Two weeks ago, my parents celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary. No, that’s not a typo. It’s a hard number to wrap my head around, thinking of all they’ve experienced as immigrants from Mexico: the challenges and trials, the successes and triumphs, always trying to make a better life for themselves and their children. It’s a quintessentially American story—in both the best and not-so-great ways. A story that my siblings and I all inherited.
Growing up in one of the toughest barrios in Houston, with parents who never attended college and worked incredibly hard just to get by, I really had to find my own way. Back then, terms like DE&I and employee resource groups weren’t nearly the cultural touchstones they are today. If I wanted to “make it”—attend college, get a good job—I had to do it myself. From applying to university and figuring out how to pay for school to identifying potential mentors. “Trial and error” became my M.O. And believe me, there were plenty of errors along the way.
So when I came across a recent article in the Harvard Business Review about what companies are doing to support first-generation professionals (FGPs), it struck a chord. Despite some tangible gains—increased college attendance, more inclusive hiring practices, etc.—first-generation students and professionals still face plenty of obstacles, from a lack of mentors and role models to inequities in career advancement. And yet, until recently, little research had been done on the actual workplace experience of FGPs—or those who move from blue-collar roots to white-collar careers.
While HBR’s study revealed several interesting insights, one finding really stuck out: FGPs were twice as likely as non-FGPs (23% vs. 12%) to report that they found employee resource groups (ERGs) helpful during their first job. But it was the accompanying quote from a Latina employee, who talked about the role that Hispanic-serving organizations played in her career development, that really drove it home. In short: because she didn’t have a professional network of her own, she *had* to seek out these resources.
As a first-gen myself, I can totally relate. FGPs often don’t have the readymade corporate or professional networks that non-FGPs have. We aren’t handed a book of contacts. We basically have to start from scratch. With just about everything. It can be complex and complicated—and oftentimes highly emotional and exhausting. All of this on top of simply doing the job.
Having served as CEO of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, I know how important organizations like SHPE are in empowering individuals from historically marginalized communities. One of my foremost goals in joining CRA as its first-ever Chief Inclusion and Engagement Officer was to take our affinity groups to the next level—in a sense, turning them into “mini professional societies,” with a steadfast emphasis on relationship-building and career-advancement.
But addressing the issue of FGP mobility requires more than just establishing and growing effective ERGs. First, we need to recognize FGPs as a legitimate affinity group. Just because a person speaks fluent English or *appears* to be fully acculturated doesn’t mean they haven’t struggled—or continue to struggle. Many of us are still trying to navigate a corporate environment that is completely foreign. In fact, there is research showing that, compared to their peers, FGPs who move from working-class backgrounds into more affluent environments experience lower economic capital (money), lower social capital (relationships and networks) *and* lower cultural capital (knowledge about the unwritten rules of behavior; norms, etc.).
As such, it’s imperative for employers to find more effective ways to engage and support FGP employees. To get to know them and ask them about their respective experiences, and what obstacles they’ve faced—and continue to face—along the way. The more that leaders seek to truly understand FGPs, the better they’ll be at identifying (and providing) equitable resources to help FGPs not just survive in a complex corporate environment, but thrive in it.
To truly engage and empower FGPs, employers should look to make professional development, career advancement programs, and tools like formal mentorship, leadership assessments, and executive coaching key components of its talent retention and advancement strategies. A comprehensive ecosystem of support like this is critical to an FGP’s career early on (and thereafter).
Again, most FGPs do not have ready-made networks to draw from. So it’s on us, as leaders, to provide what they need to build these networks for themselves. That means giving them the support, resources and opportunities necessary to establish valuable relationships in the workplace. Additionally, training in communication and social skills—in things like conflict management and navigating office politics—can help FGPs further level the playing field.
Finally, let’s be more forward-thinking and intentional about intersectionality. Many FGPs are also women, people of color, members of the LGBTQIA+ community and so on. It’s essential that employers take into consideration these layered identities. If anything, having a deeper understanding will help companies identify more effective resources—and suitable individuals to serve as mentors and executive coaches.
The article (which I’ll link to below) mentions several other things worth keeping in mind: the importance of inclusive communication, taking regular stock of one’s organizational culture, etc. All of which are undoubtedly important. But to make headway on these more granular issues, it’s important to acknowledge just how prevalent (and relevant) FGPs are—and how complex and challenging some of their experiences can be.
I was incredibly fortunate to have individuals along the way to help guide me. But there were many times when I had gaps in my economic, social and cultural capital, and I could have used a little more direct and structured support from my employers. That’s why I’m committed—to the core—to doing everything I can to ensure the next generation of FGPs have the resources they need to flourish in their careers. Especially here at CRA.
If we want to change the narrative around FGPs, let’s make a real effort to listen to *their* stories—so we can help them write a better one.