Photo of Eshauna Smith

What was your journey to becoming the CEO of Urban Alliance?

How much time do you have? I’m just teasing. My own background is that I come from a strong family that had its share of economic challenges, among other struggles, and I grew up in a neighborhood in LA that was pretty violent. A lot of my peers were not doing the right thing, and we’re ending up in situations like early pregnancy. But because of my family, family friends, neighbors, and different folks who looked after me, I was able to make it out of that neighborhood. And I’ve been able to be exposed to what else there is in the world.

Once I realized that the opportunities for exposure and learning outside of my neighborhood were not accessible to all, it made me think about how lucky I was and how I should do something that would honor the opportunities that I had, and ideally open doors for other people to get some of those opportunities as well. Once that hit me, I began to think about what that looked like, and so I did a lot of youth organizing in college around trying to get young people to apply to universities, educating students about what they would have to do to be eligible for a college education, etc. And that connected to me to working at the Boys and Girls Club right after college, working directly with the students, helping them with their homework, reading, and math. You know, I just wanted to give back. Eventually, as I learned more about myself, what I was good at, what I wasn’t, where my passion really was, I began to understand that I wanted to uncover some of the pieces around systemic change. I was very interested in how you get services to last, how you get them funded, how you get them integrated into the fabric of communities, etc.

So I went on to get a Masters of Public Affairs, and from there came to DC to work for a consulting firm in their governmental contracting department. But what ended up happening is that the consulting firm over-hired, and didn’t have a job for me when I got to DC. So I had to restart my job search and I ended up at a small family foundation called the Moriah Fund. My job at Moriah was as the Junior Program Associate for their Reducing Poverty initiative within their DC portfolio. And I quickly realized that DC had two cities- one that was prosperous, wealthy, and ok, and one that was poor and in dire straits- and that was happening right in the shadow of the nation’s capital. It was saddening, fascinating, and horrifying to me. And I felt that I had found a passion and a calling to do whatever I could to help. At that point I’m really young and don’t have a ton of skills, but I knew that I wanted to do everything that I could to try to help those families, maybe some of them were just like my family growing up, to become more economically and otherwise stable. So after working at Moriah, I did various jobs, always around supporting low income families and young people and communities of color. So I was able to become the first executive director of the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates, and then worked at the DC Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education, all of which led me to Urban Alliance.

Urban Alliance, is a direct service organization, and I really do believe that because of our model, where we use work experience as a vehicle to wrap around young people holistic and comprehensive support, we actually have a very comprehensive way in which we approach the challenge of helping young people become economically secure.

How many students does Urban Alliance serve in DC, and overall nationally? Is there a way to serve more or does it seem like that’s the right capacity?

In DC we have about 160 young people in the high school internship program. Nationally we serve about 420 in the high school internship program- in DC, Chicago, Baltimore, and Northern Virginia. We reach another 1,500 young people through our alumni services, stand-alone training partnerships- like our partnerships with the Economic Club of Washington, and the World Bank- and curriculum outreach and work readiness training. So overall around 2,000 young people a year.

Could there be more? That’s a very interesting question. Urban Alliance is looking at expanding to other cities, so we do want to serve more. We want to do that for one reason and one reason only:  there is more need in the world. Knowing that 100 percent of Urban Alliance interns graduate from high school on time,  90 percent of them go on to a 2 or 4 year college, and 80 percent of them persist in college, we know that we can help more young people find success.

But, wanting to serve more is a complicated situation, for a number of different reasons. The high school internship program is very intensive. They’re working 12 hours a week, they come to workshops at Urban Alliance on Fridays for several hours, they have preliminary training, and they have to get evaluated 3 times a year. It’s a rigorous and intensive model, and the quality level is very very important for us. So we take scale very seriously. We have to really consider how we scale in a way that is very responsible, and continues the quality level that we know our young people deserve. Scale is tied to our job partners. Whenever we get a new job opportunity, we can have a new student. So our growth is directly tied to companies saying they will take more interns.

How is Urban Alliance thinking about scaling up, and what are your plans for expanding in the future? 

We do have plans to grow in DC, Chicago, Baltimore, and Northern Virginia. We want to provide at least 200 internships in DC, 200 in Chicago, 90 in Baltimore, and 75 in Northern Virginia. So those are our goals, but we are also happy to exceed those goals if we can find more job partners. And we also are expanding to a 5th city next fall.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I try to work with my team in a way that recognizes that everyone is capable, has talent, and has ideas to bring to the table. There’s an expectation that we are here because we’re all passionate about young people, and we should act accordingly. We should get the work done, work as hard as we can, and recognize that it’s a privilege to do this kind of work. To be even one tiny part of the solution potentially is an amazing opportunity and we don’t want to squander it.

