An unlikely entrepreneur: The Bay Area teen trying to help foster youth through tech

on December 12, 2018

Carrying his coffee, 18-year-old Joseph Franco headed out his front door and walked to the convenience store near his Oakland apartment. He needed change for the bus.

“I’m a youth, so it’s $1.15,” he said before stepping onto the nearly empty 54. He went straight to the back row and sat down. When the bus stopped at the Fruitvale BART station, Franco stood up, adjusted his hat and thanked the driver. He was headed to a job interview at a burrito restaurant in Dublin, California.

“I used to think it was such a hassle to ride BART, but now I like it,” he said. “I’m used to it.” When he was in high school, he would sleep or read on the train, but now he usually plays a game on his Android. It has a cracked screen from being dropped the day he got it, but it still works.

Franco has been in the foster care system since age 15. Before then, he moved back and forth between parents until finally entering the system. He attended high school in Hayward and graduated in 2018. Today, he lives in an Oakland duplex along with four other housemates, most of whom are foster youths transitioning into post-high school life. While he gets his room in the apartment free thanks to a state program, he will lose most of his benefits when he turns 21. For now, he’s studying business at Chabot College, a community college in Hayward.

Franco is saving money for a car, and maybe a new phone. But mostly, it’s so he can launch the app he’s developing. It’s called FConnect, and it would connect foster youth to resources and mentors to help them find housing and apply to college.

Only about 50 percent of foster youth graduate from high school, according to the National Foster Youth Institute, and of those students, only 20 percent make it to college. Many face barriers to higher education like a lack of financial or emotional support from family. The complicating factors of moving frequently and the emotional toll of being in the foster system make it difficult to succeed in school—let alone make it to college. Still, studies show that most foster youth want to attend four-year universities. Franco’s goal for FConnect is to help them learn about resources that will help them get to college and, once there, make it to graduation.

“There are these funding options out there, and support systems within the schools are there. But no one really knows about them and no one really knows how to stay self-sustained,” Franco said. “If we can create this support system through FConnect—not only this support system but this direct access, this line of resources that are here for them—that we can definitely give a lot more people the chance that they need.”

The app, which Franco brainstormed as part of a high school class, is currently in its early development stage. Franco and his idea started getting attention this May after becoming a top contender at a Shark Tank-style pitch competition through the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) Bay Area. Some of that attention was from PayPal’s Social Innovation team, which has committed to helping Franco develop the app. By June, Franco had made it through round two of the competition and, in October, want on to the national finals.

He hopes to launch his app by the start of the next school year. His beta testers, he hopes, will be students in the Hayward Unified School District who will try the app and give feedback. He’s already been in talks with district leadership and met with counselors in November to discuss getting connected with their foster students.

Until then, Franco needs a job.

He has been on a few interviews since his last gig as an intern for Connor Krone’s San Francisco Board of Education campaign. Krone, one of Franco’s mentors and a judge in one of NFTE’s earlier competitions, runs a nonprofit that educates high school students about financial literacy. His school board campaign ended in November—Krone didn’t win—and Franco’s job was done.

Before that, Franco said, he worked for about six months at In and Out Burger prepping vegetables and handing out food at the drive-thru window. The money was good—over minimum wage—but it wasn’t enough, he said. So now he’s been using ZipRecruiter to pick up odd jobs here and there and apply to new ones. That’s how he found the burrito place.

But once he made it to the restaurant for his interview, the manager wasn’t in. He had an emergency and apparently didn’t have time to tell Franco.

“I’m disappointed,” Franco said as he walked back to the BART station. “He said I can come back tomorrow.”

***

Franco entered foster care at age 15, but he didn’t grow up there. He was raised in Modesto, and moved to Hayward while still in elementary school. When he was 9, his parents split up. He and his two younger sisters moved in with their dad while their mom remarried. By the time they entered foster care, his two older sisters were already living on their own.

“My mom was always partying,” Franco said. “And Dad, when he drank, he became aggressive.”

At 14, after deciding that his and his sisters’ safety was at risk living with their dad, Franco went to live with his mom. But less than a year later, he said, his sister wrote a letter to a school guidance counselor about the family’s living conditions that prompted the counselor to involve the police. “We were brought to CPS [Child Protective Services] by the police in Hayward,” Franco said. “It was really sudden.”

