Realizing a More Diverse Workplace Through Investment in Black and Brown Girls

In recent years, we’ve seen many companies and corporations introduce initiatives designed to advance professional opportunities for historically excluded populations across the employment spectrum, including C-suite and senior leadership positions. There’s no denying that a more diverse workforce and an equitable work environment result in stronger outcomes and employee satisfaction. As the professional landscape continues to change and employees are increasingly seeking career opportunities that align with their values and beliefs, it’s imperative that companies strengthen their commitment to diversity and ensure their demographics represent the market and industry they operate in. Diversity initiatives should be implemented at every level, beginning at the job shadow and internship stages, to ensure equitable access to opportunities at a young age. When a young girl is able to complete an internship or a job shadow, she’s exposed to the possibilities that she can be an impact player and a leader in the professional world.

At Polished Pebbles, we focus on preparing black and brown girls for a professional environment through an ongoing curriculum, developing their skills to make them career-ready. This includes partnering with organizations to help them develop opportunities and work environments that support the success of black and brown girls and spotlight the unique perspectives and skill sets they can bring to the professional world.
Across our extensive dialogue with companies of all industries, sizes, and locations, I see three general myths that persist when organizations decide it’s time to scale their investment in diverse communities.
“We can do this on our own.” Organizations that are serious about investing in a diverse workforce need to seek professional support from like-minded partners that are committed to the same goal. The best counsel is intergenerational and diverse itself and can help develop policies and procedures that will truly achieve a diverse workforce. No matter how established a company culture is, there’s always room to identify areas that can be more inclusive and reflect the priorities and aspirations of its workforce. If those responsible for making these decisions in a company aren’t reflective of employees’ makeup, they won’t have the ability to look through an inclusionary lens and thus minimize the impact and efforts of the company. The good news is that there are many organizations that work with companies to identify the areas of opportunity and walk alongside them as they move to create a welcoming environment for employees of all backgrounds.

“Everyone has the same playbook.” Conversations continue to evolve around what professionalism looks like in the workplace, especially after the return to in-person working environments post-pandemic. Simply put, if you’re going to make a point to foster diversity among your employees, you must understand that everybody comes into your environment with a variety of cultural backgrounds and influences that affect their perspective of what’s “professional.” Far too often, organizations will write employees off quickly if they fail to meet an unspoken standard of what’s “professional”—for example, a different communication style or wearing something outside an organization’s dress code policy. As new people enter spaces they traditionally haven’t had access to, organizations must anticipate these small instances of misalignment upfront. There’s no participation award for creating a diverse workforce; an organization doesn’t get accolades for just having new people in these spaces. It must be willing to truly welcome diverse employees. Leadership has to be willing to look for the unspoken and biased view of “professionalism” in order to identify the areas that could be modernized and reflect the diverse characteristics of the workforce the organization is trying to attract.

It’s not a onetime investment. True investment in a diverse workforce is reflected through ongoing commitment to creating an inclusive workplace by providing equal access to opportunities. Providing job shadowing and internship opportunities is a great first step in developing your talent pool for the future, as true investment looks a lot like mentorship. More than just financially supporting diversity initiatives, companies must lean in to do the hard work. This most often comes in the form of commitment from an organization’s leadership team to foster this investment in the day-to-day actions that build up and empower others. It’s a consistent, daily willingness to foster talent to succeed in your organization by being willing to teach and invest in personal development. If the only goal is to hit an internal key performance indicator (KPI) on a diverse workforce, organizations will never find success or reap the benefits of what a truly diverse, engaged team can do.

Investment is a two-way street. If people feel invested in, they’ll return the investment. The key to success when intentionally building a diverse workforce is to focus on longevity. The seeds being planted now will determine an organization’s future. Separate from intentionally creating a diverse workforce, companies can invest in organizations that support the career advancement for girls of color to provide internship and mentoring opportunities, to host educational training for their employees and employee resource groups, or to learn about the unique considerations incoming generations of workers are facing. The investment in young women of color is a worthwhile endeavor that strengthens an organization. As is often said, a rising tide lifts all boats.

Kelly Fair is the founder and executive director of Polished Pebbles. She us the author of “They’re All the Same Girl” and the “Every Girl Is a CEO Career & Success Guide.” Her work on behalf of girls and young women has earned recognition from the U.S. State Department, Goldman Sachs One Million Black Women, Crain’s Chicago Business, Bank of America, Ann Taylor, Vital Voices, ComEd, Verizon, Google, Duke University, Chicago Foundation for Women, Operation PUSH, Social Enterprise Alliance, and more. Connect with Kelly Fair on LinkedIn to learn more.

Recognizing that girls of color in Chicago experience the same poverty, violence, and trauma as boys, but have far fewer programs designed to address their specific needs and life experiences, Kelly launched Polished Pebbles in 2009 to provide a continuum of programming that starts when girls are 10 and ends with supporting young women in new employment and/or higher education or trade school.
For nearly 15 years, Polished Pebbles has provided mentorship and career readiness programming to 10,000 girls and young women of color. Polished Pebbles Girls Mentoring Program is the only girls program in Chicago that brings an innovative group of stakeholders to the table to beat the odds and provide real opportunities in careers in technology, hospitality, retail, construction, engineering, health care and the nonprofit sector.

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