Racial Equity at Work: Talent Pipeline, Mentorship, and Credentials

Join Credly CEO, Jonathan Finkelstein, for a series of conversations with people advancing change that leads to a better and more equitable future of work. Meet change-makers, problem-solvers, and leaders who are bringing big ideas and doing the hard work.

In this episode, Jonathan chats with Kofi Kankam, CEO of Admit.Me, a free virtual admissions coach which provides personalized online guidance to those applying to college and graduate schools.

Kofi, who was quoted in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled, A Decade-Long Stall for Black Enrollment in M.B.A. Programs, talks with Jonathan about tackling talent pipeline issues for people of color in business. He also speaks candidly about why high-value graduate-level credentials have outsized importance for Black professionals, and the role that short-form credentials may play now and in the future. Kofi unpacks what good mentorship looks like, and how people who want to make a difference can best coach those looking to overcome barriers to professional advancement.

Jonathan and Kofi explore how business leaders can be intentional about bringing about change through hiring, building diverse teams, and building better products and services -- a change that not only brings greater diversity and inclusion to the workplace but is also good for business.

Watch the full interview below.  

Conversation with Kofi Kankam (1)

Jonathan:

Hi, everybody. I'm so glad you're joining me for today's conversation. Joining me remotely is the CEO of Admit.me, Kofi Kankam. Hi. How are you?

Kofi Kankam:

I’m doing great, Jonathan. How are you doing?

Jonathan:

I'm really good. I was thumbing through the Wall Street Journal last week and there's your name, talking about a really important topic. I want to come back to it in a second. First, just wanted to start by let people get to know you a little bit. In a couple of ways, we've led parallel professional lives. We were in the same school at the same time as undergrads. We both had early jobs in the .com boom era and involved in real time communications, much like we're doing now, right here today and now we're both CEOs of businesses that are involved in helping people earn credentials that can improve their lives and open up opportunities.

Jonathan F.:

It feels like there should be plenty to talk about. As if that were not enough, Kofi, I'm a magician and you're a comedian, apparently.

Kofi Kankam:

It all came out. No.

Jonathan F.:

You got to be careful what you put on your LinkedIn page. I used to list that my first job was being a professional magician on my resume and then I wound up having to do magic tricks at every interview, but we can come back to that later. There's no pressure to be funny. I’m sure you never feel that.

Kofi Kankam:

I won't be Kevin Hart today or Dave Chappelle.

Jonathan F.:

Before the new year and before the pandemic struck you and I had a chance to sit down over lunch. The world has changed a lot since then. Let's talk a little bit about you. I know you went to business school, I know you now advise others on how to get into graduate school, and also to pursue degrees, undergraduate degrees. You yourself went to business school. I'm curious if you can share with us about whether that was the right decision for you, how you came about it and how you think about what you took from your business school experience that you now apply to other people?

Kofi Kankam:

Yeah, good question. This is a parallel conversation I had with my mother, when I was explaining to her that I was going to get an MBA, and not become a doctor. I’m a first generation American, parents are from Ghana, if you're going to be creative, and be outside the norm, and our culture, you're going to become a lawyer. Most of the time you’re expected to become a doctor or an engineer, if you're rebellious say become a lawyer as I mentioned. For me, I was a biology major at college, I focused on neurobiology. Most of my friends were geeks that worked in labs, and I had the opportunity to go back to Ghana after my senior year, and work with a doctor there.

Kofi Kankam:

Actually a Ghanaian doctor that was trained at Columbia Med School, who'd gone back home, and when I worked with him in the operating room and started showing me and telling me that like, "Look, Kofi, a lot of the issues we have in healthcare in Ghana are actually business issues. They're not medical care issues. We're dealing with things like we couldn't get CAT scan machines, people had to buy their own surgical equipment in order to get surgeries." At that point, I thought, "Okay, maybe I'll do an MD/MBA in order to combine both of them." Then I came back to the states and at that time I was going to Harvard Ed school, I was starting that fall at Harvard Ed school, and I realized one, I don't like the sight of blood, like my dad.

