By Michael Rain
At close to the end of a humid spring New York day, Laurel Djoukeng arrives in Brooklyn full of energy, and fatigue. The investment banker traveled from Midtown Manhattan to Flatbush in central Brooklyn after an already long day, but his workday is not over.
He projects a warm enthusiasm. His eyes are slightly weary, but his smile is bright enough to disguise most hints of weariness. His tie is sharp and his suit is freshly crisp, as he heads into a parent-teacher night at Erasmus Hall High School. He is attending the event to inform students, parents and educators about a free summer program offered by the non-profit organization he co-founded, Catalyst Network Foundation (CNF).
In the midst of an era of Black Lives Matter campaigns, adverse statics about the future of young African-Americans and reports on millions of missing Black men, Djoukeng has built a smart social impact enterprise that has benefitted hundreds of Black lives. His non-profit helps high school sophomores and juniors of color develop academic and professional skills through a variety of fellowships, programing and workshops.
CNF was launched in 2011, guided by the wisdom of experienced African-American elders and powered by a team of young and educated professionals of color. The organization operates in both New York City and Washington D.C. and maintains three cohorts with over 65 Fellowship Scholars who have moved forward to earn acceptance and attend selective colleges and universities.
CNF offers career workshops, SAT prep sessions, and college admissions events by partnering with Ivy League schools including Columbia and Harvard, as well as, top historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) including Spellman, and Djoukeng’s alma mater, Hampton University.
CNF has also exposed young people to corporate careers and industries through internships, company site visits, and special programs provided by financial leaders, tech titans and media powerhouses including, Google, Goldman Sachs, Nike, LinkedIn, HBO, Microsoft, Essence Magazine, Bloomberg, FOX News, BET, and NBC Studios.
As Mr. Djoukeng’s prepares to introduce himself and CNF to faculty and parents, he reminisces about how this all began. This social impact venture wasn’t originally his planned path. His passion for community and several encouraging mentors led toward a journey to build it.
Djoukeng was born in Washington, D.C. His parents emigrated to the United States from Cameroon. They were from the same village, but met in the U.S. as students at Howard University. He moved to New York after graduating from Hampton University.
“What are you doing to help the community?” a gentleman about 60 years old would ask Djoukeng every day for two years as he walked home from work. He answered the man by sharing his contributions as mentor with iMentor and volunteering with other social good programs.
“No, what are you doing for this community?,’” the man would reply, referring to the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn Mr. Djoukeng lived at the time. Finally he asked the man what he needed to do to help out “this” community. He was directed to attend a meeting at Community Board 8, which covers most of the Crown Heights neighborhood.
At the meeting Djoukeng joined a committee and met Priscilla Maddox (whom he refers to as Miss Priscilla) who offered to drive him home. During the ride she asked him why there weren’t more Black professionals, entrepreneurs and famous people involved in community building.
“I think we learn how to give back when we had a base of support giving to us. Most young African-Americans just don’t have that platform,” he assessed.
“Then why don’t you build it?,” Miss Pricilla inquired. She planted the seed. She stressed that there needs to be a platform that gets young people of color from wherever they are to rise toward their goals. Reaching their potential takes a cultivation of a lot of things. It takes guidance, mentorship and a support system from the earliest stages of development.
The two spoke for over two hours and by the end of the conversation Djoukeng promised that he would work to build that platform.
“I just met her that night. I shook her hand and gave her my word that I would build this platform, even though I had no idea what I was committing to build,” he remembers.
Djoukeng assessed his experiences with non-profits he worked with in the past and thought about how he could recruit a committed team. He knew he would need to find people who were naturally passionate about the organization’s mission and their role in making the vision a reality. “I never reached out to someone blindly,” he says. “I engaged people, then figured out what they loved to do and then asked them to do it for CNF.”
The organization has been run by a team of passionate volunteers. There are no salaried employees atCNF. Djoukeng himself holds a full time job while operating the venture, as does his team, who all retain 9 to 5 employment.
“Passion is the only thing that will make you want to get involved and do anything. We have volunteers who stay up until 2 and 3am to get work done even when I tell them not to do it. They go in that hard because they are passionate about it,” he shares with a proud grin.
Djoukeng began by working with his team to design an approach that helps young people identify their strengths and interests. They then receive guidance on how to pursue building a career based on their assessment.
