Expanding the Talent Pipeline (Audio Edition)
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Hi friends 👋,
Happy Thursday! One of the things we’re trying to do with Not Boring is to build out a toolkit that gives forward-thinking companies and investors the things they need to succeed. Often, it’s new ways of thinking about strategy. Last week, it was money. This week, it’s talent. And let’s face it, the way that top companies hire can be boring. Today’s guest post is here to change that.
A couple of months ago, my friend Taylor texted me after reading my post, A Pause: Black Lives Matter. The gist was, “Great that you’re writing about systemic racism, but a good friend of mine is actually doing something to fix it. You guys should talk.”
Taylor introduced me to fellow Duke grad Reuben Ogbonna. Reuben is an educator and founder of The Marcy Lab School, which “prepares low-income students of color for full-time careers in fast-growing tech professions” through an immersive one-year program. Reuben is also a force - he’s one of those people that you meet and get jealous of immediately because you know they’re destined to do big things.
Reuben and I hit it off immediately, and we’ve since had a series of conversations that have been among the most fun and thought-provoking I’ve had, covering everything from remote education to community to Stripe’s documentation. He provided feedback on and context for Hamilton & Disney’s Education Flywheel. Taylor’s initial assessment of the writer/doer dynamic was spot on - I sometimes write about the future of education, Reuben is building it every day.
Today, though, we’re putting Reuben in the writer’s seat.
During our last conversation, Reuben mentioned that his biggest focus right now is placing his students in engineering roles at growing tech companies, either directly or by working with funds to place Marcy Lab graduates in portfolio companies. There are a lot of Not Boring readers in a position to make that happen. So I asked Reuben to write something that does three things:
1) Educates us on the state of education, from an insider’s perspective.
2) Explains the work that he’s doing at The Marcy Lab School and why it’s important.
3) Shares the opportunity to hire Marcy Lab School grads with people looking for well-trained, highly-skilled, determined, diverse engineering talent (read: every tech company).
If that sounds like you, get in touch with me or Reuben by replying to this email or emailing Reuben directly at email@example.com.
Let’s get to it.
Expanding the Talent Pipeline
Why Non-Traditional Talent is a Competitive Advantage
by Reuben Ogbonna
On September 27, 2010, Peter Thiel announced what would later become the Thiel Fellowship on the stage of TechCrunch Disrupt. He committed to awarding $100,000 dollars to 20 promising college students to incentivize them to drop out and pursue an entrepreneurial endeavor. For the past decade, he has funded approximately 20 college dropouts per year, including the likes of Dylan Field of Figma and Vitalik Buterin of Ethereum.
Since then, a number of venture funds have emerged around the thesis that college campuses are prime recruiting grounds for start-ups that could deliver outsized returns. Funds like DormRoomFund and Contrary place early bets on young entrepreneurs and provide them with the network and coaching necessary to turn their ideas into viable start-ups. Their investments include Brooklinen and DoorDash (two of my quarantine essentials!).
This brand of fund tends to have a certain irreverence for our higher education system that I have come to respect. Their existence implies a belief that college’s unique value proposition is its ability to select not to develop potential entrepreneurs. They invest capital on the belief that a college diploma is not a prerequisite for success in the world of entrepreneurship. I particularly enjoy this bold declaration from 1517 Fund, named for the year when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
These funds source deal flow from a predictable set of colleges: typically those in the nation’s top 25. This strategy is understandable, as the prevailing wisdom is that these colleges are home to our country’s best and brightest young minds. Thus, limiting top of funnel recruitment to these schools will yield the best return on investment. However, I would argue that by having a singular focus on our nation’s most elite universities, funds are missing out on the leaders that are best equipped to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems, particularly those that are facing underserved communities.
