Elliott Brown
Ashoka Fellow since 2005   |   United States

Elliott Brown

Springboard Forward
Elliott Brown is helping low-wage workers develop the capacity to advance, while simultaneously showing employers the benefits of investing in their entry-level workforce. This employee development…
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This description of Elliott Brown's work was prepared when Elliott Brown was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2005.


Elliott Brown is helping low-wage workers develop the capacity to advance, while simultaneously showing employers the benefits of investing in their entry-level workforce. This employee development model promises to strengthen the 21st century workforce and give new hope to low-income workers.

The New Idea

Elliott’s idea is to replace the failed job placement model for low-income workers with a powerful new career development model. His vision is twofold: change the attitudes of low-income workers about their own potential to succeed, and convince employers that entry-level workers, far from being hopeless cases, are individuals who care about their future—individuals who can be helped to move up to more responsible, better-paying jobs.

Elliott aims to change the system so that entry-level workers expect to advance in the workforce, and have the skills and support they need to achieve that expectation.

Springboard Forward helps employers retain and develop their entry-level workers, and helps the workers identify and pursue careers with advancement opportunities. The key is to demonstrate to employers the economies of an efficient, dedicated “first rung” workforce, and the benefits of investing in the advancement capacity of their low-wage workers. For employers, the return on investment is lower turnover and improved morale. For the workers the employer’s investment enables them to work toward jobs with increased income, job satisfaction and personal fulfillment.

The Problem

Job placement alone doesn’t eliminate poverty. Over 50 percent of people living below the poverty line have full-time jobs. For them, “work hard and you will get ahead” doesn’t apply. Most workforce development resources are spent on job readiness and placement. These efforts fail to address the problems of high turnover among and limited advancement options for low-wage workers. Job placement programs for people with limited skills and education are considered successful if they help clients obtain low-wage jobs—jobs that typically have no opportunity for advancement. Because most workforce development programs areinitiated in the government or social service sector, these programs struggle to engage the employer community where most jobs with advancement opportunities are found.

In the United States, if you pass a certain threshold of academic or socioeconomic status you reap the benefits of networks, career services, and other resources to help you identify, obtain and make the most of employment opportunities. If you fail to meet that threshold, however, these benefits are rarely available to you. Workforce development programs do not offer their clients the career planning and networking skills offered to professionals. Typically, no one asks a low-income individual what she or he wants to do or helps them map out a path to the kind of job they want. By age 18, young people who are not on track for a white-collar job or a skilled trade are considered lost causes. There is a belief that youth who leave school early or without essential job readiness skills will not benefit from an investment in their ability to advance in the workforce. After years of negative reinforcement these individuals come to the same conclusion: They lack the confidence and skills to envision, much less pursue, opportunities for a better life. Career paths are not part of their thought process; upward mobility is not an aspiration

In today’s workforce, people do not stay in one job or at one company from their point of entry through retirement. The days of going from the mail room to the board room are over. White collar and skilled workers expect to be trained and retrained several times over the course of their careers. Employers invest in the capacity of mid- and upper-level employees to prepare for the changing demands of the workplace. But when it comes to entry-level workers, businesses take a “churn and burn” approach that is costly to employers and discouraging to the employees. Unskilled workers rotate between marginal employment and no job at all. Despite the high cost of turnover, employers treat minimum-wage workers as a disposable workforce. Even if employers would like to retain and promote their low-wage workers, the employees lack the skills needed to qualify for better jobs.

The Strategy

Recognizing that the short-term focus of the job placement system is failing job-seekers and employers, Elliott’s strategy is to focus on the retention and development of entry-level workers who are already in the workforce. He organized Springboard Forward, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help low-wage employees move up in the workforce and consequently out of poverty. Springboard Forward contracts with employers to teach career mobility skills to entry-level workers through one-on-one career coaching and career mapping exercises that help people determine their career. Through Springboard’s programs, each client identifies their goals and creates an Individual Development Plan to execute the steps to achieve it. In the process, they regain hope and become more engaged in their work, providing a strong incentive to keep his or her job, as stable employment becomes a “springboard” to opportunity.

With Springboard Forward’s help, both the employer and the employee achieve significant goals. Employees gain enhanced self-esteem, improved work skills, sustained employment, and financial stability; employers gain dependable employees, higher retention rates, increased productivity, improved morale, and a pool of employees to promote from within. One client, a homeless man who had worked odd jobs for 15 years, was unable to support his wife and two children. First, Springboard Forward helped him get a temporary job at the City of Palo Alto. Next, they placed him in a job at Stanford University and provided career coaching. That job became a stepping stone to employment with an independent contractor. With his new career and stability, his family was able to move into their own apartment.

