As a sophomore at RU-N in 2006, Amanda Ebokosia (SASN ’08) started the Gem Project, a nonprofit organization that works with local youth to build leadership and entrepreneurial skills, along with awareness on issues affecting them and their communities.
After graduating, Ebokosia spent most of her twenties building Gem. To date the organization has impacted more than 1,000 youth and young adults in Newark.
In 2014, she hit the pause button on Gem to work full-time at an education nonprofit, complete a master’s degree in Youth Studies at the City University of New York (CUNY), and join the board of the Rutgers University Alumni Association (RUAA).
That move would prove pivotal. Armed with new knowledge and experience from those endeavors, Ebokosia has re-launched the Gem Project this year as its full-time CEO with a new board of directors, strategic plan and focus, ready to take the organization to the next level.
“I wanted to step back and see what was and wasn’t working, get some experience, and figure out Gem’s future intention,” says Ebokosia. “The time away was helpful. We’ve expanded our program focus, and we’re building the infrastructure, capacity and program quality to make Gem sustainable so it can live well beyond me.”
Back to the Future
Ebokosia, who is Nigerian-American, grew up in Philadelphia and moved to Bloomfield, NJ, in ninth grade. She was an avid writer of poems and short stories growing up, ran track in high school, and arrived at RU-N in 2004, majoring in biology with a minor in psychology. She was active in numerous campus organizations, including NJPIRG, Student Senate and the Pre-med Society.
In 2005, Ebokosia’s mother was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, turning the sophomore’s world upside down and compelling her to found the Gem Project as a form of therapy to help her cope. She kicked things off by producing a breast-cancer awareness photo exhibit at RU-N and NJIT to help her better understand the disease, spur dialogue and provide a forum for those affected by the issue.
“I just wanted to try something. I didn’t know what I was doing and wasn’t sure people would show up for the photo shoots or what the response would be,” says Ebokosia. “But it got people talking about the issue, and so I thought, ‘I could really take this somewhere.’”
Determined to keep going and full of ideas, Ebokosia partnered with other RU-N student organizations on additional issue-based projects, as well as career workshops and networking events, all with the help of fellow students who were drawn to her passion and energy.
With time freed up after graduating in 2008, Ebokosia focused on expanding Gem. She built a larger volunteer staff composed of young professionals and college interns, and she launched an after-school literacy program for Newark youth and a series of career summits for college students and professionals. Gem also ran workshops at Newark high schools on resumé-writing and personal branding, public speaking, STEM careers and other topics, as well as leadership-and team-building workshops at local elementary and middle schools.
I’ve had a lot of support from friends, staff and interns who believe in Gem. And the young people we work with always inspire me.
Between 2008 and 2014, Ebokosia put Gem on the map and attracted considerable media attention in the process, including making Forbes‘ 2012 “30 Under 30” list for her efforts. All the while, Gem was a labor of love for her, as she drew no salary and made ends meet by freelance writing and working part-time in the New York City nonprofit world.
“I’ve had a lot of support from friends, staff and interns who believe in Gem,” says Ebokosia. “And the young people we work with always inspire me.”
The Future Is Now
After taking three years off to work and get a master’s degree, Ebokosia has regrouped, and 2018 has been pivotal for her and the Gem Project.
She recruited a new board and formalized processes and expectations for them. She also set up financial and bookkeeping systems, purchased liability insurance, and drafted a seven-year strategic plan with the help of her board and fellows from the public policy and leadership development organization Leadership Newark.
In addition, Gem has expanded its programing to include a college fellows program, which pairs college students with local high-schoolers around service-learning projects with a social-justice angle. The organization also is providing training and consulting services to nonprofits, including community-based and youth-service groups, to supplement the money it raises from board-member commitments, donations and grants. Any revenue generated is poured back into programming.
For now, Ebokosia is keeping Gem’s overhead low by working out of her apartment and running meetings in conference rooms at Express Newark and other venues.
“Eventually, our goal is to get large private and government grants, bring in someone to lead the training and consultancy piece, and continue to provide niche youth programming while really focusing on quality,” says Ebokosia. “I also envision running programs not only in Newark but outside as well.”
In addition to running the Gem Project full-time, Ebokosia sits on the boards of the Rutgers University Alumni Association (RUAA) and United Neighborhood Houses, an umbrella organization for settlement houses and community centers in New York City. Both experiences—especially RUAA, where she’s in the last of a three-year term—have honed her leadership skills and impacted how she runs Gem’s board.
“Just seeing how systematic RUAA is, how consistent, and the level of intention there has really influenced me,” says Ebokosia. “As a result, I’m always thinking about the whole experience, from thought to execution, whether it’s with Gem board members or the youth we work with. How do you create a 360-degree experience that leaves everyone energized and feeling great? That’s what we aim to do.”