Founder of the Hidden Genius Project on helping young black men and entrepreneurship

Brandon Nicholson has always been an advocate for others.

As a child, the 39-year-old recognized that career and educational opportunities for young black children were not very accessible, unless he was well connected.

“My parents were trained as lawyers and were very involved in school policy, taking me to school board meetings and parent association meetings as they tried to advocate for more resources,” she 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 out of my classroom to go to the office. They passed an application across the desk for a program called A Better Chance that supports young people of color applying to high schools across the country. All I could think about was 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 make something so that people don’t have to take a special call to access something.”

I didn’t know that in the future I would be the founding CEO of The Hidden Genius Projecta non-profit organization dedicated to training and mentoring young black men in technology, entrepreneurship, and leadership.

Brandon Nicholson, Founding Executive Director of The Hidden Genius Project, interacting with students.

The Hidden Genius Project

Through his organization, Nicholson and his team have supported the professional development of more than 9,300 students, provided more than 600,000 hours of direct training, earned millions in grants, and made tutoring and technology skills accessible to black children throughout California. On December 2, The Hidden Genius Project hosted a grand opening ceremony for its new headquarters in Oakland, Nicholson’s hometown.

Here’s how Nicholson prepared to launch, the lessons he’s learned along the way, and his plans for 2023.

‘Almost nothing important is done alone’

Although no path to success is the same, one thing most established people have in common is that they didn’t do it alone. Whether friends, family, or mentors, successful people often have a home directory to help them achieve their goals.

Nicholson says that his parents, wife and teachers 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 striving undauntedly to build a successful company and eventually taking everyone else with him,” he says. “Nothing of significance really gets done alone, and the most dynamic entrepreneurs understand how to build together in ways that are mutually beneficial.”

Nicholson also says that he has been able to “bond” with several other black men he met as a student at UCLA and UC Berkeley; one of them is even on his executive team at The Hidden Genius Project.

“I think my university leadership activities with organizations like community houseBlack Student Union, Black Men’s Awareness Group, and others were instrumental in my learning to ‘step forward and step back,’ all while moving toward a bolder common goal.”

Get ready to pivot

Having a plan for your career is a great way to hold yourself accountable for reaching your goals, but accepting and adapting to changes in that plan is just as important.

Nicholson says that growing up, he “rarely envisioned” himself in his current role, but feels it was all “meant to be.”

Brandon Nicholson, founding CEO of The Hidden Genius Project, speaking at the grand opening of their new headquarters.

The Hidden Genius Project

“In the job I had right before this one, I was evaluating social impact programs and generally understood that I wouldn’t want to be a nonprofit executive, since everyone in the role always seemed pretty stressed,” he says. “The opportunity to lead The Hidden Genius Project was more intriguing, but honestly, what precipitated the turnaround was largely my inability to land a corporate role in the social impact/social responsibility space. I applied for all kinds of jobs and got a lots of ‘no’s at every stage of the process.

“Although this was not the role I initially felt called to take on, I love what I do now.”

The challenges of entrepreneurship

Nicholson says that impacting the lives of children has been “extremely rewarding,” but owning a business is no walk in the park.

“We’ve got to make sure we stick to all the fun stuff like compliance, financial controls, and all those responsibilities that are an innate challenge. We don’t want those things to get in the way of the work we do to support our communities and their youths”.

Nicholson also says it can be difficult to make sure everyone’s needs are met and that the whole team “feels supported.”

“Its alot [of pressure] trying to make sure that everyone can go to a home that is comfortable for them. And if they have people at home with them, those people can eat together with them. But we also need everyone to do their job. So you have to make sure everyone here carries their weight, while we carry the weight of making sure they have what they need to thrive.”

Looking to the future

Nicholson and his team are entering 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 many other partners stepped up to take care of us and help us get to where we are today,” he shares. “I’m especially excited that youth-serving partners are able to bring their participants to such a beautiful, accessible and safe space, and I hope they feel at home right away.”

Ribbon cutting ceremony at the new headquarters of The Hidden Genius Project in Oakland, California.

The Hidden Genius Project

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