When Larry Irvin and Kristyna Jones met at Mardi Gras in 2011, they immediately connected through their shared love of hip-hop and rap. Then the conversation got more personal: Jones gave Irvin her perspective of working in community development in New Orleans both before and after Hurricane Katrina, and Irvin shared his story of growing up as a black man in New Orleans with questions of self-identity.
“Young black men are perpetually trying to figure out who they are supposed to be, because the representations both in our neighborhoods and schools are, a lot of the time, negative,” Irvin says, citing high rates of incarceration and unemployment.
Irvin and Jones came up with a potential solution: getting more black men into the classroom.
“There’s a particular demographic, even within the demographic of black men, who aren’t attached to their academic experience,” says Irvin, 36. “College is something they’re told to do, but not with any purpose behind it.”
Together, Irvin and Jones founded Brothers Empowered to Teach, a nonprofit that urges people of color – particularly black men – to explore careers in education. It seeks to generate a network of teachers who serve as role models for the next generation.
Starting with just seven fellows in 2014, the organization has since grown to have over 40 participants between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. It has partnered with over 10 schools across New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and four graduates of the program teach in New Orleans public schools.
Irvin himself is a former substitute teacher, a job he held while coaching high school football. He discovered that he had a special connection with many of the kids.
“Having grown up in some of those same neighborhoods that they did, there was a cultural connection,” says Irvin. “It started to seem like I was meant to do this work.”
The organization offers two programs for future educators: a one-year program tailored toward college graduates and those changing careers, and a three-year fellowship geared toward current college students. The organization’s teachers get together on Saturdays for professional and personal development workshops.
“We have intimate conversations about things like redefining what masculinity looks like, around male-female gender relationships, and around sexual orientation,” says Irvin. “We’re trying to create a better version of the individual, which in turn turns them into a great educator.”
Brothers Empowered to Teach got a big boost last year at WeWork’s Austin Creator Awards. When it was announced that the organization had won $130,000, Irvin was greeted with a standing ovation from the crowd of more than 2,750 people.
A WeWork member, Irvin uses the company’s spaces when he travels, especially to cities like Austin and Washington, D.C.
While Brothers Empowered to Teach has so far worked with only male teachers, the organization recently opened up 30 percent of its seats to women of color.
“It is really beautiful to see our fellows attached to something, approaching education with fervor and excitement,” Irvin says. “We’re trying to change the narrative and reignite a lost reverence for the education profession.”
Melanie Faye grew up in Nashville, but she doesn’t credit Music City with her success. She credits Guitar Hero. Yes, that Guitar Hero, the video game that allows players to mimic the sounds and moves of their favorite stars. For Faye, it was Michael Jackson.
“I don’t think growing up in Nashville introduced me to guitar players,” Faye says. “My parents were chemists. I was not able to go to bars and see local shows. Guitar Hero introduced me to all this music I was not exposed to. Guitar Hero looked really cool. It made me feel empowered.”
So, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Faye, now 20, has found fame viaYouTube. After dropping out of college three semesters in to pursue her music career, Faye posted videos of herself sitting in her bedroom and playing covers of John Mayer and Mariah Carey.
She also used the platform to debut some of her original work, which she describes as a mixture of R&B, hip hop, and pop. Her voice, serious guitar-playing chops, and friendly demeanor propelled those videos to more than 10 million views. She was so popular that the guitar company Fender tapped her to demo a new line of the instrument.
“I thought, ‘This is it! I’m viral. I made it!’ But it does not work that way,” she says. Faye makes ends meet by working at a local doughnut shop and teaches guitar. She also keeps working on her music the old-fashioned way, having been tapped to be the opening act for musicians like Noname and Mac Demarco. Her most recent gig was at the Nashville Creator Awards.
She is working on her first album, which she hopes will be out by the year’s end. A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Faye has been working on Homophone for years.
“If I had known it was going to take this long,” she says, “I wouldn’t have told people it was going to be out soon.”
Faye is also working to relieve the jitters that come with performing live, rather than in front of a camera. A recent show at the Hollywood Palladium was a game changer.
“I typically am really shy and inhibited on stage. But I felt so much support and positive energy, I just let loose,” she remembers. “I think to an extent you just have to have fake confidence at first. I walked up and had a confident demeanor and once I heard crowd cheering, then I was confident.”
