The Greenwood Project introduces talented students to a world of career possibilities

You might not think that the financial services sector is a place that urgently needs #Firestarters. But consider this quote from McKinsey, the world’s largest management consulting firm:

Representation in financial services is especially effective for achieving equity, since the sector has control over capital and assets that yield outsize power and influence over markets, the business landscape, and entrepreneurship. Therefore, companies have significant work left to do to ensure people of color will have an equal opportunity to be successful in the workplace.

Just how “significant” is this work? Here’s just one example: Just 4% of all certified financial planners in the U.S. are Black or Hispanic; compared with 30% of the total population of our country.

Clearly, something needs to change. And Chicago-based #Firestarters and financial professionals Elois and Bevon Joseph are driving that change with The Greenwood Project. This innovative nonprofit introduces diverse students to careers in financial services and partners with companies to improve their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. I caught up with Elois to talk about how she and her husband saw a need and found a way to make a real difference.

The inspiration for The Greenwood Project was born soon after Elois and Bevon’s daughter was. “We were talking about the opportunities that she was going to have because of our network,” Elois says. But as they talked about the doors that would be open for her daughter, they also knew that those same doors would be closed to many other gifted young people of color who lacked access to the same kind of network.

The Josephs tried to think of a way they could address this inequity. So they approached companies where their friends worked about bringing in some talented students to introduce them to the financial industry.

From there, momentum just kept building. They took students on field trips to locations such as the floor of the Chicago Board Options Exchange. “And then it snowballed into career exploration,” Elois says. “We were just doing something that we thought was needed.”

Removing Barriers to Success

Today, the Greenwood Project provides educational programs for high school and college students, and internships for college students. Elois’ own life experiences help her understand what these students need for success.

Elois grew up on the west side of Chicago, “an under-resourced community.” Because she wasn’t around professionals like traders or compliance officers, she didn’t know such jobs were a possibility for her own life.

When she started pursuing her own career in finance, she faced obstacles every time she went to a job interview. Sometimes she had to skip a meal to afford a bus pass. The Josephs wanted to make sure things were different for students in The Greenwood Project. That’s why the internships and training opportunities are paid. It’s also why the organization provides breakfast for students and helps them with transportation and professional attire.

“Every challenge that I had experienced, I wanted to remove that so that the students could just show up and be their best,” Elois says.

And that’s exactly what they’re doing. Greenwood Project students get to explore a whole new range of possibilities for their lives. They meet people who tell them “you can do what I do” and — perhaps more importantly — “this is how you can do what I do.”

Helping Companies Diversify

As The Greenwood Project changes students, it’s also teaching companies how to improve their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. After George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police in 2020 ignited a new push for racial justice in the U.S., the Josephs heard from more companies that wanted to get involved with their work.

From The Greenwood Project, companies are discovering opportunities to change the way they recruit. “They go to the popular schools, but they tend to forget about the small schools,” Elois says. “They forget about the HBCUs. They miss out on so much more talent.”

Elois gives another example. Some firms automatically filter out resumes if the job candidate has a GPA even slightly below their requirements — a 3.5, say, instead of a 3.7. “But a high-achieving student from a low-income community may not have a 3.7 GPA because maybe they have a full-time job supporting their family,” she points out. “Do you know how hard a student like that is going to work for you if you give them a chance? Can you imagine the level of dedication that you would get from a student who had to work that hard at such an early age?”

Be Part of the Greenwood Project’s Movement

Students ages 18 to 24 from anywhere in the U.S. can apply for the Greenwood Project’s College Internship program during their freshman, sophomore, junior or senior year. Preference is given to diverse students from underserved backgrounds. The program includes both paid training and a paid six-week internship with one of Greenwood Project’s partner companies. High school juniors or seniors in the Chicago area can apply for the FinTech Program or Financial Institute. Both of these training opportunities are paid.

Not a student yourself? Share the Greenwood Project’s website with the talented and diverse students in your life, and spread the organization’s mission on social media. You can also donate to support the Josephs’ work, or volunteer in person or virtually. Volunteers work with Greenwood Project in a variety of ways, such as talking with students about their careers, mentoring, teaching, assisting with mock interviews, reviewing resumes, judging pitch competitions and fundraising.

Did this story inspire you to start your own movement? As you might expect, Elois reminds you to consider how to pay for everything you want to accomplish. “Funding is important, whether it’s personal funding, whether it’s investors, whether it’s people who believe in your mission,” she says.

One thing that you’ll spend that money on is creating a professional presence to build confidence in your movement. “You have to look the part,” Elois says. “Your website has to look the part. And I’m not saying you have to go out and spend a million dollars on the website, but you have to represent yourself and follow up and follow through. Use LinkedIn, use social media. Build yourself up, talk to people, share your content, and share success stories and testimonials.”

None of this is as expensive as it might sound, she adds. “A good dictionary, a good photo and a $19-a -month website will get you far.”

Besides people willing to invest money and time in your movement, you also need persistence, Elois says. “There were so many times we heard the word ‘no.’” But they kept moving forward. And you can, too.

Having a support system will make it easier to stay persistent. Elois’s final recommendation to aspiring #Firestarters is to remember to keep nurturing your family life (whatever that means for you) as you build your movement

And, for all #MovementMakers, my book “Find Your Fire: Stories and Strategies to Inspire the Changemaker Inside You” is essential reading. In it, you’ll find the stories of more world-changing women like Elois, and I share the strategies I’ve honed over many years as a lobbyist, social impact strategist, speaker and a #Firestarter to my core.

With Faith & Fortitude,

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