First, he said, he was taken in by an older sister. She was married with kids, though, so that didn’t last long. And, he said, there was too much family drama, with relatives attacking the sister and accusing her of breaking up the family.

Next, Franco was placed in a foster home in Fremont. “They were a nice Mexican family,” he said. “I used to think I could be rebellious, so I would stay out and hang out with my friends. Really, I was just sad that my family came apart so fast.” Franco said he was kicked out and sent to a group home in Oakland.

At the group home, Franco said, he got lucky in one way—he had a good roommate. Most boys in the house had to worry about their stuff being stolen. But he was unlucky in other ways. “The foster system,” he said, with a cynical-sounding laugh,“I guess that’s when I started dealing with depression and anxiety.”

Franco was already struggling in school, and, he said, that once he left his mother’s home, many family members cut ties with him. “I felt alone a lot,” he said. He didn’t share his feelings with his sisters because he knew they were dealing with problems of their own. “I’d put a smile on my face and crack jokes; that was a way I would cope with my depression,” Franco said. “Then I would take my walks. While everyone went to school, I would purposely sleep in.”

Skipping the beginning of the school day, Franco would walk by himself, stopping at Starbucks for a coffee—one of his vices. “I’d like walk to a Starbucks and drink coffee—I liked coffee a lot, I still do. That’s something that’s definitely been in my blood,” he said. “One of my jokes I would make is, ‘I’m Costa Rican, so in Costa Rica we like our bananas and coffee.’”

One of Franco’s major problems was getting to school. “I had a lot of attendance issues right after I entered the system,” Franco said. “Truancy notices were given to whoever I was living with at the time.”

Living at the group home in Oakland meant taking a 40-minute BART ride to Mt. Eden High School in Hayward. Franco’s social worker at the time, who was supposed to meet with him weekly and give him BART passes to get to school, wasn’t reliable, he said. So Franco would get his passes too late and end up just skipping class. He was slacking off, distracting himself from his anxiety and depression by playing video games for hours, taking breaks only to pee and to grab a bowl of cereal. “That was my loop,” he said: video games, bathroom, cereal, sleep, video games.

“It was a good distraction away from all my anxiety of the troubles of my family and how everything went wrong,” he said. Even though he was going to counseling, he said, the counseling made him angrier—he didn’t need to be fixed; he just wanted to be left alone.

 

Things changed during his senior year when he took an entrepreneurship class taught by Kathrina Miranda. The career preparation class is taught at the school but is part of the Eden Area Regional Occupational Program (ROP), which provides more than 135 career prep courses at schools in the Hayward, Castro Valley, San Leandro and San Lorenzo school districts. Miranda’s class focuses on teaching students how to pitch a business idea, write a proposal, make a website and use technology to market themselves.

Miranda isn’t a traditional teacher. Instead of teaching credentials, she has her own business, Miranda International Marketing Agency, which advises entrepreneurs and startup companies worldwide. She values project-based learning and treating students like employees—instead of lecturing, she gives them an assignment and answers questions as they come up. And she was quick to call Franco out for falling behind in class. “It doesn’t make sense for you to be in this class if you’re not here, because it’s all project-based and you have to be in class,” Miranda remembers telling him.

That’s when Franco let her in on his secret: he was in foster care.

“After that, things completely changed,” Miranda said. “His negativity wasn’t completely his fault because he came from a bad situation. So, after that, I started to advocate for him. And I think that’s when we got closer. And then he became interested in entrepreneurship because he thought, like, ‘Who is this person that cares about me?’”

In fact, Franco didn’t like her class at first. His guidance counselor added it to his schedule because he needed another elective. “I thought it was just boring,” Franco said. He didn’t like the business ideas Miranda presented to him in class, like an assignment to make a T-shirt company. The two got into an argument about it. “She was like ‘Are you kidding me?’ and I was like ‘Oh, wow, so cool,’” he said, mocking the idea. “Some sarcasm, some funny yelling and I fell in love with the class.”

