I was sitting in the nosebleed section of a very packed auditorium at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in early spring of 2018. Though I had graduated from business school at Duke one year earlier, I came back to campus to hear Meg Garlinghouse, Head of Social Impact at LinkedIn, speak.
Garlinghouse told the audience that in 2018 she decided to track who was reaching out to her for informational interviews. In January of 2018 she received 17 informational interview requests. 100% of those individuals were white, all but two were women, and each was from a similar socio-economic and educational background as her.
Garlinghouse then introduced a phrase I had previously been unfamiliar with: The Network Gap. The problem? According to LinkedIn, “Two people with equal talent should have equal access to opportunity. But some people don’t have the right connections or community to help them land the job they want.” The Network Gap is both a symptom and an amplifier of inequality.
In the United States, we hold on tight to the idea that meritocracy is real: that is, that advancement is based solely on performance and merit.
Garlinghouse was dismayed to find that she herself was only furthering the Network Gap by continuing to network with individuals similar to herself. She told me that she no longer accepts requests for informational conversations from people exactly like herself. Garlinghouse spoke about LinkedIn’s Plus One pledge, or an intention to share time, talent, or connections with one individual outside your network who may not have access to the same resources you do. But, LinkedIn cannot do this work alone.
“One of our realizations when we started to uncover this problem,” Garlinghouse said, “was that there are many organizations that have been working on [closing the Network Gap] for years. And frankly, those organizations understand the problem a lot better than we do. [LinkedIn] can come at the problem from a data standpoint, but to really understand what’s behind it, we rely heavily on our Network Gap coalition partners. These partners will make the work that LinkedIn is doing smarter, better and give us the information we need to make sure we’re landing on the right solutions for everyone.”
One such coalition partner is Beyond 12. Beyond 12 is a digital coaching program that “helps high schools, college access programs, and colleges provide their students with the academic, social, and emotional support they need to succeed in higher education.” Founder and CEO Alexandra Bernadotte explained, “College degrees can change students’ economic and personal prospects. We like to say that we help students translate their degrees into meaningful employment and choice-filled lives.”
Bernadotte is herself a first-generation college graduate, born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and raised in inner city Boston. She had a childhood goal of attending college at Dartmouth, after her mother overheard a group of doctors chatting about where their children were attending college. (“If it’s good enough for doctors’ children, it’s good enough for my daughter!” her mother said.) Bernadotte recalled, “I focused for 17 years on getting in [to Dartmouth]. My family had never talked about life after you got in. I was in completely unfamiliar territory. I felt like I had landed in a foreign place that I didn’t have the language or rights to navigate. That experience left me asking lots of questions. Why did I have so much trouble my first year of school? Why does this happen to so many students with backgrounds and stories similar to mine? And more importantly what could the institutions in my story have done differently to prevent this downward spiral?”
Of the 6 core tenants applied to the coaching that Beyond 12 students receive, one of them is networking and building social capital.
While Beyond 12 works with students to improve their network capital during college, COOP Careers works with students just after college graduation. COOP’s mission is to help first-generation college graduates “overcome underemployment through digital skills and peer connections.” Leveraging a peer cohort model, COOP empowers young people to form their own networks — with each other. Kalani Leifer, the Founder and CEO of COOP careers said, “Informal peer and near-peer relationships matter now more than ever for two reasons: to survive isolation and job rejections, and to promote relationship-driven referrals in a very competitive labor market.”
Not only that, in the current economy there is a shortage of supply of jobs. In a world where 70% of jobs go to people who already know someone at the company, it will be more difficult now than ever for those who lack connections at firms they want to get hired at.
But, taking action to close the Network Gap isn’t difficult. It simply requires intentionality.
The speech Garlinghouse gave at Duke in 2018 was the first time she spoke about LinkedIn’s Plus One pledge publicly. After she stepped down from the stage, a young African American woman named Brittany said, “I want to be your first ‘plus one.’” The two spoke over the phone and had a great connection. When several job openings at the Obama Foundation came across Garlinghouse’s desk a few months later, she reached back out to Brittany to see if she was interested. Brittany was indeed interested. She ended up being hired at the Obama Foundation a short time later.
Garlinghouse said, “We know this works. If everyone can commit to opening their network to just one person who lacks access, we’ll make enormous progress.”