As a CEO and native Chicagoan, I love my city and would live nowhere else. Yet it bothers me when I see Chicago in national headlines for troubling reasons — failing public schools in low-income areas with high dropout rates, and (as everyone knows) an epidemic of gun violence in these same neighborhoods. Obviously, these problems go hand in hand, and solutions have been frustratingly elusive.
Four years ago I joined the board of City Year Chicago, an amazing nonprofit organization that is tackling both problems with remarkable success. Sound too good to be true? It's not. City Year Chicago uses mentorship to enhance the educations and lives of tens of thousands of students, while making dangerous neighborhoods safer at the same time.
Each year, City Year Chicago recruits a corps of recent college graduates who sign up for a year of full-time educational service in urban areas. Although these young people only make $12,000 for the full year, the number of applicants vastly exceeds the number of available slots because of the altruistic nature of the mission. Corps members are eligible for subsidized housing and food, but not all take advantage of this option — roughly 60 percent. It's a very competitive process to be selected as a City Year Chicago corps member, and we look for the best and the brightest.
City Year Chicago's 230 corps members are sent into the most economically challenged Chicago public schools in teams of 8 to 10 people per school. These schools are typically in high-crime neighborhoods, with a vast majority of students of color. And within these resourced-strapped schools, City Year focuses only on the most "at risk" kids — students who may have one or both parents missing, who may have learning and/or behavioral issues or other external factors preventing success. Obviously, focusing on the toughest students in the toughest schools is a very heavy lift, because these are students who almost always fall through societal cracks.
Mentorship is the secret sauce. When students need extra attention, City Year corps members immediately pull them aside and provide targeted one-on-one mentoring. This not only frees the teacher to continue educating the 30-plus other kids in the class, it forms a tremendous bond of trust between the student and corps member. When chronically absent students don't show up for school, the City Year corps mentor calls the students at home and motivates them to come in. When students have problems at home, they go to the City Year corps member for emotional support. The list goes on and on. Given the volatile and under-resourced world in which these students live, in many cases the City Year mentor becomes the most important person in the student's lives.
The University of Chicago recently concluded a multiyear study of the effectiveness of City Year Chicago, and the results are amazing. Schools that use City Year mentors have a 20 percent higher graduation rate versus similar schools, which translates to hundreds of kids who get a diploma each year who wouldn't have otherwise. Even more impressive is that City Year schools reduce the amount of detentions by 86 percent, and behavior-related expulsions by 33 percent.
Why is this so important? Because in Chicago, students who drop out of school are nine times likelier to end up in prison or get caught up in gangs. By "having the back" of these at-risk kids (who tragically could end up as shooting victims or even perpetrators), City Year Chicago is literally saving lives while furthering education. (In fact, a recent Deloitte report showed that schools partnering with City Year each receive 1,900 hours of extra educational hours annually.)
Clearly, City Year has a wonderful mission. And clearly, it works. But as a CEO, I had a practical question. Is it economically affordable? On this measure, City Year Chicago shines. Each school that uses City Year pays (on average) $96,000 per year but gets $853,000 in value because the corps members are typically able to do the work of six different service providers. Thus, the public and private dollars that fund City Year are multiplied eight times, which is a great return no matter how you slice it. In our economically strapped city, City Year is a rare "sure thing" investment in the future.
Although City Year Chicago helps almost 13,000 students each year, our 230 corps members are a tremendous source of leadership after they complete their year of service. City Year alumni are the No. 1 source of Teach For America (TFA) candidates in Chicago, with more than 75 percent of graduates remaining in education or public service as a career. I recently conducted a "fireside chat" on leadership with all corps members, and though I was supposed to be the one inspiring them, I left the session amazed and humbled at what a force for good these young people are.
Even though City Year has a great story, today we operate on a relative shoestring budget of $10 million dollars per year and are only in 26 schools on Chicago's South and West sides. Within five years we want to be in 100 schools all over the city and hope to grow our budget to at least $30 million. When Chicago's Mayor Rahm Emanuel spoke recently about why he has been a crucial supporter of City Year Chicago, he said it's because "demographics should not determine destiny." This sentiment is echoed by hardworking principals and teachers in the City Year partner schools, who see the irreplaceable impact our corps makes each day.
I tell the story about City Year because I have seen firsthand how their hard work, diligence and altruism pays off in spades, and I want other cities to follow Chicago's lead. And as someone who went to a very economically challenged grade school (I spent two years in a mixed classroom with more than 40 first- and second-graders with one harried teacher), I know how important it is to help kids who didn't have the family support that I had.
Winston Churchill said, "We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give."
City Year Chicago corps members show CEOs like me that what we make isn't the primary consideration of many college graduates now entering the workforce, and I greatly respect them for what they are giving.
— By Ravin Gandhi, founder and CEO of GMM Nonstick Coatings. As a VC investor, Gandhi has stakes in KeyMe, Ampsy, Tred, Lettrs, Amber Agriculture and Hester Biosciences. Gandhi is a member of the CNBC-YPO Chief Executive Network.
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