College Admissions is Broken
In March of last year, Felicity Huffman became the face of the largest college admissions scandal in recent memory, sparking a national debate about the equity and efficacy of our country’s higher education system. We began to ask “who actually gets to attend our nation’s most well-resourced institutions and why?” This is a question that the National Bureau of Economic Research had been investigating for twenty years prior to Huffman’s arrest.
In a paper titled, Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility, researchers from Stanford, Brown, and Berkeley highlighted the correlation between household income and admissions to our nation’s top universities. Children of families in the top 20% of income earners account for 70% of students attending elite (“Ivy plus”) universities while those from families in the lower quintile of earners represent only 3.8%. Students whose parents are in the top 1% of the income distribution are 77 times more likely to attend an elite college than those whose parents are in the bottom income quintile.
We have been conditioned to view an 18 year-old’s admittance to a top-10 university as purely a signal of their intelligence, potential, and ambition and a leading indicator of their likelihood of launching a successful venture. However, we do not often consider just how much one’s success in the college admissions process can be attributed to familial wealth, access, and influence. No matter how much talent, curiosity, and intelligence exists in low-income communities, they do not stand a chance against the advantages that wealth affords, with respect to SAT prep, admissions counseling, feeder high schools, and familial networks.
What this means is that every year, budding scientists, student leaders, and prodigious entrepreneurs with all of the potential in the world will be overlooked for opportunities that would otherwise allow them to actualize it in the market.
The Need for Change
For the past decade, I’ve been able to witness “the college problem”, first hand. I’ve worked as a math and computer science teacher, instructional coach, and school leader in some of the highest performing low-income public schools in the country. I’ve been fortunate to help countless students gain admission to the schools of their dreams. And I have seen many of these dreams deflated as students come to terms with financial aid packages that make it infeasible or impossible to attend.
In these cases, students are forced to choose between the lesser of two unpleasant options:
Close the gap financing their education with a precariously high amount of student loan debt. Our country’s $1.6 trillion student debt crisis is well-documented; though, we often do not talk about how it disproportionately impacts Black borrowers. Across all institutions, Black borrowers default on these loans at a rate of 32%. Among those who fail to complete college, the rate increases to 55%. This is largely driven by the fact that Black graduates hold approximately $50,000 in student debt upon graduation, compared to the national average of $30,000.
Make the financially prudent decision to forego their dream school in favor of the more reasonably priced local option. The tradeoff is that their local state or city university likely does not offer the support, career development, and networking opportunities that their financially out-of-reach dream school affords. They often have graduation rates and average starting salaries that are significantly lower. Thus, these students fail to reach their potential due to a completely different set of factors.
This data supports a growing narrative that I have experienced personally: college is broken and it is underserved communities that experience its negative impacts most acutely. This is what inspired me to begin seeking out new solutions.
A New Option: The Marcy Lab School
In March of 2019, we launched The Marcy Lab School. We are a Brooklyn, NY-based non-profit company with two goals (1) to build a viable alternative to traditional college for high-potential young adults from underserved backgrounds and (2) to create a pipeline of diverse talent to the tech sector, in hopes of producing the next generation of start-up entrepreneurs from Black and brown communities.
We recruit young adults who would otherwise commit four years to collegiate studies at a traditional university and ask them to spend one year with us in an accelerated study program.
During our yearlong, full-time program, students are immersed in a curriculum that includes:
Computer Science Fundamentals
Foundational Principles in Software Engineering
A Social justice and professional readiness curriculum that we simply call Leadership Development.
This training is followed by a three-month apprenticeship where fellows have the opportunity to apply their learning in a “real-world” context as a contributing member of an engineering team that is shipping software at scale. This is their opportunity to showcase their ability to learn, adapt, and add value to teams working on complex problems.
Our curriculum is grounded in theory but drives toward practical application. It is continually informed by the needs of our target industry. Our program is designed to foster autodidacticism, create lasting bonds between students, and point them toward big problems in the world while emboldening them to create new solutions to solve them.
