OneTen is a non-profit with quite an audacious goal—to find Black talent without four-year degrees, train them and put them in jobs where they earn enough money to keep their families afloat. One million talent-to-job matches, at that. Anyone who has searched for a job in today’s market knows that finding employment (with a bachelor’s degree, no less) is a daunting and arduous task. But, OneTen’s CEO Debbie Dyson is up for the challenge.
Dyson has over 30 years of experience as a corporate executive. The CEO came out of retirement to run OneTen and says that it’s going to take a “nation” to achieve the organization’s ambitious aims. But she, in part, is driven, by remembering the organization’s “why.”
OneTen was formed when the world was in a state of turmoil. In May 2020, George Floyd was murdered. The 2020 uprisings followed. In the United States, systemic racism persists—and it was evident, particularly at this moment in time. The inequity was evident through Floyd’s fatal interaction with police, but was (and still is) reflected in African Americans’ access to education, healthcare, housing and the ability to build wealth, amongst other factors. This was the impetus that led an ambitious group of business people to do something about this inequity. “And so you had a group of CEOs, starting with Ken Frazier, Charles Phillips and Ken Chenault, that wanted to do something. And so they corralled initially about 30 to 40 CEOs and said, ‘What can we do?,’” Dyson told ESSENCE. “They decided to do something to try to close the ‘opportunity gap’ that seemed to be plaguing, disproportionately, the Black population.”
Dyson continues, explaining why the organization is keenly focused on Black talent. “It’s 76% of Black Americans who do not have a four year degree, 82% Latino, 66% Caucasian. So this isn’t a situation isolated to just Black talent. However, the opportunity gap is bigger for Black talent relative to non-people of color.” Still, the CEO says that OneTen is beginning to see the impact of their work more broadly.
ESSENCE spoke with Debbie Dyson about OneTen and what it will take to get one million Black people without four-year degrees employed in well paying jobs, thus drawing a close on the opportunity gap.
What is OneTen?
OneTen was formed, and it is all about trying to improve our economic stature with 1 million jobs in 10 years for Black talent without a four year degree. But more specifically, it’s into roles that we would say are “family sustaining.” So this is not just minimum wage, but to ensure that whatever the dynamics are in the composition of your family that you’re able to afford, obviously the basic necessities: Healthcare, etc., opposed to trying to get a degree it’s like “What are the skills required for the job?” And that’s the focus.
And so we are entering, our third year, we have about 70 companies that signed up for the coalition to say, “We believe in the focus and the direction.” And our intention is to try to help them identify what we would say, talent that maybe they didn’t necessarily see, or think about that offers a different skill set than maybe what we would consider “traditional.”
How do you get the companies to join your coalition?
Initially when we started, it was probably about 30 or 40 that signed up for what they felt was the right thing to do. And so it was a lot of word of mouth and networking. We grew the coalition from 30-40 companies up to 70 that we have today and are still growing. So as people get word of what’s happening here, they understand our mission, they see the progress that we’re beginning to make, they want to be part of it.
What is your approach to finding talent?
There’s probably like four paths that we would say people get wind of OneTen. One, just sort of social media. However, another path could be through community colleges. So keeping in mind our focus is on people without four year degrees. The other that we’ve seen is, talent developers that we have partnered with that are part of our ecosystem. These are developers that are going to provide the training and skills necessary to help our talent gain what they need in order to gain the employment that we’re seeking. So that is another channel.
How many employers and employees are a part of your pipeline?
Today, as I mentioned, we’re about 70 companies that are part of OneTen and growing. We have made an impact in the two and a half years of about 88,000 hires. So towards our goal of a million. But considering a startup, we actually feel pretty good about where we’re at today. But the real key will now be this year forward, because now if you do the simple math to get where we need to go, we’re going to have to not say overachieve, but obviously accelerate and get bigger impact and bigger scale.
What is considered a ‘family sustaining’ job?
In each state there are living wages that have been calculated that says in order for you to pay your mortgage or your rent to feed your family to have healthcare, there’s a certain threshold that we think is viable. And so that can range from anywhere from $40,000 upwards of $60,000. And so as our employers are identifying the jobs that they would like to be part of OneTen, we ask that those jobs meet that threshold by state.
What have you found are the barriers to employment for folks who do not have college degrees?
For decades upon decades you’ve seen in employers where 60% of their jobs have usually ended with the tagline of, “four-year bachelor’s degree required.” That’s typical. What we’re asking now is for employers to rewrite those job descriptions, re-credential the roles and remove that and focus more on the skills that are needed for the job. So that’s one.
The other that I would say is depending upon where people are in their career journey, may need some help with resume writing, may need some help with interview skills you may have in some situations, because jobs are so dispersed, not everybody is able to work from home. There may be some transportation issues., etc.
Finally, in order to be successful or ready to take these jobs, you do need to get the skills. So you are going through a program, some of them are accelerated—could be three months, six months, nine months. And so we’re asking for that commitment to the program so that you can gain the certification to say, I’m ready and I’m skilled for the job that you’ve actually asked for. And so I think those are the areas that we’ve seen as opportunities to help prepare talent for the jobs that are available.
You often use the term “upskilling.” What does that mean?
It’s funny, we sort of get into these vernaculars because you’ll hear “skills first.” You’ll hear, “skill based.” There are a variety of different sayings. At the end of the day, it truly is simplistically, we are trying to basically train to the skills needed for a particular job.
As you have decades of experience working in corporate America, what compelled you to lead OneTen.
I was 30, 34 years in corporate America working for a fabulous company called ADP. And last year in 2022, I decided to retire, and I thought I was done. Let’s just put it that way. So about five months in, it’s one of these things that I now look back and say, it was fate. A friend through a friend, a friend said, there’s this opportunity that has your name written all over it. And I’m like, “Oh, that’s not possible. What are you talking about?”
It was revealed that it was OneTen, and I knew who OneTen was, because ADP was part of the coalition very early on. After having an opportunity to talk to the founding CEO before me as well as the board, it was an easy “yes.” I don’t think you get this opportunity often in life where you can feel like your book is complete or it needs to be complete. So now I can take the good grace of everything that I’ve received and give that back.
What does success look like for you, personally and professionally?
I will be retired. That’s what success will look like. And not that the goal is to be retired, but I’m retired because we got it right. We can say seven years from now, we hit our goal of finding a million [Black talent] and hopefully it’s a million plus. I hope it has an everlasting impact that you don’t need a OneTen.
You want to be able to see the possibilities in a much larger landscape than the narrow focus that I think we had before where the golden ticket was a degree. Lovely, but it doesn’t have to be the only ticket.
Interview was edited for brevity and clarity.