Patty Alper of The Alper Portfolio Group: “Learning from doers, and learning by doing”

Industry Engagement is critical because these are the employers of tomorrow. How can you prepare youth for an ever-changing economy, if you don’t understand the needs? Industry and Academia need to align and revisit what requirements and skills are essential to succeed. Otherwise educators are shooting in the dark, and youth will fall critically behind, […]

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Industry Engagement is critical because these are the employers of tomorrow. How can you prepare youth for an ever-changing economy, if you don’t understand the needs? Industry and Academia need to align and revisit what requirements and skills are essential to succeed. Otherwise educators are shooting in the dark, and youth will fall critically behind, be underemployed and unmotivated.

As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Patty Alper.

Patty Alper is president of the Alper Portfolio Group, a marketing and consulting company, and is a board member of both the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) and US2020, the White House initiative to build mentorship in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers. She has also been appointed to the corporate committee for Million Women Mentors, and was recently inducted into Who’s Who in America. Patty’s experiences have led her to roles as a prominent speaker and the author of three books, including Teach to Work: How a Mentor, a Mentee, and a Project Can Close the Skills Gap in America, Curriculum for Mentor Trainers, and An Implementation Guide for Mentor Program Coordinators. Patty’s 35-year career in business, coupled with two decades of hands-on experience working directly with youth, uniquely qualifies her to understand the growing skills gap from both perspectives: the employers who seek to build a pipeline and hire better-prepared youth for twenty-first century jobs, and the youth who are often ill-equipped or ill-trained to enter the new workforce.

In her book, speaking engagements, and video tutorials, Patty describes how Project Based Mentorship® brings together corporate employees, retirees, and businesses as a corps of knowledge practitioners, with the common goal of passing on skills to the next generation. Patty draws on her extensive philanthropic work to bring the business and education sectors together meaningfully, building on the strength of each to close the skills gap. A trustee of the Alper Family Foundation for the last 20 years, Patty’s unique approach to entrepreneurial mentorship has been featured in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post(twice), TIME, and Philanthropy Magazine.

Through her services on the national board of NFTE, Patty’s vision served as the groundwork for the Adopt-a-Class program she founded in 2001. During her years of service at NFTE, she invited countless business leaders to join her in a mentoring capacity, helping teachers across the country inspire and coach entrepreneurship students on their business plans. Shortly after college, Patty spent five years working with incarcerated, runaway, and suicidal youth in Iowa’s Youth Detention System, and she served as a counselor to psychotic adolescents at Chestnut Lodge, a long-term psychiatric hospital in Maryland.

In 1980, Patty was one of the first women in the construction field as cofounder of a multi-million-dollar project management company. The company specialized in building corporate headquarter facilities and high-end interiors for large businesses in the DC market. That innovative spark led Patty to another niche, producing and hosting her own radio talk show, For Love or Money, on Infinity broadcasting. Today, the Alper Portfolio Group provides consulting services for the commercial real estate, financial, and non-profit sectors.

Patty holds a bachelor’s degree in English and Theology from Cornell College Iowa, and she has continued masters-level marketing studies at American University. She is married and has two stepchildren, as well as three grandchildren. She loves competitive golf, art, theater, and music, and continues her study of theology.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’d say my career took off when I embarked on an entrepreneurial endeavor with two partners — to start up a new concept enterprise: a highly professional, completely automated, interior project management company in the Washington DC market (commercial tenant construction). There were many personal obstacles: 1) a market downturn due to changes in the early 80’s tax bill; 2) applying my marketing background to a wholly new industry; 3) being one of the first females who entered an ol’ boy construction network, — yes, these were but a few of the strikes against me.

However, the most interesting story for me was writing a strategic marketing plan. 150 pages, all told. The 6-month process was an education unto itself. I outlined the obstacles, the competition, the economic forecast, the primary and secondary markets — and most importantly our company’s market differential.

What crystalized for me is exactly who we were and our path forward.

Through countless interviews and a depth of listening — -

I learned the language of the field.

I learned the pitch, and our unique service qualities.

I learned the barriers to entry and strategically planned counter measures

Most importantly, I learned the importance of a PLAN!

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

The pivotal word to your question –is the term Project!

I have developed and written about something I call Project Based Mentoring®. It is both new, and as old as time… What is it? What people does it help? And How?

Essentially, this idea, this methodology, is about knowledge transfer.

But this is not knowledge from an educator, a theoretician, or a book — -

rather it is knowledge transferred from an expert in the field, a hands-on practitioner.

The idea is simple: “learning from doers, and learning by doing.”

