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Modeling Corporate Success

be surprised how many people don't realize that you're supposed to wear a suit for a job interview," observes Erica Skala C'94. "Or that you're supposed to have an alarm clock to get to work on time." Many welfare recipients and low-income workers trying to enter or move ahead in the job market lack role models from which to learn such behaviors. Skala, a financial analyst for a Manhattan investment bank, cofounded a not-for-profit organization two years ago which she hopes will help fill that void while providing practical job skills and computer training.

Illustration by Trisha Krauss

   Her group, StreetWise Partners, calls upon New York professionals to serve as unpaid mentors -- training clients, for example, to use the latest computer spreadsheet, as well as imparting more general advice, such as how to get along with the boss. What makes her program different from others of its kind, Skala believes, is the one-on-one skills training it offers, actually pairing two mentors with each client. In recognition of the program, President Clinton invited one of StreetWise's founders to the White House for a Welfare to Work ceremony, which brought together leaders in the non-profit sector and corporations.
   The accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers opened its computer facilities to the program, so clients and mentors meet there on Saturdays to go over math, reading, computer use and the fundamentals of business. "It's the first time many of the participants have ever been to midtown Manhattan, walked into a giant office building, and used computers as they're set up in most offices," Skala says. "We're trying to bring in as many real-work experiences as we can." The 12-week mentoring sessions include mock interviews and résumé workshops.
   Because StreetWise draws its clients from referral agencies, and because many of those clients must move between shelters or homes of family members, it's difficult to pinpoint how many have secured jobs as a result of the program. Skala estimates that about 35 of its 55 graduates are currently employed. "Our best success," she notes, "is when we have a volunteer who hands in their client's résumé at their firm."
   Her brother, Andrew Skala C'98, and Dan Levine C'97 recently combined their backgrounds at an investment-banking firm and a telemarketing and direct-mail firm to volunteer as mentors to Marilyn, a low-income, fortysomething mother of two who had difficulty keeping jobs.
   "Marilyn was nice to work with, and she had a real desire to learn, but it seemed like she had limited resources," Andrew Skala says. "She didn't really have a confidence in terms of the business world. What this program offered her was a place and the ability to show off her leadership skills." Over a three-month period, they helped her polish her spelling and her speaking style, as well as change the way she related to people at work. "Her enthusiasm in coming [to the program] rubbed off on many of the clients there. She felt like a leader." And more tangibly, he says, she got a job promotion at the basket-making company where she worked.
   The reverse age gap between clients (most are ages 35 to 50) and mentors (typically in their twenties) initially was a concern for the founders of StreetWise, but it hasn't been a problem so far, Skala says. "I think computers are a good segue, because people understand that young people typically know more about computers. Also, a lot of our volunteers hold positions that our clients would ultimately love to have, so they respect them." Mentoring, in turn, is "an eye-opening experience" for many young professionals, she says, "who've never met people who are on public assistance or who get their electricity shut off, and things like that."
   StreetWise Partners is expanding and welcomes more volunteers, as well as any Penn alumni interested in passing on its clients' resumes or replicating the program in other cities.
    For more information, contact the organization at swpnyc@aol.com or call (212) 849-2777.

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Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 5/5/99