Aug. 16, 2022

185 [BEST OF] Building a Brighter Future for the Building Blocks of Society with Generation Hope Founder & CEO Nicole Lynn Lewis | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker

185 [BEST OF] Building a Brighter Future for the Building Blocks of Society with Generation Hope Founder & CEO Nicole Lynn Lewis | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker

In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Nicole Lynn Lewis, founder and chief executive officer of Generation Hope. This non-profit organization provides holistic assistance to young families. Nicole Lynn Lewis shares her story as a young parent attending college, the challenges she faced, and how it served as the inspiration behind her founding of Generation Hope.   


Some highlights:

- Nicole Lynn Lewis' childhood growing up in communities that didn't have much diversity

- 'Your life is over!" Nicole shares her experience finding out she was pregnant while a senior in high school 

- Nicole Lynn Lewis on what motivated her to finish college with honors

- Social Capital and the vital role it played in Nicole Lynn Lewis' journey and can play for all young adults

- From communications to non-profit; what inspired Nicole Lynn Lewis to switch careers and start Generation Hope

- Lack of diversity: the additional challenges many leaders of color face in trying to raise funds for their non-profits

- How Generation Hope's 'holistic wraparound model' works

- Why Nicole Lynn Lewis believes flexibility is crucial for the future of higher education

- Generation Hope's plans on extending their impact 


Mentioned:

Terri Freeman, board member at Generation Hope



Connect with Nicole Lynn Lewis:

Generation Hope Website

Nicole Lynn Lewis Website

Nicole Lynn Lewis on LinkedIn

Nicole Lynn Lewis on Twitter


Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:

MahanTavakoli.com


More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 

PartneringLeadership.com

Transcript

Mahan Tavakoli: 

 Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming. Nicole Lynn Lewis, Nicole is the founder and chief executive officer of generation hope and a nonprofit organization that surrounds motivated teen parents and their children with the mentors, emotional support, and financial resources that they need to thrive in college and kindergarten. Giving two-generation solutions to poverty. 

 

In addition to that, Nicole is an author of pregnant girl, which was released in spring of 2021, which in part documents, her own journey as a former teen mom, who ended up putting herself through the college of William and Mary.

 

I really enjoyed this conversation with Nicole. Having seen her leadership in the community, impactful, driven, and purposeful. Lots of lessons to be learned, lots of inspiration to be drawn, really excited about it. 

 

I also love hearing from you. Keep your comments coming mahan@mahantavakoli.com. There's a microphone icon on partneringleadership.com. Really enjoy getting those voice messages.

 

Don't forget to follow the podcast that way. You'll be sure to be notified of new releases. On Tuesdays with magnificent change-makers from the greater Washington DC DMV region, like Nicole, and on Thursdays with brilliant global thought leaders. Primarily leadership book authors, whose insights I believe can impact how we lead ourselves, our organizations, and have a greater impact on the community.

 

Now here's my conversation with Nicole Lynn Lewis.

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis, welcome to Partnering Leadership. I am thrilled to have you in this conversation with me.

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 

Thank you so much for having me I'm thrilled to be here.

 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So, Nicole, I have seen your energy and belief in serving the community and you've done a lot of great things through Generation Hope, but before we get to that would love to know how your upbringing up in new England had an impact on who you became.

Nicole Lynn Lewis:

Yes. So I was born in Stanford, Connecticut, and then moved out of rural Massachusetts. At about eight years old and spent the first half of my childhood between those two states and in the New England area I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood and often was one of the only black kids in my class. And then definitely when we moved to Edinburgh was one of the only, or the only biracial child in my class by racial student.

 

My mother is white. My father is black and I was always raised, even though we were in these predominantly white neighborhoods, I was always raised with an understanding of how my life was impacted by the color of my skin and some understanding of those who came before me and the work that had been done and laid to make sure that I had a seat in that classroom and that I was able to thrive and succeed.

 

My father used to Sit me down each year and we would watch eyes on the prize the PBS documentary or special about the civil rights movement. And so that was really ingrained in me from a very young age. My father was in the peace core and was always committed to social justice. Before it was called social justice.

 

My mom was and still is a painter and artist so our house was always full of music and art and really rich discussions about the world. And I think that did shape me. I grew up with an understanding of how important it is for each of us to make a difference to find our purpose and to ensure that we're doing something to better the world. That was something that my parents definitely ingrained in me as well as good grades and doing all of those things that was really big as well.