Miranda threw the question back at him. “What problem do you have that needs to be solved?” she asked. “Make that your business project.”

Well, for one, Franco thought, he wanted to go to a four-year college, maybe for engineering. “When I was younger I wanted to be an inventor,” he said. “I always wanted to be older. I’d be like, ‘Man, I want to go to college, I want to just learn things, I want to get out of here, start making money and start living my life.’”

But he had no idea how to make it happen—he struggled just to get to class and wasn’t even on track to graduate. He knew there were resources for foster youth, programs that would help pay for college and housing, like grants through the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, which provides current and former foster care youth with up to $5,000 per academic year. But without a reliable support system, it was hard to keep track of everything.

So there was his idea: Create an app where all the resources could be consolidated, users could keep track of their plans and goals, and connect with former foster youth who had “made it” out of the system and into successful lives.

“If I had an app like this when I was first thrown into foster care, I think it would have definitely made my high school life a lot easier,” Franco said. “I didn’t know any of the resources out there—housing, Chafee Grants—until I got closer with my counselor.”

Students in Miranda’s class were competing with one another to make it into the NFTE competition, but Franco’s idea was the frontrunner from the start.“When he started writing his business plan I said, ‘You know what? I think you’re going to win this whole thing,’” Miranda said. “This was early in the year and he was just like, ‘Yeah, right.’”

Most of Franco’s preparation leading up to the first NFTE competition involved researching the foster care system, seeing what resources were out there already and practicing his presentation. “It involved a lot of hours in the classroom working,” he said.

Franco isn’t much of a coder, and he hadn’t taken any other business classes before, so he wouldn’t be able to present a finished product—just his idea, research and, of course, his personal story. His classmates helped him practice, prepare his presentation and create a logo. “We came together like a family to get him to win,” Miranda said. “He pitched to all of us like 20 times.”

During the competition’s first round in May, Franco’s idea made it through. “He’s someone who just kind of stood out,” said Alfredo Mathieu, senior regional director of NFTE Bay Area. “His pitch was not that polished. His slides weren’t that polished. But his idea was so compelling and the impact he wanted to have was just so clear. It was just really powerful.”

Then, he came in second place in the Northern California round in June. That meant that in October, he was flown to New York City for the national competition. He was one of three finalists chosen out of nearly 20,000 applicants from across the country. In order to win, Franco had to pitch his idea, prototype and accompanying slideshow to a panel of five judges. If he won first place, he would take home $15,000.

When Franco, still in braces, took the stage that final day in a borrowed business suit, he felt more prepared than before. “I was never nervous until I got onto the stage going into the final round, seeing all the people,” he said.“Suddenly, I got all kinds of butterflies.”

It was America’s Got Talent meets a TEDx Talk. A panel of five judges—businesspeople and educators—sat at a table to the right of the stage. Franco strode in confidently from stage left and made a beeline for the panel. He gave firm handshakes to each judge as he made his way down the line. Then, he launched into his presentation, with the gusto of an entrepreneur pitching to a high-stakes venture capital firm.

“The hardest thing about going into foster care is the sense of isolation,” he told the audience. “Once I entered foster care, I found that there was no support for me getting to school, no support for me getting help with homework, and my foster home only cared about my attendance so that they could get funding. And, once you exit foster care, you are left with no home, no food and no funding or money for college.”

After his seven-minute presentation, the audience cheered him, but the judges grilled him: How did he figure out how much running the app would cost? Did he have a plan for staffing as the app grows?

Franco ended up taking second place. (First place went to Kelsey Johnson of Los Angeles, who had invented “Kinky Kaps,” a shower turban for people with long, heavy hair.) When Franco left New York City, he was mad that he didn’t win. “I was nervous and maybe I didn’t present as good as she did,” he said. The winner’s idea, he added, was also very marketable. “She did present amazingly and did have an actual product to show,” he said.

Still, second place was a big win, especially since Franco never thought he would make it that far. Only a year ago, he wasn’t even interested in his business class. “It was really surreal, especially passing the second competition and then getting to New York, getting as far as I did,” he said. “I remember thinking ‘Wow, I guess I am good. I have to be smart, I guess.’”

