Chronicle of Philanthropy: Nonprofit Leader Shares Her Life Story to Promote Jobs for Youths

Read the full article below and in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Nonprofit Leader Shares Her Life Story to Promote Jobs for Youths 

By Nicole Wallace
February 13, 2018

The summer after ninth grade, Eshauna Smith worked at an accounting firm in Los Angeles and was paid $5 an hour. The money she earned helped her buy her own school clothes, which relieved a financial burden on her mother, who was raising three daughters alone after leaving a difficult marriage. Importantly, the job also gave Ms. Smith a bigger sense of what was possible in her own life.

Now, as chief executive of Urban Alliance, Ms. Smith, 42, works to make sure low-income high-school students, many of them minorities, get opportunities like the one she had.

“Having that exposure early on to corporate environments, different places, really gives you the confidence you need to be able to connect with others and build the kinds of networks that you need to be successful in our world,” she says.

Urban Alliance places high-school seniors in 10-month paid internships at companies like Bank of America and Hilton Worldwide. During the school year, students work three hours a day from Monday through Thursday, supervised and coached by mentors assigned by the employers. The work day increases to eight hours in the summer. On Fridays, students work with Urban Alliance employees to build their professional skills and plan for what they’ll do after high school.

The nonprofit makes the case that its internships are deeper and more meaningful than summer programs that last only a few weeks. Its goal is for the internships and coaching to change the trajectory of the students’ lives — and research findings show the organization is doing that.

Last year, the group released the findings of a six-year study that tracked 1,062 Urban Alliance interns along with a control group of young people who applied for the program but weren’t chosen in the lottery. The study found that young men, in particular, benefited. Those who participated in the program were 23 percent more likely to attend college, and students with lower GPAs of 2.0 to 3.0 who were interns were 18 percent more likely to enroll in a four-year college.

Urban Alliance won a five-year, $9.6 million innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 2015, a year after Ms. Smith took the job as CEO. The money has enabled the organization to increase the number of students at its sites in Baltimore, Chicago, Northern Virginia, and Washington D.C. A fifth location will be announced soon.

Under Ms. Smith’s leadership, the group has forged partnerships with national companies like AT&T and Citibank. Urban Alliance has an annual budget of $8.4 million. Corporate money accounts for roughly 55 percent of its revenue, largely fees the companies pay to host the interns.

“The more intern spots we have, the more students we can serve,” Ms. Smith says. “That really is the only limitation when you start to talk about growth and scale.”

A Quick Study

When Ms. Smith was contemplating college, she didn’t apply to the University of California at Berkeley for its academic reputation. The University of California system application required students to select three campuses, and Berkeley happened to be one of her picks. Once on campus, she quickly realized how prestigious the institution was — and how few students were people of color.

“It really became clear to me that I had stumbled upon an opportunity,” she says. Ms. Smith earned a degree in mass communications at Berkeley and then a master’s degree in public policy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Soon after, she moved to Washington and started her career in nonprofits.

“When she interviewed the first time, I knew she was a star,” says Rubie Coles, who in 2001 hired Ms. Smith as a program associate in the Moriah Fund’s anti-poverty grant-making program.

Ms. Smith was a quick study, and her responsibilities at Moriah grew as she proved herself. Later on, during Ms. Smith’s going-away party, Ms. Coles says, she told the crowd she expected to one day work for the younger woman.

The two former colleagues remain close. Ms. Coles says that one of Ms. Smith’s greatest strengths in her job at Urban Alliance is a determination to cast a wide net to get more people to provide jobs to young people. As an example, she points to Youth Employment Matters, a forum the alliance sponsored with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

“She’s not an ‘in the office, sitting at her desk’ leader,” Ms. Coles says.

Sharing Her Story

When Ms. Smith took the stage as a speaker at TEDxPennsylvaniaAvenue in 2015, she shared the bill with the likes of Rep. Paul Ryan and the billionaire philanthropist David Rubenstein. In her speech, she movingly recounted how that long-ago job at the accounting firm, together with the intervention of caring adults in her neighborhood, helped her escape the poverty that trapped her mother and other family members.

While Urban Alliance continues to grow, Ms. Smith knows the group will never be big enough to serve all the young people who could benefit from an early work experience and the guidance of dedicated mentors. Talking about her own experiences is part of the group’s aim of becoming a voice for the importance of giving young people meaningful, year-round work opportunities. Ms. Smith says her own life story makes her “the right person for this phase of Urban Alliance,” and she hopes it will inspire more groups to take up the cause.