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Community Spotlight: Meet Imran Khan

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Like many Brooklyn Boulders Chicago members, Imran Khan is an inspiration. A Chicago-native, Khan co-founded and serves as executive director of Embarc. Embarc literally brings together the divided areas of Chicago, providing experiential and educational opportunities to economically and geographically disadvantaged students in the city.

Khan is also a climber and for him, the similarities between climbing and entrepreneurship are a given. “You’re constantly stepping out into the space of the unknown,” Khan said. “You’re constantly pushing yourself forward just like you pull on a hold and reach up into the air.” Khan was gracious enough to spend a day climbing with our Spec Ops team member James and discussing his work with Embarc with us. Learn more about Khan and his work … and if you see him in the facility, say hello!


You’re not exactly sure how that next hold is gonna work. You make what you can and drive forward even though there’s chances of falling.

How did you first hear about BKB?
I’ve been climbing for a while and when a climbing gym like Brooklyn Boulders comes into Chicago, you know about it. I saw it all over social media, I heard it from my friends, and I came to the opening.

At that point, I reached out and I wanted to talk about doing youth programming and having the students I serve in the organization come out to Brooklyn Boulders. That’s when I met Greg (Bahr, BKB Chicago’s Youth Programs Manager) and you and several other folks and we’ve been involved trying to work on other things throughout the Chicago community.

When did you first start climbing?
I started climbing maybe 10 or 15 years ago. I started at Devil’s Lake. I would hike around there and once I started to hike around there, I saw a bunch of climbers. Some of them eventually let me try and I really enjoyed it so I started to climb different gyms in the city. And now I’ve been privileged enough to travel and climb all over the country here in the United States but also Italy, Spain, France, Turkey, Greece.

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Why do you like climbing?
I think climbing is really good for entrepreneurs as well. It’s got so many elements in it. It’s about drive. It’s about perseverance. It’s about resiliency. It’s about overcoming fears, controlling the mind while still pushing and being very physical. It’s both a very physical sport as well as a mental sport, especially when you start lead climbing and things like that. The game becomes as mental as it is physical.

That thing is very much what it is like when you are starting a business or being an entrepreneur. You’re constantly stepping out into the space of the unknown. You’re constantly pushing yourself forward just like you pull on a hold and reach up into the air. You’re not exactly sure how that next hold is gonna work. You make what you can and drive forward even though there’s a chance of falling. That fear of the unknown immobilizes a lot of companies and a lot of people and keeps people from innovating. That’s exactly – that feeling and that comfortableness – what you need to push through.

How do you drive intrinsic motivation? How do you build the avenues and pathways to success so students are driven toward that aspiration?

What sort of things did you talk to Greg about?
My organization (Embarc) and myself are pretty well known for creating impactful youth programming. Powerful curriculum, real identity and mindful type of stuff. Those experiences we are able to provide our kids … we have an experiential education program so it fits in very well with Brooklyn Boulders’ education and youth programs. What we’ve been talking about is pushing BKB’s programming to the next level and thinking about how to connect to the Chicago community. Thinking about how to galvanize our members, our students, our schools so that they can take advantage of the resources Brooklyn Boulders offers and the resources climbing in general offers students and people as a form of education and delivering perseverance, drive, and goal setting.

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How did you first get started in education?
I grew up in Chicago and my parents were immigrants from India. We didn’t grow up with that much many times. I had a pretty urban experience. I went through CPS myself. It’s crazy. So pretty urban, when I say that … I’ve been jumped. You’ve been robbed. You get into all of these situations sometimes in schools and you had teachers who didn’t resonate with you at all. You barely sort of skated by. I’ve had shotguns pointed at my head. You basically realize what the city is like.

I’ve had some experiences later on in my life where I started to go into business to become an accountant. My parents really had a few choices for us. It was doctor, lawyer, engineer or business. I was pursuing that path in college and I started to quickly realize I wasn’t passionate about it. I needed something that would feed my heart and I figured that money would come later. I had inclinations for business, but I couldn’t do business school. It wasn’t the right community of people. It just didn’t seem like the values were going to bring me happiness, so I knew I couldn’t be there.

