#HRTechChat: How Maji Tharpe is challenging the status quo

March 8th marks International Women’s Day and a special opportunity for organizations to celebrate the contributions of their female employees. This is an especially important day to me because it is about empowering women in the workplace. So this year on International Women’s Day, let’s take some time to recognize our hardworking women and find new ways to challenge the status quo.

Celebrating with me today is Maji Tharpe from University of Illinois’ Discovery Partners Institute, and she is doing everything she can to diversify the tech ecosystem in the state of Illinois by disrupting the internship model.  We met at the virtual HR Tech Conference, and instantly hit it off!  We both operate in the cross section of HR Tech, succession planning, upskilling and pipeline diversity.  We are both committed to challenging the status quo to create a better workplace for our daughters.

“It is important that we address these issues systemically and conscientiously so that we can actually make a difference,” said Maji, “because if we just say we want to do good, that’s not solving anything, we’ve got to create solutions.  We have got to push ourselves to the point of being uncomfortable if we are going to make a difference that is actually going to affect and make our system more equitable across the board.”

International Women’s Day is just a great opportunity to put this message out there with a solution of what can be done.

Reach out to Maji at immersion@uIllinois.edu to learn more.

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Jennifer Dole 00:00
Well, hello, and welcome to HRTechChat. I am Jennifer dole with 3Sixty Insights, and super excited to be here today. March 8th marks International Women’s Day, and celebrating with me today is Maji from University of Illinois. I’m super excited to talk about innovating ways to develop a diverse talent pipeline with her. It’s a perfect topic for International Women’s Day. Maji, introduce yourself, please.

Maji Tharpe 00:34
Hi, Jennifer, thank you so much for having me today. My name is Maji Tharpe, like you said, I am with the University of Illinois system with Discovery Partners Institute, where we are doing everything that we can to diversify the tech ecosystem in the State of Illinois.

Jennifer Dole 00:50
Great, thank you. And we’re going to dive into this topic of innovating a diverse talent pipeline. But could you start with just observing, or sharing some of the observations you have, of why we need to even think about this?

Maji Tharpe 01:11
Sure. I would say both equity and logic would be the two levers that I would pull with that. You have a situation in our nation where we have the same stats reoccurring each year: You have students who are attending universities, but the salary rate is not the same for students who are working just as hard as each other as they’re trying to launch their careers. That persists, and there’s a wealth gap that continues for the rest of their lives. You’ve got students who are graduating, who are excited, who are like, “I’ve done everything that I’m supposed to do over all these years, everything you told me to do,” and then they actually don’t have a position when they graduate. And so they’re forced to take jobs—I mean, we all have bills—they’re forced to take jobs that are not within their career path. And all of this training that’s been invested is not getting reached to its full potential. You’ve got companies who are trying to really move the needle when it comes to diversity, inclusion, equity, and they’re really having difficulty making a difference. This is why we need it. We need a solution that’s going to serve our economies, we need a solution that’s going to serve our businesses, and we need a solution that’s going to serve the young adults in our community.

Jennifer Dole 02:25
Gosh,there’s so much to unpack in that. And when we were talking earlier, you had used this kind of phrase around “strategy versus convenience.” And that really stuck with me, right? Can you speak a little bit more about that?

Maji Tharpe 02:47
Sure. We have–I speak for myself–we have too much to do, and too little time. We’ve got to get the job done. And those things that we know how to do, we tend to replicate those patterns and do those things. “Okay, I know how to do this, I know I have an open position. This is how I post it, this is where I post it, this is where I schedule the recruiter, because I’ve got these other million things there.” And so it’s convenience. It’s convenient. You know where it is, you have connections that are built there: “that’s where I go, I had a program, I know the program went well, I’m going to do it again,” because it’s convenient. But it’s not strategy. I have a talent pipeline, where I’m trying to change the composition of it. I’m trying to change the skills that are within it. But I’m doing the same thing. I’m running the same program. I want to make sure that our talent pipeline becomes more diverse, but I’m recruiting from the same schools, the same populations. Yeah, maybe I put a different ad on one different job board, but fundamentally, it’s the same. So I’m operating out of convenience, not out of strategy. Now, how do I make sure that we reach the goals that our company has said that’s important for our functional team and our talent team at the organization?

Jennifer Dole 04:01
Yeah, I mean, I smiled and laughed a little bit there, because if we keep doing the same thing, we’re going to get the same results.

Maji Tharpe

Jennifer Dole

Maji Tharpe

Jennifer Dole 04:14
And as you mentioned, there are so many hardworking students right now that maybe don’t have the access to the same resources or network. And they’re hidden.

Maji Tharpe 04:26
They don’t have the same professional-social capital that some other students have.

Jennifer Dole 04:31
Yep. And so with this as the identified problem, you’re really trying to change that.

