Paving a Path to Possibilities Through This Way Ahead
by Debbie Felix, Gap Inc. Global Corporate Affairs
For Athena White, General Manager of our Old Navy store in San Leandro and Intern Manager for Gap Inc.’s This Way Ahead program, helping young people get and succeed in their first job is part of what drives her every day. In addition to managing a staff of 60 store associates, each summer Athena volunteers to coach and mentor a group of 16- to 24-year-old interns from This Way Ahead. Over the course of 10 weeks from June to August, Athena spends time showing them the ropes and teaching skills that will help them succeed in future workplaces.
Along the way, she’ll share advice that has helped her through her own 14-year career at Gap Inc. — from Gap to Banana Republic to her current role at Old Navy:
1. Show up every day ready to help your team
2. Take the time to ask questions
3. Be on time
Athena knows first-hand that a first job is a stepping stone to a brighter future. It’s more than just a paycheck, it’s the door to new possibilities. She also recognizes that, for some, a path to a first job is more difficult and out-of-reach. Athena’s commitment to her community, active track record of volunteer service, and personal experiences make her a compelling This Way Ahead ambassador.
This Way Ahead, our paid store internship program for teens and young adults, partners with local nonprofits that run career and skills training programs. Together with job coaches, Athena and other Gap Inc. employees from Old Navy, Gap and Banana Republic stores participate in career panels and lead interactive workshops on a variety of skills essential to any job, including decision-making, time management and conflict resolution. After a series of training lessons, young people are invited to apply for a paid internship at one of our stores, where they can practice their skills in a real work environment.
At the end of 10 weeks, interns have learned the skills they need to get – and keep – a job. This Way Ahead has proven to be a great source of talent for our stores, as 74% of graduates receive job offers and alumni have double the retention rate of their peers.
Since it launched in 2007, This Way Ahead has expanded to 15 cities, across the U.S., Canada and the U.K.
Working with the interns in her store, Athena reflects on her first job as a kitchen aide in a convalescent home in Mountain View, CA, when she was 16. As the oldest of three children being raised by a single mother, it was a good way to make sure she had a stylish closet when the family budget didn’t allow for extra frills. While the paychecks were the real motivation, it was her mother’s words that laid the groundwork for her success and stay with her today:
“You go to work and you work. You show up and you show up well.”
Participating in This Way Ahead is one of the ways Athena feels she can give back to the friends and loved ones who she credits with helping her through a very personal tragedy – the loss of her only child, Kenny. “Kenny’s memory is what inspires me to always find time to volunteer in my community, and it was my co-workers who encouraged me to not quit when the grief felt overwhelming.”
On a personal level, working with This Way Ahead interns helped Athena move forward from loss while staying connected to the strong values her mother instilled. Athena, who is personally mentoring five interns this summer and serves as an Intern Manager for the program, says they can be whatever they want, as long as they work for it.
“It is important to remind them that there is a space for them here, but they need to do the work and claim it,” Athena says. “And so I work to be an example for them, and show them they can succeed. I stand in front of you today because someone once took the time to help me. So I take the time. I give people the opportunity, it’s up to them to make it work.”
On a professional level, This Way Ahead has helped her be a better leader and communicator. Athena thinks back to when she and the other This Way Ahead leaders were asked to write a letter to their 16-year-old selves and then read it to the incoming intern class. While intimidated at first to share something so personal, Athena was heartened by the positive response she received.
“They came up to me afterwards and it was emotional. Some said that my story sounded like their story. They see themselves in me, and I see myself in them.”
Read more about This Way Ahead and the value of a first jobfrom Gap Foundation President David Hayer.
Hear the story of Dashawn Hightower, a This Way Ahead graduate.