Dream Jobs and Glass Ceilings

Can kids from modest backgrounds ascend to the top of our economy?

Do you get the Sunday Afternoon Blues? It’s that deep sense of sadness that wells up around 2:00 PM when you realize the weekend is over. Then when the alarm rings at 6:00 AM on Monday, do you start trying to remember how many “sick days” you have left? Don’t worry. You are not alone.

Millions of Americans hate their job — 70% to be exact. But given that most of us dislike our 9–5, why do we expect young people and students to be excited about “growing up and going to work?”

Last year, I tutored at an elementary school where 99% of the student were black and low-income. And while I knew going to college was crucial to their success, I felt phony selling them the joys of entry-level employment.

“C’mon guys! Me and my friends went to college, and now we’re making tens of thousands of dollars!” I’d say. I hoped that it sounded like a lot of money to fifth-graders. It didn’t. They had saw right through me. At the end of our conversations, when I asked what they wanted to be, they rattled off the same old answers. Singer. Dancer. Rapper. Football Player. And who could blame them?

The comparative allure was dismal. They knew that my coworkers and I got paychecks, but they saw that is wasn’t enough to afford cars. We rode the city bus with them. And while I represented an authority figure in the classroom, I wasn’t the boss. They’d watched me fume, as I took directions from the school’s blundering principal. If my lifestyle represented years of deferred gratification and college education, I could see why my students indulged in the more extravagant daydreams of celebrity.

A photo captured in my fifth-grade classroom.

The athletes and entertainers they admired possess enviable ownership over their lives. They travel across the globe, elicit praise for their work, and purchase whatever they want. For the students I tutored, kids who grew up with so little, it only made sense that they’d desire the jobs that provided all the experiences they’ve been deprived of.

However as an adult, I knew the fallacy of their celebrity aspirations. The percentage of people who can become superstars is microscopic. Yet that didn’t make my students wrong for wanting more; it just meant that as an educator, I had to show them how school could help them achieve their desired lifestyle — The most relevant example I could imagine was that of an entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurs set their schedule, hold respect in the community, and possess tremendous earning potential. But even as I began teaching my students about entrepreneurship to motivate them in class, I still felt guilty. I knew that just as with professional music and athletics, business too pitted the odds against them:

While blacks made up 11% of the US population in 2010, they only received 1% of startup funding.

For decades, aspiring black entrepreneurs have enrolled in school, studied hard, and labored over business plans only to be met by a racist investment industry upon graduation. Whether they want to create a small business like a restaurant, or a high-growth internet company, studies show that even when blacks have similar credit scores, education, and business models, they are still far less likely to receive any investment than their white counterparts. The issue is so severe in venture capital investments (this is the type of investment you need to create an internet startup like Facebook, Uber, or Airbnb) that only around one percent of VC investments go into startups founded by blacks.

“One percent??”

I felt no shame in teaching my students about why they shouldn’t only bank on becoming celebrities or athletes. But I couldn’t discourage them from owning a business. They deserved to dream. Instead of asking black kids like my students to lower their expectations, I decided to ask society to raise its moral standards.

Through my writing, I am fighting to show businesses how they can stop discriminating against black people, and start investing in them. Employers can act as mentors to improve education outcomes for young people of color. Investors can expand their networks to create racially diverse portfolios. Bankers can fight bias and finance development to blighted communities. When these things start to happen, kids from low-income black neighborhoods will have more to dream for. Because, after being forced to grow up in poverty and work twice as hard in school, the least society owes them is a fair shot at a career that they’ll look forward too — even on Sunday afternoons.

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