Diversity & Inclusion

How do you build an inclusive tech talent pipeline? Excella EVP Mahreen Rashid weighed in

Rashid, who heads HR, workforce management, analytics and internal communications discussed effective recruiting and building a workplace where diverse hires want to stay.

Mahreen Rashid, EVP of people services for Excella. (Courtesy photo)

For Mahreen Rashid, executive VP of people services at Arlington, Virginia IT company Excella, building a diverse talent pipeline is something she thinks about and works on almost every day.

But in the private sector at large, many companies still struggle to target and retain diverse talent, which includes applicants that identify as BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and living with disabilities. Rashid said that while many companies agree that it’s important to have diversity, they’re not understanding the true benefit — an aspect that’s crucial for building the pipeline. And they might not be looking at a pipeline’s whole picture.

“[Companies] may say ‘yes,’ but not really understand the benefits and the impact of having a diverse workforce and a diverse set of leadership, and you can’t really get to a diverse set of leadership without having a diverse workforce in the first place,” Rashid told Technical.ly. “So, if organizations don’t invest in creating that talent pipeline within their organization, they’re not going to have the leadership that they want eventually.”

A mistake many make right off the bat, according to Rashid, is thinking that talent (and diverse talent in particular) will come to the company. Just putting out an ad isn’t enough, she said; Leaders need to meet talent where they are to bring them into the company’s fold.

Many employers start, naturally, by recruiting on college campuses. But Rashid thinks that recruiting needs to go beyond that. Currently, Excella works with organizations like On-Ramps to connect with DC Public Schools students of all ages and get them interested in STEM. The company also looks beyond and partners with bootcamps like Flatiron School and General Assembly, as well as working directly with HBCUs like Howard University. The company is also searching for new tech talent in Louisiana.

Rashid found the bootcamps, in particular, to be very successful for finding talent — not only in terms of racial and gender equality, but also in different professional backgrounds.

“Those are really excellent candidates: people who’ve done career-switching and can bring whatever mindset that they have from something else into the work that they do,” Rashid said.

Still, she noted, another common mistake is to constantly search for different talent in the same place. Building a pipeline means constantly evolving and changing where you find talent as talent itself changes, Rashid said.

But once you get the talent, she added, it’s equally important to build a good environment to encourage retention. Many employers just focus on diverse candidates (and oversimplify the term, thus leaving out other marginalized groups) while deprioritizing inclusion in the workplace itself.

Employees won’t show up and feel safe enough to be their authentic selves, she said, if there’s insufficient inclusion in the office. She believes addressing this requires educating employees about microaggressions, biases, different cultures, intersectionality and neurodiversity to build a baseline understanding and ensure everyone feels valued. This also means making sure language across the organization (and in job postings) is inclusive, as well as constantly evaluating to confirm the terminology still works.

“You can go out there and recruit as much diverse talent as you want from underrepresented communities, but if you don’t have an environment that fosters inclusion, then why would anyone come and work there in the first place? Or stay there?” Rashid said.

Once you create that environment, she said it’s equally important to maintain a pipeline within your organization to increase access to leadership positions. This could involve mentorship programs, but Rashid also noted that it’s key to be clear about how employees can advance: Everyone should know what they need to do to get promoted.

Furthermore, existing leadership needs to be aware of the best ways to support people and help them grow, she said.

“You can’t treat everybody the exact same way,” Rashid said. “You have to look at what people need, so there’s there’s an element of that and making sure that our leaders have the ability and the understanding to do that and raise their hand and say, ‘How do I help this person advance?'”

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