Kalani Leifer, 2018 Obama Foundation Fellow

Building a career is hard, but it shouldn’t be lonely.”

—Kalani Leifer, 2018 Obama Foundation Fellow

Hire Education: From making the grade to making bank

Kalani Leifer

Want to know how to land a competitive job after college? We sat down with Obama Fellow and COOP (pronounced co-op) founder Kalani Leifer to learn how he’s setting up recent grads for success in their first career search. We weren’t expecting the computer game Oregon Trail to be a part of the answer.

Finding a job after college isn’t an easy thing to do, and it can feel impossible without connections. Through COOP Careers, Kalani is helping first-generation and low-income recent college grads develop the skills and connections they need to land competitive entry level jobs in the workforce.

Q: We have a lot of ground to cover, but let’s start at the very beginning. Where did you grow up and how did that shape who you are today?

A: I grew up on the Stanford campus in California, one of the most special and privileged places you can grow up, and I went to one of the best public schools in the area. My dad is a professor and my mom was a high school and middle school teacher. I’d say the most formative experience I had growing up was seeing my mom earn her education. My dad’s American and my mom is Swiss, so when they got married and moved to the States, her entire education was brought back to square one—all of the college credits she earned in Switzerland weren’t recognized here.

While she was raising four kids, she used to drive 45 minutes to San Francisco State a couple nights a week. I watched her build her higher education from scratch and that really instilled in me the idea that an education is something worth fighting for. In the environment I grew up in, an education wasn’t just something you have to do to get a job, but something incredibly meaningful and important on its own.

Q: And what was your college experience like? Did you go to Stanford University?

A: I did. I went to Stanford undergrad and learned so much during my time there. In a way it was my first experience with nepotism. I worked my butt off as a kid to get into that school, but I know in retrospect that my father working there was an unambiguous part of the reason I was able to get in. That’s something I’ll never forget, and it’s why the work I do now is all about recognizing the obvious and the insidious ways that nepotism runs the workforce.

When I was in school I also worked as a tutor in East Palo Alto, which, compared to Palo Alto just across the freeway, faces a lot of challenges. That’s where I learned that access to a quality education can be the way for so many young people across America to build a middle class career and change the course of their entire life.

Seeing the difference in how my family thinks about education as a noble quest compared to how others perceive it as noble in its own right and as a tool to advance really made a deep impression on me. I finally understood that the role that education played in my life was rarefied and privileged, and that I wanted to be part of the solution that made the kind of education that I had access to available to everyone.

It's not skills that pull you into your career, but rather relationships that pull you into your career.”

—Kalani Leifer, Obama Foundation Fellow

Q: Wow. You set the stage really nicely for my next question, which has to do with the period of time COOP focuses on—the transition between college and finding a first job. What was that transition like for you?

A: Yeah, I mean the stakes are so much higher at the end of college as we transition from education to the workforce. It’s a messier space. You go from playing the same game as everyone else where it’s easy to compare and contrast, but once you graduate you’re thrust into this space where people have all kinds of different degrees, are entering all sorts of different careers, and it becomes much harder to see the ways in which nepotism, privilege, and access are influencing outcomes.

For me personally, when I was a senior I applied for a teaching position through Teach for America. I remember being in my dorm room when I got the email accepting me into the corps. I’m not someone who does a lot of fist pumps, but I remember jumping up and down and just pumping my fists. (laughter) I was so deeply excited to be a teacher. Teach for America was my pathway into the classroom, but the most important thing was that I was a teacher. It’s a role I’ve always had on a pedestal because of my parents.

I also knew that I needed something like Teach for America to serve as that transition into my career. I understood just how rare those kinds of programs are, and if I hadn’t had a program like that, I was still privileged enough to have a network to fall back on.

I moved to New York two days after graduation, then it was up to me to go to interviews and find an open position. Before long I got an interview at a school called KAPPA International in the Bronx—it had only been open for a year, and I’ll never forget getting grilled by a group of students during a panel interview (laughter). I don’t think I’ve ever been that nervous! They ended up becoming my cohort of students that I taught the entire time I was there.

Q: I can only imagine how nerve wracking that must have been. Would you say that experience launched you into founding COOP?

A: Absolutely. My time teaching at KAPPA was the real inspiration for COOP because our organization is completely run by the cohorts, just like KAPPA International was. It’s crazy to think that a group of fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds built an institution together and carried each other all the way through to graduation. We were definitely working our butts off as teachers, but I became really convinced that they were the solution for each other, I was just trying to keep up.