What is Project Based Mentoring®? It is a project at the center of an intergenerational relationship, where a student is the project’s leader, where the student ideates a master plan, executes to a plan, navigates real-world obstacles, presents their findings — all while having a mentor/practitioner by their side who is experienced and from a like field.

This is a win/win for each constituent.

For a Student, they are learning to think critically in a real-world environment. They are learning to plan and forecast, and to design actionable steps to a deadline. They are learning to collaborate, and to experience the pains of their hypothesis gone awry. They are learning to present and defend their body of work to an audience of peers and professionals. Essentially, they are learning how to project-lead, but with guidance. At the end of 6 months or a year, they have a true accomplishment, a new confidence, a mentor’s endorsement, and a set of transferable skills that can be applied to a 21st-Century work environment.

For the Practitioner/Mentor, they are becoming an educator; they are learning to communicate simply, to manage expectations and disappointments, to share real-world experiences and be a motivator. Within the corporate world, mentorship is viewed as a form of management training, confidence building. The HR departments have also found that a positive culture shift happens when employee mentors bring this community experience back to the work environment. As well, HR is said to gain millennial job applicants who prefer to work at a ‘do-good’ company that is not just profit-driven. Mentorship roles are known to build pipelines not only into STEM industries, but also to build a pipeline of new employees. Essentially, mentorship is creating community connections, and community educators.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?

Through philanthropic interests, I was first introduced to the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, (NFTE) where I still sit on their national board. Back in 2001, I proposed to this nonprofit a new pilot called Adopt-a-Class. The thinking was: how can practitioners like me offer inputs to youth without disrupting the classroom or the teacher? The core concept was: wouldn’t kids like hearing about my trials in building a construction company as a female entrepreneur? So, I was the first guinea pig mentor. For 20+ years now, I have continued to mentor inner city youth on developing business plans and taking their businesses to market. I have fostered close to 1000 students over the course of that time, working with 30–40 in a class for a full year each. I have 1000’s of letters from my mentees, sharing their gratitude and their motivation to stay in business as a result of our time together. To expand the model, I wrote a 200-page plan on how to operate Adopt-a-Class, and saw the plan accelerate to 12 regions around the US. I brought countless mentors to the NFTE classes in the Maryland, DC, and Virginia marketplace.

I was so excited about the impact the program had on my students and my fellow mentors that I wrote a book about it: Teach to Work, How a Mentor, A Mentee, and A Project Can Close the Skills Gap in America. Others have been interested in how to bring together the corporate and academic sectors. To that end I have written countless articles, the ideas have been covered in major news outlets, (Washington Post, NYTimes, Forbes, and Philanthropy Magazine, to name a few). I have numerous podcasts and radio interviews preaching the gospel of mentorship. As well, I have been a consultant to secondary schools on developing corporate mentorship programs. And, lastly, I have been an invited speaker/ author within the corporate world, the educational sector, for non-profit organizations as well as state-run education programs.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

If you look at education — including both learning new skills and a highly developed capacity to apply them–and if you look at education through a lens of succeeding in the 21st century, exactly what has changed? What are the new goals? And what is the education sector doing to keep up? What are the processes necessary to create alignment between the business and academic sectors?

In Gallup’s recent study — Great Jobs, Great Lives–they interviewed over a million educators, administrators, graduates, students, and alumni. The study was looking to measure how we can best prepare our youth to be successful in an ever-changing 21st-Century workforce. Interestingly, Gallup learned that 98% of chief academic officers at colleges and universities believe that they ARE preparing students for success in the workplace. Yet only 11 % of C-Suite executives agreed that college graduates have the skills they are looking for (leaving 89% of executives dissatisfied with students’ applicable skills).

Similarly, in General Electric’s Global Innovation Barometer 2013, an alarming four out of five executives identified their top concern as a need to better align the education system with business needs. Indeed, 45% of the executives saw universities and schools as not providing a strong model for tomorrows’ innovative leaders. Claire Cain Miller, in her 2015 New York Times article, writes “To better prepare students for the workforce, traditional schools may need to revisit what they are teaching. To prepare students for change in the way we work, the skills schools teach may need to change too.”

I think the old education model has fallen way short. For the next generation to better fill the needs of tomorrow, educators can no longer reside in a vacuum. I believe there needs to be a robust collaboration between industry and educators — to better align, educate and prepare youth for the 21st-Century workforce.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

  • Educators genuinely care for their constituents-their youth.
  • Educators work hard to please the vast hierarchy they serve under-though stifling
  • Educators are infinitely creative, given the latitude to be so
  • Educators keep a positive attitude and are doing amazing work given all their obstacles, the overbearing rules that reign over them, and given their low pay and low respect
  • The education world is in flux, with many innovative new models- educators are trying to adapt

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

Gallup, Purdue, Lumina in their Great Jobs Great Lives study concluded that when 6 key factors are experienced by graduates during college, it “doubled their odds of being engaged in their work and having a greater sense of wellbeing later in life.” Gallup’s research, in my mind, dictates new educational priorities for better preparing youth for their future.

