COOP Careers: Overcoming Underemployment
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 75 cohorts since 2014, welcoming 1,000+ 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.
Film your elevator pitch.
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 college grads (Vox).. With almost 400,000 Black and Latinx college graduates (NCES) entering the workforce every year, this underemployment crisis only stands to grow. This is a recipe to deepen National 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?Equip workers with technological and digital literacy as well as the durable skills needed to stay apace with the changing job market
In what city, town, or region is your solution team headquartered?New York, NY, USA
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 primary delegate for your solution?
Kalani Leifer, Founder & CEO
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 that powers your solution.
While our program does not rely on a specific technology to function, the ability to know where our alumni are and their employment status in integral to our approach. Our semi-annual alumni survey housed in our Salesforce database is extraordinarily important to recruit Captains and track our employment and wage data.
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.
Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your solution address?
In which countries do you currently operate?
In which countries will you be operating within the next year?
How many people does your solution currently serve? How many will it serve in one year? In five years?
- 2020: 700
- 2021: 1,150
- 2022: 1,700
- 2023: 2,450
- 2024: 3,500
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?
Our scalability requires us to secure flexible space to run our program. We believe that purposeful efforts with the right stakeholders could unlock space at colleges and companies. In the meantime, we have finalized an agreement with a language school with campuses nationwide. The strategy of partnering with proprietary schools is one that we are now pursuing alongside our corporate partner approach.
With our growth comes challenges surrounding culture and management. We have dedicated significant time to formalizing organizational practices. The team will continue this momentum to ensure that the familial, high-performing culture from our first five years remains intact as we scale.
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.
What type of organization is your solution team?Nonprofit
How many people work on your solution team?
- Full-time: 28
- Part-time: 90-120 (seasonal)
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.
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. 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?
We imagine for the next phase of our growth that philanthropy will remain the majority of our revenue. Over the next five years, we are hoping to pilot and test earned revenue streams through university partnerships and employer contracts. Our goal is that by 2024 20% of our annual revenue will come from one of these new revenue streams.
Why are you applying to Solve?
In 2019, the team at COOP formalized our operational, secured significant growth capital, built a Board of Directors filled with philanthropic leaders, and recruited a senior leadership team.
This year, we welcomed in our largest class to date and began recruiting for our first Los Angeles-based cohorts, all while hitting 80% employment for our Spring NYC cohorts faster than ever. Now, our momentum will be tested 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.
We understand something about the economy that’s always been true: relationships pull us much more than skills propel us. In the last months, the US economy has lost all the jobs created since 2008, and we know that’s just the first chapter. In the coming year, there will be fewer good jobs than we can remember—and nearly two million new graduates. Informal relationships will matter more than ever in a much more competitive labor market.
The Great Recession (and long before) failed to protect black and brown graduates. Who gets the coaching, favors, and ultimately referrals will determine how the effects of this recession are distributed across the Class of 2020 and its successors. We believe that the support and recognition offered through MIT Solve can help us elevate our work, and 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?
Please explain in more detail here.
We are looking to mature our business and revenue model, increase our organizational visibility, and begin our first external evaluation process in the next two years.