Soledad O’Brien: Workplace Diversity Efforts Should Start In High School

With a PBS special airing this weekend, Soledad O’Brien argues it’s in employers’ interests to improve high school graduation rates among students of color.

Soledad O’Brien: Workplace Diversity Efforts Should Start In High School
Soledad O’Brien [Photo: Matthew Eisman/Getty Images]

A college degree can make a huge difference in earnings over the course of a career. A recent Pew Study found the median wage gap between workers with only a high school diploma and those who graduated from college was $17,000 annually. And without a college degree, the chances of living in poverty or being unemployed are significantly higher.


While high school dropout rates have been improving, the National Center for Educational Statistics put the total at 5.9% in 2015. The rate is even higher for black and Latinx students–6.5% and 9.2%, respectively.

Emmy- and Peabody Award–winning journalist Soledad O’Brien is passionate about the issue, and how educational disparities impact the nation’s workforce. She believes that companies on a mission to diversify their ranks need to step up their efforts earlier to help improve the chances that more young people of color will finish high school and go on to college.

The former CNN anchor and O’Brien’s husband Brad Raymond, now an investment banker, run the nonprofit PowHERful Foundation, which provides financial assistance, mentorship, and support for young women to complete college. And on October 14, O’Brien is hosting PBS’s four-hour American Graduate Day (you can watch a preview here), which aims to highlight stories of individuals and organizations working to ensure all kids get a fair shot at staying in school. Among the big names joining her: former Secretary of State Colin Powell, musician John Legend, and American Ballet Theatre’s principal dancer Misty Copeland.

Fast Company caught up with O’Brien ahead of the broadcast to ask her what more needs to be done to make our future workforce more diverse and successful.

Fast Company: Do you think that companies are still going to work on issues of diversity if that no longer seems to be a priority in Washington?


Soledad O’Brien: Many companies recognize that even if the White House doesn’t value diversity, they have to, because this is the face of the changing workplace. I’ve been very encouraged by the number of people who say, “We recognize the need to encourage young men and women of color to take these jobs, or we are ultimately in trouble down the road.” And that ties into American Graduate Day, right? We have to encourage young people to finish high school and graduate, and then if they are prepared to, if there’s value in it, to go off to college.

FC: Do you think that companies are facing a “pipeline” problem, finding talented workers among the students who have graduated?

SO: It’s not so much a pipeline problem as that you need to be able to connect the graduate to the opportunities that exist in the workforce. There is a bit of a gap between what students have experience in and are prepared to do, and what employers are looking for. Many employers have just decided to train their own young people. For example, the American Manufacturing Association has recognized that a lot of kids are not going to get [the kind of training they need] in high school. In order get those jobs, which today are often clean, tech-based jobs, they need to make sure that in high school, they can work on the equipment and understand what the job opportunities are.

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FC: What are some other ways for employers to do that?


SO: Internships. Opportunities to get in the door to see if they have an interest in a career–and to get people higher up in the workplace to get to know them. I also think companies need to be very intentional with how they think about hiring. If you want diversity, then hold yourself accountable to making that happen. Aggressive intentional efforts with graduates are essential.

FC: What do you think it will it take to get employers on board with recognizing there are multiple paths to career success, and take the focus off credentials and IQ, and put it on skills like critical thinking?

SO: I think many employers are already there. They know they need skill sets–employees who know how to collaborate, and work in teams and problem solve. Basic credentials are still necessary–the gap in what a student with no high school diploma and one with a high school diploma can earn over a lifetime is massive. But I think the conversation about hiring people with great critical thinking skills–then teach them the details–many, many employers are already there. And, what’s more, they know those same employees will have to shift jobs and learn many times in their lifetime on the job, because the landscape is changing so quickly.

Related: What The U.S. Can Learn From The Way Germany Trains Its Workforce

FC: And what happens after they get the job? Is there something else companies should be doing to be more inclusive?


SO: Mentoring. Figure out what makes people not successful. And not just in entry-level jobs. In big corporations, all these women of color are quitting the [leadership] track. You have to interrupt that and ask what is going on. Until you do that, you’re never going to learn. I had a boss years ago who said in a meeting, “Women don’t want to be executive producers.” And all the women around the table were like, “Uh, yeah we do.” That wasn’t a lack of talent, that wasn’t a pipeline issue. That was reframing and re-educating the people in charge about what an executive producer could look like if maybe they didn’t know.

FC: And your organization PowHERful is working to provide more young women with that kind of mentorship. How many have benefitted from the programs already?

SO: 125 scholars have been supported by or are currently being supported by PowHERful. Seventeen scholars have graduated college/university, and that includes one who graduated law school and another who completed a PhD program in nursing. By the end of 2017, we will have hosted some 4,000 girls at our summits. We teach them things like how you find a sponsor, apply for an internship, etc. The number of scholars each year is small, but we are high touch. They all still call me!

FC: Why do you think mentorship is so important to diversity?

SO: If you invest in young people, they invest in others. One of our scholars is a great example, as she’s now taken on the mantle of mentoring. They all need someone to talk to when they are in the middle of college and thinking, “I obviously don’t belong here. This is terrible. What am I doing?” It keeps them from making snap judgments. Kids in poverty don’t have the opportunity to make mistakes. But if they screw up, a mentor can offer that second chance by saying, “Here is what we can do.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.