Kofi Kankam:

Two, personally I realized I don't want to be in school forever, in my late 20s, riding a bicycle to campus, etc. I said, "Okay, I think I can find a way to do well and do good just by getting my MBA. I think there's a way that I can basically solve a lot of problems and obviously take care of my family and have that impact with just an MBA." That was the orientation that I took. I'm really happy I did it. Had I majored in Econ and I had a different set of friends, different orientation, I may not have gotten my MBA, especially coming from a school like Harvard, I felt like there were enough opportunities.

Kofi Kankam:

But for me, in terms of learning how to apply data analytics, learning how to have frameworks to go after issues and thinking of business as a tool, I don't think I would have gotten that orientation if I hadn't gone to Wharton or to any really good business school like that. Now, I also think it taught me and helped me bring in now a level of creativity in my own personality into business and I didn't necessarily know that that was possible or that from my perspective, it was advantageous. I am pretty happy I did it, except when I'm paying down my loan month to month, but generally, I'm pretty pleased.

Jonathan F.:

But at least there's no blood involved.

Kofi Kankam:

There's no blood involved, no, just...

Jonathan F.:

That's good. Clearly making a decision to invest in something like business school is a big choice. You've made helping people make that choice and pursue it the core of your business at Admit.me and tell us a little bit about Admit.me, about the mission of the company, and I'm curious as the CEO on a great day at the company, what has happened?

Kofi Kankam:

Yeah. Our company Admit.me is really focused on level playing field and offering educational options for candidates. We started as admissions coaches, and it was great working one on one and helping people get into school, but it didn't scale and not just from a business perspective, it didn’t scale from a we can help everybody perspective and just being a first generation American going to a pretty good High School in Ohio but not one that was on any major college list. I'm just sensitive to the issue of people's zip codes and their own experiences and where their parents went to school, that driving too much of the opportunities for their offspring or lack of opportunity. I didn't feel, we didn't feel, Eric and I that we were doing enough.

Kofi Kankam:

We didn't feel like we were part of the solution. Admit.me was created because we understood that now we're getting all this data from candidates, in the consulting industry you have to give people a free consultation and when you get that free consultation, we give it, you have to collect reams and reams of information on people. Where they live, how much money their families make, what majors are they thinking, what colleges are thinking about, where they're thinking about living in school, out of school, then historical information like test scores and grades and activities and hobbies and awards. That information they give to and it's credible, it's legitimate because they want to know their chances.

Kofi Kankam:

That information is also really, really valuable to universities, and to other groups in the ecosystem, whether it's Test Prep companies, the testing organizations themselves, like College Board, ETS, etc. And student loan companies, eventually employers, etc. We had this aha moment, we realized, look, if we collect that data, and we do it in efficient manner, we actually can have the offering be free for the students, free for the applicants, which would enable us to then help tons of people and we can have a business with the models predicated on selling access to some of those other members that I mentioned, other companies and entities that I mentioned.

Kofi Kankam:

That’s where it came to and it feels really good because now we're in a place where we can help people all over the world. They don't have to have a lot of money, they don't have to come from prestigious universities, they don't have to have a huge amount of knowledge, an insider access, about getting into school, about their goals, we can solve a flourishing, thriving business. The best days in the company are days where we talk to customers, and they tell us, "This really helped me. You changed the trajectory of my life and my family's life." We've been invited to graduation parties; we have been invited to weddings.

Kofi Kankam:

I just loved getting feedback and talking to people and for me, knowing that if we serve them, well, everything will fall into place for the rest of the company. This is a mission driven organization to its core, that's how we attract our employees and it is helping me deal with not necessarily being that doctor where every day I’m saving a life. I wouldn't say this is quite as important, but we are creating a lot of opportunities for people and changing their family's fortunes and that feels really good and that's really important to constantly have that told to you and visible as we fight through all the challenges of just running a startup business.

Jonathan F.:

It's so interesting to hear you talk about not just the person you serve, but their family. I think that's an often forgotten aspect for anyone involved in helping people pursue educational attainment, degree completion, credential certifications, they often think about the user on their platform as an individual person and they forget the range of reasons often that people are involved. It's often to create a better life for a family, for parents, and to remove the pressures that each of those individuals and that family can feel that you've managed to find an approach to scaling the business because you’ve realized that the guidance you are giving is really valuable and helpful, but it was being limited just to those who could necessarily find it or afford it and how do you make a more democratized approach for access to this information.

