Founded in 1998, i.c.stars creates opportunities for underserved communities by bridging the gap between resilient young adults and high-growth tech companies. The rigorous four-month leadership and technology training program gives low-income learners close to 1,000 hours of training in preparation for work at leading technology service providers and then supports them for 20 months afterward as they transition to high-paying, full-time employment. 

More than 400 students ages 18 to 27 who hold high school diplomas or GEDs and have six months of work experience vie for 20 spots each cycle. A combination of an apprenticeship model with project-based learning, i.c.stars divides its cohorts into four teams that solve a real business challenge proposed by a partner company. Challenges range from building software to creating a mobile app prototype. Students learn general information technology skills, programming languages, and cybersecurity concepts on their way to becoming industry certified professionals and gaining employment as entry-level programmers, business analysts, and quality assurance experts.

Sandee Kastrul, co-founder and CEO, believes that one of the biggest challenges to overcome is the perception that workforce development is charity work. To combat this perception, Kastrul positions i.c.stars as a robust talent pipeline for partners, not just another corporate social responsibility program. This “try-before-you-buy” apprenticeship model reduces risk for employers while developing a steady revenue stream. After the internship period, the technology partners have priority in hiring the students into full-time positions, leading to an 82% initial placement rate with a 400% increase in earnings for students. 

After students are placed at a company, i.c.stars provides two years of continued coaching and support to expand their professional network and ensure long-term success. i.c.stars currently operates in Chicago, Columbus, and Milwaukee, with plans to expand to Oakland and other cities. 

Q&A with Sandee Kastrul, CEO

Sandee Kastrul, i.c.stars CEO: I was a former science and math teacher. One day, one of the [most] profoundly bright students that I had ever taught came to see me. I say, “Well, what are you doing with your science?” And he says, “Oh my gosh, I’m working in cleaning services at one of the hotels downtown and you’d be surprised at what people don’t know about the basic properties of ammonia.” And just as I’m about to feel sorry for him, he looks me in the eye and he says, “Sandee, I don’t think you’re listening. You have always taught us that leadership is making opportunities for others. And it doesn’t matter whether I’m in a lab coat or a lecture hall or I’m teaching or I’m cleaning toilets. I’m teaching just like you taught us.”

I remember walking back to my office and thinking, OK, I need to do something different. I know that I’m never going to be comfortable again. This was in 1998. The world looked different. It shouldn’t matter what you look like. From a social justice perspective, we can shift from being consumers to being innovators. And I think that’s where the power is.

Q: What role does technology play?

SK: At the end of the day, technology is about solving problems and building solutions. What if we taught folks to be programmers to build solutions as a blueprint for solving the problems and building the solutions that are happening in our communities every day? Rather than waiting for someone else to solve them, why not solve them for ourselves, because embedded in technology is all this beautiful process and methodology to actually solve problems. Let’s just take it, learn it, do it, and then apply it to something else. 

Q: How does i.c.stars work financially for students?

SK: [During] the four-month boot camp we pay a stipend. That’s just enough for transportation and food because it’s 12 hours a day, there’s no way that you could go without any money. In the residency, the two-year program, they get paid market wages, whether they’re working in our social enterprise, in our staffing business, or they went right to the market as W2 employees, they’re earning technology wages.

Q: How does i.c.stars benefit partner companies?

SK: We divide [the students] into four teams competing with each other, and every cohort has a different Fortune 500 company that is their client. So that today, we’re building mobile apps, but it was once websites, or a data project, so it changes with the market. Just like at work, you’d go to a client meeting, the client changes something, it’s ugly, you have no idea what they’re talking about. But you go and learn everything you can in order to meet those requirements. And so, we script all of these leadership objectives into the simulation but the software that they develop is real.

We don’t want to put somebody in a track before they’ve had the opportunity to experience it. So, every one of the four sprints that they work on with their client they’re playing different roles. You might be a BA[business analyst] in the first sprint, you might be a developer in the second, et cetera. During their last month, they’re figuring out what made the most sense. What gave me the most fulfillment? And what am I really good at?

Q: How do you measure success?

SK: What if we determined success not by getting out of the hood but by investing back in? How would that change our community? We are very engaged in our alums. We are getting lots of wonderful stories about starting nonprofits, about helping fifth-graders learn leadership skills, about starting computer labs in residential buildings, about starting businesses and hiring from the community, about advocating for school boards and ensuring that there’s equity across the city in terms of education. We have over 50 homeowners in our alumni club that have purchased homes after doing i.c.stars. And we’re incredibly proud of that not just because becoming a homeowner is an amazing thing but that they’re buying homes in the communities that they came from and not leaving with all the resources but investing back in.

Holly Custard is deputy director of institute partnerships and outreach at the Strada Institute for the Future of Work. Follow her on Twitter at @hcustard. Custard also examined the influence of leadership development through programs like i.c. stars in an op-ed for Working Nation. Read “Extending the Ripple Effects of Leadership Development.

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