McKinzie Harper of Untapped Good: “Get to impact faster”

To me, making a difference is about connection and empathy. To make a difference, you must first understand and meet folks where they are. More than meeting them where they are, I believe you must have the consent and trust of those you want to help before you can truly make a difference. Beyond consent, […]

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To me, making a difference is about connection and empathy. To make a difference, you must first understand and meet folks where they are. More than meeting them where they are, I believe you must have the consent and trust of those you want to help before you can truly make a difference. Beyond consent, you must not inadvertently create a dependency on your service if you truly want to make a difference. My approach is inspired by the Italian proverb, “Teach a person how to fish, and you feed them for their lifetime.” Making a difference should be sustainable. We have to play the long game, and by providing people with the tools to use their own unique lived experience and gifts to provide for their future, family, and community, we’re able to do just that through Untapped Good.

As part of our series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing McKinzie “Kinzie” Harper. She is a social innovation strategist and the founder of Untapped Good, a nonprofit startup platform that strives to connect young people with paid work that matters. She is passionate about bridging the divide between cities, classrooms, and corporations. Before founding Untapped Good, McKinzie served as the Lead for Education & Programs for the Smart Columbus initiative at the Columbus Partnership. Kinzie is a born, raised, and educated Buckeye. She graduated from The Ohio State University’s John Glenn College of Public Affairs, where she studied nonprofit management and education policy. In and around the community, she volunteers with COSI and the Ohio Women’s Alliance. Kinzie was also recently awarded the NextUp Columbus award for emerging young community leaders.

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 about how you grew up?

Growing up, I was described as a textbook first child; I am the oldest of three, and there was never a dull moment growing up in the Harper household. I was raised in a small, suburban town outside of Columbus, OH. I had access to everything a kid could want, but all I really needed was a good book. My Mom often jokes about how she’d ground me from my books rather than the television. That love of reading was one of the many reasons I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up, just like my Grandma. My grandparents, who knew John and Annie Glenn from growing up down the street in New Concord, OH, inspired in me great admiration for public service. After attending his namesake school, I wanted to build a career that honored his lifetime of service and exploration of new frontiers. I credit much of my access to and knowledge of fulfilling exciting roles in the public and social sectors to the series of unpaid internships, starting in high school. A few short years later, I saw this path was not accessible to or sustainable for all young people. I asked myself what untapped potential for good lies with those who cannot afford to go unpaid or underpaid?

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

“Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Caine

I vividly remember being passed over for a leadership role in a middle school group project because of my Princess Diaries-level fear of public speaking. I had done much of the work for the group behind the scenes. Still, when it came time to deliver it from the podium or participate in debate, I was instead asked to sit in the technology booth and click the PowerPoint slides. At that moment, I promised myself I would become more like kids who got picked, so I joined the theatre club and show choir, hoping I could crack the code. I faked it as a campus tour guide, leader in student government, and dozens of networking events. I became so good at stepping into that persona. I did not realize how damaging it was to my creativity and mental health, and relationships. Because admitting I was an introvert felt like admitting I would once again be the girl clicking the PowerPoint slides, thus limiting the impact I could have. But as I read Susan Caine’s words, “Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured,” I was overcome with emotion. As I am sure any introvert can attest, reading that book was equal parts cathartic and energizing. Another favorite quote, “Solitude is a catalyst for innovation,” came to mind as I was building Untapped Good amid the global pandemic. And while it was a scary time for so many, I felt an energy I had never felt before in my adult life. The minute I embraced my introversion, I immediately entered that state of flow she discusses in the book. From that flow, Untapped Good transformed from a nagging idea in the back of my brain to reality. “Quiet” is required reading for all, whether you are an introvert or not.

You are currently leading an organization that is helping to make a positive social impact. Can you tell us a little about what you and your organization are trying to create in our world today?

