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Year Up’s Chertavian finds a successor in Ellen McClain

By: Jon Chesto on Oct 16, 2023

Gerald Chertavian knows CEO transitions aren’t always seamless for an organization and can sometimes be disastrous — particularly when it’s the founder who is leaving.

That’s why Chertavian, founder and chief executive of workforce training nonprofit Year Up, has been deliberate with his own succession plan, one that’s four years in the making.

On Tuesday, Year Up will announce that president Ellen McClain will take over as chief executive on Dec. 1. The timing, Chertavian said, was driven by his belief that he found the right candidate. Chertavian will stay as a senior adviser for at least one year, and remain on Year Up’s national board for three; he will also co-teach a course at Harvard Business School in the spring with HBS professor Kash Rangan.

McClain joined in 2015 as Year Up’s chief financial officer. She eventually became chief operating officer and then president. She will remain based in New York, as Year Up’s chief executive.

“As opposed to saying, ‘here’s one person you champion,’ you provide opportunities for folks to show what they could do in expanded roles, and Ellen clearly rose to that,” Chertavian said. “[And] it was pretty clear that the board saw tremendous potential in Ellen.”

In an emailed statement, board chair Paul Edgerley added: “Ellen’s commitment to the mission and to providing pathways to opportunity for young adults has always been evident.”

McClain takes charge of an organization that is of a completely different scale than the one Chertavian launched in 2000. After selling Conduit Communications, a British IT consulting firm he cofounded, Chertavian started Year Up to reach students from underserved communities who were missing out on great job and career opportunities because they lacked a four-year degree. Year Up started in Boston with a $200,000 budget. Today, it has 30 locations, about 750 employees, and a budget of roughly $200 million. Year Up helps thousands of students each year, nearly all of them people of color, with tuition-free programs funded by a mix of corporate money and philanthropy.

In the Boston market alone, Chertavian estimates Year Up placed more than 5,000 interns at 70-plus companies over the years. Key local employers include Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Mass General Brigham, and Harvard University.

Nationwide, the placements exceed 40,000. Chertavian said Year Up has placed more low-income, young adults of color into career-track jobs at Fortune 500 companies than any other institution in the United States.

Chertavian, who grew up in Lowell, said he couldn’t think of a better place to start a mission-focused nonprofit like the one he launched.

“I firmly believe Boston is the best city in the country to start and scale a social enterprise,” Chertavian said. “Look at the folks in this community that get behind new ideas, who are willing to invest in those and scale them.”

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