Once a week, the halls of University United Methodist Church are filled with music as little fingers plink away at Pachelbel’s “Cannon in D” on the piano and finger the chords to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” on the violin.
These are the sounds of Musical Empowerment, a Carolina-born-and-bred nonprofit that provides free music lessons and mentorship to local kids from low-income families. The organization enlists college students as volunteer teachers. Armed with sheet music and a heart for service, they provide one-on-one instruction on how to play an instrument.
Children learn much more than scales and proper bowing techniques. Music fosters creativity, discipline and confidence – skills that position them for success, says Meredith Richard (BSBA ’15), executive director of Musical Empowerment.
The organization is the brainchild of Christine Mosely (BSBA minor ’04), who launched the concept as a with 12 student-teacher pairs in 2002. Since then, Musical Empowerment has quadrupled in size and become a multi-chapter nonprofit that supports more than 140 pairs of students and teachers.
Richard began volunteering with Musical Empowerment in 2011 while enrolled in UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Undergraduate Business Program. She bonded with her first mentee, Faith, who she taught piano and vocal lessons for four years. One of the highlights of her experience was hearing Faith say she wanted to attend UNC one day – just like she did.
As the organization has grown, so has Richard’s role. As a student, she served as co-president and worked with the organization when it was accepted into the CUBE at Campus Y, a social innovation incubator for UNC startups. With business expertise, mentoring and legal support from CUBE, Musical Empowerment became a 501(c)3 organization in June 2013. In July 2015, Richard took on a formal role as executive director.
Jumping into a management role immediately after graduation was a challenge – but one she felt prepared to tackle head-on. “So many of the skills I learned at UNC Kenan-Flagler helped me prepare for this role,” she says. “From communication to data analysis and organizational behavior, my coursework in the Business School has definitely translated very well into my work as the director of a nonprofit.”
Richard likens Musical Empowerment’s operations to a startup – small and lean. As the only full-time employee, she is responsible for developing a sustainable business structure and effectively communicating its value to board members, donors and volunteers. Her UNC Kenan-Flagler experience also inspired her to focus on developing the organization’s core values and culture.
“In Business School, I learned the value of people and the value of teamwork,” she says. “Emphasizing collaboration and working with the community are two key values I’ve taken from UNC Kenan-Flagler and use in planning the future of Musical Empowerment.”
At Carolina, she’s found a steady supply of like-minded volunteers – many of whom are business students.
Volunteering with Musical Empowerment helped Natanya Montgomery (BSBA ’16) find her place in and connect to the Chapel Hill community. She bonded with her mentee, Carmen, who has transformed from being an uncertain performer to singing loud and proud during the three years they’ve worked together. “Teaching music is exciting because it challenges me to think in so many different ways,” says Montgomery.
Having an entrepreneurial mindset is another key to success. Under Richard’s leadership, the organization has launched initiatives to expand its reach and impact – such as a lending program for children enrolled in lessons to borrow instruments at no cost. And in November 2015, a new Musical Empowerment chapter launched at NC State.
Learning and leading through trial-and-error has taught Richard to not be afraid of failure. As the organization grows, she is using what she learns to develop and tweak its business model so it can be replicated at other universities and help build social capital in communities across the state.
“My experiences with both music and service at UNC were so eye-opening and important that I truly felt called to continue to work with Musical Empowerment and help provide that experience to others,” she says. “I feel very honored to have the opportunity to give back and serve others with an organization whose mission is so close to my heart.”