Even pre-pandemic, youth unemployment was already two times the national average and has only gotten worse, disproportionately impacting young people of color. Gen Z is the most socially conscious, diverse generation yet, but translating those values and passions into a career is difficult for underserved or disconnected people like Miryam Ramirez. Research says interning is the entry point in the workforce pipeline, but in the social sector, these opportunities are often unpaid or underpaid internships, which creates a barrier for young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

“I definitely do want to somehow give back to my community. I feel like the usual route is working at a nonprofit, but nonprofits don’t pay that much. So, then it becomes a question of: Can I afford to save the world?”

— Miryam Ramirez, Code2040 Fellow from “How unpaid internships hurt all workers and worsen income inequality,” Fast Company

In Columbus, like many communities, the social sector was not prepared for a pandemic and the digital disruption and transition it brought about. According to the United Way of Central Ohio, 69% of local nonprofits require technical and professional services and support. Those unmet community needs represent an opportunity to bring digitally-native, diverse talent into the spaces where their unique lived experience can be powerful.

Untapped Good is an Ohio nonprofit fiscally sponsored by Community Shares of Mid-Ohio, a 501c3 BBB accredited nonprofit. We are on a mission to create a more resilient, locally-representative social sector by uplifting diverse, young talent (16–24) through paid work that matters. We provide young people who may be excluded or disconnected from work or education with a platform to learn new skills, make a difference, and get paid. We do so by matching young people with organizations in need. We subsidize fees for service with the support of our philanthropic investment. And while Untapped Good officially formed as a response to the pandemic and its impact on young people and the social sector, it had been in the works years prior. When I was just starting in the social impact space, I noticed the industry as a whole was not representative of the communities we were serving, myself included.

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

The inspiration behind Untapped Good started with a few ah-ha moments while working at my first job, Smart Columbus. I had the opportunity to launch a design challenge for middle schoolers in partnership with the local school district. Students were challenged to create a transportation-oriented solution to help Columbus residents. It was an eye-opening experience to watch young people make without blinders; it was thinking outside of the box as I’d never seen before. Even working with students as young as 10, I saw the untapped creative problem-solving power of young people on full-display. But more than that, I saw stark differences between the teams across different neighborhoods and schools. Some could 3D print their prototypes or code an app prototype, while others used only cardboard and their imagination. But the most crucial difference had more to do with these young people’s lived experiences than the resources they were (or weren’t) given. A team of young girls pitched an idea for a secure, public transit-alternative for transporting survivors of human trafficking who were scared to use the bus. A group of young boys dreamed up a food-desert shuttle, which would distribute fresh food and groceries to their community, where the last grocery store had just pulled out. Young people directly impacted by or living with the most wicked, complex societal challenges channeled those hardships into solutions in a way that can’t be replicated or taught. It broke my heart to know that these children had already experienced so much before they even entered high school. Still, I was determined to find pathways for them to grow and blossom into our future policymakers, innovators, and teachers. By the time those middle schoolers graduate high school, I hope Untapped Good has succeeded in creating accessible pathways to create real, lasting change for their community, families, and themselves.

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

Over the last year, I’ve had hundreds of conversations with potential partners, clients, and young people. One conversation, in particular, captures what we are working to achieve through Untapped Good. Like many networking meetings, we were connected through a shared colleague; this individual started their own social enterprise and wanted to discuss a potential collaboration. As we talked, I shared our vision for pathways that encourage young people to channel their lived experiences to create a positive social impact while sustaining their own economic mobility. Specifically, we discussed a scenario where a young person experiencing housing insecurity could find paid, fulfilling work with a nonprofit shelter. Even over Zoom, I could see a shift in their demeanor, they paused, and I worried I had gotten carried away. They then shared they had been houseless growing up and taught to hide that part of their identity, especially when searching for a job or networking. When it came time for them to choose a career, they chose the path that would lead to a paycheck and higher-earning potential; they didn’t have the luxury of pursuing work that fed their soul. Now, decades later, they find themselves doing work that truly matters, both to them and their community. Their experience is representative of so many young people today whose potential for good is often untapped.

