Several weeks into volunteering and mentoring the participants in the Youth Innovation Forum. an annual event conducted by the Consortium of African American Organizations (CAAO), and I am still learning from the kids. Yes, you read that correctly, school is in session, and I am not the teacher. I have been incredibly impressed with the young minds at the Youth Innovation Forum (“YIF”), that I’m often not prepared for what they will come up with next. The forum is teaching them how to spark ideas, turn these sparks into something tangible, and turn that something tangible into something successful. For example, this year, the students are divided into three groups: one group is focused on welding, one on light-emitting diodes, commonly known as LED, and the last group on financial literacy. I chose to mentor and work with the LED group because of my background in programming LEDs and a personal affinity for LED toys. One day, the LED group was trying to create a name for an LED product. They searched Google with specific search terms and identified a single word that repeated throughout the first page of results, Flash. By doing a search for the most popular result, they are already picking a highly marketable title that will help them in Search Engine Optimization for the future. Why didn’t I think of that? That is just one of the many examples why the collaborative relationship between myself and the kids is more than just mentor and student; we both learn from each other.
LED’s Spark Students Imagination and Business Thinking
On my first day at the YIF, I was unsure in what capacity I would be helpful. However, after discovering one of the groups focused on LED’s, I knew I’d be able to be a valuable mentor due to my experience in this area. I brought in some of my LED projects to inspire the group. I was apprehensive that I may be more of a distraction to the group than an asset, but over time I realized I inspired ideas in the students. I followed the lead of other mentors, and listened carefully. My goal was to get the kids as active and participating as much as possible, even passing out LED toys to all three groups.
The first ingredient to success for the students at the YIF is participation in the lessons that provide a foundation of knowledge. Sometimes, the hardest task for the mentors is jumpstarting the participation of the students. After the initial and natural hesitation of being in a new group of people goes away, and everyone becomes comfortable with each other, the students are eager to learn. We work on group exercises, problem solving, word association exercises, and other activities to get their minds going and to demonstrate that working in a group is fun, exciting, and yields success. The groups have done a great job relying on each other’s strengths to complete tasks, while not focusing on differences or weaknesses, which has built tremendous team unity and togetherness.
These group exercises are just the beginning. After team building, we broke into the three separate groups, and began working on project plan for an idea or product. First, we began researching the subject, and shared information with everyone. Second, we start to develop the product lifecycle from an idea or concept into an actual plan for development. As mentors, we guide the students to think about these items creatively. At the end of the mentorship, they now have the tools they need to research an idea, develop a project plan, and present it to business professionals. The lessons they have learned regarding a project lifecycle is something I would love to see taught in school, as it provides valuable critical thinking skills that are used on a wide variety of projects. The students, turned scholars, at YIF now have participated in something that will continue to help them grow, can be included as part of their résumé, and bolstered their skill sets for learning and development.
What is the CAAO YIF?
CAAO is an umbrella consulting organization for the African American professional organizations of Northeast Ohio. CAAO serves as a conduit and referral source to existing resources for entrepreneurial development, professional development, and leadership empowerment for its member organizations and their members. CAAO’s member organizations communicate with over 30,000 black professionals on a regular basis. Thus, CAAO serves a dynamic link to the “New Economy” for black professionals in Northeast Ohio.
CAAO was initially funded by the Cleveland Foundation and the George Gund Foundation in 2001 and incubated on the campus of Case Western Reserve University under the tutelage of Enterprise Development, Inc., the predecessor to JumpStart. The founding organizations included: The National Technical Association, the National Black MBA Association, the National Society of Black Engineers, the Black Data Processing Association, and the National Association of Black Accountants. The founding Chair was Frank Robinson of NASA Glenn Research Center; and the founding Executive Director was Connie Atkins, a seasoned entrepreneur.
Why is MCFTech Involved?
Since I joined MCFTech years ago, I’ve realized we are a company that strives to constantly innovate, solve unique problems, and collaborate with our clients, partners, and other organizations. The opportunity to share this knowledge with the community is a no-brainer. I enjoy helping the community, and believe that trading ideas and knowledge can make the world a better place. The exchange of ideas creates a currency that promotes success on both sides, and providing this mentorship to a group of young students, is the ultimate expression of this ideology.
MCFTech partnered with the YIF because we believe that investing time and effort into cultivating young adults into successful individuals provides enormous benefit to the community. It also opens doors to truly creative ideas coming to fruition. We are uniquely positioned to not only help mentor the students and guide them, but with our wide breadth of technical knowledge, we may be able to help bring one of the final products to life. Not all ideas make it from concept to completion, but the hope is some of these years YIF ideas become a reality. We want to see that happen, and we want to be part of the effort.
I’ve learned a lot over the past months working with the students. I’ve seen many students become critical thinkers, and learned how different people can approach a complex problem from different perspectives, and all be correct in their approach. It has been a truly rewarding experience watching the students take their concepts and ideas, turning them into effective presentations. I’ve been impressed week in and week out with their ingenuity and fresh ideas. I am looking forward to our final presentation to the sponsors of this program, and I am proud to see how far the students have come.
The YIF relies on sponsorships, donations, and volunteers to help keep the cost of the program as low as possible for the students selected to participate. If you are interested in making a monetary contribution. If you are interested in sponsoring or participating in next year’s event, please visit www.caao.net or call (216) 432-9481.