10 Lessons in 10 Years: Building the Youth Economic Opportunities Sector
A decade ago, I organized the first-ever global convening with the singular focus on how to increase the scale and sustainability of the youth economic opportunities sector. Fast forward ten years, to this past September, when 543 people from 53 countries gathered to share their knowledge, and celebrate the 10th anniversary of this event: The Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit. Clearly, we were on to something big.
Back in 2005 I wanted to get a deeper understanding of how adolescents and young adults can realize their potential by gaining the life skills they need to get ahead economically. At the time, I was a consultant to school systems, after school programs, microfinance institutions and a host of other organizations. I was taking knowledge I gained in one arena and sharing it in others, connecting different clients with each other. In other words, I was in the business of information cross-pollination.
But I wondered where were the annual conferences, the donor gatherings, the research agendas, the informational exchanges for people like me who were committed to global youth opportunities and initiatives?
Necessity being the mother of invention, that year, I set out to organize the first-ever global convening on youth economic opportunities. The kind of convening I wanted to attend, where influencers and “change agents” who create and implement innovative solutions for young people, would share what they learned and offer up tools that we could apply to our own efforts.
Today, this annual convening attracts leaders from top organizations whose projects have helped create positive change in the lives of an estimated 100 million young people world-wide. How I and my team got these leading organizations to return year after year is the Making Cents “special sauce”. Looking back almost a decade later, here’s my list of ten ingredients needed for building a vibrant network for youth economic opportunities:
1. Get (All) the Right People in the Room: Donors, implementers, NGOs, multinational companies, youth leaders, educators and researchers: these are the individuals and organizations that comprise the global community working with youth to help them achieve their potential. Breaking bread together, sharing a cup of coffee – that’s where the real exchange begins. In a setting where everyone is treated as both an expert contributor and continual learner, information is imparted and views are exchanged. For many, there may not be another chance during the year to be together with this kind of diversity of people and range of expertise.
2. Funder Coordination: And sometimes smaller groups with the same mission can profitably come together. Case in point, the funders: multi-laterals and bi-laterals as well as corporations and private foundations. I like to call them, the “investors,” because they’re investing in the youth capital that we need to re-vitalize our world. In 2008, I convened the first meeting of donors active in youth workforce, entrepreneurship and financial inclusion. This helped them to understand what the “other guy” was up to, and identify opportunities to complement or collaborate. Seven years on, the investors themselves took ownership and formed the Youth Employment Funder’s Group. Today, they are coordinating research efforts to generate and share more and better evidence-based knowledge on what works in the field of youth employment. This includes identifying good practices on how to scale up soft skills interventions and an upcoming policy brief. The result is that our sector benefits from stronger investor coordination, and more accessible research findings and more efficient use of research investments.
3. Building a Culture of Transferable Learning: When we take time to attend a conference, workshop or presentation, what we should be asking is, “what does it mean to me?” Our focus is on concrete, transferable knowledge – the tool that one person hands to another so that they can apply the lessons to their own organizations. The Summit asks presenters to ask themselves, “Why should anybody else want to come to my session?” Over the years I've encouraged open sharing of techniques and approaches that have worked, as well as those that have failed or could have been done better. Bottom line: we learn from success, from failure, and from each other.
4. Sustainability: Having an annual event that you can count on year after year gives the sector a way to benchmark progress, and to connect with critical groups of global actors to help move priorities forward. The flash in the pan, one-off convening, often linked to project funding or a communications goal, miss out on this opportunity to support sector growth in the long run.
5. Demand-Driven Content: Give the audience what it wants – sounds easy, doesn’t it? But it’s not. It requires a lot of conversations with many individuals and groups to unearth what it is that people really want to know. Often this requires moving beyond what is “commonly being discussed” and digging deeper to find information gaps and critical nuances. Sometimes, with organizations that provide financial support to these types of gatherings, the status quo is to deliver their message however they wish. We've learned that a better strategy is to work closely with these organizations to develop content that is applicable and relevant to the needs and interests of our attendees. When we co-curate our organization’s presentations, we help ensure that our audience gets the information they want and need, in ways they can use and share with their neighbors.
6. Setting the Agenda: Here’s an example that’s close to my heart: adolescent girls and young women. Because women and girls often aren't able to go to school and can face more cultural restrictions, they can become invisible and therefore harder to reach by many youth-serving organizations. So from the start, we made sure that the Summit agenda included a dedicated track on adolescent girls that explored gender inclusivity– and often gender specificity—in programs. I wanted to do everything we can do to make female youth visible to those responsible for how resources are allocated.
7. Filling Gaps: A perfect example is the expansion of financial services for underserved young people in areas around the world. Today, “youth inclusion” is a by-word in the financial services industry. That’s a direct effect of our 2008 convening that brought together 15 international financial service providers, as well as others working in this space, to share their own pioneering practices and consolidate guidance for the rest of the industry. This community of practice continued to meet for three years and the DNA of their shared knowledge can be seen in many of the current international approaches to youth financial inclusion. Currently, Making Cents is taking a similar approach to scaling initiatives that are focused on training for demand-driven skills in order to better respond to the specific job requirements of an employer or a group of employers.
8. Deepen Understanding of Behavioral Skills and Emotional Intelligence: Behavioral skills have received a lot of attention in recent years. Often referred to as “soft skills” these are competencies, behaviors, attitudes and personal qualities that enable young people to navigate their environment, work with others, perform well, and achieve their goals. I have worked to bring greater awareness of emotional intelligence (EI), that is, an individual’s capacity to recognize, understand, and manage emotions, to the youth livelihoods discussion. Research has shown that EI is a valuable predictor for how well a person will advance professionally over the course of a lifetime. It underpins the conventional soft skills that many people are familiar with, like communication, as well as higher-order thinking skills like problem solving.
9. “Youth Economic Opportunities”: It has been exciting to see leading investors, corporations, NGOs and development projects adopt this term. It took me a few years of doing this work to settle on this “big tent” concept. It incorporates youth workforce development, entrepreneurship, and financial inclusion. What it adds up to is helping young people around the world fulfill their potential to become full-fledged members of their communities, socially as well as economically, to become players on a local, national or sometimes even global stage.
10. Establishing an Impact Framework for Convening: We’ve developed an evaluative framework built from four progressive stages that allows us to measure the impact that knowledge-sharing activities have on real-world end-results, namely increasing youth economic opportunities. We make this framework available to anyone who wishes to adapt it to their needs; we share both the data and the anecdotal evidence we collect. To the best of my knowledge this is the most sophisticated tool being used to capture the results from a convening activity, and it’s one that we draw powerful insights from each year.
So, check back with me in another decade. With any luck, I’ll have ten more ingredients to add to the mix that will, I hope, further advance the field of youth economic opportunity!