Kalani Leifer of COOP Careers: “Building this organization has been the greatest privilege and adventure in a life filled with both”

Building this organization has been the greatest privilege and adventure in a life filled with both. As I’ve shared, privilege and luck have been my steady companions on this adventure, but there are a few things we got “right” in our early years, and I’m proud to share these here. Each deserves a lengthy story […]

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Building this organization has been the greatest privilege and adventure in a life filled with both. As I’ve shared, privilege and luck have been my steady companions on this adventure, but there are a few things we got “right” in our early years, and I’m proud to share these here. Each deserves a lengthy story in its own right, but I’ll save those for another time: “Fall in love with the problem, not the solution.” Start small and earn the right to exist. Set modest milestones within your reach. What you are is more than what you do. Everything takes twice as long as you think it should, and that’s okay.


As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact,I had the pleasure of interviewing Kalani Leifer.

Kalani Leifer is the Founder and CEO of COOP Careers, a nonprofit focused on overcoming underemployment through digital skills and peer connections for underrepresented college graduates. Kalani began his career as a history teacher at Kappa International High School in the Bronx, NY with Teach For America. Later, he worked as a consultant at McKinsey in Zurich and Dubai, and as a project leader at Google in California. Kalani grew up in the Bay Area, graduated from Stanford, and earned a Master’s in Education from Lehman College, CUNY. He is proud to represent COOP Careers in the inaugural cohort of Obama Foundation Fellows. Kalani lives in San Francisco with his partner and their dog, Snacks.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

As I see it, I’ve grown up three times, in three communities.

The first time was on Stanford campus, initially as a professor’s kid and later as a student. Getting into that university was my first obvious lesson in the power of connections: I worked my butt off and made a strong applicant, but most strong applicants don’t get in. I was sensitive about this as a younger man, but I’m glad I paid attention to that sensitivity. It was telling me something important about how the world really works.

My dad is American, my mom is Swiss, both are white, and both are educators. I went to excellent public schools as a kid, and I grew up surrounded by successful academics. I graduated from Stanford in June 2008 believing deeply in the power of education, feeling inspired by Obama’s campaign, and finally coming out of my own closet. I moved to New York City a few days later and joined Teach For America.

The second time I grew up was also on campus: as a teacher (by day) at Kappa International High School and as a student (by night) at CUNY’s Lehman College, both in the Bronx. I joined Kappa’s tiny staff as the young public school entered its sophomore year, and I was matched with the sophomores: Kappa’s founding Class of 2011. This cohort of 120 students was tight and, despite immense internal and external upheavals, they thrived. As a struggling new teacher in a fledgling institution, I knew this wasn’t because of my pedagogy or the school’s foundation. These kids loved each other, motivated each other, held each other accountable — held each other, period. I got to witness this shared power at a very impressionable age, and on my best teaching days I got to be a part of it. After both good days and bad, I trekked exhausted to Lehman College to earn my masters in education. Walking down those fluorescent hallways, I passed classrooms full of adult students, weary but awake and focused. I remember thinking that after 21 years on Stanford campus, I was understanding American higher education for the first time.

The third time I grew up was right here at COOP, alongside our alumni leaders. Clearly, I come to this work and this community with incredible privilege; indeed, that’s part of why I’m so attuned to the professional power of non-professional relationships. I know that my privilege helped us get off the ground — starting a nonprofit is not so different from starting a career — and every single year I discover new blindspots. I can never be a COOP alum or a first-generation college grad or a young professional of color. It’s my job (and my proudest feat) to elevate alumni leaders, to listen to their wisdom, to amplify the power they share.

You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Every college grad deserves a fair shot at a meaningful, upwardly mobile career. That’s the promise of higher education in America. Every year, millions of young people graduate on this premise, often with great sacrifice.

But even before the pandemic, half of the recent college grads (ages 21–27) were unemployed or underemployed, including two-thirds of Black and Latinx grads. A bachelor’s degree is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. We need advice, favors, and referrals as much as we need skills. These tips travel quickly across strong and weak social ties, but rarely across racial or economic lines.

Ultimately, a labor market powered by relationships will reinforce the status quo, amplifying residential and school segregation in the professional sphere. But it’s not inevitable. COOP Careers (“ko-op”) is closing the social capital gap by mobilizing 10,000 first-gen and low-income grads from CUNY, Cal State, UIC, and other urban public colleges. Together, we’re overcoming underemployment.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

Over a dozen years ago, at the start of the Great Recession, I was a US history teacher at a small public high school in New York City. I taught my students that decisions make history, and that their decisions mattered, too. I promised my students that earning a bachelor’s degree was the “right” decision — that it would be their ticket to economic independence, mobility, and prosperity.

