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Check Out Aaron & Ceci Friedman’s Story

Today we’d like to introduce you to Aaron & Ceci Friedman

Hi Aaron & Ceci, so excited to have you on the platform. So before we get into questions about your work-life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today?
OLASTEO’s mission is to create experiences that empower students to serve as catalysts for social impact. We do this by curating a roster of influential speakers, interactive workshops, and immersive trips, exposing our scholars to a broad range of perspectives and possibilities. With expanded mindsets, OLASTEO students are better prepared to take on the world and give back to their communities. Our work is centered in and around the South Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, where we provide diverse and unique opportunities within and beyond LA. OLASTEO started as a way to help students gain new experiences that would bring relevance, nurture empathy, and provide personal growth that can in turn be infused within the community of Watts. What began as a two-student trip, evolved into a scholarship program impacting 15+ students per year, and pivoted in 2020 to a virtual format which enabled us to impact more students and expand to partner with other student-focused organizations throughout Los Angeles. We always knew we wanted to support students in South Los Angeles and found an ideal primary partner in College Track Watts. Our co-founder, Ceci (pronounced, Sessy), took a role with the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools (PLAS) back in 2011, and spent most of her first two months in her role at Jordan High School when it first became a two-school campus co-operated by LAUSD and Green Dot (it’s now fully under LAUSD). Several years later, with the yet-to-be-named scholarship idea in mind and the launch of the College Track Watts program at Jordan (and with a former PLAS co-worker at the helm of the Los Angeles College Track team), we were able to start in-step with College Track Watts and have grown alongside them ever since. In 2021, we are expanding our local partnerships to include College Track Boyle Heights, The Hidden Genius Project, and the Los Angeles College Preparatory Academy.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
OLASTEO was founded on a general idea to expose students to new experiences through travel. And more specifically, a way to educate students on the Holocaust through the eyes of a Holocaust survivor, Eva Mozes Kor. Eva’s overall message of forgiveness as a way to release oneself from past experiences and move forward in one’s own life was something that we felt was incredibly relevant to students growing up in underserved communities. In our first two years before we were an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit, we partnered with Eva’s nonprofit, the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center to fund an international experience for two students each summer. In both of those years, we dealt with the hurdles of securing passports for students who had never traveled internationally and, because of their ages (under 16), required more extensive documentation and affidavits from both parents to travel. After having one student barely secure his passport a few days before the trip, we decided to pivot to U.S.-based travel and began taking an annual summer trip to Washington D.C. In doing so, we were able to expand our student impact to 12-15 students per summer. We had two trips to Washington D.C. under our belt and were planning our third one when 2020 hit, and the world as we knew it fundamentally changed. We made a pretty immediate call back in February of 2020 to switch to a virtual programming model for the year, including Virtual Experiences and a Virtual Speaker Series.

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
At OLASTEO (our lives as seen through each other), our mission is to create experiences that empower students to serve as catalysts for social impact. We do this by curating a roster of influential speakers, interactive workshops, and immersive trips, which expose our scholars from the South Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts to a broad range of perspectives and possibilities. Since early February, we recognized our obligation to pivot quickly to a virtual landscape to continue providing enriching journeys for our student community, who feel the impact of this global pandemic much more severely than most. Our Founders: Ceci (pronounced “Sessy”) is a first generation college-graduate who attributes her success in life to the amazing support and love of a strong-willed, Peruvian-born, single-parent mom. She earned her undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis, and her MBA from the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management. She has enjoyed a long career in technology and operations, and is currently a healthcare IT professional at a prominent healthcare system, directing hospital-based technology initiatives. Ceci co-founded OLASTEO with her husband, Aaron, as a way to provide opportunities to underserved students and support them like her mom supported her. A native New Yorker, Aaron has always been intensely service-oriented and is inspired by the words of the great James Baldwin – “The questions which one asks oneself begin, at least, to illuminate the world, and become one’s key to the experience of others.” He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to study abroad in China and immerse himself in a community unlike that where he grew up or went to school. After working for over a decade in the healthcare IT space, Aaron currently works as a People Solutions Leader, cultivating winning organizational cultures. He co-founded OLASTEO with Ceci, in order to create experiences for underserved students that open their eyes to the larger world beyond their immediate community.

We’d be interested to hear your thoughts on luck and what role, if any, you feel it’s played for you?
Overall, we’d say that with OLASTEO, we have always subscribed to the adage, “Good luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” We obsessively prepare for and plan each experience and event like we prepare and plan for the work we do in our professional and personal lives. OLASTEO is an extension of our personalities and who we are as a team. Securing a passport less than 5 days before traveling internationally with a 15-year student was beyond good luck overall, but that story started with a lot of bad luck that we simply persevered through in order to make the experience happen for the student. Applying for our 501(c)(3) status right when a major government shutdown occurred and waiting twice as long to receive our nonprofit designation wasn’t ideal, but the important thing is that we got our application in when we did and eventually received our status back-dated to when we first applied. We finally got the hang of things with our curated Washington D.C. trip and had planned to expand to additional in-person experiences in 2020 when the pandemic upended everything. We managed to take everything that we put into the trips and poured that same effort into our virtual programming to create unique, educational, and diverse virtual experiences for our scholars.

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Image Credits

Summer Virtual Experience Group Lunch Pickup – 08_2020 (Watts, CA) – photo by Kevin Patz Washington D.C. Excursion Group at NMAAHC – 07_2019 (Washington D.C.) – photo by Kevin Patz

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