Toni Cunningham Finds Her ‘Why’ in Helping People ‘Get to Next’ with Per Scholas

Toni Cunningham
Toni Cunningham

Photo by Matt Reese

Interview by Sarah Shumick

“You can’t solve 21st Century challenges with 20th Century strategies,” says Toni Cunningham, managing director of Per Scholas: a tuition-free technology training and professional development program designed for “highly motivated students from overlooked talent pools.” Per Scholas came to Columbus in 2012 and since then, has graduated 425+ people into the workforce. Per Scholas works hand-in-hand with IT employers, staying up to date on the needs and trends in the industry– an innovative strategy that both fills a gap for companies as well as helps the students in the program graduate ready to launch their new careers in tech. Participants of Per Scholas are adults of all ages and must commit to three months of non-paid, full-time training. Of the students, Toni remarks, they “have a very compelling ‘why’ that keeps them going, especially when they feel like giving up.

Name: Toni Cunningham
Age: 52
Profession: Managing Director, Per Scholas Columbus
Neighborhood: Discovery District
Connect: LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

Give us a brief overview of your organization: For more than 20 years, Per Scholas has been driving positive and proven social change in communities across the country. Through rigorous and tuition-free technology training and professional development, it prepares motivated and curious adults who are unemployed or underemployed for transformative careers in technology, and creates onramps to businesses in need of their talents. To date, Per Scholas has helped more than 9,000 individuals across eight U.S. cities to launch successful careers in technology, creating real on-ramps to businesses in need of their talents. Its Columbus site launched in 2012, and has graduated more than 425 individuals to date.

How you are innovating in the nonprofit space? A number of features unique to Per Scholas’ program model make our approach innovative. First, our training is employer-driven, as we work hand–in-hand with employer partners to stay close to IT sector needs in Columbus. Local employers help us develop and refresh training curricula, volunteer as guest speakers, provide mentors for students, conduct mock interviews, offer internships, and hire graduates to fill positions with the best entry- to mid-level IT talent.

We differentiate ourselves from our peers through our ability to offer an affordable, comprehensive IT job training experience to adults of all ages—one independently proven to lead to career-track, life-changing jobs in technology. We offer both rigorous technical training and a supportive environment conducive to the career development of men and women with technical aptitude, but not experience—individuals who often face additional barriers to employment. Further, our short training cycles allow for rapid response to market needs, providing employers with a skilled and industry-certified talent pool.

Unlike many workforce development organizations, there is a significant amount of evidence that Per Scholas’ program is highly effective. Based on one of the most rigorous longitudinal studies of the impact of sectoral workforce programs to date, MDRC found that Per Scholas enrollees are significantly more likely than equally qualified and motivated peers to find full-time technology jobs, and to remain working for at least three years. Moreover, by three years post-graduation, Per Scholas students earn 26% more than their peers in the control group. Per Scholas was one of only three organizations recognized by the White House in 2016 at the My Brother’s Keeper What Works Showcase as having a strong level of third-party evidence and verification—and the only workforce organization with this recognition.

How is your organization making an impact in Columbus? Since the launch of our Columbus site in 2012, Per Scholas has trained over 600 individuals in the Columbus community. Given that Columbus was our first expansion site outside of New York, we have had to continually evolve our strategies to uniquely serve the Columbus region. Our impact – 90% of individuals who enroll in our training program complete the process; 85% of those who complete earn an industry recognized certification in tech; and over 80% of the individuals go on to land their first tech jobs within 120 days post graduation. As of 2017, the average hourly wage earned by our graduates was $16.17. We are projected to be at more than $17 per hour once the final numbers are calculated for 2018. Our innovative approach, which includes an evidence-based model, blends hands-on and curriculum-based learning, intense soft skills training, and leverages the true grit and determination of our students to achieve success. In addition, we partner with employers to inform curriculum, bring real-world experiences to our classrooms, and visibility of our students in the workplace.

What makes your organization thrive? The sheer will and determination of our students! The Per Scholas training is a rigorous process that takes clear focus, perseverance, and fortitude. Students commit to non-paid full time training for more than three months. The students who come to us have a very compelling “why” that keeps them going, especially when they feel like giving up.

