Youth Mentoring Programs in Westchester

Looking for the next generation of execs, or just a way to give back? Try mentoring a County kid.




Students are advised by community business leaders as part of Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship.

When ACE Mentor Program (acementor.org) was founded in 1995, its mission was a simple—and noble—one: to introduce diversity into the fields of architecture (A), construction management (C), and Engineering (E) by engaging and guiding students early, at the high-school level. As the years went by, however, it became apparent that ACE would have to expand its mission to account for a rather troubling trend: massive attrition due, at least in part, to the retirement of baby boomers across the industry. According to Milo Riverso, president and CEO of Manhattan-based design and construction firm STV and chairman of the board for ACE Mentor Program of Greater New York, for every professional entering one of these industries, four leave, creating serious shortages in an industry that employs more than 7 million people nationwide. So, ACE changed gears along the way, focusing on general recruitment at the high school level and establishing affiliates not only in cities, but rural areas, where the question of diversity was, well, really not a question at all. 

Today, the program operates 64 affiliates in 35 states, connecting more than 8,000 students and 2,500 mentors each year. ACE of Greater New York, which covers all five boroughs as well as  Westchester and Long Island, has 922 students enrolled this year alone, with 250 mentors. “The design and construction industry is one of the biggest industries in the US, and the ACE Mentor Program is the only program that introduces high school students to the entire integrated design and construction industry,” says Riverso. 


High school students at ACE.

Mentoring programs are as much a part of the corporate landscape as, say, business lunches. In fact, 70 percent of Fortune 500 companies employ some sort of internal mentoring program. In a recent study of its own program, Sun Microsystems, Inc. discovered that participants were 20 percent more likely to have gotten a raise than non-participants; mentors were also six times more likely than non-participants to receive a promotion.

And while pairing with a junior employee might get you up the ladder more quickly, Junior needs to get in the door in the first place. Often, that means reaching out for guidance—whether on career direction, specific skills, or even just business attire—long before interviews and networking events are a glimmer on the horizon. Luckily for County kids, Westchester offers a bounty of programs focused on pre-professional development. Luckily for you, they’re always looking for volunteers. And, who knows, while you’re developing future County business leaders, you may learn a thing or two about yourself.

In the ACE program, high school students are grouped in teams, averaging about 25 per team, which meet bi-weekly throughout the school year at leading design and/or construction firms. Each team is led by a group of at least five professionals representing the architecture, engineering (including civil, mechanical, structural, etc.), and construction industries. Mentors guide students in designing a project and developing that design using industry standards all the way through the scale model phase; students present their designs to other ACE groups and industry professionals at the end of the school year. An optional competition gives students an opportunity to present their design for critique on a national level. 

When it comes to the day-to-day work of each design, student buy-in is critical, says Annika Smith, executive director of ACE of Greater New York. “We want to give the students the feeling of what it’s like to work in this integrated industry, where you have architects and engineers working together and construction managers putting all the pieces together.” 


Students at ACE.

Westchester’s affiliate program is still growing, and operates primarily in Yonkers. Three years ago, John Kolaya, president and COO of Yonkers Contracting Company, Inc., approached architectural and engineering firms in the County to jumpstart a program out of Riverside High School. His team’s first project: a mixed-use building, part-school, part-residence, off Ludlow Street in Yonkers. Students did everything from walking the site and examining terrain and utilities to using Google SketchUp to design scale models. Since then, his team, comprised of sophomores, juniors, and seniors, has climbed to 25, plus a dozen mentors, who, he says, not only expose the students to their particular disciplines, but in the course of the project teach public speaking, confidence, and responsibility.

And whether you’re a veteran of one of these industries, or just starting your career, all levels of experience are welcome in the program. Recent graduates, notes Smith, “can speak more to the process of applying to college, studying, balancing course load, starting to look for jobs in the industry, and the experience of working on projects in studios and then moving into the workplace and needing to utilize their technical skills a little bit more.” 

And it looks, by all counts, like the program is working. According to Riverso, each year three or four teams are added to the program in New York, and, even more impressive, seven out of 10 ACE alumni have majored in one of the ACE fields in college (many partially helped along by company-sponsored scholarships awarded by ACE, totaling nearly $2 million to date) or are already employed in the industry. 


Mentees at Netowrk for Teaching Entrepreneurship.

