Saturday, July 20, 2024

Here’s how a strategic mentorship program helps marginalized candidates break into tech

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Pathrise matches mentors from Big Tech with a diverse group of fellows to kickstart their careers.

Diverse happy interns listening to mentor explaining online project

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Mentorship programs come in all shapes and sizes—formal, informal, skill-oriented, career-focused—but they do have something in common: They can make a big difference for people who are often left out of the tech field, namely women and minorities. In recent years, there has been an emphasis on programs that aim to increase diversity. For instance, Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations saw a spike in programs that focus on bringing management positions to Black, Lantinx and Asian candidates, to 24% from 9%. 

And while it may seem that mentorships are best-suited for those at the early stages of their career, this is not necessarily the case. More and more, people who have already been working are turning to mentorships to help them pivot into new fields, or to expand their options. One program called Pathrise, matches mentors from top tech companies, like Facebook and Google, with a diverse set of “fellows,” or mentees, who have applied to the program. Pathrise aims to help people in various tracks get into the tech field—a field that has been largely untouchable for them. Each career mentor has up to 45 fellows, in a specific area of tech. Pathrise is not a course—it is a process, a customized amount of time which can extend up to six months, to help marginalized people get hired in tech roles.

De’Neatria Robinson, who goes by “Nykke,” is one such mentor.

Born and raised in Indiana, Robinson now lives in Chicago. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Purdue, and her graduate degree in higher education from Loyola University; since then, she has worked in hiring and career services for a decade. 

Robinson says it has been her goal to improve the recruitment of women of color. She switched to the “other side of recruiting,” to help these women more directly. “I wanted to make sure that someone wasn’t blocked out of getting a tech role because of their background,” she said.

SEE: How to launch a mentor program to build stronger connections at work

When Nike Arowolo, a fellow from Nigeria, was accepted into Pathrise, Robinson said she was “so excited.” At the time, she was on the scholarship committee, and Nike was a fellow on the data track—one of several different tracks that Pathrise offers, including marketing, software engineering, sales, and UX. Robinson, herself, “fell in love with the data track” because she wanted more people of color in technical roles.

“This is going to be my mentee,” she told herself.

What Pathrise aims to do, she said, is “kickstart a career that aligns with their interest.” When the mentorship began—the application process itself is competitive, Robinson said—there was a trial period, including a skills assessment, to gauge where the candidates were in their job search. 

Following the trial period, there was a resume assessment and interview practice. Each fellow is required to spend about 10 hours a week on job applications.

Some blocks that candidates have are “education, social capital, language skills,” Robinson said. Some fellows, such as Arowolo, speak English as a second language, and need coaching and navigating the American job search, she added.

“Nike had a great background, but she was underselling herself a little bit,” Robinson said. “Or, a lot-a-bit. I was thoroughly impressed by her.” 

Robinson got to work helping Arowolo fine-tune her resume, interviewing and networking skills.

The main pattern she sees? Candidates, especially women of color, are underselling themselves. 

“They don’t know how amazing and talented they are,” Robinson said. “Imposter syndrome is real.”

The most rewarding part of the mentorship for Robinson, she said, is when she sees a fellow have an “Aha!” moment. It happened “when working with Nike, when she started to get it: ‘I’m bomb, I’m amazing, I’m starting to get these interviews!'” Robinson recalls. “At one point, she had to prioritize the interviews.”

Arowolo was born and raised in Nigeria, and moved to the U.S. 11 years ago. She is now a U.S. citizen. After college, she began an internship in marketing, and later took a job at a marketing firm in New Jersey. She has a “weird affinity for the beauty industry,” she said, and over the years, worked in a range of marketing and sales roles in the beauty industry. And then she launched her own beauty business in Manhattan.

“I’m a restless person—I wanted to find different avenues to fulfill myself, career wise,” Arowolo said.

She did this for four years, when the pandemic hit. “Because it’s the service industry, I felt stuck, and needed to figure out the next step,” she said. She wanted to work for a beauty corporate company. And considered taking data classes, with the goal of working in a technical role within the beauty industry. She kept taking classes, but then decided to expand beyond that industry. Then, a recruiter from Pathrise reached out on LinkedIn and encouraged her to apply for the fellows program

Pathrise helped her switch industries.

“The tech world is a little scary,” Arowolo said. “These people have supernatural brains. You don’t know if you’re speaking the language. Even though I was taking the courses, I didn’t feel confident enough to apply to jobs in the tech industry.”

Pathrise offered a targeted mentorship. “This is about navigating the tech space. Really, having an ally,” she said. She joined in February, and got two job offers in June.

“Nykke made me really consider things,” Arowolo said. “Pathrise gave you more than the resources to apply. It was a great experience working with Nykke. She’s not just a coach, she’s a friend, a therapist.”

Now, Arowolo is a financial systems analyst for a music tech company in New York. But the mentorship has been a two-way street.  “You really have to hold a mirror up to people so they can see what you see,” Robinson said.

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