Providing Youth with Technology with Andrea Wood

September 8, 2020

Andrea Wood is the Vice President of Social Impact at Best Buy. In this role, she leads Best Buy’s social impact initiatives focused on helping teens from underserved areas prepare for the tech-reliant jobs of the future.

Prior to coming to Best Buy, Andrea served in a similar role on the Community Relations team at Target. She has also served in various corporate communications leadership roles at Target and Travelers Insurance and has more than a decade of experience in program management and fundraising for local Twin Cities nonprofit organizations.

Andrea holds a Master’s Degree in Public Policy and Nonprofit Management from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and a B.A. in English Literature from Kalamazoo College. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for The Clubhouse Network in Boston, the YWCA in Minneapolis, and the Advisory Board for the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

A native of Washington, D.C., Andrea has lived in Minneapolis for the past 25 years. She has two children and a husband who loves to take adventurous vacations. For fun, she teaches group fitness classes at Lifetime Fitness and enjoys outings with her all-women’s Cycle and Ski Club.

John Shegerian: This edition of the Impact! podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet and your privacy. And it is the largest fully integrated IT and Electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States, and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.

John: Welcome to another edition of Impact! podcast. I am John Shegerian. I am so excited to have my good friend with us today. She is Andrea Wood, she is the vice president of social impact at Best Buy. Welcome to the impact podcast, Andrea.

Andrea Wood: Thanks for having me.

John: Hey, listen. Before we get talking about all the great work you are doing at Best Buy, great and important work, share a little bit about your journey leading up to becoming the Vice President of social impact there.

Andrea: Yeah. Well, I guess I will start. It was my move to Minneapolis many years ago. I actually grew up in Washington DC, and moved to Minneapolis to go to the Humphrey Institute, The School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. And, I actually wanted to be a non-profit leader, that was my career journey from the beginning. And ended up being a leader at a small Rape Crisis Center in Minneapolis for many many years before I moved into the corporate environment. And what I appreciate about that experience is that I have a lot of understanding and empathy for the nonprofit partners that Best Buy works with. Because I have been on the inside and understand how difficult it is to be a non-profit. Particularly, I would say right now, in the era of COVID and funding and decreases and everything that is happening financially across the US, I know our nonprofit partners are really struggling. But so, I did that for almost a decade in the first part of my career. And then moved into corporate communications role that travelers target that works for Target for about six years and also in community relations there. And then moved to Best Buy.

Andrea: I have been with Best Buy for almost nine years. It feels like I just got here. But it has been a great journey. And in my role at Best Buy, I lead the social impact team, so we are really focused on how do we leverage the resources, the expertise, the assets, you know, the purpose of Best Buy. Basically, to make an impact and making the world a better place, and driving our purpose as a company as enriching lives through technology.

John: You know, Andrea, you are the exact reason that I do this show. Great people like you, working with iconic and big brands like Best Buy that truly care about the communities they serve, make an impact everyday in those communities. And as you just said, make the world a better place. Just for truth in advertising, of course, I am friends with you, very good friends with you. I am very good friends with your colleagues at Best Buy. Best Buy is a client of our company ERI, but I have become very close for a reason. I have fallen in love with your brand over the last fourteen years that I have had the honor to work with all of you. And this is your DNA. This is your culture. This is what I know you all represent. And so, it is just an honor to have you on today to be able to platform this very important topic of knowledge–social impact–more particularly the issue about Teen Tech Centers, which we are going to be talking about today. But thank you again for taking the time to join us because these are the kind of issues that we are just really humbled to be able to platform and grateful for great people like you, so thank you for your time today.

Andrea: Yeah. Thanks for giving us the opportunity to tell our story.

John: Yeah, so these Teen Tech Centers are very unique. And you have been working to help young people–America’s youth–who are typically in more marginalized or disinvested communities, prepare for tech jobs, since tech is what you sell at Best Buy. Tell us a little bit about this whole journey of Teen Tech Centers. When it started, how it started at Best Buy, the first steps of launching it and where you are today.

Andrea: Yeah. Well, since I have been at Best Buy for nine years, I am proud to say that I was part of a very small group of people who came up with this idea around the Teen Tech Center. It was about eight years ago, actually. We were all sitting in a room and a big whiteboard, and we just said, ‘You know, what is it that Best Buy can uniquely do to make the world a better place?’ And you know some kind, it started from that big picture and we wanted to focus on youth. It is because the company has always focused on youth and we wanted to see what we could do. So, that was really the Genesis of the Teen Tech Center idea.

