By Dan Gephart, November 8, 2022
After she entered the Senior Executive Service, Tinisha Agramonte became a sought-after speaker. She was often asked to serve on panels to discuss the obstacles she faced in climbing the career ladder. As she prepared for those conference panels, something occurred to her.
“Most of the challenges I had to navigate were connected to my low social capital (networks), lack of financial resources, and non-existent acumen on how to navigate and charter a career path when I didn’t understand the unwritten rules, social norms, and how to succeed in a professional environment, which was new territory for me,” she said.
Agramonte started talking about challenges of first-generation professionals. Despite initial reluctance from some people, many others connected with her message. As the Department of Commerce’s Office of Civil Rights Director, Agramonte created the FGP Initiative and was the force behind the First Generation Professionals Summit as well as some of the initial research on first-generation professionals.
And then the FPG Initiative’s credibility was cemented when “first-generation professionals” were included among the list of underserved communities in President Biden’s Executive Order Advancing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Government.
“I literally cried. Several colleagues forwarded the EO to me along with congratulatory notes. Then, I learned that some of my closest allies and colleagues at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Office of Personnel Management, who were all early supporters of the FGP Initiative, made sure that FGPs were included in the EO as part of ‘underserved and underrepresented communities.’”
Agramonte left the Department of Commerce last year to become the Chief Diversity Officer at Motorola Solutions. We caught up with Agramonte recently to discuss diversity, inclusion, and her FPG initiative.
DG: Congratulations on your new job. What are the biggest differences between developing a diversity & inclusion plan in the private sector and the public sector?
TA: There’s no real difference. Both require a comprehensive assessment of the systems (policies, practices and procedures) and employee sentiments around DEI to understand what is working well and the areas of opportunities; then a holistic DEI strategy that establishes clear, meaningful, and measurable objectives and metrics aligned with business goals that address deficiencies, along with accountabilities, a communication plan, and strategy to evaluate, monitor, and report progress that will lead to long-term, sustainable outcomes.
DG: Per the Executive Order, Federal agencies are now looking closely (or at least, they should be looking closely) at their diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility practices. Where should they start in terms of addressing equity and inclusion for first-generation professionals?
TA: First, understand the practices that serve as barriers and may hinder First Gens from successfully accessing and thriving in our federal workplaces. A good place to start is to review Qualitative Research on Barriers to Workplace Inclusion for First Generation, which is the study I commissioned through the U.S. Census Bureau, to help inform the Department of Commerce’s efforts to better understand and address diversity, equity and inclusion issues for FGPs.
In terms of immediate impact, we should start with addressing potential bias in recruitment and development practices. For example, in recruitment, increase awareness of biases that seep into our recruitment, especially when people are making determinations on who and what constitutes the best and the brightest, (such as) hiring managers who feel like top talent looks like ONLY hiring students or graduates from Ivy league institutions; graduates who completed their education in four years or less; and those who have highly coveted or unpaid internships. Research has shown that first-gen students, in particular those from low-income families may not have had exposure to experiences (traveling, sporting activities, tutoring, prep programs, etc.), the financial resources, or social capital that afforded them equitable access and opportunities to be competitive for entrance to out-of-state or high tuition academic institutions; the luxury to take unpaid internships; or ability to complete school in four years while working their way through school.
Additionally, once they figure out how to access and gain entry to the workforce, the “like me” bias may work against them if leaders focus on mentoring people “like them,” who have similar lived experiences as themselves i.e., same economic status background, same schools/organizations, etc. Without those relationships, they may not have the mentoring, advocacy, and sponsorship to be developed and advanced.
DG: What was the biggest misconception you faced when creating the First-Generation Professionals Group?
TA: The biggest misconception was that there are not many people in the population, when actually about 56% of undergraduate students nationally were first generation college students. [Other misconceptions were that] there are no real barriers faced by this population; I was pitting blue collar against white collar work and low income against high income; and that this would be about giving this population a handout versus recognizing we should extend a hand by identifying and eradicating barriers like we do for other under-represented, underserved communities.
The reality is that this population represents trailblazers who have demonstrated grit, resiliency, resourcefulness, strong work ethic, and determination, which are all valuable traits for our workplaces. This is about their strengths; not deficits caused by inequitable circumstances.
“Humble beginning should not limit how far one’s talents and drive will take them.” That’s my mantra and quote.
DG: What would you say was your biggest success or most satisfying success story that came out of your First-Generation Professionals Group efforts at Commerce?
TA: The first-ever research that I’m aware of for First Generation Professionals; the Summit; the sense of community and awareness created by the Initiative; the inclusion of this population in the Executive Order. Uncovering how many leaders are First Generation Professionals who told me that they worked hard to suppress their “real story” to cover and fit in, but how this initiative made them proud of those lived experiences and gave them an identity to be proud of.
[ FELTG has created numerous training opportunities to help you meet your DEIA needs, including the following upcoming classes Managing Employee Mental Health Challenges During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic (December 9) and Honoring Diversity: Eliminating Microaggressions and Bias in the Federal Workplace (March 9, 2022). Also, DEIA topics will be discussed during Calling All Counselors: Initial 32-Hour Plus EEO Refresher Training (January 24-27, 2022). If you want to bring one of FELTG’s DEIA classes to your agency, contact Training Director Dan Gephart at [email protected].]