How a top Executive Search & Management Consulting Firm failed an exceptional Black graduate– in both the recruitment process and in his first year on the job.
“I don’t think there’s an initiative that could help…I don’t go to sleep at night feeling optimistic about how the situation could improve. Because I sit and I watch companies give their employees Juneteenth off, and that’s just a f**cking symbol.”
Drake, 23, is a pleasure to talk to–a genuinely creative thinker with a great sense of humor, a strong desire to give back, and a nuanced emotional IQ. As a former campus recruiter, I would have photographed his resume at the career fair and immediately spammed it to all of my hiring managers. That’s the impression he makes.
Drake landed his first full time job as a researcher at a top Executive Search and Management Consulting firm in NYC in 2019. He and I discussed his experiences, and various ways that top companies are not living up to their recent pledges to support Black candidates and employees.
LIZ: Currently in the corporate world, a lot of companies are making blanket statements about supporting Black Lives Matter, or even outlining what they are doing to help the Black community. I want to know how companies and employees can genuinely help, and not just say that they’re doing so to improve their PR.
LIZ: To start, I know you went to UVA- what years were you there for?
DRAKE: Oh, it’s deeper than that! My grandma desegregated Charlottesville schools, and my great grandfather…my family has [ties to Charlottesville] and it’s had a great impact to both the Black community there and the Black community at large. The dorm I lived in my freshman year was named after one of my great relatives… but looking back in hindsight I was so proud of it, because unlike other people that lived in dorms of their descendants, that dorm was paying homage to the work that Ida Gibbons did for Black people in Virginia. It wasn’t by way of a massive donation from a great grandfather, you know.
That’s where the real immense pride in my family, and the path that they fought for me to be able to walk, I feel greatly indebted, and also I know that my success or any opportunity that I have wasn’t by chance, it’s on the backs of a lot of people …so I take it very seriously.
LIZ: You must have had a really interesting perspective then on the way the university is, and how people act there. At UVA, how did you find your experience? What was it like for you, and also what did you study? How did that translate into what you do now?
DRAKE: So, I studied Foreign Affairs and History as a double major, within my Foreign Affairs major, I made it as quantitative as possible and had it overlap with Econ, and so my 4000 level Foreign Affairs class was a class that used R to predict and evaluate political strategies.
LIZ: That’s such a unique major, too.
DRAKE: Right now, the common thread of things I do, work, school, life, is that you have to commit to what makes sense for you. Taking those majors was a hard thing to do for me, like socially, with my family and with my friends, a lot had advanced economic degrees, or were in the engineering school, with predetermined paths, and I always knew that I wasn’t meant to walk a predetermined path.
The way that it works in this job is because I’m a researcher…I’m kind of asked to do the impossible in terms of charting our path to a talent solution, you know, like content creation, which I’m not an expert at. Also [at UVA] I had the pleasure of being a member of St. Elmo’s Hall…I [held] a position as Vice President and also Rush Chair, [which gave] me an opportunity to create diversity in our organization.
I was also part of the Black Male Initiative. I also was part of an interfraternity support group, like peer council, for African-American males who had joined non-black fraternities. My thought was like, you guys don’t need to feel like you’re in competition to be one of few, taken as a way for you to have a support system, and a unique group within your fraternities. It now still exists at UVA.
LIZ: I feel like just by you telling me that, that there was a big difference in the time that I was at UVA and when you were there. I think that’s also a really great indicator of what kind of led you to the work you do now. I’d love to hear how you got the job at [Executive Search Firm]. What was that recruitment process like for you?
DRAKE: After my junior year, I’d worked for a finance technology firm that was a Square competitor. I knew that I was doing good work there and I really liked the entrepreneurial startup space, and they were all talking about how they wanted me back. And so on Spring break I’m like oh s**t, I haven’t done anything to apply for a job, so I start going through my mom and my stepdad’s LinkedIn connections…and the person that I [chose to reach out to] was also a St. Elmo guy.
So that first [connection] is what makes my recruitment and my interview process, and just confidence in it, very different than how most Black people would experience [the recruitment process]. Very few Black people have, one, the opportunity to go to a school like UVA, and then join St. Elmo Hall, one of the [most recognizable] fraternities in the country that only exists at 10 schools.
LIZ: So you have a talent-connected family!
DRAKE: Very much so! But because we don’t have the same last name and he’s white, no one was ever like “oh, you’re [stepdad’s name] boy,” or anything like that.
So now let’s talk about my black experience at [Executive Search Firm] once I’m in, right?
