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Ep 496: Challenging A Narrow Definition Of Talent


I always find it encouraging to see many employers focusing on social mobility to diversify their workforces. However, much more needs doing, and some seismic shifts are required to broaden the narrow definition of talent many industries use to recruit.

My guest this week is Phoebe Anderson, Executive Director at ATLAS Fellows. ATLAS is a not-for-profit organization with the goal of transforming the finance industry by opening doors for under-resourced young people to access life-changing careers. Phoebe advocates for changing entrenched recruiting practices and challenging the narrow definition of talent endemic in the finance industry.

In the interview, we discuss:

• Why a zip code shouldn’t dictate a life trajectory

• Breaking down barriers

• The importance of engaging with High School students

• Scholarship, internship, mentorship and membership

• What employers need to do to be more inclusive

• Changing the narrow definition of talent

• Skills and knowledge are teachable.

• ATLAS’ advice to employers and their plans for the future.

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Matt Alder (1m 41s):
Hi there, this is Matt Alder. Welcome to Episode 496 of the Recruiting Future Podcast. I always find it encouraging to see many employers focusing on social mobility to diversify their workforces. However, much more needs doing and some seismic shifts are required to broaden the narrow definition of talent many industries use to recruit. My guest this week is Phoebe Anderson, executive director at Atlas Fellows. Atlas is a not-for-profit organization with the goal of transforming the finance industry by opening doors for under-resourced young people to access life-changing careers.

Matt Alder (2m 28s):
Phoebe advocates for changing entrenched recruiting practices and challenging the narrow definition of talent endemic in the finance industry. Hi, Phoebe, and welcome to the podcast.

Phoebe Anderson (2m 41s):
Hi, Matt. Thanks for having me.

Matt Alder (2m 43s):
An absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Please could you just introduce yourself and tell everyone what you do?

Phoebe Anderson (2m 51s):
Sure. I’m Phoebe Anderson, the executive director of a nonprofit organization called Atlas Fellows. Our mission is to open doors for brilliant and under-resourced young people to access life-changing careers in finance. And we do that through what we call our four ships: scholarship, internship, mentorship, and membership.

Matt Alder (3m 15s):
Fantastic stuff and very keen to dive into that and find out a lot more about what you do cause it’s a really, really interesting area. Before we do though, just give us a little bit of background on yourself. How did you get to do what you do now?

Phoebe Anderson (3m 28s):
Well, I started my career as a middle school teacher in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood. And while I was teaching, I observed there was a really stark difference in the resources and opportunities that were available to my students. Oftentimes, we didn’t have up-to-date textbooks. Many came from households where parents were working multiple jobs and couldn’t take active roles in academic enrichment, and there were just a number of circumstances that did not put these young people on equal footing. The other thing that I observed though was that they were really smart, resourceful, and eager to learn and succeed. So this put me on a path of working at nonprofit organizations to ensure that all students had opportunities to succeed.

Phoebe Anderson (4m 17s):
And within education, we have a saying that a student zip code shouldn’t dictate their life trajectory, and I really believe that. And so leading Atlas provides me with the opportunity to innovate upon some of those ideas and introduce them to the finance sector. So now I like to say that my job is to open doors for students from any zip code to pursue a career in finance.

Matt Alder (4m 42s):
You mentioned at the start, some of the things that Atlas follows does, talk us through it in a bit more detail. Who do you work with and how do you work with them?

Phoebe Anderson (4m 51s):
Yeah, so I’ll start with who we work with. Atlas recruits and admits students who come from a demographic that’s underrepresented in finance. So oftentimes, women, black, young people, Latino, LGBTQ+, and/or young people who come from an under-resourced background. So a first-generation college student, somebody who’s receiving free or reduced lunch or is Pell eligible. And like I mentioned earlier, we work with them and we give them what we call our four ships: scholarship, internship, mentorship, and membership.

Phoebe Anderson (5m 33s):
And we think through the combination of these things, we are really helping to develop them and prepare them for a career In finance. College can be exceptionally expensive and many of our fellows are deciding whether or not they can afford it. Our scholarship program offers $20,000 a year up to four years. So it really allows our young people to go to college and obtain a degree. We guarantee four summers of paid internships, which we think helps our fellows develop the professional acumen, expertise, network to obtain a career in finance upon graduation.

Phoebe Anderson (6m 16s):
We match them with mentors every summer because we know that those deep personal connections where you can learn and grow from experts in the field is incredibly important. And we also talk about membership to our Atlas community. You know, for many of our fellows, there’s a lot of social emotional challenges to entering a career in finance. And so we work really hard to build a sense of trust and support among our fellows so they can navigate those challenges together and hopefully in the long run become one another’s professional network.