 

Mahan Tavakoli:

Nicole, with the parent's African-American black father,white mother in an environment that as you said, you were one of the only African-Americans in that environment.

 

How did that, and having to fit in impact your thinking of the community and society around you?

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 

I knew very early on that I was even though I didn't have that vocabulary, I didn't quite know what that meant. I knew I was different because I was often the only black student or surrounded by students who didn't look like me. And so I grew up, I think having a heart for people who have been pushed to the fringes and marginalized.

 

Understanding that could be because of their race. It could be their religion, it could be all sorts of things and that I just always had an understanding that I fit into that group and that we need to do something to ensure that those folks are not marginalized, not pushed to the fringes that they are included.

 

They have a seat at the table. So that was really important for me. I think even before I could name it. Like a little girl and I went through in New England, I was called the N-word. I remember being at a neighbor's house and her younger brother told me. He didn't want to touch me because he was afraid my color would rub off on his skin.

 

These were things that really stuck with me. And so I was aware of the fact that I was different and aware of how people can be treated when they are different and they don't fit the definition of who belongs quote-unquote.

 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And that empathy that you gained through that experience shows in the service that you give to the people that generation hope serves. 

 

Now, at the same time you were also a teenage girl, and your senior year in high school, you got pregnant.

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis:

I did. I got pregnant my senior year in high school. I mentioned how big education was in my house. So senior year was all about applying to college. And my sister had gone off to college several years before. Now it was my turn. I had turned in submitted a bunch of different college applications.

 

When I discovered my pregnancy, I had just been accepted into several schools. It was devastating. I had this stack of acceptance letters on one side of my desk and a positive pregnancy test on the other. And it was really hard to see how I was going to make all of that work. I didn't have people in my community and my neighborhood in my school who had gotten pregnant and gone on to college.

 

That's just not something that I ever saw. Most of the young women in that situation. They just stop coming to school. If you did see them, they were often working in a retail job or food service. And so there wasn't any example of, okay, so-and-so did it, now I can do it. And it was really scary and intimidating.

 

To be in that situation as a young woman all at once trying to figure out how to manage a pregnancy young, and then also, how do you stay the course? To college, when that seems like a really difficult path.

 

Mahan Tavakoli: Well, One of the things that many parents do or schools too, is they tell kids, make sure you don't get pregnant otherwise your life is over. 

So in many instances, it's not as if there is any hope given to people that find out that they are pregnant. How did your family take this?

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 

It was devastating, it was absolutely devastating. I was a rock star student. I was an honor roll student. I was college-bound. I was involved in a ton of different extracurricular activities. this was not all expected. 

 

And it was a huge disruption to the life that I think that they envisioned for me. And I think it was also hard for them. Like you said, that's the message, the pervasive message that's out there, which is your life is over. You're not going to go to college. I think it was hard for them and hard for me to see through that and to try to envision that I could go to college and I could be successful.

 

So it was devastating. It was really difficult to see a path forward. I think for myself and also for my family. 

 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

But you did go to college, you were determined and you went to William and Mary I'm disappointed. You didn't go to the University of Maryland, but that's a different story. 

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 

I've had so many people there. Like even I, talked about how I almost went to an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and they're like, what's wrong with an HBCU? I'm like nothing, nothing's wrong. Nothing is wrong with the University of Maryland. I want to stress that.

 

Mahan Tavakoli:

We all have our biases. So you decided to pass on and much better school. You went to William and Mary. And while you were at William and Mary, you had a baby to also take care of at the same time. And you had to go through a lot of hardship in taking care of your baby.

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 
Yes. College is not set up for parenting students. It's certainly not set up for parenting students today, but 20 years ago when I was in college, it definitely wasn't set up for parenting students. And yes, I started at William and Mary. When my daughter was a little under three months old, I was a new mom.

 

I was nursing. I was a new college student trying to adjust to the transition from high school to college, which can be really rough. And I was going to a great college but at college. I was one of very few black students at that institution. So trying to navigate through a system where again, very few people look like me.

 

Most of the people who looked like me were in the cafeteria serving food or maintaining facilities. And so I had all of that working against me and on top of that, I didn't have resources. When I found out that I was going to college, when I had been accepted into William and Mary, I was living day to day in a motel six to eight months pregnant.

 

So tuition money was scarce. Book money was scarce. I didn't know how I was going to make it work financially. Childcare was a huge issue. And even transportation, I was commuting my freshman year and I was driving 150 miles every day to get to class and drop my daughter off at daycare and pick her up again and get home.

