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BUILDing Would-be Dropouts into Entrepreneurs

California program comes to Charlestown, aims to transform low-achievers.

Late on a Wednesday morning, Suzanne McKechnie Klahr entered a Charlestown High School classroom to meet a group of students benefitting from a four-year education program that she pioneered.

The California entrepreneur founded BUILD (Businesses United in Investing, Lending and Development) 13 years ago as a way to help underperforming students succeed. The program teaches entrepreneurship to keep youths engaged who might otherwise drop out of school, and instead, consistently sends them to college.

The multi-million dollar program engages students by asking them first to come up with a product, then to seek investors, and, ultimately, to run a real business.

“This is definitely your chance to really be able to do something incredible,” McKechnie Klahr told the Charlestown students. “If you stick with us, you will be able to go to college, and you will be able to start a business.”

College

That message resonated with Chrisangel Espinoza, a freshman who lives in a Charlestown housing development. He said that he wants to be the first member of his family to attend college (Georgetown, if possible), and ultimately would like to become a business lawyer. On the way to that goal, he said, the BUILD program helps him stay focused on school.

And he may need that focus. Teacher, Edson Cardoso, said Espinoza suffered low test scores in middle school.

“We’re trying to get Chris to become an honor roll student instead of a C or a D or a D-minus student,” Cardoso said. “In terms of passing, kids think D-minus or Ds are great, but we’re trying to get them to think about Bs and As.”

Values

On the way to that goal, the program aims to instill the values of responsibility, respect and business thinking.

At one recent after school session, the students learned the concept of “cost of goods sold,” through a common snack. Cardoso gave students all the components of a s’more and tasked them with calculating what the materials would cost for someone interested in selling the treats.

When things got rowdy, the students brought each other to attention with a call-and-response technique. One student yelled “responsibility.” The rest stopped what they were doing and responded with “respect.”

Challenges

Those techniques are tested by BUILD students struggling with more-than-typical adolescent distraction. Elizabeth Miranda, a BUILD mentor and the coordinator of the Community Center for Entrepreneurship at Bunker Hill Community College, said her students face heavy real-world problems. The father of one student, she said, was recently incarcerated. Another student recently left the program due to an unexpected pregnancy.

“They’re still teens. They’re urban teens… they might be going through some really tough times,” Miranda said.

Welcome to Boston

The program came to Boston this year with the help of Bain Capital Ventures and began its efforts with 103 freshmen across four schools: two in Dorchester, one in Brighton and Charlestown High School.

Over the next four to five years, said Site Director Ryan Oliver, BUILD would like to expand its Massachusetts program to more schools and draw in as many as 900 students total.

All of that expansion, though, will require more time and money. McKechnie Klahr told the students that she had to raise $6.5 million to fund the program nationally this year, and will have to raise $8 million next year. The program also always needs more volunteers, she said.

Charlestown Patch will have more on the BUILD program in the coming days. For more information, visit www.build.org. 

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