Matt Alder (6m 52s):
You sort of touched on there some of the barriers that these groups of young people have stand between them and a career in finance. Can you sort of break that down for us a little bit more in terms of why it’s so difficult to start a career in the area?

Phoebe Anderson (7m 8s):
Yeah, so I think of those barriers in three categories, the cost of higher education, the social capital needed to navigate this profession combined with the accelerated state of recruitment within finance and then the social-emotional barriers. So in terms of college, it’s incredibly expensive and I think a lot of young people are deterred from post-secondary education because of the cost. And to enter finance, you know, an undergraduate degree is a requirement In terms of the social capital needed to navigate this profession. You know, if you don’t grow up having dinner table conversations about the business lunch your mom went to or the golf outing your dad participated in, or you don’t have someone to help you put together a resume, if you don’t understand, you must go to a career fair, you’re just at an inherent disadvantage.

Phoebe Anderson (8m 4s):
It doesn’t mean you’re any less smart or talented, but what often ends up happening is that by the time young people like those served by Atlas realize they need to be doing these things, it’s often too late simply because of the incredibly accelerated financial recruitment process. And in terms of the social emotional impact, you know, many of our fellows are women or they’re non-white and they’re walking into places where there’s not often a lot of people who look like them. Sometimes that inherently sends a message whether it’s the right message or not, but people can think, I don’t belong here.

Phoebe Anderson (8m 44s):
And so what does that do to a person’s impression of their self-worth? It sometimes can cause imposter syndrome. And so when you think of all those things combined, it can be really hard for underrepresented or under-resourced youth to navigate these things.

Matt Alder (9m 2s):
And in terms of the employers that they work with, you know, you mentioned there walking into places and feeling that there’s no one like you there, not having that kind of family background or all those kind of things, how do you work with the employers or what do the employers need to do to foster a more inclusive environment?

Phoebe Anderson (9m 24s):
I think we need to shift our mindset about talent. I’ve really come to reject the notion that there’s a war for talent. You know, I hear this all the time and I’ve spent the last two summers surrounded by fellows who are truly some of the most smartest, most hardworking young people I’ve ever met. So I think we need to shift from thinking about talent, starting with the hiring process to much earlier in terms of coaching and developing talent because if students feel supported and like they’re valued, I think they’ll feel much more welcome in the workplace.

Phoebe Anderson (10m 5s):
The other thing I would say is shifting our definition of talent. So I’ve observed that people have different definitions and I think when people are hiring or talking about bringing talent into the financial sector, they’re evaluating a series of things. Some of those things are skills and knowledge, which I define as ideas or concepts that can be taught. We see a lot of these things prioritized in finance. Does this person have exceptional Excel skills? Do they have an understanding of current events and how the markets are reacting? And these are all teachable things, but they’re not always concepts that underrepresented or under-resourced populations, the very type of people young people Atlas serves, understand they’re supposed to master in order to be competitive in this profession.

Phoebe Anderson (10m 54s):
There’s another set of traits and characteristics, and when I use the word talent, this is what I mean that are important to success in the finance industry, but not always teachable things like work ethic, intellectual curiosity, achievement orientation. And our fellows have these in spades. Many of them were the valedictorians of their high school classes while working part-time jobs to support their families taking on many household duties. But you can start to see that if people are prioritizing skills and knowledge during the hiring process, they might be missing out on a significant portion of incredibly talented young people and sending signals about what’s valued and important in this industry that young people aren’t always bringing to the table.

Phoebe Anderson (11m 44s):
That doesn’t mean they’re any less talented, but it’s a virtue-signaling that some of our fellows might not pick up on.

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Matt Alder (13m 33s):
I think the interesting thing as well is that the diversity, equity, inclusion, social mobility have been huge topics over the last few years amongst, you know, employers of all types. But I think what you’re really highlighting here is the fact that it’s longer-term commitments and longer-term programs that really improve the situation, not perhaps some of the short-term fixes that some, not all, but some employers look to.

Phoebe Anderson (14m 2s):
That’s exactly right. And let me tell you a story that really illustrates that point. So Jonathan Hahn is one of our Atlas Fellows, he’s a first-generation college student. He applied to Atlas because he had heard Ken Melman speak on a panel and was intrigued about a career in finance. And it was just this one instance where he heard someone speak and was curious about what this career path might entail, was it for him? When we admitted Jonathan to our program, we saw someone with a lot of agency, a lot of raw talent, but not a lot of industry knowledge or experience. When he started his internship last summer at Valley Oslo Asset Management, he could not tell you what a hedge fund was.