***

While he didn’t win the competition, along the way Franco had made some important new friends. During the second round, he met Rachael Claudio of PayPal’s Social Innovation team, who thought Franco should attend PayPal’s Opportunity Hack, a two-day event in August that brought together “hackers”—computer engineers—and members of local nonprofits. The goal of the hackathon is to help the organizations solve some of their tech problems. This often means helping create a prototype app, Claudio said.

Although F-Connect isn’t a nonprofit, Claudio pitched the idea of letting him join in to senior executives and engineers at PayPal, and they agreed. “We’ve never really done anything like this before—this is very different,” Claudio said. “His story’s just so inspiring.”

During the Opportunity Hack, Franco presented his idea to teams of developers who then decided which project they wanted to work on during the two-period. Part of Franco’s presentation was a prototype he created with his mentor, Connor Krone, using web design software earlier in the year. Using that design as their model, and with Franco’s input, the developers created a web app for FConnect. “They asked me how I wanted it to look and I got to be very involved,” Franco said. “I think it’s a very friendly interface.”

Today, FConnect’s gray and blue themed prototype welcomes its users with an encouraging note: “Collaboration for foster youth has never been easier. Create a project, join a team, and track your progress.”

After the login screen, users are taken to their “projects” page, which allows them to keep track of their college applications, a checklist for finding housing, and follow Franco’s college roadmap, which will outline the steps students need to take to apply for college and financial aid. It also allows them to connect with other foster youth and collaborate on projects.

The web app hasn’t been launched yet and the mobile version still needs to be developed—something that Claudio’s team at PayPal is hoping to work on. She points out that building an app like F-Connect takes a lot of work. “It’s very intensive. We took on one pro bono project with another nonprofit about a year ago and what we thought would be a three-month project turned into a year and a half project,” she said. “It’s not easy and it takes a lot of time and resources.”

But, she said, her company’s leaders have a lot of faith in Franco, including her boss Julie Vennewitz-Pierce, director of PayPal Gives. “We have a couple of our developers who are really interested in what Joseph is trying to do and want to help him out as much as possible, so we are keeping those connections alive,” Vennewitz-Pierce said. “I believe in Joseph, I’m just really impressed by him. I think he’s going to be successful no matter what he does—he has a bright light, I think, within him.”

Franco still has work to do, though, she said, when it comes to creating content for his app. But, she said, he has a great team of people helping him.

“I know he has what it takes to make it work,” Claudio added. “It’s not going to be an easy road to start your own business.But he has it because he’s been through what he’s been building to solve. So he’s constantly reminded of why he’s doing this.”

***

As Franco works to help other young people like him, he knows he’s lucky to have had a support system form around him—mostly due to Miranda. “She’s been like a superstar,” he said.

But not all foster youth have this experience.

One of the first big challenges they face is graduating from high school. (Even with his support system, Franco had to take extra classes and do extra credit in order to walk at his graduation in June.)

According to the California Department of Education, foster youth are less likely to earn a high school diploma than other students. The state’s overall graduation rate is 82.7 percent, while it’s only 50.8 percent for foster youth. Statewide, the dropout rate is 9.1 percent for students overall, but 28.8 percent for foster youth.

The Oakland Unified School District’s graduation rate for foster youth closely matches the state level—about 50 percent. But the overall graduation rate for all students in the district is 10.7 percentage points lower than the statewide rate (72 percent in the district compared with 82.7 percent in the state).

 

In Alameda County, the chronic absenteeism rate among foster youth—typically defined as missing 18 or more days a year—is about 9 percent higher than the statewide average. On a daily basis, this means the students have lower class participation, miss lessons and other assignments, and have to make up days later.

“It only takes a few days of missed school a year” to disrupt a student’s progress, said Katie Ranftle, communications specialist with First Place For Youth, a Bay Area nonprofit that helps young people transitioning from foster care to adult independence. Foster youth may miss school because they’ve been moved to a new foster home or group house. Even if students are able to stay in the same school after a move, constantly moving from home to home can be disruptive to attendance, Ranftle said. “For many youth, there are mental health issues alongside foster care,” she said. They may have to miss school for medical appointments or court dates, she said. Those with children may miss for childcare reasons.

