By: Maddie Russo from our partner, The Thirty One Marketplace podcast team
More and more companies are realizing how essential a diverse workforce is to every aspect of their success. Unfortunately, many of them struggle with how to build this workforce, with some citing the worker shortage of the last couple years as an interfering factor.
But is it really a pipeline problem? Or, is it a relationship problem?
In order to ensure diverse personnel can thrive, companies first need to do the work of creating an inclusive and equitable environment that instills a sense of belonging. In other words, there is plenty of diverse talent out there, but many organizations have not been setting the foundation they need to attract this talent.
André Blackman, CEO and pioneering strategist of Onboard Health, joined Pam to share how business owners can engage in diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging (DEIB) work to build meaningful relationships with a diverse network. While André’s experience lies mainly in the public health and digital healthcare innovation sectors, his insights can be applied to any industry.
Since childhood, André Blackman felt a calling to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. When he took an elective in college that helped open his eyes to health disparities and inequities, he decided to pursue the field of public health. As a natural connector (more on this later), public health’s communal approach to healthcare problems resonated with him more than traditional medicine.
In 2007, “the golden age of social media,” André launched the Pulse and Signal blog, where he publicly shared his perspective on how technology and digital communications could affect the future of public health. Eventually, Pulse and Signal transformed into more than just a blog, becoming an entire digital strategy and branding company that served as a platform for healthcare startups and companies to tell their stories.
In 2016, André was invited to give the commencement speech at his alma mater, the University of Maryland School of Public Health. A big part of his speech revolved around how public health professionals should get out there on the ground to truly understand how communities are living their lives and the problems they need solved. As he looked out into the sea of graduates, he realized he was speaking to the future workforce of public health.
André had also been thinking a lot lately about how the fields of traditional healthcare, innovative technology, and public health were beginning to intertwine more and more, leading to exciting new opportunities for this future generation if the dots connected in the right way. He also thought about how many pioneers leading the charge didn’t seem to have a focus on diversity.
“And so what I started to think about is that the workforce of the future was going to need to look different. It’s going to need to be more representative of the communities that we need solutions to be built for,” said André.
Not only did the makeup of the public health workforce need to change, but so did the resources and opportunities to understand the problems that needed to be addressed. This realization led André to found Onboard Health, an organization “focused on building a more diverse and inclusive workforce ecosystem to power an equitable future of health.”
The organization does this in two main ways: (1) by community and ecosystem building that “connects, equips, and launches” diverse talent and innovative ideas and (2) from the other side, serving as a specialized executive search and advisory firm to match diverse talent and leadership with organizations in the public health space.
One of the ways André best serves his clients is by being a connector. For those unfamiliar with the term, it derives from Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and refers to those who not only have a very rich and deep network but also get great joy out of connecting people.
“My mind still works as a Rolodex, with a lot of context, names, events, all those kinds of different things,” said André.
Making the right connections can empower people to move forward with new ideas or “leapfrog” to new career opportunities more efficiently. When you’re plugged into the right network, you can ask questions, feel like you’re not alone, and find representation in many different ways. These questions allow us to gain clarity around how to best utilize our unique zones of genius in service to others. What should I be learning and doing to get plugged in to certain opportunities? How should I be thinking about my own value add in the marketplace?
Phase 1 of network and ecosystem building is introducing people whose skills, points of views, and resources will empower each other. But community building goes far deeper than that.
“Phase 2 […] is making sure people know how to tell their story, how to talk about what they want to get out of certain relationships and connections,” said André. These candid conversations are necessary for deepening relationships past the initial introduction to form strategically valuable partnerships.
“Community is how I’ve been able to do this [the work I do in DEIB], being open to collaboration and realizing that oftentimes this work can be very isolating,” said André. “But it’s collaboration and community that really power a lot.”
As mentioned earlier, André has felt the need to help others from a young age. Growing up to a Trinidadian single mom, he had the idea impressed in him earlier that “If you know, then you can go.”
In other words, it takes the correct knowledge and awareness of resources to fuel action – the resources that André realized needed to change as he was giving his commencement speech.
To this day, André acts as a strategic coach for leaders in the public health space with a passion for innovation and diversity.
“I love seeing lightbulb moments,” he said, those a-ha moments when people become aware of empowering resources they never knew existed.
One of the major ways André has equipped others is by providing a platform for other pioneers, innovators, and leaders in the public health space – especially from marginalized or underrepresented communities – to put their unique work and points of view out there and position them as thought leaders.
“As I walked in my connector energy, a big part of that was yes, there were my perspectives, but then it was also highlighting the concepts, innovations, and platforms of others,” André said. In fact, he admitted it’s something he’s become “synonymous with.”
By lifting other voices, André has created inbound opportunities for his network. “There’s nothing more valuable than making sure that other people can access your ideas, your thoughts, your way of thinking about certain things,” he said.
André also serves his network by matching diverse talent with organizations in the public health and tech innovation spaces that align with their goals and values.
Laying the Groundwork
A big part of finding the right fit talentwise is making sure organizations are actually ready to support diverse talent, having done the hard work required to ensure they have an inclusive and equitable culture that fosters a sense of belonging.
The first step Onboard Health takes when matching companies and talent is running an assessment to determine where the organization is on their DEIB journey. What has already been done to support DEIB? Which people in place have been thinking about these things, if at all? If nothing has been done yet, where should the company start level-setting to create those foundations around the needs of diverse candidates?
Many times, level-setting starts by defining the vocabulary associated with DEIB and teaching leadership what language to use when approaching these topics. Once companies have oriented themselves with where they’re at and their goals around DEIB as it relates to their mission, they can work to implement policies developed through an inclusive and equitable lens. Only then can they start staffing and hiring properly.
André encourages companies to continue revisiting their commitment over time. It’s easy to express a commitment to DEIB, but how are you measuring and tracking your impact?
Investing in Diverse Communities
Organizations looking to build a diverse workforce and work with diverse populations must also actively invest in the communities they’re looking to recruit or serve. According to André, doing so involves getting on the ground to observe how these communities live and understand their unique challenges.
However, companies should be wary of being transactional in their approach. They shouldn’t just go into these communities to collect data, but leverage that data into usable insights that allow them to invest in the community through problem-solving. Only then can we build trust and meaningful relationships over time.
“Lived experience is so incredibly important if we’re building services and products that actually want to be sustainable,” said André. On identifying diverse talent amid a worker shortage, he added: “It’s not a pipeline problem. It’s a relationship [problem]. It’s a trust problem.”
If you’re really doing the work and investing in these different communities, finding a qualified pool of diverse candidates should be no challenge at all.
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