There’s an awakening in this country. If you listen closely you’ll hear the heartbeat of a frustrated nation and frustrated youth as we continue to isolate ourselves from each other and from the world. America is the richest nation in the world. We have the world’s mightiest military force and the brightest minds in the world, yet we rank 38th in the world in math and 24th out of 71 countries in science.

Our socio-economic inequality that exists between rich and poor has never been greater in the history of mankind, or as Bernie Sanders put it for the umpteenth time:

“It is not moral, it is not acceptable, and it is not sustainable that the top one-tenth of 1 percent now owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent”

I was born and raised in the Netherlands. Growing up in Amsterdam, we spoke often about the American Dream. In fact, it seems every time we talked about America, we talked about this promise. The American Dream means if you work hard and contribute to society in positive ways then you will live a great life – no matter how rich or poor you might be. The American Dream bravely declares that America is an equal opportunity place which provides a safe haven for immigrants, refugees, and all who seek a better life for themselves and their families.

It’s the same American Dream that brought us the likes of John F. Kennedy and Madeline Albright. Kennedy was a proud grandchild of Irish immigrants. And Albright, whose parents were forced into exile when Hitler dissolved Czechoslovakia, was our first female Secretary of State.

I bring up the American Dream, because for far too many youth in our country, the idea of the American Dream is dead. While Wall Street is thriving and posting record profits, the average American struggles to survive – grappling with inflation and higher costs of housing, goods, and services. In the first quarter of 2018 alone, the U.S. banking industry posted a combined $56 billion profit, while wages for Americans remain stagnant. Students between the ages of 20-30 are crippled by debt, owing an estimated $1.48 trillion in total U.S. student loan debt, and paying an average of $351/month in student loan payments.

These numbers become even more staggering when we look at inner city youth who live in areas of concentrated poverty. I’ve been asked many times why these young adults aren’t motivated or willing to work hard and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The reality is that these young adults aren’t lazy or looking for a handout, but instead are looking for an opportunity – one that will give them the chance to turn their lives around. Unfortunately, opportunity is hard to find when you’re living in an area of extreme poverty, or your neighborhood suffers from high crime rates, high unemployment, or lower overall academic achievement. And we know from research that these issues disproportionately affect people of color the most.

In a speech delivered at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said:

“It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to abootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

Like many individuals, my family and I came to this great country to experience and live the American Dream, unfortunately the Dream had all but left us behind.

When I was in high school my father made a decision that he would no longer be part of our lives. When he left, he left behind a mortgage and a plethora of bills for which we were responsible. As a high school student, I had dreams and aspirations of going to UCLA, attending law school and one day working at the United Nations to tackle global issues. (I basically wanted to be Amal Clooney, the human rights lawyer).

My dreams were put on hold as I made the conscious decision to take care of my family. I decided to work multiple jobs so that the mortgage was paid. I worked while also attending high school so my little brother would never have to worry about having a roof over his head or clothes on his back. But as time went on I realized a sad truth: I was working paycheck to paycheck and bouncing from one job to another with no end in sight. This reality lasted seven years.

Then on one fateful day, I was walking in the Financial District of San Francisco. I looked around and saw professionals dressed in nice suits, talking about business and politics, and it dawned on me: I never fulfilled my potential. I realized that my American Dream had been held hostage due to my dire financial circumstances.

When I came home that day I decided once and for all that I’d be the author of the next chapter of my life. I immediately started Googling online classes for cyber security – a promising and growing field with seemingly limitless opportunity.

While scrolling through the search results, I came across a non-profit called Year Up, which is a one year program that helps young adults reach their full potential. The first six months are dedicated to learning the soft and hard skills required to excel in corporate America. For the final six months of the program, Year Up places you as an intern with companies like Workday, Salesforce, Facebook, LinkedIn, and many more.

After my classroom training, I completed my internship at Workday as a Security Operations Analyst. I gained the trust and respect of my peers. My manager – who to this day remains my biggest advocate – met with me weekly and provided insights on growth areas while also helping me navigate my new life in corporate America. As my internship neared its end, I interviewed for a permanent job with my team. I received my first job offer. It was the happiest day of my life.

I never received a handout. But I did receive an opportunity, and I was going to make sure that I made the most of that opportunity. I’ve been at Workday for more than two years now. The experience has changed my life – and it’s all thanks to the partnership between Workday and Year Up.

In my opinion, many politicians in Washington D.C. have failed to address the growing inequality gap between rich and poor. Fortunately, there are organizations like Year Up that have partnered with the private sector and have been actively closing this gaping opportunity divide that exists.

We need to continue to support organizations like Year Up that have made it their mission to empower inner city youth who face obstacles to a stable career. There are indirect benefitsto corporations as well:

  • Increased workforce diversity
  • Decreased cost-to-hire
  • Improved employee retention and loyalty
  • Reduced hiring risk

To further confirm the points I’ve alluded to above, the recently released PACE study indicates that Year Up’s earnings impacts are the largest reported to date for workforce programs tested using a RCT (Randomized Control Test) design. Young adults in the treatment group saw a 53% increase in initial earnings, which remained strong over time, with 40% earning gains two years out. This study proves that given the opportunity, young adults coming from a rough background can and will succeed given the right tools and mentorship. In order for ALL of us to experience the American Dream companies need to re-evaluate the way they look at talent in order to compete in this global economy.

Read online here.