By the time these students reach First Place For Youth, she said, they’ve usually had between six and 10 foster placements, and may have dropped out of school or severely fallen behind. Some are facing homelessness. Her organization helps them catch up in school, secure stable housing close to transportation and schools, and achieve personal goals like getting jobs and applying to college.

And, she said, they’ll keep helping these youth until age 24, even though the official cut-off age for the California foster care system is 21.

“A large number of foster youth aren’t going to graduate high school on time, many of them because they don’t have a support system to turn to,” Ranftle said. They may not understand how to start the college application process or feel that it is too expensive for them. “They feel that they need to start working immediately, rather than continuing their education,” she said. “If they don’t work, they don’t have anywhere to live.”

Those who do graduate high school are often unprepared to apply for college, or aren’t sure how to go about it. Dr. Amy Dworsky, a research fellow at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, has focused her studies on vulnerable youth populations, including those exiting the system at age 21, also known as “emancipating” or “aging out” of foster care. “A young person from foster care, they’re often the first person in their family to go to college,” she said. “They may feel kind of intimidated by the whole situation and they just don’t have a lot of social support that they can turn to.”

But, she points out, “there’s been a big push both at the federal level and at state levels to provide various types of financial assistance to young people in foster care who want to go to college.”

Thanks to the California’s Foster Youth Success Initiative started in 2007, community colleges are required to have a foster youth liaison whose job it is to assist incoming students in setting goals and meeting graduation and transfer requirements. They also arrange college tours, help students complete financial aid applications and connect students to on- and off-campus resources.

For example, at Laney, a community college in Oakland, this service is provided by a group called Beyond Emancipation. Their team provides individual as well as group counseling and education, employment and housing support for “transitional” foster youth, meaning those between ages 18 and 21.

“It’s really just kind of being there for young folks and helping them making decisions, but with them in the driver’s seat,” said Julia Lakes, the group’s development manager. “The idea being that the person closest to the problem is closest to the solution. So how can we support them and show them the services that are out there, but not push them in any direction?”

At Chabot College in Hayward, where Franco is in his first year, the program is called “Guardian Scholars.” The program provides students with academic counseling, priority registration, financial aid support, grant assistance and career planning. Elsa Saenz, the program’s coordinator, said students in the program meet with a counselor every semester and are offered bi-weekly workshops on things like how to find scholarships or how to be productive student. “Students can come and see us every day,” Saenz said. “We’re accessible to them.”

Chabot’s program serves between 50 and 60 students, but Saenz knows there are more at the school. The problem, though, is that these students self-identify, so it can be difficult to track them down. Ideally, she’d like to be connected to students while they’re still in high school, what she calls a “warm hand-off.”

That’s how she met Franco, Saenz said, while he was still attending Mt. Eden.

Entering his senior year, Franco’s future was full of question marks. High school was coming to an end soon and, before getting help from Miranda, Franco didn’t have a plan.

“I wasn’t quite prepared at all [to be] making decisions about where I was going to college or how to do it,” he said. With help from his girlfriend and guidance counselor, he decided to attend Chabot with the hope of transferring to a four-year university later, because this way would be cheaper.

Saenz said that she was able to meet with Franco and help him come up with an education plan before he started college, but that he’s been distracted with FConnect. “Something like this can be distracting as well as exciting,” she said. “It’s really easy to fall behind.”

It’s not uncommon for transitioning foster youth to struggle in their first semester, Saenz said. “A lot of students like himself leave foster home, start living independently, so now they can decide when to come or not come to school,” she said. “They’ve got to know it’s not high school anymore.”

And taking—or re-taking—a class can be expensive. Although there are resources to help with buying textbooks, one book can cost $200. Many times, students have to front the cost and wait to be reimbursed.

Dworsky and Ranftle agree that one of the main problems facing these college students is money. They’re likely working a low-wage job, Ranftle said, which means they may be distracted or taking fewer classes in order to work more. And, she said, if they’re only attending college part-time, they’re not eligible for as much financial aid.