Seven years ago, I accepted that this was a lie. Underemployment disproportionately affects first-gen grads from low-income families, and it becomes harder and harder to escape with each passing year. In other words: Underemployment is a trap, custom fit for my former students. But why does it ensnare them, and how can they break free? I moved back to New York to find out. The answer — for us, for now — is COOP.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I remember the exact moment I was ready to take the leap: It was the same moment that my antidepressants kicked in, exactly a month after I mustered the courage to see a psychiatrist and finally do something about my depression. Talk therapy was and still is an important part of my life, but in that season I needed another tool. It worked for me then and it works for me now. Of course, antidepressants aren’t right for everyone and I’m certainly not qualified to make any recommendations. I will say, however, that taking care of your mental health is a prerequisite to “manifesting” your ideas, dreams, and passions. This holds true whether you’re launching a nonprofit or launching your career for the very first time. That’s why “Heart” is one of our three pillars at COOP, and why social workers are such a critical part of our team.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

I certainly wouldn’t say that I knew all the steps when I started. So much of what I can share only comes into focus in retrospect. More importantly, privilege and luck have been my constant companions on this journey; anyone who underestimates these forces warrants immediate skepticism. And as it turns out, humility is also an excellent companion. Despite what they say at commencement, no one is waiting for you and your brilliant idea: they’re busy making their own way in the world. That’s why you need to start small and gradually earn people’s time and attention. Set modest goals within your reach, then methodically reach those goals. Success begets success, and eventually people take notice.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

When I started COOP in 2014, I knew peer cohorts would be a hallmark of our work, but I never imagined we’d become an alumni-led organization. By definition, we didn’t have any alumni yet: how could I picture them as the leaders of a movement? That changed quickly and quite organically, and I’m just grateful I was paying attention. I can’t take any more credit than that.

When we launched our second cohort in early 2015, alumni from the first cohort just kept dropping by. They’d “overcome underemployment,” but still wanted (still needed) to be together. They were also getting good at the very skills we aimed to teach. And they were deeply credible messengers. Why not put them to work?

Today, hundreds of alumni “pay it forward” as Cohort Captains every year. They each commit 150+ hours and, in teams of four, help pull sixteen near peers into the digital economy. We’ve since expanded these part-time evening roles to every function of the organization. Critically, alumni leadership extends to HQ, where three quarters of full-time staff and half of the leadership team were once cohort members themselves.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

As I shared, humility has been an important part of our success — but it slipped away from us a few times over the years. Back in 2016, just two years after our extremely humble launch in New York, a funder encouraged us to launch our second site out in San Francisco, three thousand miles away from our still-fragile experiment in NYC. In retrospect, I let my ambitions for the organization (and my own ambition to eventually return to California) eclipse the very clear reality: we were not ready to launch a second location, let alone on the other side of the continent.

Honestly, we muddled through for years, always stretched too thin. For far too long, our SF team felt like the proverbial stepchild, even after I moved west in 2018. We didn’t really hit our stride in California until last year, with the arrival of Adanta Ahanonu, our extraordinary Chief Program Officer (based in Oakland). Under her leadership, we were able to launch our third site last fall (in Los Angeles), followed in short order by San Jose and Chicago this fall. We’ve gotten better and better over the years, but humility is essential to every new launch. In the words of Meriyel David, our trailblazing Program Manager in Los Angeles, we’ve got to come in HOT: humble, open, and transparent.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I remember this clearly, one of the proudest moments in my life: It was the last day of school of my first year of teaching. It was late afternoon in late June, and the sidewalk in the Bronx was baking. Still, before descending to the D train platform, I sat down on a stoop and made a phone call to Ms. McCorry, my own high school history teacher. I felt so sure of my value and my values on that stoop — and so grateful to the person who inspired the decisions that brought me there. A dozen years later, our conversations still fill me with pride, wisdom, curiosity, and confidence. But now I call her Maureen — and one of my oldest, dearest friends.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

A couple weeks ago, after several COVID postponements, I had the immense joy to celebrate the wedding of India Ruiz-Camacho and Felix Dalgo, two of our earliest alumni and our “O.G.” COOP couple. Both India and Felix have been invaluable leaders in our community — Felix recently joined our full-time team and India holds the record for the most “Cohort Captainships” — and both have built meaningful, dynamic careers in the digital economy. They lift as they climb, and they’ve woven this ethos into COOP’s DNA.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

We’re aiming to be the connective tissue between first-gen college grads — and between private employers and public higher education. Each of these stakeholders is essential to overcoming underemployment, but these are our recommendations for universities:

Increase accountability for employment outcomes, not just graduation rates

Expand state and federal financial aid to support innovative career services

Focus on social capital building as much as skill building in higher education

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Building this organization has been the greatest privilege and adventure in a life filled with both. As I’ve shared, privilege and luck have been my steady companions on this adventure, but there are a few things we got “right” in our early years, and I’m proud to share these here. Each deserves a lengthy story in its own right, but I’ll save those for another time:

  1. “Fall in love with the problem, not the solution.”
  2. Start small and earn the right to exist.
  3. Set modest milestones within your reach.
  4. What you are is more than what you do.
  5. Everything takes twice as long as you think it should, and that’s okay.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

It’s not about the destination or even about the journey — it’s about your fellow travelers. That community will be your legacy.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

AOC

How can our readers follow you online?

Instagram

LinkedIn

Twitter

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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