Skip to Content
Skip to Footer

Business as a Platform for Change

Salesforce Grants $1.6M to Help Close the Opportunity Gap for Young People

Today, Salesforce announced $1.6M in grants to five workforce development organizations across the U.S. —  Boston Private Industry Council, EmployIndy, i.c.stars, Per Scholas, Pursuit — that are providing young people from underserved and underrepresented communities with skills and technology training, career exposure and exploration opportunities, and work experiences.

These grants are the next milestone in the company’s ongoing commitment to prepare the next generation of leaders with the education, skills, and professional networks they need to access and succeed in 21st century careers. These investments build on the $30M Salesforce has given to support workforce development initiatives around the world.

One of today’s grant recipients, i.c.stars, is a technology-based leadership and workforce development program for underrepresented and underserved adults in the Chicago area. This interview with its president and co-founder, Sandee Kastrul, discusses the organization’s history, training programs, and partnership with Salesforce.

Q: What is the mission of i.c.stars?

i.c.stars exists to develop change-driven individuals to excel in technology careers and effect change as community leaders. We create economic opportunity for underserved communities by bridging disconnected young adults with the tech sector. 
Participants learn by doing; they build web based applications to solve client challenges and gain the professional network needed to jumpstart their careers. We also work to change employer perceptions and practices around underrepresented and underserved adults and nontraditional talent– literally changing the face of corporate tech talent. Employer partners advocate for us, and help attract new partners into our project-based skill development program. This matters because it is bringing employers into new communities and changing the way they recruit.

Q: How did i.c.stars start?

The concept for i.c.stars came about in 1998 when I saw one of my most talented students working for minimum wage as a hotel housekeeper. I knew this was wrong and I had to do something about it.

Q: How does i.c.stars find talent?

i.c.stars finds its talent in our communities; young people who are resilient who have been overlooked. Our graduates are our biggest referral source. They are visible community leaders, speaking about careers in technology to partner organizations. 

Q: Tell us about the i.c.stars training program and what’s unique about it.

The i.c.stars intensive education and career development program enables participants to overcome systemic barriers and hurdles of poverty and racism, lack of opportunity and access by delivering valuable digital workforce training.

A super-strength of our program is how we help participants look inward, exploring, uncovering their learning styles, incorporating this knowledge into how they learn new skill sets, and how they work and collaborate in their groups. Woven into this is counseling, case management, emotional support that helps participants to trust in their ability to learn, in the relationship with themselves, their teachers and each other. The leadership component, in turn increases their awareness of their team members and ultimately their community.  They develop a sense of purpose, uncover their confidence and strength in ambition and goal setting. 

Ultimately, the combination of experiential learning, working with corporate clients, soft skills and social capital building is the secret sauce.

Q: What have been the outcomes of the program?

i.c.stars’ approach is supported by more than 20 years of data: the average initial placement rate is 83 percent, earnings increase is approximately 300 percent from where they started, and industry retention is 80 percent at 12 months. 

As part of i.c.stars’ leadership training, participants are taught to give back. i.c.stars

measures graduates’ philanthropic activities over time. From our 2019 survey, 92% of alumni volunteered in the last twelve months; 77% donated to charity, of which 15% gave over $500; 96% hired or referred someone for a job; 38% obtained their bachelor’s degree after i.c.stars; and 35% started a new business.

Q: i.c.stars and Salesforce have a rich history of volunteering. What has been the impact of this partnership?

i.c.stars and Salesforce have a partnership that has been deepening over time, with its origins traced to a former employee, who served on i.c.stars’ board in the early days of the organization and who continues to serve on the i.c.stars’ Chicago Advisory Board. 

We have been a grantee since December 2017, when involvement from Salesforce’s Employee Resource Group BOLDforce began. In addition to financial support, Salesforce has supplied dozens of subject matter expert volunteers, who have delivered workshops on topics ranging from user stories to presentations, and have mentored, hosted groups of students on-site, and supported staff.

We estimate that Salesforce employees have volunteered more than 800 hours at i.c.stars, from many different teams and employee resource groups. Over the past year, i.c.stars and Salesforce have partnered on a virtual mentorship program, pairing recent graduates with Salesforce leaders from across the business.

Q: Can you share a success story that is meaningful to you?

Tierra Phillips was working a minimum wage job at Verizon Wireless when a friend, who also happened to be an i.c.stars alum, told her about the program. Having gained an interest in IT through her job, Tierra decided to look into it and was immediately drawn to the program’s emphasis on networking and relationship building. After joining i.c.stars as an intern, Tierra worked closely with a team on a number of projects, and learned consulting skills as well as HTML, CSS, Javascript, Python, SQL, and UiPath. After graduating from the program, Tierra is thriving in her technology career and working as a Consumer Support Specialist at Keeper Security, Inc.

“Before, I didn’t see a future. I didn’t see a clear path for me. i.c.stars was the network I needed to get where I wanted to be,” says Tierra. “I can take the skills I learned at i.c.stars back to my community.”

Q: What’s next for i.c.stars?

Growth and expanding our impact in Chicago and nationally. We are building the infrastructure to scale the program –  locally, to create a feeder program to serve more residents in Chicago. Our next market will be Kansas City, and we have inbound requests for many others.

We are also formalizing the Chicago office as our innovation center, building new offerings and social enterprises that can be incubated and spun out into new markets. The social enterprise offerings are important to give us long term financial sustainability, as well as offer a source of employment for our graduates. We’re actively working on i.c.culture – a new initiative for corporate partners to improve culture and ultimately to strengthen retention of diverse talent.