Houston, United States
Fellow Since 2006
My work: changing the trajectory of inner-city youth by employing them to provide tech services to major corporations.
Check out this video of Rafael Alvarez's work
This profile was prepared when Rafael Alvarez was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.
Rafael is helping industry leaders, schools, and disadvantaged youth discover that they have much to offer each other. Employers need skilled, motivated workers to grow their companies. However, talented low-income youth don’t see themselves headed for these corporate jobs. They aim for – not beyond – high school graduation. Rafael’s organization, Genesys Works, gives low-income teens training in high-tech jobs and exposure to professional work environments proving his belief that students who experience success in "that first professional job" while still in high school are more likely to go to college and go on to thrive in the economic mainstream. Ten of the fifteen largest companies in Houston employ Genesys Works students, 90% of whom go to college. No companies have dropped out, in fact, most ask for additional students each year.
The New Idea
Rafael Alvarez is reimagining vocational education for our post-industrial society. Rafael understands that many disadvantaged youth are at risk of selling themselves short with high school as their end goal. His idea is to change their outlook and the trajectory of their lives early on by placing them on an upwardly mobile career path. Rafael is convinced that this will happen if students get “that first professional job” and experience success in the corporate world while still in high school. He founded Genesys Works in 2002 to connect the often disparate worlds of education and corporations to provide intensive training and placement for students in technical positions at leading corporations. The students gain knowledge, experience, income, and a network of support while the companies gain highly motivated and trained entry-level employees; boosting company morale by engaging employees in the professional development of young people. The students perform real, value-added services at less cost than what the company would otherwise pay. Rafael encourages companies to invite students back for college internships that could lead to permanent positions. Rafael’s vision is for disadvantaged youth to develop the skills and self-confidence they need to thrive in the economic mainstream. Ultimately, he is transforming the perception of what disadvantaged high school students can do, enabling schools and corporations to work together to prepare them for a successful future; all society benefits from their full participation.
In the United States, students from schools in poor areas tend to under-perform compared to students from schools in middle and upper income areas. Despite decades of education reform, this gap persists. The President’s Commission on Educational Excellence reports that in the U.S., “…only 10 percent of Hispanic Americans graduate from four-year colleges and universities. This not only threatens to leave behind yet another generation of Hispanic children, but could also limit mobility in the labor force, potentially jeopardizing our country’s ability to compete economically.” Technical skills and post high school education have become requirements for any competitive job. High school graduates between the ages of 25 and 64 can expect to earn an average of $25,400 a year, while those with a bachelor's degree will earn $45,400.Resources are readily available for programs serving high school dropouts or youth at-risk of dropping out. However, resources are not as plentiful to help low-income students pursue a career after high school graduation. Urban schools typically have one guidance counselor for 400 or more students and rarely get beyond scheduling and administrative tasks. Cooperative education and vocational training programs prepare students mainly for clerical, minimum wage jobs because they lack the capacity and imagination to develop professional, career-oriented opportunities for students. These programs are constrained by rules and regulations, require students to take prescribed courses in conjunction with work assignments, and require employers to provide close supervision of students. They are not a springboard to further success and career growth. Often public schools lack the capacity to place students in professional jobs, and companies do not typically view high school students as viable prospective employees.College graduates from middle class or affluent backgrounds enjoy networks, career services and other resources to help them access jobs that will kick-start a career. There is a belief that youth without those advantages will not benefit from an investment in their ability to advance in the workforce. Many low-income youth are driven to the same conclusion: they lack the confidence, hope and empowerment to envision, much less to pursue, opportunities for a better life. Based on the experiences of their parents, neighbors and peers, these young people see no reason to aspire to professional jobs in the corporate world, and may not often receive the encouragement from family, counselors or teachers that they need.
