Startup Corner: Leadership Brainery

Harvard alumni Derrick Young and Jonathan Allen are advancing equitable achievement at the highest levels.

Ibe Imo, Contributor

Derrick Young Jr. and Jonathan L. Allen lead equitable access to advance education and leadership opportunities through Leadership Brainery, a Boston based non-profit venture which they co-founded after navigating postgraduate education as one of the few African American and gay men in their postgraduate degree programs.

Young participated in the Online Disruptive Strategy Certificate Program at Harvard Business School. He was Membership Chair CFAR Community Advisory Board at Harvard University and is the Co-founder and Executive Director at Leadership Brainery. Allen was a Charles Hamilton Houston Institute Fellow at Harvard Law School. He is also Co-founder & Director of Development at Leadership Brainery. Young and Allen met at Grambling State University in northern Louisiana during their undergraduate degree programs. They have been together for over a decade, are married and live in Boston, Massachusetts. 

The Problem

Incoming master’s and doctoral students from underserved communities (communities whose socio-economic status is at or below their respective state’s poverty line) experience financial and systemic obstacles when applying to and completing their postgraduate education.

Most funding towards expanding education opportunities for students from underserved communities is allocated towards K-12 and college access. Young said, “It is essential for corporations and foundations to support from cradle to career as opposed to cradle to college.”

Young and Allen are on a mission to raise $500K by December 31st, 2022, to alleviate financial obstacles and close wealth and opportunity gaps in underserved communities by expanding Leadership Brainery’s innovative technology and in-person programming. Target outcomes to expand Leadership Brainery’s programming include:

  • Increase the number of students participating in Leadership Brainery’s programs from 700 to 1400.
  • Enhance features of Leadership Brainery’s Dear Future Colleague (DFC) mobile and web application to simplify the admissions and financial aid processes and launch modules to promote responsible education financing.
  • Complete their five-year strategic growth and sustainability plan.

Leadership Brainery, Venture Summary

Leadership Brainery is a 501(c)(3) organization championing equitable access to master’s and doctoral degrees and workforce leadership opportunities for underrepresented communities.

Leadership Brainery’s Theory of Change

The Need for Equitable Access to Graduate School

Though postgraduate education is often considered a luxury versus necessity, the archetypes that emerge across the U.S. Bureau of Labor’s Statistics reveal that the fastest growing segment of the workforce are jobs requiring graduate degrees. Challenges faced by underserved communities go beyond macro-systemic historical racial issues. Hanson highlighted critical student loan debt statistics in the Education Data Initiatives Report

  • 40% of Black graduates have student loan debt from graduate school while 22% of White college graduates have graduate school debt.
  • Over 50% of Black student borrowers report their net worth is less than they owe in student loan debt.
  • Black and African American student borrowers are the most likely to struggle financially due to student loan debt, with 29% making monthly payments of $350 or more.

Hanson said, “racial and ethnic variations in student loan debt and repayment result from socio-economic factors.” The impact of shrinking disparities between Black and white and Hispanic communities goes beyond shorter-term marketing gains or social responsibility line items for corporations. 

With access to advanced education, African Americans, other communities of color, LGBTQ people, and underrepresented communities can attain higher-wage careers, establish financial stability, reinvest in their communities and create generational prosperity.

McKinsey & Company said shrinking wealth gaps could add $2 trillion to $3 trillion of incremental annual GDP to the U.S. economy.

Leadership Brainery’s Solution 

Meritocracy in the United States can only exist where there is careful and holistic consideration of prior and present circumstances of African Americans and other underserved communities. Derrick and Jonathan lead the charge utilizing a three-pronged approach:

  • Dear Future Colleague — An online platform and mobile application that connects prospective graduate students to mentors, postgraduate school recruiters, workforce opportunities, and competitive scholarship guidance.
  • Annual Graduate School Summit — An annual thought-leadership conference and graduate school recruitment fair mobilizing underrepresented students, working professionals, admissions reps, and industry leaders.
  • Leadership Brainery Clubhouse — A gathering space for underrepresented graduate students to access innovative programming, co-working space, event and meeting rooms, and an inclusive community.

Leadership Brainery’s Impact 

“We will continue the important and life-changing work at the Leadership Brainery. We are hopeful for a future of strong and empathetic diverse leaders,” Jonathan said. From Leadership Brainery’s inception to date, over 5,000 diverse and first-generation graduate and undergraduate students across the United States have benefited from Leadership Brainery’s innovative technology and in-person programming. Key program outcomes from Leadership Brainery’s programming include: 

  • Onboarded 600+ users on the DFC web and mobile applications. Through DFC, Leadership Brainery has conducted 550+ successful 3-month mentorship relationships providing standardized test advisory, admissions essay guidance, financial aid and scholarship support, network expansion, and general application assistance.
  • Awarded grants to 152 undergraduate students, and 20 bar-prep scholarships through a partnership with Themis Bar Review.
  • Developed strategic partnerships with leading universities that include MIT Sloan School of Management, Boston University, and Tufts University.

Fundraising Challenges and The Opportunity 

Leadership Brainery’s revenue is primarily through donations and fundraising, with Jonathan taking the lead on building relationships with individuals and corporate donors. Derrick said, “we attribute our success to date to relationships with people and their connected networks.”

Derrick said Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts should be part of financial reporting and forward-looking statements, not just branding and marketing talking points. “My challenge to corporations is to over-invest,” he said.

A couple of years ago, corporations made multi-billion dollar commitments to racial justice initiatives after the hyper-visible murder of George Floyd. The Washington Post, in their story Corporate America’s $50 billion promise, reported that after one year, 37 of the 50 most valuable companies had disbursed only $1.7 billion of the $49.5 billion pledged.

Derrick said, “It is time we ensure our communities can gain the highest levels of education, which lead to the highest positions in the workforce.”

Ibe Imo is a feature writer and Harvard graduate student focused on journalism and digital storytelling. Ibe enjoys outdoor activities, including kayaking and trail cycling.