 

So I had a lot that was working against me, which is what we see with so many parenting college students.

 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Now, as a young black woman in a school that wasn't diverse. And you also had a baby. In many respects, that must have fed some of the biases of the students and the people around you.

 

How were you able to handle that and still thrive as a student as well as a mother?

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 

I definitely was aware of the fact that here I was one of the few black students and I was a teen mom. I knew that there were assumptions about me, what I was capable of, Did I deserve to be at that institution? All sorts of things. I describe it as a Scarlet letter it's really hard to hide that you're a parent when you have your child with you And you're raising them.

 

And I had moved on campus my sophomore year, so we were living on campus. She came with me everywhere that I went. Whether it was to go get my mail from the university center, or sometimes if I had to drop an essay or an assignment off to a professor after hours like she was there with me everywhere I went.

 

So people knew me as the girl with the baby on campus. it was tough to know that all of those negative assumptions and stereotypes were following me everywhere that I went.

 

But my biggest motivation and what I had to really focus on was my daughter and just wanting her to have the life that I felt that she deserved and I knew that my college degree was integral to that. And I think any parents no matter how old you are or how you came to parenthood understands that universal desire to provide your kids with the best life that you can and that was my driving force and some days it was really hard to hang on to that and to say, I can get through this every day with this 24 hours, struggle of trying to make ends meet, trying to stay on top of classwork, trying to get enough sleep. Keep the heat on in the winter food on the table. Diapers, childcare you name it.

 

But that is what kept me going to the next day is just looking at her and wanting her to have the life that she deserved.

 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And that kept you going to the point that you graduated from William and Mary with honors making you one of less than 2% of teen moms that go on and get their college degree before age of 30.

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 

Yes. The numbers are pretty dismal. As you said, fewer than 2%, so that means the vast majority of young mothers are really struggling. I described that 24 hours struggle of making ends meet. That's the reality for so many young mothers and families. And It was a huge accomplishment.

 

I don't think I realized at the time how big of a deal it was. I knew that my story was rare. I didn't know the 2% per statistic, but I knew that I had achieved something that people had told me was impossible.

 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Now, Nicole, you also talk about social capital and the importance of social capital. How did that play a role in both colleges and then beyond for you?

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 

I often talk about people power and I definitely experienced the power of people in my life. when I was in high school, even I had my high school principal who was a huge supporter of me even after I became pregnant, he wanted to make sure that I had what I needed to stay healthy, but also to finish high school, which was a big deal.

 

And, in college, I had a financial aid counselor who was really amazing. She fought for me to be able to get as much financial aid as I could to take care of myself and my daughter and to stay in school and quite frankly if she hadn't been a champion for me, I'd probably wouldn't be here. I wouldn't have graduated. 

 

And even in launching my organization Generation Hope, I was just asked the other day about who were the champions for you early on. And I had some amazing women, actually, black women who believed in me, believed in my vision before we even had our 501(c)(3), and said, we want to help you do this and get behind you.

 

And as you mentioned, the social capital, they made the connections that were really pivotal in terms of getting Generation Hope to the driving organization that it is today. So definitely social capital has been huge for me as a student, as a mother, as a professional.

 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And that is really important for all of us to understand Nicole, I find, we tell ourselves stories of our own success. Oftentimes forgetting that there are so many factors that go into our success.

 

Now you did have to work extremely hard. At the same time. One of the things I love about your story is that you don't say I did it therefore, everyone else should do it. I did it. I know how hard it was and I want to lend a hand and help others do it.

 

So after William and Mary, eventually you ended up getting a great PR job at Geico flying Warren. Buffett's private jet. I'm sure having some. nice cocktails and caviar on board.

 

Now, why did you decide to leave that cushy job to start Generation Hope?

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 

Well, Let me be clear that there was no caviar and champagne on board that jet. I think that's how they keep their rates low for their members. So it was very bare-bones. But yes.

 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

A barebones corporate jet. I don't know Nicole!

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 

So, in terms of the corporate jet, let me put it in that.

 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Got it. Okay.

