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.
“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.
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.’”
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.”