November 4, 2015

Entrepreneurship is Driving Force for BUILD and Igniting Boston’s Youth

Founded in 1999 in East Palo Alto, California, by Suzanne McKechnie Klahr, BUILD uses entrepreneurship-based, experiential learning to ignite the potential of youth in under-resourced communities and equip them for high school, college and career success. 

The four-year high school program offers a unique blend of entrepreneurship, academics, and personal support that attracts and motivates many students who are otherwise at high risk of failing classes and dropping out of high school. 

Entrepreneurship is the hook, but college is the goal. In the organization’s 13 year history, nationwide, 95% of BUILD seniors have been accepted to college, with over 80% attending four-year colleges and universities. 

Boston became BUILD’s 4th city when it launched in 2011 and since then, with Executive Director, Ayele Shakur at the helm, the non-profit has made incredible strides. And just as BUILD takes an experiential learning approach, it is perhaps Shakur’s personal and career experience that has seen her succeed so profoundly as the leader of BUILD Boston, who has their annual gala, BUILDFest, on November 12th at Westin Copley. Ayele Shakur BUILD

Born and bred in Boston, Shakur has been an educator for nearly three decades, but that career and passion for urban education didn’t originate in her home city. 

“I moved to LA after college to be a screen writer. And, as a starving artist needing to pay the bills, I turned to teaching.” 

Shakur never looked back. The “why,” however is where the passion comes from. 

“I was teaching first grade in Compton, CA. My students would come in talking about the crime scenes – passing through caution tape and walking over old chalk lines.” 

The experience resonated with Shakur, who, wanting to help, but feeling limited in the impact she could provide within the classroom walls, decided to move into the after-school arena. She returned to Boston to attend Harvard University Graduate School of Education, getting her degree in Human Development and Psychology, Language and Literacy. From there, Shakur would go on to lead the Boston Learning Center, a tutoring program for Boston area youth. Under her leadership as President and CEO, the Center expanded from serving 100 students annually in Boston to 700 students across the state of Massachusetts. 

When BUILD, with the help of Bain Capital Ventures, decided to make the move into Boston in 2010, Shakur was given the reigns. 

“When I heard what BUILD was doing, using entrepreneurship as a catalyst, I got excited. I saw the approach as a huge opportunity to make a difference in the dropout epidemic.” 

One of the drivers behind bringing BUILD to Boston and getting Shakur on board was Scott Friend, Managing Director of Bain Capital Ventures. Friend, who is on the Regional Advisory Board of BUILD, shared with me why he pushed to bring BUILD to Boston and bring in Shakur to lead it:

"Having met Suzanne [BUILD Founder and CEO Suzanne McKechnie Klahr] and watched the incredible impact BUILD was having in the Silicon Valley, my Bain Capital Ventures colleagues and I decided the timing was right to launch this type of entrepreneurship-focused program in Boston.  The first step in making that happen was, of course, finding a world-class executive director, someone who understood the kids and families we were trying to serve, had relationships within the BPS schools, and had could quickly build credibility with individual and corporate donors.  Fortunately for the hundreds of kids we have now served in Boston, we met Ayele Shakur who has a truly amazing combination of skills perfectly suited to have launched and grown BUILD Boston."

That epidemic, Shakur told me inside the organization’s Beacon Street office, stemmed from two major issues – students were bored in school and felt they didn’t have caring adult role models. Entrepreneurship provides solutions to both. 

Today, BUILD is taken as an elective for students. They enter the program freshman year and partner with a mentor, who typically remains engaged for the entire four years.  Students develop their own business ideas, write business plans, pitch to investors, and launch real businesses. The real-world business experience makes school relevant and motivates the normally disengaged youth to succeed. 

Students are given $300 in seed funding to help launch their idea and each year they are provided additional, increased amounts of funding. 

Currently, BUILD serves approximately 1,500 high school students at programs located in the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington, DC, and Boston, MA and will begin operations in New York City in 2015. Over the next ten years, BUILD will strategically expand its operations to serve at least ten regions across the country, leading more students to graduate from high school prepared for future success each year. 

In order to do what they do, ignite potential in our youth, BUILD leans on mentors, volunteers, corporate partners and several signature initiatives each year. One of those core initiatives is BUILDFest, which Shakur says is the best event to get a true feel for what the organization does as the entrepreneurs and their businesses are proudly on display. 


The BUILDFest Gala and Student Business Expo on Thursday November 12th is an opportunity to meet the amazing high school entrepreneurs, hear inspiring stories of accomplishments from the past year and exciting plans for the coming year. In addition to a fantastic dinner, you will have the chance to browse and buy unique, original products made by the youth entrepreneurs. 

In addition, BUILD will honor Walter Prince (Founding Partner, Prince Lobel Tye LLP) with the BUILDer Award for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, as well as Jeff Fagnan (Accomplice) and
 Hemant Taneja (General Catalyst) as BUILD Friends of the Year. 

BUILD, Shakur, her amazing team, and a community of volunteers will continue to inspire Boston’s youth through entrepreneurship. Their impact, however, can grow significantly with the help of our community – be it through volunteering, corporate donations, or attending BUILDFest in two weeks! So grab your tickets and celebrate the BUILD young entrepreneurs and their paths to college success! 


Josh Boyle is Director of Community & Marketing, VentureFizz.  You can follow him on Twitter @jb_sid
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