August 25, 2020
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Q:

You are chairwoman and CEO of Adtalem and former COO of an investment managing firm. And you were recently featured in Wall Street Journal as one of the few female black executives who has reached the top. You're among the few black women who are in charge of a publicly traded company in the US and I really want to know about your story and any advice you have for our listeners on your trajectory and your pathway.

A:

Absolutely. Well, I will start by saying people often ask me, was it your plan to become a public company CEO? And I have to say, absolutely not. I did not have that much vision and foresight. But what I would say is that I knew that from a very early age, primarily because my parents taught me two things, one, obviously work ethic and making sure that I was working hard, but more importantly education and being able to get my education and go as far as I could from an educational perspective, was going to change my options in my life.

And so I am a first generation college graduate. Both of my parents worked several job my entire life and their entire lives, but neither went to college. So I knew that that was something that I wanted to do. Went on to law school and to business school, and then really set about industries and getting experience where I would be able to use strategy, business knowledge, and really going in and about transforming building and transforming businesses.

Q:

Can you tell us a little bit about Adtalem? Let's start there because I want our listeners to make sure that they understand all of the various verticals that you work in.

A:

The reason that I am at Adtalem is because of this notion - not even notion, but reality - that education can change trajectories of lives. So Adtalem Global Education does education in two areas; medical and healthcare and financial services. And what we do is two things. One, we do have degree programs primarily in medical and healthcare. So there we have a nursing school, largest nursing school in the country. We have two medical schools and we have a veterinary school.

And those institutions together do a couple of things. They allow access to education for individuals who might not otherwise get it. So a lot of our students, let's take our nursing school as an example, are likely working at least part-time, if not full-time. They typically have families, maybe slightly older than undergrads who are coming out without those types of responsibilities. And as a result of that, we have to be really flexible in the way that we offer our education. So not just now during this pandemic, but always we've had online options. In fact, we have full programs that are online, other than the clinical parts of that. We have accelerated programs for Bachelor of Science in nursing, for example, that takes life experience and competencies into our decision around students.

And then we have a lot of services around our students to help them really get to the degree. And then of course, to the job. What's great about that is our enterprise strategy across medical healthcare and financial services is, we're workforce solutions providers. So we're trying to solve really difficult problems for hospital systems. They need Bachelors of Science in nursing. They need family nurse practitioners because there's such a shortage of physicians. They need physicians who are diverse.

And so that allows us to really meet the needs of the employers, but at the same time, be able to provide this positioning. In financial services, one of the things that's being debated Safiya, right now in education and in particularly higher education is, the four year degree is not necessary for every position or career path and sometimes it's necessary, but then there's all this new up-skilling that individuals need to remain relevant in the market.

Particularly minority individuals. I'll give you an example. In financial services with artificial intelligence, digital banking, all of these new technologies, people really need to remain relevant in terms of cybercrime, anti-money laundering, et cetera. And we provide that certification and ongoing training at Adtalem.

Q:

In this era of remote learning that all of us are adjusting to that right now, where do you see advanced education going? Especially for curriculum that relies heavily on in-person learning, like for say medical school or veterinary school.

A:

Yeah. It's very interesting because there is so much of the curriculum that can be delivered online and through e-learning. Particularly as we now have native technologists who are coming into the system, those folks like me who took pen and paper notes are a thing of the past. But what is important though, is within those online learning platforms, it needs to have a couple of things. First of all, you need to have faculty who actually know how to teach online and have an integrated discussion-based classroom, even though it is virtual.

So many universities and colleges, and actually even K through 12 are dealing with this right now because they had an all physical curriculum obviously, in-person. And simply shifting that to the professor on a Zoom call, giving his lecture and everyone else listening, that's not really online learning. Online learning is that mode of having the discussions and the ability, and to do that, and in our case where we have a very high level of gender diversity, ethnicity diversity within our student base, we also have to make sure that there's a cultural competency with professors as they're in this online forum. So really a dual change, I think, coming to higher learning and online education.

