Entrepreneurs

How to Build the Workplace of the Future? Sherrell Dorsey Says: Develop More On Ramps for Black and Brown kids

When Sherrell Dorsey was growing up in Seattle in the 1990s, she didn’t have many Black and Brown business leaders to look up to. But she did have one: Auntie Monica.

Local salon owner, Monica McAffee, whom everyone called “Auntie Monica,” took an interest in young Dorsey. As a teenager, Dorsey helped Auntie Monica around the salon. But more than pocket money, Dorsey–now the 35-year-old founder and CEO of the Atlanta-based news and insights website The Plug–says she gained the entrepreneurial insights that would serve her well later in life.

“Auntie Monica’s salon was not the next Facebook, but it provided a grounding experience for so many Black girls,” Dorsey says. “These sorts of early learning opportunities really come from business owners who hire young people who are already in their community.” And that practice will help lift up marginalized communities for generations to come. “We need to build the workforce of the future to have a better future.”

That’s the key message she hopes will resonate with readers of her site, as well as her new book Upper Hand: The Future of Work for the Rest of Us, a treatise on marginalized communities and navigating the new world of work. In addition to musings on how Silicon Valley is systematically slashing jobs in the Black and Latinx population, through the constant hum or automation and other technology, the book highlights companies or programs that get it right.

“There are all these companies that offer free certification programs and on-ramps–and I’m trying to use my book as a way to disseminate that information,” she says. “Making a job offering isn’t the only challenge. You also have to reach people.”

Of course, Dorsey herself had some help in this regard. At age 14 she started taking technology courses through the Technology Access Foundation (TAF), a Seattle-based STEM education nonprofit, and she interned at Microsoft throughout high school. Today, Dorsey is a data journalist who is passionate about covering the Black innovation economy and ensuring that marginalized people, particularly Black and Brown communities, can equitably access opportunity in the tech world.

Dorsey’s family and community played a big role in her career path. Her grandfather, who worked at Boeing in the 1960s, was a technophile who bought Dorsey her first computer at age 8, and her mother encouraged her to take after-school classes through TAF. Her experience at TAF–which primarily provides education for K-12 students and teachers who identify as people of color and come from underserved communities–is what led her to Microsoft. It was there where she found herself in a new environment.

“Being on a big campus like that as a young person, you realize you’re very fortunate, but it’s also very intimidating,” she says. “But what was unique to my experience was that, although I was going into a place where I didn’t see a lot of people like me, I was trained in rooms full of people who did look like me,” adds Dorsey, acknowledging that the TAF program itself primarily catered to students of color.

Dorsey’s varied educational experience–in classrooms through TAF, at a local beauty salon, and on campus at Microsoft–set her on a course to become a data journalist and an entrepreneur. It’s also what made her especially passionate about advocating on behalf of marginalized communities so they don’t get left behind as technology advances.

While Dorsey also happened to live in a region where she had access to life-changing educational opportunities, that’s not the only way to reach young people. Businesses can play a big role in expanding similar opportunities to young people of color to develop a diverse and equitable workforce of the future.

Ultimately, what Dorsey is advocating for is manifold: large corporations should continue to offer opportunities for marginalized communities to make tech a more equitable space through internships and apprenticeships, and small businesses should take the time to mentor and train the young people of color in their communities. And enterprises of all sizes should look for the people already doing the work–Black and Brown-run organizations that have long provided access and training to marginalized communities in the tech space–who know best how to make use of capital and how to reach underserved students and career-transitioners.

When it comes to building the workplace of the future, Dorsey says, “it’s not about recreating the wheel. It’s about being creative with connectivity and partnerships.”

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