The Innovation in Action story format aims to demonstrate that developing, implementing and executing innovative ideas is a process — and not typically a linear one. These stories seek to highlight that throughout the ups and downs of innovation, each move is a lesson for the organization. 

Noelle Nelson and Jeff Reed at Central Campus in downtown Des Moines, where Avenue Scholars Des Moines is based. PHOTO BY DUANE TINKEY

When Avenue Scholars expanded to Des Moines in 2022, the new program’s executive director, Noelle Nelson, knew that the task of building a strong version of the workforce program would mean finding a balance between adapting to local needs while keeping the existing model’s core values in place.

Founded in Omaha in 2008, Avenue Scholars accepts high school juniors who have financial need and are pursuing high-demand careers that require an associate’s degree or less. The program provides individualized coaching throughout the rest of high school, students’ post-secondary pathways and up to six months following career entry. Grant funding also provides each student up to $8,000 to use toward post-secondary expenses. 

The original program built and proved this model for more than 10 years before its first expansion to southwest Iowa in 2019. In its move to Des Moines in partnership with Des Moines high schools, Nelson wanted to see how new sites can make the program their own and improve it. 

“My motivation is going from good to great, not just get this thing up and running,” Nelson, who was previously a longtime administrator for Des Moines Public Schools, said in a December 2023 interview. “We have the benefit of learning from what’s already been done and tried so we get to jump straight to innovation.”

But she’s not working alone. In addition to a team of coaches and business outreach staff, Nelson found another partner in Jeff Reed, founder and CEO of Ankeny-based consulting company Momentum Studios.

Since summer 2023, Avenue Scholars has been a client of Momentum Studios, with Reed helping the nonprofit document its vision and core components of the program and iterate on strategies to further improve the model and uniquely serve Des Moines students and businesses. 

Reed intentionally works with organizations that range from public, private and nonprofit, and small to large in size, because it puts him at the “intersection of all types of challenges.” It also allows him and his team to draw on different clients’ lessons that may apply to other sectors.

“No matter the category of type of business, they all have the same challenges, it’s just about the scale on which that challenge is. … I choose to be and have an expertise in problem-solving and that doesn’t see those bounds,” Reed said. 

He was hooked by the way Avenue Scholars’ model is connected to the school system but has more autonomy that can factor in students’ needs in high school, post-secondary and career in one program.

The Business Record followed along with Avenue Scholars and Momentum Studios’ partnership starting in December 2023 to document the initial strategy and evolution of three key initiatives: fostering engagement and leadership from students in the program; recruiting and onboarding new students each year; and developing authentic and mutually beneficial partnerships with businesses. 

Fostering student leadership

Nelson and Reed’s work to creatively onboard Avenue Scholars’ new board of directors going into its second year in fall 2023 led to an idea to give students ownership of the program, which is based at Central Campus in downtown Des Moines.

Six seniors in the program, two students each from Roosevelt, North and East high schools,  were selected to help lead the program as student ambassadors.

Seniors from Roosevelt High School who participated in the first Avenue Scholars class gather at the Senior Celebration event in May. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Two of the students also served as sitting board members, providing their input on strategic planning. 

“It was funny to hear them just bantering with the board members in a fun way and truly giving authentic and genuine feedback that you sometimes don’t get when it’s just [the] board and those that are receiving the impact aren’t part of that,” Reed said, reflecting on a past board meeting.

What Nelson and the board have learned from the students’ perspectives immediately validated the move, she said.

Reem Samir, one of the student board members, told the board a top priority for Avenue Scholars should be building students’ trust in the program.

“If it was any other person approaching me saying, ‘Hey, join our program,’ I would be like, ‘OK, what’s the other side of the story? Why do you really want me to be a part of it?’ But with Avenue Scholars, the way Noelle approached us it was like we were literally handpicked to be a part of this program because of our academics,” Samir said. 

“It hadn’t really occurred to us that these kids get hit up with so many programs, and some are good and some are not, and it’s left to them to discern that,” Nelson said. “When she said the No. 1 thing is trust, I was like, OK, that wouldn’t have been in my top five, but it totally makes sense from the student perspective.”

Reed said his and Nelson’s role in this aspect of the program is to create experiences and opportunities that empower the ambassadors to take charge and be “co-authors” of the program.  

They sit on hiring committees for new hires and help other prospective students learn more about the program. All six ambassadors meet with Nelson regularly to inform decision making and plan events. 

The Business Record sat in on one of these meetings in March, when the ambassadors planned the details of the Senior Celebration recognizing the first Avenue Scholars cohort heading into post-secondary. Their vision and input guided the conversation, with Nelson serving as a facilitator.

“They’re already showing a ton of initiative and leadership and sometimes it just takes us getting out of the way, frankly,” she said.

What’s next: Students from Hoover and Lincoln will be represented in the next group of ambassadors as the program expands to those schools starting this fall. Nelson said next she wants to develop a strategy for keeping students involved in leading and representing the organization during the post-secondary phase of the program. 

Developing committed partner relationships 

At its core, Avenue Scholars’ mission is bridging the gap between education and business. The challenge is the gap, Nelson said.

“Even though we are a nonprofit and we certainly are helping families and helping our business community, we are workforce development. … It’s very much about getting kids connected to sustainable careers on behalf of our business community,” she said in the December interview.