I would like to highlight two key factors of their findings, and add two of my own for the purposes of this questionnaire and why these concepts should be prioritized:

  1. Incorporating the community and industry to help develop curriculum, teach educators on field related requirements, and to integrate industry to better prepare youth for the jobs of tomorrow. This is one of the key strategies I have implemented in the mentorship programs I have structured, and it is a central point in Teach to Work.
  2. To these ends, Gallup strongly supports the critical importance of youth interfacing with adults during their school years. The importance of a Mentor — an intergenerational role model whose role is to support a student’s goals and dreams. This Mentor is to be a sounding board, a ballast, and a center for values and clarity. As well, the Mentor is a true practitioner from the real world and as such, offers practical guidelines based in reality. A Mentor plays the role of devil’s advocate and gently pushes against probabilities, all the while holding a mentee to task, and to a timely completion.
  3. The importance of applying what you are learning to a long-term Project is also supported by Gallup. This type of learning is based not just on theory but on real-world experience. Within project development, a student starts from their own understanding of the world and a need that should be met, employing critical thinking. Next he/she takes ownership in seeing that concept grow to become a reality — and successful or not, the journey is owned and in real time. Indeed, this project becomes an accomplishment that has met a deadline, has a hard-and-fast result, and is defended through a formal oral presentation. These are the skills the business world seeks.
  4. An Ability to Plan. I have written extensively about Project Based Mentoring® and marrying the above three critical educational facets — Industry engagement, Mentorship and Projects. To these I’m adding one of the most critical skills that is not taught today — the ability to Plan.

One of my favored mentees, Moses (14), shared with me his year-end takeaway after developing and launching a business. He said, “An Idea without a Plan–is like air” … “and a Plan without an Idea is like chaos.”

I contend that the business world, the management world, the finance world, the science world, the tech world, the arts world — are all project-driven. As an employee, a manager, or a leader, you are graded on your promise, your actions, your outcome, and your delivery/presentation.

Nowhere in education are our students taught how to think critically, and to plan.

One of my favorite books is “Homo Prospectus,” written by the Dean of Psychology at Univ of Pennsylvania, Dr. Martin Seligman. He writes, “The ability to anticipate and evaluate future possibilities for the guidance of thought and action is the cornerstone of human success. Rather than focus on the therapies of the past, he shows how human prospection fundamentally reshapes our understandings. We are much more likely to be successful if we can anticipate and invest our time effectively and efficiently — it’s vital to how we manage in life.” Two quick examples:

  1. He suggests that food deprivation can give a creature hunger and an urge to eat — but anticipation can intelligently regulate enabling a creature to avoid hunger in the first place.
  2. The same is true in competition: anticipating your competitor’s next step gives you a critical advantage.

Industry engagement, Mentorship, Project Orientation and an Ability to Plan — briefly why these are critical to 21st century education?

Industry Engagement is critical because these are the employers of tomorrow. How can you prepare youth for an ever-changing economy, if you don’t understand the needs? Industry and Academia need to align and revisit what requirements and skills are essential to succeed. Otherwise educators are shooting in the dark, and youth will fall critically behind, be underemployed and unmotivated.

Skills-Based Mentorship is a form of knowledge transfer. As learners take on new knowledge, there are myriad ways of inputs and outtakes. “Learning by Doing, Learning from Doers” taps into a practical, hands-on methodology. Here’s how, now you try. A mentor is not a judge, an authority, or a person that grades you — instead the relationship mimics a respectful work relationship, a collaborator. A person with whom you can play devil’s advocate, ask questions and exchange ideas. In so many professional fields there are apprenticeships, fellowships; I’m suggesting this becomes a more broadened institutional method for learning –from true practitioners with field experience. Indeed, with 20+ years under my belt and countless student letters, I know we broaden a youth’s capacity to see themselves through a mentor’s eyes, and to give them a new confidence to try in the face of adversity. In other words, mentors are motivators.

Project Orientation is critical. There is a whole school of educational best practices on Project Based Learning. It is designed to engage students in the investigation of authentic problems; it effects motivation in learning. Indeed, learning sticks when it is connected to something students understand to be important to their lives, something where they are truly invested. When others are always calling the shots and telling youth what to do, students feel powerless. But anyone willing to learn directly from reality, rather than complying with a widely accepted narrative, is in a position to innovate, critically think, expand on ideas, and be an active contributor.