As a leader, how do you come up with innovative ideas, and what helps put those ideas into action? I think about what I needed when I was transitioning into the world of work. I needed exposure, visibility, and a network of support to help me be successful. In looking at our model, and what we are offering our students, I continuously think about ways to create the most impactful and dynamic student experience that we possibly can. The goal being to offer transformational experiences versus transactional exchanges. With that said, one of the ways I innovated in the area of professional development (or soft skills training) was to partner with employers for “off-site” career days. With these experiences, our students are in session at a business – usually in one of their conference or training rooms.

Give us a snapshot of your career path—what is your background, and what led you to work in the nonprofit sector? I started out in state government right out of high school. I was working for the Attorney General’s Office at the age of 18. I worked for the AG for 11 years before transitioning to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. I worked at the PUCO for 10 years, and during that time I went to school to obtain both a bachelor’s degree in business administration, as well as a master’s degree in marketing and communications. I also, along with my boss Commissioner Clarence Rogers, launched the Ohio GATE (Gaining Access Through Economics) – an organization focused on elevating supplier diversity in the utility industry. From there, I was asked to consider a position with American Electric Power/AEPOhio, where I worked as a regulator consultant for five years. During that time, I also served as the president of the Columbus Chapter of the American Association of Blacks in Energy.

Upon leaving AEPOhio, I launched my own company – driven by my passion to assist individuals in being their best selves, called Image Anu, whose purpose was personal/professional development and organizational development. One of my first major clients was Dress for Success Columbus, where I supported the launch of their Going Places Network workforce development training for women. After finishing my work with Dress for Success Columbus, I landed the Columbus Urban League as a client and went in to support the revamp of their workforce development department. During my time at the Columbus Urban League, I took on the role as the Director of Workforce full time – ultimately moving to serve as the Vice President and Chief of Program Performance and Innovation. It was in this role that I realize that nonprofit leadership is a great way to live out my purpose and my passion for “helping people get to next.” After leaving the Columbus Urban League, I took on the role of Managing Director for Per Scholas Columbus.

What is the one thing you are most passionate about? Facilitating the process for people to become the best version of themselves.

Who inspires you? My mom. She is a woman who had to reinvent herself several times during my time growing up. She was also very active in the community and politics as I was growing up, so I learned that life is about much more than just me.

How do you stay motivated? What drives you to take things to the next level? I have a friend group that pushes me to be my best self everyday. I am motivated by the desire to see people live their best lives. I strive for next-level performance constantly because, in my line of work, people come to us and trust us with their future believing us when we say that we will help them to achieve the goals that they have for themselves and, ultimately, their families.

What struggles or adversities have you had to overcome to get to where you are today? Like so many, I had to power through without a strong male presence being in my life consistently. I am/was a daddy-less daughter. There are so many ways that this has impacted me that it is hard to say which one was the most impactful, however I do believe that my struggle with self esteem and self confidence in my early years was a direct result of not having a father present in my life.

Why do you think people should care about innovative nonprofits? I believe that people should care because we need the nonprofit sector as part of the overall ecosystem – the circle of life. We need organizations who are equipped to support individuals who find themselves in transition and in need of support to “get in the game”. Innovative nonprofits, who continually self-check for relevancy, are the ones producing real outcomes that lead to sustainability for families and communities. At Per Scholas we strive to ensure that our work is transformative and not transactional. To do that we must innovate. I always say, “you cannot solve 21st Century challenges with 20th Century strategies!” Innovation is the key.

As a kid, what did you say you wanted to be when you grew up? A fashion designer.

What might others be surprised to know about you? That I used to perform with a local theater company.

How can others in the Columbus community get involved with your organization? Volunteer with us! We always need individuals to assist with mock interviews, class facilitation, mentoring our students or serving on our local advisory board. Business leaders may also engage by hiring our amazing and talented graduates!

If someone were to ask you what the “pulse” of Columbus is, what would you tell them? The pulse is our people! We are a diverse city that is a microcosm of the world-at-large. We are a warm and welcoming city that offers great opportunities for those who seek it.

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