How do You Scale a Mountain?

By Chris Motley posted 09-25-2018 11:42


Note: Chris Motley's company (The Whether--formerly Better Weekdays), received $775k was recently awarded a $775,000 “Innovations in Career Advising” grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to personalize career pathways for students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Read the initial blog, “Students Don’t Know What They Don’t Know” 

One step at a time! This blog picks up where we left off last month, where I shared the importance of background knowledge in career development! The proverbial mountain I’m referring to is the one students face when having to decide their major, develop a career goal, get experience, and prepare for the job search, and then execute it flawlessly. The less context they have, the harder it is; and this difficulty is magnified for diverse or otherwise underrepresented populations.

Throughout the '80s and '90s, K-12 education emphasized the humanities more so than it does today. Some have attributed higher reading scores during the period to be highly correlated with curriculum that emphasized the humanities because it provided necessary context for students to develop vocabulary and improved comprehension skills at subsequent grade levels. This insight can also be applied to the world of career development. Students don’t have the background knowledge or a career-oriented vocabulary on which to build a clear understanding of work-related life after college.

Before we think of a new or “remixed” framework for career development, it is important that we empathize with how students discover companies, internships, jobs, and overall career paths in the first place. We will then be able to use those insights and develop both high and low-tech solutions that manifest themselves in practical ways on and off campus.

As professionals, whether university recruiters or academic/career advisers, we must recognize that we’re all educators. If we want to accomplish our respective goals, we will need to be helpful to the audience(s) we’re trying to engage, inform, and inspire. 

 We cannot assume students know how to concisely describe what they’re good at, or motivated by, or even value in life within a work context. Further, we cannot assume students have the confidence to “put themselves out there” in front of professionals who represent a pathway to unfamiliar opportunities.

Why would a computer science major consider looking for jobs in banking or healthcare? They only hire business majors or healthcare majors, right? You may be thinking “that’s a silly assumption to make. Companies need all kinds of skills to help them move forward.” And you’d be right. It is a silly assumption to make. More accurately, it’s an uneducated assumption to make… but it’s also an assumption that students are making every single day. 

Our project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is organized around a framework that we believe establishes a solid foundation for current and future innovations in career advising. To realize our vision to personalize career paths for EVERY student, we must begin with empathy and then seek to provide students with personalized background knowledge in three formats that overlap and reinforce one another:

  1. Curriculum
  2. Mentorship 2.0
  3. Experiential Learning

Enhanced Curriculum

I think many of you would agree that “self-awareness” is among the most important attributes a student can possess when conducting their job search. However, self-assessments are not a required component of curriculum. In a career development context, we know that employers ask questions such as “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” I’ve always believed that an “inside-out” approach to the job search (beginning with self-awareness) is far more efficient that the reverse. 

Our research suggests that the traditional job-search process, which often begins with a job board with search functionality skips this “self-awareness” step all together. These tools assume certain background knowledge, implying students know what to search for.

We also learned that recruiters describe their organizations and opportunities using a different language from what students understand. This leads to increased anxiety, procrastination and poor performance in interviews by all students, but disproportionately impacts underrepresented students of color. 

Everyone has natural abilities they can tap into, but many students have a hard time a) identifying and communicating these characteristics and b) using them to inform programs of study and, subsequently, a line of work.

For this aspect of the Gates project, we launched our holistic Soft Skills & Values Assessment (SSVA) that provides students with unbiased clarity of their strengths, weaknesses (though we don’t use this term), motivators, values, and personalities. More important, we help students take this newfound sense of self-awareness to help them “connect the dots.” Specifically, we recommend degree programs worthy of consideration—job functions and attributes of an organization where they are likely to thrive.

