Note: This interview is part of a collection of articles about social innovation changing the face of Boston and is a build up to Tech Gives Back 2012.  Join us on 9/21 from 5-10pm at the Estate to meet Youth CITIES and vote for them using TUGG’s open source philanthropy model.

Tell me the story of why Youth CITIES (Creating Impact Through Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Sustainability) came to be:

It’s hard for me to imagine that I’d be anything but an entrepreneur.  However, entrepreneurship is not usually something you just stumble across in school.  It’s not a subject you can (usually) take, nor is it a club you can join (at least not in my school).  Raised in a very fiscally conservative family culture, I envisioned myself working for a large corporation that offered a great 401k program, with a corner office and mahogany desk.  I had no idea what entrepreneurship was about.  It was only through a winding road of career exploration in my early 20’s that I finally realized I was happiest in the midst of startup chaos.

However, mentoring and other startup resources were not as prevalent 15 years ago as they are today, so I learned on the go, read a ton of reference books and magazines, and built my network from scratch.  I also created my own “mentors”; if I admired someone’s career path, I’d find a way to get to know them and hopefully impress them enough so they’d take time out of their busy day to give me advice.  I was very fortunate that many incredible folks took me under their wing and have become dear friends.  But for the most part, I learned the ropes through trial by fire.  And since I started my first company during the dotcom bubble burst, there was a lot of fire.  When I finally got on my feet, I knew I wanted to help other budding entrepreneurs.

The idea of Youth CITIES didn’t come into play until after another realization – I was able to use my entrepreneurial background to start a venture that helped orphans. At one point in my life, I almost considered going back to school to become a social worker.  I was torn, because I also loved the technology startup world.  Did I want to make a career change, or wait until my retirement phase and go work at an orphanage?  But I didn’t have to wait 4 decades to help orphans…and I could be in Boston…leveraging my existing skill set to benefit a cause that I cared deeply about.

These two combined experienced inspired me to create Youth CITIES…to plant a seed among teens to be entrepreneurial and philanthropic… because anyone can be entrepreneurial and philanthropic without losing her individuality.  Youth CITIES explores how she can monetize those efforts to sustain these goodwill efforts.

What have been your core findings from your work?

During my first year of Youth CITIES, a young lady told me that she had big plans for her future, but that her friends and family questioned her plans, saying that even if she did have big ideas, who would listen to her?  We did. She was surprised when she met the vast network Youth CITIES offered and had successful not only listen to her but also take action to help her out.  It almost seemed like it was the first time grown-ups listened to her, believed in her, and inspired her.  It wasn’t that her family and friends didn’t care about her…it was just a different frame of mind.

In the mixed socio-economic group of teens, almost every one of them loves building their voice, creating a business idea, being heard and respected by successful entrepreneurs, collaborating yet competing against their peers, and having real-life context to learn in… all the while knowing that they are in a safe and respectful environment.  And despite the intensity of the program, the majority of the kids work hard, take great pride in their work, and often continue to work on their venture after bootcamp ends.

In addition, the mixing of groups fostered some very interesting discussion and friendships that might otherwise not have happened.  I have found that the tech entrepreneur community is inspired by the youth, just as much as they inspire the youth.  It’s great to see this virtuous cycle come into play.

Lastly, I am most proud of finding that the teens who go through the Youth CITIES program continue to be entrepreneurial.  Some re-take the bootcamp, some continue to work on their venture idea, and some create new business ideas.

In what ways has the technology sector helped you grow?

In our flagship March-to-May bootcamp, 95% of the teachers, mentors, and judges in the program are from the tech entrepreneurial community.  For Youth CITIES, the entire success and growth of the program has come from the technology sector.

Where is Youth CITIES heading and why?

Youth CITIES is now expanding from its flagship bootcamp to several different types of programs for two reasons:

  1. different people have different personality types, and their inner entrepreneur may be awakened by different programming.  From my experience as a mentor through MIT’s Venture Mentor Services, I met many people who started off as “tinkerers”.  They are product builders who stumble onto something great, and wonder whether other people would like it too… how much would they pay for it, and whether there’s a business behind their product/invention.  We’ll be launching Tech Tinkering Tracks to attract teens that like to tinker with technology and maybe be inspired by entrepreneurship later.
  2. the flagship bootcamp is a 10-week intensive program.  Through our newly launched Monthly Mini-Hack sessions, I wanted to create opportunities for those intrigued by innovative and entrepreneurial problem-solving, public speaking, and networking (important aspects of entrepreneurship), but may not be ready to commit for a full 10 weeks.  This will allow us to reach and inspire as many teens as possible.

What are you most looking forward to about Tech Gives Back’s Social Innovation Bash on 9/21?

I am excited to share the exciting new programs Youth CITIES is offering.  Youth CITIES’ flagship March-to-May bootcamp is growing, so I’m looking for more mentors to help.  We are launching a Virtual Incubator to help students continue working on their venture even after they “graduate” from the bootcamp, so I am looking for entrepreneurs and technologists to make that offering more robust.