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The bus tours tackling the workplace gender gap one city at a time

Katlyn Grasso, 25, has found a way to correct the concept that there aren’t enough talented women to hire in every industry.

The bus tours tackling the workplace gender gap one city at a time
Discovery Days L. A. [Photo: courtesy of GenHERation]

Ariana Schoenholz did what a lot of college grads only wish they could do: land a dream job less than three months after getting her diploma. The offer came after she did a bus tour with an organization called GenHERation, which is designed to expose young women to female leadership and career opportunities they might not otherwise get to experience.

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She was faced with a dilemma that will sound familiar to new graduates. “My career ambitions have always been to find a job where I can be financially successful while also enjoying the work that I am doing,” says Schoenholz, who graduated from Emory University in May 2018.

“Some people have tried to tell me that having both is impossible,” she adds, “but I have always been determined to find that job.” As a self-professed extrovert who loves spontaneous interactions, Schoenholz thought that a career in sales could provide the best fit.

“I honestly didn’t know what to expect,” she confesses, but looking on LinkedIn, she soon realized there were plenty of potential positions that could suit. Yet sometimes, having choices across industries like you would in sales makes it tough to narrow down to one. That’s where GenHERation’s Discovery Days tour came in.

The bus currently goes to 10 cities (with plans to add more soon) during the summer. It takes high school and college women on immersive day trips, where they visit a variety of innovative companies across a diverse range of industries. Each student signs on for one city. Once on the tour, they get to meet female executives, visit the offices, participate in skill-building workshops like doing mock interviews, and hopefully, like Schoenholz, use that time to network and get a job or internship.

And it is intense. “We are on a bus from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., seeing about four companies a day,” says 25-year old Katlyn Grasso, GenHERation’s founder and CEO. She launched the idea when she was a junior at University of Pennsylvania in 2014. On the tour, the students meet some of the most senior women at the companies they visit, and get the chance to test their mettle at solving some of the real-world challenges the participating companies are facing.

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Of course, there are similar experiences to be had at university career immersion days, or if one is sponsored by a particular industry organization or company, but GenHERation widens the focus to more companies in cities across the U.S. from Twitter, PayPal and the Gap, to the Boston Red Sox and Atrium Health.

Doscovery Days tour at the Gap [Photo: courtesy of GenHERation]

Getting a foot in the door

Doing the tour in Los Angeles on the recommendation of a friend, Schoenholz figured it would be an education in the inner workings of some “pretty cool companies.” However, she says, it ended up being so much more. In addition to networking, Schoenholz got to sharpen her interviewing technique. “I believe that helped me gain more confidence in my interviewing abilities and in myself as a candidate once I learned about the types of qualities that potential employers tend to value,” she says.

That was part of the reason Grasso wanted to create this organization. Coming from a small town in upstate New York, she says she would have never gotten this kind of exposure if she’d only been networked there. “Our goal is helping girls get their foot in the door,” she says. Even elite university career services aren’t supported enough despite conferring expensive degrees on their students. “When you are applying to a male-dominated industry,” she says, it’s also helpful to know how to navigate it if you are one of the only women in the room. For Grasso, it became imperative to bring these kinds of career opportunities to the masses of women in high school and college right now.

Discovery Days tour at Adobe [Photo: courtesy of GenHERation]

Providing a pipeline of diverse talent

Her original idea won the University of Pennsylvania’s President’s Engagement Prize, which awarded her $150,000 to get it beyond a classroom project. As Grasso made her way through Wharton, GenHERation’s Discovery Days gained traction and continued to grow. Right now, says Grasso, their membership ranks have swelled to include over 106,000 young women from hundreds of schools across the U.S. And, she points out, 57% of them are underrepresented minorities, 41% of whom are first-generation college students.

As for the $300 fee that the young women have to pony up to take the bus tour, Grasso says that many of them are subsidized by either their schools or other organizations. “We don’t want anyone who wants to participate to be left out,” she maintains.

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This provides a pipeline of diverse talent for companies eager to change the ratios of their employees. As such, Grasso says GenHERation has a solid revenue model. “We created a marketplace model where companies pay an annual fee for a suite of services that allow them to engage with our community in meaningful ways.” She observes that most Fortune 500 companies recruit from about eight to 10 elite colleges, so the deck is stacked against girls from underrepresented backgrounds. “It shouldn’t matter where you live,” Grasso underscores, or where you go to school.

Although she went to Emory, Schoenholz learned during the tour that it was up to her to perform on the spot in order to capture the attention of a company. She recalls hearing Melissa Cerny, the area president for Gallagher, an insurance and consulting firm, discuss the industry and the lucrative opportunities that were available for salespeople in it while maintaining some work-life balance. But what struck Schoenholz was how Cerny emphasized her desire to mentor young women and help them rise up in the industry.

After hearing her speak, Schoenholz says she got up in the middle of Los Angeles traffic on a moving bus and introduced herself. “I sat next to her and asked her some questions about the insurance sales industry and let her know that I was really inspired by what she had said.” Two days later, Schoenholz emailed Cerny and asked to meet up to learn even more. “I also attached a copy of my resume in case there were any openings at Gallagher,” she explains.

“We are constantly looking for ways to attract young, intelligent women to our field, and GenHERation does just that,” says Cerny. “I was asked to speak on the bus and share my career experience with the women, and I was impressed at how incredibly engaged they were,” she adds.

Soon after receiving Schoenholz’s email, Cerny asked her to come in for an interview. “I went in a few days later for an interview, and later that day I received an email with a job offer from her,” Schoenholz says. She’ll begin working at Gallagher toward the end of August.

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Says Grasso: “We have companies of all sizes reach out to us. They all face the same challenges in recruiting women, which says something about society and the systemic issue we have to fix.” GenHERation seems to be tackling this so-called pipeline problem, one city at a time.

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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.

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