Genesys Works matches high school students with tech internships
on March 13, 2015
Unlike most of his classmates at Skyline High School in Oakland, Allan Qin, a shy 18-year-old, finishes class at noon and goes straight to work at the Emeryville headquarters of Peet’s Coffee & Tea. His day is just getting started.
A high school senior, Qin has been working at Peet’s in technological support for more than five months. Opportunities for low-income students to find work are hard to find, and meaningful work is even more rare.
Qin’s paid internship came through Genesys Works, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco that places students into an eight-week summer program in their junior year before assigning them to suitable tech companies in their senior year.
The nonprofit aims to serve students eligible for a free or reduced-priced lunch program, which is considered an indicator of low-income status. This is also a group that includes first-generation Americans, many of color. Last year, 25 Oakland high school students like Qin enrolled in the program.
Genesys Works teams up with corporate partners at four East Bay locations: Numi Organic Tea, Clif Bar, PG&E and Peet’s. In May, the nonprofit plans to open a new office in Oakland’s downtown business area.
“We want to service more businesses and students in Oakland,” said Genesys Works executive director Peter Katz. “In order to play in Oakland, you have to serve in Oakland.”
Katz said he hopes summer trainees here will reach 50 such young men and women in Oakland.
Genesys Works projects reside in four metropolitan areas: Chicago, Houston and Minneapolis/St. Paul in addition to the San Francisco Bay Area.
Although the Bay Area presents amazing opportunities, Katz said, there is a huge opportunity gap between the rich and the poor. “That gap is widening rather than shortening,” Katz said.
The nonprofit cooperates with several high schools within San Francisco Unified School District and Oakland Unified School District. About 1,000 students nationwide participate in the program each summer, Katz said.
It’s “not just a question of why now,” Katz added. “It’s a question of, why is it taking so long?”
Genesys Works first got in touch with Peet’s back in 2014, according to Travis Harold, a software quality assurance manager. Planners from Peet’s decided that it was good for the company to give back to its community. Besides providing IT training at Peet’s, Genesys Works offers college planning, workshops, and federal student aid and scholarship consulting to these students.
Each day, Harold spends 30 minutes studying SAT vocabulary flash cards with Qin and other trainees.
Originally from Zhuhai, China, Qin moved to the United States in 2001. Last year, he heard of Genesys Works in an auditorium surrounded by other junior classmates. Along with a few of his friends, Qin applied.
His Genesys Works experience started out with an intense, eight-week training program that evaluated juniors based on attitude, respect for others and how they progressed in information technology (IT). Over the summer, Qin learned how to act like a young professional. He gained comfort with business etiquette such as how to shake hands and greet colleagues. He also acquired basic IT skills such as using programs like Microsoft Excel and Outlook. Program trainers challenged students to come out of their comfort zone. They had to introduce themselves to strangers, attend executive briefings and sit through mock interviews.
The program wasn’t easy, Katz said. Around 20 percent of students end up dropping out of the program. Students who don’t pass the course don’t receive an internship during their senior year. Qin passed. Although he’d had no prior tech experience, he was chosen as an intern and placed in Peet’s tech service.
“When I first heard of Peet’s Coffee, I thought, ‘Oh, they make coffee,’” Qin recalled. He said he was surprised by how much technology and online-user experience counted behind the scenes.
Along with his classmate, 17-year-old Michelle Villagran, Qin trained under the supervision of Peet’s software manager Harold. “I was thinking that I would be a babysitter,” Harold said. “I wasn’t too thrilled about being a babysitter since most kids out of high school are not ready.”
To his surprise, both Qin and Villagran came extremely well-prepared. On their first day, Harold assigned them some simple tasks, like familiarizing themselves with Peet’s website. Shortly after, Qin and Villagran both came back to him and said, “Travis, I’m done. What’s next?”
At that point, Harold knew he could give the students more challenging work.
Among their assignments: Qin and Villagran analyze websites and ensure all webpages are running well. If there is an error, they report it to their manager. They also work with the retail support team and visit newly-opened stores. They got to visit a store under construction before it was opened to the public. Recently they’ve been working with the security department, scheduling scans of computer systems for various stores to make sure they are secured.
One of the perks of working at Peet’s is getting to taste the beverages. Qin’s favorite is the Ancient Trees Organic Pu-erh tea. “It is smooth and it just rolls over your mouth,” he said. Villagran’s favorite is the Four Seasons Oolong, because it is sweet and not too bitter, she said.
A problem facing many high school students, especially within minority groups, is the initial communication barrier. Even though Genesys Works has prepped them to develop business competencies, utilizing them in a workplace is another challenge.
“They are fresh and they are in high school,” said Hitendra Mishra, the senior IT director at Peet’s. “There was the initial challenge of them opening up.”
Qin said he’s a very nervous person when it comes to voicing his opinions in front of a group of people. Villagran struggles with the same issue. “I’ve always been a shy person,” Villagran said. “I was just afraid of asking questions, answering questions or asking for help.” Villagran added that she was reluctant to ask even if they were her peers. “I guess I could say that I was anti-social,” she said.
Working with their counselors, Harold identifies the trainees’ weaknesses and finds ways to challenge them at work. Harold asks them to “go out, talk to someone you don’t know, articulate the issue, get a resolution for it and come back.”
Harold coaches the high schoolers that people judge them based on their ability to communicate. “If you can communicate what you feel, then another person’s perception of you ultimately changes,” he said.
At Peet’s, Qin had a chance to present in front of a group of experts. This experience gave him a huge boost of confidence. He is now able to stand in front of his peers and voice his opinions.
As with Harold’s initial reaction, some people may question a high school student’s ability to perform in a high-stress environment.
But Mishra has a different outlook. “It’s always the same, whether you hire someone with an MBA degree or someone out of high school,” he said. “Unless you give someone an opportunity, you don’t know whether they are going to succeed or fail.”
“With the training that they’ve come to us with, it’s actually better than some people who’ve been in the workforce for quite some time,” Harold said. Both Qin and Villagran are hardworking and courteous, he added. “I’ll take that any day.”
Since joining up with Genesys Works, Qin has traded a bit of fun for more focus on his future. “I’ve sacrificed some time with my friends, but it’s a very unique experience that’s worth the sacrifices,” Qin said.
“I see high school as a gateway,” Qin added. “Opportunities like this let kids grow into men or women.”
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