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 

I really loved PR communications certainly enjoyed that job, but I think for me, That pole and that call to help others in this situation was really strong. And I felt that even on graduation day, like this is great, I've made it, I did something, but gosh, I really wish that this was a reality for more young parents like I felt that on graduation day. And for me, I was working at Geico. I was working on my master's degree at George Mason. And I remember looking for a nonprofit organization that was dedicated to teen parents and college completion, none existed in the DC region. And by this time I had come to understand and know the statistics around how many young people were experiencing pregnancy in our region, poverty rates in our region, housing, homelessness, like all the things that we are trying to tackle. And really solved. And I thought, why does this organization exist? Because it connects to so many of these issues that we care about. And even across the country, that just weren't a lot of organizations that were doing this work. so I shifted into the nonprofit world from the private sector.

 

And really gave myself a training ground without knowing it on how to effectively run a nonprofit organization. And I took my lived experience, the experience that I had gained in the nonprofit world, and put those two things together and said maybe I could start something to fill this gap.

 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Now, Nicole starting a nonprofit is extremely hard. And at the same time, when you look at the funding that. Heads of non-profits executive directors of color, especially African-Americans most especially African-American women get. There is such an extreme disparity. How were you able to launch and what were some of the challenges you faced as you were launching generation hope.

 

Yes. So many challenges. I wish I could tell you that bill gates was knocking on my door with a check for my amazing idea. But that wasn't the case very humble beginnings launched the organization at my husband's man cave. So we've come a long way. We're out of the band gave we have offices in DC.

 

It was very much brick by bricklaying those bricks. And I heard many more nos than I heard yeses and that was the case for a long time. I think that you talk about the disparities less than 1% of foundation giving, for example, goes to a black female, nonprofit executives, and leaders.

 

So we're talking about huge disparities. We're talking about how do you even get in the room? Nevermind. Get the opportunity to make the ask. That was really difficult. I didn't have the network or the social capital to even get in the room in front of people who could make a decision about funding.

 

That was one of the hardest things that continue to be one of the biggest challenges is to get that meeting to get in front of the folks that can help to bring the resources that you need to your organization. 

 

I think even once you get in the room you have to make a case for your organization and I remember asking for funding, particularly in our early days and this is something we even hear today. Our operating budget is about 3.4 million. So we're still a small organization in the grand scheme of things. But we would be asking for dollars and people would say you're too small for this kind of investment. What would you even do with this money?

 

So there's two things to that. One, if you don't get larger investments, you don't get bigger. That's just the way that it goes. particularly if you are a community leader and a leader of color, You're stuck in this cycle of how do you get in front of people who are going to make larger investments than when you get in front of them they say you're too small. And so it's really tough to grow your organization.

 

But also I think the importance of trust and I think it's really difficult oftentimes for leaders of color to be trusted with the resources they need to really grow and innovate for their organizations, not because of something they've done, but because of all the biases that we know exist and the discrimination that exists, even in the philanthropy world, we need to trust leaders, particularly leaders of color with the resources, so that they can do the innovative work in their communities. And that just is something that continues to be a challenge.

 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And in addition to that, being a challenge, Nicole, I was having a conversation with Manabu pier. She's written a book on equity and she gave a great example with respect to it. How artificial intelligence is being baked into some of the human resource software. And the fact that they make sure that the person's race or name isn't used in selection criteria.

 

However, some of the other selection criteria, for example, we know in our organization, the people that succeed are the ones that have played rugby in college By themselves, therefore end up in the same results. So in many instances, some of the funding challenges is not necessarily outright the person wanting to set aside and not fund these organizations.

 

However, some of the other criteria that are used systemically avoid organizations like you as being able to tap into the funding.

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 

Yes, No, I think that's a great point. Going back to how sometimes you'll use the budget. size as criteria in funding. And again, many leaders of color are running nonprofit organizations that are not going to meet these larger budget thresholds. So you're going to exclude them from the opportunity to receive funding.

 

But I think your point is also something that I think is also really important if we need to make sure that there are folks on the decision-making team that look like the folks who are applying for funding and too often, that's not the case. 

 

We don't have enough leaders of color heading up foundations, heading up corporate giving making decisions about how resources will be allocated and awarded that could possibly solve for some of those biases and some of those criteria that can create exclusions that can really be damaging.

 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Now, with all of those challenges, you have continued marching ahead, growing Generation Hope 11 years counting and moving forward and you've also received lots of different awards, including being recognized as a CNN hero Nicole.