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

Claudia and I first met while she was working on a student-led public art project. Attending 17 different schools from elementary through high school and residing in homeless shelters with her mother on and off throughout that time. She is an incredibly talented student graphic designer. She wants to use her skills to benefit her community through working with clients, which aligns with her values. But since tuition has increased, she is taking a year off to save. Still, she cannot get paid-work with the kind of clients she’d like to work with because they have limited resources and know she is young and needs the experience. She wants to do work that matters, but it’s hard to make money that way. So, she had to take a serving job during the pandemic. Claudia wanted to do work that matters but could not afford to when she needs to provide for her basic needs and save up to finish her degree. We connected her with mission-driven organizations, foundations, and public sector agencies to complete over 20 paid projects through the Untapped Good network. With every project and connection, she gets a paycheck and gets closer to reaching her professional and academic goals. All the while, our community benefits from the services she provides to the clients she works with.

We are now taking what we’ve learned from our work with Claudia to launch a new pilot serving opportunity youth in April. This pilot will create a replicable combination of skills-based curriculum and work experience that exposes young people to a social impact career.

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To me, making a difference is about connection and empathy. To make a difference, you must first understand and meet folks where they are. More than meeting them where they are, I believe you must have the consent and trust of those you want to help before you can truly make a difference. Beyond consent, you must not inadvertently create a dependency on your service if you truly want to make a difference. My approach is inspired by the Italian proverb, “Teach a person how to fish, and you feed them for their lifetime.” Making a difference should be sustainable. We have to play the long game, and by providing people with the tools to use their own unique lived experience and gifts to provide for their future, family, and community, we’re able to do just that through Untapped Good.

Many young people would not know what steps to take to start to create the change they want to see. But you did. What are some of the steps you took to get your project started? Can you share the top 5 things you need to know to become a changemaker? Please tell us a story or example for each.

  1. As hard as it is, try not to be a hammer in search of a nail — To overcome this, be sure to listen to learn, and build from empathy. I started with what I call a listening tour. I tapped into my network and got out into the community to ask questions. I highly suggest some form of human-centered design training, like IDEO. The lessons learned within human-centered design ensure you truly solve a problem, not invent one to solve.
  2. Do not reinvent the wheel, be the center spoke — What’s old is new; the name of the game is creative repurposing, using business and service models that currently exist and flipping it to benefit those who are either not benefiting from the system in place or are directly harmed by it. Through networking, I was connected with incredible organizations already doing the work within this space. These conversations have led to multiple partnerships where we can be the missing puzzle piece that unlocks shared prosperity.
  3. Get to impact faster — This is a lesson I learned from my proximity to the startup community. I thought I would need to do a whole lot of paperwork and hoop-jumping before I could begin helping young people. I found an option to apply for fiscal sponsorship, which has allowed us to focus on testing our model and theory of change.
  4. Make time for creativity — when you’re building something new, your creativity is everything. But when your idea becomes a reality, the work can lead to burn-out. Make sure to carve out time every week for unbridled creativity. Whether you’re one of those crazy morning people or a night owl like myself, find the times when you are your most creative and plan for them.
  5. Know when to pivot — It is essential both for you and the cause you champion to know when to stop, iterate or pivot. When something is not working, or you have discovered new information, it is not a failure. Go back to step number one and take it in stride. This is not failure; it is growth.

What are the values that drive your work?

In my personal and professional life, I value context and empathy-building. I want to understand the complexities of those I work with and for. Many well-intentioned folks see the underserved as one-dimensional, which is reflected in how they provide services and design new programs. I am a big believer in walking the talk. When I worked for Smart Columbus, a transportation initiative, I sold my car to understand what it would be like to navigate my community without a car. That lived experience made me a better ally, advocate, partner, and innovator.

Many people struggle to find what their purpose is and how to stay true to what they believe in. What are some tools or daily practices that have helped you to stay grounded and centered in who you are, your purpose, and focused on achieving your vision?

