STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Not super connected? How to network on the job, in the classroom, or behind a bar

Paula Friedrich
Michigan Radio

In Part One of our Connections documentary, we heard from a young mother in poverty who’s struggling to build a network out of nothing. So I thought I’d switch things up for a bit and talk to someone who is a pro at networking. Has one of the best networks around, at least in my circle of friends.

His name is Chris Drouin, and I caught up with him at the Office Coffee Shopin Royal Oak. I met Drouin in high school, he’s a few years older than me. When I posted a status update on Facebook asking for folks to name the best networker they  knew, Drouin named himself. 

"I don’t know if I said I’m the best networker," jokes Drouin. "I'm cocky, but I’m not that cocky."

Drouin says in his circle of friends he's known as "the guy that’s got a guy." Need a plumber? Call Drouin. Need a mortgage banker? Call Drouin. You get the picture. He’s connected to so many people - through his work, his church, his college fraternity and alumni boards, among many other things. 

Where everybody knows your name (and can help you network)

Yes, Drouin comes from an upper middle class background, his parents are both professionals, so to a large extent his network was already made for him. But it wasn’t really until college that he realized just how important it was to be a good networker. Specifically, when he landed a job as a bartender.

"I always kind of looked at being behind the bar as being the host of the party to make sure everyone at the bar was having a good time," he says. "Because the better time they had, the better my tips were."

Since graduating from college, Drouin has done everything from finance to his current job as a digital media strategist, but he says – in terms of learning how to network – you can’t beat being a bartender. 

So I ask him: What networking advice would you give to an 18-year old who comes from a low-income family?

Simple, he says. "Get to any restaurant" in an upper middle class city or neighborhood and "beg, borrow and plead for a job that just started doing whatever." Tell the manager "I’ll bus tables, I’ll host, I’ll bar-back, I’ll wash dishes," but with the attitude that "I want to work my way up to bartender ... because it’s really good money, it’s a really good way to network and find opportunities. "

Restaurateur Dennis Archer, Jr. thinks Drouin's advice is "a great idea." Archer, Jr. owns Central Kitchen & Bar in midtown Detroit, and he's also the son of former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer. And while Dennis Archer, Jr. didn’t set out to build a formal network for inner city youth from Detroit, he’s created an informal network for at least one teen that works at his restaurant. 

"Literally every time I’m sitting here eating with somebody," says Archer, Jr. "I drag him over here and introduce him to people all the time, and inevitably those people say, hey, well if I can do anything to help you, let me know, that sort of thing."

The teen in question is Devin Johnson, a high school senior who’s quickly discovered that there are more benefits to this busboy thing than just earning some extra cash. "It’s like your opportunities never end," says Devin. He's not kidding. Since he started working at Central Kitchen & Bar, Devin has racked up half a dozen business cards from personal friends of Archer, Jr.'s to college admission officers. So I ask him: 

GUERRA: Do you think other 16-year olds in the city have a wallet that’s stacked with business cards from high-ranking people? DEVIN: No, to be honest I don’t think so. GUERRA: How does it make you feel to have something like this? DEVIN: It makes me feel like I’m important, like I actually matter.

Devin Johnson's mentor, Dennis Archer, Jr., says it's all about exposure. "I think it’s very important for those of us who can afford the time ... to help guide or provide some insights and leadership to another young kid."

The school that works...literally

Dennis Archer, Jr. hit on something that I want to explore more. This idea of stepping in to be a mentor to someone you have no connection to – you’re not related, it’s not even a friend of a friend, you don’t run in the same social circles.

Why do it? 

This idea of stepping in to be a mentor to someone you have no connection to - you're not related, you're not even a friend of a friend, you don't run in the same social circles. Why do it?

I put that question to a guy named Joaquin Nuno-Whelan, a chief engineer at General Motors. He does a lot of recruiting for GM, and he’s tired of bringing in talent from other states. He wants to find talent here, in Michigan. He says filling that gap in terms of underrepresented talent is "a big passion" of his, so he's teamed up with a Catholic high school in southwest Detroit. It’s called Cristo Rey.

Nuno-Whelan is one of hundreds of white collar workers in southeast Michigan who work with and mentor students there.

Here’s how it works: one day a week, beginning with freshmen year, Cristo Rey students go to work for a white collar company like a law firm or an insurance agency or, since this is Detroit, one of the car companies.

GM's Nuno-Whelan sees it as a win-win for both the auto industry and the students. 

"The fact that kids go to work one day a week is hugely mind-opening," says Nuno-Whelan. "The kids get to see things they wouldn’t get to see and it starts to instill some inspiration, but also connects the dots, as, 'Oh it is that easy, I can do this!'"

After four years in high school with an engineering internship plus four years of college, Nuno-Whelan says GM is going to be dying to hire these kids. And their resumes will float to the top of the pile because now they know people on the inside.

