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“We’re trying to redefine what a high-school internship should look like,” Tollefson said. “These are the types of internships that college students would love to have.”
All of the program’s participants went on to graduate from high school. With support from Genesys Works staffers, the students apply to at least five colleges and for at least 15 scholarships. They submit federal financial-aid applications.
Ninety-seven percent have enrolled in college, and 81 percent have either graduated or are on track to graduate.
“Once they know what success feels like, they’re not going to go back to a ‘Do you want fries with that?’ job ever again,” Tollefson said. “Their life goals have been changed forever.”
Because it performs essentially like a for-profit IT staffing company, billing clients for the students’ pay and keeping a portion to run the program, Genesys Works has become nearly self-sufficient. Revenues cover more than 90 percent of operating expenses.
Meanwhile, even as it helps kids disadvantaged by poverty, Genesys Works is helping local corporations disadvantaged by a lack of employee diversity.
“Our real hope is we can start building the Twin Cities’ future workforce, one that will more closely mirror the mosaic of cultures we see comprising the Twin Cities today,” Tollefson said.
Forecasts indicate that as baby boomers retire by the millions, companies will be scrambling to fill jobs. Yet studies show today’s young people are less prepared for the workforce than previous generations.
“Social justice issues aside,” Tollefson said, “we really believe that empowering our youth is not just the right thing to do, it’s truly the smart thing to do for the good of the economy.”
It’s certainly the right thing for Tollefson, who is thrilled with the direction his life has taken. In September, the White House presented him with a Champions of Change award. Attending the ceremony with his wife and his mother and hearing President Obama announce his name “validated my life change so many years ago,” he said.
“I love this,” he said. “I don’t feel like I have a job. I feel like I have a mission.”
Katy Read • 612-673-4583