Googler, Citizen Teacher, Survivor

Eric Schwarz is the Co-Founder and CEO of Citizen Schools. 

Everyone who teaches middle school is amazing. Those who volunteer to do it are particularly courageous. Those who inspire their companies to support education are remarkable. And then, there's Yul.

Last week at the annual Clark Foundation gathering for leading youth development organizations, I had the chance to meet and introduce Kristen Thiede, a principal at Google and one of their leading innovators. She is employee number two-hundred-and-something (started in 2001) and has worked all over the world for Google, currently on a project to make home internet service 100 times faster. And she's worked hard on their social enterprise collaborations with the Harlem Children’s Zone and others. She’s a rock star!

I was gratified to hear that lots of her friends have volunteered at Citizen Schools, and that we have been held up at Google as a best practice for employee engagement. Meeting Kristen prompted me to refresh my memory about how our organizations came to work together so closely. A refreshing, sexy story of youthful innovation and leadership.

I knew the Google relationship started with Citizen Schools Campus Director and later Program Director, the fabulous Jane Choi, who led our then after-school program at McKinley Institute of Technology in Redwood City from 2004-2006. I remembered that the first volunteers from Google were friends of Jane’s, but that’s as much as I knew; so I emailed Jane the night before my introduction of Kristen to get the full scoop.

Turns out it was an old boyfriend of Jane's named Yul Kwon, who was on the Google legal team. Yul and an engineer friend named Beverly Chan decided to teach, and recruit other to teach, a few apprenticeships in robotics, cooking, poetry, and other diverse topics.

By the second year, so many Googlers were volunteering that Google hired a bus to bring kids to Mountain View. For several years they hosted our WOW! events at their amphitheater, where presidents and other world leaders often speak.

A few years later volunteers from Google offices in Cambridge and New York started teaching too (we launched Citizen Schools NY at Google HQ in lower Manhattan). Now we know of 442 Google employees who have taught apprenticeships at Citizen Schools, and we hope the inspiring team at Google in Chicago will join the ranks starting this fall. (Watch Googlers sell you on the idea themselves!)

Our latest data shows that an amazing 80 percent of kids who take Google apprenticeships – many of them in video game design – say they are interested in careers in science or technology.  This compares to just 33 percent of children their age in the country. By sharing their passion for engineering and computing, Google's people are making a difference for kids that will last their whole lives.

Now, perhaps you recognize the name Yul Kwon. Volunteering at Citizen Schools wasn't the last brave leap he took: he actually competed on the 2006 season of Survivor.  That was the controversial 13th season of Survivor  that divided participants by their ethnicity. Kwon became the ultimate survivor due to his physical prowess and ability to navigate strategically and morally across the different ethnic tribes, and he became a hero to Survivor buffs.

That's a unique resume. But it wasn't Yul's peak. In 2007 People Magazine named Yul one of the sexiest men alive.

Oh, and then in 2009 he became a leader of the Federal Communications Commission for Obama. Now he is hosting a new show on PBS called America Revealed.

I told all this to my 10-year-old daughter, Orla, and she asked if he was now married.  “Yes,” I said, "and with one kid."

“Good,” she said.  “He deserves it.”

I don't know how much Yul thinks about his experience teaching kids in Redwood City now, or realizes he, Jane, and Beverly helped launch a partnership at Google that is now transforming education. But  someday I hope to meet the top managers at Google to thank them. They have built an incredible culture where hundreds of their people can and do venture out to make the world a better place.

I certainly hope we're able to build a culture like that at Citizen Schools, and to inspire it in other companies. I don't know if any of us will be named the sexiest man or woman alive any time soon, but I like to think we have similarly great people making the world a better place.