Leap Voices is a new series lifting up the importance of equity and high performance by sharing the voices and experiences of Leap Ambassadors.
‘I’ve Worked All My Life for This’
Ingvild Bjornvold • June 2022
A wonderfully supportive family, the not-so-supportive Welfare Reform Act of 1996, and the devastating power of language ignited Bridgette Gray’s passion for building equitable pathways to well-paying careers and upward mobility, especially for women. Now, after 30 years of passionate struggle, a key drawbridge that used to cut off 70 million Americans from many living-wage jobs is coming down. Skills-based hiring is replacing the outdated requirement for a four-year degree.
To help all of us learn from Bridgette’s experience, Leap support team member Ingvild Bjornvold reached out to the enthusiastic Leap Ambassador and chief customer officer at Opportunity@Work, an organization working to “rewire the labor market” for the benefit of businesses, nonprofits, and the American workforce. Listen to the podcast to hear their conversation, or read it in full below. Additional resources, recommended by Bridgette, follow at the bottom of the transcript.
Ingvild: How would you describe your professional passion?
Bridgette: Watching people thrive—that’s my passion. It’s always been about people, whether I’m helping someone onto their first career pathway or helping people I lead internally to develop into a leadership role. I really care that people have something to connect to and anchor on, so they can thrive and grow. I’ve spent my entire life helping employers understand that talent comes in all forms, and you need different backgrounds at the table to run a well-rounded business.
Ingvild: What ignited this passion for you?
Bridgette: I was a mom at 17, but it was never an option to not finish high school and then go to college. I had a really strong support system growing up in Tennessee and was able to chart an educational path, thanks to my family and my high school English teacher, Joanne Smith. I don’t share this personal background often, because if you’re a mom at a young age, people make so many judgments and predict that life won’t look great for you. But it can; you just need a support system. Everyone needs a support system to thrive in this world, regardless of their background.
When then-President Bill Clinton signed the Welfare Reform Act in 1996, I immediately jumped in and wanted to help. I saw a space where primarily women were stuck in a cycle of dependency on public benefits. They didn’t know how to transition to a career that would allow them to support themselves and their families. I thought, “That could have been my life if I hadn’t had a supportive family and a supportive teacher.” I wanted to be part of a support system for women.
However, I realized quickly that the Welfare Reform Act wouldn’t help women move from poverty to thriving. I would coach them all week, and, on Fridays, I’d take them out to look for work. Everything I had worked on from Monday to Thursday fell apart on Fridays. The hiring managers had to sign a document starting with “I am part of the Welfare to Work Program” to verify that the women had applied. That line alone gave the impression they were forced rather than motivated to work. They wouldn’t even be considered. It was embarrassing and demoralizing for them, and I wondered, “Who was at the table writing this act?” I started thinking about the programmatic details of how to move someone from welfare to a career. I was on fire. I was ready to take on this system.
Ingvild: What’s it like to be Chief Customer Officer at Opportunity@Work?
Bridgette: This is the first time in my 30-year career that I’m not in direct service, but what I do impacts direct service. I help employers understand that 70 million people in this country do have necessary skills although they don’t have a four-year degree, and that employers have to rethink their talent pipelines. If you leave 70 million people stranded in low-wage jobs, there’s no equity. And you can’t continue to scream that you can’t find talent when it’s sitting right there. College is important—this isn’t a campaign against college—but not everyone can go to college. In fact, the bulk of the workforce (60 percent) do not have a four-year degree. This surprises employers. They assume that most workers have a four-year degree. This is why I help them think about skills-based hiring. Do you really need a four-year degree to be a help-desk technician? No, but help-desk technicians can start at $40-50K a year, and the pathway to growth is great. I want to be the best thought partner and leader, because if employers know how to be inclusive, I believe they will be.
Ingvild: You call 70 million people STARs. What does that mean?
Bridgette: STARs don’t have a four-year degree but are Skilled Through an Alternative Route, like workforce training, community college, or military service. STARs are 25 years and older and have gained their skills primarily from work experience. Education is important but life-long learning is even more important. STARs come from all races and backgrounds and make up more than half the workforce. We came up with the term STARs because employers need to see them as a talent category of people who already have much-needed skills. Many STARs rise in the ranks of leadership, when given the opportunity. One STAR I know became a senior vice president in a large global company. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and the late Steve Jobs were all STARs. Let that sink in.
Ingvild: The State of Maryland made a bold move toward more equitable employment. What are they doing, and why does it matter?
