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First-Gen - The Invisible Dimension of Diversity We Should All Be Paying Attention to & Why

Feb 02, 2022

 If you go to the Coaching section of my website, you'll see this...

My former and current clients share identities across the diversity spectrum; Asian, Black/African American, Latinx/Hispanic, White, Mixed, Sys Gender, LGBTQ, Vet, etc.

What do they have in common? The unique challenge of navigating the workplace with less knowledge, tools & social capital than their peers who grow up with family members & connections in these professions.

Being first-gen is an invisible dimension that intersects so many other dimensions of diversity, which means there's a tremendous opportunity to lean into this identity to create intersectional inclusion.

There are unique challenges that come with being the first person in your family to attend college & earn a degree. The term didn't exist when I was in college in the mid-2000's.  Today, being able to name it gives first-gen students a shared identity, making it less isolating, easier to seek out resources and ask for help (what we don't do when there's shame & stigma attached to something because we feel like we're the only ones).  

Though we gave this gem of a term to students, we don't talk about the first-gen experience in most workforces, especially not in Corporate America.  And it is a huge miss! Here's why: often times, organizations host *DEI workshops for diverse employees (usually coordinated by leaders of affinity groups) that don't address the real challenges or provide the tools needed to effect change, because it only speaks to one dimension of diversity, assuming it's the sole reason for the challenge.  Though there are obvious correlations between skills gaps in the workplace and the inequities that still exist in our country, most of the gaps have more to do with class and lack of access to education than purely race, gender, etc.  As first-gen college graduates, we earned degrees but often still lack the "critical cultural capital" necessary to succeed in the workforce.  Many first-gen professionals may not even realize some of their pain points stem from this identity because for one, we don't have the language for it, and because when we lack something, our imposter syndrome gets triggered.  That feeling of feeling like we don't belong makes us spiral into proving that we do by doing what we do best - figuring it out on our own instead of asking for the support we need.

Let me share two examples from my first-gen journey to explain what I mean by intersection of identities.

My first job out of college was for a non-profit, community based organization started by Puerto Rican families in the 70's.  The majority of my colleagues were Hispanic with a few exceptions.  As a Latina woman, in that workplace, I was part of the majority and my boss was a Latina woman; I didn't face any challenges because of those identities.  So every March when the organization would send me to the Governor's Conference for Women, though I got to hear from phenomenal women like Maya Angelou herself, the breakout seminars that addressed women's issues in the workforce did not resonate with me.  The skills gaps I had at that time were due to being new to the workforce AND being the first in my family in this country to work an "office job."  Sure, I had a few internships in college but they were part-time with low expectations.  As a first-gen professional, I could've benefitted from a training like "First Job 101" but I didn't know, what I didn't know because it wasn't talked about at work so instead I "proved my worth" by overworking instead of asking for resources on how to succeed as a new, entry level employee.

Similarly, when I made the pivot to Corporate HR, typically a female dominated space, I was hired by another Latina who was my boss for the first few months (forever grateful to you Yinnette!)  Unlike the small non-profit with its flat structure, this was corporate finance! - a massive, hierarchical, complex and highly political beast.  Everything from how to dress (don't wear a pink dress to an Investment Banking recruiting event) to who to network with & how (never ask someone directly to be your mentor) were things I had to learn the hard way.  It was the first time I was navigating this space and being first-gen meant I didn't have anyone in my family or immediate network to ask for help.  Of course, I was too embarrassed to admit I didn't know some of these things, at first. And every day I felt like an imposter!  It wasn't until I connected more deeply with that first boss and other first-gen colleagues that I was able to share some of my first-gen challenges and given advice on how to successfully manage my corporate career.

Now, I realize these are my personal stories but I assure you they're not unique It's the reason why I have a business; there are many first-gen professionals struggling with these challenges at work and not receiving the development they need in their workplaces so they turn to an external coach.  And I'm so happy to serve them!

Not only do I know that career & leadership coaching is effective from working with clients, I've seen directly how first-gens thrive when they're trained based on their unique needs.  In my last corporate role, I managed early talent leadership development programs and had the great joy of working with interns and recent college grads.  Of the interns who were first-gen (most of whom also happened to be part of underrepresented groups like Black & Latino), those who were a part of first-gen programs like America Needs You or Braven not only outperformed their first-gen peers who were not part of those programs because they "understood the assignment" (aka the internship is a 10week interview process so always go above & beyond), their interpersonal skills had been polished through a series of trainings.  They were given a roadmap to successfully start their careers in Corporate America.  In fact, the reason why associates from Leadership Development Programs tend to outperform their peers in the general population is because they receive specialized training, mentorship & sponsorship; that dedicated focus & attention on their talent gets them from high potential to high performing.

What if we gave all first-gens, this uniquely diverse cohort of employees, the same preparation, on an on-going basis?  Not only do I suspect that it would create tremendous value for first-gen professionals and their employers, I'm determined to be the first-gen voice that continuously advocates for us to be developed to show up authentically and drive innovation & impact where ever we work.  Why focus on first-gens? Because if someone can trailblaze through all sorts of adversity with limited knowledge & resources, imagine the level of innovation, problem solving, & grit they'd bring to your organization? All you have to do is polish that potential.

Where ever you work and whether or not you're a first-gen professional, I challenge you to raise awareness of this invisible dimension & all diversity dimensions, create space for employees to openly discuss their challenges & advocate for equity across all spectrums.