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Valerie Jarrett Wants You to Stand Up For Those Without Opportunity

 Valerie Jarrett Wants You to Stand Up For Those Without Opportunity

“Talent is ubiquitous, opportunity is not.”

As Valerie Jarrett spoke these words, there was a collective nod as the audience paused to absorb her wisdom at Overture’s STEMHD Summit.

The Senior Advisor to Former President Barack Obama and Former Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls possesses a wealth of knowledge, and it is hard not to feel the immense girl power after hearing her speak. Her words were profound, they were true, and they resonated. Her message: while there are many talented people, opportunity is not guaranteed to all.

From a young age, we can tell what opportunities we have and which ones we do not. It starts from the neighborhoods we live in, the schools we attend, and the jobs we end up in. Many of what we do stems from the exposure that we have. And many times certain groups, mainly women and people of color, are excluded from opportunities because they are not aware of what’s out there.

During the fireside chat, Valerie Jarrett and Arielle Duhamie-Ross, Correspondent at VICE discussed the various ways to equalize the playing field for groups who are oftentimes marginalized: women, people of color and, an even less addressed population, the incarcerated.

[Read: Why We Need to Tell Our Stories As Women of Color At Work

Here are some of the ways we can level the playing field and make our workplaces more inclusive.

Share Your Knowledge

“11 million people go through the jail system annually and on average stay for only 23 days… The number of women incarcerated has gone up 400% in the last 30 years.”

So many people are unaware of the profound effect the criminal justice system has on the rest of our communities. Due to a number of circumstances, there are many people who are unable to reenter civilian life with ease.

The large number of inmates is alarming, but it can be boiled down to poverty, who can afford bail, who can afford to miss a long period of work, etc. The American jail system is notorious for keeping those in poverty down and making it difficult for them to attain better opportunities.

At San Quentin State Prison, however, Valerie witnessed the work of The Last Mile, a conduit that organizes all the volunteers in Silicon Valley to teach coding to prisoners. She noted the name comes from the notion that “the hardest road out of prison is the last mile where you’re trying to prepare yourself for reentry.” This program is dedicated to giving inmates the skills for a job in tech and helping them secure work for when they are released. This is effective because it gives them skills to apply when they enter the workforce.

Speak Up For Inclusion

“If you don’t have a culture that’s one of inclusion and treating your workforce with respect, you will be found out, and when you are the consequences can be devastating.”

Too often, employees feel intimidated by the “bro” culture at work. They might be the only person of color or the only woman in the room, or don’t feel empowered to let their voices be heard. Or they might feel undervalued and uncomfortable with the language being used around certain populations. A positive work culture makes a difference, especially when it comes to female talent. Therefore, It’s important that those in power and in the C-Suite speak up and help when they see a problem.

Valerie talks about what senior level executives can do to make a difference in the workplace for those who may feel disparaged. She states, “If you see something in your organization that is counter cultural to you, it’s not going to get fixed unless you fix it.”

Mentor the Future Generation of Leaders

“Children aspire to the aspirations that adults who they love set for them.”

When it’s all said and done, we have to think about the future. As we get older and our roles become more senior, it’s important that we remember the younger people who will fill the junior roles one day. We have to mentor and encourage our youth to aspire to greatness. If you know of a tech program for underrepresented groups, encourage them to apply. If you see an opportunity to mentor someone who may be interested in what you do, take them under your wing and share information. It’s also important to help those who do not look like you. They key to diversity in the workplace is giving everyone an opportunity to learn. Knowledge has so much power and will make a world of difference, and can even change a young person’s trajectory.

[Related: The Reciprocal Value of Mentorship]

Opportunity is everywhere, but not everyone has access to it. We have the power to help level the playing field, and Valerie Jarrett is encouraging us to use our role to stand up for what’s right.


Alison (Ali) is Marketing Coordinator at Ellevate Network, where she manages the content seen on Ellevate’s social media and contributes to the marketing creative in key campaigns. She is passionate about media and television, especially the role that women play in the field.

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