Catalyst Grantee Profile: Nerdy Media

Nerdy Media

Interview with Nerdy Media‘s Executive Director, La Toia Brown.

Organization Mission: Nerdy Media’s missions is to empower individuals with the know-how to not only take advantage of opportunity, but to create it for themselves.

Population Served: Our focus is on improving opportunities for those who need it most right here at home on Chicago’s South Side.

Founding Year: 2015

Organization Website:


Please provide a brief overview of the organization’s work. 
Nerdy Media is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that designs job readiness through media programming for Chicago’s youth, strengthening 21st century skill development and developing real-world experience.
In a few sentences, please describe the problem you are working to solve and your approach to solving this problem.

A 2014 University of Illinois at Chicago study reported that 88% of Chicago’s black teens (16-19) and 85% of its Hispanic teens are jobless. Linking this data with a 2011 survey of thousands of employers found that 96% of employers value a growth mindset over any particular skill in their employees, Nerdy Media shifts job readiness programming to include a growth mindset.
How and why did you first start working for this organization?
After spending time with Chicago’s teens in a traditional classroom, I founded Nerdy Media, a 501c3 nonprofit, to address Chicago’s youth unemployment in a new way. Nerdy Media is the culmination of my educational and professional experiences. But it’s not just a chance for me to develop professionally; it’s an investment in Chicago’s underserved communities. It’s equipping our teens and young adults with the know-how to not only take advantage of opportunity, but to create it for themselves.
What current trends are you seeing in your field of work?
For many, access to job readiness programs and youth services are out of reach at the age of 21. Many job readiness programming culminates in real-world experience: the entry-level job. Without context, it’s easy to understand why youth interpret this experience as the last hurdle to the program, the last box to check before turning 21. Nerdy Media realizes that mentoring and support is important even for Chicago’s young adults.
Organizations are starting to realize that once youth age out of programming there is an opportunity for continued support as they navigate the emotional, social, and economic landscape of life after high school.
What do you think will change most about your work over the next 5 years?
Within the next five years, we feel that an increase of dedicated social service resources will support youth leadership and mentoring. Nerdy Media is a small organization that realizes the importance of data and use this to inform our programming. Within the next five years we plan to share this data, hopefully contributing to research and communities exploring disconnected youth.
What are the three most important skills you focus on developing in the population you serve? Why?
Nerdy Media’s programming aims to equip Chicago’s youth with a Growth mindset, 21st century skills, and real-world experience.
A 2011 survey of thousands of employers found that 96% of employers value a growth mindset over any particular skill in their employees. Coined by psychologist Carol Dweck and popularized in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, a growth mindset is the belief that our most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. In other words, our abilities aren’t fixed, and our futures aren’t determined by inherent traits. Brains and talent are just the starting point, the place from which we grow. Nerdy Media’s programming also incorporates 21st century skill development. This combination of relevant skills strengthens youth’s ability to devise effective solutions to real-world problems. Our programming draws heavily from the solution fluency model, define, discover, dream, design, deliver, debrief.
It’s important Nerdy Media’s youth are equipped with real-world experience. You can gain a great deal of knowledge from books and school, but certain lessons can only be learned one-on-one, through direct experience. Our programming is designed to strengthen resumes and connect learning to the real world.
What are the three most important skills you value in your staff members? Why?
Nerdy Media is a start up operated primarily by Executive Director, La Toia Brown. Brand Manager, Dave LaTulippe greatly contributes graphic design and additional support. With a small staff and resources, Nerdy Media’s staff contributes the organization’s success to strategic planning, flexibility, and creativity.
Strategic planning is an often overlook yet essential for any business. Having a clear vision enables Nerdy Media to forecast for sustainability. Developing a solid long-term plan is helpful, however there always will be unexpected circumstances. Flexibility is going through trial and error and identifying opportunities to improve. As a startup organization, creativity is a helpful skill that enables Nerdy Media to stretch resources.
