Removing Barriers: Brandon Nicholson Explains How the Hidden Genius Project Expands Opportunities for Black Male Youth

Audio Description

Hidden Genius Project CEO Brandon Nicholson on training the next generation of leaders and entrepreneurs.


This transcript has been generated by an A.I. tool. Please excuse any typos.

Stacie Jacobsen: [00:00:00] Thanks for joining us today on the Pulse by Bernstein, where we cover all the complexities of wealth management. I'm your host, Stacie Jacobsen.

Today we'll hear from someone who embodies [00:00:15] a spirit of community leadership. In my 20 plus years here at Bernstein, I've had the opportunity to hear from some of our clients about what's most important to them.

And their main focus is often how to find purpose and then direct the resources to the areas that are [00:00:30] most meaningful to them.

I'm joined by Maci Philitas, Vice President and Emerging Wealth Strategist at Bernstein, who, along with our colleague James Seth Thompson, recently spoke with Brandon Nicholson, the CEO of a nonprofit that's training the next generation of leaders and [00:00:45] entrepreneurs. Maci, welcome.

Maci Philitas: Thanks for having me, Stacie. Glad to be here.

Stacie Jacobsen: So you and James, who's Bernstein's Head of Diverse and Multicultural Wealth Segments, had the opportunity to interview Brandon. Can you give us some background?

Maci Philitas: Sure, Stacie. [00:01:00] The Hidden Genius Project provides mentorship and training for high school aged black boys in technology and entrepreneurship.

They started with the goal of reducing the high unemployment rate for young black men by creating a pathway to career opportunities in the tech sector.

So, As we [00:01:15] all know, companies gain clear benefits from having a more diverse workforce. So the Hidden Genius Project aims to build a stronger economy by investing in future talent and feeding that pipeline.

Stacie Jacobsen: Right, and that's really important as recent studies have shown that [00:01:30] companies with greater diversity are not only more innovative, but they also perform better financially. So what led Brandon into this work?

Maci Philitas: Well, I would say that Brandon came into this work fairly naturally. Um, he has a PhD in educational policy [00:01:45] and he's done.

Extensive research on the intersection of education and workforce development.

So as a CEO of The Hidden Genius Project, he's been instrumental in expanding opportunities for boys who otherwise might not have access to the kinds of [00:02:00] resources and connections the organization provides.

Stacie Jacobsen: Alright, I think our listeners will appreciate having the chance to learn more about the work at The Hidden Genius Project.

So with that, let's take a listen to the interview.

James Seth Thompson: In the early years of your career, you [00:02:15] recognized that there was this potential for technology to bolster the economy as black populations gain more equitable access to growth sectors.

You've been a part of the Hidden Genius Project since its inception in 2012, and over the [00:02:30] last 11 years, you've grown into a national organization with thousands of students revealing their genius through your intensive immersion and catalyst programs.

One of the first questions I want to ask is, can you just share a little bit about the [00:02:45] Hidden Genius Project's ultimate vision?

Brandon Nicholson: Yeah, absolutely. Well, you know, it was a labor of love and a collective effort to found the Hidden Genius Project.

It actually really began with a couple buddies of mine from [00:03:00] a scholarship program, the Ron Brown Scholar Program.

Uh, we were all alumni of that program. It was named in honor of the late Secretary of Commerce, Ronald H. Brown, and it was scholarship intended for young people of African descent [00:03:15] entering undergraduate, uh, to be able to, you know, access significant resources and, of course, build a lifelong network for social change, you know, through this cohort based model.

And so in that respect, uh, you know, we're in many ways, the [00:03:30] byproduct of that effort, uh, connected with Jason Young and Ty Moore, uh, who are both in the program, both attended Harvard University.

And they eventually, after finishing at Harvard and doing some other things, came out to Oakland to build a business together.

I'd say participating in a bit [00:03:45] of the technology gold rush and through that process realized that there are many young people here, including many black young men who had a great deal of potential, who had facility with technology interests, any number of things, but may not [00:04:00] have access to the networks and some of the skill sets so that they could be build their own or build the, all the solutions that their community would be, you know, craving and, you know, wouldn't necessarily have all the resources to be able to turn that into [00:04:15] livelihood, if not thrive, gleehood, you know, for, uh, themselves and their families and their communities going forward.

And so we've launched as a volunteer driven organization, um, with this core group of five founders, not including myself, uh, but five gentlemen who [00:04:30] were committed to actually doing the instruction.

And developing curriculum and finding ways to support these young men.

