Students Network For Success
The Opportunity Network teaches disadvantaged young people the skills to succeed—in business and beyond.
“For better or worse, networks make the world go ‘round’,” says New York nonprofit entrepreneur Jessica Pliska. “People can be smart and gifted, but they won’t have much of a shot at growing in a career if they can’t access circles of influence in their chosen field.”
Pliska is the co-founder and CEO of The Opportunity Network (OppNet for short), an organization that teaches low-income, high-performing students in New York the skills to do just that. Beginning in high school and continuing through college, OppNet students participate in classes, internships and workshops, all specially designed to help them build and maintain priceless professional relationships. The program’s results speak for themselves.
Pliska graduated from Yale University in 1996 and began a career in corporate marketing—but she and classmate Brian Weinstein knew that they wanted to do something different as well. “One of the great advantages of studying at Yale was that we graduated with unbelievable personal networks,” she says. “We thought that we should leverage those networks for social good beyond our own career paths.”
In 2003, the pair partnered with a local New York school to pilot a then-new career development curriculum. Soon thereafter, they officially founded OppNet, with much of the organization operating out of Pliska’s living room. “I quickly realized how much I was enjoying working with OppNet, and not enjoying my corporate marketing job,” she says, laughing.
As Pliska transitioned into running OppNet full-time, the organization’s educational blueprint began to solidify. “Our kids learn four key components of career fluency,” describes Pliska. “First, we expose them to different industries. They may know professions like ‘doctor,’ ‘lawyer,’ and ‘teacher,’ but we help them learn that there are many possibilities beyond that.” Second on Pliska’s list is professional etiquette training, in which students practice everything from dressing for the office to crafting sleek cover letters for job applications. “Third is college guidance and support,” says Pliska. “Transitioning into college can be difficult, and we have an entire module on how to make the first year successful.” And last but not least, the extremely valuable but often elusive art of networking.
“Our curriculum does not teach students to schmooze and ask for favors,” asserts Pliska. “It’s about learning to build, sustain and leverage networks, how to give back to your relationships.” One unique piece of OppNet’s program, for example, is a four-week “e-mail certification process,” in which students are taught how to network electronically. “They’re probably the only 16-year-olds in New York with online contact databases,” she says, laughing.
One of the challenges OppNet teachers face is showing students that, regardless of wealth, background or location, every one of them already has a network on which to build. “In one exercise, we have students draw their personal networks,” she describes. “We then have all the kids put their network maps on walls and ask them to make connections between them. ‘My mom has a daycare center, and your sister just had a baby,’ for example.”
“Having a network isn’t sufficient on its own when it comes to building a career,” she adds. “But it is the X-factor for success.”
OppNet students get hands-on experience as well. One of the organization’s signature programs is a speed-networking event, where students are given minutes each to speak one-on-one with dozens of established New York professionals. Prior to each speed-networking event, students go through an intensive preparation workshop. “We teach them how to ask smart questions, how to follow up on conversations, and how to write thank you notes,” says Pliska.
Beyond the classroom
As the organization approaches its 10th year, Pliska loves seeing OppNet’s graduates thrive. “For one of our lowest-income kids, English is her second language and her family lives off of tips that her father earns as a delivery man,” she says. “This student got into our program and did a phenomenal job. She worked as an intern at a prestigious magazine, just graduated from a top university, and will be studying for her Ph.D. She’s a superstar.”
That OppNet success story is just one among hundreds, Pliska continues. “We open doors for these outstanding kids, and they just need to walk through them.”
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.