There have been too many times to count over the past year when I fought battles with imposter syndrome. I proactively address this issue by creating a sustainable way to create my own momentum, even when slogging through the not-so-sexy parts of building something now. By this, I mean I intentionally create realistic, bite-sized goals and celebrate meeting them.

And while it is a beautiful feeling finding your “why,” you cannot stop doing all of the things that led to discovering it just because you may think you’ve arrived. Find time for the activities, people, and opportunities that brought you joy and meaning along the way. Just because you now have something new to focus your energy on does not mean that one thing defines you. I am still learning this myself, but I have found the most essential step is to find others who get it and will continue to check-in on you as a person and friend.

In my work, I aim to challenge us all right now to take back our human story and co-create a vision for a world that works for all. I believe youth should have agency over their own future. Can you please share your vision for a world you want to see? I’d love to have you describe what it looks like and feels like. As you know, the more we can imagine it, the better we can manifest it!

I believe we have a moral imperative to include young people in the decisions we are making today that they will inherit. I envision a world in which years of experience are no longer the only indicator of talent or worth, especially in societal problem-solving. This could look like a president under the age of 35 or a CEO, who still needs their parent to sign a permission slip when they miss school for a board meeting. Young people like Greta Thunberg and Little Miss Flint have already proven to be forces for change; now, we just need to stop fighting it and start letting them fly.

We are powerful co-creators, and our minds and intentions create our reality. If you had limitless resources at your disposal, what specific steps would you take to bring your vision to fruition?

If given unlimited resources, I would create a national program providing universal basic income for youth to promote economic mobility and self-discovery. What they do with this income would be left to their discretion, whether to advance their education, start a new business, fund their campaign, or sustain a ground-breaking research project. Just as we let a child’s curiosity guide their earliest and most formative moments discovering the world around them, we should allow young people the same opportunity to rediscover their place in society as an adult. I believe we must invest in their potential and provide them with the safety net to think big and fail fast.

As it relates to my work with Untapped Good, limitless resources would mean advancing and scaling our impact through an online platform and digital supports. Early-stage designs are already in the works; we are just looking for partners and investors that share our vision.

I see a world driven by the power of love, not fear. Where human beings treat each other with humanity. Where compassion, kindness, and generosity of spirit are characteristics, we teach in schools and strive to embody all we do. What changes would you like to see in the educational system? Can you explain or give an example?

I envision an educational system that is responsive to every young person’s unique learning styles, lived experiences, and aspirations. To quote Susan Caine once more, Susan Caine: “Everyone shines, given the right lighting.” This principle is great in theory but harder in practice. We’ve been normed to believe a standardized test is a fair measure of our worth and that a traditional 4-year college degree is the only pathway to success. I’ll never forget telling a counselor I wanted to attend a vocational training program for future teachers; they responded that I had college to focus on and that “those programs were not for students like me.” Experiences like mine might seem small at the individual level, but they have macro-level implications. Creating a more humane society starts by recognizing the critical, interdependent roles we will all go on to play in society. The first step we can take is changing how we treat the teaching profession and putting our money where our mouths are. An investment in our teachers will pay dividends to the young people they inspire.

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?

Luckily, we are in good hands with young people. Gen Z is the most socially conscious generation yet, constantly challenging antiquated norms and forging their own paths. I want young people to know that you don’t have to choose between living authentically and taking care of your own basic needs. If the past year has shown us anything, it is that the world can change and adapt. We have inherited so many of the norms and stereotypes surrounding education and career-building

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

When I first started Untapped Good, a friend gifted me Kathleen Kelly Janus’ Social Startup Success: How the Best Nonprofits Launch, Scale Up and Make a Difference. I would consider this the closest thing I’ve found to the social entrepreneurship bible. I’ve covered my copy in notes and pink post-its; I go back to read her words whenever I feel I need to re-center or need a burst of inspiration. If given the opportunity, I would love to thank her for what she’s already inspired and encouraged in me.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Link to Untapped Good:

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

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