Unlocking the Next Generation of African Talent

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My playlist has been dominated by Arcade Fire lately, for no reason in particular. I’m loving their newest album “Everything Now,” a collection of pieces suggesting that humanity is at an all-you-can-eat buffet and we’ve blown right past satiety to stomach rupture.

Amidst the angst over civilization’s internal combustion, there’s at least one line from the song “Creature Comfort” that I find myself turning over in my mind in the context of our current work at Shortlist:

“Born in a diamond mine / It’s all around you but you can’t see it / Born in a diamond mine / It’s all around you but you can’t touch it”

In Africa, there is a huge untapped talent mine hiding in plain sight (and that is absolutely not a reference to the troubling history of extractive industries in Africa). On the continent, we’re on the cusp of likely the greatest talent explosion in the history of humankind.

By 2030, the working age population across Africa is set to grow from 370 million to over 600 million, expanding the workforce by more than the rest of the world combined over that time period. Yes, combined.

For the continent to fully benefit from this incredible potential opportunity, it will require (1) a massive increase in the availability of good jobs, (2) an education and skilling infrastructure primed to prepare individuals for those jobs, and (3) a better way of matching talent and opportunity.

There is a gaping hole between the number of people seeking work, and the number of jobs actually available. And there’s a growing mismatch between the skills young people have today and the skills that employers are demanding. This is increasingly being identified by business leaders, politicians, policy wonks and philanthropists as *the* issue to solve in Africa.

At Shortlist, I’m not sure we can do much about creating great new jobs at scale; that’s probably the domain of big business, government and policymakers. It’s a huge multi-headed problem with no easy answer, for sure. But I do believe we can use new approaches to education, skills development, and opportunity-matching to prepare the kind of ready-to-rock talent pools that can, over time, attract the kind of large scale job creation we need. In other words, maybe we can create pockets of reversed chicken-vs-egg causality, where creating talent pools of skilled and ready young professionals can attract more companies, bigger investment, and better jobs.

So what’s going to be key to unlocking this talent and laying bare the incredible talent bounty of the continent?

Improve learning

Gone are the days where we could rely on high school and university to prepare people for the modern workplace. As Ryan Craig writes in his new book, the future of higher education lies in faster, better, and/or cheaper alternatives to higher education. These alternatives need to be affordable; geared towards skills of the future (like tech and data); geared toward competencies and practice rather than theoretical subject matter. Technical programs like those offered by Moringa School or courses on soft skills (like communication, problem-solving and teamwork) like those now offered by Shortlist show new ways that practical learning can be fostered outside of traditional, long-term and expensive higher ed options.

Promote discovery

Part of the problem is that young professionals often don’t know yet what they’re passionate about, don’t yet know what they’re good at (or could be good at), and don’t know what the market wants/expects. Students are often slotted into courses of study very early and in a manner dictated more so by society and family (whose mom hasn’t wanted them to be a doctor at some point??) than informed personal decision-making. (And to be clear, this certainly isn’t only an issue in Africa…)

We can use tech and digital distribution to expose young people to the range of professional options out there and provide tools for self-discovery and opportunity discovery — and in so doing, also get to know job-seekers better. Think: the right podcasts/videos/posts targeted to the right people at the right time, with a feedback loop to gather data points on interests, engagement, motivation, and learning velocity. We can then start to engage and curate pools of talent based on genuine interest and ability rather than meaningless demographics, and we can tailor content and training opportunities to the particular passions and abilities of specific jobseekers.

Help companies see better

Back to the original conceit: “It’s all around you but you can’t see it.” Part of this issue is that talent is there, we just lack the tools to see it. If your criteria for “work-readiness” revolves around a prestigious tertiary degree, time served at a Big 3 consultancy or Big 4 accounting firm, and lots of acronyms — well, you may not find enough professionals to build your company. If, however, you are open to professionals who possess the skills and/or raw ability to succeed, the talent is often there, but the tools of finding and seeing it are lacking.

Our approach at Shortlist collects and analyzes data points on demonstrations of competency, skill and motivation, so that we can X-ray vision the CV and see who has the stuff of success regardless of credential. Of course this approach works better for some roles than others, but broadly we believe that employers in or coming to Sub-Saharan Africa will need to think differently about assessing talent, relying on underlying competencies and skills and not fancy gold stars, if they are going to find the folks they need to grow.

Needless to say, this will NOT be easy. It will take the efforts and energy of a diverse set of stakeholders, sometimes working together and sometimes in parallel, to realize this promise. Most importantly, it will be driven by and depend on the energy of this emerging workforce to go out and grab these opportunities and create even more opportunities themselves.

