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'LinkedIn For Teens' App Tries To Ease Youth Unemployment In Chicago

 The new Yolobe app is being piloted at Schurz High School.
The new Yolobe app is being piloted at Schurz High School.
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OLD IRVING PARK — One Chicago tech startup thinks it might have the key to solving an issue that has plagued the city for years: rampant youth unemployment.

Yolobe (which stands for "Your Life Only Better"), pitched as a "LinkedIn for Teens," is launching a pilot for its app with Schurz High School in March and expanding citywide in April.

The concept behind Yolobe is fairly straightforward: Teens need jobs — or internships or mentoring opportunities — but despite the vast circles they've built on social media, they're almost entirely lacking in connections to professional adults.

"One big barrier our students have is just the networking," Schurz interim Principal Kathleen Valente said.

"It's 'OK, how do I even go look [for a job]? Just knock on doors on the street?'" Valente said.

On the flip side, professional adults have access to jobs, internships and mentoring, but have few connections with teens.

"Facebook is flowering, but young people, teachers, businesses, they're not connecting," said David Douglas, CEO and founder of Yolobe, which operates out of Chicago's 1871 entrepreneurship center.

"We know there are professionals in the community, businesses that given the right opportunity, I could connect them. We need a place for them to overlap," he said.

Enter Yolobe, which bridges the gap by bringing teens and adults together via a secure platform.

Though teens may appear confident, even boisterous, among their peers, the majority of them are shy and reserved around adults, whom they find intimidating, Douglas and Valente said.

"You don't tend to see kids reaching out," Douglas said. "You need to build a sense of trust in a zone where they feel safe."

Through Yolobe, which is free, teens connect to a professional network where members have not only been vetted but are keen to provide positive resources and relationships — or what's called "social capital," said Douglas.

In the run-up to the pilot, Douglas has been working with a select group of Schurz students — the teens enrolled in the school's Career and Technical Education program — to help them set up profiles on the app.

Equally important, he's been recruiting employers — from major corporations to mom and pop shops — and building partnerships with entities, including churches and Chicago Public Schools.

Among the challenges he's faced with employers have been stereotypes about Chicago teens, Douglas said.

"Kids have been portrayed negatively," he said. "So there are reservations. Adults are nervous."

Douglas himself has hired dozens of teens over the last 2½ years, "and I've had nothing but great experiences," he said.

Yolobe operates like a "LinkedIn for teens." [Yolobe.com]

Schurz students will make the case for Yolobe at an upcoming community meeting that's designed to break down walls between the high school and its neighbors and also dispel preconceived notions about the school and its students.

"This is about having a dialogue and getting [the community] on board, explaining what we're doing, getting buy-in and having them meet students. A lot of businesses don't know the great treasure trove of kids at Schurz," said Douglas. "Part of what we want to solve for is to have adults walk out and say, 'Wow, these are great kids.'"

"It's very exciting," Valente said. "This opens a true door with a realistic opportunity to engage with our students."

Yolobe's success will hinge on persuading neighborhood adults to join the network, particularly small and midsize business owners, who represent the majority of employers, Douglas said.

"I'm a fan of big corporations, but I think in order to move numbers ... you need to motivate and get more of these small businesses involved," he said.

From Valente's perspective, employers in the community might be more likely to take a personal interest in her students than, say, a fast-food chain.

Many of her students — 90 percent of whom come from low-income households — are helping to support their families or save for college by working in restaurants or entry-level jobs like telemarketing.

If a restaurant closes at 10 p.m., students have precious little time for homework, much less sleep, she said.

"I've had to call employers and write letters asking, 'Please adjust the students' hours,'" Valente said.

Her hope is that neighbors would "realize these are high school students and may be more forgiving," she said.

But Yolobe is about more than just jobs, Douglas emphasized.

Retirees have life experiences to share, and some of a neighborhood's most connected residents — the people who know people — are "rock star" stay-at-home moms, he offered as examples.

These individuals would be invaluable members of Yolobe's network as much as employers, he said.

The Schurz-Yolobe pilot is set to run through May, and Douglas's measure of whether the test is a success is fairly simple.

"We want at the end for students to say, 'I've taken advantage of opportunities that have advanced me in some way,' to say, 'I have made a meaningful connection in the community I didn't have before,'" he said.

On Schurz's end, his goal is for Valente and her staff to have developed more effective communications with neighbors and to have built up a roster of resources the school can tap into at will.

Longer term, "You start to have an economic impact on the community and more people send their kids to Schurz," Douglas said.

The informational session on the Schurz-Yolobe pilot is scheduled for 6 to 7:30 p.m. March 9 in the library at Schurz, 3601 N. Milwaukee Ave.