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Internships open door to corporate world for Chicago teens

Robert Whitmore, 18, is an accounting intern at Equity Office, a commercial real estate firm. He landed the internship through the Chicago chapter of Genesys Works. | Patrick Judge/For the Sun-Times

South Side teen Robert Whitmore IV decided to drop out of school a few years ago.

Today, Whitmore is a high school senior who spends his afternoons analyzing account balances and assembling tax returns in a 20th-floor downtown office with an enviable view.

Whitmore, 18, is an accounting intern at commercial real estate firm Equity Office. He landed the internship through the Chicago chapter of Genesys Works, a national nonprofit. Genesys Works interns split their time between morning classes and afternoon internships.

“You’re going to a paid internship, downtown with a Fortune 500 company,” said Whitmore, a student at Perspectives Leadership Academy. “It’s really been showing me a lot of the real professional world that I always wanted to be inside.”

The Chicago chapter this year placed over 125 high school seniors from 31 schools in information technology and accounting internships downtown, in partnership with Chicago Public Schools.

Three students, including Whitmore, were selected to share their life stories at a convocation in October.

Whitmore discussed his string of failing grades his first two years of high school — and his older brother, Keith, who helped him regain his focus.

The summer after Whitmore’s sophomore year, he began to spend more time with Keith, who operated a North Side computer repair business. Keith helped Whitmore create a resume and took him to business events downtown, giving Whitmore his first taste of the professional world.

After that summer, Whitmore became a straight-A student, which opened doors. Whitmore recognized the value of Genesys Works when a representative visited his high school.

Whitmore was placed in his internship after an intense eight-week summer training session covering both job skills and general business etiquette, such as public speaking.

At Equity Office, Whitmore has learned about fixed assets and depreciation, assembled tax return packets, and retrieved W-9 forms (Request for Taxpayer Identification Number and Certification).

The downtown experience, Whitmore said, is in stark contrast to his South Side neighborhood, where he was shot last month on one of the year’s deadliest weekends.

Whitmore said he was walking home Sept. 20, a Sunday, when he ran into some elementary school friends now involved in gang activity. They were soon shot at from a dark minivan.

“I should’ve trusted my instinct,” he said. “I knew being around them was dangerous.”

Surgeons removed a bullet from under Whitmore’s broken cheekbone a few days later. Whitmore said teachers and Genesys Works staff visited him as he recovered; he also got a “nice, big bucket of popcorn” from Equity Office.

“Over the recent years, it [the violence] has been getting worse,” Whitmore said of his neighborhood. “It’s because the kids are getting older. … We used to fight in school, but now instead of fighting, they go straight to getting a gun.”

Whitmore said professional programs like Genesys Works could help curb violence among men his age, but too many feel trapped by circumstances.

“They just don’t have the confidence in themselves,” Whitmore said. “They don’t have a Keith in their life. … They don’t know that there’s greater things.”

Diane Finner, 17, also spoke at the convocation. She attends Chicago Tech Academy High School; her internship has her working with broadcasting technology at Accenture. For the past three years, she has lived with her sister — before that, she was bounced from house to house as her mother struggled with drug addiction.

Finner said Genesys Works has improved her life.

“They’re not just here to give you a job and a paycheck — they teach you something that you can carry with you your whole life,” Finner said.

“At first I didn’t see a lot of happiness, because I just let everything about my past and how my mom was affect me,” she added. “My future is going to be much brighter because I work hard for everything I have now.”

The program is open to high school juniors in CPS. Last summer, around 600 applied; 177 began their training; 129 passed and were placed. The chapter hopes to place 300 students in a few years, said program director Margaret Stuckey.

Diane Finner says working with broadcast technology at Accenture has been a great experience — “something that you can carry with you your whole life,” she said. | Patrick Judge/For the Sun-Times