The Hidden Talent Pool That Companies Are Missing

I just celebrated my tenth year at Google, and for a decade, I have had my dream job.  I’m on the team that launched Google Apps for Education into higher education and K12.  I’m on the team that launched Chromebooks into education. I speak at conferences and events around the world on technology in education, including a gig at the White House last year in support of the First Lady's Reach Higher initiative.

While I've always felt right at home in my job, it's safe to say I do not have the background that most people expect of someone who works Google.

I grew up as a first-generation Latino-American with a single mother in Hell's Kitchen, New York.  I spent a good portion of my childhood on welfare and food stamps.  I attended PS 111 and PS 17.  I received my BA from SUNY Brockport and a Master's in Public Policy from Arizona State University.  My employment road to Google went through the State of New York, Accenture, Newmont Mining Corporation, and Charles Schwab.

Growing up, no one emphasized getting good grades so I could get into the best colleges.  No one spoke to me about my future.  I didn't comprehend what "elite" schools were, nor did I understand what we call success pathways.  I just took on whatever was in front of me.  Opportunities in the hood don't come often, so you take whatever you can whenever you can get it.

Searching for the right person. Loupe over red human figure standing out of the grey crowd

My passion for education comes from the belief that education disrupts poverty and is the most crucial factor in changing a family's destiny.  I spend most of my time in the education space striving to make education the silver bullet it was for me.  In this space, I've had some odd reactions from people when they consider my achievements compared to my background and what I had to overcome.

One typical response is: "Your parents must have pushed you hard!  You probably owe it all to how focused your parents were on making a better life for you."  Unfortunately, that's not accurate.  I grew up with a single mother, and she was too exhausted from her two or three jobs to think about my education.  For example, I got into the Bronx High School of Science but didn't go because it was too far for her to handle.

Another reaction I hear is: "You must have had the drive to be this accomplished.  Did you plan out the steps you needed to take to be successful?" When I was younger, I don't think I shared the same definition of success as these people.  Where I came from, just making it to 21 years of age was a significant accomplishment.  Whenever I was asked the, "what do you want to be doing in five years" interview question, I always wanted to respond with, "still alive and not living in poverty."  I wasn't so much driven by success as I was by fear, fear of being poor or being, you know, dead.

My favorite reaction is: 'For you to make it out of your situation and accomplish all you have, you must be super smart!"  I wish this one were true.  As much as I would love to imagine I have a 200 IQ, I'm not all that different than those around me growing up, and that's the point I hope you will take away from this.

You see, there are millions of "Jaimes" in our inner cities around the country.  Millions of young people who are passionate.  Millions of young individuals who want a better life.  Young people who are at the front line of some of our most critical issues we need to solve.  Young people who want a shot at solving those problems, who want create and leave a path for others.

These young people can add tremendous value to your company.  When I talk to students who are growing up the way I grew up, I tell them to work hard, focus on their education, and most importantly, to be proud of who they are and where they come from.  I try to explain to them something I don't believe they frequently hear, which is that their background and experiences will be a competitive advantage for them.  I try to emphasize that their point of view, their perspective is valuable.  If they can make it out, it's their experiences, which will differentiate them in the marketplace.

Companies that would like to have employees that bring passion, grit, and diverse experiences must use forward-thinking practices to recognize talent in places where they have historically not looked for it.  They need to understand traditional paths to success aren’t available to a lot of us.  I didn't go to Harvard; I didn't know I could go to Harvard.  I didn't have a summer abroad experience.  I didn't have the opportunity to do one.

There are concrete actions companies can take to tap into the hidden talent pool in their communities:

First, review resumes creatively.  You can't assume someone isn't smart because they didn't attend Stanford, or didn't do a summer internship in Paris.  Someone who was the first in their family to attended college and worked their way through high school and college at McDonald's can be just as capable, maybe even more so.

Second, give candidates the opportunity to discuss their background and personal triumphs.  We tend to equate poverty with low ability.  So it makes sense that those who grew up in poverty or faced early-life obstacles tend to hide their backgrounds. Without asking candidates to share their story, you might never hear about how they went to college locally because they needed to help feed the family.

Third, don't look for the perfect resume or the perfect college transcript.  Maybe they aren’t a Fulbright Scholar, but I'd take a student who lived in the hood and ran an afterschool program to help younger kids stay out of trouble over a Fulbright any day of the week.

Fourth, identify characteristics you are looking for to diversify the problem-solving capability of your organization.  I look for "street smarts."  I look for "hustle."  I look for passion.  I look for people who have a strong "reality distortion field," who think the word “impossible” is a challenge, not an end point.

Last but not least, look for diamonds in the rough that you can develop and grow.  The resume might have gaps, or the email might have grammar you're not used to.  Keep in mind there are millions of people who haven't had the opportunity to polish their communication skills.  With the right coaching and professional development, these skills will improve.  My 23-year-old daughter is applying for jobs right now.  She asks me to review every email she's about to send out to a potential employer.  Think about how many people do not have access to a guy who works at Google with a 200 IQ.

Jaime Casap is the Education Evangelist at Google.

The GradsofLifeVoice Forbes team provides thought leadership, research and expert commentary on innovative talent pipelines and related issues such as the skills gap, income inequality, workforce diversity, and the business case for employment pathways. We seek to change employers’ perceptions of young adults with atypical resumes from social liabilities to economic assets. This post was originally featured here.

Diversity, Education, Personal Story,
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