Soledad O’Brien on why diversity programs fail

ByJames Dennin

When it comes to improving diversity in the workplace, elite employers across industries — particularly Silicon Valley — have barely moved the needle, despite deep pockets and at least the semblance of good intentions. At Facebook, for example, just 5% of employees are Hispanic and only 3% are black. Women, meanwhile, make up just 35% of its workforce. The statistics are even starker when you look at the top ranks of corporate America, where just 32 women are CEOs in the 2017 Fortune 500.

Broadcast journalist and philanthropist Soledad O’Brien argues that the roots of corporate diversity initiatives’ failure start as early as high school. “What young people need to be successful is mentoring,” she said.

To that end, O’Brien has become a leading advocate for increasing the use of meaningful mentorships that help young people navigate everything from high school to their first job.

The daughter of an Afro-Cuban mother and an Irish-Australian father, O’Brien first rose to prominence as a broadcast journalist in the 1990s at NBC, where she anchored the weekend Today Show. She later moved to CNN, working as an anchor and producing the documentary series Black in America.

Now 51, O’Brien helms the nonprofit PowHERful — which provides financial assistance, mentorship and support for young women aiming to complete college — alongside her investment-banker husband Brad Raymond. And on Oct. 14, she will host the public media broadcast American Graduate Day, which shines a light on the individuals and organizations working to lower the dropout rates in high schools and colleges across the country. While high-school graduation rates are at an all-time high, some groups, including African-Americans and residents of rural communities, are still being left behind.

O’Brien sat down with Mic to talk about how institutions and people can do better at making elite organizations more inclusive so more people can escape poverty.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mic: Why do you single out mentorship as a solution for expanding opportunity to more marginalized groups?

Soledad O’Brien: One of the first things [my foundation PowHERful] did was underwrite the cost of college, and almost immediately we realized that while that was terrific, it was not enough. What young people need to be successful is mentoring. They need someone to help them get to and through. The financial part will get them to college, it will get them enrolled, but the process of succeeding in college is actually the work of a number of people.

Very few people do it by themselves. If you’re fortunate and you have an intact family and you have relatives who can support you and you have a lot of friends, you might make it through without needing any help. But most people, myself included, actually rely on other people to inspire them, push them, challenge them, scold them, cheer them to get through. It is what is required to be successful.

Evan Agostini/AP

Mentors can get into spaces where family members get left behind. They can be very, very successful at helping a young person navigating a difficult time.

I was sitting on a panel the other day; there was a young woman named Omarina and she was telling a story about how she wanted to drop out of high school because she was really struggling. She was a homeless girl, lived in the Bronx, it was a very, very challenged experience. And I asked her what changed for her, and she said she found a mentor. I asked, “Oh, what did this mentor do that was helpful?”

She said, “People would often tell me, ‘Listen, we got you [in] STEM classes; we’re going to put you in [a] girls’ empowerment program; hey, there’s this textbook we’ve been able to get you for free.’ My mentor was the first person who asked me what did I need. And I told her I need soap, because I’m living in a car and I smell, and I don’t want to go to high school if I smell.”

If not a mentor, who is the one who fills that space that can help a woman get from point A to point B, with all the psychosocial issues that she’s struggling with and dealing with? That’s a girl who’s going to fall through the cracks without a mentor. [Omarina] is now a sophomore at George Washington University and doing really well.

Do well-intentioned diversity programs fail because they’re telling mentees what they need instead of vice versa?

SO: I know, as someone who has spent a long time working in philanthropy, that I’m absolutely guilty as anyone of bringing people the things I think they need that maybe is not the priority of what they need. I’ve never had anyone in my life ask me for soap, so if I was coming up [with] a bag of things to bring to someone, it probably would not include soap.

I don’t blame the people who are trying to be helpful. I think they just might not know. Maybe it’s the process of figuring out what questions to ask [that] needs to be better as a whole. But I think a lot of corporate diversity programs are really successful, and they are able to find a way to expose people to careers and internships and mentorship programs. There are always people who fall through the cracks, and it’s important to figure out how to avoid having those people fall through the cracks.

Who were your mentors? What made them good mentors?

SO: One of my first mentors was a [former boss] named Jean Blake, and what she gave to me was unflinching feedback — sometimes great, sometimes not great.

Having someone who’s very honest really saved me a lot of time in TV news. It’s the kind of mentor I try to be, just very straightforward. I’m not going to tell you it’s great if it’s not, peachy if it’s not. And I’m not going to tell you it’s terrible if it’s not. We’re going to have a very straightforward conversation and I’ve been very realistic.

I’ve had a young woman come to me with 4-inch-long nails and they can’t type, and I’ve said, “Listen, I spend a lot of my day typing. If you cannot type, this could be very problematic for your career as a producer. Take that as you will, but it’s just the reality of taking this gig.”

