EXCLUSIVE: Live Mas Scholarship Program Awards On Passion, Not Academic Merit

When you think of Taco Bell, your mind is probably drawn to images of their succulent menu full of tempting Mexican dishes. The fast-food chain has long since held a prominent position in the market, but what they do goes way beyond serving up the perfect burrito. Taco Bell isn’t just an eatery. It’s a catalyst for change.

In May, the Taco Bell Foundation announced plans to award $4,625,000 in Live Mas Scholarships this year alone. This isn’t just any old scholarship program either – it comes with a unique twist. The scheme first launched four years ago, but unlike traditional programs, students don’t need out of this world test scores or an unbeaten game record to be in with a chance. Moms.com spoke to Jennifer Bradbury, Director of the Taco Bell foundation about what makes the Live Mas Scholarship program so great.

“We knew we were on to something. That’s what’s been so incredible to watch,” Bradbury says. “There was this white space in the scholarship world. Scholarships were academic or athletic in nature, but there were all these other kids that were so incredibly talented and worthy of having assistance to go to school. We started thinking about what we could do to effect change and give them the self-confidence to pursue their dream.”

What started out as a simple idea soon grew at a rate faster than anyone could’ve predicted. Since it’s first year, the Taco Bell Foundation has seen the scholarship amount increase by more than $3.5 million. In 2019, the amount awarded is higher than last year by $1.6 million. “We wanted it to have an effect and we wanted to see this growth, but we are a little shocked that it’s growing as quickly as it is,” says Bradbury , who has been working with the company for three years. “We made a goal to give away $21 million dollars by 2021 and we’re well on our way to doing that.”

As you might expect from such a huge operation, some trends are prevalent, but Bradbury thinks these are more geographically than demographically based. “It probably [centers around] populations or locations where we have more restaurants. We see a lot of applications from Texas and California, and we definitely see colleges that we get more applicants from, just because we have students in programs there who may have won already. Its word of mouth and the excitement of it. The arts and humanities subjects come top, but we get a lot of business and education, too.”

Hopeful applicants can send a video to be considered by the foundation. If they meet the criteria, then they could walk away with an award ranging from $5,000-$25,000. Both employees and the general public are encouraged to apply, but the growth has been largely organic. “Current scholarship students tell their friends and other kids at school to apply. Once someone in a community has won, it spreads like wildfire. Once it becomes real and tangible, it really catches on,” explains the director. There’s also an added bonus that many students don’t know about: if you win once, they guarantee a renewal.

Taco Bell is a company that prides themselves on their incredible network of people. From CEO’s to restaurant employees, they never underestimate the value of every single person that makes the business great. That’s clear to see by their leadership program, which is open to every employee no matter how long they’ve been with the business. It’s hardly surprising that their motto is “start with us, stay with us.” According to Bradbury, a lot of people take them up on that offer and go on to move up the ladder.

That people-orientated ethos translates over to scholarships too. “It’s easy to be a bank,” Bradbury explains. Rather than just shoot students a check and send them on their way, they provide a ton of invaluable resources to help them transition into working life. "We actually laugh that we called it a scholarship because it’s so much more,” she continues. “We are really proud of the additional programming that we surround our students with. They really enjoy a community. We run a workshop in the summer, where we work on brand building, networking, career readiness skills and more.”

This year alone there were 541 winners in total, made up of 176 fans of the brand, 96 Taco Bell employees and 259 previous winners that applied for renewal. So, how does a company that receives 13,000 applications in a single year choose who wins? Thankfully, it’s not all down to one person. Instead, it’s a family affair. “We run a program called ‘Scholarship Scouts'. It’s a fun opportunity for all Taco Bell employees to get involved in the process. We have a foundation team that vets all the videos first, then we narrow it down to our top tier of applicants, based on the criteria. Everyone from around Taco Bell corporate, from the operations team to finance teams and all the different functions, all get to participate and help to choose our winners.”

With so many outstanding individuals to review, Bradbury admits that there was a point when she thought they couldn’t get any more amazing. She joyfully confesses she was proved wrong almost instantly. “Then we meet another student, and you’re like, ‘okay, they just continue to get more amazing’!” She laughs. When asked if a particular person has stood out among the rest, Bradbury says that there are almost too many to count. However, one hopeful had a profound effect on Scholarship Scouts that is a shining example of the kind of inspiring youngsters the program helps.

One young lady who cerebral palsy wanted help to become a doctor. “She wanted to pursue that path and help children that are going through traumatic situations,” Bradbury says of the 2017 winner. “She’s so fascinating. She applied for less money because she wanted other students to have the opportunity.” Needless to say, the foundation awarded her the highest amount so she could study at medical school. There are hundreds of stories like this, which is a true testament to the scheme. “It’s incredible to see the true passion and humanity these students have," agrees Bradbury.

As for the future, the Taco Bell Foundation plans on reaching their 2021 goal but also continues to develop their efforts to aid those that want to pursue their dreams. “We’re constantly looking at what else we can provide the students and what partnerships can we develop to give them more resources,” Bradbury says enthusiastically. “The scholarship space is changing. I think there’s - in a true Taco Bell way - solutions for us to get unique in terms of how we get students through school and into careers they’re passionate about having.”

If you want to support this trailblazing scheme, then it may be easier than you think. Like many retailers, Taco Bell runs frequent “Round Up” fundraising programs. At the register, customers can round up their purchase to the nearest dollar. Any profits made from this goes directly into supporting the Live Mas Scholarship program. While the odd $.37 cents here or there may not seem like a lot to the naked eye, the accumulative impact is huge. Round Up was responsible for raising $4.5 million since it was launched in January of this year.

“It’s so powerful,” Bradbury admits. “It’s important for our customers to know that they are literally changing people’s lives by rounding up to the nearest dollar. Change really does change lives.”

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