Jonathan F.:

I applaud you for finding a business model that's both ethically responsible, also good business and that helps you to scale to more people. I just brought up on the screen, Kofi, a little bit of a have a look. Let me go ahead and bring that up for everybody here, of your site. I actually am not yet applying to my MBA, but I if I were, I got a really good feel for how I would prepare for that experience. You've taken a whole range of content resources, the kinds of things that might have been more verbally offered, or offered in personalized one on one conversations and brought them into a whole workflow about preparing for and then actually executing on a plan to apply to school and in this case I chose to apply for an MBA.

Jonathan F.:

I'm curious, what's the hardest part of the online experience to replicate when it comes to personalizing the experience for the users?

Kofi Kankam:

Yeah, that's a really good question and something we grapple with. I would say it's giving them the opportunity to... Well, there are a couple things. One, once you've laid things out in an action plan like this, I think it sometimes inherently emphasizes people's own bias, that there's only one way to do this, right? There's only one way I have to say the right thing; I have to be this person. There's an exact specific set of steps, I need to do everything in this particular manner in order to get into school. Making sure that paradox that people understand that even though we're laying out this process for you, there are different ways to skin a cat and there is a place we did emphasize your personality and your dreams.

Kofi Kankam:

Really demonstrate what you're going to bring to the table, not just in order to get in, but actually when you're there, trying to help other students and contribute from an academic personal professional perspective, and that you can be authentic and frankly, you have to be authentic in order to get in. I think that's an overarching challenge, but also say the ability for students to have an interaction or applicants to have an interaction and be able to ask questions. Having to anticipate the questions they ask and have people still feel like it's customized and it's attuned to their own needs, even though there's no person directly in front of them is a challenge, frankly. Even when we get it right, it’s still a challenge to communicate that to the user that that support is going to be there for them.

Jonathan F.:

I want to come back to this point in a moment about being yourself and bringing yourself to the process. Let's return for a moment to that Wall Street Journal article that came out last week that heavily cited your perspectives. For those who haven't seen it, we'll include a link to it with the recording. The title of the article was A Decade Long Stall for Black Enrollment in MBA Programs. The article talks about the lack of black students in MBA programs, and how that contributes to the low representation of people of color in corporate leadership positions and in boardrooms.

Jonathan F.:

About 4.1% of CEOs in the US are black 7.8% of people in management occupations identified as black in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the article goes on to talk about how people of color are also underrepresented in the entry level jobs, like finance and consulting which are often used as feeders for MBA programs. You have this talent pipeline connection, disconnect. It feels like when you're tracing the source of some of these problems that you really start to get the sense of why this is really a systemic problem and why the talent pipeline is breaking down when it comes to inclusion and diversity.

Jonathan F.:

I'm curious, first of all, overall, your thoughts about this talent pipeline issue and as you look at it and think about it as you work firsthand, helping connect people into graduate programs like MBA programs, what are some of the one or two examples of some of the shorter term practices that can make a big difference in breaking the cycle? And if you take a step back, what are some of the things that companies and colleges can do to leapfrog the problem and get to the solution a lot quicker?

Kofi Kankam:

Yeah. No, look, I think it's an issue. I think it's a moral issue but frankly it's a business issue. I think the first important thing is really acknowledging that this matters to companies and this is not something that they should care about because it's ethical, it actually matters in terms of who they're selling products to, who's making purchasing decisions, the economic clout of different communities and where the growth for a lot of their consumers is coming from. It's coming from a lot of times to minority communities in the US and then you look overseas, whether it's in Asia or whether it's in Africa, this is where a lot of the growth in the world's population is happening.

Kofi Kankam:

It's really important for businesses to understand this, I think a lot of them do. Now, the pipeline issue, it's really significant because you and I were fortunate to come from one of the schools where it's fairly easy to get into consulting or finance which are really, for those that don't know, the pathway typically as you work for two to five years, from one of these 30 firms, 40 firms, and then you can find your way into the top 20 to top 50 business school. The challenges a lot of those companies that send people, and I don’t want to single any of them out because I think a lot of them are working on addressing this issue, but they tend to hire from only a certain set number of colleges.