Avenue Scholars partners with businesses to provide students career-building opportunities ranging from career exploration events and mock interviews to internships and part- or full-time employment throughout their time in the program. Business involvement helps students identify their talent at a younger age, which matters because data shows that the students Avenue Scholars serves often leave college before getting an experience like an internship, Nelson said.

One of the gaps Nelson noticed in the program’s first year was that businesses supported the mission, but it was a challenge to grow partners’ commitment. Her initial thought was to help businesses fill the gap between wanting to help and figuring out how to make it work for their organization. 

“I think making it tangible, showing how to make it doable, [showing] that you don’t need full-time staff dedicated to internships, and making it less scary is the way to tackle that issue because I don’t think it’s a lack of desire by any means,” she said.

At another interview in April, the mindset around partnerships factored that challenge into an overall more strategic approach.

The process of identifying partners for the first two years was based on relationships and building connections in the community like many nonprofits. But it was a “spray and pray” approach targeting companies mostly based on industry, Nelson said.

Some of Reed’s work with the team has broken down who Avenue Scholars is trying to reach so the time and effort put toward connections is more intentional. In this space, he’s encouraged more business-like thinking.

“I think nonprofits group into buckets,” Reed said. “It’s your generic here’s business, here’s individuals, here’s our donors. [We’ve] focused on [looking] at these people from a true persona perspective. How are they interacting with the community, pinpointing more specifically who [to connect with] in the organization, and not so much around title but who has more influence?”

As the program expands to new schools and grows, Nelson said it can help the team clarify the needs of a partner and what a relationship with Avenue Scholars looks like.

“I’d rather have 50 genuine relationships than 500 surface-level ones. So what is our actual process and stepping stones for building that relationship? We’ve never articulated that until now,” she said.

Nelson’s goal is building relationships that mutually benefit the business partners. Reed said one potential idea is Avenue Scholars offering work-based learning development services to businesses, which would also be a new revenue stream not based on donations.

What’s next: The next step is to internalize the strategy Momentum Studios helped develop and put it into practice when meeting with partners, Nelson said. Nelson and Reed are documenting the Des Moines model as it is built to ensure the future of the local program as well as new sites. Nelson is taking a lead role in positioning Avenue Scholars, with Reed’s assistance, to scale nationally. They’re working to “leave enough room for innovation but also maintain a model that we know gets results” as they develop frameworks, she said.

Engaging new students 

Avenue Scholars’ current recruitment process is straightforward, Nelson shared in December. The team goes to all sophomore classrooms to invite students to learn more at another meeting. Those that apply then participate in a one-on-one interview. The program ultimately selects 25 students from each school.

Avenue Scholars’ first engagement with a new class of students is Signing Day, an event where students officially join the program and celebrate their selection with family and supporters. Pictured from left at the Signing Day event in May are Lincoln High School students Chris Ntihabose, Diegra Ngoi and Mardoche Kangulu with Lincoln’s career coach Bethany Johnson. SUBMITTED PHOTO

But she wanted to ask if the model was the best or most creative it could be in finding and onboarding students. Nelson has picked up on the need to build trust and relationships with prospective and new students early on.

“Getting to that interview process is a challenge because we’re trying to wrangle kids that we don’t have a relationship with,” Nelson said.

Like the ambassadors, students who are considering or new to the program need experiences where they see themselves as an important part of Avenue Scholars, Reed said.

“It’s amazing how many students that come in here and, provided the opportunity, just flourish. I think that’s what drives our work [is] how do we make it an experience for students?” he said.

Nelson and Reed have outlined how Avenue Scholars can design a better onboarding experience on a broader scale with more work to come. Nelson would like the program to engage students as soon as possible.

“We’re noticing in the past two years, it’s taken until about Christmas to get kids to really buy into what we’re selling, so my challenge would be how do we accelerate that onboarding and that relationship-building so that they’re in it?” Nelson said in April.

Nelson plans to spend more time innovating recruitment for the Des Moines program, specifically as expansion to the two new schools and recruiting an additional 50 students demanded more of her attention this past year. 

The new class of 125 Avenue Scholars has been selected and had their first experience with the program at the Signing Day event in May where they officially join the program and celebrate with their families.

Beyond ‘Innovation in Action’

Avenue Scholars’ evolution and innovations do not end with this story, so to give an idea of what’s ahead, Nelson and Reed shared a final thought on Avenue Scholars’ next steps and goals.

Nelson: “There’s all these programmatic things that we want to do to create the highest quality program we can. All of that though, in my mind, is in service of the much larger goal, which would be statewide expansion. I would love to see proof of concept in our Des Moines market.

“We already have a pretty solid case in Omaha, but I want to get those results locally. I want, through our work with Jeff and through the national model, to get our model documented and in a form that we can scale. For me, we’re in this mindset of ‘go slow’ to ‘go fast.’ Let’s get this really solid. Let’s get it documented. Let’s get our practices and procedures and vision and goals really well laid out so that we are positioned to grow exponentially and know that quality won’t suffer as a result of that scaling. My priority is always quality over quantity, but if we can do both, that’s the golden ticket for me.”

Reed: “I think it would be understanding the organization and keeping it top of mind that the organization is growing and everything is just in its current state. Being able to iterate on things that we learn from this year, iterate on processes and evolve them to be version two, three, four of what it could be. I think that’s one of the goals. For me, it’s also landing in a sophisticated model that provides clarity to how people interact with your organization and clarity to what the students can expect going through it.”