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SAN FRANCISCO—Instead of focusing on young applicants’ college degrees, consider their hobbies, travels and pastimes—pursuits that may tell an employer more about what those individuals can bring to a company than “a fancy piece of paper,” child prodigy Adora Svitak told attendees of the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2013 Diversity & Inclusion Conference.
The 16-year-old Svitak was the keynote speaker on the second day of the conference, held Oct. 28-30. The conference is an annual event featuring HR professionals, attorneys and experts who discuss how to better include women, people of color, individuals with disabilities and others in the workforce.
Svitak—internationally known for her essays, stories, poems, blogs and books—was invited to give her perspective on how to hire and retain Millennials such as herself.
“When the right people are encouraged to do things they’re knowledgeable about, instead of the jobs that we think they’re ready for or old enough for, it spells success,”said Svitak, who was thrust into the public eye when, at age 6, she was recognized on Seattle’s local news for her writing abilities. “We are impatient and visionary. We feel ready to make our mark, and this impatience, this vision, this readiness are all assets to any company if you’re willing to make room to listen.”
Svitak argued that companies should consider merit over seniority, and talent over education credentials, when recruiting, hiring and promoting employees. Increasingly, she said, America’s youths want jobs at places like Oregon-based Mindvalley, which describes itself on its website as a digital publishing company that branched out into businesses involving “mobile apps, marketing, technology, personal growth and entrepreneurship, and health and welfare.”
On the company’s website is its recipe for success: “Whip out a blender. Throw in epic dreams, bleeding-edge technology and quirky work culture, and grind them into a gooey, delicious pulp. What you'll get is Mindvalley.”
Svitak said lively, inventive, out-of-the-box thinking like Mindvalley’s is what America’s youth want in an employer.
“I swear I’m not picking on Johnson & Johnson or Microsoft … but if you go to one of those corporations’ websites, you’re not going to see words like ‘bleeding age.’ You’re not going to see words like ‘gooey’ or ‘epic’ or ‘weird.’ ”
Challenge the Status Quo
Earlier in the day, Steve Pemberton, chief diversity officer and divisional vice president of Walgreens, challenged some common beliefs among diversity professionals.
One, he said, is assuming that the best way to improve diversity at an organization is to “focus on what’s not working.”
“Start with what’s working,” advised Pemberton, who described being orphaned as a boy, spending much of his youth in foster care, and overcoming obstacles to become Walgreens’ first chief diversity officer in its 110-year history . “It could be informal mentoring. It could be a lot of success with specific populations. Find what’s working and begin there, as opposed to focusing constantly and relentlessly on what’s not working.”
As an example of the drugstore chain’s longtime commitment to diversity and equality, Pemberton discussed a letter that Walgreens founder Charles Walgreen wrote in 1928. The letter instructed a subordinate to follow up on Walgreen’s promise to a black pharmacist named “Mr. Bakerhill” that he would be paid the same as his white colleagues.
That, Pemberton said, even though the nation was on the cusp of the Great Depression, companies were “already looking at ways to cut costs, Jim Crow is the law of the land, and blacks are called many things, but ‘mister’ is not usually on the list.”
“In my childhood I had so many people who said they were going to help … but they never did. It was always my litmus test. You do what you say you’re going to do.”
Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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