Irene Shih Irene Shih

CEO, Minds Matter Bay Area (MMBay)


September 15, 2023


After a long week of work, Raymond Fong and Ishan Gill are sitting in a lively high school classroom on a Saturday, surrounded by the comforting hum of overlapping conversations. Across from them are two students, who are discussing their core values.

“My top core value is definitely ‘family’,” says Weizi. “I think being able to support my family is a huge motivator for me in life.”

“Me too, that’s a core value of mine,” Victor agrees. And then after a pause, “But I think maybe ‘helping others’ is an even bigger value for me. I care about my family, and I also want to help even more people in my community.”

Weizi and Victor are two high school Sophomores, and Raymond and Ishan are their mentors. Every Saturday, they meet at the Urban School of San Francisco, through a program facilitated by a nonprofit organization called Minds Matter Bay Area (MMBay). Both Victor and Weizi attend high schools in San Francisco and signed up to participate in MMBay’s program because they’re seeking a depth of college and career preparation that their families and schools are not able to provide.

Victor comes from a Mexican American family of seven; Weizi from a Chinese American family of four. They go to different high schools, have different friends, speak different languages at home, and live in different neighborhoods. They both dream of big future careers and of going to great colleges; yet, both come from low-income communities, which severely limits the exposure they have to people and experiences that can help them achieve their ambitions.

Raymond, one of their mentors, feels a profound kinship for what Weizi and Victor are going through. After all, Raymond was sitting in their shoes only nine years before, when he himself was a Sophomore mentee at MMBay. After graduating from MMBay’s program in 2016, Raymond went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from U.C. Irvine. He returned to the Bay Area in 2020, to take on a full-time role as a Biomedical Engineering Associate at Trailhead Innovations - a company specializing in advanced medical technology R&D.

“When I decided to come back to San Francisco,” reflects Raymond, “One of the first things I did was apply to be a mentor at MMBay. My mentors helped me dream bigger. They helped me find the confidence and build a plan to go after what I really wanted. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them, and without the incredible community of people in this organization that I stayed in touch with over the years.”

Raymond looks up and down the carpeted hallways of the Urban School, surveying the same environment he used to inhabit as a mentee, but now with new eyes.

“It’s funny,” he smiles. “I don’t think I’m taller, but this place feels smaller.”

Long-Term Mentorship and Cross-Class Bridging

Low-income students - even when they are high-achieving - usually do not find themselves going to selective colleges or entering competitive careers. In fact, only 3% of high-achieving low-income students in the U.S. graduate from a selective college, compared with 72% of high-achieving high-income students who do the same (source).

This is a concerning statistic, because graduating from a selective college remains the most reliable way for low-income students to access well-resourced networks and competitive careers, leave poverty behind, and create their desired future. While a four-year university is not always the best option for all students, a Bachelor’s degree - especially from a selective college - is by far the leading pathway to significant economic mobility within one generation.

As of 2021, 56% of “good” jobs - professional and technical jobs that offer career advancement and talent development over time - require a Bachelor’s degree. Graduating from a selective college also allows students in the lowest economic quartile (bottom 25%) to jump into the highest economic quartile (top 25%) within 10 years of college graduation (source). And so: Minds Matter Bay Area (MMBay) exists to address the specific issue of college “undermatching”: the underrepresentation of high-achieving, low-income students at selective colleges across the country.

Founded in 2010, MMBay has graduated over 200 alumni, all of whom have been low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area, and many of whom come from the most under-resourced schools in the San Francisco Unified School District. To date, 100% of MMBay graduates are accepted at four-year colleges, 75% go to the most selective colleges in the country, and 100% graduate from college within four years. Within six months of college graduation, nearly all are employed in aspirational career tracks that require a Bachelor’s degree - in industries spanning finance, tech, biotech, law, medicine, education, media and communications, and many more.

