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Not Your Everyday CEO: Chicago Native on Mission to Diversify Tech Industry by Training South and West Siders

By BrEpic Communications

As a young man growing up in a multi-generational family of 10 in a three-bedroom house at 103rd Street and Michigan, Shelton Banks never imagined one day he’d be CEO of a nonprofit — helping to give others who grew up like him access to the educational and employment opportunities they are too often shut out from.

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“When I look at an income map of Chicago and see that I grew up in a poor neighborhood, it didn’t really feel that way to me,” Banks said. “It felt normal because a lot of the folks around me were in the same situation. I knew nothing of Downtown or the North Side – anything outside of my zip code was kind of foreign to me.”

Today at 32, the Roseland native who now lives at the convergence of the South Loop, Chinatown and Pilsen, is proving that a nontraditional background doesn’t have to be a barrier to success. 

As the CEO of re:work training, a nonprofit that coaches talented individuals from Chicago’s underrepresented communities in software sales and connects them with top-tier technology companies, Banks now focuses on solving two major problems in the tech industry: a lack of black and Latinx workers and the way companies think about potential candidates who may not have the typical background of degrees, diplomas and internships.

Re:work recently received a $15,000 grant from LinkedIn that will be used to fund resume and profile-building workshops between the two entities, as well as advance re:work’s mission to reshape hiring trends for Chicago’s overlooked neighborhoods. 

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On Dec. 3, Giving Tuesday, re:work will be raising money and awareness for its core mission.  The organization’s campaign messaging will focus on its SROI, or social return on investment. According to re:work, donating to their cause is a smart investment because for every $1 donated, $4.26 of social value is generated that positively impacts candidates, their families, and their communities. 

“Tech says it wants to be diverse but that it has a hard time finding diverse talent, so we look at this like: In order to create a diverse tech community, we first have to invest in diverse communities,” Banks said. “This starts with empowering our candidates, whose success positively impacts the people in their lives and their communities in a number of ways. We see that cascading effect as our social return on investment.”

The donations, and what re:work and its partners can do with it, goes a long way: On average, successful participants see a 217 percent increase in wages from their previous jobs and make an average of $55,000 a year with full benefits. In total, re:work so far has over $3,000,000 in current total of placements’ salaries, or annualized candidate income that has flowed back into graduates’ communities.

“A lot of the companies we know today, their founders didn’t go in a straight line,” Banks said, citing entities like Coca-Cola, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Bank of America and others. “Success looks different for each person, and there’s different ways to get there. That was certainly it in my case — I didn’t go to college, I dropped out of high school and I still did very well. I think that proves true, too, for our candidates, and for the founders of the organizations that we work with.”

“Just like if your organization had a communications problem, you would invest in fixing it,” he added. “Diversity is no different, it just looks different. If you have a diversity problem, then you need to invest in diverse communities, more than just programs and writing a check. It has to be time, talent and treasure.”

Here’s how it works: re:work applicants are first given an AI-based talent assessment to determine their raw ability and coachability before beginning the paid, 8-week course. Participants are given a small stiped for their time and spend eight weekends receiving professional training, hands-on experience, and mentorship from volunteer coaches who are employed in the industry, including from companies like LinkedIn. 

Each week, the class serves as a sort of tech industry preparedness bootcamp — covering everything from polishing resumes and LinkedIn pages, building a personal brand, learning the industry jargon and sales methodology, understanding different types of sales and business development jobs, undergoing mock interviews, and spending several weeks putting all the information together.

After completing the course, participants then leverage re:work’s network of industry professionals and hiring partners to apply for open positions. Re:work helps eliminate another major barrier for both tech companies and its applicants with nontraditional backgrounds by working with its hiring partners to ensure those applications don’t get automatically flagged for being unqualified, a common issue in recruiting and hiring practices.

Understanding the Struggle 

Without a resource like re:work, the struggle to find meaningful work and a wage that can provide a good and sustainable quality of life — particularly for black and Latinx workers in the technology sector — is something Banks can relate to. 

As a teen, he tested into Morgan Park High School’s International Baccalaureate program, but at age 17 during his junior year, Banks dropped out of school to take care of his mother, who had become ill. 