Springboard Forward is funded through employer fees for services and grants. Based on the success of its unique post-employment model, the organization focuses on building the capacity for advancement of individuals who are employed, by demonstrating to both the worker and the employer that an entry-level job can be a springboard to success. Although it is just a beginning, Springboard Forward has demonstrated its value to several large, institutional clients. By offering unique post-placement services that work to support employees in trainings that directly involve their supervisors, Springboard is demonstrating its value to several large, institutional clients—improving employees’ performance and retention rates. After a year of services at Home Depot, 86 percent of Springboard’s clients were still employed, compared with a 38 percent national average. The goal is to get enough employers to buy into this approach so that post-employment support, with career planning services, becomes the standard way for employers to develop and retain low-wage workers, and a reliable way for the working poor to enter the middle class. This employee development model promises to strengthen the 21st century workforce and give new hope to low-income workers.

The key to success is engaging employers as partners in this effort by demonstrating that career development programs at the workplace are a “win-win” for the business and for its employees. Elliott is developing highly visible partnerships with major employers and using that visibility to attract other public and private sector employers. Based near Palo Alto, Springboard Forward contracts with Stanford University, the City of Palo Alto, the City of Redwood City, Home Depot, and Ross Stores and partners with community-based organizations across the Bay Area. Within the next three years, they will expand throughout the Bay Area to serve 10,000 clients a year.

The Person

Elliott is from Ithaca, New York. His father taught math at Cornell, his mother was a divorce mediator. Through his upbringing Elliott developed an early, strong concern for the underdog. This led to efforts later in life to help others with less means or ability. Elliott’s early years were happy and successful, but when he reached junior high everything changed. Although he was an excellent student and athlete, he was smaller than and not as strong as his peers and the only Jewish student in his school. Throughout junior high and high school, his classmates tormented him. On many days he was beaten up by bigger kids. He regrets never having finally “stood up” to the students who were abusing him. Instead, he focused on studying and looked forward to going to college “somewhere far away, totally different” from this environment. Elliott went to Stanford, where he found an exciting community with more students like himself, and he started to develop a sense of “invincibility.” He was always involved in the community, especially with youth. While volunteering to read to blind students Elliott began to understand the challenges of people with disabilities. He empathized with their situation, but also got impatient with them because they were not “doing anything” about it. He decided to do something himself, and started Stanford’s first student Disability Awareness group. When disabled group members questioned whether a person such as Elliott (not disabled) should be running the organization Elliott did not give up, but found ways to share leadership and move forward with the cause.

After college, he worked in corporate affairs at Sun Microsystems, but left to design and direct youth employment programs in East Palo Alto. One night while walking to his car from the office, Elliott was chased by a hostile group of teenagers. Not one of his neighbors—the shopkeepers, the street regulars, anyone near his office—attempted to intervene. Elliott realized that even though he’d worked hard to create bonds with this community, he was not safe there. This caused him to reevaluate his direction.

He traveled to Guatemala where he helped educational programs develop fundraising strategies. When he returned, he started a consulting practice and pursued his passion for piano, guitar, and sports. His consulting services were aimed at providing the “administrative backbone” for community-based organizations so that their leaders, often not strong administrators, could get out from behind their desks and get back to leading their communities. SERA Learning Technologies hired Elliott to design and manage a program to place disadvantaged youth in corporate internships.

As he completed this project, Elliott realized that he knew more about employment programs than most of the people in the field. He saw a better way to help people enter the workforce and move beyond entry-level jobs. He raised $80,000 of seed money and founded Springboard in 1997 as a for-profit staffing agency. Unlike its competitors, Springboard placed disadvantaged clients referred by community-based organizations. The plan was to use the profits to provide post-placement mentoring and support services, but the placement fees were not sufficient to cover the additional services. Elliott needed a new organizational structure to support his vision of providing entry-level workers the hope of a brighter future and the support to realize their dreams.

In 2002 Elliott established Springboard Forward as a nonprofit to help discouraged, downtrodden people “come from behind” to do what he had done: find and pursue a new path toward fulfilling their potential. Springboard Forward was featured in Fast Company’s January 2005 issue as one of the top 25 organizations tackling social problems with sustainable, entrepreneurial solutions.

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