It began, Graduate! Philadelphia President & CEO Malik Brown says, with a desire to fill a gap.
Specifically, the skills gap in Philadelphia. At the time the organization was launched, in 2006, scores of companies in the Philadelphia region were struggling to fill jobs for which a college degree was a requirement. Meanwhile, an estimated 100,000 Philadelphians had some college credits, but hadn’t been able to go far enough to get their diplomas and were trapped in lower-wage jobs. There had to be a way to bridge that divide – to create a win-win scenario in which the companies got the skilled workers they needed while individuals got the life-changing benefits of a college education.
Into the void stepped Graduate! Philadelphia. Over the last 15 years this nonprofit has made a significant impact on the region, providing thousands of workers with one-on-one educational and career counseling while helping more than a thousand people earn two- or four-year college degrees. It does this by counseling them, encouraging them, and helping find receptive schools, scholarship aid or grants that may be available.
It’s an accomplishment that’s not only elevated the financial well-being of those degree-earners; it’s had a ripple effect. Studies show the single largest risk factor for youth dropping out of high school and not succeeding in college is not having an adult in the home with a college degree. Which means, as Graduate! Philadelphia notes on its website, “Every adult we help, helps the young people in their lives complete high school and college.”
<p”>That mission of helping people with some college experience return to get a degree is more urgent than ever, as Malik Brown and his team assist their constituents in coping with COVID and Graduate! Philadelphia itself looks to the future. Among the new efforts the organization is involved with is the Philadelphia Skills Forward Initiative, whose ambitious goal is to upskill 5,000 career-seekers — by June of 2022. “This was in response to people being dislocated because of COVID,” says Brown, who’s led Graduate! Philadelphia since 2019. “There were lots of layoffs that happened, and we really want to make sure that as we move into a post-COVID environment, people have the skills they need to re-enter work and to be successful.”
Brown and company are also excited about the Philadelphia Talent Hub. They focus on increasing educational attainment across the region, as well as a new partnership with the University City District and its workforce development arm, the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative. The organization helps WPSI alums attain an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Meanwhile, Graduate! Philadelphia, which had previously been organized under the nationwide Graduate! Network, is navigating its first year as a stand-alone 501(c)(3), welcoming 10 new board members from an array of Philadelphia corporations and non-profits.
Brown’s own background, which includes an MBA from Clark University and stints in the for-profit world at GE and Accenture, has been crucial in helping him understand Graduate! Philadelphia’s mission from both the workers’ and companies’ points of view. It’s also aided him in effectively leading the organization.
“My time at Accenture really helped me to hone some critical business skills,” he says. “As a management consultant, you were often called upon to lead teams in complex and dynamic business environments, distill lots of data into concrete solutions and recommendations, communicate to different audiences and stakeholders, and build relationships.”
Brown received a sponsorship by the Philadelphia Foundation to the Satell Institute. At the Satell Institute he’s had an opportunity to meet other nonprofits and see how they worked hard to succeed. He’s also met for-profit leaders and learned how they think. This was transformative for Brown. Fundraising is a highly competitive activity; not all succeed. But Brown’s goal is to get more people to return to college to gain the skills needed by businesses so they can improve their opportunities. Many companies are seeking such people.