Workplace Diversity Starts in the Classroom, Not the Boardroom

Michael Jordan once said: “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” He obviously knew the importance of building a good basketball team, just as many of us in the business world know the importance of building a good company team. And whether you’re pitching the latest product to a new investor or starting a company from scratch, diversity is the secret sauce that sets good teams apart from great ones. Particularly in today’s global marketplace, it’s imperative to have a diversity of players bringing their disparate skill sets, world views, and unique ideas together to get the job done.

In fact, according to McKinsey, more and more research shows that diversity in the workplace not only makes sense on instinctual level; it also makes economic sense. Their research finds that the most diverse companies with regard to employee gender, race, and ethnicity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. But where do the elements of diversity come from, and how do businesses ensure they’re hiring with those elements in mind?

It might come as a surprise that the answer to both questions isn’t found anywhere near a boardroom. Because workplace diversity doesn’t start there – it starts in the classroom.

Our young scholars may still be working toward graduation, but one day they’ll be working in the industries of tomorrow. And this next generation of thinkers, doers, builders, and dreamers—whether they come from the urban inner city, the rural small town, or somewhere in between—need to know that their diversity is an asset to future employers.

But the challenge is that there are very real barriers, both physical and perceived, to getting those talented, diverse students into the global workforce pipeline.

One of the greatest barriers is the lack of connective tissue between classrooms and careers. A majority of employers admit to having little to no involvement in or contact with students currently in schools. And individually, many professionals across a wide spectrum of industries don’t have the time, resources, or support to volunteer their time mentoring school-aged students about the ins and outs of building a career. So how are our country’s students, particularly those in the most underserved communities, being informed about the many different ways their passions and talents can transform into careers?

There’s an argument to be made that, in order to attain diversity in the workforce, we have to first expose students to those diverse professionals who are paving the way for them and also give students access to interactions with them.

That’s the solution we’re trying to provide at DreamWakers. By virtually connecting vetted career professionals who represent the scope and scale of our country’s public and private sector opportunities, we hope to inspire students from every background to dream big about the life they can build after graduation.

For example, in celebration of International Women’s Day earlier this month, DreamWakers partnered with L’Oréal USA to connect a number of their New York City-based female employees with classrooms in cities like El Cajon, CA; Bluefield, VA; and Chicago, IL. These 45-minute virtual discussions, called “flashchats” in DreamWakers parlance, not only exposed students to the many different aspects of working in the beauty industry, but they also allowed students to interact with a real-world working professional, ask candid questions, and explore ways in which their current interests might one day lead them down a similar path.

One speaker in particular resonated the theme of diversity in her discussion with a classroom of African-American female scholars in New Orleans, LA. As the manager of U.S. Foundation and the Global Women of Color Lab, Balanda Atis is in charge of making sure the shades found in the L’Oréal foundation aisle match the diverse skin colors of women around the world. Her unique personal experience buying makeup as a woman of color led her to the revelation that “a lot of work needed to be done “on foundations, and more importantly for women of different ethnicities and from different countries.” When asked by one of the students what influenced her to get into this work, Atis spoke from personal experience:

I think what influenced me and what motivated me was knowing that there was a need that wasn’t being met for a lot of people. So, because I had to struggle and I know a lot of my friends and my family had the same kind of struggle, I realized that, “Okay something has to be done.” We have to try to find a way to fix it. So that is when I took on the responsibility and the role to help understand what it takes to make better foundation products.

Atis realized that the company would be stronger if they had more diversity in the pigment lab, and as a woman of color she brought a unique perspective to help her company meet the challenge. Her diverse perspective identified a need for her company, and her initiative to meet that need created a new growth area—ultimately bringing the company’s products to a wider pool of consumers—including Beyoncé, whose makeup Atis personally crafted, she explained to the group of awestruck middle school girls.

This is just one small example of the power of diversity in the workplace. Thanks to Ms. Atis’ willingness to share her story, a group of future female leaders can now point to a real-world role model who looks like them, who saw the value in her diversity, and who enhanced her company by diversifying its products.

There’s a lot to be said for corporate initiatives that try to build workplace diversity through strategic recruitment within the current applicant pool. But one could argue that method is only a temporary solution focused on immediate need. The longer term solution is one that redirects the corporate diversity conversation toward a more sustainable future, one that taps into the enormous wells of talent contained in our country’s underserved classrooms. But as we say time and again at DreamWakers, kids can’t be what they can’t see, so we challenge employers to think about ways to bridge the gap between classroom and career the next time they think about improving workplace diversity. A championship team could depend on it.

About the Author: Monica Gray Logothetis is the Co-Founder & CEO of DreamWakers, a national education technology nonprofit that harnesses free video chat technology to connect classroom learning to real-world careers. Under her leadership, DreamWakers has expanded to 30 states in two years, and now serves thousands of students in low-income communities. Her work has been recognized by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Forbes. In 2016, L’Oréal Paris named her a Woman of Worth. Monica received a BA and an MPP with a focus in education policy from the University of Virginia

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