Last year, it took a teenager’s 10-minute video of a Black man’s murder to shine a light on the raw hostility that Black people face daily in America. George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white police officer forced many to acknowledge the systemic racism that touches nearly every aspect of society—from healthcare to homebuying.
In the wake of Floyd’s murder, five executives felt compelled to confront these disparities. They formed a new organization, OneTen, to confront two of the most profound inequities: access to education and access to employment.
OneTen aims to help 1 million Black Americans launch careers in the next 10 years by “cultivating a comprehensive system that focuses on skills first and enables greater opportunities for earned success.” The hope is that this approach will lift up high-potential Black Americans who lack college degrees and enable them to succeed with dignity, and to give organizations an underleveraged talent pool.
Rich communities, resourced schools in America
The “American dream” ethos promises prosperity for those who work hard regardless of their background, but it’s a myth for most people. Low-income Americans have less access to educational opportunities and resources, hurting their college enrollment and cutting them off from careers that could raise their standard of living.
After all, American public schools are financed largely through local property taxes, with affluent areas spending more on their students than poor communities. Financial resources don’t determine the quality of education, but it would be absurd to deny that money helps (pdf).
“ADDING TO THE CHALLENGE, 65 PERCENT OF BLACK COLLEGE STUDENTS ARE ALSO JUGGLING FULL-TIME JOBS OR FAMILIES.”
Merck CEO Kenneth C. Frazier, one of OneTen’s founders and board co-chair, learned first-hand about this inequity as a child in Philadelphia’s public schools. During a recent interview with Manny Maceda, Bain & Company’s worldwide managing partner, Frazier reflected on his experience:
“My younger sister and I came along at a time when the social engineers in Philadelphia were engaged in an experiment they called ‘school desegregation.’ Being born in the inner city, my younger sister and I were put on busses and sent to better schools that happened to be almost all-white schools. And I got a much more rigorous education as a result of that.”
This educational gap has lasting implications. According to the United Negro College Fund, “Only 57 percent of Black students have access to the full range of math and science courses necessary for college readiness, compared to 81 percent of Asian American students and 71 percent of white students.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these disparities. According to McKinsey, 40 percent of Black K-12 students received no remote instruction during the most recent school year, and another 46 percent had only subpar remote instruction. Only 14 percent of Black K-12 students received average or above-average remote instruction, putting them significantly behind Hispanics (21 percent) and whites (38 percent).
With significantly less support than white children, Black students go on to complete four-year programs at public institutions at a slower rate than any other race or ethnicity, and Black men have the lowest completion rate. Adding to the challenge, 65 percent of Black college students are also juggling full-time jobs or families.
“MOST AMERICANS KNOW THAT WHO YOU ARE AND WHERE YOU GREW UP PLAYS A SIGNIFICANT ROLE IN YOUR SUCCESS AS AN ADULT.”
As reported by the United Negro College Fund, “Students at HBCUs [historically Black colleges and universities] borrow more than students from non-HBCUs because African American families generally have lower assets and incomes that limit their ability to contribute toward college expenses.”
Most Americans know that who you are and where you grew up plays a significant role in your success as an adult. In fact, parents’ incomes strongly correlate with their children’s future earnings in the US. The higher the correlation, the lower the degree of intergenerational wealth transfer—or, to use a word that has fallen out of fashion—class mobility. That’s not the case in other parts of the world. In some countries, mostly in northern Europe, people’s economic fates aren’t tied to those of their parents’ so directly.
Supporting skills-based education
A high-quality education and resources lay the groundwork for children to earn four-year college degrees, a particularly important credential in America.
“Many people see the four-year degree, in effect as a proxy for the hard and soft skills that are necessary to be successful in the workplace,” Frazier said in the Bain interview. “In the United States, the average Black family has net worth of $4,000; the average white family has net worth of $140,000. A lot of that has to do with disparities in employment that exist, which have their origins in the education system.”
College degrees have gained even more importance in a knowledge-based economy. The Education Trust (pdf) estimates that 65 percent of jobs required a college degree in 2020, up from 28 percent in 1973. And college graduates’ fortunes follow suit: Degree holders earn almost $1 million dollars more over their lifetimes than high school graduates who haven’t attended college.
“PEOPLE WANT A DIGNIFIED WAY TO EARN A LIVING AND CONTRIBUTE ECONOMICALLY.”
This is a mostly American trend. Germany, for example, offers students comprehensive vocational education and apprenticeships—career paths considered as respectable as studying at a university. But in the US, vocational programs have a reputation for attracting less talented students and preparing them for dead-end, less desirable jobs. Pursuing them amounts to personal or familial failure for some people.