For several years, he bounced between minimum wage jobs, working hard and quietly picking up crucial job skills that he would build upon at each new gig — always learning along the way. One such opportunity was at PNC Bank as a teller, where Banks said he soaked up knowledge around him like a sponge, hoping to springboard into a new level of his career. 

Within a short time, he was promoted to a personal banker, and was later given another opportunity to earn his investment license. He learned to speak investor lingo and began to come into his own as a professional in the field of finance. Within six months, he was again promoted to branch manager.

His first taste of the tech industry was with Groupon, where he earned a role in business development. It was there he also had an experience that would ultimately come back around as CEO at re:work.

“All along, I would have friends that would see me doing really well and they would ask me for a referral and I would always say, ‘No,’” he said. “Because I’d think, ‘The tech industry isn’t really that diverse.’”

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After moving on to another tech company, Sprout Social, Banks said he reconnected with a former coworker who had been volunteering with re:work, suggesting Banks meet with personnel there. He did — and as he learned about re:work’s programming, he realized that much of the area it served contained the very friends who’d called upon him for help before. He interviewed for the CEO position and got it.

“Their work resonated with me because I’m from one of those low-income neighborhoods that they serve,” Banks said. “I just thought back to the people who I didn’t help get jobs and the people that asked me to vouch for them, and I realized, ‘Man, I could actually go back and help some of those same people and more for a living.’”

Looking forward, Banks said re:work is busy investing in new programs and partnerships and looking for ways to expand its impact. He aims to hold workshops with LinkedIn at least once a quarter.

For those who are worried their backgrounds may hinder them from a fruitful career in the tech industry, Banks said not to limit oneself — education and success don’t always look the same. 

“If college isn’t the way you end up going, create your own experience,” he said. “Pick up a book and read about the people you admire, and that will help you shape your own life experience through the knowledge of others.”


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Our Why

If you’ve listened to the riveting TED talk by Simon Sinek, you know all about the big, all-encompassing WHY; why are we here? Why are we doing what we’re doing? Why should you want to be a part of it?

There’s a straightforward answer: human connection.

Are you human? Great, then keep reading.

Connection is the backbone of a happy life; it’s what helps us thrive, rather than merely survive on this planet. To quote the fantastic book, Daring Greatly, “Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.”

What is the enemy of connection? A lack of communication.

It’s as if we’re just leaving the tower of Babel; our communities still struggle with the concept of understanding one another, resulting in cultural, ethnic, and racial divides. The differences in education, thinking, life philosophy, background, and economic status seem to present a gap too significant to bridge.

That is where re:work training comes in. 

We are the bridge builders.

We are the facilitators of open and insightful communication.

We are on a mission to give those who are willing to make real, human connections the confidence they need to cross bridges towards professional opportunities.

When people begin to bridge these gaps together, the relationships create a diverse and successful workspace, a place where brilliant and innovative ideas are born.

Are you ready to re:work the stigmas and really connect? 

Come join our city-wide family, and begin building your bridges. New groups are formed the 1st Saturday of every month; all you have to do is show up! It’ll take some courage and vulnerability, but we can promise it’ll be well worth it. 

“Only when we’re brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” – Daring Greatly, Brene Brown

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TLRM: Book Recs for the New Year

IT’S A NEW DECADE!

A new year means new strategies for executing your vision, and sometimes you need extra motivation to kick into gear. Here are some inspiring reads recommended by re:work affiliated professionals:

Mastery– Here’s Why: This book teaches you the fundamentals and benefits of being deliberate in your life choices. It’s a motivating read for anyone who is trying to better navigate or find a new path in 2020.

Grit: The Power of Passion & Perseverance – Here’s Why: Grit explains with convincing data and moving personal accounts how any of us can reach (even surpass) our highest ideals, even if we aren’t so-called “naturals”. An awesome read to kick off the new year with confidence.

Daring Greatly:How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead – Here’s Why: Learning how to be vulnerable is probably the greatest favor you can do for yourself as a professional in 2020. No matter how good you are at your craft, the ability to really connect with others is what will get you places.

Here’s to conquering our goals in 2020!

