I’ve been in San Francisco working this week and meeting all kinds of fascinating women (an amazing perk of this job). I’m consistently amazed at the variety of women engaged in such a wide range of endeavors. They may not be household names, but what they’re doing is quietly impressive.
Last night I was at dinner with a small group. We had just come from an event with a large crowd who were associated with places like Stanford Business School, Harvard Business School, and prestigious firms like Bain and McKinsey. The women at dinner afterwards included three Founders/CEOs and a CMO. As we were talking about our own stories of career progression and people who helped us along the way, one topic that came up was about the value of leveraging people with different career and educational backgrounds.
If I had chosen not to hire him just based on his lack of educational pedigree, I would have lost out on one of the most amazing employees with whom I’ve had the privilege of working.
I’ve often thought about this topic personally. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, and I don’t have an MBA. My first career was as a field archaeologist and then I was a Peace Corps volunteer for over 2 years, so I started my business career later than many people I meet. I occasionally wonder what my career would have looked like if I did have a different educational background or was able to get into a prestigious MBA program. But at the same time, the lessons learned and qualities I developed as part of the experiences I’ve had have been invaluable to me. They may be “untraditional”, but don’t we want a diversity of thinking in our businesses?
At Ceresa we talk a lot about gender diversity, of course, but I also think many companies undervalue the benefit of people with different backgrounds and educations. One of the best hires I ever made was a man who grew up in a small town on the coast of Britain and couldn’t afford university, but he was super ambitious and extremely bright, so he started working in business at 17. By the time I met him at 23 he had 6 years of experience, and yet he struggled to find work with some companies because of his background. I hired him, and he became one of the best employees at the company. I even hired him a second time at a different company later on, and again he thrived – he had a huge impact, was repeatedly promoted, and was recognized at an annual company meeting for his work. If I had chosen not to hire him just based on his lack of educational pedigree, I would have lost out on one of the most amazing employees with whom I’ve had the privilege of working.
So how do we identify these strong candidates, without having those traditional markers? Is it just by making sure that we widen the range of people we chose to interview, and then also listen and ask thoughtful questions that might identify areas of skill that they’ve demonstrated in their lives?
I like to think that as we spark discussions about women and diversity in general, we can include this piece. I love hearing some of the winding and untraditional stories some of the most successful people have, and I also want to make sure people (like me!) who aren’t carrying those Ivy League degrees or MBAs never feel like they can’t be a Founder or CEO, or whatever they want to be. For those of us who are in a position to take a chance on someone untraditional, I hope we do so when it makes sense.
It takes all kinds in this world – and I love the rich tapestry of color and patterns created by bringing together so many differences!