‘Shark Tank’ visionaries have Austin in mind

Two Chicago entrepreneurs have come up with novel but separate ventures that could help Austin residents find employment in the manufacturing industry and help youths reduce crime in their neighborhoods.

Avondale native Elena Valentine took inspiration from manufacturing-focused employment programs such as Austin Polytechnical High School when she developed Skill Scout, Inc., a new way of connecting employers and workers to manufacturing jobs.

Lincoln Park resident Becky Levinson culled her experience working at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center to create Imagine Peace Chicago. That program aims to bring together youths of different races and cultures to learn peace-buildings skills to combat violence in their neighborhoods.

The two women were among 13 participants enrolled in a six-month entrepreneurial training program sponsored by JCC PresenTense Chicago, a partnership between PresenTense, an international entrepreneur accelerator program and the Jewish Community Center of Chicago or JCC Chicago. Participants must have business ventures that have a social impact on society. 

“It’s basically finding a social need and trying to address that through an entrepreneurial venture,” said Kim Miller, JCC PresenTense Chicago board chair. The idea, she added, dovetails with the Judaism tenant of Tikkun Olam, which translates to “healing the world.” 

Participants in the program got intensive business development training and were assigned mentors to help launch or further grow existing business ventures. As part of the program, fellows participated in a Shark Tank presentation where they pitched their ideas to venture capitalists with social justice interests. Winners received a $2,500 micro-grant to jumpstart their ideas.

Levinson was among six recipients to receive the grant for Imagine Peace Chicago. Her business venture was imbued in part by her work at the juvenile detention center and volunteering at Hands of Peace, an organization that brings Israeli and Palestinian kids to the U.S. in a cultural exchange. 

She said the violence stemming from the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is similar to Chicago’s gang violence. That violence, she added is compounded by racial, religious and social-economical segregation that deprive youth of leadership opportunities.

“A lot of the violence in Chicago is over turfs and areas. Similarly in Israel, people are having that kind of the same conflict fighting over land there,” Levinson said. 

Levinson has partnered with a North Lawndale church and other Jewish organizations to bring inner-city teens together with well-off suburban youths to learn about their differences and similarities. 

Imagine Peace will teach teens peace-building skills such as mindfulness, compassion and empathy training in order to build non-violent conflict resolution techniques and cultural competency. The goal is to create peace ambassadors where they can take what they’ve learned back to their communities and create similar activities in their schools or churches. 

Levinson hopes to have the program running next year. Teens selected for the program will receive a stipend and a monthly alumni meeting will occur to maintain relationships. Her business is building on the relationship blacks and the Jewish community cultivated during the Civil Rights era, but that has diminished over the last 50 years. She hopes this rekindles it.

“By working together they can develop solutions to make a peaceful state in both our communities and Chicago,” said Levinson, a licensed clinical social worker.

Connecting workers with employers through video storytelling is the concept behind Valentine’s business Skill Scout. It uses high-quality video production to allow companies to showcase job openings beyond the static, text-laden ‘Help Wanted’ ad.

And for job seekers, a resume may be a thing of the past as prospective candidates can use video to virtually demonstrate their abilities at skills fairs hosted by Skill Scout. In the skills fair, job seekers are put through a series of hands-on tasks such as tracking inventory, reading blueprints, precision measurement or mechanical troubleshooting to show employers they can do the job.

“What this enables them to do is to showcase what they can do, not what’s on paper,” Valentine said. “It is not about what school they went to. It is not about the number of years of experience in this or that. It’s can they actually do the work? That’s the biggest thing companies have on their minds.”

Valentine first conceived this type of job search for the manufacturing industry a few years ago, but any business can use it. Her company works with employers in the information technology sector, food service and hospitality industry. But the manufacturing industry seemed ideal to launch Skill Scout, because it’s “ripe for workforce innovations.”

“This is an industry that within the next five to seven years is going to have a talent pipeline problem when a huge portion of their workforce retires,” Valentine said, adding that the state has 36,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs. “Those companies that want to continue to grow are going to have to think out of the box about how they hire ….”

The work of North Lawndale Employment Network and Young Men’s Educational Network (YMEN) was the impetus for Skill Scout. Both groups work to find jobs for hard-to-place workers, including those with criminal records. These individuals, Valentine said, have untapped talent and potential that’s being overlooked by resume filters and personality assessments. 

“We want to become an alternative solution for them to showcase what they can do and put themselves in front of employers in ways they weren’t able to before,” Valentine said, adding that her company doesn’t just focus on hard-to-place hires but also helps companies find qualified candidates. 

“That’s really what inspired Skills Scout,” she said. 

Since its founding in July 2014, Skill Scout now works with 30 companies and have placed more than 35 candidates in jobs.

“We saw that hiring had to change and the way that we engage our workforce had to change, Valentine said. “We saw that there was an opportunity for us to really build a movement around a new way to hire.”

CONTACT: larisalynch@yahoo.com