The Chicago Athletic Association is delightfully cozy with its intricate wood paneling, impressive fireplaces, and plush seating. The peaked windows looked out over Millenium Park and the chill of the glass boldly contrasted with the warmth of the interior. The soft smooth tones of jazz drifted through the air as the tinkle of glasses and silverware sporadically rang through the space.
My attention was pulled from the comforting surroundings as I noticed Kevin Davenport approaching. He was well dressed with a nice button up and a dark blue vest. One firm handshake and the requisite introduction later we were sitting down to talk.
For those of you who don’t know, Kevin Davenport is the Founder and CEO of Ideal Candidate, a job training program for disadvantaged youths in Chicago. He’s also the Founder and CEO of Success Hub, which compiles the lessons of Ideal Candidate into an app that can be accessed and learned from wherever you are. Kevin also happens to be the ex-President of Status Group, an event production and marketing company. In addition, Kevin is also the Program Manager for the Entrepreneurship Center at The Chicago Urban League. When it comes to success with entrepreneurship, he’s someone who knows how to make that happen.
Our interview not only ended up answering a lot of questions about what it’s like to start your own business but shed light on the difficulties some people have navigating corporate culture.
The Risk of Starting Fresh
Kevin Davenport has created his own business on multiple occasions. Starting from scratch is a big risk for a lot of people. There are financial uncertainties and you really have to be your own ‘Employee of the Month’ around the clock. Not everybody can handle this, but apparently, Kevin can so we figured we’d learn from the best.
Can you talk a little about your first entrepreneurship venture, Status Group?
“I started Status Group because I was fired from my previous job. I had no other options. I sent out my resume to so many people and never got responses. I would go to these interviews and get turned down and I was like ‘What am I gonna do? A buddy of mine started working on this event space and when we reconnected, he was like ‘What can we do together?’ After about a month and a half, we came up with this events and marketing company. So I guess its creation was birthed from not having any other options and not taking failure for an answer. “
Did that experience teach you anything you use today with Ideal Candidate?
“Oh Absolutely. During that time I learned a lot about myself. I had to overcome a lot of fear. I had never done marketing for an event before. I had never sold a client. I started Status Group when I was 23, about to turn 24, so I was young and fresh out of school with a Bachelor’s Degree. My whole life has been a little serendipitous, with things coming together. But I’ve always jumped out there and been willing to take the risk. “
Where would you say you learned these skills in the first place?
“I started teaching this soft skills curriculum when I was a teenager at my mother’s performing arts program and it was her way of giving back. We were located at 116th at Ashland which was called “The Wild Hundreds”. It’s an under-resourced community, it has a high gang and violence rate, so it’s not a great area. She had me start helping her at 16 because she thought that if I could teach these skills, I would know them even more. “
An now that you’re also working on Success Hub, where does that fit into this line of succession?
“The Ideal Candidate gave me the confidence to formalize my Mom’s vision. I thought ‘If I were to make this a non-profit, what would that look like?’ ‘How can we make the most impact?’ ‘What are some of the things that are preventing companies from hiring from the diversity and inclusion pipeline and how can I solve this problem?’ So in 2015 I finally got the courage to formalize it and incorporate it with Ideal Candidate. Success Hub represents a new chapter in this journey. Success Hub’s purpose is to give us the ability to make national and international impact.”
Corporate Culture Shock
Being outside of one’s element can be very stressful both mentally and physically. You can’t always just jump into the deep end and hope to figure things out. You’ve got to learn to swim first. Being in an unfamiliar environment can throw anybody for a loop and dealing with this while convincing people you belong there is even harder.
Kevin’s students at Ideal Candidate and Success Hub have to deal with all this and more.
What would you say are some of the main challenges your students face? Can you give any examples?
“I think that the biggest thing to change is the students’ mentality. My edge over other programs is that I understand the psychology of the situation. For example, when you meet someone new in the office, you’re supposed to smile, make eye contact, and shake hands. But if you’re crossing gang territory and living in the ‘Wild Hundreds’, you don’t want to make eye contact because that’s considered threatening. The code of ethics is different.”
Wow, I didn’t even consider that.
