Lifting Up the Next Generation

From her desire to lift people out of poverty, Ann-Eve Hazen started the nonprofit First Graduate to help children gain access to better education.

Ann-Eve Hazen

Philanthropist Ann-Eve Hazen, founder of the San Francisco–based nonprofit First Graduate.

Updated November 2016  Ann-Eve Hazen knew something needed to be done to help San Francisco’s underprivileged children. These children were on her mind for quite some time. She was just not sure what steps she needed to take first. It was clear that these children had a lack of educational achievement, with all the social problems that came with it. Their lack of achievement also kept the poverty cycle going.

“So it became clear to me that the focus needed to be with helping these children achieve opportunities and fulfilled lives through education,” Hazen says. “However, I mistakenly thought such an undertaking needed to be created on a large scale in order to make a difference, and until I got rid of that thought, I held myself back.”

"It became clear to me that the focus needed to be with helping these children achieve opportunities and fulfilled lives through education." — Ann-Eve Hazen

Once her plan was firm in her mind, what resulted from her unyielding determination is First Graduate, a nonprofit founded in 2000 that began serving kids in 2002. Today, it’s a thriving college-success program serving more than 250 children at a time, with innovative leadership and sustainable funding.

First Graduate supports these students for 10 years, starting in middle school, until they become the first in their families to graduate from college. The program helps them earn their degrees by working closely with them, providing year-round academic tutoring and mentoring, pairing them with caseworkers who help keep them on the college track, and giving them the self-confidence they need to be successful.

First Graduate students have gone on to attend such institutions as Harvard University, Middlebury College, and Tufts University. Through partnerships with organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the organization is reaching even more underprivileged kids in the Bay Area by bringing programs closer to where they live.

And it all happened because one woman held on to her dream, pressing on through years of challenges, not giving up before the miracles happened.

Beginning challenges
Deciding that you want to help break the cycle of poverty is one thing, but starting a nonprofit organization is entirely another matter.

You need resources, perseverance, patience, qualified staff, and advice from others with experience. “First, I needed to get a board together and hire an Executive Director,” Hazen recalls. It took about a year to recruit the right Executive Director and bring the initial board together.

Wells Fargo Bank, with which Hazen has had a banking relationship for decades, helped fill the void. It helped with the initial organization and contributions from its foundation, and it has even supplied a board member. “Wells Fargo Bank has been so helpful,” she says. “Every time I need an idea or a contact, they seem to be there with the right answer.”

Still, there were challenges. The staff pressed her to grow programs she didn’t think they could afford. “In nonprofits, there’s always a tendency to spend even when you don’t have the money, because their hearts are in it,” Hazen says. “That’s probably why a lot of nonprofits fail. I’d put in a substantial amount of my own money and time, so I insisted that we couldn’t go ahead and spend on expanding our programs until we had the money.”

Today, First Graduate has a strong board, corporate partners such as Gap, Inc., and funding from some of the Bay Area’s leading foundations and corporations. 

Stepping back
Hazen says the real trick for founders of nonprofits is knowing when to step back and let others take the reins.

“I stayed around for about 10 years, at first directly working on it and later serving on the board. But the best thing I ever did was to back off and let the board carry it. It makes other people take responsibility. Otherwise, they look to me as the founder to have all the answers.” Current Executive Director Thomas Ahn has been a major factor in First Graduate’s success. During his tenure, the group has significantly reduced per-student costs and increased parental buy-in.

“Thomas has a real passion for this program,” says Steve Ellis, Head of the Innovation Group at Wells Fargo Bank, who previously served on the board. “He looked around and saw a big opportunity — there are probably 15,000 kids in the Bay Area who could be First Graduates. I thought it was a really good idea to collaborate with the Boys & Girls Clubs. It can be a powerful combination.” (Renu Agrawal, Head of International Treasury Management Sales at Wells Fargo Bank, now serves as board treasurer and finance committee chair.) 

But the real proof of any nonprofit’s success is its clients. “These kids, they’re remarkable,” says Wells Fargo Private Bank Wealth Advisor Amanda Weitman, who is Hazen’s relationship manager. “Many had parents who didn’t speak English or family members who were deported. The families may have been living paycheck to paycheck, and yet the students end up with straight A’s because of the support of the program.”

One of these inspiring graduates is Daisy Medina, a member of First Graduate’s first graduating class.

“It was hard in the beginning because I didn’t know how to ask for help,” she recalls of her initial experience in the seventh grade. “Even though there were tutors, I didn’t know where to start. And it was a big time commitment.” Her parents had limited English skills. She was academically challenged by tutors but also inspired by trips to mentors’ workplaces.

At her college graduation in 2011, she recalls, “I was still a little in denial. I couldn’t believe it. My parents and I were crying. They were so proud.” The youngest of three children in her family, she was the first to finish college. She now works as a service manager at Wells Fargo Bank, where her bilingual skills come in handy.  

Asked if she would have been surprised a decade ago by where First Graduate is today, Hazen says, “I didn’t know if it would work at all, but I knew I needed to make an attempt, and the results have turned out to be more than I could ever have anticipated.”

Writer John Ettorre’s work has appeared in The New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor.

Photographer Cody Pickens is a regular contributor to Inc., Fortune, and ESPN.

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