“We feel like the most important thing is self-motivation. Once you’re self-motivated, you don’t need anything but the resources so you can go to where you want to go. We feel like the only way to get them to be self-motivated is to get them to feel like they are pursusing their passion. So we’re doing everything to help them discover what that is,” he shares.
The program gives students a head start to try a variety of interests and discover what they are good at and what they don’t like. CNF then cultivates their youth, provides a base of resources and then partner with organizations to facilitate that exploration.
One example of CNF’s approach is their summer intensive program. It guides the students in the discovery of their passions. They then learn practical steps on pursuing a career aligned with what they enjoy.
Strengths Finder 2.0 is used to assess the student’s character traits and leadership skills. Once the organization has identified what student’s have an aptitude for, the team then figures out which professional sectors compliment them.
Students’ soft skills are developed through workshops improving their public speaking, presentation ability, writing and resource skills in the two-week intensive program. They then work on a special project to hone their practical skills. Their hard skills grow through internships and hands on training.
“We create that ecosystem to help draft that roadmap for them to go from point A to point Z,” says Djoukeng. “It is always going to be fine tuned, because there is no way to do it perfectly.” He stressed, “We as young professionals are still trying to figure it out. We’re just ahead of the students at point F or point G. Going from point A to point Z is a never ending journey, but it’s critical to continue.”
While in college, Djoukeng saw his fellow classmates compromise on their dreams out of consideration of financial pressures and desires. It influenced him to set a framework for CNF to encourage students purse their passion and become aware of innovative ways to monetize on it. The goal is to provide them with the necessary recourses so they don’t have to conceed when they leave college.
Djoukeng just happens to love capital allocation and business development so he works in the sector that aligns with his interests, but “I’ll be damned if somebody told me I better learn illustration because what I love to do doesn’t pay the bills,” he says with a defiant eyes and smirk.
Much of what motivates the volunteers and partners of CNF is their sense of community, particularly as African Americans and people of color globally. This is something Djoukeng feels is prevalent but underreported and remains largely unacknowledged.
“Blacks want to see other blacks succeed. It’s not highlighted enough but they do” he shares as he remembers the support he received from Community Board 8. One board member was an attorney who helped him file a 501(c)(3) for free. Others donated their time and money to get the organization off the ground.
“The elders in our community have the wisdom and they want to help. They know where the bones are buried, but they don’t have the energy to execute anymore. Young people have ideas, but lack the capital. We need to keep that bridge together,” he says in a hopeful tone.
The public high school Djoukeng attended was predominately filled with Black and Latino students. There was a magnet program so the school had an influx of student from wealthier areas, which guaranteed that there were college prep resources available. He took AP classes and other challenging courses that helped him get into the schools of his choice when he became more serious about college.
“I was a jokester in high school. Some of my Black teachers saw me as that but once they found out I was applying the college they were some of the first ones to offer to write my recommendations and assist me through the process. These were teachers who had kicked me out of class or sent me to detention for being a jokester, but they became some of my greatest champions,” he shared.
Djoukeng’s assistant basketball coach, a proud Hampton alum, took him and a teammate on a tour of the University. They connected with a current student who was a senior and whom his coach took on the same tour of Hampton a few years prior. His coach then pushed him to complete his college application and get his recommendations in on time. “I didn’t know how big that was until now, when I’m doing the same thing for CNF students,” he says.
Between a finance driven day job and his social good organization, it might not be clear what Djoukeng’s passion is in his life. “I love to bring new ideas into fruition,” he says with a childlike smile. “I love coming up with new ideas and then working with people to make something that wasn’t there before exist.”
Djoukeng thinks back to that two-hour conversation four years ago with Miss Priscilla and says, “ I didn’t even know what I was committing to, but you don’t always know where things will go.”
He adds, “I always thought I would be the person who allocated capital to non-profits when I got older for initiatives that I liked. I never thought I would be running one. Never. You never know where ideas will lead you, but as long as you are still be pursing your interests, it will be a good place.”
Michael Rain is the editor-in-chief of ZNews Africa. He communicates ideas through written and visual stories and has an ardent interest in expanding the perception of people of color. His editorial intrigue includes design and technology, and their relationship to culture. Say hello on Twitter @michaeljrain.
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