Students at California community colleges and state schools are supposed to take 12 credits to receive full funding from the Cal Grant. Without that help, the average cost of attendance can be thousands each year. For example, at Chabot College, tuition and fees are $1,338 per year. But the total estimated cost of attendance, including housing, is nearly $20,000. At UC Berkeley, the cost of attendance for an in-state resident ranges from $24,192 to $34,502.

“Most young people in America who go to college in America get some help from their families, and for youth in foster care that’s often not an option,” Dworsky said. Instead, they rely on help from government programs and nonprofits.

Franco is benefitting from a state program—his college tuition is free thanks to Senate Bill 940, amended last March, extending the enrollment window for foster youth to apply for the Cal Grant Program, a financial aid program for California undergraduates under age 26. The cut-off age for these types of programs was addressed in the California Fostering Connections to Success Act, which became effective in 2012 and extended foster care up to age 21. (Previously, the cut-off age was 18.) These three extra years are crucial, since many foster youth start—and graduate—college later than their peers.

Dworsky thinks extending the emancipation age to 21 has helped. “We know that allowing young people to stay in foster care is associated with higher rates of college attendance,” she said.

But others say it’s still not enough. “If you look at a youth that’s not in foster care, when they turn 18, they’re going to college and they might be done by the age of 21,” said Faith Onwusa, education coordinator for Beyond Emancipation.“Around that age is when they’re not receiving any support from their parents anymore. The assumption is that these youth in foster care could potentially do the same thing, which is not always accurate.”

“When foster youth turn 21, a big chunk of the support disappears,” Lakes agreed. “Housing and safety a very big concern.”

Dworsky, who conducted research at Laney College last year, said that one of the biggest issues former foster youth face is finding affording housing. “It’s not just an issue in Oakland—it’s an issue in large urban centers where housing is extremely expensive,” she said. “I don’t know how they’re managing to cover the costs of housing.”

Between July 2017 and June 2018, First Place For Youth helped 136 Alameda County foster youth through their housing program, Ranftle said. But, she added, the rising costs of housing isn’t helping. “It definitely does make securing apartments more difficult,” she said.

There other hurdles, too, for foster youth trying to make it on their own, like learning how to fill out rental applications, check their credit, get a cashier’s check, talk to a landlord, and save up enough to pay for first and last month’s rent ahead of time.

“It does come down to having that support system,” Ranftle said. “A low-income student is obviously going to face a lot of the same challenges but they have—hopefully and potentially—a strong family network, people who are there for them for the basic things of emotional support, somewhere to turn if they are struggling with things. For a lot foster youth, that is not the case. They feel very isolated and feel as if there is no one on their side.”

***

Even with the help of his support system, the boon of free housing and tuition, and the assistance of Guardian Scholars, Franco still struggles with the competing loads of being a student, an entrepreneur and trying to work part-time. In his first semester, as Saenz had worried, he did fall behind. Because he was so focused on preparing for the October pitch competition, he only registered for one class: Introduction to Business. He chose just that one, “because I already knew I was too focused taking side gigs, working and getting ready for the competition,” Franco said. “I just needed some time.”

He also fell into some of the same attendance issues he had in high school. Saenz helped him drop the class. He’s going to retake it in the spring. “I’m like that parent in the back of his head,” Saenz said. “We want long-term success for him.”

Franco is still dealing with some of the anxiety and depression problems that started in high school, but he feels he has a better handle on them now. “I still have anxiety, but I’m pretty good at managing it—it’s not really a problem anymore,” Franco said. “When I started creating FConnect was when things started turning for the better—maybe because I found something that I was interested and that I liked, that I could keep building upon. It gave me hope.”

He still plans to launch FConnect in the fall while continuing to study business. His most recent step has been to talk with the superintendent and guidance counselors at the Hayward school district about getting his prototype app into the hands of students. “I’m 100 percent dedicated to making this launch,” he said. “I know my path and I know where I’m going.”

He thinks it is important to reach foster youth while they’re in high school, an age when making the right connections and getting inspired to try something new can make a real difference. Had he not taken Miranda’s class, he said, he wouldn’t know what he wanted to do with his life.

“I’m glad I found what I’m good at the age I did,” he said. “Now I feel like I can inspire others, share my experience and help others.”

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