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Difference Maker

A young entrepreneur shows low-income teens how to launch a business

A path to progress

Daquan Oliver's family didn't have it easy when he was growing up. But his resourcefulness, drive, and desire to honor his mother's hard work helped get him to college, where he formed a mentorship program.

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    As a teen, Daquan Oliver promised to be successful to honor his mother’s hard work – and to help those in a similar position.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
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At 14, Daquan Oliver sat in the car watching his mother reach a level of stress about their finances that he’d never seen before. A single mom, she had always worked hard and provided the essentials, but in that moment he thought, “We might not make it.”

That doomsday thought didn’t really stand a chance against his irrepressible hopes.

“In that same exact instant, I thought to myself ... I’ll still be one of the most successful African-American entrepreneurs, African-American males, human beings in general, despite all these obstacles,” he says. “I made a promise to myself that night that I would be successful for all my mother’s hard work, and that I would also come back to assist those who were in my position.”

He’s worked hard to keep that promise.

That drive, a penchant for entrepreneurship, and a track scholarship led Mr. Oliver from his home near New York City to Babson College, just outside Boston. By his sophomore year, he had helped form a mentorship program for low-income teens so they could learn about being entrepreneurs. But instead of just teaching them skills for launching a business, he had a larger goal for the youths – setting them on a path of lifelong opportunity and social mobility.

“Real growth,” Oliver says. “That’s what it’s about.”

The WeThrive approach

He originally called the program Recesspreneurs (referring to young people exploring entrepreneurship during their downtime), but it’s now named WeThrive. Based in Santa Monica, Calif., and Boston, it takes a layered approach to mentoring: Oliver and his colleagues at the nonprofit give guidance to college students, who in turn mentor local kids using an 11-week WeThrive curriculum. In one recent project, youths built an entertainment video business using YouTube as a platform.

So far, the college students who are participating have formed chapters on six campuses, and WeThrive is preparing for more chapters to sprout up. Those students find groups of kids to mentor by forging partnerships with schools and community youth groups.

Both the college students and the youths are learning as they go.

“We train two generations of entrepreneurs.... We think of [the chapters] as change-maker hubs,” Oliver says.

His strategy is to push students to do precisely what they think they can’t – turning obstacles into opportunities, as he did while growing up. “It’s transformative.... Now you’re going to be able to see, hey you can do this, because it’s a safe environment to fail in,” he says.

Megan Shinnick – who joined the pilot program for Oliver’s organization when she was a shy middle-schooler – remembers the day she pitched her idea for an anti-bullying nonprofit to a group of adults for funding.

“I was terrified, but Daquan simply said, ‘You got this. Talk to them like you talk to me.’ And I just did it,” she says. “I remember at the end when everyone was clapping, I was like, ‘This is what I love to do!’ ”

She received funding and went on to found the anti-bullying group at her school.

One focus of WeThrive is the development of leadership qualities. Oliver “was always pushing for everyone to have moments where they would clearly be the leader,” Megan says.

At any given session with the youths, one of them is secretly designated the “silent leader.” His or her job is to lead by example, unobtrusively bringing the group back to its focus if it starts to drift.

Learning to work together

WeThrive’s participants are often asked to work with people to whom they may not have naturally gravitated. Oliver recalls a boy and girl who had trouble getting along for several months. He paired up Billy and Sally (not their real names) for “Pitch Your Dream Job.” Each partner had to tell a panel of college-mentor judges why the other person should get his or her dream job.

Billy “gives this heartwarming pitch of why she should have her dream job of becoming a singer,” Oliver says. He tells the judges that Sally is talented, hardworking, and resilient. “Everyone was shocked.... You can see in her face that she’s getting validation. She’s smiling to herself,” Oliver says.

Sally reciprocated. And her confidence soared in the months that followed.

One day, the teens excitedly told Oliver that someone had been bullying Sally on the bus, and Billy had defended her. Oliver recalls that when he asked him about it later, “He said, ‘I would never let someone pick on someone in my support system.’ ”

One person who helped form a WeThrive chapter on campus is Vanessa Rodriguez, a pre-med student at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Because of transportation and other logistical challenges, it took some time to connect with a local school where the weekly mentoring could be based. But now it’s well under way, and she’s watching students blossom. She joined because she was mentored in high school, and it “changed who I was, and it made me more receptive to what I wanted to do in my life,” she says.

Because of Oliver’s “circle of mentorship” approach, as Ms. Rodriguez describes it, she and her fellow chapter members “are being mentored as well.... It’s a very nice cycle to be a part of.”

In college, Oliver ran marketing companies involving students and launched a few apps, with varying degrees of success. “If WeThrive was venture No. 1, it would have failed,” he says.

The Clinton Foundation recognized him among “Five Black Student Leaders to Watch in 2014.” Last year, he won a two-year fellowship and $80,000 from Echoing Green, a global nonprofit in New York whose goal is to “unleash next-generation talent to solve the world’s biggest problems.” That has helped him rebrand and strengthen his organization.

His first enterprises

As a kid, Oliver got hooked on entrepreneurship before he even knew the word.

At 7 years old, he had his heart set on a “Dragon Ball Z” action figure, only to have his mother tell him they couldn’t afford it. Undeterred, he says, “I grabbed a stack of newspapers and sold them to everyone I saw.... I sold enough papers to get my toy, and I had some money left over.”

In high school, he launched a “candy franchise ... that consisted of my grandfather’s Costco card,... candy, Pop-Tarts, and Capri Suns.... It’s really ridiculous.... I learned so much about entrepreneurship,” he says with a twinkling grin.

By his senior year, he had three other teens selling things around school for him, and his grandfather was paying for the Costco supplies because he was so proud his grandson was earning his own money.

“Now I had reduced my costs to zero,” Oliver says of his early business lessons. He was able to buy himself clothes, sneakers, and cellphone minutes.

When he took an advanced economics course in high school, his teacher used him as an example on the first day of class. “That’s when I learned that what I was doing was entrepreneurial.”

WeThrive’s participants benefit from the emphasis on doing good that Oliver’s enterprising grew into. “I want them to be the next generation of social-change leaders,” he says.

So far, he says, at least 30 students have given public talks and more than 50 have started businesses after participating in WeThrive.

Oliver has become a friend to Megan from his pilot program. She’s now a senior at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts. Last year, she gave a courageous TEDx talk, in which she underscored the importance of talking openly about teen depression and suicide by telling her own story.

In the midst of applying for colleges and financial aid in recent months, she has been developing a suicide-prevention nonprofit to support programs in schools.

“Daquan is one of the most important people in my life. He’s taught me so much,” she says. “Many things I’ve done would not be possible without him.”

To view a TEDx talk by Daquan Oliver, click here.

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups working to improve opportunities for children:

Shirley Ann Sullivan Educational Foundation improves the quality of life for children by providing education and lobbying for their protection from exploitation. Take action: Send a child to school.

Nepal Orphans Home attends to the welfare of children in Nepal who are orphaned, abandoned, or not supported by their parents. Take action: Fund sustainable livelihoods through vocational training.

What If? Foundation provides food and educational opportunities to impoverished children in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Take action: Support a child in an after-school program.

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