James Seth Thompson: So who are these boys and what skills does your program specifically hone in on?

Brandon Nicholson: Yes, that's right. Thank you. So our [00:04:45] organization, I should probably let you know what we do. We train and mentor black male youth and technology creation, entrepreneurship. and leadership skills to transform their lives and communities.

Uh, we're now 11 years old, founded in 2012 in Oakland, California. And as you [00:05:00] mentioned, James, we're operating nationally in Oakland, Richmond, California, Los Angeles, Detroit, Atlanta, and Chicago.

Our core program is an intensive cohort based program.

Uh, geared primarily towards young people of high school [00:05:15] age, bringing them together for, you know, minimum of 15 months, usually roughly 800 hours of programming, um, technology, development, uh, entrepreneurship, and then, uh, leadership and holistic youth development work, and these young men are coming from [00:05:30] across backgrounds, across communities, identifying as black males.

You know, some of them are going to be, you know, perhaps the first generation to go into college.

Some of them are coming from really strong two parent households. Some of them come from families with [00:05:45] a history of educational access.

Some of them are coming from, you know, limited means, and they're coming together to build together.

To learn from each other, to share with each other, uh, to advance together. And so we have young men coming from, you know, all over every [00:06:00] region we're in.

And we're trying to draw from as many different communities as possible and, uh, keep building and extending our reach however we can.

James Seth Thompson: And when we think about the intensive immersion and these catalyst programs. Could you paint a picture of what that [00:06:15] looks like for these young boys?

Brandon Nicholson: Absolutely. So, they'll start and end their experience if they're selected to a cohort in the summertime. So, they'll start with an incoming cohort in their first summer and then [00:06:30] continue during the school year.

So, the summers, you know, are... seven weeks, Monday through Friday, nearly eight hours a day. And then during the school year, we convene once a week after school, one Saturday a month, and then they can come in for additional time, office hours, [00:06:45] extra support, etc. We then come back for a second summer.

That's usually when they're developing their capstone project, starting to, uh, build towards their interests, really connect content we're teaching with some of their larger goals.[00:07:00]

Um, and then from there, they can then enter our alumni status and work, uh, teaching with us. They can jump in as... Mentors, uh, not just to incoming geniuses, but other young people in the community as [00:07:15] we develop a number of community partnerships.

So we've seen, you know, roughly 500 plus young men come through and we're basically serving a record numbers of young people every year.

James Seth Thompson: You know, one of the things I'll just share that I [00:07:30] really appreciate was the intentionality of the program to connect these boys, these young men.

And exposing them to sustainable careers in technology and STEM related fields, but [00:07:45] also to connect them with mentors as well, right?

People who are committed to hold their hands, to be a resource to them, because it's not always about putting the young man in the program.

It's [00:08:00] about. Ensuring that they have the resources right to navigate their way through that, plus all of the things that are really impacting their lives, right?

The differences in the challenges that home and community and school may provide. This [00:08:15] program actually also provides an outlet with, with a high level of positivity.

So kudos to the work that you guys are leading.

Brandon Nicholson: I certainly appreciate that. I think that also speaks to why it's important for us to serve heterogeneous cohorts. I think sometimes we have a very, [00:08:30] uh, you know, surface level understanding of the nature of, uh, the challenges you know, young people may face in the world and young people really across backgrounds, across circumstance, you know, not just black boys and young men.

But when you look at our young [00:08:45] people, you know, life is going to be challenging for all of us at any point in time.

And so we need support. We need networks. We need people who believe in us. You know, you may be, again, you know, fourth generation college student or in a family, you know, where you'll [00:09:00] soon be the fourth generation college student and you may find yourself.

Just feeling, you know, uncomfortable or looking for a sense of purpose.

You have young people who are attending, you know, prep schools, uh, and they're full pay at [00:09:15] these, you know, very prestigious and expensive prep schools, but in some instances they're also the only one. Uh, so they're dealing with isolation there.

Uh, you've got young people who are going to schools with far fewer resources.

They've got a great deal of desire [00:09:30] and potential, uh, to be great and to excel, but just the, you know, opportunities aren't there and, and they're trying to figure it out, but they've got a great home structure and, and they're, uh, you know, able to forebear.

And at the same time, you know, [00:09:45] forbearance can only get you so much at some point you need actual, you know, concrete supports. So

Maci Philitas: I know that given, uh, Access that the organization provides to technology and training and, you know, the ecosystem of innovation that, you [00:10:00] know, it's easy to assume that that's what the Hidden Genius Project is all about.