Q:

How might students of color be left behind in the upcoming school year, because of so many different variables for distance learning, and how it might impact those communities?

A:

There's the digital divide in terms of, “do they have the technology?” And we're seeing some of the corporates as well as some of the state and local governments make sure that the students have the actual tools they need.

And then of course, there is just that ability to learn and have those competencies going into that, whether it's K-12 or higher ed. But I have great optimism around that because I'm watching the education fintechs, I'm watching companies like K-12, I'm watching companies like ours, and other online providers really take these issues to task and make sure that we don't continue the disparities. It's accelerating that question around the disparities that were always there, but now they're just so much easier to see.

Q:

Can you tell us a little bit about on the financial services side of Adtalem? I'd love to learn and hear more about what you're doing to counter human trafficking and anti-money laundering.

A:

Yes, absolutely. A lot of times people ask me, well, how does financial services fit with your mission for education and doing good in the world?

And it's a neat story. So we have a couple of different companies and institutions, but ACAMS is our system and platform for teaching, certifying, and training people on anti-money laundering, know your customer, cybercrime fraud, risk assessment, et cetera. And ACAMS is a membership organization. And each of those folks work in all of the big financial institutions, anywhere that you bank, there will be people who are CAMS certified. And really what they're doing is preventing financial crime and money laundering, which directly ties to human trafficking, sex trafficking, which as we all know, disproportionately hits poor communities and it hits women and unfortunately young girls of color. And so we've been able to make quite a dent in the background money and transactional piece that allows that to happen. Because as we all know, if we can stop that and the movement of those flows of funds that will go a long way to stop in such tragic activities that happen globally. So we're very proud of that work that we do at Adtalem.

Q:

When you were at RLJ, your mentor, Bob Johnson told you that until you believe that you belong in the room, you don't belong in the room. And based on that and based on your experiences, what advice would you give women who are trying to climb that corporate ladder and they find themselves in a room of mostly older white men? How do you navigate that?

A:

So I think it is something that ultimately, first of all, we have to say to ourselves, we will experience that in our career in one way or another.

Now, things are changing because obviously corporations are requiring that service providers and vendors and others have diversity. There's no question, but that is something that you will encounter. And so the advice that I like to give to women who are in that workforce is first of all, you do not have to be an expert on all. You don't have to feel like you have to speak on everything and you particularly don't have to feel like you have to speak for whatever particular profile you represent. Whether that's black woman, Latinx woman, you don't always have to do that. But what you do have to do is trust your gut when there are things or areas that you know you have expertise, and you should not always just defer and think that someone else has more expertise because they've been in the room longer, or frankly, because they're a white male.

And I think that the earlier you learn that, and it can be done in a way that is not confrontational. It can be much more questioning, here's the way I think about something. Have you thought about that? And I think the more that we hold folks to task around that, because those folks are sometimes wanting to learn also. So many things are not intentional. They are just driven by the social construct of how this country has developed. And so we can be a part of making that change.

Q:

How do you navigate this? And for those of us who are new in these spaces and feel that intimidation, I mean, when I was reading Michelle Obama's book and I heard her talk about her own self-doubt and imposter syndrome, if she has it, then it's okay that many of us also have it.

A:

Yes, and I have absolutely, definitely had that. And at the same time, you also can't get too comfortable because you have to be ready. I mean, I hate to say this, but it is the true, you have to be ready to respond when things do happen. I'll give you a perfect example that I was on a non-deal road show. So basically going out and telling potential investors about my company, not while we're raising money, but just, hey, you should buy our stock and here's why. Here's how great we are and what we've been doing. I've been here four years now, so maybe a year into my tenure. And we did a little go on the road, meet a few investors, and we were meeting an investor, a multi-billionaire who made lots of money on lots of different industries, including education.

He wanted to meet at his favorite restaurant, which was a pretty interesting diner. And we were sitting, waiting for him and ... True story, he came up behind me, slapped me on my back and said, "How did a girl like you ever get a job like this?" And it was like a football slap, a good slap.

