By Yitzi Weiner and Casmin Wisner
“Low-income communities bear the brunt of society’s toughest challenges. But these communities still need to educate their stars, and that’s were we come in. And our alumni give back…”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Leanne Huebner, Founder of Minds Matter, Leanne Huebner was recently named a 2017 L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth Honoree for her work with Minds Matter. From now through November 29, the public is invited to visit WomenOfWorth.com to vote for Leanne to become the National Honoree and receive an additional $25,000 for Minds Matter.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your backstory?
I was raised on a farm in an economically depressed community, and was the first student from my public high school to gain access to the Ivy League. I’m also a first generation college graduate. These early successes in part inspired me when I first started my career on Wall Street to volunteer with underserved low-income youth. Others had mentored me, and I wanted to pay it forward. My friends and I created a pioneering college access and success organization called Minds Matter that today serves over 800 students each year in 14 cities nationwide, with the help of over 2,200 volunteers. We have helped thousands on their path to college at some of the nation’s top colleges and universities.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company/organization?
Early on, I wanted to find students whom we could most impact their life trajectory. While calling around to New York City high schools, I was often put on hold, hung up on, or disregarded completely. Fortunately, I persisted and just called the next school. When one principal answered the phone himself, I pitched our free mentoring and tutoring service for B+ students to guide their pathway to college. The principal responded, “I don’t know if my valedictorian is going to college.” To which, I shared, “We could include him or her too.” At that moment, I realized the great need that existed — that even high-achievers were lacking in either resources, encouragement, or just knowledge of the college process. We were determined to change that.
So what does your company/organization do?
Minds Matter works with accomplished high school students from low income backgrounds to transform their lives by preparing them for college success and beyond. We identify talented high school students at the beginning of 10th grade and work with them until they matriculate to college — offering free resources like tutoring, mentoring, test prep, and extra writing and math. We also help with application assistance to both summer college programs as well as college and financial assistance.
Over our 26-year history, 100 percent of our students have gained access to a 4-year college or university and we have a 94 percent success rate for college completion.
What do you think makes your company/organization stand out? Can you share a story?
First off, we pioneered college access and success, and our outcomes speak volumes. Our comprehensive, rigorous three-year program nearly assures our students will complete college successfully. While only 9 percent of low income youth persist through college, 94 percent of Minds Matter alumni
earn their bachelor’s by or before turning 28, or better rates than high-income peers.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are?
I’m deeply grateful to so many people — from our founding team to the outstanding leaders who have helped shape our work and expand our organization across the country. Like our students, I also needed guidance and encouragement when I was applying to college. Had it not been for the suggestion from a newly-hired guidance counselor at my high school, I’m not sure I would have even applied to the Ivy League. He convinced me I had a strong chance at getting into Wharton, the top undergraduate program in the country then and now. His hunch was accurate, and I owe him tremendously for giving his time to me. That conversation changed my life and I wanted to do that for others.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The good we create is not only seen in the thousands of degrees our students earn, but also—and more importantly —by paving that proven pathway out of poverty. Our students are ten times more likely to finish college than a typical low income peer. All of our students are high-achievers from low income backgrounds, but what’s most impressive is that so many have persevered from extraordinary challenges. While many come from hardworking families who just cannot afford the extra resources we provide, a significant portion of our students have faced heartbreaking hurdles — such as the young woman who was born addicted to drugs who later became her high school’s valedictorian, a student whose entire family of untreated alcoholics did not support her desire to leave for college, and a young man who escaped genocide. Too many of our students face gang recruitment and/or retaliation, food insecurity, homelessness, gun violence, and much more. Low-income communities bear the brunt of society’s toughest challenges. But these communities still need to educate their stars, and that’s were we come in. And our alumni give back — they become economic safety nets for their families, the role model for their siblings, and that game changer for their kids. And many even come back to Minds Matter to mentor, donate, and serve. That’s the cycle I love!
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I launched my company/organization,” and why?
- Research, Research, Research. We pioneered college access and success but at the time, there was no Internet, Google, or even ubiquitous mobile phones. In fact, I had to use the Yellow Pages to find connections we needed. But I gathered information through interviews, everyday conversations, and articles. Today you have access to so much data at your fingertips — the hard part is making sure you understand trends, statistics, and what your impact could be. For instance, a college degree can double
someone’s lifetime earnings — isn’t that worth an investment early on to ensure college completion?
- Have a proof of concept before expanding. Bootstrap your work early as you prove your model economically. Our whole goal centered around delivering our program as cost-effectively as possible; we bootstrapped everything by using volunteer time and talents, donated space, and seeking other donated goods and services. This practice was critical especially as we expanded to new cities and gave them the blueprint for success.
- Make sure the volunteer experience benefits all. When you are starting a company, a paycheck is a big reason why employees show up, but volunteers don’t have that incentive. Understand what you can offer volunteers and create your programming to serve your population first, but then your volunteers as well. One thing we do when we interview volunteers is ask them what they love to do; and we craft opportunities for them. One might like planning so we put them on fundraisers, while
someone else loves literature and reading, so they might teach writing.
- Structure can make or break you. Think through the “what ifs” when setting up your structures. For example, I remember introducing our concept of a team lead in Minds Matter. Mentor-mentee pairs would “report” into a team lead. Students were always covered because they had two mentors and then a team lead as a backup, allowing both accountability and flexibility — two critical factors in successful volunteer organizations.
- Be willing to jump any hurdle. Don’t ask people to do things you aren’t willing to tackle yourself. Strong entrepreneurs are jacks-of- all-trades who often work around the clock. For the organizations I start and serve, I am willing to stuff envelopes, recruit people, build websites, sweep floors, cold call, teach a class, fill in for others, make a speech, fundraise, etc. etc. I’d sit in a dunk tank if I was asked! Whatever needs to be done, I am always happy to help. However, if you aren’t willing to roll up your sleeves and commit to long nights, don’t launch something. Period.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Melinda Gates or Priscilla Zuckerberg. Not only do I admire their work and impact, I would love to pitch what I want to do to take our mission to the next level. Uniquely positioned, they both have the smarts, funds and resources to help me make it happen — but more importantly they have compassion.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!