (91% vs 90%). There is still much we can still learn about specific industries and other trends, but we believe this early data is an indication that the jobs that COOP is connecting alumni to post-completion are quite sticky and are providing them with an essential lifeline through this recession.
Our scalability previously required us to secure flexible space to run our program, and due to the current pandemic we had to rapidly shift our services virtually. This is creating cascading conversations about the future of our program design and delivery that offers both challenges and new opportunities for scale.
Finally, everything we do at COOP is due to our alumni community. Therefore, our growth is dictated by effectively engaging them as captains. We have set an internal metric that in order to scale effectively, we must have 10% of alumni engaged at any time.
How do you plan to overcome these barriers?
This past July we launched a revamped and expedited Alumni survey to help us track the impact that COVID-19 has had on our community. Overall, the biggest issue for our most recent alumni is being connected to their first upwardly mobile job. 91% of our un and underemployed alumni expressed interest in receiving job search support from our Alumni and Social Work team. Each of those alumni have been added to the caseload of an Alumni and Social Work Manager that are now conducting individualized outreach to create service plans that meet the unique needs of that alumnus. We can better report on the overall services provided to this group in the coming months since this is still a new initiative.
We are extraordinarily proud of our team’s ability to rapidly shift virtually, and have heard strong feedback from our cohorts. Our Spring 2020 cycle saw our highest program retention and net promoter score to date. While this was done under less than ideal circumstances and ones that we do not hope to operate under in perpetuity, we see the possibility that a virtual version of our program can thrive. Therefore, we are beginning to create multiple scenarios for the design of our program moving forward that can balance in-person bonding and online instruction. Allowing for multiple efficiencies in our program operating expenses, and allowing for new market expansion to places where COOP alumni may not currently live.
What outcomes data would you like to be collecting that you are not yet able to collect?
We are currently piloting a set of measures surrounding social capital and networks that we would like to utilize and evaluate regularly. Additionally, we would be interested in conducting social network analyzes for our cohorts and alumni community.
What type of organization is your solution team?Nonprofit
How many people are on your leadership team? (Of these, please provide the number of individuals from your leadership team that are full time, part time, and volunteer)
What is the number of individuals from my leadership team that attended community college for at least one year?
What is the number of individuals from my leadership team that received a Pell grant as a college student?
In what year was your organization founded? How many years have you worked on your solution?
Why are you and your team well-positioned to deliver this solution?
Our Founder & CEO, Kalani Leifer, started his career as a high school history teacher in the Bronx, NY where he saw first hand how the social capital gap impacted marginalized communities. Later, he worked at McKinsey in Switzerland designing education systems and post-secondary career pathways. Directly prior to founding COOP, he worked at Google in where he saw the immense potential careers in the digital economy offered to underrepresented communities.
Our Chief Operating Officer, Randy Moore, has dedicated his entire career to scaling nonprofit organizations. Randy also began his career as an educator, teaching high school English in Miami. Since then he has held founding leadership roles at: CUNY’s Guttman Community College, where he led their first year student experience and partnership; Year Up Arizona, where he was the Founding Site Director for their Maricopa Community College partnership; and The James and Judith K. Dimon Foundation, where he was the Vice President of Post-Secondary Partnerships.
The remainder of our Leadership Team has held leadership roles, either founding or scaling, at best-in-class nonprofits across the country such as Year Up, Per Scholas, Teaching Lab, and the East Harlem Tutorial Program. Furthermore, almost a quarter of our Leadership Team are alumni of our program that have developed from entry-level managers at the organization into Directors.
What organizations do you currently partner with, if any? How are you working with them?
COOP serves as the connective tissue between urban public colleges and employers in the digital marketing and tech industries. We work with universities to recruit recent graduates, and with employers to meet their talent needs. See below for our largest partners across these two categories.
- Universities: CUNY senior colleges (Baruch, City College, Lehman, Brooklyn, Queens), California State University system (San Francisco State, East Bay, San Jose State, Dominguez Hills)
- Employers: IPG, WPP, GroupM, Dentsu Aegis, Omnicom, Publicis, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Salesforce
What is your business model?
We are currently 100% philanthropically funded with hopes to diversify our earned corporate revenue and alumni giving revenue streams by 2024. See below for a list of our largest current donors:
- Tony Tamer (Board Chair)
- Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
- Robin Hood Foundation
- The Arbor Brothers
- Salesforce Foundation
- New Profit
- The Heckscher Foundation
- Carson Family Trust
- Robert Sterling Clark Foundation
Each of these funders is deeply interested in the ways social capital can fuel upward mobility for the population we serve, and we provide an efficient, innovative solution to that challenge.
Do you primarily provide products or services directly to individuals, or to other organizations?Individual consumers or stakeholders (B2C)
What is your path to financial sustainability?
While we are in a strong financial position for the near term, we also know that it is imperative for us to build a more diversified revenue model that doesn’t rely solely on philanthropic support. COOP delivers immense value for our partner universities, corporations, and our alumni that currently do not have to make any financial commitments to our program. To be truly sustainable those partnerships need to contribute some types of earned revenue to COOP for us to decrease our philanthropic lift. We are currently piloting or designing partnerships with Google and a couple other legacy hiring partners to develop multi-year agreements that pay COOP directly for the value we deliver to their companies. Additionally, our development and alumni teams are beginning to design what an alumni giving campaign could look like at COOP. Over the next five years, we have set an internal goal for 20% of our annual revenue to come from corporate partners and alumni giving.
If you have raised funds for your solution or are generating revenue, please provide details.
We are currently in the beginning of our first growth campaign. We launched this campaign 2020, and will close it in 2024. We currently have $32M committed toward a $57.8M goal, and $30M of those commitments are from our current Board of Directors individual contributions. We are seeking general operating funds from individuals, philanthropic foundations, and corporations to meet our growth campaign goals.
What are your estimated expenses for 2021?
2021 Expenses: $7,150,000
Percentage breakdown by area:
· Program: 83%
· Admin: 11%
· Fundraising: 6%
Why are you applying to the Reimagining Pathways to Employment in the US Challenge?
This past year will test the momentum of the entire workforce development field with perhaps the greatest global recovery of our generation. Yet, even in the face of this enormous challenge we feel a sense of anticipation and resolve because COOP is made for this moment.
The timeliness of this challenge can not be understated, but as we have stated throughout our application skills alone will not solve the pathways to employment problem. The word "reimagine" is what has truly compelled our team to submit our solution to this challenge. By reimagining un and underemployment as a relationship problem and not a skills problem we can reframe employment as something that can be solved through collective action, rather than something that can only be done through individual learning. By selecting an organization like COOP that solves unemployment through social capital building we can finally recognize the immense economic power of relationships.
The suddenness of this crisis has left many of us feeling small and powerless, but we at COOP feel as strongly positioned as ever to meet the challenge. By investing in COOP, where we provide industry connections, clinical support, and the network to launch careers, we can reignite our nation’s promise of upward mobility. We believe that the support and recognition offered through this challenge can help us elevate our work, the power of social capital, and to ensure the opportunities made during this recovery are equitably distributed across our nation.
In which of the following areas do you most need partners or support?