And my CFO, a white male, was looking at me like, oh my goodness, what is she going to do? And I said, "Well, a girl like me has really turned this company around. Why don't you sit down and let me tell you." And I was able to do it. But you had to be there to believe it, but to me, those experiences absolutely, they make you stronger.

You can't always go in half empty like, oh my gosh, they're going to be looking at me differently and seeing me differently because I'm black or because I'm a woman. But you do have to make sure that you meet those times and experiences with grace. And for me, being around people who can react very, very well and statesmen-like and graciously in those situations, Bob Johnson, Mack McLarty. I'd spent a lot of time with them, and so that has been helpful for me.

Q:

I wanted to ask you also about racial and gender diversity at a senior executive level. You've increased your own board's diversity by 50%, which is amazing. And you've done this by mentoring candidates that haven't had prior board experience. And this is something I think in the recent Black Lives Matters movement, that's been shining a light on the lack of diversity, both gender and racial at a lot of the boards of fortune 500 companies. I would love for you to map out and talk about A) how you've done this and B) what training can you provide people so that you are opening that door for new voices and diverse voices?

A:

So first of all, it has to be very intentional. I became the CEO from the Adtalem board. So it did have some diversity, but you absolutely have to be intentional. And you have to have a plan for the board, just like you would have a succession plan for your management team. And in fact, I worked in parallel on my management team, which was not very diverse, as well as my board. It's important to have a diverse board and that does not mean one woman and one Black person and one Latinx. It means a diverse board because you can then get the respective and the resources and the lens on the board to support a broader diversity and inclusion agenda.

The first thing I did was I recruited women without prying a public board experience. One is African American, two were not African American, but never been on a board, highly, highly qualified in terms of experience. This little footnote that anyone could be on the board, but they must have prior public board experience, is literally keeping hundreds of really qualified people out of the boardroom. And you simply have to be able to take a chance. And then you say, you need to go take this audit master class. We need you to take this training. Here's the things that you need to know about the difference between management and board, et cetera. These have been some of the best board members and most productive board members that we've had at Adtalem. So that's definitely one tip.

The second, as it relates to management, you have to measure it. You have to make it part of performance reviews and compensation. Not saying you can only hire diverse people, but look at your team and ask, “does your team reflect from a business perspective, our customer base, our and the enterprises, hospital systems, et cetera, that we serve?” Because if not, we will not know how to serve them. So tying that back to your business needs, rewarding people who are taking diversity seriously through compensation and performance. And more importantly, that inclusion piece, it can really be tricky because you can do all the diversity initiatives you want, but if you don't have a you belong here mentality throughout your organization, you're not going to be able to include people. They're not going to feel like they belong in the room. They're going to have imposter syndrome and you go and have this great talent that leaves your organization.

So I would also suggest that people really try to think about both sides of that. As I told my team early on, hey, before we get to inclusion week, we ought to get some diversity, so we got some people to include. Let's start there. But once we've done that, we can then of course, make sure that people's needs are being met. And I think we're seeing that now during this time of the Black Lives Matter movement and social justice, et cetera. And leaders, whether they're corporate leaders, et cetera, are speaking out just in a different way about what that means and how we need to make sure our diverse community in this case, black employees, are just really feeling safe and heard in the corporate environment.

Q:

I applaud you for all that you've done to empower people because I think it needs to happen much more in the corporate space and you've actually done it. And it's really an example of how other companies can do it. I want to thank you for spending a few minutes with us and chatting with us about your experiences.

A:

Well thank you for having me. I will leave you with this. We are in a global health pandemic, we are in a social justice change in pandemic, and as we think about leaders and we think about how leaders need to move, I would suggest that people really think about being comfortable with ambiguity, being able to transform through change, and think about this time as a journey where we can all get better together and get better as individuals and see through one another's lens. So I'm really excited about where we are and the future. And I am so thankful that you took a few moments to spend with me on this podcast.