Empowering Black Students to Launch Their Careers

Mike Kelly, Entrepreneurship Editor

Mike Kelly (MBA ’22) talks with Brian Hollins, founder of The Takeoff Institute, about his efforts to equip Black undergraduate students with the mentorship, skills, and confidence necessary to succeed in the professional world.

Racial disparities in education and employment have always existed in the United States. In the mid-late 1960s–the height of the civil rights movement in the US–the Black high school graduation rate hovered around 65%, compared to the overall graduation rate of around 80%. Five decades later, in 2018, the gap had narrowed, but Black students still had a 79% graduation rate, 6% below the overall graduation rate. The racial gap continues to widen at the university level: in the US, only 40% of Black students graduate from postsecondary schooling within six years, compared to the national average of 60%. Of those Black students who graduate from university, around 5.5% are still unemployed over a year after graduation, with many more underemployed.

The Takeoff Institute is a nonprofit working to address this inequity and equip Black undergraduate students with the resources and mentorship they need to launch a successful young professional career. Founded by Brian Hollins (a member of the MBA Class of 2021 who has taken a leave of absence this fall), the organization has built partnerships with organizations like Wall Street Prep, Handshake, The Wall Street Journal, and Pitchbook to help students jumpstart their understanding of the skills needed to succeed as a young professional in today’s corporate America.

Hollins launched The Takeoff Institute this past April, during his RC year, when he witnessed the challenges the pandemic brought to the internship search. Hollins shares, “I watched overqualified HBS students lose internships because of Covid-19, and I knew the trickle-down effect to the Black undergraduate community would be severe. I wanted to build a program that helped alleviate the impact of the pandemic on those communities and coupled that effort with my desire to help students get better prepared for the real world as they prepare to graduate.”

Hollins built The Takeoff Institute to address the employment gap for Black undergraduate students once they graduated. Specifically, students who lack internship experience often do not have the opportunity to acquire valuable professional skills, such as using Excel, leading a team, or giving professional presentations. “PowerPoint, Excel, a report, a presentation: these are all things that every young professional will need to become familiar with as they prepare to ‘hit the desk.’ I wanted to design a program that gave students access to all of those experiences without needing to go to Goldman Sachs or McKinsey for the summer,” remarks Hollins. Despite the importance of building these skills before graduating, Black students often lack mentors who can explain how crucial internships are to finding decent jobs post-graduation.

This past summer, Hollins launched the first Takeoff Fellowship. After receiving more than 300 applications, the team selected 50 Fellows for an intensive eight-week summer program that provided students with experiences similar to what they might find in a typical internship. Each Fellow is paired with an Advisor, and together they work on a project that culminates in a presentation. The Advisor guides them in researching an industry, developing a thesis, conducting interviews, and synthesizing their research into a work product they can show future employers.

When compared to a typical summer internship, the Fellowship has several benefits. First, the Advisors hail from a variety of firms and industries, allowing The Takeoff Institute to place students in sectors in which they are interested in working. This is in stark contrast to a traditional internship program, where the project and advisor are often assigned well in advance, and the pairing may be far from ideal.

Second, The Takeoff Institute not only pairs each student with a one-on-one mentor but also provides a speaker series focused on topics like building financial literacy, Zoom etiquette, leadership skills, and more. Typical internships rarely emphasize these fundamental skills, leaving many graduates without the requisite knowledge to step into the real world on the right foot. 

Lastly, beyond the professional and personal development opportunities, the Fellowship also develops a tightly knit community of next-gen Black leaders who will work together and support one another for years to come. “I was impressed by how often the students shared stories of helping one another and staying connected after the summer,” notes Hollins. “I was inspired by the number of students who have already landed summer internships for next year because of the work product they were able to show employers from their experience this summer. This is just the beginning for all of them, and I am glad the Takeoff Institute could play a small role in their journey.”

Looking ahead, Hollins is focused on taking the Institute to the next level and helping many more students for years to come. Several sponsors reached out to support his effort, and he is currently working to establish The Takeoff Institute as a 501(c)(3), which will enable him to pay the Fellows. While the Fellowship was unpaid this year, Hollins found that the money was secondary to the value of the professional experience and the bonds formed between Fellows. “If it were up to me, we would have the financial sponsorship in place to pay each of these students, so they do not need to take on any other jobs during the summer,” says Hollins. “While this was not the case in year one, we now have incredible testimonials from Fellows and Advisors that will hopefully allow this dream to become a reality in the near future. Like any entrepreneurial journey, this Institute will not be built over night, but I think we are off to an incredible start, and I cannot wait to keep building. These students deserve it.”

At HBS, there is no shortage of entrepreneurial ideas that, similar to The Takeoff Institute, may help to both highlight racial inequities and address some of the more underlying, systemic issues people of color face in this country. To any students considering founding an organization devoted to tackling these challenges, Hollins offers one simple piece of advice: “If not you, then who? If not now, then when?”

To donate to The Takeoff Institute, please visit www.takeoffinstitute.com.

Mike Kelly (MBA ’22) grew up outside Pittsburgh, PA. Prior to HBS, he worked for five years in engineering, product strategy, and program management at Ford, where his work spanned both automotive and the future of mobility. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a Mechanical Engineering degree, and he played trumpet in the marching band. His favorite cereal is Reese’s Puffs, which you can usually find him chowing down on Zoom.