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 

Yes. It's been pretty crazy. I get asked a lot. Did you think that you were going to be in this place? All these things were going to happen when you started in your husband's man cave and the answer is no, it's an emphatic no. I was so like head down in the weeds of just applying our 501(c)(3), and oftentimes as with many leaders, I think I may head down focused on the work and just making sure that we're checking off all the boxes. And so I don't often take enough time to step back and say, okay, that was pretty cool or wow. This big thing happened and I've been very honored over the years to receive some pretty amazing recognitions that I also believe wholeheartedly are shared across our team.

 

I would not be running the thriving nonprofit that I'm running today if it wasn't for the incredible people who I get to work alongside on our board and on our staff, every day.

 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So while you've been doing these great things a year and a half, two years ago, we also got hit with a pandemic, which must have significantly impacted how you service the young adults you work with.

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 

Definitely. COVID-19 has been devastating for all of us, but particularly for the community that we serve at Generation Hope, young families, and parenting college students, it has been. Hugely damaging and what I often tell people is this is a population that was in crisis before COVID-19.

 

They were already facing food and security, housing and security. They were already trying to figure out how am I going to hang on to childcare. All of these things that I think now have bubbled up and had really been at the forefront of people's minds because of the pandemic we're already issues for our population, even domestic violence, which we know has increased in the past 18 months. We already saw disproportionately that our students were impacted and dealing with. domestic violence issues. I think what we recognized early on was that. It was going to be important for us to really show up and show up quickly for our students and that they're urgently going to be in need of support.

 

What I'm thankful for is that Generation Hope was already a holistic wraparound model. We help teen parents get their college degrees and help their kids get ready for kindergarten. But we really are helping our scholars navigate all areas of their lives because the reality is that a domestic violence situation can disrupt your ability to continue in college.

 

We have had an emergency fund in place for our scholars since our inception with a 72 hour turnaround time. So if they have. Hey, I can't afford groceries this week, or I've had this domestic violence issue and I need to move to a new safe space. We had that in place. We already had mental health support on staff at Generation Hope because we knew that our students already were disproportionately experiencing mental health issues.

 

And really the pandemic was about ramping up the services that we already had in place, as opposed to introducing new services. I think other organizations with a specialty that wasn't necessarily a wrap-around model, that probably was more challenging because they didn't have those supports in place, to begin with.

 

But thankfully we came into the pandemic already providing holistic support. We have to make sure we have more capacity for mental health services. We saw about a 30% increase in requests for mental health support during the pandemic. We said, okay, we're going to give even more money out of our emergency funding to ensure that our students are able to weather this storm.

 

We knew that they were losing jobs. They were facing all sorts of financial hardships. I think it's been an opportunity for us to really just ramp up the holistic wraparound support. And it's made a difference about 92% of our scholars have stayed in school throughout the pandemic, which is huge because They are overlapping with so many of the populations that we know are not staying in school, staying in college, they're low income, they are 90% are students of color. They're first-generation college students. We have DACA students in our program. So they are most at risk even without a pandemic of falling through the cracks and not being able to continue. But we're very thankful that our wraparound supports have kept them in school. And I think it's a proof point this is why these supports are needed and that they really do make a difference.

 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

You do provide that wraparound support, which is critical for the education that your young adults want to pursue. I'm wondering though, how do you see online? Education changing their experience either for better or for worst, moving into the future.

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 

I think it's been definitely beneficial for many of our students. I mentioned transportation being just a huge issue. For me personally, As a student parent, but also for parenting college students across the country, getting to campus, sometimes you're taking three or four buses you're on the road for hours to be able to drop your child off the childcare, get to school, keep in mind that if you're a parenting student, you can't live in a dorm.

 

So you're often commuting to campus. I think that's something that we definitely saw it solved for, in terms of the transition to online learning. But I think there's also been some of our students who have struggled with online learning that will tell you that they learn best when they're in a classroom and that not being an option over the past year and a half has been really tough for some of our students.

 

We have a volunteer tutoring program and other academic supports that we've had to supplement with to make sure that they are able to be successful in this online environment. The other thing is, I know we've talked, we hear it a lot. The digital divide for our students coming into the pandemic, some of them only had one laptop in their house and now having to share it with your child because they have online learning as well.

 

How do you get your coursework done or not having access to wifi? many colleges said, oh, we'll offer wifi in our parking lot. So students can be in the car and our parking lots and work. If you have two toddlers in the back seat it's very hard. To be doing your work for hours on end in a parking lot.