“It happens overnight,” Maria Vertkin says. “An immigrant moves to the U.S. and goes from being a surgeon to washing toilets.”
College degrees and professional experience from their home country don’t always mean as much as they should when an immigrant starts a new life abroad, says Vertkin. She knows from experience: She spent her childhood in Russia and Israel before immigrating to the United States. But she realized that they have one thing that will always be of use to them: their language skills.
“It doesn’t make sense if you have something as valuable as a second language to not use it,” says Vertkin, who speaks English, Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Vertkin, a Boston-based social worker, wanted to help train women to use their multilingual skills to their advantage. She saw a need that they could fill in the medical field. Hospitals in Massachusetts struggled to find interpreters for their patients who aren’t native English speakers. Without interpreters, expensive and even potentially fatal medical errors are possible.
“The jobs are plentiful and the demographics are shifting,” says Vertkin. “Not only do they serve the local population, but medical tourists come from other countries and they need interpreters.”
The idea was a hit with the judges of WeWork’s Nashville Creator Awards. Found in Translation took home a $72,000 prize in the nonprofit category.
In 2011, Vertkin startedFound in Translation to help homeless and low-income women achieve economic security by making their language skills an asset, rather than a liability.Within a few weeks of announcing the first class, she had 200 applications.
The nonprofit offers medical interpreter certificate training as well as other interpreter programs. And the training includes more than the core curriculum — childcare, transportation, job placement, and access to mentors for professional development are also part of the program.
The 186 graduates of Found in Translation classes between 2012 and 2017 earned approximately $1.86 million cumulatively more per year than they did before enrollment. That’s about $10,000 more per person annually. She says that if she wins in the nonprofit category at the Nashville Creator Awards, she can expand the program.
Classes currently take place in Boston, where Vertkin estimates they could easily double in size with the right funding. Every city in the U.S., she says, has the potential for success with Found in Translation.
“There is opportunity and need and we are connecting them,” Vertkin says. “The biggest risk is for employers not hiring multilingual employees.”
If Janett Liriano has her way, you won’t be using your FitBit much longer.
Liriano is CEO ofLoomia, a New York-based firm at the intersection of tech and fashion. The company creates “intelligent drapeable circuits” that are soft enough to be embedded into textiles and can be safely washed and dried. Instead of wearing a step tracker on your wrist, it could be embedded into your running shoes.
That’s just the beginning of what these circuits can do. Those shoes might not just track your steps, but can also measure the pressure on your feet, giving you information on how you should adjust your gait. They might heat up and keep your feet warm in winter. And a light might keep you safer on a nighttime jog.
Liriano has two patents for her product and others in the pipeline for the smart fabric-enabling circuits. Her team is working with more than 80 brands on how they can integrate the smart technology into their designs. The current emphasis is on clothing, but the flexibility of the circuit opens the door to other products in the future.
“We are category agnostic,” Liriano says. “If you can make a washable circuit, you can put it on the floor. You can put it in wallpaper.”
Liriano, who took home third place in the business ventures category at the Nashville Creator Awards, sees potential in fields ranging from medicine to transportation.
Not only can Loomia transform the ways smart devices are used, it can also change what happens to all that data once it is collected. The company is looking at ways that consumers can sell their data to interested parties — or choose not to share it.
Liriano, a “born-and-bred New Yorker,” thinks the city is the right place for the firm. It’s one of the country’s great fashion hubs, but it also has a strong startup scene.
“New Yorkers are inherently scrappy and resourceful,” she says. “For a business that is not super capitalized, that’s a good network. We are hard-core hustlers.”
Every election year, millions of Americans do not take advantage of their right to vote. The statistics are starkest among millennials, who are more likely than not to stay home on Election Day. In the hotly contested general election in 2016,only 49 percent of young people cast a vote.
Getting young people informed about their choices and turning out at the polls are three organizations whose leaders have set up shop at WeWork locations across the U.S.: Rock the Vote, BallotReady, and Generation Citizen.
Rock the Vote is the most recognizable name in the bunch. And it makes sense: The nonprofit organization, whose aim is to build political power for young voters, has been in existence for nearly 30 years. It is perhaps best known for itslongstanding partnership with MTV, beginning in 1990 when its founder, a former music executive, teamed up with labels, artists, and other activists to fight censorship in the industry.
