Keep the dream alive: Put a young person on your board

An interview with Wokie Weah, president of Youthprise, a nonprofit devoted to grooming youth for the sake of us all

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Wokie Weah has spent her career working with young people. She’s been a teacher and a principal. She has worked for UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund), the National Youth Leadership Council and more. Currently, she’s the president of Youthprise, a nonprofit founded by the McKnight Foundation in 2010 as an intermediary organization. That means Youthprise distributes funds from McKnight and other sources to organizations that serve youth, city-wide initiatives that serve youth and makes direct investments in young people themselves, in the form of entrepreneurial grants of $5,000. 

MNBIZ: Why are you passionate about helping young people?
I really believe that the future of Minnesota depends on young people. If we don’t take care of our own young people, I don’t think the state is going to thrive and do well.

MNBIZ: It’s about helping people grow.
Yes, and it’s understanding that young people have ideas, and that those ideas, when fostered, are good ideas, and they will make the end product much better than if they were developed without the thoughts of the young people.

Youthprise really feels strongly about race and equity and any disparities. It’s a shame that a state that has so many resources, also has the worst record when it comes to racial disparities in education, employment, etc. I think we can do better, and we should do better with our youth. The other thing is Minnesota as a state is changing. The diversity is coming in at very, very rapid rates, so if we don’t take action now, the state of Minnesota will be in trouble.

MNBIZ: I’ve talked to young entrepreneurs whose start was delayed because older people did not take them seriously.
The governance structure of Youthprise is that we have a board that is made of seasoned people, but we also have a lot of young people on the board. Part of our board stewardship is to advance this idea of bringing the older and the younger people together, and then seeing what evolves. 

I would not attribute this quote to me, but it’s a quote that I have heard, and I really believe in:

“Older people are the keepers of the memories, and young people are the keepers of the dreams.”

Older people have the experience, but younger ones have the power to dream and to imagine something different. What happens when you engage young people with older people is quite magical. Youthprise really governs that way. We involve young people in our staffing structure — and by young people, I mean anywhere from high school to age 24.

MNBIZ: You’re really specializing in the formative years.
Yes, and we also fill a need for that age group in particular. When you graduate from high school, you need guidance, you need direction, you need mentorship. All of those things are real needs, and we want to find how to incubate those ideas. How do we develop, and how do we really make sure that young people are on the right path?

MNBIZ: Traditionally young people of color have been told that their opportunities are limited and people set a low bar for expectations. You seem to be doing the opposite. You’re saying, “There are all these possibilities, and you can do it.”
Exactly. I always hold youth to the same standard of excellence that I hold for anybody, because I know they can do it. Often what is lacking is not the ideas for entrepreneurship, it’s the support, and it is the contact with people who really believe in those ideas. Once they have that, and of course, the money. The money is important.

MNBIZ: Can you tell me how Youthprise fosters entrepreneurs?
We support them first through workshops, we do training, we mentor them, and then at the end of about a year, we provide funding for implementation. Youthprise invests around $5,000 in these young people. It’s not so much the money, it’s making sure that their ideas have been shared with others. It’s putting them on a platform and giving other people the opportunity to invest in them, as well.

MNBIZ: It’s like you’re widening the definition of inclusiveness to include age, so that your board includes young people. What if every business had some young people on their board for their decision making?
Exactly. Youthprise is at a point now where we have refined what we wanted to do, and one of the things at the top for us is young people involved in boards. The whole board stewardship area is an excellent area, and there are so many organizations out there that need to have young people really, really involved. They would be better for it, so youth on board, we know how to do that, we’ve done it ourselves, and it enriched our organization a good deal.

MNBIZ: You’ve spent your whole life working with youth. To what extent does that keep you young?
It keeps me young and it keeps me balanced. Young people often have ideas. They often have dreams, so working with young people actively makes me aware of my dreams and my ideas. It definitely has a catalyst effect.

MNBIZ: Boy, keep us all young.
Yeah, exactly.