Andrea: People do not know what they are. They are free after-school VR Tech Programs for youth, middle school and high school we have been on. I have mentioned, we put them in disinvested communities, communities where there is a high degree of low income families. And they are not just computer labs. So they are like big tech playgrounds you go in and there is a full-blown sound studio with the Adobe Pro software. There are 3D printers, there are robotics, there is high-end computing. There is graphic design, you name it, there is everything. And really, they are meant to be a place where teens explore their passions and build tech skills, but they build tech skills in a way that they do not even realize they are learning. So, as an example, if they wanted to create a music video. Well, then I have got to learn how to use all the technology in the sound studio and we make them learn professional software. It is not just kids software, these are the things that the professionals use. If they want to learn how to do something in 3D printer, they have to learn the software to be able to create it. So they are learning all of these skills without even realizing it by coming in.

Andrea: I think the genius of the Teen Tech Center is that we have a really incredible national partner that helps us develop this program, train the staff, provide ongoing support for the learning model and ask them. They are called The Clubhouse Network. They are based out of Boston. They started twenty-five years ago in collaboration with the MIT Media Lab and they have been doing this kind of work for more than twenty-five years now. So we found a good partner, we said, ‘Help us develop this program’ and they were ready to go with us. And that was really key to the success of the program. So, we have about thirty-five of them open across the US right now. But we have recently come out with a commitment that we are going to do more than a hundred, probably closer to a hundred and fifty, if that is where we are done. I do not know, maybe we will never be done. Yup, a big commitment here. And that was really, to be honest, that commitment came out of the George Floyd incident, the killing and Minneapolis and the resulting protests, realizing that we needed to do more. And part of doing more is looking at youth coming up to the pipeline and deciding that these Teen Tech Centers can be places where we can help nurture and develop a diverse talent pipeline, not just for Best Buy but for all of our partner companies like ERI, right?

John: Right.

Andrea: I am proud to say you all opened at Teen Tech Center with us last year in Brooklyn. We have been doing this with our partner companies because we also know that collectively, if we pool our resources and pull our expertise, we can do more for kids than just Best Buy can do on its own. So we have been really excited to be able to partner with you all and with other companies like Sony and Google and Samsung and others, to do this program. I mean, the beauty of that as well is that our goal is with these teens coming through this program, most of them, about 98% or graduating from high school, which is no small feat given that they are coming from high schools where the graduation rates are much lower, we want to make sure that they are set up for path to success. So whether that is going right into the job market, can we help them get placed in the job that is leading to something that has upward mobility and is using their skills. Or if they are going into post-secondary education, let’s help them apply, get in and persist through their post-secondary education journey so that we make sure that they are set up for success there as well.

Andrea: And then you know, this is another thing that is probably done incidentally. We did not plan this at the start of the program, but we are getting a lot of young entrepreneurs coming out of the Teen Tech Centers. Teens who are starting their own businesses, because the Teen Tech Centers gives out the mentoring, the coaching, and the tools and resources to be able to do that. So, everything from photography, businesses to graphic design businesses to even a cosmetics business that started out of one of our Minneapolis sites. So, you know, that is also really exciting to see, that what youth need is just some support from coaching and the resources and then they are off on their own and incredibly successful. So we are excited to see that as well.

John: So, wait a second. First thing, there is so much to unwrap and I really want you to share some more specifics. But before we get there, I just want to say this for our listeners before the tragic George Floyd incident. This was already being rolled out, and like you said, you already had thirty-five or so open and many many many more on the planning board. I have seen the planning board and your work is just–on both, your energy level and your tireless commitment to this is like nobody else has. And your colleagues at Best Buy are all similarly situated and very invested in the success of these Teen Tech Centers. So, I do want to say as opposed to other brands who have made appropriate and great responses to the tragedy that transpired in Minneapolis, you were already head of this. This is a culture on DNA issue at Best Buy that I have seen forever since I have been involved with Best Buy and it is such an attractive quality about your brand, that the leadership there truly does care on every level. And the fact that you started planning this eight or so years ago. When did you launch that first one again? And where was that?

Andrea: Yeah, so we started as four and it was probably six years ago that we opened our first group of four in Minneapolis, which is our hometown. And then, San Antonio, Chicago, and Washington DC, those are our first four sites. And we have learned a lot, obviously if you know when you start a new program, you learn a lot about how to do things and you know what to avoid, that sort of thing. So over the last few years we have perfected this. Well, I would not say ‘perfected it,’ but it certainly got a lot easier to open new sites. And that is why we are trying to move so quickly because we know that the need is great. And I think particularly with what has brought out, there’s so many issues. We could unpack around the George Floyd killing but for us in Minneapolis, I mean, we have the unfortunate status of being number forty-nine of fifty in states that have the largest educational disparities between youth of color and white kids. And that is something that we have known for a long time, that this has been a big issue, in the Twin Cities in particular. But you see, just the desperation and the lack of hope, the frustration based of color in our backyard. And because we have been talking about this for a long time, but we really, to be honest, have not seen a lot of movement in terms of progress and addressing the educational disparities.

