The Quiet Skills Gap That is Often Ignored

May 13th 2015

Many organizations, big name public figures, and regular Americans stress the importance of empowering women in the workplace. Though necessary, the conversation rarely acknowledges the additional struggles women of color face when trying to grow professionally, particularly in the tech industry. That's why Silicon Valley-based lawyer, recipient of the Jefferson Award, the Nobel Prize for public service, and passionate humanitarian Raye Mitchell started three programs dedicated to elevating women and girls of color so they can enter college and the workforce with everything they need to succeed.

Mitchell's ventures empower women of all ages: girls as young at eight can start fleshing out their leadership skills, and women ages 50 and above can learn more about getting ahead in their respective industries. Mitchell describes her line of work as "socialpreneurship," which she believes enables women and girls of color to "take ownership not only of problems in their lives, but problems that affect their greater community and society." Here's what she told ATTN: about helping young women and girls of color acquire the tools to thrive in academia and the working world. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Can you tell me a little bit about your programs on empowering young women and girls of color?

My various programs are geared towards three objectives. We want to gain equality in the gender fight for equality. Secondly, we want women and girls of color to lead more in their own initiatives and essentially build their own houses of success. I'm not denigrating the efforts of other major organizations, but the energy isn't as robust if you are invited to the table versus being the leader setting up the leadership table. The final reason I do this is because the opportunity to create, lead, and dominate change is out there on a global perspective. What I'm trying to do with our work is bring those inside secrets and norms of success down to a lower level so that these young women can be groomed sooner, not later, to step into their leadership ranks as global leaders.

When we started, we were primarily reaching girls ages 12 to 18. I had an overwhelming request to focus on girls 8 to 12. To better find the market needs for girls 8 to 12, we have a program called G.U.R.L.S Rock, which is leadership at a different tempo. Then we have Girls Lead Forward for ages 12 to 18. Women Lead Forward was put on the action item because I had an overwhelming demand for women over 18 up to age 50 and above who want the same experiential leadership training. So we're covering the spectrum and we divvy up the program because it's important our content is driven by the unique life experiences and needs of each of those groups.

How do you connect with these young women? Through schools?

One of the things we did when we first came out of the gate with both the G.U.R.L.S. Rock! and the Girls Lead Forward program, and even with Women Lean Forward, was come out with a virtual experience. Part of our goal is to work with other organizations providing services for women and girls. We are all touching the animal in different ways and I think there's high value in collaboration for those that choose to collaborate. We outreach directly to girls through schools, faith-based community, their own networks, and then we outreach to other organizations that reach girls.

What role does higher education play in your programs?

Education is the cornerstone of my personal value system and the cornerstone of the value system of each and every program I put my name on. I look at it from those three different perspectives. Studies have shown younger girls need to connect an educational experience with real life experiences. When you connect the opportunity of education to their ability to create self-change, you get a winning relationship. Studies have shown that for troubled young women and people, particularly for those of color, we can achieve more educational success if we can relate it to their life experiences. A Girl Scouts of America study called Change It Up shows that traditional programs, including the Girl Scouts, were missing the mark in serving girls of color, particularly African American girls. They missed the mark because they were not relating leadership skill development to issues that were relevant in their lives. So I studied the market not only to see what others are doing, but also to see how we could do it a little smarter, a little better, a littler different.

With all that in mind, do you draw their attention to scholarships and make them aware of what they need to do to get into college?

Yes. A day at a G.U.R.L.S. Rock event will always have a concrete action plan. We will go in with an agreement on actions of outcome and they will be held accountable to do something. The last event we did was called Write a Book For a Day and they were charged with coming up with a book, which I'm working on to get published, called "Lead Like a Girl." They came up with the perimeters on how girls could prepare to be leaders. Preparing them for educational excellence takes both the technical preparation as well as those inside secrets on how you do well with emotional intelligence and speaking in a room full of strangers when it's not your comfort zone ... You can give me a scholarship and send me off to an Ivy League college, but if I've never lived in an Ivy League environment, the scholarship will fall on pressure points.

I recently went to the Tech Summit of Silicon Valley hosted by Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Push Coalition regarding the overarching agenda to increase diversity and inclusion in the tech community. Brian Krzanich, the CEO of Intel, made a major announcement that Intel is going to invest $5 million in direct career preparation with the Oakland Unified School District. They were talking about having jobs and internships available in addition to the money, and everyone stood up with a round of applause. I'd already been working on a similar concept with the faith-based community, which also does a lot of work with Oakland Unified, so I went to Oakland Unified and said, "We must talk because preparing these young people technically to go into internships with Intel and preparing them technically to get tech jobs will do them a disservice if we do not prepare them for the insight and talent it takes to navigate an environment where they're already going to be the odd person out and where they're not used to being." His eyes lit up because they hadn't thought of the ramifications of on ramping these students even with tech training. Most middle class, hard-working blue collar families are not in tech. 

What success stories have you seen so far?

We measure success in a number of different variables. The majority of girls come reluctantly because a parent, guardian, or someone else in that same role brought them there. We usually have full day programs, and in the morning, girls ages 12-13 often don't want to be there and think it's cutting into their free time, but as I start to build credibility with them throughout the day, they transform. They get into it. By midday, I'm getting hugs, they become my BFFs, and by the end of the day, they don't want to go and want to know when the next event is. So the measure on a day by day basis is, "Was I able to convert their disinterest into some level of interest?" And that's a high probability, well over 95 percent. The second measure is our reoccurring attendance. Once the girls start entering and attending our programs, I will get a high level of retention and repeat engagement. They'll stay with us until they get to the high school age or where they go to college. I have a number of individual success stories as well. 

There aren't many women in tech, let alone women leaders in tech, so do you feel women of color are especially disadvantaged when trying to move up in tech and professionally?

Yes. It's a touchy subject. When people throw out these broad sweeping statements about needing more women, it doesn't translate to more women of color, and oftentimes the reality is there are no women of color in that grandiose conversation. Often the excuse is "we don't know where to find them," but I'm like, "I see them everywhere." The solution is to raise the visibility of talented women of color. We need a platform where they are visible and sought after and not constantly required to knock on the door to be let in. I don't want to knock on the door and be let in. I want the door to come to us so they see the talent they are missing. 

Do you think there's any single thing holding women of color back from succeeding professionally or becoming leaders?

The biggest challenge is they have to learn by trial and error at a greater rate than their dominant/white counterparts. Because of that, we get one chance to fail and there's no recovery. General population, i.e., predominantly white girls, can fail multiple times without it being a Crucifixion, so we are lacking the ability to fail and we're lacking the ability to bounce back when we do fail.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Our primary goal is to not level the playing field or get on the curve, but to redefine the curve so others can follow our lead as innovative contributors. We don't want to break even, we want to pull the path ahead for a greater value to society.

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