How has technology influenced your field and/or the way your organization works?
Media greatly influences our work. Technology is a huge part of Nerdy Media’s operations and programming. Our business model is heavily influenced by the “Lean Startup” methodology and implement technology to streamline operations. We develop project-based programming incorporating technology into the curriculum and outcome.
What are some key achievements your organization has accomplished over the last year and how were you able to attain this success?
Nerdy Media was established September 2015 and has really started to develop a foundation for social impact within the past two years. With funding from the Chicago Fund for Safe and Peaceful Communities, Nerdy Media invites local organizations, stakeholders, family, and friends, to an event that explores what happens when Chicagoans work together for safe and peaceful communities.
During the summer of 2017, the Chicago Fund for Safe and Peaceful Communities awarded grants to 121 community-based organizations to develop activities that would build community cohesion and promote safety and peace in 17 Chicago neighborhoods.
Nerdy Media was among five local youth media organizations selected to document the work of the grant recipients. The result is #SafeandPeacfulChi, a six-part youth-produced web series intended to share the stories that are often untold by traditional media. Nerdy Media adapted the project into job readiness programming designed to strengthen 21st Century skills and develop real-world experience. Youth were introduced to advanced video production equipment, storytelling structure, content marketing, and event planning.
The project concluded with Nerdy Media’s first event, showcasing the videos followed by a youth-led brief discussion.
Have there been any recent obstacles? If so, how were you and your staff able to overcome them?
In 2015 when I decided to transition from teacher to social entrepreneur, launching Nerdy Media I have relied on the growth mindset. We are constantly refining our business model and stretching limited resources. Youth engagement has been easy and due to limited resources, we are only able to accommodate a small number of youth participation. One of our biggest obstacles are acquiring funding to expand our impact. Rather than seek funding during our first years of operation, Nerdy Media focused efforts on developing scalable programming. We didn’t want funding to become a barrier for social impact. This approach has help us develop strategic planning for a financial sustainable organization, even if this means starting small.
What’s next for your organization? What are you looking forward to?
Nerdy Media is looking forward to the July 2018 launch of On Me, a podcast that offers an inside look at Chicago’s youth culture – told & produced by those living it. The first season is a collection of personal stories where six young adults navigate the emotional, social, and economic landscape of life after high school.
The Chicago Learning Exchange at The Chicago Community Trust (the Fund) awarded Nerdy Media funding to create dynamic new learning opportunities using LRNG: CHI, a digital learning and badging platform. Nerdy Media is currently developing two playlist designed to help learners produce a podcast. The digital curriculum was developed throughout a six-week media production program created by Nerdy Media’s Executive Director, La Toia Brown, and her team. Through narrative therapy, writing, storytelling, audio & video production, branding, and marketing, guiding six young creatives through the ins and outs of producing and launching a podcast.
What do you wish others knew about the organization or the populations you serve?
Nerdy Media is an innovative origination taking a 21st century approach to programming and job readiness. Our brand story illustrates an organic approach to connecting Chicago’s young adults to sustainable opportunities and promoting youth leadership.
Further developing community partnerships and programming support is essential for scaling our programming. We would like to extend an invitation to contact us and learn more about Nerdy Media and get involved. Youth will find our programming an opportunity too develop relevant skills.Organizations will find that our programming offers professional-quality media production and youth employment. Foundations will find supporting Nerdy Media is an investment for authentic, innovative, and data driven programming equipping Chicago’s youth with real-world experience.
Our local community will find meaningful community engagement through hands-on volunteer opportunities and unique media-driven events.
Nerdy Media is honored to be a 2018 SCE Catalyst Grantee. This generous donation has supported programming including: a cultural enrichment event at the Steppenwolf, the development and facilitation of a four-part career planning learning series, and updating equipment for youth-produced media productions.
We greatly appreciate this recognition and look forward to innovating digital, social, and emotional programming, empowering Chicago’s youth to thrive in the 21st century.