Kofi Kankam:

What that means is if you're not at one of those schools, as a person of color, in this particular conversation, then you're going to have a bit more friction getting into that kind of firm or opportunity, and that's a problem. I think that a couple things are happening. One, I think that for firms producing the progressive way, the firm's themselves are now expanding their list, their outreach to different kinds of schools. They’re not just going to the Ivy League schools or the Ivy League type schools like Duke and Michigan, etc. The list of 40, 50 schools, they have historically been trying to and now they're increasing their efforts to basically reach out to HBCUs, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and within those schools, oftentimes there are only five that really go to but they're trying to expand out and touch the other 50 or 60 that exist.

Kofi Kankam:

They are creating programs where they're saying we're going to find candidates from these schools and they’re supposed to do this on the job, etc. And I think the majority of top tier universities are starting to think about where can we recruit? I know where we went to school, they were only recruiting initially at major, major, well known high schools or well-known cities where they got people. There’s been an effort... I serve at the Harvard Club in New York so what I reach into this as an example and we now are going into different schools where talent exists, but they don't have a rich legacy of kids getting in to schools like Harvard or other kinds of schools or even candidate supplying.

Kofi Kankam:

I think there's just an effort to diversify the pipeline and try to find "hidden talent", wherever it exists and the firms that are doing that well are beginning to win. There's also an idea to bring in the right people into the room to make some of these decisions, people that inherently get at... I'm really happy, for example, at Wharton, my alma mater just appointed a black female dean, Dean James from Emory University and I don't think it was by accident that that happened, I'm sure that's one of the assets they thought she brought to the table. It's really important to bring people knowing that you can have well intentioned people in any community.

Kofi Kankam:

I think building that trust, having an instinct for where to find these kinds of candidates, and being sensitive to the language and the outreach, it's really important to have some of the right decision makers in the room, we are not just attuned to the fact that we want to do this but actually have a sense of how to execute or have done it before.

Jonathan F.:

It’s such an important part of the overall equation. I think your point about even well-meaning people may not know what they don't know and may not be sensitive to the things that could either alienate or just not reach people where they're at either in terms of their headspace or geographically or physically just not looking in the right places.

Kofi Kankam:

We all get blinders, Jonathan. Me too. I've got blinders. My experience as a first-generation American growing up in Cleveland, certainly, my wife is from Ohio also, but she's got a different experience. Her family's been here forever. World War II veteran, etc. We talk about, we both look similar, but we're a mixed culture relationship. There are things about her upbringing, where I wouldn't know necessarily how to approach that. That's everyone, it just so happens we're dealing with this topic now.

Jonathan F.:

It's such an interesting point to make and I think creating an environment where people can feel safe, acknowledging what they don't know and learning from others. I think we’re at a point where people had buried the issue and just chose not to talk about it and now there's, I think, a sense of shame for having done that for so long. That that well-meaning wasn't connected with actual action and thought we're just going to pretend it wasn't there and everything would be fine, but that's not how you address systemic problems. You have to be more proactive about it. One of the ways you talk about being proactive and helping others is through mentorship.

Jonathan F.:

I imagine as you work with people to make connections to graduate programs, whether it's looking for a letter of reference or thinking about what would be a good fit for somebody who knows somebody and where they would be successful, you look at who are the person's mentors. What have you seen in terms of the kinds of things that mentorship has in common when you look across all the people who come through Admit.me and in your own experience, how has mentorship helped you? And I'd love to connect it back to the issue we're talking about racial justice and equality and diversity in the workplace. What can people do to help address this problem through mentorship roles?

Kofi Kankam:

Yeah, really great set of questions. I think in answering the first I'll probably shed some insight on the second for my perspective.

Jonathan F.:

I usually just throw a million questions out and then I let you pick-

Kofi Kankam:

....remember everything. What we've seen for candidates that are typically very successful in getting into school, which is the box in which I exist or that where I’m focused is a sense that the mentors do more than just give advice. Firstly, they give advice. They give honest advice, direct advice and feedback. There's no sugarcoating it. But there's an element of sponsorship and that sponsorship is not financial. The sponsorship is making sure that the junior associate or the analyst at a firm gets put on the right projects and assignments, and that happens because someone, the mentor is going to bat for them.

