Jeff Tollefson, champion of change

  • Article by: KATY READ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 6, 2013 - 3:28 PM

Jeff Tollefson changed his life to change the lives of other people.

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Jeff Tollefson, left, executive director of Genesys Works, talked with Juan Puentes, who now works at Ecolab.

Photo: Joey McLeister, Special to the Star Tribune

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“Champions of Change” honors “ordinary Americans ... doing extraordinary things in their communities,” according to the White House website. Jeff Tollefson was one of nine individuals honored in September “for answering the President’s call to action to help develop the discipline and skills associated with employment for our youth.” See whitehouse.gov/champions.

 

The road to Jeff Tollefson’s recognition by the White House began on the obituary pages.

This was back in 2007. Tollefson, then 45, had left the company he’d cofounded, a firm that managed more than $1.1 billion in venture-capital investments, in order to re-examine his life. Tollefson gave himself six months to decide what to do next.

“Investment management no longer appealed to me,” he said recently. He’d had plenty of career success, but “I felt like there had to be something bigger.”

He read the paper every day, paying special attention to the obits. He thought about other people’s lives, their accomplishments, the organizations they’d built. He wondered how his own obituary would read.

That’s when he heard about Genesys Works, a program that trains economically disadvantaged students and places them in paid internships, its dual goal to help kids while also improving the skills and diversity of the local workforce.

Through his involvement in Social Venture Partners, an organization of business leaders who share their acumen and connections on behalf of social causes, Tollefson met Rafael Alvarez, founder of Genesys Works in Houston. The program made sense to Tollefson, so he agreed to help get a branch started here.

Next thing you know, he had become its executive director. “It didn’t take long before I just fell in love with the concept.”

Genesys Works opened in St. Paul in 2008 with 11 students. Tollefson told that first group that their success would help determine the futures of hundreds or thousands of future participants in the program.

“Boy, did they step up,” Tollefson said.

Genesys Works has since placed 588 students in paid internships. All have come from poverty. Almost all are students of color; many are immigrants. They’ve struggled with adversity in various forms.

They aren’t necessarily kids you’d predict would succeed despite the hurdles. Genesys Works staffers look not for honor-roll candidates, but for kids on what Tollefson calls “the vulnerable cusp,” including teen mothers and former gang members.

“We’re teaching people to fish who didn’t even know fishing was a possibility,” Tollefson said. “If not for some intervention, they might choose a lesser path.”

They do, however, need to be motivated, because the Genesys Works program is rigorous. Students complete an eight-week, 160-hour summer boot camp where they learn IT skills, as well as professional habits such as reliability and punctuality. “They learn that when someone says ‘Show up at 8,’ it’s not 8-ish.”

When school starts, the students begin yearlong internships at companies around the Twin Cities, including Target, Cargill, Medtronic, General Mills, 3M.

The companies have been impressed by their performance. At Medtronic, for example, Genesys Works interns have “exceeded expectations,” said Mike Hedges, vice president and chief information officer. The Fridley-based company leverages the students’ training “along with their passion and enthusiasm for the job they are assigned to, and they do it well.” Meanwhile, the students inspire their supervisors with the challenges they have overcome.

Genesys Works interns do professional jobs and get paid an average of $9,000 during their senior year.

“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

 

 

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