Marked by a variety of characteristics, innovation can be found in multiple disciplines. But all innovators set out in front of the pack, bushwhacking a trail where none exists. Innovative organizations and projects bring outside-the-box thinking to problems or present a refreshing take on the status quo.
Xpress sought to find those clearing the path for our community’s future and put out a call for the public to nominate innovators. We received a total of 41 nominations and, through a process of several in-house jury deliberations, arrived at the eight we profile in this special issue. It wasn’t easy. And the runners-up made us deliberate if we should even feature more.
Xpress is proud to present Asheville’s Innovators. We hope their actions inspire you to innovate in your corner of Western North Carolina.
— Xpress Asheville Innovator jury: Edwin Arnaudin, Jeff Fobes, Dan Hesse, Max Hunt, Carolyn Morrisroe, Tracy Rose and Gina Smith
ESTA program (Eliada’s Students Training for Advancement)
Ted Stump, workforce development director, and Michael Murphy, volunteer (retired 35-year hotel industry executive)
Describe your organization/project.
ESTA is a 24-month education, career pathway and independent living program that provides youths with multiple barriers to employment the appropriate support and resources to achieve their personal and professional goals. We strive to service the most vulnerable youths (ages 16-22) who have one or more of the following barriers: in or aging out of foster care; dropped out or at risk of dropping out of high school; economically disadvantaged, housing instability or homeless; juvenile system involvement; unemployed or underemployed; or with low academic performance. We’ve partnered extensively with the local community to build a sustainable workforce development program. With the help of Explore Asheville, Aloft Asheville Downtown hotel, The Omni Grove Park Inn, Renaissance Asheville Hotel, The Biltmore Co. and Hilton Asheville Biltmore Park, we have designed and implemented a customized job shadow program, internships and paid apprenticeships to allow each student the opportunity to explore the hospitality industry career path while learning extensive people- and work-ethic skills. Asheville’s Goodwill education team supplements our career training and development track by teaching and certifying ESTA students in the hospitality discipline.
Why is this needed in the Asheville area, and how does it make a difference?
On any given day, our community has between 750 and 1,350 youths deemed homeless. Ten percent of youths in the foster care system opt out and 437 youths have records in the juvenile justice system. At the same time, Asheville has a 3.5 percent unemployment rate, which is rapidly dropping. With the number of hotels opening and growth in the health care and construction sectors, ESTA can help funnel trained talent into our industries that need it most with the students who need employment most. When a student first joins our program, they may be living in the back seat of a car or on their friend’s couch, with endless stories of overcoming major life obstacles. With ESTA’s support, guidance and training over time, they can be drawing a paycheck that allows them to support themselves going forward.
What was your epiphany/eureka moment for this organization/project?
Michael Murphy: I retired with two major goals in mind: 1.) Find a way to give back to the community with the hopes of making a difference in the lives of Asheville’s youths; 2.) teach in the areas of hospitality, career skills and leadership. … Then I met Ted Stump, who opened my eyes to the tremendous needs of a large population of youths who live in the Asheville community who are, as he says, like “the walking wounded in search of the families they never had.” After I met some of these wonderful and broken students, I knew I had found what I had been looking for.
What was the inspiration that made you take the leap from cool, cutting-edge idea to implementing it?
With the support of Eliada’s leadership team, the first phase of program design was easy. Eliada is all about helping children succeed, and when you walk on campus, you are inspired with what’s all around you. In phase two of our implementation process, we needed partners from Asheville’s rapidly growing hotel industry. We reached out to Glenn Cox, Explore Asheville’s vice president of administration and workforce development, who immediately rallied key hotel leaders in town who have a track record of making a difference. The energy and inspiration from Glenn, [hotel industry executives] Stan Turner, David McCartney, Chip Bryan, Amy Mohl, Michael LaFlamme and Laurie Watt helped us take a vision and build out a program. The third and final phase was the most inspirational. Once you meet the students, you want nothing more than to see them do what deep down they could only dream about — succeed in life. Each student has come up against more hardships and challenges in their short lifetimes than most adults have had to face. ESTA challenges them to learn a way out through positive life and career education, all while providing a strong safety net along the way.
What do you think makes it innovative?
We realized early on that this program required four major elements at the foundation to succeed: 1.) career skills; 2.) workforce development; 3.) academic assistance; 4.) transitional living and transportation. As a startup program, each of these areas took a great deal of resource building and assistance from many areas to enable our success. On top of this, we are adding 21st century skills training to advance ESTA students faster to career opportunities. These skills will help them compete in a rapidly paced, ever-changing global economy as they build the following competencies: adaptability, communications, solution focused, culturally competent, critical thinking, embrace failure, tech savvy, collaborative and entrepreneurial skills.
How is it working now?
Our inaugural class of 12 students recently completed their first year. One hundred percent completed their introduction to hospitality training and attained the American Lodging Association Guest Services Professional certification, 75 percent are entered into some form of secondary or college education, 91 percent completed their 10-week apprenticeship, five have entered into transitional living or are moving out on their own. We have just launched our second class of 15 students who are progressing through their workforce development and life skills classroom training. In addition, the “small win” stories are endless: Just this past week, we asked one of our students from the inaugural class to join our second class and provide some advice. Without being prompted, he clearly articulated one of his experiences to the new group saying, “We all have had a rough life, but you need to place that thinking into the past as ESTA is about your future. You need to positively focus on your future and agree to change. If you do, you will be successful.” We will take a small win like this all day long!
What are your goals for the project in the future?
1.) Enroll 30 students per year. 2.) Evolve from hotel industry training to medical and construction in 2018 by partnering with key leaders to build out industry specific training. 3.) Reach a 90-plus percent success rate that hits all three major areas of focus: living, education and career sustainability.
How is what you’re doing different from what others (people, organizations) are doing to solve this problem?
We learned early on that we need to help the needs of the entire student. Housing, legal assistance, counseling, single-mother support, transportation, life skills training, educational needs and a whole lot of encouragement and support. What makes our program somewhat unique is that we help with housing, transportation, life skills and workforce development simultaneously. It is our goal to network with other like-minded organizations to work together to make an impact on the students in Buncombe County and surrounding areas.
What advice do you have for people trying to use innovation to foster change in the community?
Don’t operate in a silo. Asheville is one of the best communities in the country to network. We are very fortunate to have a caring and giving culture throughout the community, as well as many subject matter experts; it’s vital to reach out and ask for help (make sure to ask those that have the ability to execute their ideas). Simply find a need and fill it. By doing so, you are helping others and gaining tremendous satisfaction in the process.