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FERANMI OKANLAMI: Welcome to "Equal & Able," which is in partnership with Guardian Life. I am Dr. Feranmi Okanlami, your host, but you can call me Dr. O. I use he/him pronouns, and I'm a Nigerian born, middle aged Black man with brown skin and short black hair. I identify as a cisgender, heterosexual male wheelchair user. I'm an advocate for people with disabilities, a speaker, Christian, father, and a physician dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Our hope is to engage in challenging conversations that push us all to do what we can within our own spheres of influence in order to ensure everyone's tomorrow is better than their yesterday. Today we are lucky to have Candice Dixon, coalition development director of NPower Inc. Candice has served as a nonprofit leader for more than 15 years. Her work has centered on place-based funding initiatives, community building, workplace engagement, and programming to empower women and girls.

She is NPower's coalition development director, responsible for leading Command Shift, a coalition accelerating more women of color in tech. Candice, thank you for joining us. Would you mind telling us a bit about your journey and what led you to NPower?

CANDICE DIXON: Well, sure. Dr. O, thank you so much for having me today. It's always a pleasure to have conversations with individuals who aren't afraid to use their platform to advance important issues as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion. And when I think about my journey to NPower, it's rooted in just that. I have been working for nonprofit organizations for more than 15 years and in that time had the opportunity to work with organizations centered on accelerating women and girls, most specifically at the Women's Sports Foundation, where I led an initiative called Go Girl, Go, and then later at United Way of Greater Atlanta, where I led women's leadership initiatives and worked very closely with our women's leadership council, the women of Tocqueville, and my work centered very squarely on helping to develop strategies to invest in our communities so that we can help families thrive.

And so when I think about my journey to NPower, I fast forward to 2020 and just really consider everything that we collectively experienced during that time. I think many of us would agree that 2020 is going to be one of the most memorable years of our time. And for me, it wasn't just memorable because of the pandemic. It was also memorable because of the challenges that our country faced as it related to racial injustice.

And it was during that time where I became very reflective and wanted to really explore opportunities to get back to my roots and figure out how I could provide support to women and girls who look like me. And so I then decided that I was going to pivot away from the work that I was doing and actively pursue my passion work. And the minute that I did that, lo and behold, a recruiter reached out to me from LinkedIn and told me about this amazing organization called NPower that was providing access for individuals in under-resourced communities to building pathways to prosperity through launching tech careers. And it was from there that I was hooked. And one thing led to another, and now I'm here today as a proud member of the NPower family.

FERANMI OKANLAMI: Candice, thank you for what you do. Anyone that knows me knows that that phrase you said about providing access is something that's near and dear to my heart. And so thank you for also doing your part to do that. With that said, for those that may be listening that are unfamiliar with NPower, can you share the organization's mission and how it helps military veterans and individuals from underserved communities?

CANDICE DIXON: Of course. So NPower is a national nonprofit rooted in community that is committed to advancing both racial and gender equality within the tech workforce. We've been doing that work for 10 years. And our work is centered on providing free technology training for veterans and young adults. And we provide that training through a supportive environment that gives our participants access to professional development, mentorship, paid training, as well as social supports. NPower's trainees launch careers in the tech sector, and they build pathways to sustainability, as well as generational wealth, which is something that we're really excited about.

FERANMI OKANLAMI: That's great because at Equal & Able, we try to talk a lot about increasing equity. And right now, I think it's clear as you mentioned earlier that there's no doubt a disparity exists when it comes to technology from access to careers. For example, there was this recent article in "Fast Company" that was talking about that one reason for what they called the great resignation in the tech industry is a lack of diversity.

Can you talk a little bit more about that specifically?

CANDICE DIXON: Yeah, sure. So when I think about that article, you know, it's a recent article. But what we know and as you mentioned, the issues surrounding diversity within the tech industry have been taking place for quite some time. And what we know at NPower is that the tech industry is mostly white male and that less than 5% of Black and Latino women are represented within computing related roles. And that's something that just has to change.

And so when we consider tech, and we consider just the level of respect for the tech industry has as an employer, we know that it's time that the tech industry take a stand and build a trajectory towards diversity. And we believe that that can be done by creating more inclusive work cultures. We also think that that can also be done by providing greater support to diverse employees, primarily by offering opportunities for mentorship and sponsorship.

And then lastly, we have to be open to bringing in talent from different minority groups and prioritizing individuals, especially women of color who are pursuing technology careers through non-traditional pathways.

FERANMI OKANLAMI: You talk about how this isn't new. Many people are starting to recognize some of these inequities that have existed for a long time, but what I tell people is that the pandemic only exacerbated those things. You know, it exposed these inequities that existed not only as it pertains to health care, but most profoundly its impact with remote learning and enabling remote work. Can you share what NPower has learned in this last year about technology and access?

CANDICE DIXON: Sure. So what's clear is that the digital divide is not only in education. There is a digital divide within our communities, as well as within the workforce. And so when we talk about digital opportunities for our students, we know that these disparities have existed for quite some time. And because NPower was aware of those disparities, we were able to pivot very quickly.

