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Kevin Durant, tech investor, has a new startup target: Students with dreams like the ones he had

Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant is giving $10 million to help students in his old Prince George’s County neighborhood. He wants to give disadvantaged kids the sort of social and practical support that those from middle-class homes with college-educated parents might have. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Kevin Durant knows about starting at the bottom rung.

But he is blessed with a gift to play basketball, which is not just a paycheck, but a ticket to worlds with other possibilities. He has used that access to create business opportunities beyond the world of sports, such as in technology.

What I love about tech is, I love watching the world advance,” said the 29-year-old star of the Golden State Warriors, who invests through his Durant Company. “I love the connections of people on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter. I would look at it like [Cornelius] Vanderbilt, who built the railroad. He connected us. The next advancement connecting us to each other is social media. I want to be part of that.”

His interest in technology connected him to Laurene Powell Jobs and has led to a new philanthropic venture.

Durant has committed $10 million and partnered with the Prince George’s public schools on a program called College Track, which was created more than 20 years ago in California by Powell Jobs and others. College Track helps disadvantaged kids — like Durant once was — attend college and get launched into life.

Durant is dropping a life-ladder called the Durant Center smack in the middle of the Seat Pleasant, Md., area where he grew up. It isn’t an elevator. The 60 students in the initial group must climb the ladder themselves.

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But it’s a path.

“I want them to see the world,” Durant said in a phone interview this month. “I want them to see where people are from and see that there are things outside their world. I don’t know exactly or at what pace that they will get it, but there is a world outside that they need to see.”

Durant’s $10 million will seed construction and operating expenses of a local chapter of College Track, which is scheduled to open this year.

“This hits home, because it’s right in the neighborhood where me and my buddies lived,” said the 6-foot-11 “small” forward.

College Track is a 10-year program that provides the basic infrastructure — tutoring, test preparation, picking a college that is a “fit” and how to get financial aid — that kids from less-advantaged families often don’t have.

“These are all the things that middle-class families deliver if your parents went to college,” said Elissa Salas, College Track’s chief executive. “If your parents didn’t go to college, we fill that gap.”

Durant’s seed money brings College Track to the East Coast for the first time. Nine College Tracks across California, Colorado and Louisiana have helped 3,000 students get to college and beyond. The Durant Center will be the first of three facilities planned for the Washington area. Salas plans two more in the District by 2021.

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I could have used this program. My family wasn’t poor. We weren’t the country club set, either. I didn’t get the whole pursuit-of-success thing. I wanted it, but I didn’t have the tool set. I was clueless about how to go about getting a job and pursuing success.

Opportunities would just roll in, or so I thought.

Big mistake.

Durant wants kids from Seat Pleasant to know at a young age what I had to learn over several decades: to take a longer view, learn who to emulate, how to develop confidence, set standards for yourself, deal with all kinds of people, and handle disappointment without taking it personally.

I think of it as showing up.

“We didn’t have the mentors,” Durant said of his early years. He found several mentors through basketball. Rick Barnes, who coached him at the University of Texas, was one. Washington Wizards coach Scott Brooks, who coached Durant at the Oklahoma City Thunder, was another. Steve Kerr, his coach at Golden State, is also a mentor.

“We didn’t have the resources to get our minds thinking about the next level,” Durant said. “I want to do my part, whatever it is. If College Track students want to be the next Steve Jobs [co-founder of Apple and Laurene Powell Jobs’s late husband] or the next influencer or the next tastemakers, they can get there.”

Durant had his own ladder out: basketball. He was one of the most sought-after high school players in the country, and he attended Texas before turning professional after a year. He is one of the highest-paid athletes in the world. He also knows that without that gift — and his Eiffel Tower frame — he might have ended up somewhere other than a Bay Area home high in the clouds.

“The majority of my friends, we didn’t have households,” Durant said. “When your mom’s at work and you don’t have a dad, you’re leaving school, and you need to know what you want at that age. You need somebody to guide you in the right direction. Your mind wanders and you want things, but we don’t know how to achieve them.”

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A College Track program isn’t cheap to run. It is high-touch service that involves salaries and a professional staff and scholarships. At the high school level, students come three to five hours a week after school on school days. They also commit to a summer experience, whether it’s with College Track or some other service. It adds up to about one year extra of high school.

“Students understand that it’s a commitment,” Salas said.

The ultimate goal? Earning a bachelor’s degree. Four hundred College Track students have graduated from college so far, and that number is on pace to reach 496 this year.

“Getting into college is half the battle,” Salas said. “It’s also getting out. Only 21 percent of first-generation, low-income students graduate from college. We are trying to combat that.”

Durant’s affiliation with College Track started at a January 2017 Silicon Valley technology conference focused on investment in the Bay Area. Durant was talking with Powell Jobs, musician Will.I.Am and venture capitalist Ron Conway about the athlete’s philanthropic focus.

“He had a vision of his own experience, which was mentors and tutors and coaches who had an influence, and who changed his life trajectory, which is what we do,” Salas said. “The leadership component: Exploring your dreams, your purpose and passion. An expectation of service work. That is what resonated with Kevin. It didn’t take much selling.”

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“I want them to realize ego is the reason a lot of us don’t get ahead,” he said. “If you remove ego, pretty much everything is open to you. It makes it easier to access people and help someone else.”

One private-equity investor recently told me that a willingness to acknowledge your shortcomings is a business skill.

Durant has another word for it: humility.

When I got to Silicon Valley, I wanted to get in to see more people that knew more about tech than I did,” Durant said. “There was not a thing I knew about tech. I could have just walked into a room full of people if I wanted to invest in tech and they’d say, ‘Okay, you are Kevin Durant,’ and they would do it.

“Instead, I was going in there with a humble mind and curious spirit and just intending to learn and begin relationships. That goes back to people skills and life skills that I learned from basketball.

“Coming back to the neighborhood and showing them the experiences you went through, coming back and showing them what you’ve seen. You start the upward cycle.”