That said, there are some interesting efforts to elevate vocational education at the local and state levels in the US. CareerWise Colorado, for example, provides students vocational training based on the Swiss model. These efforts are proving that such an approach can indeed work in the US.
‘The distribution of dignity’
People want a dignified way to earn a living and contribute economically. It’s not simply about distributing handouts, but instead giving people the opportunity to earn their own way. It’s about the distribution of dignity. IBM Executive Chairman Ginni Rometty, one of OneTen’s founders and board co-chair, explains that the goal of OneTen is not to simply move people into any job.
“We really do believe these can be upwardly mobile careers, and, therefore, we really do break a cycle,” Rometty, who’s also IBM’s former CEO, said in a recent interview on CBS This Morning.
OneTen challenges employers to rethink the notion that it takes a four-year degree to do entry-level work. To date, more than 50 companies have committed to joining OneTen in achieving its mission, including PepsiCo, Walmart, Bank of America, Johnson & Johnson, and Verizon.
“If you have those kinds of four-year degree requirements, you are unintentionally excluding 78 percent of African Americans who don’t have a four-year degree,” Frazier said in the Bain interview. “And we know that the style and the way in which people acquire skills nowadays in our society is very different than what it used to be. So, what we’re trying to do is shift the paradigm about aptitude from one that is based on a four-year degree or credentials to one that’s actually based on skills, to give those people a meaningful pathway into an opportunity to have earned success.”
“WITH ONETEN’S BACKING, BLACK EMPLOYEES COULD MOVE UP THE RANKS AND BECOME ROLE MODELS FOR THOSE WHO FOLLOW.”
Rometty and her team at IBM started rethinking job requirements several years ago. “We’ve been at this at IBM for almost eight years,” she explained on CBS This Morning. “We’re a great proof point of this. Now, after working hard and adjusting our job requisitions, which is one of the structural barriers to address, we no longer require a four-year degree to start for 43 percent of our jobs.”
OneTen is also partnering with education and training organizations—skills “providers”—such as nonprofits, community colleges, and credentialing groups. When an employer hires a Black applicant without a four-year degree through OneTen, a provider will step in with the skill-building resources necessary to prepare that individual to succeed and work their way up in the organization over time.
“By bringing, in effect, demand at scale, I think we’re also going to be able to create a situation where we get supply at scale by credentialing these kids of organizations and giving them the resources so that they can produce more people,” Frazier said in the interview. Along with Frazier and Rometty, other OneTen cofounders include:
- Ken Chenault, managing director of General Catalyst and former CEO of American Express;
- Charles Phillips, managing partner of Recognize and chairman of the Black Economic Alliance; and
- Kevin Sharer, former chairman and CEO of Amgen.
Year Up, whose one-year program helps young talent from poor families forge professional careers, has played a supporting role in the creation of OneTen. Following Year Up’s pioneering efforts, OneTen aims to multiply “the power of existing and successful programs without replacing their efforts.”
Who you hire is who you become
Attracting, developing, and retaining the best talent—including people traditionally overlooked for lack of a four-year degree—is a critical advantage. By empowering Black Americans, OneTen will build new talent pipelines to help companies diversify their workforces. Even though a culture of “sameness” has become a competitive liability, many firms have struggled to hire and keep employees from ethnic minorities.
“A lot of CEOs have come together and acknowledged there is something missing in their culture,” Frazier told Bain’s Maceda. “There is something missing in that [Black] people who get hired leave very quickly. They get to the middle of the company and they stall. Through this community of practice, we’ll be able to share best practices and ideas for how we can deal with that problem.”
With OneTen’s backing, Black employees could move up the ranks and become role models for those who follow. Frazier’s efforts to advance women at Merck provide a powerful example.
“We got very intentional about putting women in operating jobs,” Frazier said. “And, lo and behold, when we put a woman in a senior operating job, all these other terrific women who can do operating jobs came up underneath them. I think we have to be very intentional in the same way [for Black employees].”
Expanding the candidate pool will offer companies an opportunity to gain valuable information about the ways different people would tackle a job. Hiring managers would also benefit from thinking afresh in each case about which skills the job truly requires.
Breaking down barriers to build talent
All companies, whether they partner with OneTen or not, should be reimagining their talent pipelines and organizational entry points. What entry-level jobs truly require a four-year degree to succeed? Can you remove degree requirements or other barriers to cast a wider net? What skills and training will help people grow?
Many companies will also need to internalize a fundamental truth: four-year college degrees often reflect privilege more than capability. Or as Rometty succinctly put it:
“It’s not a lack of talent, it’s a lack of access.” OneTen’s approach is not about making exceptions or lowering standards; it’s about confronting deeply ingrained systemic barriers that our country is so slow to dismantle. It’s about thinking creatively in order to bring the best and brightest into your organization.