Mike Khoury is president of Cristo Rey High School in Detroit. He says making sure the kids are challenged in school is, of course, a top priority, but he says the jobs program is really what helps level the playing field between rich kids from the suburbs and poor kids from the city.

He views the jobs program as his students' "country club. This is where they’re making the connections for themselves; this is where they’re talking to so and so to help get a job over the summer."

Khoury tells me one donor gave a Cristo Rey student a $40,000 college scholarship, another student got his tuition nearly covered by the company he interned for. And I’m told a bunch of students have already been “promised” full time jobs when they finish college.

So who gets into Cristo Rey? Well, the one in southwest Detroit is part of a national chain of high schools – there are 30 across the country. Many of the schools have wait lists, but the Detroit one is still pretty new, so they’re just trying to fill seats at this point.

All the schools are specifically for low-income youth who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford private school. At the Cristo Rey high school in southwest Detroit, the vast majority of students are Hispanic or African American, and the average family income is under $30,000.

Parents kick in about $600 - $700 a year for tuition. The job partners cover the rest. So while the students do work, they don’t get a paycheck; the money they earn at their internship goes to pay their private school tuition at Cristo Rey. 

Le'Reatha Burrell is a junior at Cristo Rey High School, and she's doing her student internship at General Motors. At 16-years old, she’s experienced more trauma and heartbreak in her young life than anyone should. A house fire killed both her brothers earlier this year. Cortez, Jr. was a senior at Cristo Rey, Quartez was in seventh grade.

Credit Paula Friedrich / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A visual image of Le'Reatha Burrell's network.

She understandably does not like to talk about it.

But perhaps that more than anything has made her more determined to succeed in life. "I just want to work hard and be successful and give back to people" who have experienced house fires, says Le'Reatha. She plans to make a living as a mechanical engineer and a math professor. So I ask her: 

GUERRA: Have you ever met [an engineer] before? LE'REATHA: No, I haven’t. GUERRA: When I say the word network, what do you think of? LE'REATHA: The people that I know. GUERRA: Do you think you have a strong network? LE'REATHA: As of now, no. But I feel like if I keep working at GM and am exposed to different people and their different occupations, then I feel like I will have a strong network. GUERRA: How important is that? LE'REATHA: It’s very important because a lot of times it’s not about what you know it’s about who you know and who can help you out and where you need to be. GUERRA: Do you think that’s fair? LE'REATHA: Not all the time, no, but occasionally yes. GUERRA: When it works out in your favor! LE'REATHA: [laugh] GUERRA: So soon you’ll be somebody who knows somebody at GM. LE'REATHA: Right, yes, in the future I will be, yes.

Now, it’s not like she’s building or designing cars at GM. For the first month, while I was there, it was mostly data entry stuff, some PowerPoint presentations, getting acquainted with the corporate culture.

But Le’Reatha is meeting people who do have clout at GM, and I'm told she'll get to do mock-interviews, work on her elevator pitch for what she wants to do when she grows up and get help with her resume. Those are three networking skills that will definitely come in handy when she graduates college. 

Twenty miles away in Auburn Hills, Osvaldo Lopez is getting his first taste of life as an engineer - not at General Motors, but at Fiat Chrysler. Last year he worked in the product design department at Chrysler. This year he’s working in the powertrain lab with his new mentor, engineer Erin Waskiewicz.

Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Erin Waskiewicz (right) is an engineer at Fiat Chrysler. She says mentoring Cristo Rey students is "one of my favorite parts of my job."

  Waskiewicz's glee around meeting Osvaldo is palpable. You can just tell this mentoring thing is in her bones. "I love it, it’s one of my favorite parts of my job, because you feel like you can make a difference," she says. And it helps that she sees some parallels between her upbringing and the students at Cristo Rey.

Growing up, Waskiewicz's neighborhood was filled with mostly working-class folks -- nurses, medical technicians, that type of thing. She says she always had everything she needed, but she didn't realize how small her network was until she went away to college in the Upper Peninsula.

When summer break rolled around, the other students in her class "had summer jobs in professional offices ... because their parents knew somebody or the parents set it up for them," she explains. "It was never like that for me, you know, I’ve done it all on my own."

She had no connections of her own, so Waskiewicz went the co-op route: she’d go to school for a couple semesters, then work at an engineering firm for a couple semesters, and back and forth until she graduated. And she firmly believes her co-op job got her where she is where she is today – as one of the engineers in Fiat Chrysler’s powertrain division.

"Any opportunities I’ve had since then have all come from the experience or the people I’ve met back then," says Waskiewicz. "That’s what I love about the Cristo Rey program, I just love so much that these kids are getting this opportunity to meet people and get real world experience and contacts."

Tomorrow: When you’re locked up in prison, away from everyone and everything you know and love, how do you build a new life for yourself when you get out? We'll take a look at life and networks after prison.

You can listen to Part One of the documentary here.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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