Gaining Real-world Business Experience

By Shea Carver, posted Aug 21, 2020
Meaghan Lewis, director of programs for Cape Fear Collective, leads virtual training for high school students. (Photo by Michael Cline Spencer)
Our modern world is an ev­er-evolving place to navigate. Since the 1980s, the digital era has seen automation techniques and computer programming redefine the global workforce.
Yet, proper human training hasn’t adapted with it.
According to a Gallup survey, business leaders found only 11% of college graduates have the necessary skills to work in the modern world.
District C is hoping to elevate those numbers.
Founded by former teachers and husband-and-wife team Dan Gon­zalez and Anne Jones, District C launched in the Triangle of North Carolina in 2017.
The nonprofit gives middle- and high-school students an opportunity to participate in a one-week intensive that allows them to problem-solve real issues that regional companies face. They focus on team-based strengths, with the help of school dis­tricts, coworking spaces, nonprofits, companies and advocates coaching and helping students. To date District C has trained more than 600 students with the help of 90 coaches.
“Preparing the next generation is the education challenge of our time,” Gonzalez said. “We founded District C to meet this challenge.”
Part of the nonprofit’s mission is to expand and combine efforts with resources that share some of District C’s goals.
Wilmington’s nonprofit Cape Fear Collective (CFC) meets those stan­dards by working with data scientists, journalists, strategists and the like to impact areas of social progress with­in economics, health, human services, climate change and housing.
With the help of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce and RTI In­ternational, CFC recently launched Cape Fear Talent Survey, which ad­dresses 500 businesses to help define workforce development needs over the next several years. Together, CFC and District C have joined forces to create their first regional alliance, District C Cape Fear.
“We will use the Cape Fear Talent data to inform future District C Cape Fear business partnerships to the extent where we can work with employers in the industries that have growing talent needs and are interested in engaging earlier in the talent pipeline,” said CFC director of programs Meaghan Lewis.
District C Cape Fear began its first Wilmington weeklong intensive Aug. 10-15.
In conglomeration with New Hanover County Schools and UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, it chose 15 rising juniors and seniors to participate. Students gathered daily via Zoom with teammates, mentors and District C Cape Fear coaches, including Lewis and Kevin Maurer, CFC’s director of community engagement.
Students had to devise pitches to assess problems presented from two local companies: Live Oak Bank and Cape Fear Public Utility Authority. Live Oak asked for ideas on programs that would encourage employees to make conscientious health decisions for long-term well-being, which in turn would help keep health care costs lower for the company. Cape Fear Public Utility Authority wanted proposals on how to educate youth on the company’s work toward protecting local water resources and limiting its aftereffects on climate change.
Four squads were hammered out, with two each assigned to the company in order to give contrasting approaches to the problems. Squads consisted of a mix of kids from different schools, all bringing talents from assorted backgrounds and cultural experiences. “This creates the right context for learning to leverage the power of difference,” Gonzalez said. “The best ideas are informed by unique perspectives.”
Throughout the first four days, squads interviewed company executives about needs and protocols already in place to inform their presentation. Teams learned firsthand how to apply their strengths in research, public speaking, teamwork and creative strategy to understand how to succeed in the workforce today.
Seventeen-year-old Mikenzie Wallace, from Southeast Area Technical High School, learned to dig deep during the interview process.
“It is not all about checking off a list of questions,” she said. “It is about getting a deeper understanding of the knowledge from the guest speaker.”
They also experienced the rewards of sticking to agendas and following through on key talking points for which company executives addressed.
“I have used an agenda before but not as confined and tight as the ones we used during C Squad,” said 17-year-old Anina Parker from New Hanover High School.
At the end of the week, students pitched their ideas to representatives from Live Oak and CFPUA. The executives were then able to give feedback to students.
“Pitches are more workshopping ideas than what you see on Shark Tank,” Maurer explained to community members who tuned in on Aug. 15 via Zoom.
During the Live Oak pitch, the first squad presented accessible, less stigmatized mental health services for employees. The second squad suggested incentivizing fitness programs for workers to utilize infrastructure, like the bank’s on-site gym, already in place.
“You’re speaking my language – I love incentive programs,” said Micah Davis, chief marketing officer for Live Oak, after the pitch.
The District C Cape Fear model is being taught to 14 teachers and local organizational leaders.
Gonzales said, “The more coaches trained in our region means more students getting a District C experience.”
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