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Veteran Wall Streeter created an internship program to place low-income students at top companies

·Associate Editor

Kevin Davis worked on Wall Street for 25 years. Then he founded First Workings, a New York-based nonprofit organization that places young people of color and low-income students in internships at some of the country’s top companies.

Davis told Yahoo Finance that he was inspired to reach out to communities that are still, in many cases, underrepresented in corporate America.

“I was in a position to give internships for at least 15 years of my career, and I would say that 99.9% of those internships went to my customers’, colleagues’, or counter-parties’ children,” he said. “We didn’t have any bias against hiring kids from the Bronx or from Harlem, we just had no interaction with those neighborhoods.”

Research has proven that more diverse workplaces lead to benefits across the board. In 2017, McKinsey found a direct correlation between gender and ethnic diversity and profitability: “Companies with the most ethnically and culturally diverse boards worldwide are 43% more likely to experience higher profits,” McKinsey wrote. The firm also found, though, that these groups are still deeply underrepresented.

“What we've created is a bridge between companies seeking diversity and underserved communities seeking opportunity,” Davis said.

Interns with the program are high school juniors, and company placement relies heavily on what interests selected students. Tech, health care, and fashion remain some of the most popular fields, following finance.

First Working's Executive Director Chloe Mullarkey, with Zack Klion from PJT Partners, PJT intern Fatou Kabba, and Pearl Ayamba, who interned at Mount Sinai Hospital. / Courtesy of First Workings
First Working's Executive Director Chloe Mullarkey, with Zack Klion from PJT Partners, PJT intern Fatou Kabba, and Pearl Ayamba, who interned at Mount Sinai Hospital. (Photo: Courtesy of First Workings)

Turn a dream into an opportunity

Since many of the students who connect with First Workings will be the first in their families to attend college, the program opens doors for them that otherwise may not have been an option.

"If you’re a kid from the Bronx, and you’re applying to an Ivy League school, and you’re able to have a recommendation from White & Case or Morgan Stanley — those are very powerful recommendations," Davis said. "A university admissions officer looking at that is going to say, 'How does this kid, from this background, manage to pull off something like that?' And it makes a bigger difference for these kids than it would for an upper-middle class kid."

For Fatou Kabba "the word 'internship' used to be a scary word." Then First Workings arranged for her to intern at the investment firm PJT Partners.

“It exposed me to this whole new environment,” Fatou told Yahoo Finance. By the end of her time at PJT, Fatou felt confident that she'd "mastered the material and felt confident that she'd become a quick learner."

Now in her second semester at Brown University and forging a career path of her own, Fatou said, her future is "much more visible than it was before."

She stressed how, through the internships set up through First Workings, lower-income students are “put on a level with students around the country who have these experiences” in their daily lives, whether through the jobs their parents have or because of opportunities presented by attending elite, private schools.

“Those students see themselves in these positions because they grow up around them,” Fatou said. “I don’t have any family members in the business community in the U.S. or who are doctors in the U.S. Before the internship I saw it as a dream. After the internship, I see it as an opportunity.”

Easing financial strain

One of the biggest hurdles for many students is not only securing an internship, but also finding one that pays. As of 2016, about half of the 1.5 million internships offered in the U.S. were unpaid, according to the Guardian.

“It’s having to pay getting to and from work, paying for clothes you might need, being able to afford lunch,” Davis said. At First Workings, he and his team are creating a structure that “makes it so the kids can afford to do the internship. We make sure they have the right clothes and make sure that they have enough cash to be able to participate with coworkers in some of their social activities.”

Though the financial burden is removed, many of the students are still entering offices where diversity on all levels — gender, race, age — hasn’t reached a tipping point.

Fatou said that at some analyst meetings she "had to grapple with being the only black person in the room." But she used the experience as a motivator. "This experience for me was about seeing myself in that room," she explained.

(Photo: Courtesy of First Workings)
(Photo: Courtesy of First Workings)

'A lot of that talent could go to waste'

First Workings currently works with 13 schools across New York City, and expects this summer's class to host between 75 to 80 students, compared with 2018's 50 students and 2017's 35.

Scaling up too quickly, without a proper infrastructure in place is something Davis and his team want to avoid. The program is about 90% funded by Davis himself, though it did recently receive a $10,000 grant from the Newman's Own Foundation to offset some costs.

While he admits the organization has a long way to go before expanding outside of New York, the goal is ultimately to reach Chicago, where Davis began his own career, and California.

"I’ve learned that there is an unbelievable amount of highly intelligent, highly talented kids right across the communities that we work with," Davis said. "If I had my time over again in business, I would’ve made much more effort to access those communities, because I think that a lot of that talent, potentially, could go to waste."

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