All things considered, though, we’re choosing to stay optimistic about the road ahead, despite the significant challenges — and no matter what Arcade Fire thinks.


The Future of Work: Best of Times and/or Worst of Times?

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Our robot friends can now pluck petals.

I just capped off a frenetic three-week visit to the US, making stops in 7 different cities (if you can count my 20,000-person hometown of Lockport NY as a city — perhaps a stretch, though we do have the amazing Erie Canal Locks).

My trip was book-ended by two unique experiences. On the front end, I participated in a Young Leaders Conference put on by the Council for the United States & Italy, bringing together 51 professionals from 17 countries in Boston to discuss “The Changing Nature of Work and Its Implications for Individuals, Businesses and Society.” And on the back end, I sat on a panel at SOCAP in San Francisco, discussing “The Future of Work — and What’s Working Already.” Similar topics, but very different outlooks.

The first event in Boston focused on a series of thought-provoking questions about the way work is changing. We discussed the forces that are causing these changes, from gig-enabling marketplaces to offshoring to robotic and AI-driven automation to wealth concentration and the emergence of a new monopolistic order. We considered the havoc this is wreaking, at the level of income disparities, industrial re-ordering, loss of identity and self-esteem. And we queried: What on earth might we do about it?

The discussions were terrific, textured, and open — and a lot of fun. (Spoiler: Not sure we solved it.) However, at the end of the day, they more often than not tracked the pessimistic arc of most journalistic news stories and commentary: The world is changing, it’s creating more losers than winners, we should raise our fists and resist. And, I must admit, I often feel this way.

SOCAP presented another point of view: Amidst the doom and gloom, there’s hope and excitement. Amidst robots and machine intelligence, we are opening up new ways of democratizing opportunity and giving real people a chance to seize control of their destinies. Probably not surprising for SOCAP, which is held at Fort Mason, perched on the scenic northern tip of SF. It’s one of the only conferences where most meetings are had while staring out at the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, where you can always taste the ocean, and where you sometimes leave with a tan. Who wouldn’t bend towards world-beating optimism in those environs, and with the do-gooding, feel-gooding energy of over 3,000 global participants?

But now, back in India, free from the ideological pull of both experiences, I find myself drawn to and mulling over the lesser told story of the really cool stuff happening around the future of work: The future of how we learn new skills, pursue fulfilling careers without crushing student debt, discover and pursue awesome career pathways. Many of these sub-currents seem driven by entrepreneurs and enabled by modern technological possibility. Among the examples and trends that give me hope:

Viable, accessible alternatives to traditional, expensive four-year undergraduate degrees. There’s nothing wrong with a traditional liberal arts program (says the philosophy/psychology major…) but for many it’s a debt-ridden path to professional no-man’s land. One of my fellow SOCAP panelists (and Shortlist investor) Ryan Craig of University Ventures published a book called “College Disrupted,” which argues that online degrees and other higher ed alternatives will unbundle traditional degrees to offer a better deal for the majority of students in terms of graduation, employment, and wages. And he’s publishing another book next year on faster, cheaper, and better alternatives to college, identifying hundreds of new options.

An example is a program like MissionU, whose founder Adam Braun also joined our SOCAP panel. MissionU is a one-year program which combines training in-demand skills like data analytics and business intelligence with soft-skills like collaboration and critical thinking, financed with an income-share agreement requiring $0 upfront (repayment is taken as a % of income post-graduation).

An explosion of short-course options to upskill in areas like programming, data science, digital marketing, and more, offered by “boot camps” like General Assembly and Galvanize, online course providers like Udemy and Udacity, MOOC-aggregators like Coursera, and blended models like Upgrad. Almost anyone can catch up to the cutting edge with enough basic smarts, motivation, and tuition money (which can be, admittedly, steep).

New ways of combining upskilling and talent connection into one business model, especially in emerging markets. Companies like Andela (in Africa) and Revature (in US/India) combine talent screening and tech upskilling to find and train teams of engineers. (Ashwin Bharath, COO/Co-Founder of Revature, rounded out our panel at SOCAP.) These engineers get contracted out to global companies, like GitHub and Viacom, while staying on the books of Andela/Revature. Companies get lower cost talent, and young professionals get the opportunity to learn new skills and advance their careers on someone else’s dime.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a blog by me if I didn’t plug Shortlist, and how excited we are about facilitating a shift from pedigree-based to competency-based hiring. We see so many ways to use tech and data to make it easier for employers to see past the CV and instead assess true potential, ability, and fit, promoting a level economic playing field and helping companies and employees alike find a better match. In fact, we see this shift towards competency-based methods as integral to the success of many of the above ideas. Employers will need to reorient themselves from traditional proxies like 4-year degrees and name brand corporate experience to other signals of competency if programs like those at MissionU, General Assembly, and UpGrad are to reach their full potential.