So can you double click on some of the areas in which your organization supports the boys and the intentional ways that you guys are investing and pouring into their [00:10:15] lives?

Brandon Nicholson: Absolutely. Um, you know, we're trying to reach each young person wherever they are.

And identify what their needs are, what their goals are, you know, where they feel they need support, or they may not even know they need support, you know, and, and, and what can we do to try [00:10:30] and remove barriers from in front of them.

And so that's going to have a significant range in terms of, you know, our inputs, you know, in some instances, it's going to be a little bit more on the nose, you know, and we'll find ourselves.

You know, authorizing [00:10:45] dollars to help someone make ends meet with, you know, with a bill that month or, you know, make sure they have a winter coat.

In some instances, it's going to mean referring someone to therapy and counseling services. It's also going to mean just providing space for young people [00:11:00] to come and be around us and be in community because sometimes you just really need that so they can feel comfortable or safe.

It's also about trying to identify, uh, where young people may need advocacy.

And so, uh, we're always just trying [00:11:15] to find how we can show up and understand that each person has their own situation. I think sometimes there's a pitfall that people can expect that.

When we're talking about being holistic or serving the whole genius, that is about really engaging with... [00:11:30] Those were quote unquote at risk or low income or what have you and kind of leaning on these pejorative and deficit based concepts.

But fundamentally we understand that everybody needs support. Everybody needs help. Everybody needs something. None of us gets there alone.

We've also continued to [00:11:45] invest in our alumni engagement work. Uh, to make sure that as our young people come through the program, we can support them to get through high school graduation and then, you know, be able to, uh, get to the next step, be that, you know, post secondary college enrollment [00:12:00] or, uh, anything else, employment, internship, entrepreneurship.

And just make sure they have what they need to have opportunities to try different things.

And I think hopefully in some instances, I mean, you mentioned boys, uh, and, and yeah, I think in some instances, you know, having some space at [00:12:15] times to just be boys and, and not in a, you know, quintessential boys will be boys, but we're just like to be a child.

You know, we, we see data in research studies that actually, uh, reveal that, uh, Black boys, I believe it was [00:12:30] after age six, for sure, by age eight, you start adding, you actually add on, in terms of their perception, two years to their actual age, you know, so like an eight year old will look ten, a ten year old will look twelve, in people's minds, right, [00:12:45] typically.

Outside of that community, right?

So you have this acceleration into adulthood or young adulthood or this sometimes stripping of young people's childhood.

So we do want to create space as part of supporting them for them to be silly, [00:13:00] make some mistakes, bounce back from those and move forward. So that's definitely all part of it.

Yeah, you know, I think with the perception of a young male who's two or three years older than he actually is.

There are some fortunate and [00:13:15] unfortunate expectations and assumptions that are also made that really impact how society engages them and how they're expected to perform in certain places and areas.

So, Brandon, you have a new center in Oakland called the [00:13:30] Ubuntu Center. Can you just share briefly what that means, Ubuntu, and what does this new space allow

Brandon Nicholson: you to do? Yes. So, uh, end of September of 2021, we acquired our, what's now our national headquarters in [00:13:45] downtown Oakland and, you know, very fortunate with a number of supporters to be able to acquire this space and have several thousand square feet and enough to host and facilitate space for partners’ leases

 [00:14:00] and memberships and co working and all these things, um, but also very fortunate to have space to participate in the Best Buy Teen Tech Center program in partnership with Best Buy and the Clubhouse Network and Salesforce, one of the significant partners for [00:14:15] this project.

And that, you know, allowed us to build this center, this space, uh, for young people to be able to drop in and engage in.

different media, creative opportunities, technology, recording studio, video equipment, audio equipment, [00:14:30] animation, 3D printing, laser engraving, et cetera.

And as we were negotiating the project, you know, we did advocate, you know, we'd be able to call it the Ubuntu center, make sure we could capture the spirit of this term loosely translated as I am because we [00:14:45] are, therefore we are, because I am.

And also, uh, a term or a concept that reminds us that our fates are truly intertwined and linked, that our success is intertwined, that we need to lift as we climb, and [00:15:00] also continue to keep climbing and follow the examples of those before us.

And so, you know, having this community, this space in the center, we wanted to really, uh, convey that same community message, that that's a space for young people.

I have whatever [00:15:15] background, not just black male youth, to be able to come in to explore, be themselves, have fun, and hopefully build alongside the community.

