African American students across the country often struggle to secure resume-building opportunities to gain employment after college. Michael Mallory, the cofounder of the Ron Brown Scholarship Program (RBSP), has worked for the last eighteen years to help these students find and afford opportunities normally unavailable to them. Along the way, the Program has given out over $16,000,000 in scholarships and support and he’s created a 340-person family of connected graduates, most of whom pass it forward.
The Program is named after the late United States Secretary of Commerce and built around his trademark personality traits: dedication to public service and civic engagement and academic excellence. Each year, RBSP awards $40,000 to twenty young African Americans that show outstanding promise. The award helps them with tuition to the finest colleges and universities in the country. The college completion rate of Ron Brown Scholarship recipients is 99%, and many Scholars have gone on to have successful careers in technology, arts, sciences and public service.
What sparked the idea to launch RBSP?
I was a poor kid—free lunch—all welfare—9 brothers and sisters. When I was an undergraduate at UVA, I was laser-focused on academic and extracurricular opportunities. Like many minority students from underserved backgrounds, I was not savvy about the importance of internships and resume-building—about preparing for opportunities after college. During my time as the Director of Minority Recruitment at the University of Virginia, I saw that this was a prevalent pattern among minority students. Many waited far too long to build their resumes and secure internships that would position them for significant career opportunities post-graduation. Too few were volunteering in science and technology- related fields or doing research at prominent institutions. It was apparent that a crucial need for minority university students was training and mentorship in how to seek and secure first-class internships leading to cutting-edge careers.
How did you make it happen?
I always say, you can’t walk on water unless you get out of the boat. Starting this in the middle of my career meant having no fear of failure, it meant asking a lot of questions about leaving a stable job and going into uncharted waters. I knew that this could be done, that it needed to be done, and that I could do it. I grew up in a family that always emphasized giving back—though we didn’t have much, it was important to give back. And the best way to give back is to create an army of do-gooders: people who do good and do well.
How large is the team at Ron Brown Scholarship Program?
When I started it, we had one employee—Kelly Raymond, who is still working with me 18 years later. Right now I have four full time employees. We have always kept things small deliberately, because we want the money to go to the students. Now, we have to grow this to be really successful, and it’s going to take about two more people to get where we want to be. We have been able to rely heavily on volunteers. Especially alumnae, who are taking ownership of programs around the country: we have Alumnae Programs in New York, Atlanta, Chicago, and San Francisco.
When you started what kind of advice did you seek?
Boy, that’s one thing I’m always doing. In addition to taking advice, I want others to be critical of my thoughts and statements. I spoke to faculty members, friends, Coca-Cola (because they were running a scholarship program), and anyone who was doing something similar to what I wanted to do. I wanted to start a scholarship program that offers $40,000 per year to about 20 students per year, and build a family around them, I also wanted to host conferences and talks.
What failures or obstacles have you had to overcome while building your organization?
Setbacks and some failures figure into how we became what we are today. The major setback we experienced was in 2009—a financial setback caused by lack of donations during the economic recession. We had to cut back radically on the number of scholarships we could offer, bringing the total down to 12 from the usual 20. We even closed an office that I oversaw in DC because costs were escalating and we didn’t have the manpower to meet our objectives (nor the funds to hire the necessary people). That was the only time when I felt that the scholarship was really under threat—we were fearful that we would not survive. That said, I do not consider any aspect of my work to be a failure because I have seen opportunities come out of our setbacks—perhaps not immediately, but eventually.
How did you get to where you are now?
I was the fifth child—fourth boy—of ten children. I was the first person to go to college in my family, aside from two aunts; going to college was not something my family focused on. So long as you did well, got paid, had a job, didn’t hurt anybody, and was a good neighbor and citizen… that was perfectly fine.
I was an athlete, and I remember my junior year of high school, football practice was cancelled one day, and I asked why—the coach told me I was taking the SAT, and I asked “What’s that?” I was going to be an auto-mechanic. My older sister, who died in a car accident, was going to go to college. She was smart and a leader—she was the hope. So that inspired me.
Do you see your younger self in Ron Brown Scholars?
Each of them is a far brighter than me (and most of us!) and totally unique in their hopes and aspirations. However, we do share certain characteristics: a grit resulting from overcoming hardships at a young age, a penchant to be leaders, and a dedication to giving back to our communities and paying it forward.
What are traits you look for in others?
I look for people who define their success by helping others rather than building wealth as well as wealthy people whose self-definition requires giving back and paying forward. The predominant culture that exists at the Ron Brown Scholar Program revolves around seeing the big picture; working towards big goals without getting caught up in the weeds.
What is a founder?
A founder is someone who carries something on their back—and they’re the first to carry it. They’re strong enough to do it or they’re weak enough that they get other people to help them hold it up.
How does vision play a role in founding?
About vision, an entrepreneur needs two different kinds of vision. The first is seeing the opportunity and then looking further, to see where the idea can take you. The second is seeing the end—seeing far into the future of what’s possible—then working backwards. If you can see the results of something, you can ask how can I get it done?—you can put the pieces together. The combination seems to be the winning formula.