i.c.stars - Chicago, Illinois

Focus Areas

  • Education
  • Self-Sufficiency



“It’s more than coding. The theme of our work is teaching transformation. It’s a model that concentrates a lot of resources on a small number of participants.”

Elizabeth Ferruelo, i.c. stars' Chief Revenue Officer

The Issue

Limited educational opportunities, unsteady environments, unemployment—young people who grow up in low-income families face many obstacles to future success. Take unemployment. In 2019, 16-19 year olds across the U.S. who were actively looking for work were nearly three times more likely to be unemployed than individuals 25 years old and older. Though it makes sense that older individuals with more experience are more likely to be employed, jobs are vital for today’s youth. Without jobs, young people can’t support their families, pay off student loans, or develop the skills they need to launch meaningful careers. And while employers today are actively recruiting young people, high school diplomas and college degrees are a must. 

But education isn’t easy to obtain everyone. Youth from historically disinvested communities are less likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college than their more privileged peers. And those already in school? Frequent moves, inconsistent working schedules, and a lack of social support can make academic success even more difficult. Young adults who don’t go on to earn a college degree often find themselves in the same low-income jobs held by their parents. The same jobs that limited their opportunities in the first place. Without the chance to break into higher-paying industries like consulting, finance, and tech, the childhood poverty of young Americans persists.   

The education gap that exists between high- and low-income youth is immense. In 2014, only 77% of low-income students graduated from high school, compared with 90% of mid- to high- income students. When it comes to college, this gap is even wider. In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that only 20% of undergraduate students were from low-income families. This is significant, because college degrees have a massive impact on future earnings. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York finds that the average college graduate earns $78,000 a year, compared to just $45,000 earned by those with only a high school degree. That’s $30,000 more per year. Whether it’s used to pay for childcare, cover tuition, or purchase basic necessities, this money can make a world of difference. An extra $30,000 can protect families from the personal financial crises that often leave them living paycheck to paycheck.  

College isn’t an option for everyone. But thankfully, young people can develop the skills needed to succeed in higher-paying industries outside of a university. And while research finds that job training programs have only a temporary impact on participants’ employment and earning, these programs mainly prepare people for jobs that are unstable and low-paying. Today, there is a great need for effective career development programs that can help young people learn the technical skills they need for the job market, as well as the soft skills they need to succeed as an employee, colleague, and leader. Even more importantly, there’s a need to help them build a network of support and mentorship that will assist them in getting their foot in the door—having the skills and nailing the interview isn’t enough. When youth have the opportunity to develop skills that can translate to higher-paying and more meaningful careers, they can chart a path to long-term self-sufficiency and life success. 

The Intervention

i.c.stars offers a technology and leadership skills program for underserved youth in Chicago and Milwaukee. The program is a four-month “boot camp” that combines classroom instruction with project-based learning. At the beginning of the program, students are assigned to a project that emerges out of a real business need of one of i.c.stars’ corporate partners. At the culmination of the project, students pitch a prototype solution to their corporate partner. Students are also invited to participate in weekly “high teas.” Here, executives from top technology companies are brought into community with the i.c.stars students. Together, they share lessons, tell personal stories, and make connections that serve to inspire the next generation of corporate leaders. 

After completing the boot camp, students are supported with professional development training, coaching, and placement services for up to 20 months. By stressing the importance of professional skill-building, networking, tenacity, and personal leadership, i.c.stars helps low-income, high-potential youth launch successful white-collar careers.

Research Question

What is the impact of the i.c.stars’ technology and leadership skills training program on the employment and earnings outcomes of participants?

Intended Outcomes

  • Young adults who complete the i.c.stars training will have higher earnings than those who do not. 
  • They will also have more stable employment than non-participants.

Research Study Design

The evaluation of the i.c.stars program is a randomized controlled trial. To apply to the program, young adults must be 18 years old, low-income, and have a high school diploma or a GED. The first part of the i.c.stars application process includes a series of personal essays, a leadership assessment, and a technical skills assessment. And while many of the application elements are technical and open-ended, students are also assessed on their ability to struggle with and persist through difficult questions. Because i.c.stars has limited resources and a limited number of seats in the program, applicants who are selected to proceed in the application process are entered into a lottery for the available seats. Applicants chosen by the lottery are invited to participate in a final panel interview with the i.c.stars team. As a result of the interview, applicants are dismissed, placed on a waitlist, or invited to enroll in the program. Students selected by the lottery for an interview become part of the treatment group. Those not selected by the lottery are not invited to continue in the application process. These applicants become part of the control group. At the conclusion of the study, the earnings and employment outcomes of those who were selected for the panel interview will be compared with those who were not.  

(Photo credit: DW Johnson Photography)

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