Beyond12 founder on the university challenge for low-income students

20 May 2016

Make sure your idea solves a problem, says social entrepreneur Alex Bernadotte from Beyond12, which helps low-income students graduate from college

Here’s a top tip for social entrepreneurs: make sure your idea is born of a challenge. “I see people with a good idea, and it is really a solution in search of a challenge, rather than the other way around,” said Inspirefest 2016 speaker Alex Bernadotte, founder and CEO of Beyond12, a social enterprise that helps low-income, first-generation and historically underrepresented students go through college and graduate.

“If you are thinking about ideas, make sure it is solving a need in the field, that it is going to help a group of people,” she said. “And always do the work and research with your constituents to really ensure the solution you are building is something that is helping to solve [a problem].”

By tracking the students and offering information, connections and mentoring, the Beyond12 approach seeks to support students who have transitioned from high school to college, and Bernadotte knows firsthand the challenge she is looking to address – as the first person in her immediate family to attend college, she ran into problems.

University challenge

“We came to the US from Haiti and neither of my parents had gone to college themselves, but they were clear and adamant that a degree was a key to changing trajectory,” she recalled.

But it was hard to know where to start, she added. “College was a thing we talked about in abstract terms and we didn’t really know what it took to get there or how I was going to get there. Luckily, I had very crafty parents, they got their information by listening to others who had more experience.”

Her mother overheard doctors at the ER department where she worked talking about where they would send their kids to college, and this led Bernadotte to set her sights on Ivy League colleges, including Dartmouth. When her acceptance letter to Dartmouth arrived, Bernadotte assumed the most difficult part of the journey was over, but that wasn’t the case.

“I was prepared to succeed, I was so inexperienced, and I was the first person in my family to go [to third-level], so it was almost as if I was navigating a foreign country,” she recalled. “I ran into a lot of challenges and I completely bombed my freshman year.”

Thankfully, Bernadotte got back on track and graduated with a degree in sociology, then went on to complete her graduate studies at Stanford University, but for many of her peers the story takes a different turn.

“Nationally [in the US], only 9pc of students from the lowest-income quartile can expect to graduate, versus 77pc of their wealthier peers,” she said, explaining how this statistic, combined with her personal experience, planted the seed of a social enterprise. “I wanted to ensure that no other students would experience the challenges that I had, and that they would be prepared to navigate their journey in college once they got in.”

Collect, connect, coach

Founded in 2009, Beyond12 takes a three-track approach to supporting students: they gather data on student progress through college, they provide online support to coach and connect students and they facilitate personal coaches for students too.

Even ensuring that a student has everything they need to make a deadline can help keep things on track, explained Bernadotte. “We break down the essential college tasks into bite-sized chunks and actionable steps, and we help students to plan and understand what they need. We also connect them with other students on their campus who face similar challenges, to help eliminate that feeling of aloneness.”

Tracking student progress has also shone a light on some interesting patterns: including a large fall-off between school and college. “As many as 30pc of the kids that were going on to university weren’t showing up on day one, something was happening to them over the summer,” said Bernadotte, adding that Beyond12 is brainstorming ideas with schools and colleges about low-cost supports during that vulnerable period.

Ashoka builds links

As well as coming up with a solution to a problem, Bernadotte encourages social entrepreneurs to link in with communities that can help, such as incubators.

Her own experience as an Ashoka Fellow has helped Beyond12, not only with fundraising but also with opening new opportunities and getting the message out about what Beyond12 does. “The Ashoka community has been incredibly supportive, highlighting our work, connecting us to other funders and really amplifying our voice in so many different ways,” she said.

Good indications

So does the Beyond12 approach work? It is early days, but the indications are good. “Right now, we are tracking the progress of about 43,000 college students and we are coaching over 2,000 students on 180 college campuses,” said Bernadotte. “The first cohort that we started tracking and coaching graduated from high school in 2011 and 82pc of those students have stayed on track to third year of college – that is huge.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Join us again from 30 June to 2 July 2016 for fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity. Book your tickets now.

Claire O’Connell
By Claire O’Connell

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology from University College Dublin and a master’s in science communication from Dublin City University. She has written for Silicon Republic and The Irish Times and was named Irish Science Writer of the Year in 2016.

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