Leap Voices is a new series lifting up the importance of equity and high performance by sharing the voices and experiences of Leap Ambassadors.

‘Thriving is the Goal’

Samantha Sherrod • November 2022

Baron-Cristal

Imagine a young man growing up in New York City’s public housing, majoring in finance, and, after college, landing his first job in investment banking at Citi Group on Wall Street, where he sees no people who look like him. After a few years, he pursues his dream of entrepreneurship and launches a real estate development firm focused on affordable housing. Darren Smith’s real-life transformative experience of living in public housing to owning public housing was made possible by participating in the Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT) Career Prep program. MLT’s interventions have changed the life trajectory of this alumnus and more than 8,000 other program alums. Leap support team member Samantha Sherrod spoke with Cristal Baron, Vice President of Finance and Development at MLT, to learn more about MLT, its programs, and efforts to advance equity.

 

THE CONVERSATION

Samantha: You’ve been a reporter covering the World Bank and the Federal Reserve, and you’ve spent some time in investment banking. What inspired the career shift to the social sector and how does your role at MLT advance equity?

Cristal: I was looking for opportunities that fed my energy in two areas. First, I wanted to continue to ensure that people of color, particularly women, were demonstrating excellence in spaces where people didn’t expect to see us. Second, I liked the idea of scaling an African-American-led business that could move the needle on something important to me. MLT checked these boxes.

MLT is in the racial equity business, so everything I do addresses equity. Our organization is changing two fundamental systems to marginalize racism. First, our leader development programs focus on Black, Latinx, and Native American individuals getting on and staying on the right career path, knowing that they’ve got headwinds (experiences that result in feeling like they’re in a space where they don’t belong). The critical element of the system designed to ensure people of color start off and stay on that path is college, but more than 60 percent of graduates of color from four-year colleges start off unemployed or in jobs that don’t require that expensive degree. We are working to fix what’s broken in that college-to-career transition by scaling our statistically validated undergraduate program, in which 98 percent of our new college graduates land jobs earning an average of $90,000.

Second, we’re trying to reduce the headwinds people of color face navigating the workplace by encouraging our employer partners to approach racial equity in the same rigorous way they approach anything else that matters through the MLT Racial Equity at Work certification. Akin to the LEED certification for environmental building standards, our certification helps standardize what “good” looks like and calls on corporate America to take a stand on ensuring professional pathways are not just accessible for people of color but actually work for people of color. If enough employers embrace such standards, prospective employees, customers, and investors will be able to choose to work with companies embracing rigor and not do business with those that elect not to.

The support we receive from corporate partners interested in our talent and other solutions covers most of the costs associated with our business model. We raise philanthropic funding to cover the rest, as well as scale or build new businesses. My finance and development teams help ensure we’ve got the right financial and operational approach to managing the business to position it for scale, which is about understanding what drives the business and what makes it sustainable over time. My teams and I constantly think about how we can ensure our sustainable revenue grows as we scale.

Samantha: What does “marginalize racism” mean?

Cristal: The idea of “marginalizing racism” is something that our CEO wrote about in an article in The Atlantic. It was informed by his father, a Black economist at the Federal Reserve, a brilliant man who grew up in the segregated South and saw all that he saw as a Black man but also as an economist. It became clear to our CEO that the path to overcoming racism, or reducing its impact and therefore marginalizing it, required that there be a cost incurred by those perpetuating racism. If enough employers become change agents on racial equity issues, that reduces the headwinds that people of color face in the workplace and creates an opportunity for that cost (i.e., competitive disadvantage) to really be felt. In a world in which a critical mass of leading employers is embracing racial equity, an employer that doesn’t is limiting its opportunities to hire the best talent. If you create market incentives to marginalize racism within enough organizations, we believe, it can be marginalized in the broader community.

Samantha: What’s the origin story of MLT?

Cristal: MLT was born when John Rice, our CEO and founder, was in the Master’s of Business Administration (MBA) program at Harvard. He observed that there weren’t many people who looked like him, and those who did, didn’t know some of the critical unspoken rules of the game, like what it took to get into and navigate certain career paths. So, John had an idea: What if he created a program to help people of color understand what it took to land and succeed in those jobs? When he examined how things worked for successful candidates, he saw that they benefited from people both leaning in to help them understand what they needed to do to land opportunities and leveraging their networks to connect them to the right people. It was clear to him that most students of color didn’t share those advantages. Working with one of his professors, John turned this idea into a project, which he worked on in the background during his career as an executive at Disney and the National Basketball Association, before launching MLT in 2002. It’s grown ever since.