I got into education in one of the roughest schools in the country and as a result, I saw those issues right there. Once you know – and I feel like I’m a Chicago boy and I’ve had those same situations – but once you get out there, you start realizing what life is like for the people who are living it every single day. You understand that it’s pretty deep and it’s pretty bad and you have to do something about it. Once you know the situation that people are facing, I couldn’t turn away.

Your worldview determines who you become in life. The way you see yourself and your place in the world, your experiences translate into who you become.

When did you first start your program and how has it grown since you first started it?
I began teaching at a school called Harper High School on the South Side of Chicago in West Englewood. It’s notorious for gangs, drugs, violence, poverty … you know, everything you could think of in one area. In fact, the last year I was teaching, 29 kids were shot. Eight were killed. It’s considered one of the most dangerous schools in the country. So I taught there for quite a while and while I was there, I quickly began to realize that three miles away from our bustling downtown, we had huge schools full of kids. I had hundreds of kids in my classrooms who had never seen the lake, hadn’t traveled beyond a four block radius, hadn’t set foot inside of grocery stores. They had a very limited worldview outside of these gang-infested areas that many of us probably wouldn’t even walk around or drive by.

So what we saw was that was directly contributing to the way they were seeing themselves, their place in the world, their beliefs, what they were capable of, their understanding of what they could achieve. With the lack of models of success basically resulted in cycles of poverty. We knew that the education we were offering them needed to change. The schools that are serving our underserved communities are missing a big component. How do you drive intrinsic motivation? How do you build the avenues and pathways to success so students are driven toward that aspiration?

We built programming where we started to take students to journeys all across the city: restaurants, theaters, activities like high-ropes courses, universities and business. And we saw a huge return on our investment. Grades skyrocketed. And since then, we’ve left teaching and this program has matured into a very intensive three-year experiential education program with a daily curriculum that has mindset interventions and college and career focuses that Chicago Public School teachers implement in their schools. We have over 278 partners ranging from Google and Microsoft and Leo Burnett to arts initiatives in one state and Brooklyn Boulders. We are at nine schools and this summer we’ll be in 10 schools serving 670 kids. It’s a very high-touch intervention.

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Why do you think it’s so important for students to get exposed to these different types of environments?
I think it really breaks down to basically how you see yourself and your place in the world. If you are living an existence where – like so many of our kids, living in this city, three miles away – you’re facing really intense poverty and isolation. Literally, if you want to get real, you sometimes come home to a place with no lights on, there’s no heat, no food in the fridge. You’ve got younger brothers and sisters that aren’t eating. That means you’ve got parents that are incarcerated. You’re 16 years old. You don’t know a single person who’s ever gone to college let alone graduated. You know 10 people in jail. You’re 15 years old and you have chests full of t-shirts with dead friends names on them because so many of your friends have been killed because of gun violence.

That, as a result, changes the way you see your options, what you can be, how you can achieve those things. It changes the way you see investing in your future. When you are concerned with these really intense things, you don’t realize investing in your future, studying, working hard equates to these things. You’ve never seen a model of success that’s been through these pathways that basically secured their position. No one is turning around and telling you, “Hey, this is the way to get this done. This is how to do these things.” Here are some teachers running their mouths, but that really doesn’t resonate. That means that 98% of people around you are in a similar situation to you. That is what happens when you have isolation.

As a result, these experiences really allow students to get a wider expanse of what the landscape is, what are the options. They could be working for any of these companies. They could be doing all of these jobs and this helps them get driven toward the lifestyle they can achieve. They realize that they start putting the formula together. In order for them to get that, they have to put in hardwork in school, they have to get a secondary educational experience. That equation, once it’s built, gives them the drive to do everything they need to in high school and also persevere in post-secondary. With the model we’ve given teachers, that’s given them a 97% graduation rate compared to their schools average of 49%. Your worldview determines who you become in life. The way you see yourself and your place in the world, your experiences translate into who you become.

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Embarc’s 5th Annual Variety Spectacular takes place tomorrow, ​May 14, at Salvage One. Learn more and purchase tickets here