Maji Tharpe 04:40
Yes, yes. There’s a new solution that we’re working on that we’re not really familiar with happening, it’s definitely not happening in this region. Discovery Partners Institute works statewide. We’re working with students across the state. And so the solution that we’re proposing—as one aspect, there’s not one solution that’s going to solve every problem—but I went to the HR Tech Conference, and it’s going to take me a month to make it through my notes, mainly because the notes say “go back to the notes” to actually learn more about this term, this concept, this new technology that’s emerging. And so technology is not slowing down. It’s speeding up. We’ve got a million things piled on our plate, and we don’t actually always know how to use the actual tools that our companies have invested in in front of us. Tools that go across the whole enterprise. You’ve got the business intelligence, you’ve got the relationship management, you’ve got the ERPs, you’ve got the workflow automation, you’ve got cloud platforms, and most importantly, perhaps, you have your human resources management tools. These go across. So we know how to get done what we need to get done, but often, there’s more there. And as they’re building up, there’s more. We have students who are going and are getting these good round, rounding out content knowledge from their degree programs, but there’s often a gap in the technical tools that they will use every day in order to get their job done. So the concept is this: If we take students who have that grit, who have that resilience, who are showing that they are interested and they’re working hard, and we actually develop an internship program where the time is split. Part of the time, they’re actually training on these platforms, these tools, the ones that industry, that businesses say “this is the priority, we need more people who have who have skills in this area.” And the other part of their time, they’re actually building relationships, building their professional social-capital with actual employers who may be interested in hiring them once they graduate. Combine that together, so they get hands-on experience, and the companies get to interact with them and actually get to pre-screen them, potentially for hire. That solves one problem of actually diversifying your talent pool so that you’re pulling from different areas, different universities you weren’t considering before. These students who are coming out who are entering your labor force have actual technical skills that may surpass the skills of certain members of your team. And then let’s not even begin to open the door on all of these low-code/no-code options that are emerging in all the different technologies. So the need for programmers is never going away. We’re going to need that. We’re going to need the computer engineers; we’re going to need the computer programmers. But the tools are developing more and more options for there to be citizen developers, for there to be power users who are able to take the tools and amplify them to that next step. So if we have university students who are transitioning into the workforce, they’re the power users, they’re the ones who know how to get everything you can out of the system. And then we actually continue to train them, so that they’re able to work with the low-code/no-code abilities as the technology advance—now you’re actually able to continue to be agile and evolve with the technologies that are developing on the market.

Jennifer Dole 08:08
So, again, I wish I could break down every phrase that you used there, because there’s just, there’s so much to think about. And first off, a shout out to the HR Tech Conference Virtual, which is where we met, so great opportunity to go back and listen to a lot of the information that was shared there. And what I hear you wanting to do is really disrupt the internship model and close this technology gap with your students, and then the technology that they’d be using at work. Is that right?

Maji Tharpe 08:54
That’s exactly right. When we discuss this model with businesses and individuals in the ecosystem, some of them are absolutely thrilled. They’re like, “Oh, my God, this completely would change the landscape. This would be innovative, this would be something that we haven’t done, it’s really industry partnering with the education system and integrating it so that we can actually invest and develop that regional workforce that we need.” And we have other people who are like, “but that’s not how we’ve done internships before. Usually they just come to us, and they work with us.” Well, yes, we understand, but let’s explore something different. Let’s explore something that’s actually going to meet your needs that you have in the upcoming year. Let’s discuss something that’s going to disrupt how you’ve been doing it all along, build upon what you’re doing great, because there are a lot of great components of internship programs out there, but actually provide equity in opportunity. And equity and opportunity in this day and age, we can’t ignore this. We can’t ignore it for our businesses, it’s part of how we’re judged by our community, I think the standard is so much higher now. And if you’re on the Talent Team, I think one of the most frequent questions they’re asking you are about your talent pipeline and about the metrics for the diversity, equity, and inclusion. And year after year, the results seem to be about the same. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to be able to go in and say, “We’re experimenting, we’re trying, we know it may be a little rocky at first, but we’re going to figure this out. And we’ve got an idea about how to make a change, how to serve this department and this department and this department, so they can help make our business more efficient, more productive.” It’s a win-win for everyone.

Jennifer Dole 10:32
Yeah. It’s not doing the same thing, and it’s getting different results.

Maji Tharpe 10:36
Definitely, definitely. It’s important that we provide all students an opportunity to integrate the education with paid work opportunities. Because what you have when you have this different sort of social capital, you’ve got people who have parents and family members, or they have coworkers who can pick up a phone and say, “Hey, I got this great, talented university student, how about you consider them for your internship program.” And the students are great, they have an interview, they build up the word, they get the opportunity. But those students who don’t have anyone to send in that little nudge, that little phone call, that little email, sometimes they actually graduate without having any paid work experience in the degree in the area they’ve been training for for what, 16 years? So they have volunteer experience. And we all know that companies often don’t value the volunteer experience as much as they value that paid work experience. We’ve got to provide equity of opportunity.

Jennifer Dole 11:32
Yeah. I mean, that’s really what drew us together, right? When we were kind of talking about observations of this problem. And the solutions.

Maji Tharpe 11:44
Both of us have been saying the same thing for so many years.

