Cream of the crop: summer sessions give top teens a peek at business careers.. - Leadership Education and Development Program in Business Inc. LEAD - career programs
A high school experience 20 years ago changed Gail Covington's life. In 1983, when Covington was a high school junior in Oakland, Calif., she was singled out to participate in the Leadership Education and Development Program in Business Inc. (LEAD). Later that year, she attended LEAD's Summer Business Institute (SBI) at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.
"It was a very high-caliber, very well-put-together program that was focused on exposing students to a modified business curriculum, equivalent to college course work [with] a very robust set of speakers ... an introduction to everything from finance to operations to general management," Covington says. "To be part of a university environment, live in a dorm with 25 other students, was very, very rewarding." Covington went on to graduate from Williams College in Boston in 1988 and later earned a graduate degree from Harvard Business School. Today she's vice president of Goldman Sachs' investment management division in the San Francisco Bay area.
LEAD, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization, is a partnership between business and academe. It targets black, Hispanic, Asian and American Indian applicants who have at least a B average and top standardized test scores, as well as demonstrated leadership ability and involvement in schools and communities.
LEAD has been an eye-opener for many of the 6,600 students who have experienced the program. Giving young people the opportunity to meet successful professionals is transforming, Covington says.
The summer sessions introduce students to potential business careers and the education they'll need to get there--information that many would not have been exposed to otherwise. Corporations that help fund the program also benefit: They have access to a pool of superior students whose education, talent and background make them a recruiter's dream.
LEAD pays the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SATs, to point out top minority students who might qualify for the SBI--a monthlong session at one of 11 top business schools.
LEAD also locates candidates through high school administrators and its alumni base. The organization screens thousands of potential students every year for 375 slots nationwide.
The screening process, overseen by LEAD representatives and independent college admission professionals, includes a composite score based on class rank and standardized test scores. Prospective candidates must write two essays, one recommending how to solve a business problem and the other outlining what the student hopes to gain from the program. Students must also submit academic and personal letters of recommendation.
The program attracts the attention of parents and guardians who "know what an exposure of four weeks on the campus of a business school is going to do for their child who is a very bright seed, but has not been around other bright seeds," says LEAD president Richard Ramsey.
Each summer session, including student transportation, costs about $120,000 per school, split evenly between the host school--which also covers room and board--and corporate partners. Starting in 2004, scholars each will pay $750 tuition, but grants are available to those in need.
LEAD scholars participate in interactive classes taught by university professors and visiting business executives covering a variety of disciplines, such as marketing, accounting, finance, economics, computer science, ethics and entrepreneurship.
The students analyze business case studies and visit nearby Fortune 100 companies and meet with executives. But most importantly, perhaps, the students interact with other exceptional minority students--some for the first time in their lives.
Network for Success
LEAD was born at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in 1980 as a cooperative program between Johnson & Johnson executives and Wharton professors. Both the executives and the professors felt that top minority students were giving business careers short shrift in favor of higher-profile jobs in medicine and law.
Most LEAD alumni--65 percent--eventually choose business careers.
One element of the program's success is that the SBI experience gives promising students a chance to see life from a different perspective.
"The first thing that it did was introduce me to the idea of becoming a businessperson," recalls Luis Ubinas, a director with McKinsey & Co. in the San Francisco Bay area who was in the first LEAD class at Wharton in 1980. "This was before Kellogg was run by an Hispanic; before Coca-Cola was led to incredible greatness by someone Hispanic; before there were numbers of Hispanic directors at investment banks and consulting firms. There wasn't the same level of tangible public role model available in business."
Even though he was attending the academically advanced Collegiate School for Boys in New York City, Ubinas' tough South Bronx home neighborhood wasn't breeding opportunities and role models.
"If you're growing up in the South Bronx, you don't have that personal network, and you certainly don't have that family network," he says. LEAD helps minority students develop a network of friends and future colleagues that would probably not be available in their neighborhoods, Ubinas says.
As the program has matured, that network has grown with it.
"By the time my children are looking for jobs in business--assuming they go that route--they'll have an extensive network made up of their peers who they have met over the years and also my peers who will watch out over them and show them kindness," he says.
Not every kid needs that kind of help. Michael Peggs of Montgomery Township, near Philadelphia, attends an exclusive school and has a professional role model in his father, Michael Sr., an ophthalmologist.
Peggs entered the program last summer "with the assumption that business was for me, because that's what my dad told me that I should do," he says.
The SBI at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor confirmed that. At the same time, the collegial atmosphere gave him a chance to interact with other smart kids.
"It's an almost magical experience where they see people who are just like them," says LEAD's Ramsey. "Many times they are picked on [in school] because they are so bright. That happens in the minority community."
Even Peggs, who, as a professional actor and high school track athlete has had the opportunity to meet a variety of people, was dazzled by his LEAD colleagues.
"It was the first time I was around minority students like myself who went to the top private schools ... and had a solid base behind them," he says. "We had a lot of philosophical debates [about] affirmative action, interracial dating. It was the first time there were people I could relate to on so many different levels."
Boon for Employers
The prospect of someday hiring one of these youngsters is the attraction for corporate sponsors, who contribute $10,000 to $125,000 per year to support the LEAD program.
LEAD alumni are "a very bright, articulate group of candidates," says Truman Bell, education program officer for ExxonMobil Foundation, a LEAD contributor that helps sponsor the SBI at the University of Texas-Austin McCombs School of Business.
LEAD scholars choose majors in every field from accounting to psychology. Among last year's class, the No. 1 major was engineering, with 13 percent of scholars choosing that field. That fit smoothly into ExxonMobil's plans to hire engineers who also understand business.
"These kids have been exposed a little bit to what the field is about, then they've made a conscious decision that they want to major in that field. That's very healthy in developing your career," Bell says.
"You have a lot of students who are in colleges and universities who don't know what to major in, are still searching about what career they want to go into," Bell says. "There are some students who, even on the day they graduate, still have no idea what they're going to do in life and they're still searching. LEAD helps provide that information and helps a person make a career decision."
Keeping in Touch
LEAD's database of more than 6,600 alumni is the program's jewel, says Jeanne Smith, recruiting manager and corporate liaison for LEAD at General Mills in Minneapolis. Liaisons serve as primary corporate contacts, and they provide job opportunities and internships for LEAD alumni.
The database contains a wealth of information about alumni, including their current status in school or the workforce, contact information and up-to-date resumes.
"This is not available to everyone," Smith says, noting that only sponsors and alumni have access to the database via LEAD's web site, www.leadnational.org. "I can have all the names every summer of all the students that attended one of the programs."