Phoebe Anderson (14m 47s):
Fast forward seven weeks later to the end of his internship, he was asked to stay on part-time through the school year. He now works closely with his PM. He attends earning calls. He updates financial models. He was given an opportunity last summer and he seized it. And because of this, he’s now well positioned for a future in this industry. I have no doubt that he will be an extremely competitive candidate, but it took starting earlier and a little bit more of a long-term investment to get him there.

Matt Alder (15m 20s):
And sort of working, working through this process, working with the young people, working with the employers, you know, you’ve obviously got a very strong vision and personal mission there, but what surprised you the most in terms of the work that you’ve been doing?

Phoebe Anderson (15m 36s):
I think there’s a few things that have surprised me. You know, I think again, I think we’re really just starting to scratch the surface when it comes to talent. I’ve never walked into a school and not found a group of curious young people. And so when we talk about this war for talent, it implies that talent is finite and I reject that notion. I also think, again, reconceptualizing our definitions of talent is important if we truly want to recruit different types of experiences and perspectives. And the other thing that’s really surprised me is I’ve observed sometimes there’s a discrepancy between how the finance industry approaches its work and how it approaches recruiting talent.

Phoebe Anderson (16m 20s):
So I oftentimes hear words like long-term investment, going long risk when it comes to people describing their work within finance, but I don’t always see those principles applied to recruiting young talent.

Matt Alder (16m 35s):
Absolutely. I think that’s a fantastic point in terms of, I suppose somewhere where the DNA of that industry isn’t actually reflected in the way that it recruits people or even the way that it thinks about talent. I suppose just sort of picking up on that, lots of people listening will be working for employers who want to increase the diversity of their workforce. They’re looking to support social mobility. They are starting to think differently about talent and perhaps realize some of the, you know, the implications of that. What would your advice be to those employers, the employers who want to do something differently in a kind of starting out on this journey?

Phoebe Anderson (17m 17s):
Well, first I’d say it’s well worth the investment. You know, a 2020 analysis by McKenzie found companies with more gender ethnic and racial diversity were more likely to have higher financial returns. And you can find very specific examples of that in any industry that you look to. I also think it’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy because this is what Gen Z is looking for. They are prioritizing diversity more than any other generation. And so the more diverse we can make our workplaces, the more likely we will be to recruit talent. But I’d also say that I think people need to think more broadly about hiring and be realistic about what they can do and want to do within that realm.

Phoebe Anderson (18m 6s):
So oftentimes when I hear people talk about the talent cycle, they start the conversation with hiring. But I don’t think that’s the first part. I think if we’re really committed to hiring incredibly smart and diverse people, that process actually begins much earlier with development and recruitment, opening doors, creating access to opportunities and that requires a really robust infrastructure, resources to cast a wide net. And there’s a lot of differences between the generation of this current workforce and Gen Z. So being able to deeply understand the experiences and motivations of the new generation will make companies more effective, not just at recruitment and hiring, but long-term retention.

Phoebe Anderson (18m 53s):
But that’s a lot of work. And so I’d encourage people to be realistic about what they can develop and whether they wanna develop those things. And for those that don’t have the resources or aren’t interested, I would say call us. Atlas would be thrilled to work with you.

Matt Alder (19m 11s):
And final question, what does the future look like for Atlas? What are your sort of plans for the next two or three years?

Phoebe Anderson (19m 18s):
Well, we just opened our application cycle for our new group of fellows. We’ll be admitting up to 30 this summer. And we have ambitious growth plans. You know, we like to say that our vision is changing the face of finance. And so we hope to recruit increasing numbers of fellows every year and recruit increasing numbers of corporate partners who wanna work with us to achieve that mission.

Matt Alder (19m 45s):
Phoebe, thank you very much for talking to me.

Phoebe Anderson (19m 47s):
My pleasure, Matt. Thanks for having me.

Matt Alder (19m 51s):
My thanks to Phoebe. You can subscribe to this podcast in Apple podcasts, on Spotify, or via your podcasting app of choice. Please also follow the show on Instagram. You can find us by searching for Recruiting Future. You can search all the past episodes at On that site, you can also subscribe to our monthly newsletter, Recruiting Future Feast, and get the inside track about everything that’s coming up on the show. Thanks very much for listening.

Matt Alder (20m 32s):
I’ll be back next time and I hope you’ll join me.

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