Hidden Genius Project founder on helping Black male youth, entrepreneurship
Brandon Nicholson has always been an advocate for others.
As a child, the 39-year-old realized that job and educational opportunities were difficult for young black boys to access if they weren’t well connected.
“My parents were trained as lawyers and were very involved in school politics. They took me to school board meetings and parent association meetings while they were trying to advocate for more resources,” he tells CNBC Make It. “So I got a lot of support.”
“[I remember] In the middle of the day, the counselor and vice principal called me from my classroom to go to the office. They pushed an application across the desk for a program called A Better Chance, which supports young people of color applying to preparatory schools across the country. I could only think of how many people weren’t called into the office that day… How many people wouldn’t have access to these resources?”
This experience ultimately motivated Nicholson to “want to do something so people don’t have to get a special call to access something”.
Little did he know that he would later be the founding director of The Hidden Genius Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating and mentoring black male youth in technology, entrepreneurship, and leadership.
Through his organization, Nicholson and his team have supported the professional development of over 9,300 students, provided over 600,000 hours of direct training, received millions in scholarships, and made mentoring and technical skills available to black boys throughout California. On December 2nd, The Hidden Genius Project held a grand opening ceremony for their new headquarters in Oakland, Nicholson’s hometown.
Here’s how Nicholson prepared for entrepreneurship, the lessons he learned along the way, and his plans for 2023.
“Almost nothing of importance is done alone”
While no two paths to success are the same, most established people have one thing in common: They didn’t do it alone. Whether they are friends, family, or mentors, successful people typically have a personal board of directors to help them achieve their goals.
Nicholson says his parents, wife, and professors all played a role in his success. He also says that practicing “continuous collaboration” in college was the “best” thing he did to prepare for entrepreneurship.
“The ‘stock art’ image of entrepreneurship in many of our minds is a representation of a single, enterprising individual making undaunted efforts to build a successful business and eventually taking everyone else with it,” he says. “In reality nothing of importance is done alone, and the most dynamic entrepreneurs know how to build together in ways that lead to mutual benefit.”
Nicholson also says he was able to “meld” with several other black men he met as a student at UCLA and UC Berkeley — one of whom is even on his leadership team at The Hidden Genius Project.
“I think my college leadership activities with organizations like Community House, Black Student Union, Black Men’s Awareness Group, and others have been instrumental in learning how to rise and step down as I move towards a bolder common goal.”
Be ready to spin
Having a plan for your career is a great way to hold yourself accountable for achieving your goals, but embracing and adapting to changes in that plan is just as important.
Nicholson says he “rarely envisioned himself” growing up in his current position, but he feels it was “designed to be.”
“In the job I had just prior to this job, I was evaluating social impact programs and was generally aware that I didn’t want to be a nonprofit leader as everyone in the role always seemed quite stressed,” says he. “The opportunity to lead The Hidden Genius Project was more intriguing, but honestly what sparked the pivot was largely my inability to land a corporate social impact/social responsibility role. I’ve applied for all sorts of jobs and gotten a lot of “nos” at every stage of the process.
“Even though this wasn’t the role I initially felt called to play, I love what I’m doing now.”
The challenges of entrepreneurship
Nicholson says making an impact on children’s lives has been “extremely rewarding,” but owning a business is no walk in the park.
“We have to make sure we stay solid with all the fun stuff like compliance, financial controls and all the responsibilities that are inherently challenging. We never want these things to get in the way of our work to support our communities and their youth.”
Nicholson also says it can be difficult to make sure everyone’s needs are being met and that the entire team “feels supported.”
“That is much [of pressure] trying to make sure everyone can go to a home that is comfortable for them. And if they have people at home, those people can eat with them. But we also need everyone to do their job. So they have to make sure everyone here carries their weight while we carry the weight of making sure they have what they need to be successful.”
Nicholson and his team enter 2023 with a new headquarters – the culmination of all the dedication and hard work they have put into their cause.
“We were once a small, fledgling organization with no stable infrastructure, and so many other partners have taken care of us and helped us get to where we are today,” he shares. “I am particularly pleased that the partners who serve young people can bring their participants to such a beautiful, accessible and safe place, and hopefully they will feel right at home.”