Ep# 76 | Curiosity, Connection & Learning

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After completing graduate school at Rice University, Ericka taught English and College Readiness to freshman and sophomores at Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory High School. In 2014, Ericka left teaching and started Project 88 Foundation a NPO that supports college advisors and vocational training in the city of Houston and beyond. Since then, Project 88 has raised almost 1.5 million dollars, and continues to support Houston-area programs that connect students to four year institutions, community college, and vocational training programs. Ericka also served on the Lady Texans Executive Board from 2013-2016, and she served on the Masters of Liberal Studies Alumni Association board, at Rice University, from 2016-2018. Currently, Ericka serves as the President and Executive Director at Project 88 Foundation, and she is on the advisory board for Pour Into Houston and The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights-Houston. She also co-founded the values-based clothing company, Unitee Values and she is studying in seminary and preaching at her church, Ecclesia Houston.

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On Project88’s beginnings: “I was a teacher in 2013. I taught high school freshman english and I also taught college readiness. And I realized while teaching college readiness that the process of going to college is just so complicated. When I taught high school at a low-income high school I realized that a lot of kids did not get support from home and the process of navigating college admissions is just so complicated. So in 2014, there was a crisis in Houston, there were 700 students for every one college advisor. As a teacher, I had 16 students in my college readiness class and I was already in freak out mode thinking about preparing first generation students for college. I knew the severity and importance of getting those students to college, not only for themselves, but for their future children and for their families and what it would mean for them to break the cycle of poverty. And so I took that job of helping those 16 students really seriously because to me it felt their future was dependent on how I navigated the space with them. And so when I thought of the Houston Public Schools and helping 700 kids. There is just no way you can help 700 students make responsible decisions about not only finding the college that fits them, but maybe deciding together that college isn’t the right choice. For many kids that maybe school isn’t the best option for them, there are amazing careers that you can get at a community college with a two year degree. Regardless of what the right solution is, being counseled through those decisions is really important. So we started Project88 in 2014 and our goal was to increase the number of college advisors in Houston Public Schools. That first year we were able to sponsor eight college advisors in eight high schools to increase that ratio to 250 to 1.”

On entrepreneurship: “My husband played for the Houston Texans. And he was number 88, and so I always knew, they say the NFL stands for not for long. So if you’re in the NFL you know your career is going to be short. I kind of liked that because I think the problem that a lot of entrepreneurs run into and especially people that are perfectionistic, is that they wait until it’s the right time. And I think I totally would have been one of those people who just had ideas and didn’t act on them. And the beauty of the NFL is that I knew we had a short window where people were going to care about my husband and that after that was over nobody was going to care any more. So the sense of urgency kicked me in the butt a little as ‘Hey you have to start this now because people care and pretty soon they won’t and you never know when your career’s over.’ As someone who was kind of perfectionistic before I kind of had to go with a ‘good enough’ mentality, now is the right time, jump into the mess, figure it out now, because later isn’t going to be there.”

On humble beginnings: “When we found out the statistics were 700 to 1, I met with a bunch of people the summer that we decided to start Project88 and my goal that summer was to just learn and to apply for our 501(c)(3) status and to build a board and an advisory board. I didn’t know how we would hire advisors or where we were going to get them I didn’t have any of the answers and I knew that starting now in the mess jumping in was the right way to go about it. I set up three meetings a day for one entire summer. For those three months I’d meet with three people and they were all in the education realm, some in the non profit space, others were college advisors at high schools and I learned about the landscape of how college advisors are being taught and what is the state doing to solve this need, are there other solutions that they are using that are getting drowned in the statistics. What I found was that the reason there aren’t really many college advisors was because there is no college advising program. You can’t go to school to be a college advisor. You can go to school to be a counsellor, but that’s more therapy and emotional needs, it’s not college advising. So there really is no training program that one could train at and become a college advisor. So through that process of learning over three months, I learned that there was a program called Advise Texas and they were training college advisors to go into schools for two years and it was kind of like Teach for America only college advisors. So a much smaller program, but what we were able to do is support that program. What Project88 does, is we know the schools that need advisors the most, which happen to be some of the underserved schools in the Houston area, the schools that need them the most are the schools that don’t have the resources to pay for the college advising services from Advise Texas. We were able to, on behalf of those schools, pay the fee so that counsellors could serve in those schools.”

On her day-to-day: “My day-to-day, it’s so random. I try to just stay really connected in the Houston community and reach out to as many people as I can authentically. I’ve found that when you just approach the day with curiosity and connection as your goal, and maybe learning, that the rest kind of falls into place. Because one thing about the fundraising space is that people are smart, and they know when you’re just trying to get money out of them. I think us humans are a lot smarter than we realize and we can pick up on that. And so I really set an intention every day to just be authentic, make connections, and I trust that people are good. And when they see how great this need is they are going to care. They are going to care because they’re human beings and when you hear of a problem that drastic in our public schools you just naturally care. It takes the pressure off me because I don’t feel like this is what a successful day looks like. It’s more of a receiving. I’m going to be curious and learn and connect and I trust it’s going to go somewhere.”

On the future: “Responsible businesses often have those fancy 5 year and 10 year plans and unfortunately I’ve been someone who takes it one year at a time. I actually struggled with addiction end of college beginning of when I moved to Houston before I started teaching. When you’re an addict you take one day at a time and that’s kind of my mantra for Project88. We do the next right thing in small and big moments and we just trust that God and faith and the goodness of people are going to carry us to grow and expand. So I don’t know what’s next, I hope we keep moving in a growth direction and maintaining the advocacy that we’ve been able to do here in Houston.”