Meet Adrienne Diercks, founder and executive director of Project SUCCESS
From the moment you meet Adrienne Diercks, it’s clear you’re speaking with someone who is grounded, thoughtful and present in a way most of us aren’t. As executive director and founder of Project SUCCESS, Diercks, along with her team, has been helping some 13,000 Minneapolis students in grades 6–12 “dream about their futures and take the steps to get there” every year. Through discussion and opportunities such as classroom workshops, theater productions and college tours, Project SUCCESS helps students “take everything they have inside them and turn that into action to achieve their dreams.” In 24 years of this work, Diercks estimates the organization has served well over 100,000 students. Diercks knew “with every ounce of my being that it was the right thing to do” from the beginning. However, she never imagined the organization would grow this large. Her life is a reflection of her nonprofit work; she has enabled the success of thousands by expanding Project SUCCESS from her own experience.
Epiphany amidst the pyramids
Diercks grew up in Minneapolis, attending the public schools she now serves. “Growing up, I couldn’t imagine what my job would be; what I cared about was that I would be passionate about what I did for my work,” she says. Diercks traveled to California for college, and as her senior year approached, she realized she didn’t have a plan post-graduation. She coordinated a group of friends to meet with every couple of weeks, and together they planned their futures and held each other accountable.
Even before she had formed her own organization, Diercks knew how to plan for success. She realized she wanted to travel the world, and quickly figured out the necessary finances, travel and lodging. Upon graduation, Diercks explored Europe, Russia, northern Africa and the Middle East, prompting an epiphany. “Here I was in Egypt walking around the pyramids, all within 12 months of setting that goal. I thought, ‘If every young person had this opportunity — time, support and help to overcome obstacles and challenges — people would be a lot happier, the world would be a better place and people would make more conscious decisions about what they want to do with their lives.’”
The snowball effect
Diercks’ experience abroad became her driver for everything. After returning home from her travels, she had no doubt about what she wanted to do. Her goal was to help students plan and prepare for their futures. She started by contacting George Roberts, one of her former teachers, who was by then the head of the English department at North High School. He believed in Diercks and helped her to pilot the first Project SUCCESS workshops with the senior class. As she began her work, Diercks was careful not to assume she knew what the students needed. Instead, she asked them the questions she wished she had been asked in high school.
She asked them to answer things like, “Who am I? What am I doing? What do I want to do in the world, and what am I doing today that’s impacting my future?” In her first year, Diercks helped 200 kids make a plan for their futures. “The next year, I made a plan to add another grade, and then the whole school wanted it, and within six months the middle school down the street wanted it.” Project SUCCESS began to snowball. “Within about 18–24 months, we had three schools, 3,500 students and their families, all within a two-mile radius.” Because of this growth, Diercks needed to become more sophisticated in her planning. Like many startups, she began with a one-month plan, which led to a one-year, and eventually a three-year, plan.
Project SUCCESS is entering its 25th year, with 32 staff and 18 board members. Diercks says she is “as passionate about this work as I’ve ever been.” Through her success, Diercks and her organization impact thousands of students each year, and those students grow to impact the world. “The exponential impact is just incredible to me,” Diercks says, and hearing about the impact from former students is most gratifying for her.
Students who attended the program 20 years ago have written letters saying “The work that you and the team do, and the way with which you do it, with great care, thoughtfulness and quality, made a difference for me.” Whole families are impacted: Another Project SUCCESS alumnus sent her daughter to Anwatin Middle School specifically so she could participate in Project SUCCESS. “I knew she had to have the program so she could work on her dream and be inspired the way I was,” the woman shared. It’s very simple for Diercks: “When you’re given opportunities, support and the space to succeed or fail, you can go further than you ever could if you didn’t have it.”
Humility opened the door
Diercks believes her success resulted from “a combination of being aspirational and visionary, and wanting the most for our students, focusing on one student at a time. I attribute it to my faith, my family, our team and the laser focus on our mission.” She also relied on her resources to start the organization and still greatly values those partners and supporters today. “Everybody had their role,” she says, and Diercks hasn’t forgotten being taught to build her first budget, and her mom and siblings helping drive students to shows at the Guthrie Theater.
Being humble and not letting her ego get engaged has also served Diercks well. She learned an early lesson when a teacher wasn’t pleased with how a Project SUCCESS workshop had gone, and the teacher asked her not to return to her classroom. “She gave feedback, and I listened to her. I thanked her for being honest and was kind and respectful of her decision.” Diercks worked hard and improved based on the feedback; as a result, she invited Diercks to return the next year.
The teacher then became one of the biggest advocates of Project SUCCESS. “You make mistakes, you fall down, you make a plan, and things don’t work. What you learn to do is have a great attitude about it, be a problem-solver, pivot when you need to, and build relationships with all the people around you whether there is a challenge or not.”
Now, Diercks immediately goes into problem-solving mode when mistakes occur, leading to more effective solutions and eliminating wasted energy. When asked how she does it all, Diercks humbly replies “it’s a big, huge ‘we.’ It’s about having a really good team, systems and infrastructure and, I would add, laughter.” She also mentions the importance of gratitude.
“Our supporters, donors, board members, volunteers, partners, theaters and schools — we’ve been a real team for all these years, and that’s pretty special. What that can do and lead to is pretty great; we are fortunate.”
When asked about what’s ahead, Diercks says, “We are very excited about the future. Project SUCCESS will deepen our impact and double our impact. This means taking our proven model and impacting more students and families — in Minneapolis, in Minnesota and nationally. I see a huge smile on my face as these dreams become a reality.” As the new initiatives unfold, Diercks will rely on her strategy of dreaming big, planning, utilizing resources and, most importantly, love. “Love is the key,” she shares.
“All the issues we’re dealing with today, whether it’s health care, mental health, the environment, education disparity, racism, violence, or poverty, the students have shown me the solution. It’s ‘support me, love me, do good quality work, do what you say you’re going to do, and let me succeed.’ Kids will feel that, take it in, and it will make a difference.”
For more information about Project SUCCESS, visit projectsuccess.org.