The art of running a company is usually mastered on the fly by entrepreneurs who’ve cut their teeth in the workforce. But on Chicago’s north side, three groups of teenagers are managing their own high-tech businesses. The Rogers Park Webcreators — 16 students who speak 10 different languages between them — have taken on real-world clients, learned to use design tools and built professional websites. And they’ve earned money doing it.
It’s all part of a program created by Chicago nonprofit Lumity. The 32-year-old organization’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Career Readiness Program spearheads a variety of initiatives for at-risk youth in the Chicago area. For the Rogers Park Webcreators, Lumity created a seven-hour-a-week program that paid students $10/hour to build websites for local clients.
“It was key to get some funders for the program so we could pay the students. We wanted it to be a real job, not just an after-school club,” says Lumity’s Director of Career Readiness Jack Stonebraker. “This was the first job for most of these kids. Only two had ever worked anywhere before. Now, when they get their next jobs, they’ll be in a better position to go in the first day and start work.”
The main funders are global professional services company Accenture and the Chicagoland Workforce Collaborator Funder Alliance. On a recent Saturday morning Accenture hosted an event for the Webcreators in its downtown Chicago office. The three groups of students presented their work to a panel of judges and an interested audience, with one group declared the winner. Picking the winning group was no easy matter, says Chris Johnston, a managing director at Accenture. “Because all the students were working at such a high level, it was hard to pin down areas of difference.
We didn’t just look at what they did — the mechanics and the process they followed. We looked at the richness of the story they told and how their solution was really helping the client,” he says.
Besides assisting to fund the program, Accenture also provided volunteers to work with the students, as did Slalom Consulting and Tableau Software. By bringing these companies into the project, Lumity gave the Rogers Park students access to the resources and guidance that let them function as true professionals. Between two and four volunteers helped out at every session.
“We had several volunteers who were real rock stars — showed up darn near every Saturday,” says Stonebraker.
One hardworking volunteer was Tableau’s Regional Director Eric Sanders. He says the most rewarding part of the job was seeing the students’ surprisingly complex pattern of growth.
“They clearly matured in their ability to communicate with each other, work as a team and be resilient in the face of the inevitable bumps in the road,” he says. “There wasn’t one magic turning point like you’d see in a movie, but there was constant, gradual change. They dealt with clients’ expectations, the technical capabilities of the sites and their ability to do the work. They didn’t get worked up, they didn’t get overly excited. They just figured out what they could do to deliver what was needed on time.”
With the volunteers’ help, the students learned the nuts and bolts of the WordPress web platform even as they met with clients and shaped the design of their sites. Just like adults in the same business, they generated project plans, schematics and timelines for deliverables. For senior Patrice Torres, 17, the hardest part was learning to exert her authority as her team’s project manager.
“I don’t like telling people what to do,” she says. “I had to get used to that. I improved my skills in managing. It’s the first time I’ve done any web design, and I really like it. I’m planning to major in biology, but now I might minor in computer science.”
How successful, ultimately, were the Webcreators? The proof, as for any business, lies with the client. And these students’ clients are more than satisfied.
“I feel like my money is doing double duty. I’m getting the service I need — my web site — and I’m also investing in a community I care about,” says Matthew Bruce, Executive Director of the Chicagoland Workforce Funder Alliance. “It’s been rewarding for me to help a team of young adults learn not only new technical skills, but also business acumen.”
Another of the students’ clients comes from a different part of the business landscape. Nadine Williams runs Pet Portraiture, which creates artistic portraits of people’s pets and prints them on diverse products.
“This was such a great experience. We had a lot of fun and laughed a lot,” she says. “I keep playing with the site on my phone. What they’re learning, I learned on the job.”