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Communication | D.E.I.B.

Diverse Voices: Yulkendy Valdez

Saterman Connect is a close-knit team of collaborators who apply their diverse backgrounds and skill sets to deliver powerful, creative, expectation-exceeding solutions. We’re proud to introduce them to you in this series of dialogues.

Our first conversation is with Yulkendy Valdez, CEO and co-founder of Forefront. We love Forefront’s passion for millennials and Gen Z, their brilliant methodologies, their innovative use of AI and custom-designed software, and stellar ability to create and facilitate training and development. Yulkendy is also a Forbes 30 Under 30 social entrepreneur, storyteller, and TEDx speaker on the subject of attracting, hiring, and retaining Millennials and Gen-Zers, the two most diverse demographic groups ever.

Saterman Connect: Can you tell us a little about your background and the work of Forefront? What do you consider your “superpower?”
YV: I’m an Afro-Latina who was born in the Dominican Republic and raised by my grandmother in a close-knit, supportive neighborhood until I immigrated to St. Louis at age 10 and rejoined my mother. I had to learn to speak English and assimilate quickly, and these experiences led me to the work I do today. I am a storyteller and my “super power” is my voice, which I use unapologetically and authentically to speak for those who can’t or those who aren’t being heard. Forefront helps organizations recruit, retain, and advance Gen Z employees of color. Gen Z is currently 36% of the workforce, and almost half of those workers are non-white. My favorite part of what we do is driving education and awareness around Gen Z in the workplace.

SC: How has the pandemic impacted the work you do? What advice do you have for leaders in terms of short and long-term priorities as we anticipate a return to more in-person work?
YV: My advice for leaders is to meet the moment! Identify ways in which you can innovate now and purge systems and processes that no longer work. With the lockdown, we lost the ability to do in-person training of course, but Forefront was working on building our own tech platform which we have now launched, called Carmen AI, which we use to support training. Seven out of 10 Gen-Zers prefer text messaging for communicating, so companies can use our platform for career support and enable younger employees to tap into it whenever they want.

My favorite part of what we do is driving education and awareness around Gen Z in the workplace.

SC: You do a lot of work focused on Gen Z in the workplace. What are the biggest challenges to attracting, engaging, and retaining Gen Z talent?
YV: The common misperception of Gen Z is that they are job hoppers and don’t need or want stability. In reality, they are overwhelmed, dealing with two pandemics – Covid-19 and the reckoning with racial justice, and that’s not just people of color. The number one concern of white Gen-Zers is racial equity.

The biggest issue for attracting and engaging Gen Z in the workplace is censorship. Gen Z employees who feel censored – who can’t talk about their identities or bring their whole selves to work – are 13 times less engaged. So they are looking for employers who aren’t just posting the right social media messages, but who have created a path to leadership and are pairing words with action.

SC: What are some examples of effective actions?
YV: It’s really back to basics. Mentorship is something we have talked about for years. We know how to do it, we just have to update the approach for this generation. And sponsorship is something else I’m really excited about because I follow the research. The Center for Talent Innovation’s research tells us people of color with sponsors are 90% less likely to perceive systemic bias at work. So if I have a sponsor at work, I’m much more likely to believe this company actually cares about me and that there are equitable systems in place to support my success.

But we also know only 5% of high-performing LatinX employees have sponsors. This is a big opportunity to increase connections between young professionals and senior leaders, to build these relationships with authenticity and create trust.

Gen Z employees who feel censored – who can’t talk about their identities or bring their whole selves to work ­– are 13 times less engaged.

SC: Just to clarify, can you define mentorship and sponsorship?
YV: Sure. A mentor is someone who gives you a playbook, offers you her personal experience, explains expectations – someone you develop a personal relationship with. A sponsor is a person who suggests you for projects or promotions when you are not in the room, advocates for you and pushes you forward, but who you might speak with only four to five times a year.

SC: Virtual training obviously made huge gains during the pandemic. Do you think that will continue? What are its advantages and disadvantages?
YV: Virtual training will continue, but it will never replace face-to-face learning. Training is most effective when it is about connection. The scalability of virtual training makes it attractive, and using features like break-out rooms and the chat function can help make it more intimate and inclusive. But either in-person or virtual, the goal should be to avoid one-off training sessions and establish expectations that participants will keep the work going. Good training also creates opportunities for mentorships and sponsorships. Those grow out of the personal connections among participants.

The biggest challenges to attracting, engaging, and retaining Gen Z talent are that they are overwhelmed, dealing with two pandemics – Covid-19 and the reckoning with racial justice.

SC: Another focus of your work has been advancing and promoting women of color in technology. Are we making progress and what are the key steps to further diversifying tech?
YV: Late last year, in partnership with the LeaderSpring Center in Oakland, California, we released The Need for Culture Change: A Roadmap to Advance and Promote Women of Color in Tech. This report captured what we learned during our joint research project, which involved focus groups of women of color (WOC) in tech of all ages in Boston, San Francisco, Columbus, and New York; individual interviews with several WOC currently in tech; and a review of the latest statistical information about WOC in tech. Based on what we learned, we defined the best strategies to invest in to further WOC in the tech industry. We identified four pillars for this work:

  1. Supporting agency – how can we help more women of color advocate for themselves?
  2. Promoting mentorship and sponsorship
  3. Training managers to overcome bias
  4. Establishing effective feedback practices so feedback is respectful instead of offensive.

We also asked these women how they would design programs to support diversifying technology, and incorporated their input into our roadmap. We need to see more attention paid to advancement and succession planning because we know the talent is there.

SC: What are the most effective ways to insure people of color are getting opportunities to advance to leadership roles? What can both senior managers and Gen Z employees do to create more opportunities?
YV: Create and formalize sponsorship programs. Many organizations have mentoring programs, it’s time to formalize sponsorship. Right now, because it’s informal, it’s not equitable. These relationships might start on the golf course or at happy hour, but not everyone plays golf or attends happy hours or networking events (especially with Covid), so we need to formalize these programs to even the playing field.

People of color with sponsors are 90% less likely to perceive systemic bias at work.

So if I have a sponsor at work, I’m much more likely to believe this company actually cares about me and that there are equitable systems in place to support my success.

SC: More diverse employee populations start with diversifying candidate slates. How can companies do a better job of finding and attracting a broader range of applicants?
YV: For entry-level roles, we recommend connecting with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which a lot of employers are starting to do. Beyond that, companies should look at Hispanic-serving organizations, or community organizations that want to partner with businesses to serve these populations and create employment pipelines but may be struggling to get connected with employers. The third piece is to start early. We noticed recently that many companies are connecting with high schools, and many schools are looking for those connections. We want to emphasize too, that with all these DEI efforts, organizations should be committed to going beyond the transactional and think long-term.

There are many options open to organizations who are committed to offering more opportunities for Gen Z, people of color, and women. We want to help them create connections that support a diverse and equitable workplace. We know the talent is there. Let’s use it.

For more information, go to www.getforefront.co