As Aunt Addie Norton said in Singin’, Praisin’, Raisin’

“I tell you one thing-if you learn to do it yourself, if you have to get down and dig for it, it never leaves you. It stays there as long as you live because you to dig it out of the mud.”

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

Stem is not my expertise — though I have attended conferences on STEM education and seen its burgeoning. Under the Obama administration I was an advisor to US 2020, a White House Initiative to build Stem education in schools. I have also sat on the Corporate Committees for STEM Connector and Million Women Mentors — programs that expose youth to leaders in STEM fields. To my knowledge, the Obama administration was much more active in this expansion under Secretary Duncan. There are some fabulous new initiatives lead by the US Chamber of Commerce to better define needs of companies, terminology for critical skills, and how they hire and educate educators on skills companies are looking for.

A few suggested Ideas:

Incorporate Industry in 21st-Century skills requirements. I learned of this with Denver Public Schools, and think it’s fabulous: Bring educators together by industry related topics, and allow them to learn the NEW needs of companies. In other words, educators openly reach out and learn from the industry on trends and skills needed and tap into these companies to take on more active roles in defining the curriculum.

Incorporate Industry in school development. I’ve written about a fantastic new school in Indiana that was founded in collaboration with 5 companies who are active in curriculum development, and who participate in mentoring youth in classes, as well as bringing them to their local plants, offices, and headquarters. Integrating companies with schools builds pipelines of employees to stay in the community and understand real business needs.

Determine roles for Department of Labor to collaborate with Department of Education. I’ve also spoken with Departments of Labor and Education at a state level. Labor speaks to the availability and need for trained workers. And education complains they are swamped and cannot take on another thing. Labor has hordes of people available to share their knowledge — because they cannot find workers with the skills they need. My idea would be to have the Labor department actually cultivate, train and tee up mentors in STEM fields — and keep a Mentor’s bureau for scientists, CTE, technologists, et al. There backgrounds would be checked, and their expertise defined. Their hours and location are identified. Imagine educators being able to tap into this Mentors bureau to invite true practitioner/mentors to school.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

First and foremost, STEM is the wave of the future. All careers are going to require core elements of STEM. STEM education incorporates new ways of thinking, expansion, application, and broader reach. And significant portions of the industry will require this level of knowledge.

Anyone will be left behind if they are not getting educated in STEM careers — It is not a gender specific problem, unless women actually choose to self-select out. So it becomes more important to entice and motivate women to take this on, even if it is not their inclination.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

Mentorship. You cannot be what you cannot see. Invite women in fields of STEM to mentor in schools–possibly utilizing the ideas I have written about in my book.

Project Based Mentorship — allow girls to lead projects based on a need they uncover — and become motivated by their inquiry and by their skills-based, mentor practitioner.

Exposure to Industry — I was fascinated to learn about the environment that Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots at X (a Google subsidiary) creates in his work environment. Education could learn much from this culture of innovation

-He likes to create a blend of raging optimism and scathing paranoia.

-He fosters a culture where employees challenge everything.

Modus operandi — test an idea — throw out 99%.

All ideas, including big ideas, are welcomed to address a huge, global problem –he was looking for a radical solution.

When an idea fails, there is not retribution. Rather, there is applause, toasts and celebration. They hold a failure party.

There is much to learn from the X culture for educators, and for girls and boys in STEM.

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?

I think we could go one step deeper and try to understand the underlying skills that STEM education teaches. Like the Google example above, youth need to understand how to be self-starters, to challenge ideas, to be allowed to fail, and to innovate against practical real-world scenarios. You need to expand beyond theory, test hypotheses, innovate.

Yes, this can happen in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — but quite honestly — these precepts above can be taught also in entrepreneurship, finance, humanities, communications, law, or graphics.

There is a core knowledge that should be mandatory — including in a STEM 101 required course, so that youth can follow their interests.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

As explained above,

Industry input, collaboration:

Story: Denver Public Schools convened Industry representatives with Educators by like field.

I.e. Career and Technical Education teachers met with Tech Industry executives to understand where tech is going, the core common needs most in demand, and the newest technology interfacing

Business / Entrepreneurship teachers met with local entrepreneurs to learn about the economy, tech influences, forecasts, employment, and needs

Corporate Mentorship:

Dagim was a business student. His class required him to come up with a business plan, and actually execute the idea. His idea was to create an App for local high school sports, whereby all kids could log on and know what games where happening where, against whom, and learn the results.

