Most people who are lucky enough to get an audience with the President of the United States can expect a handshake and some brief pleasantries. Few of those encounters end with a presidential directive to get to work.
But that’s what happened last month to Mill Valley resident Kristin Richmond, the founder and chief executive of healthy school lunch provider Revolution Foods. Richmond had been appointed to the White House Council for Community Solutions, a 25-member group tasked with mobilizing “citizens, nonprofits, businesses and government to work more effectively together to solve specific community needs.”
Richmond went to the White House in January to meet her fellow council members, including Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ wife Laurene Powell Jobs, singer Jon Bon Jovi and Roberta “Bobbi” Silten, who runs the volunteer programs for Gap Inc.’s 135,000 employees worldwide.
President Barack Obama stopped by the meeting.
Richmond, who was born in San Antonio, Texas and moved to the Bay Area nearly 10 years ago, said she was struck by Obama’s thoughtfulness and his genuine excitement about finding news way to engage disconnected young people having a hard time finding jobs and keeping them in one of the most difficult job markets in generations.
“His eyes lit up,” she said. “He said that this was a really important initiative. And then he clapped and said, “Let’s get busy. This is not a PR stunt. This is about putting together a team that is going to have a real impact. I’m expecting great things. This is the last non-working meeting we’ll have.”
The group met again two weeks ago and got right down to business. It met with First Lady Michelle Obama and focused on developing a strategy to engage with young people ages 16 to 24 who are dropping out of school and unable to land good jobs.
“Jobs are the most coveted thing out there in our country,” Richmond said. “We’re struggling.”
In particular, the council is focusing on so-called disconnected youth, or those who are among the 30 percent of high school students in the U.S. who drop out or the 50 percent of people who start college but don’t graduate.
“There is this huge population of youth who have gotten off track in society,” Richmond said. “And these folks are often times people who are starting families and entering society as young adults. Now they are having a really hard time getting jobs and getting started on that path to productive adulthood.”
Obama formed the council to explore the root causes of that disconnect and ways to create alternative paths for success for students in education and in the job market.
“These impressive men and women have dedicated their lives and careers to civic engagement and social innovation,” Obama said in a statement announding the formation of the council. “I commend them for their outstanding contributions to their communities, and I am confident that they will serve the American people well in their new roles on the White House Council for Community Solutions. I look forward to working with them in the months and years ahead.”
The key, Richmond said, is to provide young people with access to education and training that they need to be productive, and then to identify ways to keep young people in those jobs and help them grow within a field.
“That’s a subject that is near and dear to my heart,” said Richmond, whose five-year-old company provides school lunches for districts and schools throughout California and in Colorado and the Washington, D.C. metro area. “Revolution Foods employs a lot of these young adults and we’re on the frontlines of hiring every day.”
Richmond said the economic turbulence of recent years has made it hard for many people to think beyond the next paycheck.
“I hate the word jobs,” she said. “It’s not just paying the rent but what are we developing into over time. Giving youth hope that there is that career trajectory and how to develop that over time is really important with the job market the way it is.”
The council is in the midst of identifying non-profit organizations, companies and public-private partnerships that have had success in hiring and training young people, such as Boston-based Year Up, a one-year, intensive training program that provides urban young adults ages 18 to 24 with a unique combination of technical and professional skills.
The council will meet again June 3, with subcommittees meeting frequently until then. Richmond, who lives with her husband and children in the Alto neighborhood, said she has been thrilled with the experience of being on the council so far, and sees her role on the council is as a young entrepreneur and a catalyst for social change.
“Employers have a responsibility to raise our game,” she said.