“Students are struggling during the pandemic. Many of them were struggling already. Add COVID to their difficulties, and we are supporting their survival and success at a different level.”
Throughout 2020, Yasmin Salina has aided a demographic of young, Black, and financially disadvantaged people squarely in the population of those most likely to be imperiled by the novel coronavirus. She’s the executive director and chair of The Hustlers Guild, a non-profit organization founded in Washington, D.C. that focuses on using hip-hop culture as a bridge to foster sustainable tech-related careers for at-risk high school and college students.
In the past four months, Yasmin’s three-year-old business has expanded into a groundbreaking model of pivoting a small business without sacrificing company goals or bottom-line financial expectations.
In this conversation, proper planning, seeding your initial business plan with altruistic good, plus a helping of serendipity are identified as the foundations of The Hustlers Guild’s recent success. Post-COVID-19, their continuance as both a real-time and online leader in developing uniquely talented minority tech leaders of the present and future, is a more than fair expectation.
How were you able to so swiftly pivot a company that would, on the surface, seem to have a plethora of moving parts that could not work in concert, so quickly after March’s quarantine?
In December, we had refocused the infrastructure of our business to share resources and deliver services, both real-time and digitally. Many people haven’t figured out how to pivot, but we had already started figuring out ways to do so that would be both cool and engaging. Initially, we worked with three or four organizations, but once the pandemic hit, via our “Hustlers Hangouts” Zoom series, we were swept into a grassroots movement. From being an organization based in D.C. and a few other cities, we quickly expanded to being an organization working in places like Boston, Chicago, Waterloo, Iowa, even Wyoming. Now, four months later, we’ve successfully developed opportunities for not just ourselves, but our new partners, too. And still, our impact continues to amplify, daily.
What was your overall service population like as far as real-time service delivery before the pandemic? How has that evolved since?
Initially, we had 18 in-person sessions with high school students from D.C.’s Ballou High School, plus 40 college-age students between Bowie State and Alabama State universities, weekly. Now, we’ve grown this into a Zoom-based series of guest lectures and regular online check-ins. We’re averaging 20 kids per scheduled call, weekly. Because the kids are so engaged, the five-week-long, 45-minute sessions we were having have expanded to 90-minute events that are still occurring.
Insofar as maintaining a successful game plan, what have been the most significant obstacles The Hustlers Guild has overcome in both maintaining sudden growth while maximizing expectations on service delivery?
One of our biggest initial obstacles was retaining Generation Z’s attention on Zoom. We’ve had to incorporate production into our working sessions because these kids are on Zoom all day long. Our thought process has had to include asking, “what would make them want to be on the call the entire time?” As a solution, we’ve included dance breaks and allowing for more student-driven conversations. Also, celebrities like Snoop Dogg have joined our virtual sessions to surprise the kids. Of course, that has only elevated expectations. The kids have enjoyed talking to celebrities about self-awareness, time management, peer pressure, and effective adult communication. Also, we’ve given our students the ability to speak to hiring and human resource directors at places like Sony Music and Roc Nation. In those conversations, they’ve learned how these organizations are implementing remote hiring and what skills these organizations covet during a pandemic.
Well, then. Snoop. And Roc Nation. Quite the lineups. How do you intend to maintain this level of successful engagement both as the company grows and as the nation begins to lift quarantine restrictions?
One of my mentors is [nationally-respected, D.C.-based] comedian Red Grant. He helped produce the sessions and pulled in many of his friends. Also, corporations with whom we already had partnerships were very open to assisting, because at the beginning of the pandemic especially, we were not interrupting any schedule. Everyone was sitting in the living room of their homes on our calls!
Also, we’ve been doing this for a long time, so we’re just mapping our existing real-time work into the virtual space. We want to make sure that kids are engaged. Moving forward, we’ll likely solve for splitting our services into half-online and half-real-time in delivery. We’ll trailblaze into this space, too, given what we’ve learned both before and during the pandemic.
What do you consider to be the issues of most significant concern for The Hustlers Guild — past student engagement and blending real-time and online service delivery — moving forward?
Foremost we want to make sure that all of our affiliates and partners, plus their students, have sustainable access to technology. We’ve identified this as a concern for many of the school systems with which we’ve partnered. Our “Don’t Sweat the Tech” campaign has allowed us to provide wi-fi, headphones, the whole nine yards. We were already viewed as an “intervention organization” of sorts with students who have peer-to-peer and peer-to-adult communication problems and school attendance issues. Most of our students come from households with a household income of roughly $38,000 a year. Making sure that those students are fully equipped to participate in e-learning is essential.
How does this play out over the next 6-18 months, what do perceive to be The Hustlers Guild’s best course of action for continued success as a service provider?
Ideally, we’ll build out our services in similar phases to say, school systems. It appears as if each of our service cohort areas across the country has different expectations. If a school system isn’t returning until February, then we know we’ll be a virtual-only service for that community until February. We typically plan out our services and goals a year ahead. COVID changed that strategy. However, within the next 18 months, we’ll be aiding our nationwide service map in solving post-COVID life.