This Afterschool Program Helps Youth Change the World

Youth Venture is a social entrepreneurship program for high school students offered through the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley. This story is part of a series highlighting 2015 Youth Opportunity Fund grantees that are supporting innovative, scalable programs that place low-income youth on a path to college and career success. The $3 million Fund is led by the Citi Foundation and America’s Promise Alliance.

Imagine you’re a junior in high school, and you have a great idea to change the world. Maybe it’s a business idea that both makes a profit and helps the environment, like a bee-friendly community garden that grows produce you can sell.

Or maybe it’s a social issue. You want to raise awareness about dropout rates in your area, but you have no idea how to raise money for a campaign.

What do you do?

If you’re in Boston, you enroll in an afterschool United Way program called Youth Venture, which helps low-income youth ages 16-20 turn their business ideas into a reality.

“It’s really a social entrepreneurship program for young people,” Dahlia Bousaid, who oversees the program, said.

And here’s how it works.

Get a Referral, Get a Mentor, Get Funding

Step One: Have another organization refer you.

Youth Venture works with 31 community partners, like the Dorchester Boys and Girls Club and Boston Centers for Youth and Families, to gather nominations for the program.

There are a few requirements: Students have to be between the ages of 16-20, come from low-income families and have an interest in community change.

“A lot of young people in this program have a really deep understanding of the community in which they live and go to school,” Samantha Zito, the program’s manager, said. “They have a really strong desire to make positive change, but they don't have the tools or the skills to do so.”

Step Two: Get a mentor.

Once students are in the program, they’re paired with a diverse pool of mentors from Boston’s business community, including people from tech companies, the medical industry, and financial services.

“We work intensively with our business community in Boston to recruit individual volunteers,” Bousaid said.

These mentors help students develop a business idea—like the bee-friendly community garden in Dorchester. They dedicate about as much time as they would to a debate club or sports team, a few hours a week, on average.

For the past seven years, the program has run during the academic year. But United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley recently received a grant from the Youth Opportunity Fund, supported by the Citi Foundation, to extend the program throughout the summer.

In the past few years, about 450 youth have participated in Youth Venture. The program has already reached 230 young people this year alone, and will reach a total of 300 by August.

Step Three: Develop Plans and Get Seed Funding

Students spend the fall developing their ideas. And then, in December, they pitch their projects to a panel of judges from the business world, vying for a chance to earn $1,000 to turn their ideas into an actual business. Think Shark Tank for high school students.

One key difference: All of the projects have to bring in money, but not all of them have to turn a profit. The students who want to focus on a social issue seek donations, hold fundraisers, and develop partnerships with local businesses for sponsorship and donations, just like a nonprofit.

Which is exactly what 20-year-old Pharedy Berret did.

More than Business Skills

Which is exactly what 20-year-old Pharedy Berret did. 

Berret, who has wanted to be a doctor since she was five, heard about Youth Venture through the The Boston Area Health Education Center.

“People keep on saying, ‘Children are the future or youth are the future,’” she said. “But they forget to add youth and children into the present.”

“My goals are no longer to just to be doctor, but a pediatrician who has a public health degree,” she said. “[I want] to help other youth in my community get their ideas out there, to do what they feel will benefit the world that we live in.”

The Youth Opportunity Fund is part of the Citi Foundation’s Pathways to Progress initiative focused on preparing young people to thrive in today’s economy. In 2014, the Citi Foundation made a three-year, $50 million commitment to boost the career readiness of 100,000 low-income youth in 10 cities across the United States.


Learn more about other Youth Opportunity Fund grantees, including City Service Corps, Per Scholas, and the Urban Alliance.