Jennifer Dole 11:49
Yeah! Yeah. And I just got so excited when you talked about—I mean, my world is HR technology. So giving students the training and certification in how to use HR technology, maybe they’re even studying HR, and then applying that in business, in a paid internship, really adding value to the organization but also gaining value for the student—I think it’s a wonderful idea.

Maji Tharpe 12:25
And it’s not just a win for the Talent Team, for the HR teams. There’s more and more integrating across the different departmental functions. Where it comes to our enterprise resource solutions, where it’s coming to our marketing teams as we’re trying to recruit for different positions, these systems aren’t standalone anymore. If you’re wanting to try to get the most out of them, you’re finding ways to bridge that data across. And so if we build a pipeline of students who actually have the knowledge to be able to do that, that will help the companies reach the goals that they’re trying to do. To reach efficiency, to be able to have their different departments working with each other better, to build morale around the company, pretty much will change their culture. Because when our data is working together, then we can work together better.

Jennifer Dole 13:16
Yeah. I think there’s a third stakeholder here in that the technology companies benefit, too, because they’ve got a whole other generation of people learning their technology and being able to bring it to organizations.

Maji Tharpe 13:32
So have you ever known a company to invest in this new shiny new product, and then they get it and no one really knows how to use it well, and what was so important to buy one year, by two years later, it’s just kind of dusty and hasn’t been opened? They’re definitely another stakeholder in it. The more value that the companies can pull out of the data and the tools that they have, then the more they’re going to continue to use it, to invest in it. So yes, you are right. They are definitely a stakeholder who should be interested. And they can learn how companies, in real time, when they have candidates, when they have people who have that technical aptitude, plus they also have the business skill knowledge. They’re subject matter experts in that area. They can see how it’s used, and they’re going to take that information and use it in their future development as well.

Jennifer Dole 14:24
Yeah, yeah. I just think that’s brilliant. I see so many job descriptions now for, talent teams that are naming technology, like, “we want you to have this experience with Workday. We want you to have this experience with SAP SuccessFactors.” And so many more

Maji Tharpe 14:44
And they’re for entry-level positions.

Jennifer Dole

Maji Tharpe
That want five-plus years of experience in using this technology. It’s not worth it; it kind of doesn’t merge together. So yes, you want this experience, you want to help fill in the gaps that your team has, you’re going to have people who promote into other positions, you need people who know how to use those tools within them.

Jennifer Dole 15:05
So your solution, your idea, is really about working with employers to co-innovate a system-wide solution. Does that feel right?

Maji Tharpe 15:20
That feels perfectly right. And I was so honored that you had me as a guest on Women’s Day, because when you look at the stats, you’ve got women who have bachelor’s degrees, there’s about a 24% salary gap for women. You’ve got 15, 18, 25% salary gaps, depending on which racial group you’re talking about. Between the intersection of race and women, the gap is even larger. So it’s important that we address these issues systemically and conscientiously, so that we can actually make a difference. Because if we just say we want to do good, that’s not solving anything. We’ve got to create solutions, we’ve got to push ourselves to the point of un-comfortability, if we’re going to make a difference that’s actually going to affect and make our system more equitable across the board.

Jennifer Dole 16:14
Yup. Well, you are challenging the status quo, and we need your voice to be heard. And International Women’s Day is just a great opportunity to put this message out there with a solution of what can be done. So let’s imagine that we’ve got some HR leaders, some talent leaders, maybe some technology leaders that are listening to this and want to learn more. What should they do?

Maji Tharpe 16:47
E-mail me. E-mail me as quickly as possible at Immersion@uillinois.edu, that’s immersion@uIllinois.edu. We need that input. There’s nothing worse than the educational sector designing a solution that doesn’t have industry input, because it’s not going to work. What we’re trying to do right now is gather the input so that we can prioritize which technologies that we’re going to train on first for our first cohort of students. So if there is anyone on the call who is interested in diversifying their talent pipeline from the central US region, to reach candidates who they may not be reaching before, to increase the skill level of their talent pool, then if they can email me, we really just want to have a conversation at first. We need to know what the needs are, we need to know which technologies are the ones that they see the gaps in, so that we are prioritizing what industry. And also, what the HR tech manufacturers’ developers, what they know is going to create a greater gap as they begin to advance, we want that input so that we’re designing, with everyone else, a solution that makes sense.

Jennifer Dole 17:58
Yeah, that’s that kind of co-innovating idea.

Maji Tharpe 18:02
Yeah, if I innovate in my own bubble, I can guarantee you it’s not going to go very well. It’s definitely an ecosystem project.

Jennifer Dole 18:10
Yeah. Yeah. Well, this has just been the tip of the iceberg in this conversation, and I hope we’ve really inspired some companies, some leaders, some technologists to see the value in this program and step up. It didn’t take long for me to get there in this conversation, and I really look forward to continuing our conversation and the progress that you’re making.

Maji Tharpe
I can’t wait.

Jennifer Dole
All right. Well, that’s it for today on HR Tech Chat. Thank you all so much for listening, and the contact information will be in the notes so that you can make that connection. Thank you.

Maji Tharpe 19:01
Thank you so much for having me today.

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