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Student profile: Connor Schoen, A.B. ’20
Connor Schoen is driven by a desire to help young adults who are experiencing homelessness.
During his childhood in Westborough, Mass., Schoen got involved with local shelters and nonprofit organizations where he developed an interest in homelessness, specifically with young adults aged 18 to 24.
“Working with a population that is your age who are going through an entirely different life with entirely different challenges, but living a 10th of a mile away from you, is an enlightening experience,” said Schoen, A.B. ’20, an applied math concentrator at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “You realize that we are really just all one degree of separation from homelessness and that one life event can completely change the course of your career and your life and your livelihood.”
According to a 2017 survey conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago, one in 10 people between the ages of 18 and 25 had experienced homelessness in the previous year. That means almost 3.5 million young adults found themselves without the resources to support themselves. Even if they attempt to change their situation, they often face discrimination due to their housing status. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 70.4 percent of homeless respondents reported feeling discriminated against by private companies.
Schoen explained that his empathy towards these individuals runs deeper than merely identifying with them due to their age.
“I identify as bisexual and 40 percent of young adults experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ, so there is a very strong transgender, non-gender binary presence within the shelter,” he said. “Seeing how those individuals who have been kicked out of their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identities were now being so resilient and continuing to express their identity inspired me to come out to the world and express my sexuality in the way that felt right to me.”
Schoen turned this passion into action, creating the social enterprise, Breaktime, with fellow student, Tony Shu, A.B. ’21. Breaktime strives to create opportunity for young adults experiencing homelessness by providing jobs at the cafe they plan to build, and also by offering career training and cultivating company contacts to prepare individuals to enter into the workforce.
“We see ourselves as a bridge between preliminary training programs and the broader workforce, so instead of just doing training in isolation, we want to have a real hands-on work experience that will equip these individuals with the ability to think on the spot, be innovative, and work in a start-up environment where there are tons of different moving pieces that provide exciting opportunities to learn new things about everything from cafe management, to operations, to finance, to advertising, to social media,” Schoen said.
Founded in April of 2018, Breaktime has expanded at a rapid pace. Despite facing setbacks early in the process, such as having to back out of a lease for their cafe due to the high cost of construction, Schoen and his partner were able to adapt. They launched a pilot program in October, 2018, called Breaktime Staffing as a way to continue developing despite being unable to open their cafe. This program allowed Breaktime to work with local companies to help fill labor gaps with young adults experiencing homelessness. These part-time, paid positions were provided in conjunction with career mentorship and vocational training opportunities. Schoen and his team also pushed marketing and social media to boost their presence in the community and online, catching the attention of media outlets such as The Boston Globe and NBC.
“We see Breaktime Cafe as a way of expanding our impact by creating 50 jobs over five years for young adults experiencing homelessness that involve cafe operations, cafe management, and customer service, alongside two hours a week of paid training in marketing, advertising, sales, and all of these other areas in which our employees can contribute to the cafe while gaining skills that are going to help them get a job after Breaktime,” Schoen said.
The cafe will not only serve as the company’s center; it will be a physical representation of the company’s mission. They want the 70,000 to 80,000 customers who enter the cafe each year to understand Breaktime’s mission and be inspired to help, Schoen explained. While there are still many moving parts, they plan to open Breaktime Cafe as early as January.
Taking Breaktime from little more than an idea to a full-fledged company in only a year has been no easy task, especially considering that both Schoen and Shu are full-time students.
The biggest challenges for Shoen came during the fall of his sophomore year when Breaktime was beginning to take off. He was constantly choosing the company over his school work, so that by the end of the semester he knew he had not produced his best work. Taking a step back, Schoen regrouped over winter break and reconciled his roles as co-founder of Breaktime and student.
“It helped me really understand that there are always things that I could be doing for Breaktime, but my own happiness as a person is just as constructive for the company as anything else,” he said. “Because Breaktime is a non-profit entity, it relies on me to be emotionally stable, happy, and learning in all facets of life. I can’t really be learning productively if I’m burnt out.”
The advice and support of others has also helped Shoen succeed. Due to their previous work in local shelters and nonprofit organizations, Schoen and Shu already had an established network which they used to build their board of advisors. Board members include Josh Chalmers, the CEO of Earth2, and Jim O’Connell, founder and president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program.
“It was a lot of legwork reaching out to our network, finding people that they knew, finding people that those people knew, etc., and it is constantly webbing out,” he said.“I love getting to share what we are doing and I love the fact that people want to help.”
Schoen and Shu rely on the board’s support as they work to build the company. But for Schoen, this work goes far beyond the nuts and bolts of running a business—he wants to play a direct role in helping homeless individuals get back on their feet.
“Creating social capital for these individuals is so powerful because a lot of them come from a place where they have been denied any support network for themselves, so building some of that back up for them could be extremely helpful,” he said. “It is so important to have someone you can call when you are having a bad day at work and I want to be that resource and I want to provide that resource for everyone who works for Breaktime.”