Kofi Kankam:

Typically, in terms of getting into school or just getting promoted, you have to have a certain set of experiences at the higher level. You have to have done certain things at the lower level in order to qualify. As an example, if you want to potentially be a manager in a particular company, you may need to have worked internationally, you may need to have managed a particular project. What you see a lot of times with minority candidates, is we don't necessarily get the advice or the sponsorship in these companies in order to have the right qualifications such that when that opportunity comes up to be promoted or again, to get into business school as an example, it's not the cleanest case we can make.

Kofi Kankam:

What I see with a lot of people that get mentored, and by the way, that includes minority candidates who have gotten really good mentorship as well as majority candidates. Is the mentor has told them this is what you need to do in order to progress in our company. "By the way, Jonathan, you should think about getting an MBA, it worked for me. There's a role that's coming up, there's a project or an assignment that's coming up, I'm going to put your hat in the ring. I'm going to coach you on how to do it and once I feel like I'm comfortable with you, I'm going to go and literally put my credibility on the line and make sure that you get your shot at getting that opportunity."

Kofi Kankam:

Then that just happens and a lot of times, we've seen in these companies, as a manager progresses or a director progresses, his mentee is right underneath him, or her mentee is right underneath them and moving up at the same time. They're literally pulling them up. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re giving them... They're not basically promoting people that aren't qualified, what they're doing is creating an opportunity for those people to show they're qualified. That literally is something I see consistently across, I'll say most candidates that get into good business schools. That happens across the board.

Kofi Kankam:

There's someone who's going to bat for them in the organization and I would say for me probably that's not always a boss, I’m part of a fraternity. It's a global fraternity, it's historically a black fraternity, we had a chapter at Harvard. I will say that I had older fraternity brothers that had gone to literally every top tier business school, and they were helping me figure this out. Even as an entrepreneur, they're saying, "Okay, if you're going to be an entrepreneur, you're going to make this leap, you're going to have to achieve X, Y, and Z within your company. You're going to have to manage people, you're going to have to have this outcome."

Kofi Kankam:

And they helped me figure it out. That was my mentoring because I didn't work in a big company, but there's so many mistakes I avoided and so many opportunities just happened because people were helping me and pushing me and criticizing me and just giving me the ropes on what I need to and really going to bat for me in different ways.

Jonathan F.:

We should be clear to people listening when it comes to mentorship and when we're talking about people of color in particular, mentorship, it should cross racial lines here. It can be, I imagine especially helpful when it does.

Kofi Kankam:

Right.

Jonathan F.:

Somebody on LinkedIn that I saw named Bobby Earles, who works at Kirkland & Ellis had shared a post that caught my eye. He said, "Enough with all the talks and the panels and the town halls." He's like, "Here's some things that white people can do to help black people advance in the workplace." That just, in a lot of ways, the advice you were just sharing. It also goes from thinking about how do I help you prepare for that interview for that promotion or that new partnership position to "Hey, he says you play golf, I play golf. Why don't we play together?" That's where a lot of the networking, a lot of the mentorship happens.

Kofi Kankam:

Right.

Jonathan F.:

It seems so obvious to hear someone say it but I think until this particular moment in time where people are having much more honest self-reflective moments about this topic, I think people maybe underestimate what those gestures can mean and can do.

Kofi Kankam:

Yeah, I agree. I've had, by the way, great mentors of every hue and background, a couple that I know from college to people that were entrepreneurs, upwards that didn't look like me. Part of it was, to some extent, I was lucky with my education that we had something else in common and there was a thought process of this as someone that's worth investing in. Whether or not that signals appropriate or not, that's a discussion for a different day. It's kind of what we're talking about to some respects, though. That you shouldn't have to have that kind of signal, but I think the issue is that people need to feel comfortable and my advice for people, white people or non-people of color want to mentor is a couple fold.

Kofi Kankam:

I'd say, one, listen, and hear the challenges that candidates, employees or subordinates may feel or may face, and sometimes that's a hard conversation to have on both sides, especially if you're that candidate, you may be concerned about job security, or you may be concerned about offending someone. There are lots of really good people that are trying to figure out. Just like parenting, I want to be a great parent, I don't have all the resources or get in to do it. And I think there are a lot of well-intentioned people that just don't quite know how to do it.

