Most weekday afternoons, you'll find Paul Ayala in his Manhattan studio, drawing furiously with a blue Magic Marker. His worktable is littered with shoe and clothing samples. From his black Converse Chucks to the bejeweled watch on his wrist—a new model he created for Ecko called the Eclipse, with the moon's phases marking the hours—he's as self-consciously stylish as you'd expect a young designer to be. And let's emphasize "young": Ayala is just 17.
Ayala is part of Sweat Equity Enterprises (SEE), a three-year-old nonprofit that partners professional designers with low-income students in New York and Rhode Island. He was a gang member—"a fact of life in inner-city neighborhoods," he says—until SEE grabbed his attention. "The watch was a life-changing experience for Paul," gushes fashion magnate and SEE cofounder Marc Ecko. "It can be the same thing for other kids."
But SEE isn't just another do-gooder organization trying to offer poor, urban kids a more alluring option than gang membership. What's unusual about this operation is that its benefits may be even more lucrative for the corporate designers and marketers who partner with it.
While Ayala's watch is the first SEE-designed product to hit the market, SEE students have worked with Saks Fifth Avenue,
Daniel, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate, came up with the idea for SEE with Ecko, who had grown up frustrated with school and saw a chance to do something productive with teenagers' "naive optimism," as he calls it. Ecko bought in enthusiastically, donating money, equipment, and space at his firm's Manhattan headquarters.
The students meet three times a week after school and are each paid a stipend that, last year, totaled about $2,600. "This is a job," Daniel says. Those who see a product make it to market will benefit more—royalties from the Eclipse will go into Ayala's college fund.
One recent afternoon, Ayala, blue marker in hand, gathers with about 20 other students to discuss Radio Shack, a repeat client. Last year, the SEE team imagined new promotions and products, including iPod add-ons and a Willy Wonka-style Golden Ticket game to boost sales of under-$5 items. They also visited Radio Shack's headquarters in Texas, met the firm's president, and examined store prototypes. Bob Kilinski, Radio Shack's VP for brand development and communications, credits the students for ideas in "product design, store display, and even creative marketing tactics we never would have considered in the past." He feels the collaboration will "pay huge dividends" on the $100,000 they've invested in SEE so far.
As they snack on chips, the teens mull ideas for a prototypical $2 million Radio Shack ad campaign to boost its cell-phone sales. "Where do people buy cell phones?" asks SEE coordinator Damon Butler, the group's moderator. "A pawn shop," Ayala says, grinning. Someone chimes in: "The bodega down the block." Nobody answers Radio Shack; consensus is that its range and prices are inferior to those at Best Buy.
The challenge is how to deliver a new image, and the ideas come rapid-fire:
Chris "Stewie" Jones (nicknamed after the Family Guy character): "Signs on people's cars?"
Pedro Cruz: "Putting someone outside the stores with a megaphone?" Jennifer Nenadich: "Bus ads?"
They make lists, then adjourn. They have homework: In small groups, they'll canvass stores, talk to shoppers about Radio Shack, and test their hypotheses.
Working with SEE can yield insights that designers and marketers wouldn't think of. For instance, the sportswear maker New Era has asked SEE to help choose colors and patterns for a collection of caps, but the students go beyond the purely aesthetic. The designers "need to be careful about the code of the street," Daniel says. "Certain colors imply certain gangs." SEE, 150 kids strong, runs on a budget of about $495,000, with corporate partners' donations bolstered by funding from Ecko,
But those are grown-up concerns. As night falls, Ayala and Jones, paired on the Radio Shack project, brainstorm at a Mac. They're off duty at 6:30, but as the time passes, neither one moves.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.