Andrea: And not just educational disparities, I would say opportunity disparities, right? So, you know the kids of color just do not have the same opportunities, the same ability to be able to access a good job. And so, we knew that we had to start early, we need to start providing resources and coaching and mentoring and bidding and all of that. So that the youth from these neighborhoods that are lacking resources, we can invest in them. Provide investment that will allow them to see upward economic mobility and that is really the goal of this.

John: You know, when you have been kind enough to take me to some of your Teen Tech Centers, one of the things that was so amazing about them and fascinating in terms of finding real estate for them, is that many of them are housed including the one that we collaborated with you on and we are honored to do so in libraries. And it is such a fascinating reuse and re-purposing of a library because these beautiful structures were set up to have access to cities and the mass transit systems and lots of ingress and egress, so they could really be accessible to more people. And to see them being re-birthed again, for lack of better terms, not only as a library anymore, which they still are, but then also to serve as a Teen Tech Center, is just a wonderful experience because everyone wrote off libraries as Google became the dominant force for us to all gain information and other search engines like Google, somehow libraries were written off. But your Teen Tech Centers have seem to have breathed a new life into these wonderful structures across the United States.

Andrea: Yeah, up to date, libraries have been great partners for us. And I think, six or seven of our Teen Tech Centers are in libraries right now, and I am sure that number will grow. What is interesting about libraries is they really are changing–this is not your grandmother’s library, right? You know, they are changing their mission. Even the staff that libraries are hiring right now have much more of the kind of Social Service background. Thinking about how do we how do we turn this into a full-fledged community center? Because if you look at the digital divide, I mean we are seeing this right now with COVID, right, that it is the haves and have not, in terms of the high-speed internet at home. Do you have a device at home? And it has been really tragic with the COVID because libraries have closed too, right?

Andrea: Libraries are sort of the last frontier. If you did not have that at home, you could go to the library and at least get access there. So this digital divide is becoming much greater, given the have and the have nots within COVID. And then incidentally, that is one of the first things we did to respond to COVID as a company. We reached out to all of our Teen Tech Center youth members and said, ‘We are going to get you high speed internet at home and we are going to get you a device’ so that at least, at a minimum, you can continue schooling if you do not. And you know, the majority of them did not have internet and did not have devices at home. So that was really important for us to do that. But we are seeing that more and more, the kids who do not have access to technology and the internet should be a utility. I mean, I have put that out there. I believe strongly who do not have are at such a disadvantage to the kids that do school. Which is why programs like the Teen Tech Centers are so very important to make sure that we are providing those resources for those kids and families.

John: Since you are the Vice President of Social Impact and the George Floyd tragedy happened right in your hometown… how challenging has it been between that tragedy, COVID-19, social unrest, and protest for Best Buy to reach out in all the communities it serves and make a difference? How has that altered the social impacts that you make? And what else are you looking to do besides Teen Tech Centers as we move forward?

Andrea: Yeah, I am not going to lie, it has been a challenging six months now– [laughs]

John: Yeah, sure.

Andrea: –with what is going on. I am going to be an optimist here, because I do feel like with the crisis and social unrest can come positive change, right?

John: Yup.

Andrea: You know, what is that old saying, “What a good crisis go to waste.” Right?

John: Right.

Andrea: So from that perspective, I am seeing some positive signs. I would say, particularly here in the Twin Cities, I talked about how far down we are in terms of educational disparities. Well, this is an opportunity for the companies here. We have a lot of big companies on the Twin Cities, from Target to 3M to General Mills to Medtronic and huge corporate community here. We are all coming together now. I have actually form this coalition to say we have to start working together on this. Like we cannot just keep working in our silos and doing our own little programs. But with this is a huge issue and we have to address it together. And so, this coalition just formed and I am on the kind of social impact side of it, but there is also, which is also very exciting, there is a policy side of this. So there are corporate government affairs leaders including Best Buy who are looking at this from a policy lands and saying, ‘How can we leverage the power of the business community here to effect change?’ To lobby for legislation, both at the state level and on the federal level, to address these issues around in equity and education and economic opportunity. So I think that is the positive piece. The challenge obviously is that these are big huge issues, right? And it is hard to move quickly. We are trying to move as quickly as we can on some kind of early wins, but we know.