In our first Fellowship year, we have seen astounding results. Of our inaugural Fellows:
55% are women
100% are Black and/or Latinx
100% are from low-income households.
Our Fellows have accepted job offers to build software at startups, non-profits, and publicly traded tech companies. Thus far, they are earning average salaries of $93,000 per year to do so.
Our work has been funded by a diverse group of stakeholders, including JP Morgan, Lyft, Lenovo, and the Mayor of New York City - institutions that are all invested in the success of this overlooked student group and in the fight for greater diversity in tech.
We are looking ahead to next year, where we will grow to serve nearly three times the number of Fellows as we did this year. We will be doubling down on distance learning as a strategy to more efficiently scale our impact and expand into new markets.
A Success Story
Meet Mark Griffith. He is the son of hardworking West Indian immigrants. He is a gamer, a hardware nerd, and an incredibly empathetic human being. He is one of our inaugural Software Engineer Fellows.
Mark graduated from a selective public high school here in New York City. He was a stellar student who engaged in extracurricular activities that fed his interest in technology. During his senior year, he was admitted to his dream school, Drexel University. He even received a partial scholarship. However, at an all-in cost of $70,000 per year, he still would have had to take out approximately $30,000 in student loans per year in order to attend. Wary of the financial strain that this would have put on him and his family, he decided to postpone college matriculation.
Mark spent two years out of school, somewhat aimlessly searching for a pathway into a meaningful career. He found us in May of 2019 and began his fellowship that following September. Motivated by an insatiable curiosity and a desire to succeed for his family, Mark approached his fellowship with an inspiring amount of ambition and discipline. From building an app that used NLP to help users find Reddit communities based on their Spotify library to experimenting with WebGL to create 3D games, he viewed every project as an opportunity to stretch his learning boundaries. An aspiring entrepreneur, he was never afraid to take on the Product Manager role for his group projects.
Over the past twelve months, he has developed the skills and mindsets that would make him an invaluable asset to any growing engineering organization. Last week, he landed his first full-time software engineering role. Had he chosen to attend Drexel University back in 2017, he would be $120,000 in debt, preparing for a semester of courses on Zoom. Instead, he will be getting paid $102,000 per year to build scalable APIs for a growing company with 4.6 million users around the world.
Why You Should Partner With Us
If you’re a founder or VC and, like the funds I mentioned in the beginning of this essay, your portfolio’s early talent pipeline is solely reliant on graduates from the elite universities, you are missing out on talent like Mark. You are putting yourself at a competitive disadvantage. Among his many gifts, Mark brings two traits to any organization that hires him (1) a level of empathy and understanding for a diverse cross-section of potential users and (2) a level of grit, competitiveness, and determination that can only come from a desire to lift oneself into a new position in life.
In order to land this position, Mark had to outperform 32 of his peers from institutions such as Stanford, Berkeley, Cornell, and NYU. I am confident that he will do so again in the next phase of his career, when he might be competing against these same peers for funding or market share.
If you are a VC investing in world-changing startups or a founder growing a team to solve meaningful problems at scale, I would love to talk with you. I want to work with you to kickstart a pipeline of outstanding engineering talent from underrepresented backgrounds that will add immediate value to your start-up or portfolio companies. Moreover, you will be investing in your company’s future. In the long run, these individuals will grow into your team’s engineering and product leaders. Or they may take the lessons they learn in hypergrowth and engineering for scale and point them at novel challenges that only they are suited to solve and you will have the privilege of funding the start-ups that emerge from these solutions.
If you are bold and forward thinking enough to share this vision with me, I encourage you to reach out directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @reuben_ogbonna. I’d love to connect with you and introduce you to some of our Fellows directly!
Reuben Ogbonna is the founding Executive Director of The Marcy Lab School, an innovative post-secondary education model seeking to address inequity in higher education and the tech sector by training the next generation of engineering leaders from underrepresented backgrounds.
Thanks for listening,