Alumni Perspective – Gerald Chertavian, MBA 1992

This marks the first in a series of alumni interviews on Careers in Social Enterprise.

Gerald Chertavian’s path thus far has been unique, interesting and inspiring. Starting his career on Wall Street as an officer of the Chemical Banking Corporation, he moved on to become the head of marketing at Transnational Financial Services in London. After his MBA from HBS, Gerald co-founded Conduit Communications in 1993 and fostered its growth to $20M in annual revenues and more than 130 employees in London, Amsterdam, New York and Boston. Following the sale of Conduit to i-Cube in 1999, Gerald turned his full attention to opportunities for others and started Year Up to help low-income youth in urban areas get a leg-up in the world.

Year Up’s mission is to close the opportunity divide by providing urban young adults with the skills, experience, and support that will empower them to reach their potential through professional careers and higher education. Year Up achieves this mission through a high support, high expectation model that combines marketable job skills, stipends, apprenticeships, college credit, a behavior management system and several levels of support to place these young adults on a viable path to economic self-sufficiency.

I met Gerald at his charming and vibrant office at Downtown Crossing, Boston. We spoke about his career path, his interest in social entrepreneurship and the future of his initiative. Below are excerpts of the conversation.

What experiences in your life inspired you to envision Year Up?
Before HBS, while I was working on Wall Street, I signed up as a Big Brother and spent an entire day, every week mentoring my Little Brother-nine year-old David. Being a Big Brother showed me the barriers that low-income people face every day. David lived in one of New York’s most heavily photographed crime scenes. Going there on Saturdays, I was exposed to the needs of children like David, and young adults in those areas. I learned how difficult it was for them to make positive transitions and how much my advice and support meant to them.

During that time, I was applying to business schools and wrote an essay about starting a school to address the opportunity divide. In 1992, after I finished Harvard Business School, I co-founded Conduit Communications in London and helped run it until it was sold. It was around that time that I developed a clear sense of how I wanted my future to be. I decided to build Year Up with certain things clear in my mind-we had to understand what companies needed and what they would pay for; we were going to take the time to ensure that students had all-round development; and we wanted to start training students in a lucrative sector-technology. The other aspects of Year Up evolved over a period of time.

How relevant is your MBA experience in your current environment?
To run a non-profit you need to have the same skills as you need in business. The best non-profits today are run by capable business leaders. HBS gave me a strong foundation in general management, which I intensively use in my leadership role at Year Up.

What are the big challenges you face as you lead Year Up?
The work I do is incredibly meaningful and I feel that I face the same challenges that many business leaders face. I also feel equipped and confident to tackle these challenges, which include fundraising to maintain and grow the organization and human resource issues and constraints. The students we work with come from a wide emotional spectrum and with unique risks because of their backgrounds. Working with them to overcome their barriers is a significant challenge, but one which I find extremely rewarding.

For instance, one of our students-a bright young boy who was doing extremely well-was wrongfully arrested. If he had been convicted, his life would have been miserable forever after. I personally got involved and worked with his attorney to ensure he was given a fair trial. He was found not guilty and is currently gainfully employed.

How do you see Year Up evolving over the next ten years?
There are four million young adults in the 18-24 age groups out of school and disconnected from the mainstream. That is one out of six adults in our country. Year Up plans to scale and replicate this model in 30 areas within the United States. We also plan to train youth more efficiently and in other areas where they can be gainfully employed. We are lobbying with the government and political leaders to change policy and legislation in order to include this category of talented, young individuals into the mainstream. Changing the mindset of business leaders and working with them to fulfill a valuable business need is another crucial area that we are hoping to hone over the next few years.

What would your advice be to MBA students currently seeking to pursue careers in non-profit?
There are 30% more MBAs in this sector than last year, and non-profits are becoming more structured and professional. They value MBAs and are constantly looking for great talent. Interestingly, this sector gives MBAs opportunities to take on larger responsibilities at a younger age. So, it is important to get experiences early. If you are interested in a non-profit career, jump in early on-get volunteering experience, or join the board of a non-profit. Seek to increase your personal experiences that are rewarding and which get you closer to your goals.