Maci Philitas: So can you tell us a little bit about why the Hidden Genius Project has decided to focus on the hidden genius of [00:15:30] boys instead of expanding the scope to girls as well?

Brandon Nicholson: Sure, absolutely. I think first and foremost, we fundamentally believe in the genius of everyone, not the least of which is our boys and young men.

We [00:15:45] believe that everyone should have access to opportunity. We believe that everyone should be able to learn these same skills and access these same networks.

You know, many people can have this, sometimes visceral reaction to the concept that perhaps we're raising another [00:16:00] generation of tech pros, and you know, the Silicon Valley needs more women and non binary people of different backgrounds, so this is exacerbating the challenge or the problem.

And, you know, that typically comes from people who don't fully understand our mission, the [00:16:15] core of which is to be able to engage our young men to develop them holistically.

We're actually not a farm system or a workforce solution for Silicon Valley or any tech. Sectors or industries.

Now we can [00:16:30] ultimately have the fruits of our work support those solutions, but we didn't start this program to try and make sure we can move the numbers for company X or fortune 100 enterprise.

Why? You know, we started this program to [00:16:45] make sure young people can achieve their dreams.

We want to be able to focus our energies and respond to the calls of speak for this particular group that often doesn't get to spend much time learning.

And, you know, this way, with, from, and [00:17:00] around, uh, people that look like them, and people that look like us, like our mentors, like our educators.

They don't often find themselves at the center of the class photo, for better or for worse, even in some of the best situations and around folks with the best of [00:17:15] intentions, so.

You know, if everyone in our class photos at the center in the symbolic sense, that's important. We do believe that a rising tide lifts all boats.

We know that as we continue to do our work, it only benefits our community more broadly. We see [00:17:30] our young people show up and lead in their communities.

We see them show up with a great deal of pride. And, you know, we try and support them and encourage them and mentor them to be tremendous allies, tremendous brothers and [00:17:45] partners.

We fundamentally believe that if they keep doing this, that everyone stands to benefit. We see it every day. We should all go together. For those

James Seth Thompson: who are inspired by the vision of [00:18:00] the Hidden Genius Project, what's the one way people can get involved? And then what is one call to action you have for our listeners?

Brandon Nicholson: Thank you for the question, James. I [00:18:15] appreciate your support. You know, we continue to build and grow. Uh, we just continue to and more communities and people in those communities that believe in us.

We are growing every day.

You know, we've got six sites [00:18:30] and Our strategic plan says, you know, maybe we can get to 10 sites by the end of 2025.

So just plugging away at that. And so if, uh, people are listening, you know, certainly first and foremost, they can check out our website, hidden genius project.

org. Subscribe to [00:18:45] our newsletter, follow us on Instagram and Twitter. at Hidden Genius Pro. We're on Facebook and LinkedIn.

We are on TikTok as well and possibly even Snap if that's your thing, look out for us. But you know, there are certainly kind of the obvious folks [00:19:00] can donate as they like or check out the Get Involved link on our site.

to see if there's any volunteer opportunities that pop up.

But also if you're in a place and you believe, you know, we should be there or in a place where we already are and you believe we should know more people and [00:19:15] where there are people who should know about us.

People who care deeply about the well being of our young people.

People care deeply about the access to opportunity, but also the access to equitable experiences and wellness. And the opportunities to thrive.

If [00:19:30] you can connect with people who are invested in all of that and encourage them to connect with us, or if that's you, then tap in, give us a call, give us an email, we're building all the time.

So everything we needed on day one is still what we need today. Cause I think we're always.

You know, we're building the next thing or [00:19:45] the next site or whatever it is, but there's always a ground floor somewhere. And so just stay close and whatever is your superpower, whatever is your area of, uh, expertise or excess or abundance or whatever it is, if you love where we're headed, then [00:20:00] let's connect with that.

James Seth Thompson: Thanks for sharing, uh, everything you're doing. And certainly thanks for positioning the great work of the Hidden Genius Project. Thanks, Brandon.

Brandon Nicholson: Thank you for the opportunity. I really appreciate you both.

Stacie Jacobsen: Macy, thank you once again for joining [00:20:15] us today. It was really great to have you here and to give our listeners a chance to learn more about the Hidden

Maci Philitas: Genius Project.

Thank you, Stacie.

Stacie Jacobsen: That’s all for this week on The Pulse. Thanks again for listening and please remember to like, share, and subscribe. We'll be back in two weeks with [00:20:30] another episode, so don't forget to tune in.

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