Three panel photo of Gray Matter participants
The Gray Matter Experience: Helping Black Youth Unlock the Power Within

The Gray Matter Experience is using entrepreneurship and mentoring to invest black youth with the power to succeed. Anything that empowers youth and encourages them to get ahead is an effort that deserves our support, which is why we awarded Gray Matter a small grant. But this effort is particularly noteworthy. The founder and executive director of this nonprofit, Britney Robbins, is a successful black entrepreneur herself, and she has poured herself into developing comprehensive programming to help others realize their own potential. We spoke to Robbins to learn more about this work:

Kars4Kids: Can you tell us something about your demographic?

Britney Robbins: Our demographic is black youth and young adults between the ages of 14-24. Something people tend to not recognize with this particular group is that they are brilliant and full of talent. Oftentimes, they are just in need of an opportunity or exposure to what is possible as the view they’ve had of the world has been limited. This demographic tends to flourish with the proper guidance, support, and resources.

two proud Gray Matter participants display their business products
Two proud Gray Matter participants display the product of their business venture.

Kars4Kids: Your mission statement speaks of “[unlocking] the self-determining power of Black youth.” Can you talk about this, a bit? What does this mean to you?

Britney Robbins: To us, this means helping black youth understand the power that exists within each of them and equipping them with the tools and resources to unlock that magic. Whether that is done through content, connections, or just generalized support to help them better show up for themselves and their communities, we aim to provide a level of service that allows for the fostering of their dreams.

Kars4Kids: Why is entrepreneurship so important for young people? Does every young person have the ability to become an entrepreneur?

Britney Robbins: As I like to say, entrepreneurship is a gateway to exposure and self-discovery—especially for students who come from disinvested communities and backgrounds. Entrepreneurship allows one access to several different industries and skillsets that sometimes, you couldn’t amass over a lifetime of corporate work experience. Entrepreneurship helps to provide a window into the various career paths one could choose and allows students to better hone and develop their skills and passions. I truly believe that all young people possess the ability to become an entrepreneur—whether that’s building a fortune 500 company or selling designs they’ve created—there’s space for everyone.

smiling Gray Matter participants work together as a team
Two smiling Gray Matter participants work together as a team.

Kars4Kids: How did you come up with the name of your organization and what is its significance?

Britney Robbins: Gray Matter literally are the particles that make up your brain. Figurately it means “the power of thought; intellectual capacity.” We chose a name that embodied our mission. We’re working to blur the lines between what’s possible for our students to achieve even if they’ve historically been left out of that conversation. We want our students to leave our programs more confident in who they are, what they can achieve and we hope to help facilitate the resources and connections that will allow them to do so.

Gray Matter participant goes over materials from a workshop

Kars4Kids: Can you give us a rundown of the various Boot Camps you run for youth?

Britney Robbins: Our Bootcamps are foundational entrepreneurship development courses for teens across the country aged 14-19. Each Bootcamp lasts 9-10 weeks and gives students the opportunity to explore entrepreneurship through hands-on, practical applications. Throughout the program students are exposed to people and places that help them better understand and gain access to the entrepreneurship ecosystem.

“Ideate,” our 10-week foundational course in entrepreneurship, teaches the basics of how to think like an entrepreneur, as well as strategies and tactics that can generate a strong and viable business idea. “Activate” is our 2nd-level course in entrepreneurship, where participants take a validated idea for a product or service, and build an MVP to go to market. “Accelerate” is designed for teens who have business ideas and need more resources to execute that idea. And launching this spring, we’ll have Hustle Hacks which is designed for teens and young adults who are already running their own businesses and need support to grow and structure them. Through our programs, we try to meet students wherever they are along their entrepreneurial journeys.

Kars4Kids: Gray Matter has in-school programming. How many schools are you working with? Can you tell us about this program?

Britney Robbins: Our In-School programs allow us to partner with select high schools to bring our content into the classroom. These programs are 10-week series of workshops that take place over a semester and introduce students to basic entrepreneurship content. This is a great option for teachers who want to enhance the classroom experience and expose students to entrepreneurship fundamentals in a high energy and engaging way. We’ve worked exclusively with Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep, Sullivan High School, and Chicago Virtual Charter School, but our students are representative of over 30 plus Chicago high schools.

black and white photo of Gray Matter participants working with CEO
Gray Matter CEO Britney Robbins advises two young participants.

Kars4Kids: Can you tell us about your volunteers? Is there a minimum commitment? How many volunteers do you have and what is their age span?

Britney Robbins: We work with volunteers who nurture and inspire our youth, and:

  • Are familiar with the business development process: they understand how to take an idea from vision to scale, and can advise our students on strategic planning, product development, marketing, and stakeholder development;
  • Leverage their working experience: they’ve learned a lot from their work experience and are eager to share this wisdom with others who are not as far along the path.
  • Have done the critical personal work around diversity, equity, inclusion: Our students come from a variety of backgrounds. Understanding their experiences, meeting them where they are, and helping them navigate their journey as entrepreneurs is critical to their success now and in the future;
  • Communicate effectively: They understand that listening is the most critical skill in their coaching tool box;
  • Have a positive attitude! They always see the best in the entrepreneur and use a number of tactics to motivate our youth to find solutions to any venture-related issues that may arise.

Volunteer roles include but are not limited to:

Guest speakers who share their entrepreneurial journey with students through Q & A sessions facilitated by our students.

Workshop facilitators who are experienced in developing businesses and want to share their experiences and expertise with students. Our facilitators lead short lessons using our curriculum and their personal experiences to teach students new business concepts.

Drop-in mentors drop in to our workshops to help students brainstorm their business ideas.

Gray Matter workshop

Kars4Kids: How has COVID-19 impacted the work of The Gray Matter Experience?

Britney Robbins: It was very unsettling at first—not knowing if we’d receive enough funding to continue on and figuring out how to best support our students in a virtual environment. But after the events that followed the George Floyd murder and the Black Lives Matter protests, things have completely shifted. Last year we raised more money than we have in our history and the demand for our programs and services has increased tenfold. We are grateful that people are being more aware and intentional about supporting black-led organizations and that people are recognizing the true value of our work. We have since transitioned to fully virtual programming and even managed to run a few national programs last year.

Gray Matter youth group hug

Kars4Kids: What’s next for Gray Matter?

Britney Robbins: Right now, our plans include hiring a program team to support the increased demand of our programming. Additionally, we’re starting an associate board to help expand our overall outreach and positioning and are working on a few more partnerships that will allow us access to larger communities of participants and supporters. Finally, we’re working on, and focused on ensuring the best delivery of our programs and their content to ensure we’re remaining flexible and responsive to the needs of our community. Please visit our website to subscribe to our newsletter for updates or follow us on social @graymatterexp!

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