Samantha: Describe MLT’s programs.

Cristal: Early programs focused on helping MBA students hit the bar for getting into top business schools and land the right opportunities post-business school. We have since added programming focused on mid-career executives trying to optimize their career paths. We encourage them to ask, “What’s holding me back? What’s the best next step for me?” Our programs also focus on individuals interested in becoming a part of the C-suite or who want support in excelling in senior leadership positions.

Our earliest stage work is with undergraduate students through the Career Prep program. We currently have a class of 1,000 undergraduate juniors from more than 250 campuses. Over 18 months, these MLT Fellows receive one-on-one professional coaching from industry professionals who know the unspoken rules. These high-accountability, tough-love coaches help our Fellows understand their opportunity sets, so that they are not just focused on getting the right kind of job, but elevating their aspirations. Starting in the summer between the sophomore and junior year of college, Fellows initially go through a personal clarity exercise—an inventory of what they’re really interested in, passionate about, and skilled to do—so that we can help them figure out how to turn their passions and skills into a commercial engine: a career that can pay huge dividends.

Our programs are cohort-based, so Fellows experience accelerated development as part of a peer community, and everyone is lifting together as they climb.

MLT also has a two-way learning exercise that we engage in with more than 150 employers to help us understand what Fellows need to be successful in their organizations and to help our employer partners learn how to strengthen their recruiting efforts. Often, employers engage in activities that keep them from identifying or considering students who would be a great fit, but don’t “look like” the students they tend to hire in terms of background or resume. We help these employers see that our Fellows can hit their hiring bar—that the pipeline’s bigger than they think—and, if they hire our Fellows, we’re going to make sure that they know the unspoken rules to be successful. The goal of MLT’s programs is to diversify leadership in this country so there are more Black, Latinx, and Native American leaders in positions of impact and influence—changing not only the lives of their families, but also the organizations they serve, and the communities they come from.

Samantha: Who are MLT Fellows?

Cristal: About 60 percent of our undergraduate students are eligible for Pell Grants [need-based financial federal grants], and more than one-third come from households with incomes of less than $25,000. Approximately 98 percent of our students end up securing jobs right out of college making $90,000 or more. If you come from that household income and start out making $90,000, you’re transforming not only your life but the life of your entire family. For example, a first-generation college student from a small town in North Carolina who makes $125,000 at their first job at a tech company is transformative, and it’s not something that was previously on that Fellow’s radar. They didn’t know that career path existed until we stepped in and said, “You could be really successful as a software engineer, and here are the opportunities that you would have.” You can learn more about MLT’s impact on Fellows through our Impact Portfolio.

Samantha: Does MLT only work with individuals of a certain socioeconomic status?

Cristal: No. It’s so important to not limit our service to just people in the lowest socioeconomic status. As a person of color, you are vulnerable to not thriving, no matter how much money your parents have, because you don’t necessarily have the organic network, connections, and understanding of all the opportunities. Race impacts you regardless of your socioeconomic status and whether you’re in the same job as your white peers. Race as an independent variable—one that negatively impacts people of color, irrespective of where they come from or how much money they have—makes it clear why we also need to support people in MBA programs, people who are starting their careers, people in the middle of their careers, and those who are interested in becoming CEOs.

Samantha: I read the following on MLT’s site: “A striking number of Black, Latinx, and Native Americans remain vulnerable after college graduation and walk a tenuous path to economic mobility. Philanthropic investment has strengthened K-12 outcomes, college enrollment, and persistence for underrepresented minorities. But too many are falling short of the finish line. Strikingly, 61 percent of Black recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed.” How would you describe MLT’s work to position Black, Latinx, and Native American college graduates to thrive, not just survive?

Cristal: If you’ve got 500,000 people [of color] going to competitive four-year colleges, those folks should be in a position where they can thrive when they graduate. The U.S. economic mobility system involves attending great schools for grades K-12, going to a good college, graduating, and you’re off to the races. But if that 61 percent secures the same job that they would have gotten without a college degree, you have undermined everything that we’ve invested in over decades to get people to and through college. College graduates should be able to land a job out of college that provides lasting upward economic mobility, so that they don’t end up one or two paychecks away from financial ruin.

Too often the philanthropic world is focused on helping “the needy,” and college graduates aren’t seen as “needy” or “vulnerable.” And historically, a lot of philanthropic funding has been focused on helping people of color survive. We absolutely need to make sure people get quality education and have food, housing, and healthcare. But we can’t only do that. Surviving is important, but it’s not all there is. We must make sure people of color are thriving if we really want to fix what’s broken. Otherwise, there’s a risk that we could have the same conversation 60 years from now that we were having 60 years ago when discrimination was legal. That cannot be the goal. Thriving is the goal. It’s not just how much money you make. Thriving looks like you bringing everything that you have into a career that’s going to be gratifying to you and also pay you appropriately.