As any upstart CEO, or, for that matter, angel investor, can tell you, entrepreneurs are their own special breed. And developing the next generation of entrepreneurs, especially those from low-income urban areas, requires its own special program. Enter Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (nfte.com). Founded in 1987 by a New York City entrepreneur turned high school math teacher, this worldwide organization, NFTE for short, offers a 65-hour intensive classroom program in towns and cities where at least 50 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. (NFTE sites in Westchester include Yonkers, Port Chester, Greenburgh, and White Plains.) Its mission: to keep kids who are at high risk for dropping out in school and set them up with the skills necessary to plan careers. In the last 15 years in Westchester and Fairfield Counties alone, NFTE has worked with more than 14,000 students. 

Where you come in: As part of the program, each student develops an idea for a business and a business plan, which they must present and defend in front of a panel of judges. Over the course of the program (which lasts the duration of the school year), students meet one-on-one with business plan coaches, culled from entrepreneurs and business people in the community, who help them develop their plans and fine tune presentations. Students can also compete at the national level for a chance to win seed money for their business. 

“The course integrates academic skills including math, literacy, and technology within the framework of teaching the fundamentals of starting and running a business,” says Diane Rosenthal, executive director of the Westchester/Fairfield program office for NFTE, noting that the skills learned in the program are critical now as the unemployment rate sits at around 45% for young people from minority and lower-income backgrounds. “The NFTE course demonstrates the connectivity between academics and students’ establishing real-life goals that can break the intergenerational cycle of poverty.”

The Workplace Culture Coaching program at Westchester Community College (sunywcc.edu) began nearly 20 years ago as a way of training and supporting female students as they prepared to enter the workplace. Three years ago, the group went co-ed, and this year, 28 students took advantage of the opportunity to be coached one-on-one in areas of personal branding, communication, and networking with executives at PepsiCo, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Chase, Eileen Fisher, and Hudson Valley Bank, among others. Mentors and mentees meet at least three times, often more, over the spring semester, after students have already completed 20 hours of pre-professional training. Says Adele Shansky, director of volunteer services at WCC, former mentees, the vast majority of whom move on to four year colleges, say their mentorship was “absolutely the best thing they’ve done personally and professionally” while at school.


A mentee and mentor from Her Honor Mentoring Program.

Stew Leonard’s HR specialist and former 914INC. Wunderkind Christie Verschoor is in her third year with Her Honor Mentoring (herhonor.org), and as much as her guidance has helped her three mentees become the first in their families to attend college, it’s also allowed her to discover her own talents. “It helped me realize where my strengths are as a leader,” says Verschoor, adding that feedback from the girls also showed her where she can improve when it comes to helping people understand their tasks. 

Her Honor was founded by attorney Nicole Sheindlin in 2006 with investment from her step-mother, Judge Judy Sheindlin (yes, of daytime TV fame), to “empower young women to continue make good choices and continue to pursue what it is that they’re passionate about or what they want to learn to be passionate about,” says Nicole. The program works closely with seven high schools in the County, and targets high school seniors who are financially needy and, in the founder’s words, “mature, responsible, and community-minded.” 

The girls, more than 200 to date, are paired with professional Westchester women working in their area of vocational interest, from HR to accounting. Mentees spend four hours each week at their mentors’ work site, taking on projects and shadowing mentors to meetings. To ensure that these girls, who might otherwise be expected to contribute to their families through after school jobs, can take advantage of mentorships, the program pays each mentee an hourly wage, up to $2,500 over the course of the program. Monthly workshops for mentees are held as well, with focus on topics like interviewing, business attire, and personal finance. 

Verschoor makes sure to tailor her approach to each mentee’s needs—usually a mix of personal (from coming out of one’s shell to, naturally, boy problems) and professional, like learning the HR interview process. “Some of them have never been in on formal interviews themselves, so it’s helpful for them to see the entire process of greeting a candidate at the door, bringing them into the office, and talking with them, seeing it from the perspective of the candidate but also of the interviewer.” 

More important than the ins and outs of interviews for these girls, however, is discovering all they’re capable of. Whether she’s attending the college volleyball games of her prior mentees, or simply catching up with them over text, Verschoor wonders, without Her Honor, “would they have realized their potential? Would they have been encouraged, and seen it in themselves?

 

 

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