Bridgette: When a governor makes the decision to create equity across a state, it sends a signal. Maryland employs 38,000 people but hit a hiring crisis and couldn’t fill many roles. They started talking about which positions they could remove degree requirements from. Long story short, they became an employer on our StellarWorx platform and posted more than 300 jobs— from admin to IT—really fast. STAR positions on StellarWorx need to pay at least $20/hour—because that’s what we think of as a gateway job ($40-50K/year) on the way to a destination job with upward mobility—and have a career pathway. It was a bold move for Governor Larry Hogan to open up jobs to people without a four-year degree, especially without changing the skills required or lowering the salary.
Six additional states are talking to us about how to follow suit, thanks to a speaking tour by Governor Hogan. We hope every state will follow. The next frontier is federal jobs. President Biden has adopted skills-based hiring as a focus for his administration, which is great—we need to see it move quickly. Contractors want to diversify their talent pipelines, but federal hiring restrictions prevent it.
Ingvild: Maryland’s skills-based hiring sounds like a milestone. How does it feel?
Bridgette: STARs haven’t even been able to compete for well-paying jobs because they’ve been screened out from the get-go. So yes, it’s a huge milestone. It gives me goosebumps to think employers are listening. I’m working on a similar project with the energy sector in Houston—an entire industry! It’s what everyone has pushed for: equity. Equity starts with how people can provide for their families. I’ve worked all my life for this. It makes me emotional. People can’t continue to go to work every day in jobs that don’t allow them to take care of their families. That has to stop.
Ingvild: About 22% of Opportunity@Work’ workforce are STARs (and 60% BIPOC, 67% women). What does it look like from the inside to hire STARs?
Bridgette: Employers think it will change practices like onboarding, but it doesn’t. It does require a different way of thinking, though. At Opportunity@Work, we openly hire STARs for all kinds of roles, not just for the lowest-paid ones. We list our requirements, benefits, and salary because we want to be an attractive employer to all employees. We don’t put education in our bios. When we meet, we don’t know who has a degree or not. Everyone gets feedback on their work, independent of their background. I love that; it’s not the typical workplace. Because that’s who we are as an organization, we can talk more easily to employers about what it means to hire STARs.
Ingvild: You’re working to improve workforce outcomes and make them more equitable. What does high performance mean to you in that context?
Bridgette: To me, high performance means measuring and evaluating to know whether we’re successful; internally practicing the workforce values we preach externally; actively seeking feedback and using it to improve; and being intentional about DEIB [diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging]. I’m happy to see the addition of B to DEI because you can hire diverse people, but it means nothing unless employees also feel like they belong and stick around. High performance also means documenting our work and learnings, both for internal use and sharing with the field. I think we all need to realize that we can’t do it by ourselves; we have to collaborate.
Ingvild: What does language have to do with high performance and equity?
Bridgette: Everything! Nonprofits are notorious for talking about the deficits of the people using their services, and the philanthropic community has been complicit in creating this mindset. Nonprofits feel like they have to tell stories about single parents and incarcerated people to get funding, but deficit-focused language can work against the results we want.
When Mr. George Floyd was murdered, Per Scholas, where I worked at the time, moved to asset-based language. We stopped using words like “low-income” and “underserved,” because we realized we needed to present potential employees as what they are: assets, not a bunch of barriers to their own—and by extension their employers’—success.
Although Opportunity@Work is a social enterprise with a mission, we’re still a business. Connecting STARs to careers with employers that they may not otherwise have had access to is not about pulling heartstrings—it’s about meeting the employers’ business needs. We don’t “place” STARs in jobs; we connect them. Saying that we “place” them negates the hard work that STARs have to do to close the opportunity for themselves, and it elevates us as “saviors.” We’re not saviors; we’re just connectors. Language matters.
Ingvild: What’s your advice to all the employers—whether their bottom lines are financial or social—who want to play their part in making society more equitable?
Bridgette: Hire diverse staff. The only way to reach diverse audiences is by having diversity of thought. For each position, think about whether you need degrees or can hire STARs.
As a leader, stop for a second and think about your entire organization, not just the team that reports to you. How does everyone feel about the work they are doing? Do they have clarity in their roles? Push your ego out the door. Embrace vulnerability. Listen and take action. All voices matter, especially those who aren’t in the executive suite, because they’re on the frontline every day.
Think about how to create a business that is equitable and balanced for everyone—in pay, benefits, career pathways, and growth. Don’t talk about DEIB as an initiative, because initiatives have an end date. Are you saying you’ll hire five percent of diverse people on your staff and then you’re done because you met your goal? No, change the language to “building a culture where everyone is welcome.” When DEIB is no longer a goal, just part of how you operate, you’ve made a systems-level change.
Bridgette has come full circle. The damages caused by the Welfare Reform Act inspired her to focus on practices that actually help people into family-supporting careers. Now, she sees the fruits of her labor, and that of so many others, beginning to make a difference in people’s lives.