Perhaps you’ve been reading about Gen Z and that they’re tech savvy, passionate about doing good, and might just shake up philanthropy. I recently read an article in the New York Times about conference for Gen Z who were learning entrepreneurial skills.
That’s where I first read about Sejal Makheja, 16, a sophomore who lives in McLean, Va. When she was 14, Sejal founded the Elevator Project, an organization that aims to lift people out of poverty through apprenticeship, vocational training and job placement. She said she went to the Gen Z Conference because she wanted to cultivate the skills she’ll need to take the Elevator Project to a national scale.
I was curious and reached out to her for an interview. I was so impressed that made a donation.
She was inspired to create her project in 2012 when she met a man named Juan in a Soup Kitchen in Washington, DC. He shared his story about what it was like to live in poverty his entire life, and had never finished high school.
Recalls Makheja, “When I asked him if there was a specific reason he thought employers would not hire him for living wage work, Juan answered explaining that employers are not hiring those with minimal education and skill attainment. “From that conversation, she created a theory of change – that education would be the path for financially disadvantaged to get well-paying job.
She went to do some research to better understand what kinds of education were: easily accessible for adults, most effective in serving to competitive job market, and what employers were looking for. Says Makheja, “ I asked my parents if we could test my theory that vocational training certification and in-field training were two of the best forms of education and they paid for Juan to go to trade school.”
After Juan received his certification and finished his shadowing opportunity, he secured a full-time job as a construction project manager that was projected to pay him enough to be considered above the poverty threshold. Says Makheja, “Hearing that we had changed his life and that for the first time in his life he was living above the poverty line was the most life-changing and inspiring experience.”
Once she was able to “prove” her theory of change, she decided that she wanted to look at ways to scale this success. That’s why she founded The Elevator Project to replicate this model with other people. Says Makeja, “I heard a quote that synthesized and captured what I was doing it goes, ‘If you’re lucky enough to do well, it is your responsibility to send the elevator back down.’ I believed that sending the elevator back down was like paying it forward which is what I hoped to do with The Elevator Project.”
Helping people in need is not only part of Makhaja’s DNA but seems to be a hallmark of this generation. Says Makehaja, “After the tipping point in my life when I met Juan, the passion and determination for the cause of poverty alleviation became something I discovered myself as well as the value of paying it forward.”
She is currently raising money from friends and family to support her work. She is currently in the process of forming a 501c3 nonprofit and plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign.
While one might suspect that this is just a school project, it wasn’t. The Elevator Project was something that she started on her own. She was inspired by her high school motto of “find a way or make one.” And this work hasn’t been a formal part of her school work, her teachers have provided support and guidance.
Juan has not been her only applicant and has been able to raise the money to send several people through her program. She attended 2015 National Conference on Ending Poverty by A Wider Circle where she says she had an exhibitor table. “I got several applicants from that event alone as well as donations and insight from other service providers and after the event I was featured in the New York Times, I received a lot of other applicants.”
Her ultimate success measure is to win the war against poverty one person at a time – as she has done so far by “lifting them out of poverty,” and having them pay it forward. She may need to wait until she enters college to fully scale her project where she hopes to gain the right skills to make her project a national social business.
Her advice for other Gen Z social entrepreneurs? “ Find what you are most passionate about and make an impact to change the world it for the better, it doesn’t matter how old you are, making a difference has no age limit. The most important thing I have learned so far about being a social entrepreneur is passion and determination yield success and when you commit to a cause it becomes a large part of who you are.”
She takes a collaborate approach with working with nonprofits. She hopes that other nonprofits that are working on the same issue will partner with her. “I believe ending poverty requires as many people as possible to join the movement. The most important thing is sending the elevator back down and paying it forward so one day we can put the over in poverty and no one will have to go to bed hungry or homeless. “
Gen Z holds a great deal of promise to be future leaders in the social change sector. Their commitment, passion, and vision is inspiring. Do have a story of a Gen Z donor or aspiring social entrepreneur? Is your nonprofit working with Gen Z to tap into their energy for changing the world?