Katie Couric was a great mentor when I started anchoring on the Today Show. I also had older sisters who were great mentors, because they were all working moms. You’re sitting there with a newborn crying because you can’t figure out how to make it all work, and they’re like, “Oh, how old is the baby? Three months? And you’re miserable? Perfect! That’s exactly where you should be.” I remember laughing because I remember thinking that I’m not insane. That’s a great role model who can say, “That’s how it goes, here’s how to make it better.”

Peter Kramer/Getty Images

How can you formalize mentor relationships without giving anyone an unfair advantage?

SO: For the young women I mentor, I’m never worried they’re getting some unfair advantage. I’m worried they’re not getting that advantage, they’re getting left out of those conversations.

My job is often to prep someone, to say, “Hey, you’ve got a great opportunity, let me give you some insight, let’s maybe do a practice interview,” and then it’s good luck and off you go. And I’ll maybe follow up with a call and say here’s what they do well and here’s what they maybe don’t do well.

A lot of success in life comes from soft skills, and mentoring works not just on how to be successful academically or in the work you’re doing, but [also on] the soft skills. A good mentor leans over and says, “Don’t hold your fork like that. In this restaurant, we do this. Nope, that’s not how you approach your boss. No, don’t tell me you’re taking Friday off, ask me.”

I think sometimes, because they struggle with some of the soft skills, they’re getting a disadvantage. I hope putting in a word for them will get them a job or a second chance or get someone to look at their application or resume. That’s how the real world works.

A valid criticism of the job market is that it’s already too much about who you know as opposed to what you can do, no?

SO: When you mentor people, you need to ... make sure you’re [not only] being an honest mentor, but also reaching out to people who maybe aren’t like you. Who don’t go to the same school your kids go to. You should reach out across different genders, across ethnic, racial [and] socioeconomic lines, to mentor people who need someone like you as a mentor.

Then make sure you can put your name on the line to support them, because you’re giving them some of the social capital they might not have.

Are mentors doing a good job of spreading their social capital?

SO: I spend a lot of time thinking about social capital. This conversation with Omarina [the student who needed soap] took place at a conversation about social capital, so everyone in the office was wealthy. Not just wealthy, but ridiculously, crazy well-off. And it was so interesting to see them gasp when Omarina said she needed soap. They hadn’t even thought of the concept.

I take a bunch of interns every summer and I make sure that some of those interns are friends of mine who have a kid in journalism. And for every one of those, I make room for one person who may not be the traditional student who needs an internship.

That’s a really good way to share your social capital. Go find someone who maybe doesn’t know about the law and say, “Hey, maybe you should work at a law firm this summer? Maybe this is something you could do.”

You often hear from people of color and women — whether it’s an elite institution in the Ivy League or Silicon Valley — having to constantly defend their presence there. How effective can recruiting really be if institutions feel like their work is over when they extend the offer or acceptance letter?

SO: You really just have to give people support. Bad stuff is going to happen. You are going to fail statistics. So, how do you bounce back? Because something bad is going to happen to you on campus — academically, socially — something.

The key is how do you support that student and make sure they don’t fall through the cracks, that’s the first part. It’s making sure that they have an ability to be resilient, which is what college is all about — learning how to plow through mistakes you’ve made.

The answer can’t be, “OK, well I guess I’ll just drop out of college,” and that’s often what happens to people financially. Somebody makes a mistake in some capacity. Say they overcharge on their phone bill, like I did in college. And my father sat there and yelled at me while he wrote a $400 check to the phone company.

I didn’t drop out of college, but if you’re poor you drop out of college because you don’t have any money. We have to figure out a way to have some kind of ability to give a second chance to students, to all students, because you need an ability to bounce back from a problem.

How can institutions do a better job of recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce?

SO: Institutions are very good at things they do intentionally. I used to have this conversation at [General Electric] all the time. Trust me, if GE is making refrigerators that are not the No. 1 or No. 2 refrigerator, they get out of the business. They monitor it, they track it, they know every single thing about every single unit of refrigerator that is made. Because that’s their business.

The way to make sure diversity programs are successful is to make sure it’s done intentionally. If you want to have a mentoring program, it has to have leaders. It has to have deliverables. It has to have assignments. It has to be monitored. The CEO has to care about it and people have to hear about how it did.

It’s the same thing you’d do in any kind of company. You assess “what we want, how are we going to get there, did we get there, and if not, what happened and how do we fix it?” Those are your standard business questions. That’s how you run a good program, including a good mentor program or any kind of big support program.

Sign up for The Payoff — your weekly crash course on how to live your best financial life.