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Andrea Guendelman of Speak_: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society

An Interview With Tyler Gallagher

Accept equality as a mindset. As we experience vicious economic and political cycles, I encourage people to not give up or resign to a status quo where we stop the work to create equality. Accepting inequality as a way of the world is cynical and a cop out. Every person has a choice and an opportunity to affect change. It’s a daily choice in how you reflect on and challenge your own biases, the companies and content you support, the way you talk amongst your closest friends, and so on. We can all do a little better every day.

As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Andrea Guendelman, founder and CEO of Speak_.

Guendelman is a groundbreaking cultural strategist and entrepreneur with a penchant for creating platforms that accelerate diversity in the tech industry. Her company, Speak_, is a talent incubator that powers a cohort-based platform featuring customized skills-sharpening courses to elevate underrepresented candidates in the hiring process at high-growth tech companies striving to diversify their talent pools. She is a trusted consultant on human capital who advises public, private and non-profit sector organizations on strategies for diversity and inclusion, talent acquisition and retention, and workforce career development and upskilling.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I spent my formative years in Chile during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. I was raised Jewish, which made me part of an extremely small minority in the country where Roman Catholicism is predominant.

My family was a huge factor in how I decided what I wanted my future to look like. Their stories have shaped who I am. In fact, I’d say my entrepreneurial traits are ancestral. My Romanian mother and her parents fled Communism, survived the Nazis and settled in Chile. Arriving almost penniless, my grandfather managed to reinvent himself and make a good life for his family. My father is a Chilean national who completed his PhD at UC Berkeley. His father went from being a peddler to founding a successful department store.

Seeing my family rise above challenges served as a reminder that I could accomplish anything as a woman and a minority.

As a young girl, I aspired to be an actress — that is, until I asked myself, “What would I want to grow up to be if I was a boy?” The answer was: a lawyer. Amid the pressures of conservative expectations, along with being raised in the context of my family’s history, I chose to leave Chile, emigrate to the U.S. and pursue a law degree at Harvard.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Plato’s Myth of the Cave. I read it in high school and it hit me like a thunderbolt. I had an amazing teacher who helped me connect its themes to my own life. The lessons inspired me to take great ideas seriously and thus take myself seriously. It was the first time I felt someone valued what I was thinking.

Teenage girls are often taught self-limiting lessons. I believe it is important to instill in young women that their ideas have value.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

There are two that stick with me: “be brave, not perfect” and “accept the journey.”

As an entrepreneur, I’ve learned that I need to show up, be willing to make mistakes and learn from the setbacks — they teach more than the wins.

The entrepreneurial journey is all about growth and facing fears. To succeed, you can’t get paralyzed by limiting beliefs. You have to take risks. Leaning into the unknown is when you learn and grow the most.

This way of thinking is incredibly important to the work I do today. Lack of confidence is one of the greatest factors affecting underrepresented talent. In many cases, the candidates we work with are coming from backgrounds where they are the first person in their family to pursue a college degree or white-collar profession without having someone to show them the way. It’s my mission to let them know that they are qualified. They must be brave enough to pursue the unknown and willing to embrace the challenges they’ll face along the way.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is about empowering people, uniting teams around a common mission and motivating action that leads to collective success.

A good leader helps to cultivate and incubate the ideas of those around them. A great leader provides opportunities for collaboration and brainstorming to give ideas a chance to come to life. This communal ideation process allows a team to be intentional and hammer out obstacles along the way, making the execution easier.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

A long, rigorous hike in the canyons above Boulder, Colorado is my favorite form of meditation. The combination of clean air and stunning scenery gets my heart pumping and cleanses my mind. Most importantly, it forces me to practice gratitude. In the midst of the daily stresses of being an entrepreneur, a hike in a beautiful setting reminds me of my good fortune. I always return both calmed and exhilarated.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

Society at large is facing a moral failure and a failure of imagination. People stopped attempting to understand one another and that’s caused a breakdown in constructive communication about the issues we face as a nation. We would all be better served if more people had the humility to at least try to imagine what others have experienced — be it discrimination, injustice or any form suffering. It’s the simple concept of walking a mile in another’s shoes.

