At first, Brandon Rodriguez didn’t think college was for him.
“I felt like I would be a fish in a shark tank—not knowing anything, not knowing anyone, not knowing what to do,” says the 19-year-old son of Salvadoran parents who didn’t finish high school.
All of that changed after Rodriguez met Linda Youngentob when he was a senior at Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg. She saw his potential while helping him navigate the college search process as a volunteer with CollegeTracks, a local nonprofit that guides county students at Watkins Mill, Quince Orchard, Wheaton and Bethesda-Chevy Chase high schools through the college application process.
“I told him he could do this,” Youngentob, 57, of Bethesda, recalls. “I try to emphasize to students that college is an opportunity to change the trajectory of their lives.”
Youngentob helped the teen complete applications and financial aid forms, and drove him to Goucher College in Towson for a visit after he was accepted. “She gave so much of her time and went out of her way for me,” says Rodriguez, who is now a sophomore on a full scholarship at the private college, where he also gives tours to prospective students. “It’s because of her I’m here today.”
Rodriguez is one of dozens of students Youngentob has mentored over the past decade, most of whom are first-generation Americans and the first in their families to go to college. Along with advice, she provides students with duffel bags to pack for college visits, access to printers that they lack at home, introductions to her personal network and a promise to answer her cellphone at any hour. Still, she insists her efforts are nothing out of the ordinary.
“These kids deserved that. I didn’t see any other option,” says Youngentob, who was helping other students even as she was taking her own three daughters on college tours. “Why did my kids get to go, but theirs didn’t because they can’t get a ride to the airport? I don’t think people really get that.”
In addition to her work with CollegeTracks, Youngentob is a faculty member of the Macklin Business Institute at Montgomery College, where she advocates for students as they transfer from the community college to four-year institutions. She also serves on the boards of several education organizations, leveraging her business acumen and insights gained while helping students to inform her work.
Youngentob’s involvement as a CollegeTracks board member and her mentoring of both high school and college students make her a “triple threat,” says Kevin Beverly, who observed Youngentob’s knack for motivating students as he served with her on the CollegeTracks board for seven years until she left in 2017. “She’s not telling [students] what to do. She’s asking them what they want to do,” says Beverly, board president and the president and CEO of Social & Scientific Systems in Silver Spring. “She gets them engaged and then starts to have the conversation about what it takes.”
Along with her hands-on work, Youngentob is also a generous donor and an effective fundraiser with a particular skill for putting people and organizations together, according to those who know her. In honor of her volunteer work and financial contributions, Youngentob was named the 2018 Philanthropist of the Year by The Community Foundation in Montgomery County (CFMC).
“Linda sees patterns. When she encounters one student who is struggling, she steps in to help. When she realizes there are hundreds more encountering the same challenges, she knows systems need to change,” says Anna Hargrave, executive director of CFMC. “She is not afraid to use her connections to tear down barriers.”
Youngentob grew up in Swampscott, Massachusetts, a small beach town north of Boston. Her father was president of nearby Salem Paper Co., which was started by his father. “That’s what instilled my love of business, because it was so all-encompassing in our family,” Youngentob recalls. “Even when I was a child, all the magazines sitting around the house were business magazines. Instead of reading Vogue or Glamour, I was reading Fortune and Forbes.”
Youngentob’s mother was president of her local chapter of Hadassah, a Jewish women’s service organization. Her grandfather was president of his temple and the local chapter of Kiwanis International, a service club. Growing up, Youngentob volunteered at a local hospital and served as a mentor to a low-income girl in a nearby town through a program called Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
Community service has been a part of every phase of her life. “It gives my life meaning,” Youngentob says. While attending Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, she was involved with an adopt-a-grandparent program. After graduating in 1983, she worked 12-plus hours per day as a research analyst in Boston, but still had the energy to answer calls on a parental stress hotline from 9 p.m. until midnight.
Youngentob says she’s learned that people too often think they need to do something big to make an impact, but small, personal connections can make a difference, such as providing a ride, conducting an internet search, or creating a spending budget for someone in need. Gaining access to a college, a computer, a car and a credit card—resources that are often taken for granted—is a huge obstacle for many, she’s found.
“I am who I am today because of the ZIP code I was born in and I was born to two parents who went to college,” Youngentob says. “I worked hard and I didn’t screw up. I’m not better than anyone else. I just got such a leg up of privilege.”
Youngentob, who says she’s “always been a problem solver,” graduated from Brown with a degree in systems analysis and design, a major she created by combining operations research, engineering, computer science, economics and accounting. After working for two years as an analyst, she earned an MBA at Harvard, where she met her husband, Bob, a fellow MBA student who’s now president and CEO of EYA, a residential real estate company based in Bethesda that he co-founded.