SAP was a supporter of the NFTE program — they donated substantial funding and 750 hours. Their technologist helped Dagim build the App so it was functional, while their business team helped him with his business plan and his pitch.

The app was launched, with multiple advertisers who were either in the sports field, professional teams, or fast food stores that appeal to youth.

Dagim’s life changed as a result. He learned he loved business. He tried his ideas, tested them, lead focus groups, learned how to pitch, learned how to deliver, learned who is market was, and learned he loved being his own boss.

Today, Dagim is enrolled at Babson. He is still in touch with his Mentors.

Project Based Mentorship:

Though Dagim’s example fully explains how a project sets up an intergenerational mentoring relationship, I’m delighted to share another story.

Chante was one of my student mentees at Suitland High School in Prince George’s County Maryland. I eventually found out that Chante was living with her grandmother. She had little siblings she helped care for, and had recently lost her mom. She enrolled in a business class, and she had little time on her hands. She was also quite adept at technology and had a proclivity to sports.

Her Project for class was to develop a business plan and launch whatever it was that she desired. It was amazing watching, coaching, and helping this young lady blossom. She started an IT company where she would help fix computers in an around her neighborhood. She kept up with tech classes to maintain her knowledge, and she packaged herself with great professionalism. She created business cards, she had letters of reference, and she guaranteed her work.

As Project Based Mentors® our goal was to help her complete her business plan, test her skills, work through obstacles along the way — and to help turn a profit.

Well, she not only won the in-class competition and the region-wide competition, Your Way computer services continues to this day. Chante has five employees with full health coverage, she owns her own house, she has multiple government contracts, and she stays in touch — now 12 years later.

By integrating a business mentor with a business student, you can share practical skills and coach them through difficulties. The project is the catalyst in this intergenerational knowledge transfer.

Ability to Plan

I first came to NFTE, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship — when I hosted a radio program. Janelle Stubbs was my Thanksgiving interview — a 14-year-old entrepreneur. The interview went along like this:

PA- So Janelle, let me hear more about your Stained Glass Window business. How do you organize your time while you are in school? When do you make your 12”x12” windows, and when do you sell them?

JS — Well, you see Ms. Patty, I have a plan. Three nights a week, I rush home to do my homework, then I eat an early dinner, and after dinner I make the windows for the week. On top of that, I have a sales team. I have three friends that earn a percentage of sales, that go out on weekends, and sell door-to-door. Meanwhile, I man a booth at the local Capital Hill Market. As a matter of fact, we adjust our windows and colors depending on the time of the year — and sometimes we package them in two and three’s — selling more in bulk.

PA — Wow! I never heard a 14 year old to be so organized! What is your future plan — where do you see yourself going with this?

JS — Well, I actually know. I’ve already saved 4000 dollars in mutual funds. I want to go to school in business. And after that I want to open a design store, like MJ designs. That’s my goal.

If you step away from Janelle, and think about this interview, lets look at her skills:

Task Skills Gained

Project Identification critical thinking, filling a need

(Making stained glass windows, loves design)

Project Master Plan Timeline, organization Forecasting

Research, Design Adaptability, assess market, change

Logistic, Implementation Strategy integration

Problem Solving/obstacles Resourcefullness

Pitch/ Sales Logic, negotiations, communication

Impact Real World Measurement/ Profit

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I was honored to hear this from one of my mentees: “Today, there are rare occasions when you find people with such high standards who are willing to visit, teach high school (or college) students and enjoy it — especially at a predominantly Black school, where we are looked down upon with stereotypes and chosen to fail. What makes you different is that you cared about us differing from our surroundings. Because of you, I walked away with a new knowledge on how to run a business, and a whole other view of the world and the kindness of strangers.” Tiffany, 15 years old, Laurel High School

This is just one of 1000’s of letters I’ve received from youth whom I have worked with. It is these letters that let me know the small impact one person can have on another’s life. Indeed, it is these letters that pushed me to write a book and to encourage others to take on this important Mentoring role.

I’m particularly touched by Tiffany’s words regarding her own self-worth — the feeling that she is looked down upon as a Black American, and chosen to fail. Conversely — in this small excerpt — you experience Tiffany’s new gained confidence, her new skills, and her new view of white people — whom she concluded are kind strangers.

This experience with Tiffany prompted me to ponder long and hard: What could be more important to do with your time and your knowledge?

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Larry Fink, Black Rock

Michelle Obama

Mitch Daniels, Michael Crow

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Facebook: @TeachtoWork

Twitter: @TeachtoWork


Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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