Our goal then became-- once everything shut down, our goal became really ensuring that our trainees have access to the resources and tools that they needed to ensure that they could complete our program. And so for us, that meant that we were providing laptops to all of our trainees. That meant that we provided hotspots. But most importantly, we also provided access to social support through our social support managers.

And that's something that I think is the bedrock of our program because you can succeed in classroom. But oftentimes, the thing that we see that holds people back is not what happens in the classroom, but what happens at home. And so access to our social support managers is what truly helped to keep people afloat, especially when we know that they were experiencing some serious challenges in the wake of the pandemic.

But beyond that, we also know that because our trainees had to pivot to virtual learning, it means that they have a new skill set. Not only are they virtual learners, but now, they can be virtual and remote workers, which can provide them with the tools that they need to not only access the technology jobs of today, but be prepared for the technology workforce of tomorrow.

FERANMI OKANLAMI: And when we talk about that workforce, that workforce does not always seem to represent the people that they will be working with and for. We all know-- at least I hope that we know, and I believe that those on this podcast are starting to know that there's a growing need to increase diversity in all careers, but in particular in technology careers.

Most recently, NPower has launched a program called Command Shift, which I love that title by the way, to increase the number of women of color in tech jobs. You know interestingly, I don't know if you know the name Stephanie Lampkin. But Stephanie Lampkin is a Stanford classmate of mine, and she created something called Blendoor. We can talk about that later. But it reminds me a lot of this. But can you share a little more about the intent and collaborators in this Command Shift program?

CANDICE DIXON: Sure. So Command Shift is a glass ceiling breaking coalition of corporate, nonprofit, and community leaders who are committed to accelerating more women of color in technology. It's through Command Shift that we believe that there needs to be a shift in technology. And by that, we believe that there needs to be a shift in training, a shift in thinking, and a shift in hiring, so that we can support tech skilled individuals who have the potential to make the greatest impact, not only in their lives, but in the lives of their families and the communities that they serve.

In addition to that, we also believe that companies need to rewire their hiring practices. And by rewiring, we mean that companies need to consider shifting from the traditional approach of considering individuals with two and four-year degrees for technology roles and truly leaning in to opportunities to recruit individuals, who are pursuing tech through non-traditional pathways, who are up skilled and have the full potential to be as successful in those roles as some of the other individuals that they're looking to hire.

And so when we think about this work that we're doing in Command Shift, we know that it can't be done in a silo. We know that it's going to be important to engage as many people as possible to really shift the culture. And so we're really excited to work with companies like Guardian Life Insurance Company. We're also excited to be working with organizations like Amazon Web Services, Citi, Comcast, NBC Universal, Girls Who Code, The Knowledge House, the IT Senior Management Forum, Next Scout, Vodafone, TCS. All of these organizations are coming together to ensure that we are creating a seismic shift so that we can provide a seat at the table for more women of color in technology.

FERANMI OKANLAMI: This is amazing work. I wrote a couple of things down that I want to make sure people heard again. I love catchy things. And you started by saying this is a glass ceiling breaking coalition. And that's what's needed because unfortunately, for too many marginalized groups, we've created this glass ceiling. And it's thanks to NPower and Command Shift, that there are glass ceiling breaking coalitions. And mentioning that there needs to be a shift in training, thinking, and hiring is exactly what's needed. The other thing that I wrote-- you didn't say it this way, but it's the way I heard it in my head-- is rewiring your hiring is just beautiful. You said that we need to rewire the hiring practices, but that I'm going to tweet that later on about how Command Shift is causing people to start to think about how you need to be rewiring your hiring and that they need to be recruiting people from non-traditional pathways and that we can't do it in silos in order to shift the culture.

Now, those are just a few of the things you're doing. But also notable is NPower's latest research on women of color in tech. How are you using that research in the work that you do?

CANDICE DIXON: Sure. So in order to accelerate more women of color in technology, it's important that we understand the challenges that they're facing. And that's exactly what our research breaking through and rising up has done. Breaking through rising up takes a deep dive into the systemic challenges that women of color are facing, as they're pursuing opportunities within the tech sector. And what's so great about breaking through and rising up is that it gave NPower the opportunity to sit back and listen.

We listened to our NPower students and alumni. And in addition to that, we also listened to our corporate partners, who shared their insights on why they believed women of color were having challenges within the tech industry. It's from there that we used that research to provide recommendations for employers and policymakers so that they could come together and truly explore opportunities to create collective impact within the sector, so that we could continue to support and elevate women of color in tech.

But here's the thing with Command Shift. Our work is always going to be rooted in the data. And so that's why when we launched our coalition, we were sure to launch the coalition with a research partner. And so we're very proud to partner with Burning Glass Technologies, who we're working with to take a look at the full landscape of tech opportunities for women of color and to specifically identify the areas where we need to explore for women of color who are pursuing tech through nontraditional backgrounds those jobs, so that we can identify them, amplify them, and make sure that we are sending our tech skilled young women into those roles so that they can pursue and promote and launch their careers in technology.

