According to Forbes Magazine, I am one of the top 30 social entrepreneurs in the world. It’s still hard for me to believe, and I consider myself unworthy of such an accolade. So many others have achieved far more than I.
In 1991 a mechanical engineering degree from Texas A&M allowed me to begin my career at Compaq Computer Corp., where I spent 11 years climbing the management ladder to become a corporate strategist. My job was to find innovative ways for the company to make more money— billions more. I had a good life, a great family and a hefty income. But something was missing.
To fill the gap in my life, I volunteered for nonprofit organizations. In 1998, I began serving on the board for Southwest High School, a new charter school in Houston for children from low-income families. Its focus is to ensure that every student earns a high school diploma, which is a huge achievement for most of them.
In 2001, I attended Southwest High School’s graduation ceremony. After the event, I spoke with the graduates about their plans for the future. Sadly, most of them said they would continue working in fast food, construction, maintenance or similar jobs that rarely provide an avenue for career growth.
It pained me to know that these bright young people full of potential might be trapped in a minimum-wage job. How would they ever advance to a profession that would allow them to attain even a moderate standard of living? They wouldn’t. I know now from experience that the majority of them stay in dead-end jobs, struggling to make ends meet for the rest of their lives.
A Social Entrepreneur Is Born
Through my job as a strategist for Compaq, I knew there was a market for entry-level information technology services. I realized that if I could find a way to train these students to supply those services in a professional way, and engage them in meaningful internships during their senior years in high school—before they made career decisions—then perhaps their futures could be different. If I gave them the opportunity to experience success as professionals, their life trajectories could change. And if these services were cost-effective, companies would be willing to pay for them.
There was only one problem: I had a stable job that paid me well, a comfortable lifestyle, a family to support and a growing corporate career. I wasn’t ready to leave it all to start a nonprofit. My dream was taking shape, but I was hesitant to pursue it. I needed a catalyst.
On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the United States of America, an event that changed the course of my life and so many others. About a week later, at the age of 34, I decided to stop making computers and to start making a real difference.
Sandwich Maker Turns Project Manager
With only 10 students and a $50,000 seed grant from Social Venture Partners, in 2002 I started Genesys Works in Houston, delaying any compensation for a year so I could apply all of our limited funding to grow the organization.
One of my first students was Hector Avellaneda ’08. Hector’s parents did not finish middle school. The oldest of three, he recalls that the only way he would ever own a nice car was to become a drug dealer, like so many of his neighborhood peers. He was working at a sandwich shop when he learned about Genesys Works and decided to enter the program. His first internship was at the corporate headquarters of Reliant Energy; just 15 minutes from his family’s one-bedroom house, but a world apart from where he was headed.
Through the program, Hector discovered new options for his life, and near the end of his internship he decided to pursue a college degree at Texas A&M. With the help of the Aggie network, he received the scholarships needed to attend.
In 2008 he landed a student internship with Hewlett-Packard (HP), and a year later graduated from Texas A&M with a 3.0 GPR. “I graduated during the financial meltdown—at the worst possible time,” Avellaneda said. “Most corporations had hiring freezes, but HP kept me on as an intern for nine months until it was able to offer me full-time work.”
“I always took my education seriously, but my only reality for success after high school was the military,” he said. “Genesys Works came into my life when I was surrounded by nothing but gangs and drugs. It introduced me to a completely new reality that I never would have imagined possible. The paradigm shift that ensued was revolutionary and changed not only my life but that of my younger brother and sister, ending the cycle of poverty in my family forever.”
Success and Big Dreams
Genesys Works has grown quickly since 2001 and now serves almost 1,000 students annually; all of them work in the best corporations in Houston, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Chicago and, new in 2013, San Francisco. We chose these cities because they have a solid base of corporate clients as well as a growing population of inner-city kids who can benefit from the opportunity. And benefit they do. Ninety-five percent of our graduates attend college, which is remarkable given that grades are not part of our admission criteria.
With my team at Genesys Works, we are giving young people the taste of achievement and success—a hand up, not a hand out. Flipping burgers or dealing drugs are no longer acceptable “career” options for Genesys Works’ students.
By Rafael Alvarez ’90
Founder and CEO