Publisher’s Pick Spotlight: Leadership Brainery – 40U40

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By Evan C. Loving

Leadership Brainery (LB) was founded by power couple Derrick Young, Jr., MPH and Jonathan Allen, JD, MTS to address inequitable access to master’s and doctoral degrees and workforce leadership opportunities for underrepresented talent, including people of color, individuals from a lower socioeconomic status, LGBTQ individuals, and other demographics who are systematically excluded from higher education.  

The cofounders met in 2013 as first-generation college students attending Grambling State University, a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). Both Derrick and Jonathan spearheaded transformative initiatives that increased student engagement around critical issues, such as voter registration, tobacco usage on campus, and funding the construction of a resource center and computer lab for the student union. Everything changed in 2017; the year that these founders began their postgraduate programs was also the year that the vision that was to become Leadership Brainery crystalized. The following year, Leadership Brainery was established as a certified Massachusetts non-profit organization. The Marion Institute became Leadership Brainery’s fiscal sponsor, which made all donations 501(c)(3) tax deductible. 

The following interview details more of Derrick and Jonathan’s journey to creative Leadership Brainery, its mission, and impact over the last four years. To learn more about Leadership Brainery and support its programs visit www.leadershipbrainery.org 

Left: Derrick Young, Jr., MPH, Co-founder & Executive Director; Right: Jonathan Allen, Co-founder & Director of Development. (courtesy of Leadership Brainery)

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COLOR: So tell us, how’d this all begin?  

Jonathan: Derrick and I both understood that obtaining postgraduate degrees would help us to access leadership roles in the workforce. However, upon entering our respective competitive graduate programs, the racial inequities in education vividly revealed themselves. I earned my Master of Theological Studies, concentrating on political and liberation theologies from Southern Methodist University and my Juris Doctors from Boston University. I was one of the very few Black students enrolled.  

Derrick: I earned my Master of Public Health degree, concentrating in health services management and policy from Tufts University. I attended law school later, but then self-eliminated myself from after being one of two Black men to enter his class of 250+ in 2017. At that point, we knew we must create a solution to increase access for underrepresented students in competitive postgraduate programs.  

Can you tell us about Leadership Brainery’s platform and mission? 

Derrick: Leadership Brainery uses innovative high-tech and high-touch programming to close wealth and opportunity gaps by addressing inequitable access to master’s and doctoral degrees and workforce leadership for underrepresented talent. We work with prospective and current graduate students, academic institutions, employers, and committed community members to eliminate systemic barriers to education and create inclusive communities.  

Jonathan: Our Theory of Change is the belief that with greater resources and access to inclusive networks and advanced education, underrepresented communities can leverage impactful and higher-wage careers to establish financial stability and reinvest in their communities to create generational prosperity. 

What are some of the barriers you faced as first-generation college students?  

Derrick: Like so many, we were the first in our families to go to college, couldn’t personally afford expensive graduate education, and had little help from family navigating the route to an advanced degree. 

Jonathan: On top of that, neither of us come from wealthy or affluent families, which has made the process for ideating, incorporating, and funding a startup even more challenging.  But despite this, we’ve still been able to leverage our diverse and multidisciplinary networks, coupled with unwavering determination and ingenuity, to develop a dynamic movement addressing a critical pathway for closing wealth inequality.   

Can you highlight some of the critical pathways that LB has opened for students today? 

Derrick: LB’s core programs focus on resources, preparation, development, and connections. Therefore, LB is directly equipping diverse young leaders with social capital and the highest levels of education so that they can occupy influential spaces and workforce leadership roles and make decisions (from lived and learned experience) that positively impact marginalized communities, thus bringing justice and equity to society-at-large.  

Jonathan: To date, LB has supported over 2,500 prospective graduate students with mentorship and resources to navigate the graduate school admissions process – including test preparation, application coaching, financial aid and scholarship support, network expansion, professional development, and opportunities to connect with representatives from competitive graduate schools.  Over 70% of the students report experiencing a boost in their confidence around getting admitted and being adequately prepared to enter a competitive master’s or doctoral degree program.   

LB’s online platform, Dear Future Colleague (DFC) is an online platform community connecting prospective graduate students to mentors, postgraduate school recruiters, workforce opportunities & competitive scholarship guidance.  DFC now has nearly 800 users consisting of prospective graduate students, current graduate student mentors, and representatives from partnering schools and companies!  Through DFC, LB has conducted 550+ successful 3-month mentorship relationships providing standardized test advisory, admissions essay guidance, financial aid and scholarship support, network expansion, and general application assistance.   

Derrick: Collectively, LB has 11 graduate school partners in the Greater Boston area (including: Babson F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business, Boston College Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences, Boston University College of Communication, Boston University Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, Boston University School of Law, Brandeis International Business School, MIT Sloan School of Management, Northeastern University Khoury College of Computer Sciences, Suffolk University College of Arts & Sciences & Sawyer Business School, Tufts University School of Medicine – Public Health & Professional Degrees, William James College) offering 600+ master’s/doctoral degrees, certificates, scholarships, fee waivers, and deferment opportunities.  

What was Leadership Brainery’s response to the coronavirus pandemic? 

Derrick: Ultimately, the pandemic has exacerbated the need for our work and challenged the traditional delivery of our programming and daily operations, which forced us to become even more innovative by enhancing our capacity to do robust online programming. To temporarily replace our high-touch in-person programming, we launched Dear Future Colleague (DFC). DFC is an online platform and mobile application that connects prospective graduate students to mentors, postgraduate school recruiters, workforce opportunities, and competitive scholarship guidance. 

Jonathan: Additionally, in March 2020, we enacted our Student Relief Fund as an immediate response to the coronavirus outbreak. Underserved students encounter disproportionate hardships that impact their ability to live, learn, graduate and succeed. Through our Student Relief Fund, we were able to aid over 100 diverse, low-income, and LGBTQ+ college students with mini grants to help them secure safe and stable housing, food, internet connection, medication, books, and more.  In partnership with the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association, LB provided an additional 50 Black law students with mini grants.   

What is on the horizon for LB in 2023? 

Derrick: In 2023, we are building and strengthening relationships with local community-based organizations that are supporting youth and young professionals to create a connected pipeline of talent interested in pursuing graduate degrees.  Our team is expanding so that we can meet the demands of this important work.   

Can you share one piece of wisdom to inspire students of color to succeed in 2023? 

Jonathan: Don’t let anyone or anything keep you from pursuing your dreams. Be resourceful and relentless. 


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