These are two of my amazing students, Chykee Ward and Brigitte Aponte, from KAPPA International High School in the Bronx. Both later joined COOP, and Chykee is currently on our HQ team.

Q: Did anything else inspire you to start COOP?

A: So funny enough, I took a total 180 turn and moved to Switzerland. While I was there, I remember being so fascinated by their apprenticeship system and how it really bridges education to employment. But what excited me the most was that they not only offered apprenticeships to young people for blue collar careers, but they also offered them for jobs like banking.

I became obsessed with the question of how societies transition young folks from formal education into meaningful careers, and the apprenticeship model seemed like the perfect one to base COOP on. I had a brief stint at Google—I know, a lot of moves—and while I was there I was exposed to all the career paths in the tech sphere that weren’t just coding. I thought back to the awesome students I worked with in New York and knew that they would thrive in that marketplace, they just needed the skills. Fast forward a few months and I followed my roots in education back to New York.

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Hear Kalani explain how COOP works and how it's helping recent college graduates land their dream jobs.

Q: Can you tell me about COOP’s impact so far?

A: We started our pilot program with twelve underemployed graduates from the City University of New York who were struggling to find their first big break. My original vision for the program was based on a two-year associate degree, but then I realized that our pilot had to be just four quick months due to limited resources. The students we were working with were scrappy, driven, and blew us away.

I think so many people think that the traditional college experience is living in a dorm, graduating in four years, and having tons of people to turn to for favors. But that’s not what college looks like for most Americans. Most young people start at a community college and transfer. They’re not graduating in four years. They’re not living in a dorm, they’re commuting, they’re working, and they’re supporting families. So when they graduate they definitely don’t know anyone in a corner office who can do them a favor, but they are also deeply isolated from each other.

That’s the biggest impact COOP has had. Instead of trying to prepare college students for the marketplace, we knew that if we wanted to tackle underemployment, which was our stated mission, we had to work with young folks who were actually underemployed. And even if we did nothing else, we are bringing these peers together, breaking down that sense of isolation and forming a new network that can sustain them in the years ahead.

Q: It sounds like you’ve found a model that really works. Is there anything else you’d like to add about COOP and the growing network of “COOPers”?

A: I’d like to put a finer point on our approach if that’s ok. Our goal is to help our folks get full time, salaried work in positions that require their Bachelor’s degree. If we were working with young people who are still enrolled in college, any intervention would inevitably be about preparation. I’m all for preparation, but at some point the rubber hits the road and you’ve got to react to unexpected circumstances. I always like to use Oregon Trail as a metaphor. Do you remember that computer game?

Q: Oh yeah, so many decisions about what to stock up on, what to pack, things like that.

A: Right! So to me the preparation part of the game is college. But you and I know that’s not the real game. The real game is this 3,000 mile journey across the continent where you’re fording rivers, dealing with snake bites, and all that stuff. I think similarly, in education, there’s a major focus on preparation and there’s this obsession with the idea that “If we just nail the curriculum, and if we just teach all the right skills then no young person would ever have to deal with underemployment.” That’s a beautiful idea, but it completely ignores the fact that careers are these fifty-year journeys where you will have tremendous highs and devastating lows—you may get fired, you may get laid off, or experience other losses. That’s why we always tell our COOPers that building a career is hard, but it shouldn’t be lonely.

Q: We always like to end with this question. How has the Obama Foundation Fellowship impacted your work?

A: At COOP, we’ve always grown in a modest, incremental way that allowed the new cohorts to be overshadowed by the number of alumni who were already out there working. The alumni coach 100% of our program and they serve as champions, advocates, and referrers for the classes coming in behind them, essentially creating a new pool of recruiters. This fellowship has come at a really pivotal moment for COOP because now that we’re almost five years old and have reached our 75th cohort, we’re hoping to scale what we’ve created. This fellowship has been a big validator for the work we’ve done so far, but now we want to take something that works well for 1,000 people and scale it to something that within the next six or seven years has grown to tens of thousands of young people in our program. We’re working in New York and San Francisco now, but we want to be in three to five cities in the future. The Obama Foundation Fellowship is a really big part of making that happen.

You can learn more about Kalani, COOP, and meet the rest of our 2018 class of Fellows here.

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