Andrea: I mean, I do think that George Floyd like killing and the resulting protest really just brought it to the forefront for every company here in the Twin Cities, to say and I would say I hear every company across the US, right? Like, okay, we have to address this. We have to think about the power of the business community and it come together to affect change and really make a difference.

John: For our listeners out there who have just joined us, we are so honored to have with us today. Andrea Wood, she is the Vice President of social impact at Best Buy, to learn more about all the great things that Best Buy is doing in our United States and in the world and making the world a better place. You could go to bestbuy.com. What is the click? What link do they click on to, Andrea, to see all the great work you guys are doing on the social side?

Andrea: If you see corporate.bestbuy.com, you will see the community section there, and lots of information, good stories and all of that.

John: Corporate.bestbuy.com. That is great. You know, over the front door of our ERI offices in and plant is Martin Luther King’s word. “Everyone can be great because everyone can serve.” And that is what we have had up here since we launched this company about almost seventeen years ago. How do other businesses get involved and help collaborate with you. If they are listening to this and they want join in and support your efforts at the Teen Tech Center, how can they do that? And what are you looking for right now?

Andrea: The good news is there is lots of opportunity for partnership. And John, I know you know this, we have been very intentional about trying to collaborate with other partners into this work. Saying that this is not just the Best Buy programming, this is something that any business, any organization can get involved in. It runs the gamut all the way from, you want to open a Teen Tech Center with us, co-invest like ERI has done in Brooklyn. And let us go in on this together and have our employees be involved and bring the resources of two companies to bear to make the program better to career programming, host some interns at your business over the summer. Or can you do a career panel? Or can your employees volunteer? Or could you sponsor a career program? One of the things that we started a couple years ago is a career structured program in the Teen Tech Centers for the older teens. So they basically study for nine months and they study technology topics like multimedia production or cybersecurity, but they also get trained on workforce readiness skills to getting ready to go into the workplace. And then any team that completes that program gets a paid internship in the summer at a variety of different locations including Best Buy.

Andrea: So there are so many ways for other organizations, other companies, to get involved. And really, you can reach out to me directly. You could email our regular email page. I can get you that information, John. But we are you know, we are always looking for folks to to work with us on this because we know that Best Buy cannot do this alone.

John: Well, I figured if you would be going from thirty-five to, let us just say for this discussion as of today, a hundred and fifty, you are really only in the top second inning or so of this whole journey, right?

Andrea: Exactly, exactly.

John: How about alumni? You mentioned earlier at the top of the show that so many of your alumni now are becoming entrepreneurs or looking to get placed at companies that need their skill sets. How can our listeners connect with some of your alumni if they want to be part of the process of giving them opportunities and hiring them or backing them in their entrepreneurial ventures?

Andrea: Yeah, so we are working on having a better system obviously, to stay in touch with our alumni and making sure that we are supporting them throughout the journey. But I would say, if you are interested either, and hiring one of our team’s bird internships or whatever opportunity you have or alumni just to reach out to us, and we can find out where you are located if we have got some folks in that area. But I am sure they would appreciate the opportunity. I mean, one of the things that we are finding with, the families that were serving, the youth that we are serving is that we all understand that opportunity is about networking. Sponsoring you and taking you on and saying, ‘Hey, I am going to help you make the connections that you need to make to be successful.’ That is true for any business start-up, but it is also true just getting into the workplace.

Andrea: So any sort of connections we can make with our youth, with the local employers or leaders is really helpful because they are not coming from communities where they have those connections that can open doors for them. And that is one of the things we are trying to do. It is like, ‘How do we open doors for them?’

John: Gotcha. I am ready to ask you for any last final thoughts or any shameless plugs because I am so in love with your Teen Tech Centers. And I love the work that you do. And I am just so proud to be partnered with you. Anything you want to say before we have to sign off for today.

Andrea: What I was saying, if you want to work with us, we would love to talk to you. We would love to find out how we could collaborate and coordinate together. And if we do not have a Teen Tech Center in your community given our growth plan, we probably will soon. So let us talk about that if you want to work with us on bringing one to your community.

John: Awesome. And for our listeners out there, to learn more about Best Buy in all the social impacts they are making and making the world a better place, please go to corporate.bestbuy.com. I am on the page now, and it goes way beyond Teen Tech Centers. Andrea is very humble. But this is full of all sorts of information and programs that Best Buy is doing to make the world a better place. We are just so honored to have you on the show today and honored to be able to partner with Best Buy and all of your colleagues. Thank you for making the impacts that you make, Andrea Wood, and thank you for making the world a better place.

Andrea: Thank you so much John. I appreciate the ability to tell our story, and looking forward to doing more with you all.