Urban Innovator of the Week: Yscaira Jimenez
Yscaira Jimenez, CEO of LaborX, is the youngest of five children. Her family emigrated from the Dominican Republic when she was about to start second grade. Her oldest brother was just two months shy of graduating high school, but when they came to the United States he was sent back to the ninth grade because he did not speak English.
This began a vicious cycle for him. Though he learned English quickly, he was forced to repeat high school – at a time when he was ready to transition into adulthood. “It was very demoralizing,” says Jimenez of her older brother’s experience. He then started a family at a very young age and needed to enter the workforce, but as an immigrant without a high school diploma, his job prospects were grim. Jimenez remembers growing up watching her brother struggle from one dead-end job to another.
Jimenez’s other siblings were younger when the family came to the United States and were able to carve out more traditional career pathways for themselves. Jimenez herself attended Columbia University and MIT – where she earned a Master’s degree in Business Administration, Entrepreneurship and Innovation – and is now a social entrepreneur dedicated to improving the educational and labor outcomes of underserved groups, particularly youth without college degrees. Her interest in economic empowerment, education, and poverty alleviation is a direct result of growing up watching her brother’s struggles.
“He just didn’t have a traditional pathway,” she says. “It wasn’t clear at that time that there were other options. His story always motivated and inspired what I did professionally. I felt a responsibility for people like my brother who don’t have options, who just fall through the cracks.”
There is this deeply-cherished idea in American culture that everyone has to go to college, and only then can they get good jobs. But, she says, 60 percent of jobs that pay a living wage don’t require a four-year degree; not just jobs in the service industry, but in industries like manufacturing and healthcare.
“Why don’t we reimagine our education and labor system so people have an alternative if they don’t have a traditional pathway?” Jimenez asks. “They can train for three months or six months and walk out with a hard skill set and get a living wage job.”
Her initial idea for LaborX, which she began developing as a graduate student from 2012-2014, was to train people in these kinds of skill-based careers digitally, but she quickly realized that a high-need population needs a high-touch model with a physical, in-person presence.
So she began looking at the training marketplace, finding out where people can sign up for things like IT training programs. While there is no real shortage of such career training programs, 70 percent of people who go through such vocational training don’t get placed in jobs.
“They don’t have a network to support them and have a hard time finding work even with the skill sets,” Jimenez explains.
These are entry-level workers in industries with very high turnover who cannot connect to job opportunities because of the way hiring is done. Employers, when flooded with job applications and resumes for a limited number of positions, use often-arbitrary criteria to thin out their candidate pool, simply to make the hiring process easier. And, as always, there is the additional “who you know” factor, which benefits only those lucky enough to “know” someone who can help them get to the top of that stack of resumes and in front of the hiring manager.
“Employers are looking for degrees, they’re looking for social capital, they’re looking for experience,” Jimenez says. “Instead we show them that these people” – the people who are unilaterally dismissed because of lack of education, experience, and/or connections – “are skilled. Instead of social capital we show what they can bring to the job.”
Jimenez formed LaborX in 2015 with the support of a 2014 Echoing GreenFellowship, which funds social entrepreneurs (Michelle Obama is a past Fellow, as is Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp). It is a job-matching platform for entry-level candidates with nontraditional backgrounds. She describes it as “LinkedIn for the linked out.”
LaborX works with students from nontraditional learning spaces like vocational training centers, boot camps, and community colleges, and helps them to create robust candidate profiles that include video resumes, skill profiles, and work samples, “so employers aren’t just looking at a resume; they see all the skills they’ve learned over that three-month period and see work samples.” LaborX also helps the job seekers develop a “tell me about yourself” script to prepare for interviews. “We’re kind of like their agent if they were artists.”
LaborX is currently piloting with Google. After asking Google to identify the entry-level jobs for which a candidate doesn’t need college training or it can be waived, LaborX brought in 10 candidates for open IT positions.
One of the 10 made it through five rounds of interviews with Google – no small feat – and while he ultimately did not receive a job offer, Google was so impressed with the candidate pool presented to them that they have asked LaborX to bring them more.
Additionally, because the LaborX labor pool is a high-need and low-resource population it is very diverse, and Google is actively making efforts to become a more diverse company with more inclusive hiring practices.
LaborX is currently concentrated on the Bay Area. They work with nontraditional educational facilities in the area including Year Up Bay Area in San Francisco and the Stride Center in Oakland, as well as a career center called Oakland Pic, through which they onboard talent.
“This is a demand-driven model,” says Jimenez. “We go to Google, ask them what are the jobs that are entry-level that they would be willing to consider nontraditional candidates for, then go find a training partner and build relationships with those training centers where we know they’re training hundreds of people. We want to aggregate talent from all of the vocational training programs.”
They currently have 80 job seekers and, as they move beyond this initial pilot phase with Google, they will work with other companies in the Bay Area to place talent and then expand services to both New York and Boston.
Last year they built the platform, found some training and talent partners, and are now transitioning from the pilot program to scaling with Google and further developing their next markets.
As they move past the pilot phase with Google, they will also look beyond the tech industry for job training and placement opportunities – like organizations that train people on solar panel installation, for example.
“We’re not only looking at tech but at the new economy jobs of today and tomorrow,” says Jimenez. “We are living wage-focused, looking at where the jobs are going to be and who is training people in those jobs. Clean energy, healthcare, IT, financial services – there are a lot of industries that are ripe for disruption and have really good jobs for people that are generally unemployed or underemployed, and that can create a pathway to the middle class.”