© 2024 Ideastream Public Media

1375 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44115
(216) 916-6100 | (877) 399-3307

WKSU is a public media service licensed to Kent State University and operated by Ideastream Public Media.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Cleveland educational nonprofit teaches students the skills needed for business

 Victor Vilchez and fellow Keystone high school students at Bendix in Avon, Ohio.
Heather Lee
Victor Vilchez, wearing a suit on the right, tours the Bendix facility in Avon with his fellow high school students.

Prior to the pandemic, Cleveland educational nonprofit Effective Leadership Academy (ELA) served as “the cherry on top” in polishing off student workforce and entrepreneurial development.

But after a year of virus-spurred remote learning, ELA’s mission of social and emotional development is no longer seen as a luxury. Instead, it is now deemed by educators as essential, said organization founder and executive director Flo Brett.

The nonprofit teams with schools and Northeast Ohio companies to develop a curriculum of leadership, communication and additional “soft skills” needed in the workforce. Ideally, participants will be prepared for job opportunities around STEAM - which is STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) with arts included.

“What we do as an organization is development self-understanding,” said Brett, whose Warrensville Heights enterprise partners with 230 schools and 120 businesses in Cuyahoga and Lorain counties. “You never know when you will be in that moment when you have an opportunity. If you haven’t got the right mindset or the right tools in your backpack, (that opportunity) will never come through.”

Successful people understand the value of self-determination, Brett said. To that end, ELA programming centers on goal setting and out-of-the-box thinking. Citing a Duke University study, Brett said that early soft-skill development significantly increases a student’s chances of obtaining a college degree and securing full-time employment by age 24.

Curriculum cultivated by a seasoned team of educators and nonprofit officials prepares middle-school students for the transition into high school. Meanwhile, a program called ClubLead coaches learners in grades 5 through 12 on critical team and leadership dynamics.

Keystone High School junior Victor Vilchez was chosen by his school for ELA’s Chamber Leadership Academy, which links participants with elected officials and business leaders. Theme days around government, technology and healthcare are bolstered by Q&A sessions with expert panels. Such early workforce exposure is not something Vilchez regularly encounters in the classroom, he said.

“It teaches you stuff that they don’t teach in school to help you in the real world,” said Vilchez. “(The program) brought me more to the workforce mindset.”

One step at a time

The leadership academy introduces youths to local businesses needing workers with technical skills supported by social and leadership qualities. Problem-solving and a “self-start” mindset carry the same weight for today’s employers as the foundational abilities needed for the job itself, noted Brett.

These virtues also shift neatly into the entrepreneurial space, she said.

“I can teach the skills to become an entrepreneur, such as confidence, communication and the ability to think with other people,” Brett said. “All entrepreneurs are busy people, so what does that look like from a time management perspective?”

ELA’s teachings about interviewing and body language helped Vilchez get a job detailing cars at a Norwalk dealership. Effective body language broadcasts an individual’s focus and interest level, showing the interviewer that they have your full attention, he said.

Vilchez plans to use his newly acquired knowledge for a business and marketing degree. Beyond that, he envisions a future of real estate and stock market investment or even starting a business of his own. What he knows for certain is that Northeast Ohio needs an influx of leaders.

“This is our community, and a lot of us will end up back here after college,” said Vilchez. “(ELA) is preparing us for that, because we’ll need people in those leadership positions.”

Brett, the ELA founder, is a product of the 10,000 Small Businesses program, an entrepreneurship-focused investment program hosted by Goldman Sachs. After gleaning a business education from a cadre of like-minded entrepreneurs, the native of England poured her leadership and organizational skills into the Cleveland nonprofit. Formerly a lead Intensive Care Unit nurse with a background in training and clinical governance, Brett knows very well that the path to successful private enterprise usually takes a few unexpected turns.

“We are the first sphere to get you ready to be in that position where you can even consider yourself an entrepreneur,” Brett said. “Or to be able to write a business plan, or be ready to network and ask the right questions. Without step one, you’ll never get to step two.”

Connecting to the community

ELA is funded by participating schools and businesses, though schools that can only afford partial payments get a discount. The organization also gets funding from individual donors.

Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems, which designs truck air brake systems and components, recently welcomed Lorain High School students for an event highlighting opportunities in STEAM and manufacturing. During the November visit, 18 Lorain High juniors and seniors toured Bendix’s high-tech Elyria headquarters and engaged a group of employees in a panel discussion.

“We’re a local engineering company, so we want them to be exposed to that,” said Maria Gutierrez, director of sustainability and corporate responsibility at Bendix. “This is different than hearing about us in school. They have the opportunity to see us in person – what it looks like from day to day as an engineer, and (the ability to) talk to employees on their career paths.”

An introduction to the inner workings of a successful company can also be a motivating factor for a would-be business owner, Gutierrez added.

“All businesses started because there was an entrepreneur who decided there was a need to fill,” said Gutierrez. “They can see what’s needed to make a business special.”

ELA’s Brett founded the nonprofit knowing young people must develop 21st century soft skills to make it in the globalized marketplace. Nurturing these abilities can only lift students into an ever-evolving “world of work” that includes entrepreneurs, she said.

“These individuals must cultivate the workforce readiness skills that will enable them to successfully secure and retain jobs, launch their own innovations and attract investors,” said Brett. “All of our programs take students on a journey of self-discovery. As an entrepreneur, you need to know your strengths, your weaknesses, be able to define your opportunities, and side step the threats.”

Douglas J. Guth is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland Heights. His focus is on business, with bylines in publications including Crain's Cleveland Business and Middle Market Growth.