HUBweek Change Maker: Ayele Shakur

Regional Executive Director; BUILD — Greater Boston

With almost 3 decades of experience as an innovator in urban education, Ayele Shakur currently serves as the founding Regional Executive Director for BUILD in Greater Boston. BUILD is an innovative college access program whose mission is to use entrepreneurship and experiential learning to ignite the potential of youth in under-resourced communities and equip them for high school, college and career success. Under her leadership, the Center expanded from serving 100 students annually in Boston to 700 across the state of Massachusetts.

What problem are you working to solve with BUILD? How did your path in urban education lead you here? In Boston, 1 in 4 students fail to graduate high school. That’s tragic, particularly in a city like Boston which is the land of world renowned colleges and universities. There was an interesting study done by the Gates Foundation a while ago that found the #1 reason why students drop out is because school is boring. Kids don’t see the relevance between school and their daily lives. The #2 reason students drop out is because they don’t have enough caring adult role models in their lives. BUILD addresses both of these key issues by bringing a highly engaging entrepreneurship program into Boston’s most challenging schools, and surrounding kids with mentors who are passionate about helping young people succeed and making a difference in their lives. Before I came to BUILD, I ran a nonprofit tutoring center and before that I was a classroom teacher, so I witnessed firsthand how important student engagement is. Motivation makes all the difference, and once a student becomes highly motivated and that lightbulb of inspiration comes on, all things become possible.

What impact (personally or collectively) do you hope to have? What I love about BUILD is that we can see the impact we’re having almost every day. The shy student is suddenly able to pitch his product in front of a panel of judges, the class clown redirects his energy and humor to sell a new customer, and a tough kid beams with pride after making her first sale. Subjects like math suddenly become relevant when at 14 and 15 years old you become the CFO of your own company. A teen who becomes the CEO of a company he created now walks with his head higher and with a sense of new purpose. For many of our students, launching a business in BUILD is the first time they have been truly in control of something in their lives. Bringing an idea from concept to customer is a powerful experience. Best of all, we use entrepreneurship to teach students how to be successful both in school and in life. In BUILD we say Entrepreneurship is the Hook, and College is the Goal. And many of our students — some who were on the verge of dropping out of high school — are now in college and doing great.

Entrepreneurship is the Hook, and College is the Goal.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career or in leading BUILD? One of our biggest challenges is growing the organization to meet the demand. The entrepreneurial ecosystem is booming in Boston, and schools are eager to catch up and keep up. We get requests almost every week from schools and after school programs who want to launch a BUILD program at their site. The corporate community has been extremely generous to BUILD, but we still need more large supporters who can help us grow and scale.

One thing people might find surprising about you or what you do? I do a ton of public speaking in my role as Regional Executive Director. Most people don’t realize that I’m a major introvert and that public speaking used to make me nauseous. Now I speak to big audiences so often that it’s become second nature and I actually enjoy it.

3 things you wish you knew when you first started out in your career?

  1. People invest in people, not in organizations or businesses. So work as hard on your personal growth as you do on the company you’re trying to build.
  2. It’s fun to take the road less traveled and see where you end up. Life is more fun and adventurous that way.
  3. Always listen to that small voice that stirs in your spirit. It’s never wrong.

Best and worst piece of advice you’ve ever received?

  • Best piece of advice — “You can only do that which is humanly possible.” A friend gave me this piece of advice many years ago, and when I get overly stressed and burned out, I remember this pearl of wisdom. We don’t need to be superhuman to be successful. It’s okay to slow down and realize you can’t do it all, all at once. Slow and steady wins the race.
  • Worst piece of advice — “You should use your credit card to finance a new startup.” Bad idea.

What’s next? BUILD is currently serving close to 400 students in 6 partner schools in Boston. We plan to double the number of students we serve by the year 2020. As we grow, we will need more mentors, business coaches, and corporate partners to engage with our students. Volunteers are always welcomed.

The HUBweek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world.