Closing the Gap on Missed Opportunities

By Marvin R. Ellison, JCPenney Chairman and CEO

I grew up as one of seven children, raised under modest circumstances in Brownsville, Tenn., a two-stoplight town between Memphis and Jackson that was segregated well into the 1980s. My parents happened to grow up in a time and place where education was not affordable or accessible to them. But every day, my father got up and went to work with a great attitude, juggling as many as three jobs to help pay the bills and support his family, while refusing the availability of government assistance.

As a young black man growing up in a segregated rural community, his tremendous work ethic left a lasting impression on me. My parents would often say, “Don’t let your surroundings dictate your future,” and emphasized education as the path out of poverty. I credit my parents’ positive influence for my trajectory in life and putting me on a path that led me to where I am today.

I feel very fortunate to be serving as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company; however, it is incredibly disappointing that I am only one of three African-Americans currently holding this distinction. What this says to me is that there are far too many missed opportunities – the opportunities to nurture, develop and mentor young minority students so they, too, can believe that they have a shot at a corner office.

Regardless of their background or circumstance, every child should have the opportunity to be successful. The reality is, significant gaps in opportunity continue to persist, particularly among African-American and Hispanic children from low-income households who are the most at risk of not graduating high school or getting the formal training they need to secure a good-paying job. In fact, educators, civic leaders and researchers agree that the opportunity gap among our nation’s youth may be the greatest crisis facing American schools.

We believe every child deserves a chance at success, which is why I’m proud to share that JCPenney will be doing its part to help bridge the gap for millions of at-risk youth in America.

Through the tremendous support of our customers and associates, the JCPenney Communities Foundation* will designate more than $4 million in donations and grants this year toward helping underserved students build the confidence they need to stay in school, graduate high school or college, and prepare for a rewarding career.

We’re working with various afterschool and youth organizations across the country to provide local youth with essential clothing needs and access to programs that offer learning enrichment in a safe, positive environment. We’ve also partnered with select colleges to set up clothes closets so eligible students can have access to professional attire when they go on their first job interview.

As someone who grew up in a family where even shopping JCPenney was out of reach, I know how empowering it is to own your first suit. For countless children, having access to new clothes, shoes and basic undergarments helps reduce the anxiety kids encounter when their family’s economic circumstance prevents them from wearing what they need to feel confident in school.

This is an important, often overlooked problem, but we know we can help. With 98,000 JCPenney associates nationwide, we represent an army of volunteers willing to dedicate our time and talents to mentoring and inspiring the next generation of doctors, scientists and business leaders to realize the future of their dreams. Anything less would be a missed opportunity.


* JCPenney Communities Foundation is a 501(c)(3) public charity dedicated to supporting programs that help close the opportunity gap for underserved kids through essential clothing needs, access to youth programs and career readiness support, along with disaster relief assistance. Customers can support this important cause by choosing to round up their JCPenney purchase to the nearest whole dollar and donate the difference to the JCPenney Communities Foundation.