You may remember Brandon, from our last blog. His story began in a single parent household in one of the country’s worst neighborhoods—Chicago’s South Side. His path to Columbia University and Goldman Sachs resulted from a serendipitous encounter with a Goldman Sachs  employee though a college prep program. Both shared a passion for the game of basketball, and Brandon’s mentor articulated aspects of the sport that directly related to his line of work— “You work with a core team of people each day in a fast-paced environment. ‘Score’ is kept at all times, and you constantly analyze information to make good decisions.” 

 Brandon’s mentor helped him to understand that the things that excited him about the game of basketball were attributes he’d use to describe his job as a commodities trader. Those attributes also reflected the values of the organization. This assessment helped Brandon connect the dots to a type of career path he was not aware of, and thus never considered. 

 There are many models and organizations that offer solutions that I’d incorporate into the enhanced curriculum component of our framework. An obvious example would be the many “boot camps” that seek to teach highly desired skills such as design, online prospecting, and mobile app development. That said, we suggest that advisers should counsel students to pursue opportunities that align with their natural strengths, interests, and abilities. Leveraging one’s own strengths is far more productive and fulfilling compared to trying to improve one’s weaknesses. 

Mentorship 2.0

For the mentorship component of the project, we had to redefine who (or what) a mentor is, given our newfound understanding of what it means to empathize with students and meet them where they are. The traditional definition is straight forward: “Mentor” can be loosely defined as an experienced and trusted adviser. It usually implies a person. 

It also leaves room for innovation.

Our work, thus far, has revealed that students prefer not to speak with anyone (especially non-peers) without having expectations clearly established and/or feeling like they can put their best foot forward. Much of this has to do with confidence, as well as feeling like they are in a safe place to explore and discover. The traditional definition of mentor, however, seems to be at odds with what our research has revealed. Taking a deeper dive, one advantage of a mentor is to provide relevant advice to a less experienced individual based on that individual’s goals.  Seems like something technology could help with—especially at scale.

 At present, career advisers represent the first line of defense for mentors among diverse populations that don’t have awareness and/or access to networks that provide valuable perspective. Research shows that students outnumber career advisers by 1,750 to 1. More one-on-one time with more students would completely overwhelm the established system. We also know that students want immediate, clear, transparent, and actionable feedback and typically at odd hours of the night (you know, when normal people are sleeping). This feedback is even more valuable if it comes straight from employers.

I’ll anchor these sentiments with an insight from the amazing folks at Gallup and Strada Education. Their 2017 study analyzed open-ended responses from 22,087 U.S. adults aged 18 to 65 who attended both two-year and four-year colleges, including those who did not complete their degree and reported the following:

Informal work-based sources of advice were rated as most valued but least used. Compared to all other sources of advice, work-based sources were rated as most helpful (83 percent) in choosing a major, but only 20 percent of respondents mentioned receiving employment-based guidance.

Translation: When students get information directly from employers about what they should be doing in college to help them prepare for life after college, students listen. The problem? Only one in five students are getting access to such powerful advice. 

The report goes on to mention that first-generation and underrepresented students of color have less access but need employers’ perspectives more than their more affluent peers. The conclusion here is that the societal context these students are born into simultaneously creates a wall that blocks awareness of, and access to opportunity due to limited networks or a safe space to explore. 

In our work for the Gates project, we recognized that employers actually provide a lot of advice.  In fact, the career pages of top employers are full of useful information to better understand their industry, organization, and opportunities for growth.  

The problem, however, is that students need to know what to search for in order to discover the very useful advice contained on these pages.  An interesting paradox: A student must keyword search in a language they don’t understand in order to discover advice and opportunity.  

For us, the solution was pretty straightforward: aggregate content from employer career pages and target it to students based on the data that the assessment generates. 

Using our theories and data, Brandon would have learned that he was comfortable with taking risks, strategic in his thought processes, and likely to be frustrated if he didn’t see tangible results. 

What if Brandon had this level of detail about himself? What if employer-generated career content that reflected his values was communicated early in his college experience? Our view is that it would have represented an unprecedented opportunity for him to be introduced to not only what he didn’t know, but to opportunities that he’d find immensely interesting.  