-The re:team

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3 Ways to Stay Motivated as a Sales Underdog

At some point in their career, every salesperson has been (or has felt like) an underdog; it might as well be in the job description. While your company doesn’t expect you to lose, the truth is that the odds are not in your favor. Conversion rates for cold calls are typically around 2%, compared to 20% for solid leads and 50% for referrals.

Lack of experience, bad timing, self-sabotage syndrome, and unconscious bias (among other things), have created many underdog stories, my personal story included. Whether you’re interviewing for an entry-level position, or attempting to advance into leadership, if you “feel” the odds are against you, you’re not alone. Here are three tips that’ll help you power through:

1. JOY=ENDURANCE

Understand this: endurance has a job, and that’s to make you better. Even though I wasn’t a fan of my first job, knowing that my situation was preparing me for something better helped me to maintain joy and push through. Have you ever seen a negative person endure? It’s impossible. So keep the big picture in mind, and try to enjoy the journey.

2. PURSUE QUALITIES, NOT POSITIONS

If qualities were tangible, which ones would you chase? I have no shame in saying that I regularly Googled what qualities make a good salesperson and leader. In fact, I still do. The more I attempted to pursue those qualities like empathy, self-awareness, optimism, etc…the better equipped I was when positions finally came my way.

3. WORK LIKE A CEO

This is a company value shared with me by a former employer, and by far the most impactful piece of advice I’ve received in my career. In any role, you can figure out unique ways to get the job done, build out a solid strategy, and execute. You don’t need a fancy title to think big.

Others may not recognize your efforts right away. That’s ok, you have time to prove them wrong. Remember: we’ve all been underdogs at one point or another, because “what it takes” to be a sales leader is always changing. So don’t be discouraged, be the underdog.

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2020 Goals: 3 ways to invest in YOU and your career this year

IT’S THE YEAR OF FRESH STARTS.

Many of us are looking to improve our habits, find a good job, or start saving for something big. Whatever your goals are they all start with the same thing: YOU. Anything worth accomplishing will only happen if you invest in yourself FIRST. Here’s how:

INVEST IN YOUR MIND: TALK LESS, READ MORE.

Whether you’re trying to optimize your social media presence, learn a new sales technique, or figure out how to manage a project, reading is and has always been an investment for the mind. Taking in knowledge feeds the soul, opens the eyes and nurtures your confidence. If you’re not a reader, never fear: podcasts, video blogs and audible books have made learning new things easier than ever. 

Here’s a short reading list from the re:work team to get you started:

TLRM: Book Recs for the New Year

INVEST IN YOUR HEART: BUILD RELATIONSHIPS AND STAY CONNECTED.

It’s all well and fine to be a #boss and have your own thing going on, but never forget: having a solid network is essential to self-investment. Not only are you a social creature who thrives on meaningful connection, but you are someone who wants to achieve their goals, and for that you’re going to need some help. Human connection is underrated these days, but don’t be fooled: it’s the backbone of success. 

A great way to build a healthy, supportive network is through the platform LinkedIn. Setup is easy, and you can start making useful connections right away! 

INVEST IN YOUR VISION: BE FEARLESS AND SEIZE NEW OPPORTUNITIES.

While it may feel natural to take that 10 to 30% out of your paycheck and sock it away for a rainy day, taking a day off work for a networking event or spending a few weekend hours on workforce training is curiously painful. Why? We can’t see past the initial cost to the rewards! 

It takes a fearless attitude and a dash of faith to actualize your vision. Have you ever heard of rose colored glasses? I challenge you to put on GOLD colored glasses: to look beyond your paycheck, the cost of time and energy, and see the big reward waiting for you. See yourself reaching your goals, because believe it or not, you can.

NEVER FORGET: YOU’RE WORTH THE INVESTMENT.

Even though you might make mistakes, don’t get discouraged. Feed your mind, connect your heart to others, and keep your eyes focused on your future. YOU are the biggest investment you can make this year! 

Re:work training is here to help anyone willing to invest in themselves and their future. Apply for our free workforce program and be a part of the 120+ candidates who’ve gone from 17k to 55k a year, with full benefits and commission!