FERANMI OKANLAMI: You know, sometimes people talking about preaching to the choir-- you know, sometimes people talk about preaching to the choir, and there are times where the words that we say, we're saying them to people that already understand. And so I hope that this is starting to get to people that don't understand because I'm sure there will be some people listening to this that will ask why Black women, right? Why women of color? Why such a focus on women of color? And part of the work that I try to do is on intersectionality, and I'm bringing this up because it was a woman of color, Kimberle Crenshaw, that then coined the term intersectionality.

And people use it as a buzzword too often without recognizing what intersectionality truly is and how individuals from marginalized groups-- I tell people all the time that yes, I'm a man. But I'm a Black man. I'm a disabled Black man. And there are multiple different parts of my identity that at times will play towards privilege that I will have, but at times also then compound and exponentially disadvantage individuals from those marginalized communities.

So that is why things like NPower and Command Shift are needed. That is why the focus on women in color is so important. And as a young Black man who is the son of a Black woman, I recognize the importance of Black women in all the things that are happening in our country and world. And there need to be more opportunities for them like this. So thank you for that part that you've played.

CANDICE DIXON: And thank you, Dr. O, for just amplifying the importance of intersectionality because we know there are-- our women face issues as it relates to ethnicity. They face challenges and barriers as it relates to their race. They face challenges and barriers as it relates to their gender. And if someone asked me, well, why Black women, why Latina women, why women of color, my answer to that is why not? Because when we take a look at women of color, they have been disproportionately impacted by this pandemic, and they are the ones that we need to pour into because more often than not, they are the ones who are leading and supporting our households. And they are the ones who are making the decisions for our families, as well as our children.

And so the question shouldn't be why Black women, why Latina women. It should be why not because they truly are the cornerstone of our society and the work that we're doing. And if we don't take the opportunity to explore jobs and job creation that truly can help them elevate their communities and their families, then we're doing a disservice to everyone.

FERANMI OKANLAMI: I close by talking about what we can do within our own spheres of influence. And I mentioned my mother, but it would be remiss if I didn't mention my sister. So I am the son of a Black woman and the brother of a Black woman. And those individuals within my sphere of influence have absolutely shaped the way that I view these dynamics.

But I always like to close by asking my guests about what we can do to ensure that we are all equal and able. And so for someone like you who is helping to lead the discussion in pay equity, what do you think that we can do to facilitate more jobs for young people of color in tech?

CANDICE DIXON: Sure. So as a nation recovering from the economic impact of COVID-19, we can't afford to leave behind the intelligence, the innovation, and the ingenuity of people of color from non-traditional backgrounds. So important for us to understand how to create opportunities for those individuals to up skill, access, and thrive in good jobs and not just good jobs but jobs that pay well above the minimum wage.

We also need to make sure that companies are making a firm commitment to diversity and making a commitment in a way that's not only about recruiting and hiring the talent but also supporting those individuals that they hire, so that they stay and continue to grow as tech leaders. And what I'll say is that organizations like NPower and Guardian can't do this work alone. We need employers, elected officials, and philanthropic communities to disrupt the culture, command a shift, and explore opportunities to change policy and the way that we hire so that we can not only thrive as individuals, but we can thrive as a country.

FERANMI OKANLAMI: And our country needs more of that. Our country needs to hear that message. Our country needs to make sure that the entire nation makes that firm commitment that you mentioned to diversity. And it's not just recruiting, as you said. We talk about recruitment, but recruitment is nothing without retention. And I would say that retention is nothing without promotion.

And so what happens is we can't bring people into entry level jobs and expect them to stay there. We can't bring people into toxic environments and not change the culture and command a shift in those environments to make sure that people want to stay. And so hopefully by supporting the work of NPower and all of the collaboratives that you have with you, we are disseminating that message to the nation to make sure that that commitment stays.

So thank you so much, Candice, for what you've done specifically with Command Shift, what you've done with NPower and then what you've just done in your own life as a powerful Black woman doing things to demonstrate that all of us are equal and able.

CANDICE DIXON: Thank you, Dr. O, for the opportunity, and thank you for all that you do to promote important issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. We at Command Shift are so excited for the opportunity to be here and to share the work that we're looking to do to create a seismic shift in tech and to create more opportunities to accelerate women of color in technology.

FERANMI OKANLAMI: Thank you for joining us on "Equal & Able." We hope you will tune in to subsequent episodes as we continue to bring in leaders to engage in thoughtful and challenging conversations about what each of us can do to demonstrate how everyone is equal and able.

ANNOUNCER: Dr. Feranmi Okanlami is a partner and spokesperson for Guardian Life, and Candice Dixon is coalition development director at NPower. This "Equal & Able" podcast is for informational purposes only and includes the views of Dr. Feranmi Okanlami and Candice Dickson based on their own background, research, and/or experience. Individual situations may vary, and the information should be relied upon only when coordinated with individual professional advice.

Speakers are not endorsed by Guardian Life, and opinions stated are their own. They are not intended to give investment, legal, or tax advice, and that should not be substituted for regular consultation with your investment, legal, or tax professionals. This podcast does not constitute an offer or solicitation of a product or service.

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