Kofi Kankam:

I think listening and not making assumptions about what the challenges are that people may perceive they're facing is really important and doing that outside of work, doing that in social settings, being in a place where you can relate to someone as a person, not just as a senior and junior type professional relationship. Then I think, again, the sponsorship is really important. Not just giving advice, but saying... Sponsorship may qualify it. He could say, "I'm going to give you this advice, I'm going to give you a little bit, I'm going to see if you follow up on that. I'm going to see if you follow my advice, and you can execute. If you execute, I'm going to give a little bit more." Maybe put them without being obnoxious.

Kofi Kankam:

It shouldn’t be like... I don't even know, like a warrior course or something. But I mean showing them... Releasing support as they prove it to you because you can't put your capital life its own, it's not going to deliver and the people that won't deliver are all hues, but I think once they do that, I think then saying, "Okay, you've shown me you're going to do something. I'm going to basically make some calls. I'm going to go on a library." This is happening in my company but now with fundraising. Because we started to want to do that for the people that we're working with that are saying, "I want you to write this letter. Change a deck like this. I'd like to see this in your company.

Kofi Kankam:

I'd like to see what more users more growth. I like to see this, am I refined?" As we're doing that, they're saying, "Okay, now you've proven that I can invest my time, and my capital, political capital, or even financial capital into you and I'm willing to go a step further." I think that's perfectly fine and normal, and frankly, that's the only mentoring that's probably sustainable past this moment that we're in as a country.

Jonathan F.:

And it's much more organic, and it's built on trust and trust, I think it sounds like it yields a much more successful outcome for both the mentee and the person doing the mentoring. It's probably a lot more fulfilling when it happens in the way that you describe. You just mentioned raising capital.

Jonathan F.:

I had a brief question. Also, in the Last week Crunchbase, which captures information about startups and growing companies about their capital raising histories and their structure added the option for CEOs and founding teams to indicate whether any of their leadership team members are people of color as a way of helping those who might be interested in either doing business with or invest in those companies actually, more actively seek out a more diverse investment set of opportunities, but also to be more cognizant about whether they are being inclusive in their efforts.

Jonathan F.:

I’m curious to get your take on that. Do you think it will make a difference and are there other examples even in your own product where having a mindset saying we're going through this now, at Credly where the topic has come up we're trying to help people make less biased, more fair decisions about talent and human capital based on people's actual skills and abilities are not based on opaque proxies, like your pedigree and your particular degree? The question came up, should we have profile images on profiles? Should we list names when you're doing human capital searches?

Jonathan F.:

Is that an asset or is it actually a deterrent to a more inclusive workforce? I guess the Crunchbase topic and then in particular, any recommendations for making product decisions that don't reinforce inequities?

Kofi Kankam:

Yeah, those are really good topics and questions. I'm elated that there is this attention now. In a way, I feel like I walk in two worlds because I have enormous privilege and a lot of ways, mostly because of the, I'll just say unfair signaling that's on educational attainments give to people and obviously, I'm a black man with a funny name. Not a stereotypical American name here and that poses challenges as well. I generally am happy that there is this attention on minority run companies, black run companies, because I think there are a lot of excellent ones. Like we are one of them, not the best one, but I think we're pretty strong. They're not getting the capital they need or not getting their shot.

Kofi Kankam:

I know that from speaking to peers, and some of my own feelings as well, my own experiences being candid, I feel like we have some kinds of metrics and our KPIs in a lot of ways are strong. I feel like there are some times where we have to jump through more hoops than maybe some of our peers who are not African American. I'm happy that there's this moment because I feel like you know, even though there might be criticism about why these companies got this money now, the reality is, these companies will get a shot, hopefully, to really make an important impact in the economy and to launch their own personal dreams and move things forward.

Kofi Kankam:

America can't be strong, as diverse as we are, it can't be strong if particular segments of the population don't get opportunities, that doesn't work for anybody. I really believe that. I think it's a great thing that it's happening. I think in terms of your second point, I think in terms of making less biased decisions, I do think, your case is particular. It's really interesting and whether you should do that list names. We do list names and profiles and we actually have a lot of people interested in some of our female candidates. We launched a platform called Admit.me Fellows, which is like a bootcamp crash course leveraging our tool in some offline things. That's for women, people of color and military.