“These are usually kids that have never been outside of this community. We took them on a field trip to Navy Pier and they all said ‘Ooh, the ocean!’ These kids live 20 minutes outside of the city and they’d somehow never been out of their bubble. How do you take that kid who’s never been exposed to this and put them in a corporate environment where 95% of people don’t look like them and don’t dress like them? So I think we need to change the way they think of themselves and envision their future. Once we can break those barriers, they’re open and they want to learn all these other lessons that Ideal Candidate has to offer”
The Intricacies of the Interview
Seeing as Ideal Candidate specializes in trining its students for job interviews and corporate culture, we thought we’d ask Kevin for some expert advice.
How important you say dressing well is for something like a first interview?
“It’s huge, we teach part of that too. The average time an employer will interview someone is 45 minutes, but most employers know within the first 2 minutes whether they’re going to hire that person or not. That means the person applying has a very short window to make a good impression. The employer will still give you a chance and do their job, but their mind is usually made up early on. So that means they’re looking at how you dress, act, and walk through the door. That first 2 minutes are where we really really drill our students. Our Dress For Success program covers a lot of the presentation factor, but we also teach about non-verbal communication and interview prep as well.”
For someone who doesn’t have a lot of money to spend on an interview outfit, what would you recommend?
“Our best advice its to bargain shop. We’ve been trying to partner with suit companies for the last 2 years but we haven’t been successful. We’ve gotten really close to a deal a few times and things just didn’t work out. That doesn’t mean we’ll stop trying though.”
Different corporations have different versions of normal, how do you prepare your students for these variations?
“The basis of our lessons doesn’t change, but we do teach about different companies. For example, we talk about IBM vs Google culture. With IBM, you’re gonna have to go with the traditional suit, but with Google you can go with khakis. We tell our students about all these different dress codes so they can be prepared. We cover boardroom attire, business casual, formal, etc. We even cover what is and isn’t appropriate for when employers say ‘casual’. But in the end, no matter which company you go with, there’s a certain code of ethics you’re going to have to abide by. That’s what we teach. “
It’s interesting that you mention that different companies have different cultures. How do you read the room when you go in for interviews?
“The number one job mistake that people, especially millennials, make when applying for jobs is not knowing anything about the company they’re interviewing with. You shouldn’t apply for positions unless you know where you’re applying. We also teach our students a lot about social media etiquette because these days it’s almost like a second resume for you. Do the extra work. Find out who the program manager, the hiring manager, and the HR director are on LinkedIn and connect with them there.”
How would you advise you advise someone to structure the social media. Let’s say they’re starting from scratch and they’re looking for a job, which platforms are the most advantageous?
“LinkedIn by far is the number one in this setting. If you’re going to have a second one, I’d go for Facebook because you can use it for networking. The two brands should match in terms of professionalism. 80-90% of employers are going to check your Facebook, so we talk about things you can and can’t do. Facebook is a bit more casual, but it’s still a piece of your resume. On LinkedIn my picture is with a suit and tie, on Facebook, my profile is a blazer and no tie. I’m presenting a consistent image while I promote myself.”
You mention self-promotion, is that something you recommend for your students?
“Definitely. When I was a teenager I was going to networking events and showing people who I was. I had my own business cards and it really helped. Recently a few of the people I introduced myself to back them are coming into my life now. Go out there, make an impression, shake some hands, you don’t know when that will pay off. It’ll only work as hard as you do.”
Business cards is an interesting mention, not many first time interviewers have those. How would you recommend someone approach their first business card?
“Make sure your picture is on there. But a lot of the time having a business card at 18-20 is enough to be impressive. You’re already more prepared about the majority of your peers”
When you’re that young you may worry that you don’t have enough to contribute to a conversation with some of the more experienced professionals you meet. What can younger members of the workforce do in these situations?
“Good point. A person’s energy and willingness to be helpful can take them a long way. Be willing to put in the work and evntually someone will throw you a bone. “
Becoming an Ideal Candidate
Kevin Davenport’s dedication to the success of the next generation is certainly commendable. With the current difficulties facing youths in troubled areas of Chicago, it’s become harder for them to have access to the same resources and job training as their peers from other neighborhoods. Ideal Candidate acknowledges this problem and seeks to correct it.
To learn more about Success Hub you can go here
To donate to Ideal Candidate you can go here
To sign up for Ideal Candidate you can go here
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