Earlier this summer, I sat down with CNN host Van Jones at our New York office for a live recording of my Office Hours podcast. Van is well known for his on-air commentary, but his stint as TV host is actually the shortest part of his career. Before joining CNN, Van spent 25 years working in communities and promoting green jobs. Most recently, he founded The Dream Corps, a nonprofit that aims to close prison doors and open opportunities for young people.

Simply put, Van is a do-good machine. And he has a lot to teach leaders and entrepreneurs about finding talent and opening doors for underrepresented communities.

The goal of one of The Dream Corps' initiatives, #YesWeCode, is to empower 100,000 young people from underrepresented communities to succeed in STEM fields. #YesWeCode is active in Oakland, about a 30-minute drive from the Google and Facebook campuses. But according to Van, it might as well be on the other side of the moon for kids growing up there. Many struggle to see themselves working at a tech company because they don't see employees who look like them.

Van wants to shorten the distance between communities like Oakland and tech hubs and to provide opportunities for young people regardless of their background. "Genius is uniformly spread out," Van says, but "opportunity is not."

He's right. Among computer science and engineering graduates with bachelor's or advanced degrees, just eight percent are Hispanic and six percent are black -- well below population levels. They also have higher attrition rates from STEM, either leaving without a degree or switching to a non-STEM field. This pattern continues once people enter the workforce.

These stats should scare leaders, especially in the tech sector, where the war for talent is fierce. But we all lose-- our employees, customers and communities-- if we don't tap into genius everywhere.

So, what can we as leaders do to find talent and open opportunities?

Start with the genius inside your company.

Do existing employees feel they belong and can contribute at the highest levels? As leaders, we invest time and money attracting talented people and supporting them to do their greatest work of their careers. But if employees don't feel they belong, their engagement plummets and they're more likely to leave the company. At Zillow Group, we're focusing heavily on belonging, establishing affinity networks and creating an ambassadors program to apply an equity lens to our business decisions.

Expand where you look for talent.

Our recruiting team attends the National Society of Black Engineers' National Conference, for example, and has hired interns on the spot, with some converting into full-time hires. If we hadn't tried new recruiting avenues, we would've missed out on talent that's helping grow our business. Expanding our recruiting efforts helps us tap into talent, and we have more work to do.

Partner with a local organization to create an apprenticeship program.

Ada Developers Academy, for example, teaches students from underrepresented backgrounds how to code and offers apprenticeships at tech companies, where they can learn the ropes and raise their sights. There are benefits for companies too. "When I first started doing this, I thought about it as being great for young people. I didn't realize how great it was for the companies," Van says.

Offering someone an apprenticeship is lower stakes than a full-time role, and you bring in new voices and perspectives, which research shows is good for business. Plus, partnering with a local organization ensures you're bringing in the skills and talent you need as your company grows. While apprenticeship programs aren't new, expanding who has access is important.

Manage bias to open opportunities.

In our conversation, Van described confronting his own biases during #YesWeCode's first hack-athon in Oakland. "My first thought was, 'I hope there's not a fight,'" he shared. All of us bring unconscious biases to the table, which can prevent us from seeing genius. As leaders, we can offer unconscious bias training to employees and require any employee participating in an interview loop to take it. We should take it too. When I took the class, for example, I learned about the importance of structuring interviews and asking every candidate the same questions to get better and less biased outcomes.

Van's passion for providing opportunities to young people is inspiring. But it also reinforced something I've been thinking about as a leader: making sure we have the best people who are empowered to do their best work. As leaders, we have a responsibility to our employees, shareholders and customers to find genius everywhere. That means looking beyond the stereotypical image of a genius in an ivory tower and carving out opportunities for untapped genius. We all thrive when more young people from underrepresented backgrounds have opportunities to succeed.

Published on: Aug 30, 2018