While there are other voices who could speak better on the topic from a political perspective, I look at the problem from an organizational perspective. The more diversity we can infuse into companies and leadership roles, the more we can drive conversations around what’s been missing and identify solutions to fill the gaps — and meet on common ground.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

I recently launched a talent incubator, Speak_, where we take a hard-nosed approach to addressing diversity hiring in the tech field. Specifically, we focus on underrepresented talent, which takes many racial, cultural, socioeconomic and gendered forms.

I’ve spent years working to understand the diversity problem in tech. This work actually started with my earlier companies, BeVisible, and more recently, Wallbreakers. I was startled to learn that 89% of underrepresented talent are rejected at the top of the hiring funnel and I wanted to know why so many talented, diverse software engineers were falling out of the hiring process early on.

My team and I discovered that the problem was two-fold: in the case of candidates, some are taking themselves out of the process too early because they lack awareness about the interview process. For those who apply, the recruiter’s time becomes the largest barrier. Three out of four recruiters don’t have time to look beyond the resume so they are overlooking talent on a technicality. To move the needle on diversity recruiting, we decided to approach the problem from both ends of the spectrum.

With Speak_, we’ve introduced a cohort-based program that empowers underrepresented candidates with computer science degrees to learn about our employer partner companies, their missions and internal cultures, and the soft skills and hard skills they value most across their teams. There is no cost, only a four-week commitment to complete the program. The candidates who complete the course milestones are pre-qualified for select positions at respective companies. This process enables us to elevate highly motivated, qualified candidates to interview for specific job roles. We save recruiters time in searching for diverse candidates. Hiring managers trust that the candidates are of the highest caliber. This increases the interview-to-hire ratio, helps companies to immediately diversify their teams and ensures candidates land desirable positions in their field.

We saw early success through a pilot with Amazon Web Services and have since expanded our roster of employer partners to include LTSE, Checkr, Bonus.ly, Robinhood, among others.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

A diverse leadership team fosters individualism, resilience and adaptation — and, most importantly, fights group think. The opposite of diversity is monoculture. Monocultures in nature struggle against shock and the same goes for organizations. If everyone comes from the same background with similar experiences, how can they present diverse ideas and cultivate change?

I urge executives to think about how powerfully a diversified leadership team connects with customers, employees, and other stakeholders in an increasingly global marketplace. If the message that “representation matters” hasn’t been clear enough in the past few years perhaps buying power will speak loud enough to get the message across.

Claritas recently reported that Latinos will account for 67% of total U.S. population growth in the next five years, wielding nearly $1.7 trillion in buying power. Add to that the consumer growth of Asian, African American and Native American populations and you’re looking at nearly $5 trillion in buying power, according to the University of Georgia’s Multicultural Economy Report 2021.

I’ll bet that will raise a few eyebrows in the boardroom.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”? Kindly share a story or example for each.

While we cannot distill this complex issue down to five simple steps, we can examine the role employers, policymakers and individuals play in the work to be done. Here are five conversation starters and ideas to consider:

  1. Accept equality as a mindset. As we experience vicious economic and political cycles, I encourage people to not give up or resign to a status quo where we stop the work to create equality. Accepting inequality as a way of the world is cynical and a cop out. Every person has a choice and an opportunity to affect change. It’s a daily choice in how you reflect on and challenge your own biases, the companies and content you support, the way you talk amongst your closest friends, and so on. We can all do a little better every day.
  2. Address the crisis of substandard education. For 20 years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress has been tracking student performance at the fourth, eighth and twelfth grade levels. However, in that time, student performance has barely shifted. The three groups that perform the lowest on the standardized tests are unfortunately students who identify as Latino, Black and Native American. These students are not any less smart than the White or Asian students. In fact, we’ve seen great progress among Latinx students as more first-generation students have entered the system. The factors we must recognize are how decades of socioeconomic or language barriers have created and perpetuated setbacks for generations of students in these groups that have been systematically disadvantaged. This is a challenge that demands better resources, sustained attention, and creativity from local and federal organizations. In doing so, we can work towards breaking the cycle by enhancing technical, financial and basic literacy.
  3. Empower working moms. Smart, talented women shouldn’t be overlooked or passed over because they have responsibilities outside of the office. Today, there are 23 million working moms in the U.S. with two out of three women working full-time while providing for their children’s education, healthcare and after-school care. Women with school-aged children are more likely to adjust their work schedules to part time or take unpaid leave, up to eight to nine weeks at a time. This creates a financial burden and a snowball effect: a two-month set back can translate into stress, mental health issues and long-term economic insecurity. Such factors trickle down into my previous point about student performance for underserved populations. We need to empower women to not only “get by” but to flourish so they can show their children how to do it. Employers and policy makers can play important roles here by making a commitment to providing parental leave, affordable healthcare and affordable childcare.
  4. Recognize the lesson of compounding interest and how it applies to economic status. The idea of generational wealth comes up a lot in conversations about equality and equity. Beneficiaries of generational wealth typically continue to maintain a relative level of economic security or growth through savings and investments. The inverse is true for those who lack the privilege and resort to borrowing in an effort to secure economic stability. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, social and economic deprivation during childhood and adolescence can have a lasting effect on individuals, making it difficult for children who grow up in low-income families to escape poverty when they become adults. Across all poverty levels, African-Americans who experience childhood poverty are more likely than whites coming from similar circumstances to be poor in early and middle adulthood. Historic bias plays a role here. Think about how this gap has grown over time, across generations as inflation and economic challenges continue to put groups behind the curve to achieving economic growth and independence. As we examine these and other systematic issues, we must understand and undo the work of centuries of bias policies that have been put in place. We need new approaches to level the playing field and allow underrepresented groups to recover and thrive.
  5. Participate in your local democracy. Support your local school levies. Go to a city council meeting. Email your elected representatives. We need more diverse voices in these forums. Pay attention to the policies that are being implemented by your school board, city council and state legislature. Most people only focus on national politics and global solutions sensationalized in headlines. They’ll agree or gripe about it and then move on with the notion that there’s nothing they can do about it. People don’t consider how they can contribute to the everyday conversations happening in their own backyard. The real work happens on a much smaller scale in state and local governments. You can’t expect change if you fail to pay attention and speak up.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

I’m more pragmatic about where we are today and how I think about the future. Neither optimism or pessimism will get us through this period.

I look at it like this: the issues we face today are deep-rooted so there won’t ever be a simple solution that we can point to. Instead, I believe actions will help to move society forward. That’s why I’m invested in doing the work to help underrepresented talent land opportunities that will give them economic and professional fulfillment. The work we do today will serve the next generation.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

I would like to have lunch with Martha Nussbaum, philosopher and professor of Law and Ethics at University of Chicago. She is internationally renowned for her work in Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. I imagine it would be like recreating my high school experience with the great instructor who taught me Plato. Philosophy is so far removed from my daily work routine. But that is part of its beauty. Having lunch with this powerhouse woman would allow me to take a step back, reconnect with the drive to lead an examined life, and imagine what a better society looks like and how I might contribute. That kind of wisdom can inform us all.

How can our readers follow you online?

I love to have conversations with human resource leaders who are leading diversity recruitment initiatives and candidates from various backgrounds who are early in their tech industry career journeys. You can connect with me on LinkedIn by searching my full name, Andrea Guendelman, or my company, Speak_ (yes, with an underscore after the word).You can also find me on Instagram @AndreaGuendelman and Twitter @FutureofWomen.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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