 

So the transition to online learning has definitely had its benefits, but there's also been significant hurdles for parenting students. And I think the key thing that we're hoping continues to be in place, coming out of the pandemic is flexibility is making sure students have the flexibility to either do online learning or not do online learning to engage in coursework at times that work for them as parents. And as they're working often that we want to see the flexibility that was really put in place during, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. We're hoping institutions hold onto that because it's, key for parenting students where every situation is not the same, but to have the flexibility.

 

To be able to engage in learning in a way that is productive and works for you as a parent is huge.

 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

As I flexibility is key for the parents who pursue their education. There's also been a lot of talk over the past few years, Nicole, about whether there is a need for a college education. Some of the companies say people should just get certificates and there are positions for those there's very little need for a four-year degree.

 

What would you say to those that say there isn't a need for four-year degree? Why are you spending so much effort and time on that? There is wraparound services that are provided to the young people outstanding, but rather than four-year degree, get certificates that can be used for the job openings, whether in cyber security or other opportunities.

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 

Yes. So there's a couple of things I would say to that. The first thing I would say is, are you asking, or are you saying that to students who have the means to go to college? Do we say that to students whose parents are in a position to pay their way through college? No. We say yes, this is great you should go to college. We would very seldom. Are you going to say to a higher resource student, why don't you forget college and go and get a certificate? So I would really ask ourselves to say Hey, why are we giving that message to low-income students? 

 

I think the second thing is there's absolutely no denial of the ROI of a college degree, a two-year degree, and a four-year degree.

 

The proof is in the numbers, we know that It costs us about $6,000 a year to support a student in our program in college. And they will make, or they have the potential to make up to $1 million more over the course of their lifetime because of their college degree. It's undeniable that there is an economic return.

 

The other thing that I really want people to think about as the noneconomic returns have a college degree. There are so many indicators out there. We talked about Social capital skyrockets for college graduates even Health outcomes, skyrocket for college graduates their civic engagement.

 

They're more likely to vote and be civically engaged. There's absolutely no denial that a college degree is impactful and is beneficial. And we should be pushing for any student, regardless of what their resources are to pursue what they would like to pursue. We don't twist people's arms and say, you will go to college.

 

What we do is if a parent, a young parent comes to us and says, I want to go to school, I want to go to college. Our job is to meet them where they are and to help them get there. And I think that's the world that we should be fighting for as a world where every young person can pursue their passions, whether it's college, whether it's a certificate or something else.

 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It is providing those opportunities. And as you also mentioned, Nicole, vast majority of people asking those questions, don't ask those questions about their own kids, and that's a way to reflect on it If it is the right thing for a certain segment of society, it should be right and provided to others also. So a lot of the conversation around certificates is typically around low-income communities and people of color. Why do you spend so much time and money trying to get them through a college education? Just give them a certificate. 

 

And most people saying that send their own kids to schools and want them to even get graduate degrees. So now you're also expanding your work nationally. What got you to think about a national expansion and focus on the work that you're doing? Nicole?

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 

We've been doing direct service work for the past 11 years. And what we've observed in doing this work in our students are attending 20 different two and four-year schools across the DC Metro region. What we've observed is that higher education, as I mentioned before, is just not set up for parenting students.

It does not have systems and structures in place to ensure their success. Most people working in higher ed, student parents aren't even on their radar. And the reality is that one in five college students across the country is parenting. It's about 22% of all undergraduate students. And it's almost half of all black female undergraduate students across the country.

 

So we're talking about a significant population that is not on the radar of colleges and universities, which makes them 10 times less likely. To get a college degree. Even though they have higher GPAs on average than their non-parenting peers. All of that to say, we recognize that this was an opportunity for us to start to address the systemic challenges to young parents and student parents getting to the graduation stage.

 

And we developed a three-prong approach to do that. The first is partnering with colleges and universities to help them. Enhance their student parent's supports and create family-friendly campuses. The second is a policy and advocacy agenda with federal and local priorities. That is really about how do we remove barriers for this population.

 

And then the third is releasing research and reports out to the field. To help to illuminate the experiences of this population, helping people to understand what are the challenges, what are their needs, but also really important, what are the assets that they bring to any college on campus that they are a part of and a community.

 

So that work is really important to us and woven throughout both of our direct service work and our indirect service work is and commitment to race equity. We know since our inception, we've been committed to race equity, but we've really over the past. Two to three years said, let's make a formal commitment to this work.

 

Let's tie our goals strategically to our race equity goals. Let's have some accountability internally and externally as an organization and help people to understand the role of race when it comes to parenting college students and teen parents.

