Q&A: Urban Students Empowered Foundation Executive Director Jeff Nelson

Q&A: Urban Students Empowered Foundation Executive Director Jeff Nelson

January 2, 2008

CHICAGO - “ The Illinois Venture Capital Association has interviewed Urban Students Empowered Foundation executive director Jeff Nelson on the foundation's contributions and how professionals can get involved.

Illinois Venture Capital Association: How can professionals and individuals from the local private equity industry best get involved?
Jeff Nelson:
We are in the process of expanding our board of directors. We are seeking individuals from all industries who share our commitment to expand collegiate opportunities to all urban youth. These individuals will help guide our short-term and long-term strategy in all programmatic and development initiatives.

In particular, these new members will spearhead our expansion efforts so we can hit our ambitious growth goals. While our organization is expanding at a rapid pace, we know our program is desperately needed in all Chicago Public Schools. This brings us to a critical juncture in our expansion.

During the upcoming 2008 and 2009 school year, we will admit 85 incoming fellows. This will bring our current fellowship base to 137. In order to increase our incoming class size at that rate, we will partner with three new schools while increasing our cohort size from 10 to 15 students at each of our existing partner schools.

Continuing on this trajectory, the Urban Students Empowered Foundation will admit 395 new fellows at 18 different schools in two different cities by the 2010 school year. Our board of directors will help drive this expansion. We are seeking individuals with unique strategic experience to help lead this effort.

IVCA: What unique attributes do individuals from the private equity sector bring to their roles as board members?
More than half of those on our board of directors come from the private equity sector. We have focused our efforts in this industry primarily because we are still an early stage company. The strategic experience and innovative perspective that leaders in the private equity world bring to the table is unmatched.

Our board of directors has driven our organization to focus our long-term strategy in program areas where we hold distinct advantages such as our teacher-led model, our Internet-based curriculum and our potential for national expansion.

Because of our early stage nature, we have to invest students, schools, teachers and donors in our potential for systemic change. We know the foundation has the ability to shift the educational paradigm in the markets we serve. It is our unique potential that the private equity world has supported since our inception.

IVCA: What initiatives do you have planned for 2008?
We have just launched a new - œSponsor-a-Student Campaign-  for the 2008 year. The goal of this project is to get every single incoming fellow sponsored by an individual, team or company by the start of next school year. That means we will be working to identify 85 sponsors to participate in this effort.

This campaign matches individual sponsors with particular fellows.

Our sponsors are given the unique opportunity - “ through student letters and ongoing correspondence - “ to establish a relationship with the foundation while seeing their fellowship to completion. By connecting a donor with a specific student, the donation becomes direct, transparent and extraordinarily meaningful.

IVCA: What is the biggest challenge you currently face?
The greatest constraint to our growth is our current staffing capacity. Again, this is a particularly pivotal stage in our development as an organization. Because our executive director is managing the program team to ensure successful completion of our programmatic measures, our fund-raising efforts are somewhat limited.

At the same time, our board of directors, major donors and corporate/foundation partners have driven our development success to new heights. As we continue to require an expanded budget and more resources, we will need to hire both a chief program officer and a development director by the end of this school year to meet our expansion goals.

These key hires will alleviate some of programmatic responsibilities of the executive director and will allow more time for sound management and strategic planning.

The following IVCA members are actively involved in the Urban Students Empowered Foundation: OCA Ventures co-founder Eddie Lou, OCA Ventures chairman emeritus John Dugan, DuSable Capital standing chairman Darrell Williams, Origin Ventures board member Steve Miller and I2A board member Kapil Chaudhary. Lou and Miller have provided us with their input.

OCA Ventures co-founder Eddie Lou: I was a co-founder of the Urban Students Empowered Foundation about 4.5 years ago. It was founded under the belief that every urban student should have access to a post-secondary education. Over the previous four years, the program was available at one school for 14 fellows.

The program was 100 percent volunteer based and we worked with a few fellows each year. The results have been promising: increased GPAs, improvements in ACT scores and all our fellows have been admitted to four-year colleges with 100 percent financial aid or scholarships.

Given that our program has shown results, we hired executive director Jeff Nelson. He has fine-tuned our curriculum and strategy and is scaling our program and services to more schools.

Given that we are a start-up in the non-profit world, several VCs have rallied together to support our mission. We expect several who will commit in 2008. In addition, we have received donations from many VCs including Ellen Carnahan, John Svoboda, Lon Chow, Jim McDonald, Raj Pai and Jeff Moss.

Origin Ventures board member Steve Miller: I was introduced to the Urban Students Empowered Foundation several months ago by Kapil Chaudhary and Eddie Lou.

I was tremendously impressed with the results they had already seen from their pilot. The program reminds me of where i.c.stars was at when I got involved at a similar stage there in 2001. They are having a major positive impact on the lives of young people in the inner city.
They are now at an inflection point and entering a period of high growth. As venture capitalists, we can bring to bear our experiences from the early stage for-profit sector to help the foundation grow successfully.