LIZ: Before that, I was also going to ask, as a candidate, how did you feel race played a role in your candidate experience? Did you feel like there was any special effort to recruit you because of your race?
DRAKE: So I was sent to General Life Sciences in Dallas at the firm that hired me, and they plopped me in this position essentially setting me up to fail…
LIZ: So they just wanted to get you in for their numbers, but didn’t really care if you stayed or how you did.
DRAKE: [They weren’t setting me up to be successful], so I flew myself to New York with my own money to go network with people to find work and other searches to attach myself to…it was like a whole second job, the way that I used those opportunities to show my face to other people in the practice. And [the Biotech practice kept giving me] more work, and I realized they probably had the most diverse practice in terms of makeup.
LIZ: So you used those connections to get them to transfer you.
DRAKE: Yes. And because I’d been doing such good work, I got a raise in my move. And now I’m leading our own response to racial improvements. I’m piloting a book club partnership that will get young West Philly kids engaged with after school reading through an interactive book club with students in colleges.
LIZ: So you really used that negative experience to propel you to where you are now, and also make it a better place at your company. And I’m really sorry about your Dallas experience, that sounds just generally terrible, but also considering how excited you were about the company and then ending up in that situation.
That’s a problem I’ve noticed working in talent myself, especially at my previous company. We had a really strong diversity team, really strong talent team, and engaged in a lot of specific, targeted efforts to bring in Black students. But I think what’s lacking is the piece of “are we putting them with a manager who’s going to support them,” there’s that missing link.
DRAKE: But think about it–if I was white, and people knew all of these things about [my connections]–it would be shameful, the advantages that I would profit from. But because I’m Black, all that’s done is elevate me to an equal opportunity to succeed…you see how much I had to have on my side to get a fair shot. Just to get fairness.
LIZ: Yeah, the connections, your UVA resume, St. Elmo Hall. You’re what I would call a priority referral candidate.
DRAKE: And I was just shunned, I became an afterthought, and now I’m a rockstar [who is well regarded in the company]. It’s all changed, just because I had to fight to get them to overcome prejudices or assumptions. I had to fight to be seen, and I do that every day. I’m not angry about it, or upset that this is my path, You don’t have an EQ like this at 23, where you’re forced to develop observational and self awareness, or risk being thrown out of a room because you’re this angry, non-listening black man.
I have more advanced emotional and social skills than I otherwise would have had, had I had just a fair shot in this world…the hardest part of this is to be willing to engage to discuss it just so others are more aware, or to then decide that you’re going to do more and try to prevent it for someone younger than you.
LIZ: It is…and I think you’re in a unique position in a lot of ways, but I think especially as someone who works in talent, what do you think your company could do about what we discussed as the “missing link?” What could you do to better serve Black candidates coming in, and what kind of initiatives could you have in place to prevent what happened to you?
DRAKE: I don’t think there’s an initiative that could help. I don’t think there’s an effort that could be made to prevent this from happening to someone else. I don’t go to sleep at night feeling optimistic about how the situation could improve. Because I sit and I watch companies give their employees Juneteenth off, and that’s just a f**cking symbol.
LIZ: Yeah, they’re saying “We support the Black community,” but how, and since when?
DRAKE: They feel like they did something, they feel crazy because they say “we don’t like racism.” They think that’s a bold, crazy stance to make. And they think that giving symbols to a majority white workforce will increase discussion, but that is NOT the case.
And what it really becomes, the real onus comes on the front end of talent, because it’s about knowing that you need to have a diverse workforce to drive innovation. No matter how simple your business is, innovation is important. We’re one of the most admired practice in our company, and we have some of the most successful partners, and it’s no coincidence that we’re a very diverse group. Our Managing Partner is a non-white woman, and at the bottom of our train we have Black man Drake. The two bookends are so different, and that’s the range of perspective, and the solutions that we provide are so unique and thought-out, and broad.
You have to change the way of thinking in order to be successful in a group or a business. You need to need diversity…if you truly want to walk the path of change and create something, or make a big jump, you need diversity…many companies that people admire have diversity on staff, but the problem is, diversity doesn’t go with the brand.
My name is Liz Desio and I am a white author and talent professional. The purpose of this project is to highlight and amplify black voices within the Talent and HR communities by utilising my existing platform, Fistful of Talent. I have not profited from any of this work. Views of interviewees are entirely uncensored and the final product is pre-approved by each individual prior to running. Special thanks to Brianna Addison, my colleague and friend, for ensuring that this project was ethically conceived and executed in order to benefit the Black community.