 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So you've got your work cut out for you, whether it is regionally or nationally, and you're doing great work with all of it and the expansion at the same time Nicole, you also have been expanding your family. Daughter is now 22 going to college. And just a few months back, you had a little baby boy.

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 

Yes. I am a mom of five now. So I tell people that's my real full-time job and wrangling all of the kiddos. my oldest daughter who I took to college with me is now a senior in college. we have a 12-year-old daughter in middle school, and then we have three tornadoes. Those are three boys and five-year-old a three-year-old and an almost four-month-old. I have my hands full on a daily basis.

 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So your husband who was hoping to gain back his man cave when you left has not been able to get his man cave back. I imagine,

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 

No, they find their way down to his man cave whenever they can. 

 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Now there's also a rumor that you are a huge chocolate chip cookie lover, Nicole, and your husband even proposes to you that way.

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 

Yes. I'm a big connoisseur of chocolate chip cookies. I have my favorite brands. I have my favorite recipes, my favorite stores, and my husband, when he was going to propose, went to the big chocolate chip cookie place in the mall. And he told them what he wanted on it. And it said, will you marry me?

 

And all of those. folks working there, like this is never gonna work, and he's like, you don't know my girlfriend she's she loves chocolate chip cookies. Then I said, yes. So it was effective. It did work. 

 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Oh, fantastic. So did you go up to the store and you were getting a cookie and you asked for the chocolate chip cookie. Is that how it worked?

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 

No. He actually had set everything up at my house with rose petals on the floor. And then they all led to a giant chocolate chip cookie. that's the way I found it.

 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Ah, how could you say no to that? 

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 

I know exactly that was the driving force and the guests.

 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

That's outstanding. Now, Nicole, when you asked for leadership resources, whether books, practices, what do you typically find yourself recommending to leaders wanting to become more impactful as you have been both with your organization and in the community?

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 

One thing that I would say, I think. It encouraged people to do the unpopular thing. As I think about the leaders that I have looked up to that I have respected, that I have learned so much from, it's the folks who stepped outside of kind of the normal practices that you would expect from a leader and who have done something that, maybe was unexpected.

 

A great example of that is when I first launched Generation Hope. I was meeting with Terry Freeman, who was the head of the greater Washington community foundation at the time. And such a powerhouse in philanthropy. And I know a lot of organizations would have killed to have Terry on their board.

 

And I came to her with a vision. Didn't have again, our 501(c)(3). I told her what I wanted this organization to be. And she started helping first with making some introductions. Then I told her I needed office Space, she let us use two of her cubicles and this beautiful office space that they had.

 

And then one day she said, I'm going to join your board. I know you're going to ask me and I'll join your board. And she didn't have to do that. That was not something at her level. With all of the opportunities that she had and all of the different ways that she could use her time to get on the board of an organization with a CEO who hadn't even been paid yet.

 

I wasn't drawing a salary. I didn't have a beautiful office. And we were still just trying to get things up and running. And so she did the unpopular thing and she stepped out of what people might expect. If the organizations they might've expected her to become involved with, to do something that she believed in and to help someone who really needed that help.

 

And so I think. For me as well, when I started Generation Hope, it was an unpopular thing. People told me that many folks would not want to help this population in particular or how hard it was going to be. But I wanted to do it. I felt it was the right thing to do and it needed to exist in the world.

 

So I would encourage people to do the unpopular thing that really makes the most impact.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

A lot of people's lives are better because you have chosen Nicole Lynn Lewis to do the unpopular thing, which is establishing and growing an organization focused on serving these young parents to gain access. Not only to. College degrees, but to opening up doors and opportunities for them for a lifetime, and then generations, because as your daughter is going to college and experiencing it, it's in part because of you being able to successfully go through your own experience.

 

So you are not only impacting the lives of these young people, you're impacting the lives of. They're children and the community beyond.

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: Thank you. Yes absolutely. I always like to talk about my daughter's success, because I think it's a great example of the generational impacts of this work. And when you help a parent. Get their college degree. It has lasting rippling effects for their family, for generations to come. 

 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Nicole Lynn Lewis, I really appreciate you joining me in the conversation with partnering leadership and really excited about the leadership that you have shown in the community. And now with the national expansion. 

Thank you so much. Nicole Lynn Lewis. 

 

Nicole Lynn Lewis: 

Thank you so much for having me. It was great.