Kofi Kankam:

Those tend to be groups that a lot of schools and corporations are interested in, and I think that's great, because I think there's always going to be a spot for the majority population in this country. I will say I have to be careful, we've been very sensitive to making sure we're hiring people in our company that are all different nationalities and different sexes, because you also can have an orientation where you're... Eric, obviously is African American, I'm African American. We don't want to groupthink either, because our product is for everyone. I think we're trying to be sensitive to that in terms of our hiring and you look at the literature, it says, "Diverse teams have more diverse perspectives, make more informed decisions."

Kofi Kankam:

We believe that and we have to live that we can't be saying, " We're minorities and we're going to hire an all minority team." We're sensitive to that and frankly, it makes the culture more fun and more interesting.

Jonathan F.:

It sure does and it's important for people to realize just as you described, the relationship and parts of the dynamic between you and your wife and your backgrounds. Diversity comes in all different forms and it isn't always as obvious.

Kofi Kankam:

Exactly.

Jonathan F.:

I just want to wrap up with one last area of conversation for us today. You talked about earlier bringing your full self to work and that concept and the advice and guidance you give to people. Here we are, we're talking about the kinds of programs and degrees that can really make a substantial difference in terms of people's earning potential and yet it's not for everybody. When you hear about things like skill based hiring, and you think about the role that an MBA will play in the future and other kinds of options and pathways for people to achieve better professional lives for them and better lives for their families. Where do you see Admit.me evolving and where does the space overall evolve around graduate programs?

Jonathan F.:

Do you see yourselves potentially providing guidance on shorter form credentials, micro credentials, professional certifications as maybe a step towards an MBA or maybe for someone that's going to be the right solution? How do you think about where the world is heading when it comes to that arena?

Kofi Kankam:

Yeah. The answer to your question is yes, we definitely think of ourselves as expanding beyond just... We're already not just an MBA, we do MBA, we do grads, we do some undergrad. I think a couple things regarding that. I think one, we absolutely want to be in that space where we're helping people, I don't care if you're in Beijing, or up here in Accra, Ghana, New York, Cleveland, etc. If you're considering post-secondary education, we want to make it be a place where you can figure out your options, assess your chances, assess the right fit for you, and then have a plan that you can execute to achieve that. I think as we have the proliferation of more educational options, I think it's overwhelming the experts, guidance counselors, etc. in the field.

Kofi Kankam:

It's great that people have all these options, but don't honestly know what they are, how to navigate them or if they fit. Admit.me would be a place where that analysis is happening. We're literally working on that right now. I'm having a real conversation with you, I think in terms of the credentials, the short form certificate programs and other online things like Credly is doing, I think those are really important. What I suspect is, it's going to be really important for employers to signal they're comfortable with people with those kinds of credentials, because that will give the credibility that this is a worthwhile pursuit for people to pursue because there's still time and money.

Kofi Kankam:

Now, I think the interesting part, which is somewhat controversial in some respects, though I make controversy a joke thing.

Jonathan F.:

Go for it.

Kofi Kankam:

I don't know if those credentials are going to be enough for everybody meaning, like in this case, African Americans, at the leading edge, it may not be the best choice for us to not have strong education, more traditional educational credentials, as we move into that world because it's hard for us basically to already break in. I'll just give you an example. I live in a decent neighborhood here. Every African American or person of color in my neighborhood I know, there are 30 of us, 20 to 30 of us, they all went to certain kinds of schools and most of us have pretty much all the graduate degrees. I don't think that's by chances. I've got a couple of neighbors and we talk about this. They’re not black and we're still really good friends and we chat about this.

Kofi Kankam:

Like, "Man, all your black friends went to all these schools and have all these degrees." And they’re like, "Why?" My response, sometimes publicly sometimes private because we have to. We don't necessarily get the benefit of the doubt, and I'm sure you think about this in your role, but I think it's probably going to be a lagging... I don’t want to say lagging indicators is not the right term, but I don't know if... Like you and I going out, you and I 20 years in the futures we're 17 year olds, I don't know if I'd want to be before you in terms of getting some kind of certificate versus going to a typical four-year degree because if you just look at the history of this country in terms of who gets hired and why?