In reality, Brandon and his mentor established a regular cadence of communication, and virtually no major decision was made without having a discussion. Brandon was advised to major in a subject that he genuinely found interesting but focus on areas relating to the financial markets—his newfound interest. The mentor also advised Brandon to take elective courses in harder subjects such as combinatorics, options pricing, and microeconomics. The caveat, however, was to take them “pass/fail” so that he could focus more on learning versus being overly concerned about the impact to his GPA.  As a result, Brandon majored in history and wrote his thesis on the Great Depression and the risk that large banks posed to the financial system. 

The “safe-space” created by taking difficult, unfamiliar, and otherwise intimidating classes pass/fail provided a fertile learning ground with little fear of failing. The mentor provided Brandon with criteria for decision making and provided actionable advice that allowed Brandon to develop background knowledge necessary to help prepare for the grueling interview process he would experience first-hand.     

Career advisers have an opportunity to scale mentorship with a slight mindset shift to focus on facilitating relevant content delivery (sourced from employers) versus an advising model that requires direct communication with another human. It would allow them to do more with less.

Experiential Learning

This aspect of personalizing career paths was and is difficult. Matching students to relevant experiential learning opportunities, e.g., internships, externships, co-ops, etc., is a needed service. However, many students of color cannot take unpaid internships because they must work during the summer to help pay for school. Lucrative paid internships require access and preparation that first-generation students of color lack. 

For the Gates Foundation project, we’ve introduced a fellowship program that provides both curricula rooted in entrepreneurship, paired with a 10-week paid virtual internship that allows students to practice what they learn in real-time. 

Named after a pioneering African-American entrepreneur from the 19th century,  The Mary Ellen Pleasant Entrepreneur (MEPE) Fellowship, seeks to provide students with an experiential learning opportunity that allows them to build a body of work by empowering others and getting paid to do so. The Gates fellowship pays for the grant. 

MEPE was born out of conversations with students, advisers, and recruiters to help address some of the core issues in the campus recruiting ecosystem:

  1. Students get real-world opportunities to safely cultivate their skills and explore various career paths by building their own startup. 
  2. Advisers show that their students are career ready, with a demonstrable body of work and a strong understanding of their capabilities and limitations.
  3. Recruiters look for students that possess the soft and hard skills via coursework and work experience to add value to the teams they’re recruiting for. 

As you probably noticed, the three key formats for personalizing career paths for students overlap and reinforce one another. Perhaps it’s useful to think of the framework as a three-circle Venn diagram. Our goal with this project is to increase the surface area where all three circles converge, ensuring that background knowledge is acquired and retained. 

You Probably Saw This Coming

The young basketball fanatic who serendipitously met the Goldman Sachs executive? That’s me. Brandon is my middle name. 

I had a successful career on Wall Street before transitioning to a manufacturing company where I gained operational experience building its apparel division, led key initiatives in environmental and social sustainability, and analyzed merger and acquisition opportunities.  My diverse perspective provided fertile ground to cultivate new innovations with the goal to scale the process I experienced firsthand. 

It’s bittersweet. On the one hand, I’m very grateful to the programs and individuals that increased my awareness of, access to, and preparedness for the very rich experiences that have shaped my professional life thus far. As a result, my team and I are working diligently to bridge the gap that exists between the current generation of underrepresented students of color and the demands of the 21st century economy.  It’s a hard problem to solve. It’s worth solving, and we’re happy to have the support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

As educators, we simply cannot leave these stories like mine up to serendipitous encounters. Doing so would be irresponsible. The solution must be multi-faceted, embrace nuance, and be grounded in the root of the problem: Lack of background knowledge. 

Combined with a scalable but empathetic approach that delivers enhanced curriculum, personalized mentorship, and experiential learning opportunities, we will achieve our goal of better facilitating tens of thousands of career pathways for those that need it most.