Class Act

Catherine Bigelow | March 13, 2017 | Story Profiles National

In the late ’90s, while many of her peers were considering myriad dot-com opportunities, Suzanne McKechnie Klahr had a different career path in mind. Soon after graduating from Stanford Law School, while a Skadden public interest law fellow, Klahr was approached by a group of disengaged high-schoolers who sought her help starting a business. She agreed—on the condition the students finish school. The encounter turned out to be the impetus for BUILD. Founded by Klahr in 1999, the Redwood City-based organization provides a four-year, in-school elective of entrepreneurship-based, experiential learning to some 2,000 underserved students in 33 public high schools around the country.

Shortly into her nascent nonprofit, Klahr met storied Silicon Valley venture capitalist Franklin “Pitch” Johnson. “Pitch saw the organization as a startup and invested in us as such,” recalls Klahr. “He appreciated that I strive to be as transformative in the education of young people’s lives as any of the Valley’s successful for-profit companies. Great entrepreneurs understand the thrill, excitement and joy of building a business and know how struggle is a key part of the journey to success.”

Johnson’s nickname graces BUILD’s “Pitch” Prize for Innovation in Entrepreneurship, which is awarded at an annual gala. The seventh BUILD Gala will take place March 23 at Pier 27 in San Francisco (tickets: $1,000). Golden State Warriors owner and Atherton denizen Joe Lacob is this year’s prize recipient. “Our previous honorees are all entrepreneurial luminaries such as Reid Hoffman, Marissa Mayer and Brian Chesky. But we recognize that entrepreneurs succeed by building great teams, sharing their vision to make it a reality,” explains Klahr.

BUILD currently employs 100 staffers and partners with some 650 volunteer student mentors, including Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, angel investor Ron Conway and Pinterest co-founder and CEO Ben Silbermann. Since 2012, 96 percent of BUILD seniors have graduated on time from high school; some are the first in their families to attend college. “High school today is not preparing young people for the innovation economy, and traditional schoolwork feels irrelevant to their lives,” says Klahr. “BUILD not only disrupts what young people are being taught, but also how they are taught. Our disruption re-engages students being left behind with entrepreneurial experience as a hook to ignite their passions.”

Originally published in the March/April issue of Silicon Valley

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