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Aisha Francis

2019 EXTRAordinary Woman

“He that hath a Trade hath an Eftate.”

Before making the 1,000-pound investment that seeded a technical college in his name, Benjamin Franklin trained as a printing apprentice in Boston. He saw an important connection between the trades and technical professions and good citizenship. Over a century after its founding in 1908,  Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology (BFIT) remains true to the famous statesman's vision. To update the words painted on the walls of its South End campus' lobby: “He or she who has technical job skills has a future—and a vital place in the community.”

Preserving and promoting that vitality is the main focus of Aisha Francis, Ph.D., BFIT's first Chief of Staff. Just a little over one year in her position, the former Director of Development for Harvard Medical School defines her mission as “putting people to work” and moving them from the sidelines and into technical fields as job-ready agents of change. 

“In order to do that,” she explains, “we've got to make sure that we align with the always-changing marketplace. We need to be a bridge between young people who need exciting and well-paying jobs and industries that need skilled workers who can keep up...and lead.” 

There is no better place to make that happen, Aisha says, than Boston. “This is a city built on invention and innovation. Now the challenge is to lean into that brand and lift up  the ingenuity in underserved communities.”

BFIT's own legacy of leadership in technical education is tied to its unwavering responsibility, responsiveness, and relevance to  diverse communities. More than half of BFIT's students are the first generation to attend college. Forty percent are Boston Public School alumni. Students of color make up more than 70 percent of those enrolled. Many hold jobs that provide their families' main source of income while they pursue their associate degrees, often this combination of responsibilities means lots of late nights. This multi-cultural talent pool is breaking down barriers and empowering others to follow.  

Aisha credits BFIT's 93% graduation-to-job rate last year and 85% over the last five years to students' “tenacity,” matched with the very real need that shapes its 12 career-ready programs. 

In Boston and throughout the state and nation, business leaders are calling for candidates to fill the technical jobs of 21st-century industry. Sometimes called middle-skills or new collar jobs in fields like construction management, medical equipment repair, robotics, electric power, and opticianry, there aren't enough people to fill the “middle level” positions that require some post-secondary education, but not necessarily a bachelor's degree. Yet, these jobs help fuel the economy. In Massachusetts, for example advanced manufacturing is booming. Outside of the so-called knowledge sector, new, specialized fields like biomedical engineering, audio visual, automated vehicle technology struggle to find skilled workers. Reports point to a rising skills gap, with as many as 2.4 million positions likely to go unfilled in the next decade.* At the same time, many potential talent sources are part of the so called hidden workforce comprised of immigrants, the long-term unemployed, those with less formal education than many jobs require, and other societal barriers that have limited their opportunities to participate in this booming economy.

Across all tech-related sectors, employers are asking: Where will the workers come from? Aisha says that the answer is right here, at BFIT. Where industry predicts a worker shortfall, she sees opportunity. “This is our moment,” she explains, “not only to create new and fortify current programs that result in successful careers, but to develop curriculum and partnerships that put jobs at right up front at the beginning of students' college experiences.” 

BFIT has pioneered a wide array of experiences that “befit” the realities of its students. In partnership with Boston Public Schools, it invites high school juniors and seniors to take Early Access to College courses that lead to college credit for those in good academic standing. The Advance Standing Associates Program (ASAP) provides dual enrollment for high school seniors so they can earn their associate degrees just one year after graduating high school. 

Aisha is particularly enthusiastic about developing more partnerships with area companies. In exchange for investing in BFIT's skilled talent pipeline, industry gets a voice in making sure that the curriculum meets its real-world needs. BFIT's Prime Scholars Program, for one example, provides automotive technology students with scholarships and work opportunities at Prime Motor Group. In return, Prime gets early access to a highly skilled work force, one that will rise and mentor the next generation in the evolving auto tech market.  

As part of her leadership of the business development portfolio  for the school, Aisha directs these school-to-industry partnerships with her colleague Kristen Hurley. “I see a number of rising sectors that can really benefit from these investments. Mechanical engineering technology and information technology are two of the hottest fields now. We also have a number of valuable pending relationships in HVAC and construction management,” she adds. “It takes a lot of knowledge and brainwork to be a skilled laborer. We can help students get ahead by building out our external footprint, so our students are connected and ready to go out in the world.”   

She speaks with great enthusiasm of raising a whole generation of students to become “champions” of their own skill sets. “This is what professionalism is all about. Complementing our rich curriculum, we have student success teams and success seminars that change the whole narrative around the trades, erasing the stigma of pursuing careers heavy in hands-on work.”

Her interest in narratives of inclusion led Aisha to explore etiquette texts written for and by black women in the late 19th century. Her doctoral research at Vanderbilt University brought to light a number of forgotten texts that set and examined standards of behavior for members of underprivileged communities. “Through literature and in daily conversation with each other is how we learned about social expectations and created opportunities for connection,” she explains.   

Aisha is an enthusiastic champion for the learning opportunities her own young children are receiving in Boston Public Schools where after-school programs that range from dance and karate to ecology introduce the model of exploration and skills development early. The daughter of a Dominican Republic immigrant father and mother who is a 6th-generation Nashvillian, Aisha deeply appreciates the “mindset of fortitude” evident in both Boston's immigrant and native communities. These values go hand-in-hand with real-world skills. 

In other words, it's about empowerment as much as employment. Aisha wants BFIT students to be able to translate complicated technical ideas and carry their passion to everyday people. That is the way perspectives and possibilities will change, the way underprivileged communities will be lifted. “This is the wonderful foundation we're building at this amazing institution,” Aisha explains. 

As BFIT's namesake would surely agree, now is the time to get to work.