“Young voters of the nineties look way different from the young voters we’re engaging with now,” says Jen Tolentino, Rock the Vote’s director of policy and civic tech. “In the nineties, our number-one partnership was with MTV. That’s not really the case anymore considering how young people consume media and how they interact with each other and entertainment.”
In order to reach young people where they are, Rock the Vote, which has offices are inWeWork Culver City, in Los Angeles, builds unique campaigns by partnering with wide range of companies. In 2016, Rock the Voteteamed up with Tinder to help millennials learn about issues and to determine the right candidate to back. This year itpartnered with WeWork to make registering to vote as simple as possible.
The campaign’s hashtag, #TruthToPower, seemed to work with its targeted demographic. According to Tolentino, Rock the Vote’s voter registration numbers were around 1.7 million across their platform. An impressive 81 percent of them turned out to vote.
ForNational Voter Registration Day on Sept. 25, Rock the Vote has joined forces with HBO, as well as with American Eagle Outfitters, for a nonpartisan campaign called “Democracy Class.” Through this initiative, young people will learn about the history of voting and its importance, and be able to pre-register and register to vote.
Established in 2015, BallotReady was born when Aviva Rosman called her friend Alex Niemczewski to ask her to vote for her in an upcoming race for the local school council — an election she ended up winning by 16 votes. This prompted Niemczewski, then a graduate student at the University of Chicago, to create a website in advance of the 2014 midterm elections. She knew who she was going to vote for at the top of the ticket, but the more local races were different story. So Niemczewski and Rosman filled in the blanks.
“When we started working on it, everyone we talked to was like, ‘Oh, I would totally use that,’” says Niemczewski.
After winning some funding from the University of Chicago, they covered Chicago’s elections and created a voter guide for Kentucky. By 2016, BallotReady was covering top-to-bottom races in 12 states, giving details about every race.
“Anyone in those states could type in their address and see every candidate and referendum on their ballot, so they could stay totally informed,” says Niemczewski.
The creation of each BallotReady guide begins with putting together a list of candidates up for election. That process itself is the biggest challenge for BallotReady.
“Across the country there are over 500,000 elected officials, but there’s no centralized database of who these people are, what positions they hold, or when they are up for election,” says Niemczewski. “In order to compile our ballots, we need to call counties, send faxes. I’ve even had to send a check for 50 cents to pay for the printing of a candidate list.”
“There’s no one else doing what we do,” says Niemczewski. “We care about two things: voters completing their ballots without guessing, and turnout.”
Like Rock the Vote, BallotReady relies on partnership to reach Millennials, who make up 40 percent of its users. This year, BallotReady has teamed up with theALL IN Challenge, a grassroots organization that works on over 400 college campuses in 48 states to get young people to become involved in the democratic process.
“College students, a lot of times, they’ve never voted before and don’t realize how long the ballot actually is,” says Niemczewski.
The group goes even farther, advocating that teenagers as young as 16 should be able to vote in local elections. One town in Maryland has already lowered the legal voting age by two years, and this fall communities from Washington, D.C. to Golden, Colorado may adopt a similar policy.
“Given the dismal voter turnout rate, we need innovative solutions to help improve our democracy,” says Warren. “We think that this could be one of them.”
Generation Citizen’s main goal is to get young people involved in the democratic process by sponsoring events where they are asked what they would like to change about their city, their school, or their state. Local issues students have focused on include police brutality, affordable housing, the opioid crisis, and even school cafeterias.
“Voting and getting out the vote is important,” says Warren, who has WeWork offices in five cities. “But you have to get young people excited about democracy before they can actually vote.”
Rock the Vote faces a similar challenge, says Tolentino, who says her organization aims to convince young people, particularly in communities of color, that their vote is important.
“What we have seen to be really effective within this generation has been messaging around the importance of community,” says Tolentino.
Topics that young voters are rallying around include gun violence, criminal justice reform, and immigration, to name a few.
“For us, making that direct connection between issues that they care really deeply about and how they can leverage their vote to build political power for themselves and their community and hold elected officials accountable,” says Tolentino.
Warren agrees, adding that young people can help change the system.
“I think there is a widespread recognition that politics as usual doesn’t work and that we need something different,” he says. “Young people can claim a new narrative about what democracy can look like.”