The Genesys program prepares eleventh and twelfth grade students with the technical skills they need to provide value in the corporate workplace, and the opportunity to gain professional experience. Genesys employs the students, assumes the risk, and relieves employers of recruiting, training, placing and supervising the youth. The students participate in 150 hours of free training during their junior year summer, which enables them to perform the tasks required by Genesys’ clients. Some students attend a second summer to obtain Microsoft and other industry-recognized certifications. Companies find the students so well-prepared that “they forget they’re high school students.” Most students are Hispanic youth from poor families. They are high school juniors who have stayed in school, but receive little attention from teachers—considered neither success stories nor troublemakers. Genesys goes to schools in poor neighborhoods to encourage students to apply for the program. Without that outreach, many of these students would not consider themselves candidates for a corporate training program. Through Genesys, public schools can offer students opportunities they could not otherwise provide. Rafael requires the school counselor to verify that each student considered for the program has enough credit to participate. Genesys students have a starting wage at $6.50 an hour. They are eligible for up to $1 per hour increases depending on performance, and an additional $1 per hour when they pass an industry certification. Students can make up to $12 an hour: $13,000 a year for a part-time job. Those who earn the Microsoft Certified Professional designation participate in a leadership development program. In the summer students come to the Genesys office and training center in a downtown building. Along with technical training, the students learn communication skills, business etiquette, teamwork, and conflict resolution to help them become effective young professionals. Professional dress is required. Students are released from school each afternoon to report to their place of work; every evening a small group comes to Genesys to share their experiences and learn from issues that come up at the workplace. Once a month all students gather to hear motivational speakers, for team-building activities, or to enjoy corporate perks (such as attending a professional basketball game). The Focus on Life After Genesys program provides college entrance and scholarship guidance and supports the success of Genesys graduates through the Genesys Alumni Association (founded by former students). Ninety percent of Genesys graduates go to college; almost all are the first in their families to do so. In early 2006 the El Paso Corporation took the lead in launching the Genesys pilot program in engineering services. Since all of the organization’s corporate clients can use these services, this was a logical step. Rafael enlisted the University of Houston to develop and teach an 8 week course in computer aided design that is tailored to Genesys’ students and clients, so the students will be able to provide value to their employers on their first day. Rafael recognized that the model works best when students gain exposure to other professions and opportunities; companies want the services and are willing to pay for them; students can provide real value after a few months of training; and there is long-term demand in the field. Some professions that meet these criteria are health services and the sales/finance field, including retail and banking. With the program established in several Houston schools, in 2006 Genesys started a pilot program to test geographic expansion. Rafael partnered with United Space Alliance (USA) to establish the program in the Clear Lake area. In contrast to the Houston neighborhoods Genesys serves, this is an affluent suburb; however, 10 percent of the students are from low-income families. With the support of the district superintendent and all of the principals, school counselors identified low-income students for Genesys to recruit. Of the 20 students selected, many said they’d never been chosen for anything. The first class will begin working at USA as well as Boeing and other NASA contractors. USA was the first to sign on for the Clear Lake program and is sponsoring a documentary about the impact Genesys has on students. The documentary will draw national attention to the program and promote its expansion. Recently ExxonMobil and Chevron were added to the Genesys client list; Genesys students now work for most of the largest Fortune 500 companies in Houston.To launch a program successfully in a new city, Genesys has determined that it must gain top-level support from at least one urban school district, one local business champion, and an advisory board of leaders in the professions offered. A winning strategy for Genesys is to have a senior corporate partner engage counterparts at leading corporations. To date, most of Genesys’ board members have been Chief Information Officers of major corporations. They hire Genesys students and recruit their counterparts at other companies to do the same. One board member commented, “The amazing thing about this program is that it generates its own funds.” Genesys earns more than 80 percent of its budget from contracts with its corporate clients.Each expansion site must be a city with the right demographics, businesses and a public transportation system that allows students to travel from school to work and home. Genesys aims to have programs in 15 major urban areas, each enrolling 5 percent of the disadvantaged high school juniors per year and offering training in four professions. Corporate leaders in Houston will facilitate Genesys in cities where their companies have a presence. The board chose an “organic franchise” approach to replication with each site an owned subsidiary, with a local board of advisors and a local director. The first expansion cities will launch in 2008.
Rafael was born and raised in Mexico. His father dropped out of school to work as a tour guide, then ran away to the U.S. at age 14. When he went back to Mexico he established a business to attract conventions and tourists. Rafael enjoyed a close and inspirational relationship with his father. In eleventh grade Rafael bought his first computer and taught himself to program in Basic. While working as a delivery boy for a computer sales and training company, he asked his supervisor to let him teach entry-level courses in Basic programming. His boss gave him the chance, so as a high school senior Rafael became a programming teacher. This experience not only increased his self-confidence and income, but opened up professional opportunities for him during college: summer jobs at Chrysler and Procter & Gamble, and doing research for NASA’s Space Station. He credits many steps on his career path to the employer who believed in him and gave him a professional job while he was still in high school. When he graduated from high school, revolution was brewing in Mexico, so his family sent him to Texas A&M University where he came into his own. He organized conferences, including one on maquiladora issues with delegates from Mexico and the U.S. He also took a leadership role in the Mexican Student Association. Rafael was accepted to a tuition-paid semester abroad program in Germany, and wanting to stay to see other countries, he put a “Think Europe” sign in his room and worked as a maid to earn the money.With a Master’s degree in engineering management, Rafael led a multinational team at Compaq Computer which took the first wireless LAN products to market. Always dreaming of new possibilities, he came up with several ideas for entrepreneurial ventures. While volunteering as a youth counselor at his church, a parent asked him to help found a charter school for students from inner-city communities. Rafael realized that public schools often lack the capacity or inclination to prepare these students for professional careers—with only graduation as a goal. He believed he could help schools boost the aspirations of youth in this untapped talent pool by creating a bridge for them to the business world. Rafael developed a vision to change the schools’ and corporate employers’ perceptions of low-income youth and more importantly, the students’ perceptions of their own potential. He left Compaq to start Genesys ITS, which would become Genesys Works to accommodate expansion beyond technology. Within a year, students were working at Reliant Energy, one of the largest companies in Houston.