Samantha: Describe MLT’s presence on college campuses.

Cristal: We recruit our students by word of mouth and heavily leverage our alumni from each school. There’s a person (or two) on campus who serves as an ambassador to drive people in our direction. In addition to alumni, that person might be a professor, dean, or representative of student services.

In 2020, we had a conversation with The Studio @Blue Meridian, a capacity-building philanthropic organization, about how we can scale exponentially, given that a third-party evaluation showed that we demonstrated efficacy in the interventions we deliver to our undergraduate students. We determined that the clearest path to reaching many more students would be partnering with schools directly. We’re now in a pilot where we’re partnering with three schools to plug MLT’s interventions into the universities so that we can demonstrate efficacy in comparison with a control group. If we can demonstrate that what we do delivers results, then we could look to partnering with the next 10 to 15 schools to touch more lives. Ultimately, we could fix the broken college-to-career transition system and create a competitive marketplace in which students are looking at schools with an understanding that they need to choose a school that’s going to make sure they get the right kind of return on investment with their degree.

Samantha: In your role, you’ve increased corporate partners’ contributions. You’ve also doubled philanthropic giving. What factors contributed to this substantial revenue increase and how has your corporate partners’ and funders’ understanding of MLT’s work evolved?

Cristal: The racial injustices of 2020 have caused folks to be more receptive to rethinking things. The murder of George Floyd was a seminal moment. People were asking, “How are we still dealing with these kinds of challenges?” People were horrified at what they saw on television in Minneapolis. But people were also surprised that a “progressive” woman in New York City’s Central Park weaponized the police against a Harvard-educated bird watcher. A lot of people tell themselves there’s no racism in this country. Also, a lot of people were telling themselves we now have colleges that are diverse, so everything’s okay. Well, if that’s true, a Harvard-educated bird watcher in Central Park shouldn’t have the police weaponized against him. And certainly, we shouldn’t still be experiencing the disproportionate use of force against Black communities that resulted in George Floyd’s death. So, 2020 just caused people to start to think, “There are still structural issues that are allowing this to be true.”

There was more receptivity in institutional and individual philanthropic spaces and corporate spaces. People were saying we need a different solution. They asked us to help them think through what that solution should be. We saw more folks who were interested in our articulation of the problem and solution come in our direction, so that evolution resulted in a few things.

One, the rethinking about racism resulted in more philanthropic dollars. Two, the MLT Racial Equity at Work certification came out of those conversations and launched in 2020. Three, we created an Impact Fund in 2020 to tackle wealth gaps by diversifying the ecosystem that supports tech startups, including the venture capital businesses that fund them. That’s the epicenter of wealth creation and, therefore, wealth disparity. So, we said, “Let’s figure out how we tackle that.” The approach we came up with is designed to diversify the ranks of venture capital and private equity companies themselves, as well as the boards and senior ranks of their portfolio companies, and, ultimately, ensure more entrepreneurs of color are squarely on the path to becoming investible and having a shot at becoming “unicorns,” not only creating wealth for the founders and their early employees, but also creating attractive jobs at companies headed by a more diverse leadership.

Samantha: How does MLT define success?

Cristal: Success would be people of color having the opportunity to thrive and go as far as their talent and hard work can take them. As it relates to the work we do to support that goal, by 2030, we are targeting serving more than 10,000 Fellows annually in our signature programs with outcomes as strong as those we deliver now. Among our alumni base, we envision seeing more than 1,500 in senior leadership positions, 250 startups funded by venture capital companies, and 10 or more billion-dollar companies led by people of color creating great jobs for a diverse employee base.

Success would also be employers becoming change agents driving racial equity in our society. For example, if 250 of the S&P 500 were MLT Racial Equity at Work-certified companies, stakeholders including employees, customers, and investors would have the ability to work with those that are embracing equitable practices and not work with those that aren’t. That would create the real-world cost to racism our founder and his father realized was key to marginalizing it in our society.

 


 

Cristal and the entire team at MLT are working to fix the systems that perpetuate economic inequality and address the root problem of racism so that people of color thrive, not just survive. Their multi-pronged strategy changes the game not only for individuals of color like the thousands of MLT Fellows and their families, but also for future generations, organizations, and communities.

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