Each innovator in this spotlight series illustrates aspects of the Learner-Centered Ecosystem in action. Project Basta helps students in their last year of college navigate education programs and proceed toward a career path, and provide wraparound supports through social capital to help them find opportunity.

To successfully transition from education to employment, learners need clear information and guidance at every stage of the journey. Support with navigation is critical at the start to identify an education program that aligns with a learner’s interests and career goals. Throughout the program, wraparound supports like mentoring and peer networking keep learners engaged and focused. As learners approach graduation, they’ll need navigation support to chart a seamless path to career opportunity.

Navigation and wraparound supports — two key elements of a Learner-Centered Ecosystem – are integral components of Project Basta, a career exploration and readiness program for first-generation graduates of color.

Sheila Sarem, Project Basta’s CEO and founder, was inspired to launch the program by a challenge she experienced working as a recruiter. Sarem knew peers and colleagues who wanted to be more inclusive in their hiring. She also knew first generation college graduates with the talent, assets, and diverse experiences employers were looking for. But too few of those grads were getting the jobs they wanted.  “Why aren’t amazing first-generation college graduates finding their way to these wonderful employers that are saying they really do want to start hiring across lines of difference?” she asked.

That’s the question that led her to leave her job as a recruitment director to found Project Basta. The two-part program offers career navigation consisting of cohort-based content designed to drive self-discovery and illuminate career pathways, followed by small group coaching focused on demystifying the hiring process and launching program participants on their professional journeys.

Students in their last year of college are grouped into cohorts of between 25 and 40 students who meet with a career success manager during the 10-week curriculum and are supported until they secure their first jobs. As part of their program participation, Project Basta fellows have access to a plethora of employer networking events, real-time coaching and feedback on application materials, a proprietary job board populated with jobs from Basta partners and advocates, and wraparound career readiness support from the Basta team.

This rigorous curriculum provides Basta students with the same social capital advantages their peers may experience through family connections or other networks, and supports students in intentionally building their own social capital networks.   which Sarem defines as “a job where you get to use your bachelor’s degree or in a competitive salary for your field, where there’s a career ladder where you have benefits.” This number has remained steady from their first 15-person cohort three years ago to their most recent cohort of 244 fellows.

We spoke with Sarem, Project Basta’s CEO, to learn more about how the program integrates a career search with self-discovery, celebrates the strengths and assets of first-gen students, and partners with employers to change the way they support new talent.

Q: How did you design Project Basta to meet the career needs of first-generation students?

Sheila Sarem: We recruited a group of college students to join us in a prototype of launching our organization. And we got so much feedback from them along the way and we learned some incredible things about what the experience of trying to get a job is now.

At Basta, we believe that we have to build a program that is adaptive to where the young person is when they come to us. Because if we say, “OK, we’re going to work only with students who know exactly what they want to do”, we are cutting out a whole group of people. And if we say, “We’re only open for students who are doing blue sky searching”, then we also cut off a whole set of students.

Q: What’s the process of career exploration like for a Project Basta student?

Sarem: What we’ve really tried to do is just be really intentional about having a learning journey that aligns with how you discover yourself and how you discover the world of work and connect those two things together before we start.

We’ve built out a robust and holistic assessment tool that helps students identify their career strengths and interests that also align to the complexities and biases of how we make decisions — such as how we think about and relate to the importance of money, family, and time, for example. When students are admitted into the Basta program, we administer this diagnostic to see where this student is on the pathway to getting a first job.

The first two milestones of the Basta program are called clarity and alignment. Clarity is, do you have enough knowledge about the world of work to be making informed decisions about what you want to do? And the second is alignment, which is critically important, and leads to really tough conversations with our participants. How do your skills, strengths, interests, and drivers connect to the jobs that you want to do? These parameters then align to personalized career pathway milestones, from figuring out what you want to do, all the way through negotiating your job offer.

Q: What are some of the most important supports that Project Basta offers first-generation students?