Kofi Kankam:

Typically, women and people of color, the credentials they need to have to be with their peers. I think I've seen studies; I think you'll find that they're typically a lot. They're not the ones that are lagging, they typically have certain kinds of credentials or depths of credentials, graduate degrees, etc. Where they have to have that as opposed to maybe some of the majority white male peers that don’t. I would like for that not to be the case. I'm not banking on that being the case, I think it's going to be, as I talk to my black son, I think I'm going to recommend he probably go to a four-year school. He's not one of the first black kids to get certificate credentials as opposed to going to a traditional four-year school.

Kofi Kankam:

I won't let him be the first because I need to see that employers are treating him the same as they would someone else before I let him have the educational flexibility.

Jonathan F.:

That's a really eye-opening area for further discussion, the notion that the bar is higher. It's also a really interesting topic to explore in terms of product development too, because what can we do to try to obscure, minimize the reliance even unintentional on how that bar winds up where it is. If we do move to skill-based hiring where literally you're putting people on projects, assigning people to teams, not looking at where someone went to school, but literally what skills they have at Credly, which is not a 10,000-person company, but even at a company our size, we removed degree requirements and we removed years of experience from our job descriptions.

Jonathan F.:

Because we felt that those were a proxy for what people were really trying to ask and when they put that down, they're saying, "Well, what is it that you expect for someone who had five years of accounting experience or five years of digital marketing or an MBA?" List the things you're actually hoping they would be able to do, because you may find that there are people who can do those things who didn't have an MBA or didn't work for five years. It's worked for us, we've actually wound up hiring people that wouldn't have otherwise made the cut, they didn't have bachelor's degrees. They didn't complete formal CS programs, and yet they had all the skills that we needed.

Kofi Kankam:

I love that and I love the about you and about your company. I hope there are more CEOs and founders like you out there.

Jonathan F.:

Well, that's the change we're working towards and I think we have a lot of work to do ourselves on a lot of the topics we were talking about, but I think awareness and intention are what get people there and then modeling the behavior you hope to see in others. Hey, I want to end on a different note. We mentioned I was a magician and you're a comedian. People are probably waiting for either a magic trick or a joke and we kept this in a pretty serious plan. You were what? Was it Improv? A comedy club at Wharton.

Kofi Kankam:

I did.

Jonathan F.:

Is that where you became funny or is that why you went to Wharton or what happened there?

Kofi Kankam:

I've been pretty funny for a little while.

Jonathan F.:

I'm not just saying what your kids think.

Kofi Kankam:

No!

Jonathan F.:

I was joking. All I know is dad jokes.

Kofi Kankam:

I'm the tallest small person. The Wharton comedy club, which I found with a really good friend of mine who is actually way more successful than I am, super... Shout out to him. I did it because I wanted to get... I just wanted to do something different, something I was totally petrified for about, we got professors involved, raised tons of money. We would have probably two or three shows a year and have about 400 people to 500 people plus attend each show. It’s actually one of the best things I ever did. The people I met just being challenged to find a common experience, that quick engagement, interaction with the audience. I will tell you though, that I was funny enough.

Kofi Kankam:

Like I said, the tallest small person. I did have an incident probably six, seven years ago. I was in New York and there were some people I think they were from the UK. I was coming out of an event with two other friends and I was stopped and asked in the city to take a picture and I grabbed the camera. I thought they wanted me to take a picture of them and the woman snatched the camera back and some guy saddled up next to me and I put my arm and said, "What are we doing?" He's like, "You're Kevin Hart, right?” I just want to say I was thrilled because I do like Kevin Hart, more Dave Chappelle, but Kevin Hart is six inches shorter than me and I'm only five nine. I’m joking.

Kofi Kankam:

It was pretty offensive in some respects, but they literally followed me for two blocks, swearing I was Kevin Hart and just trying to be incognito. That's your interesting semi funny story.

Jonathan F.:

That was very funny actually and a good place to stop. It reminds me of how we ended our conversation last fall before the pandemic hit, which was me leaving our lunch meeting with a big smile on my face, still laughing and having enjoyed the conversation and wanting more. I'm glad we got to continue it today online. I look forward to the next one and watching Admit.me's continued success. Thank you.

Kofi Kankam:

You too. Can't wait to see what Credly comes up with. You guys are helping lead the way. You're clearing a lot of obstacles for companies like ours, so thank you.

Jonathan F.:

Thank you.

 

By Jonathan Finkelstein