Specifically, MMBay’s curriculum and community is focused on effecting generational impact on low-income students - ensuring they are accepted to, have the financial means to attend, and graduate from top colleges all over the country. This program embeds career exploration into each year of a student’s high school journey, and helps each student access multiple hands-on academic and career opportunities during high school and through college. By doing so, MMBay helps students secure a pathway toward careers of their dreams, the financial means to give their children better options, and the social means to give back to their community through charity and service.

The cornerstone of MMBay’s multidimensional program is long-term, dedicated mentorship. Every student at MMBay has access to two volunteer mentors, who stay paired together for three full years, meeting at least once a week during our Saturday program sessions, and in between as needed. The mentorship curriculum not only helps students build academic and professional skills, but also helps foster deep and ongoing discussions between mentors and mentees that encourage them to connect on personal backgrounds, values, and aspirations. With this depth of investment over time, MMBay’s students and volunteers build a secure, trusted relationship that goes way beyond prepping for college entrance — and usually beyond the three-year commitment.

MMBay’s volunteers are typically early-to-mid-career professionals that hail from some of the most competitive industries in the Bay Area. Not only do they contribute a tremendous amount of time to the organization; they also bring with them the knowledge, experience, and resources that have been built from their personal and professional networks. For MMBay’s students, these volunteers often represent the first touchpoint they have to someone outside of their immediate family and school communities. These volunteers are not just tutors and service providers; they become friends that care about the student as a whole person - and remain committed to their student far beyond the moment they graduate high school and enter college.

“The early years in college are incredibly critical, especially for our students that move away from home,” says Priscilla Lee, a volunteer mentor whose mentee Susanna is now a rising Junior at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. Priscilla and Susanna still talk regularly.

“It can be a really competitive environment,” admits Susanna. “And I’m the first in my family to go to college, so my MMBay mentors are still the people in my life who have the knowledge to help me navigate it.”

After some reflection, Susanna confesses, “Well, also, they are the people I already trust.”

Volunteers and Corporate Partnerships

In the work of increasing economic mobility for low-income students, no intervention has proven more successful than cross-class friendships. When the tendrils of connection between people of different socio-economic backgrounds are deepened, resources and perspectives travel across the bridge between classes. The hidden reality about class and access, is that power and influence tend to be concentrated within the same communities because people like to help those they already know. MMBay is uniquely positioned to help low-income students access elite academic spaces and exclusive career opportunities, precisely because its community of volunteers are highly-resourced, experienced, and connected professionals in the Bay Area who provide long-term value during, and well after, their time in the program.

And these connections bring lasting partnerships between MMBay and its surrounding corporate communities. Over 200 local, national, and global companies are represented by the 300 professionals who volunteer their time as mentors, instructors, team leaders, Associate Board and Board members in the MMBay community. Every year, MMBay’s students benefit from the organization’s meaningful partnerships with hundreds of Bay Area companies - these corporate partners donate money, send yearly cohorts of employees to volunteer their time, host career panels and weeklong workshops, offer paid summer internships to MMBay’s high school students and college-going alumni, provide pro-bono services to MMBay’s leadership, host MMBay’s events at their offices, and publicize the organization’s impact on their social media channels. Permira, TPG, Genentech, Google, PwC, EY, Deloitte, and West Monroe are just a few of the many companies that partner to support MMBay with both corporate grants and employee time.

Ishan, who collaborates with Raymond in co-mentoring Weizi and Victor, has - in addition to being a mentor - recently joined MMBay’s Associate Board. Ishan is a Private Equity Analyst at Francisco Partners, a global investment firm that partners with technology and technology-enabled businesses.

“I’d like to do more,” says Ishan. “After a year of working with Victor and Weizi and seeing how much they’ve grown, it’s just so obvious to me how much we can really make a difference. And I know I can give more than my time. I can also help fundraise through my company, and make sure that even more kids like Victor and Weizi get access to MMBay.”

“Also,” adds Ishan, “I’d like to work with the Associate Board, to get to know even more of this community. Everyone here is fantastic.”

For more information on opportunities to partner, please contact:

About the authors

Irene Shih

Irene Shih