Sarem: I think that the most salient and critical thing facing the students we work with is worthiness, belonging, knowing that they have a right to the spaces that they’re entering. And my feelings so far with Basta’s 600-plus students now is that if we can support them in making strides on that worthiness, value, belonging, then everything else is a little bit easier.

One crucial support is social capital, which Project Basta defines as knowledge and access. Do you know what jobs are out there and why you’d be a good fit? Do you have people vouching for you as you’re interviewing and once you get the job?

We really home in on, what are the gaps that you have in your knowledge because you were a first-generation college student? So, what are the specific gaps that you might have because you didn’t grow up in a household of two college-going parents? We are really intentional about calling a lack of social capital the result of knowledge gaps and not skills gaps. For example, me telling you that you need to send this thank you note after every interview is not a skill gap, but a knowledge gap. Others may know through their social capital, but you may not know because you didn’t grow up with that experience.

We’re trying to embed those things into our program model in a way that is supportive of the students. For example, every student receives feedback on anything they submit for our review within 24 hours. All day long students are dropping things in our communication tool that they need feedback on: a cover letter, a thank you note, or when to follow-up on an interview they had. We codified the 24-hour response time because we want to give the students the same access to feedback another student would have through their mother, sister, aunt, cousin, or co-worker.

Q: What difference does social capital make in someone’s professional growth?

Sarem: I think the tough thing about social capital is that, if you’ve lived a life where it has been aplenty, it’s really hard to parse out what is your success versus what has been made easier for you because of your access to social capital.

The narrative that is sort of perpetuated in our country is that people are just getting things done by themselves, and my success is mine alone, and I am the reason I am where I am. I have this wish that for every CEO their bio would not say, “I went to school here. I’ve done this, that, and the other,” but instead that their bio would say “My dad got me into college. My aunt sent my resume along for my first job. Then my first manager had me expedited into my promotion.” I wish we made that stuff visible because then the real ways in which people get jobs and advance through life would be common knowledge.

Q: How do you codify social capital into your content and curriculum?

Sarem: Our curriculum is based on four key pillars:

One, knowing and communicating your own unique value. Many of our students do not have the same background as traditional college graduates. If a recruiter is sitting across from a Basta fellow who worked at Target while they were in college, the recruiter might assume that the student works on Saturdays for beer money. They’re not going to assume that the student works 40 hours a week and manages a team of eight while also carrying a full course load. So we have to train our young people to believe in their own value and then talk about it.

Two, building and leveraging networks. How do we actually make social capital networks available to more people?

Three, developing professional tools and mindsets. How to make sure you’ve got a solid bank of interview responses, knowing what goes into a thank-you note, making a good LinkedIn profile, and making your online presence ready for anyone to Google you and find only good things.

Four, navigating dominant culture. Many of our students are constantly code switching, or adhering to different cultural norms than those they grew up with, when they get to work. We work on making sure this additional burden is not lowering their energy and making visible how to handle that.

Q: What characteristics describe companies that are a good fit with Project Basta? 

Sarem: We look for companies that acknowledge, “OK, we’ve been hiring in this particular way over the last 10 years and it’s bringing us the same kind of talent over and over again. We’re interested in exploring something new.” When we share with them our profile of students, they continue to remain interested and show they’re open to thinking about different profiles as potentially successful in their companies.

More specifically, the markers that I look for form a three-legged stool. You need a champion with a voice in the company who’s saying “I would sponsor this. I give you my direct report for the green light to move forward with this.” You need somebody with a headcount to make that hire. And then you need a recruiter that is engaged and cares as well. If any three legs of this stool is broken, it’s very hard to move forward.

Q: How do you continue to work with Project Basta alums after they’ve landed a job?

Sarem: We do a three months, six months, 12-months, and 18-months survey to fellows to understand how they’re getting along in their careers, and we look at 12 months and 18 months retention outcomes as well. We offer time to get together once a month where any alum who’s having any kind of issue or just needs to recharge or even just wants to connect can jump on. And then they’re sort of sharing challenges and then helping each other problem-solve. It has been really interesting watching what they can do — they all support each other and work together to co-solve their own challenges they bring to the table.