Teaching Teens the Value of Networks

June 01, 2012  

Jana’s Scott Ostfeld brings his connections to bear for the Opportunity Network.

By Danielle Beurteaux

  Scott Ostfeld: The activist investor helps underserved teens establish professional connections (Photo by Axel Dupeux)
Who’s in your network? Chances are it’s come in handy many times, perhaps during a job search. "Let’s be honest," says Scott Ostfeld. "I don’t know anyone who just shows up at the doorstep and gets the job. Everybody’s using some type of network."

Ostfeld, 35, partner at $3 billion activist fund Jana Partners, recognizes the necessity of connections, so he got involved with the Opportunity Network, an organization that aims to help underserved New York City high school students develop professional networks of their own. Ostfeld’s first exposure to the Opportunity Network came through his personal network — Opportunity Network co-founder Brian Weinstein was a grad school roommate at Columbia University. In 2003, Ostfeld gave a presentation on careers in finance to ten of the Opportunity Network’s students, and he was "completely blown away" by how motivated they were, he says. "What was really the most eye-opening part of it for me was hearing their individual stories and the hurdles they had to surmount."

Ostfeld joined the board in 2006, when the group’s founders needed guidance growing the organization. It started with ten kids in 2003, now has 300 and hopes to have 500 students enrolled by 2014. "I see my role as leveraging my networks and relationships to help obtain internships for the students and bring people on the board who can help add value — and being part of the discussion in figuring out how we can take the organization from serving what it serves today to expanding its role and influence," says Ostfeld.

One of his more unusual networking endeavors came at the end of a business deal. "We were an activist with a company, and at the conclusion of that experience I connected their foundation, which focuses on education, with the Opportunity Network, and now they’re working together."

The Opportunity Network is a six-year program for select New York public school students, starting in the summer after their sophomore year. These students are already doing well in school, says Ostfeld. What they’re missing is access. The group has developed a proprietary curriculum covering appropriate dress (including an educational trip to Brooks Brothers, which donates clothes), communication skills, career education, networking basics, college preparation and paid internships. The cost of internships is covered either by the sponsoring company or the Opportunity Network’s donors.

Ostfeld was an obvious choice to ask to join the board, says co-founder Jessica Pliska. "He’s been vital to the group’s development," she says. "A big aspect of that was taking us from a scrappy, small start-up to a real-live organization with strategic goals, systems, procedures and a fundraising plan to execute all of that."

Wanting to help these kids expand their horizons comes naturally, says Ostfeld, whether it’s offering career advice or helping someone get a job. "It’s the satisfaction of, 'Hey, I made something happen for somebody.’ It’s really rewarding."

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