I try and figure out the best way to push Urban Alliance as far as I can push it, as fast as I can. I think that the model is absolutely brilliant, it is amazing. I can’t take credit for it, but it is comprehensive, it is working, and it is being evidenced to work. So we need more and more people to know what we’re doing, so that more people can get supported. That’s pretty much what drives me every single day waking up in the morning, and what drives me in my leadership: who else can we talk to about Urban Alliance, who else can we expose to this work?

We have to have 10 requests out to get 1 yes. So my style is, how many irons can we have in the fire at one time, while still having a clear set of goals that we’re driving towards? This is all about what we can do for young people, and so it’s a game of pushing out more and more information, building out the network, and getting more and more people to understand what Urban Alliance does.

What leaders do you admire?

Someone that I really admire is Kaya Henderson. I am in complete awe of her. The reason why for me is, what she’s taking on in terms of reform, in terms of changing culture and organizations, and righting the ship, is so huge. When you hear her speak she’s always inspiring and motivating. She’s very clear in her thought process around why she does what she does, why they make the decisions they make, and why they don’t make the decisions they don’t make. She has great technique and sense of style, and every time I hear her put her thoughts together to explain or articulate their mission or their vision, it makes me more motivated. She’s also a black woman and there aren’t a ton- I mean there are more and more- but there aren’t a ton of black women in high level leadership roles. Michelle Obama is another leader I admire as well. They’re definitely a reminder to me of what’s possible, and what can be.

I also admire everyday women who are juggling a job, and motherhood, and also active in their community, and maybe even running the Parent Teacher Association. I have a general spot in my heart for working mothers, who do that double shift. It is incredibly hard and incredibly powerful.

What makes you so passionate about the work that you do?

We’re myth-busting, and stereotype crushing.

I think because of the society we live in, the bar isn’t that high for people who come from disadvantaged circumstances, and/or communities of color. People aren’t expecting them to be amazing, to be exceptional, to be brilliant, and to be beautiful. So when we are able to bust through those myths, when a young person does their internship and now they have 50 fans across the company, who think that they are the absolute most amazing young person that they have ever met, and they’re trying to give them a scholarship for college, or give them a job when they’re done with school, that’s incredible.

To me we create value when people, who if 10 months ago would’ve walked by a young person and not given them the time of day, but now have seen them, who they are and what they do, and their perspectives have changed. We are absolutely a social change organization. I love that we have found a way that puts that on the table. Now people are trying to hire the young person we work with. I really love that about Urban Alliance.

I’m a huge fan of Civil Rights history and the Civil Rights movement, and the myth-busting and stereotyping that we are doing is sort of a new age of civil rights efforts. I love that about us. To go back to your question about leaders I admire, one of my all-time favorites are the Freedom Riders. They came down to the South, from all walks of life, and came together to register people to vote. I am in awe of those folks because, even at the age of 19, 20, and 21, people packed up their lives and moved to new states that were full of people who wanted to kill them, for the purpose of working to support other people. In my opinion there’s nothing greater than that kind of leadership.

How can people who have heard about Urban Alliance and are passionate about your work and mission get involved and support you?

There are a number of different ways. The first thing, which is the thing we need the most, are more companies that are willing to hire an Urban Alliance intern. Whether it’s part of our high school internship program, or sponsoring an intern at another organization, that is a great way to get involved. Another way is to talk to other people, your spouse, uncle, cousin, dad, mom, etc., about Urban Alliance. It’s amazing- people come to us and say things like, “Oh my dad is a partner in a law firm, maybe they’d like to have a young person”, and lo and behold it ends up happening.

Particularly with something like Urban Alliance, everyone knows somebody in a professional capacity, so you can get the word to them, and let them know that we’re always looking for companies to partner with. We also have public speaking challenges every year, and people can volunteer at those events and learn about Urban Alliance and our model. We also do career days, and college essay days that people can come to and get involved.

If you could take the day off and go anywhere in DC, away from emails, where would you go and why?

I love Bus Boys and Poets. I love the feel of it and what it represents. It’s a restaurant, the first one is at about 15th and U Street, but now there are more. It’s named after Langston Hughes- he was actually a bus boy in DC, while he was an aspiring poet. So “Bus Boys and Poets” is in homage of him. And really, not only him, but also so many folks who set the tone for what opportunity could look like for everybody.

When you walk into Bus Boys and Poets you feel that history, and the spirit of the Civil Rights movement. Also, next to the first one, there’s a restaurant that used to be called Eatonville, and Eatonville is the hometown of Zora Neale Hurston. The name has been changed now, but those two places are such vibrant cultural places for African Americans.

Favorite restaurant?

I used to love Lauriol Plaza because I love Mexican food. I like the atmosphere there and I grew up in LA, so I enjoy tacos and enchiladas. I don’t go anymore now that I have kids- we eat at home a lot. But I do like the Hamilton downtown as well.