Last but not least, I love to see a LOT more focus on building a career of meaning and impact, particularly among millennials. Perhaps I’m over-sampling the do-gooder set (too much time at SOCAP; Medium/Facebook/Google AI bots great at predicting my click propensity) but it really does seem like mission and meaning are more important to young professionals than ever. Getting rich quick and at all costs is no longer cool; making the world a better place is (though if you can do that while getting rich, that may be cooler still, according to my read of the zeitgeist). I see new articles and blogs every day focused on meaning at work, ikagai, and self-actualization. Companies like Imperative are trying to help companies lead with purpose.

Our data head Anshul’s (nonprofit) side hustle.

Even on my team at Shortlist, I love to see the extracurricular energy of my colleagues: Our data science head Anshul moonlights as the co-founder of GreatToAwesome, helping young Indian professionals build “careers of passion and impact”; and one of our first employees Ben launched a podcast Journey Down Discovery Lane, featuring guests with ideas for “becoming your best self.”

So, amidst the pessimism, there’s light! There’s cause for optimism! Maybe we can turn this thing around, and the future of work will be better than ever!

Even so: robots scare me…

When Oxford Isn’t Enough: The Consequence of Network & Knowledge When Chasing Opportunity

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Oxford University is probably one of the only places that Harvard could envy for name recognition and prestige. It’s one of the oldest — and widely considered one of the best — schools on planet Earth. Surely, graduating from Oxford (and not otherwise screwing up) would mean you’re set for life. Right?

Maybe not. I read a New York Times story by Jenni Russell recently that showed the ways that even a top notch education wasn’t enough to ensure professional success today. With a focus on the UK, but telling a story that is true most places, Russell writes: “New graduates are entering a working world that is pitched as never before in favor of the well-connected, the socially knowledgeable and the rich.” The story goes on to discuss the various ways that class and social divides widen through childhood, secondary school, and university, in ways that contribute to a truly uneven playing field.

At Shortlist, we’re no strangers to the unfairness of the modern opportunity marketplace, and addressing the above disparities is what motivates us as a company.

This story was different though. At Shortlist, we often focus on those who miss out on opportunities because they didn’t work at the right company or go to the right school, but this story shares how even Oxford graduates face an uneven playing field, albeit a different kind.

Russell tells the story of one Oxford grad who grew up in a lower income household, working much harder than many of his peers to make it at Oxford. After graduating, he faced a host of issues that caused him to realize going to the right school isn’t enough if you don’t have other advantages, like friends who know the right companies; mentors who guide you towards the right internships at the right companies; and a financial backstop that lets you pursue unpaid internships and front the working capital for an apartment, a wardrobe, and those other sizable professional startup costs.

So even among Oxford graduates, differences in class, socioeconomic status, and social capital dramatically determine what opportunities one becomes aware of and is positioned to grasp.

I know it’s hard to pity an Oxford graduate; many have it so much worse. But that’s exactly the point: If even a hard-working Oxford grad can’t find a good job, what does that mean for the rest of the world?

For me, this piece was a great reminder of the (unfortunate?) importance of social capital in how opportunities are discovered and pursued.

In a similar vein, political scientist Robert Putnam differentiated between bonding social capital (networks among folks that are largely similar to each other, like family or a tight group of longtime friends) and bridging social capital (networks among those that are different, like the diverse network of people you might meet across a series of jobs or at business school). People have said that bonding capital helps one “get by” (as, for example, family or friends may provide food or shelter in a pinch) but that bridging capital helps you “get ahead” (by changing circumstances or creating opportunities).

Bridging capital can serve as an informal referral network permitting access to more diverse ideas and opportunities, particularly career opportunities. This is the kind of network in which your college friend at DreamCompany pings you with a “Hey, I’m going to share your resume for this amazing job that hasn’t even been posted yet” or “Hey, you really should try to do a summer internship before you apply for a full-time role.”

For many, university is the time to create these “weak ties” that lead to lifelong professional networks and career opportunities. And often the most privileged and savviest college students figure out that they may be better served by getting to know more people through athletics, extracurriculars and socializing at the expense of those extra hours of solo study to get an “A.” Unfortunately, it’s often those from first-generation college and lower-income households that don’t get the memo.

I’m struggling with what to do with that, and how we can recognize those disparities and do something to help as we try to create a more level playing field for talent, particularly in markets like India and Kenya.

Do you have any ideas? If so, I’d love to hear from you.