“The Talent System Is Broken – Finding Better Ways to Hire”: Odette Nemes, Head of Growth at Onramp (Video + Transcript)

March 19, 2023

Odette Nemes (Head of Growth at Onramp) talks about how to develop new and existing talent in exciting and innovative ways with apprenticeships – and why now? If you’re recruiting at universities, you’re automatically eliminating 80% of black and brown folks – not a good tool for you.


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Sukrutha Bhadouria: Our next talk is by Odette. She is the head of growth at Onramp, a company that builds technical apprenticeships for companies. Before Onramp, she spent over 12 years at Girls, Inc, where she worked with corporate partners to design and skill programs for girls of color in Oakland and New York City to explore careers in STEM and finance. What an amazing, amazing journey. Welcome, Odette.

Odette Nemes: Thank you. Thanks for having me. And can we please give a shout out in the chat to this Girl Geek X team? They have just been working their butts off to put this fabulous conference together so that we can all celebrate International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month together. Thank you to the team. It is so much work. And you’re at the homes stretch today. So here we go, y’all welcome. We’re gonna talk today about the talent system and how it’s broken and finding better ways to hire. As was shared, my name is Odette. My pronouns are she, her and ella. And I’m the head of growth Onramp. If I don’t get to your questions, feel free to reach out to me over email or on LinkedIn. My contact information is there.

Odette Nemes: First and foremost, I wanna ask you to brace yourselves. I’m a straight shooter. I was born in Puerto Rico and I grew up in Jersey, so I can’t help it. I called things out and we’ll see how this goes. I wanna just start with my identity. It’s important for me. It frames this presentation of my journey and my transition into tech – and now working to change the talent systems. I’m just really honored to be here today in the space with these powerful women and to celebrate this great day.

Odette Nemes: It starts with how I grew up for me and my interest. I was always really interested in everything that girls quote unquote weren’t supposed to be interested in – so talking about I love sports, I still play sports, I’m still getting injured. I loved math, I loved science, I love tech. And I even really liked girls. So everything I wasn’t supposed to be doing, I was in it. I check a lot of boxes basically, like a dream for a tech company, right? For their diversity survey, I can give them all the good stats.

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Odette Nemes: I was born in Puerto Rico, I moved to the States when I was five. I’m an immigrant. I’m an English language learner, I’m a single mom, I’m a lesbian. And I took all of that and I took it to Duke University. I applied to the engineering school and got in and I just, I didn’t feel connected, you know. We hear the story a lot, you know, as far as I could tell. In the room, I was always only Latina. I always, the only lesbian that I could tell that was out at Duke, right? And sometimes the only cis woman in this space.

Odette Nemes: I felt incredibly isolated, disconnected and I couldn’t understand how was engineering relevant in my life and my experiences. I didn’t have any mentors. I didn’t have any community. I ended up transferring out of the engineering school, and I graduated with a degree in psych.

Odette Nemes: That led me to start working with girls of color a couple years outta graduation at Girls, Inc, really working to expose girls of color to careers where they were underrepresented, specifically in STEM and in finance. I just didn’t want anybody else to feel like I did, right, to change majors, to not continue on a path cuz they felt like they didn’t belong. It was just an incredible waste of potential. It was almost 20 years ago now, man.

Odette Nemes: I worked with a team to develop curriculum to teach middle school girls of color, HTML to teach them design thinking to teach them game design and object oriented programming. It was all very cutting edge 20 years ago. And we scaled that across the country and now, you know, happy to see all the programming out there for girls in getting them into tech. I was there for 12 years and then I left to stay home with my daughter, Camila, she’s there in the picture. And then I had my second child, Lucas. And I was very over the stay home life at that point, and that unpaid work is terrible. They’re really, really difficult.

Odette Nemes: I started looking for work for paid work that is. And then the pandemic hit. I had my kids at home with, cause this, all the preschools and everything was closed and nobody was hiring. I dug in to stay home and my marriage started falling apart, and I ended up getting a divorce. Here I was, I was at home unemployed with two little kids and out of work for three years. And I needed to find a job where I could pay my mortgage in Oakland, in the Bay Area. We know how expensive it is and to support my family on my own. It was just incredibly, incredibly stressful.

Odette Nemes: And the only way that I thought I could make this happen was to get into tech. So I got a lot of no’s. As I started applying for jobs, people were not taking my experience seriously. There’s a lot of bias from folks for people transitioning into tech, you know, non-profit work not being real work. And you know, there’s just so much talent out there outside of tech that needs to be leveraged. But I’ll get into that later. Lucky for me, my network pulled through, right?

Odette Nemes: But the hiring process shouldn’t work like this, right? It puts us women, it puts queer folks, it puts of color at a tremendous disadvantage. It’s just another example of how the talent system is broken with companies only reviewing applications cuz of referrals. Let’s be real – people who look like us, we’re not in-house to be making any kind of referrals. My former coworker of mine, you see on the slide there, Jennifer Tae from Girls, Inc, she told me about this place, Onramp, and I was like, what the heck is Onramp?

Odette Nemes: The first thing I saw was that the founder and the CEO was a black woman. And I was like, okay, Leticia Thomas, what’s going on here? And then I saw that the entire team was underrepresented from top to bottom. And you know, there were folks that had transitioned into tech.

Odette Nemes: They worked at boot camps, they worked at Google, at Amazon and DEIand startups. And they were trying to solve for the issue of why so many folks were graduating from boot camps or were self-taught and they weren’t getting hired. And at the same time, there were so many companies saying they wanted diverse talent, folks from different walks of life, and that they couldn’t find qualified folks. They were working with 75% Bipoc folks, 67% women, 25% LGBTQ. And I thought, all right, this place just looks for real, right? They’re practicing what they preach and the people that are in charge are represent the people that they’re serving. And you rarely ever see that.

Odette Nemes: I interviewed, I got the job, the universe aligned for me the week before my first day, my kids’ daycare opened up one week before I started my job after being closed for a year. Thank you. Still thanking the universe on that one. That’s where I am now, at Onramp.

Odette Nemes: We set up apprenticeship programs at companies like Twitch and Blend and Vanguard and Coinbase and Amazon and Pandora and working with companies to figure out what are the job skills the applicants really need?

Odette Nemes: How can we upskill them and train them these career changers to make sure to fill that gap and support the companies with their systems, right? How are we supporting their sourcing, their screening, their training to set up career transitioners for success?

Odette Nemes: I’m super thrilled, you know, to be able to do this mission-aligned work and life-changing work as 95% of our apprentices convert to full-time employees and they’re tripling their salaries. Feel free to drop in the chat. I’m gonna try to follow it if I can, you know, if anything of my story resonated with you and if there’s anything you wanna share about your path that you’re proud of, right?

Odette Nemes: I know that we’re virtual but I’d like to bring, you know, as many folks into the room as possible into this space. And I think it’s critical, right? That we tell our stories, we build connections and to remember, right, that when, when life gets really hard, you know, and we’re facing these difficult obstacles we can accomplish our goals, right? Still, and that it’s really hard to do it by yourself.

Odette Nemes: Let’s get out there, let’s get connected and let’s build our network and let’s remember how resilient and powerful we are, right? It’s amazing and it’s no small feat that we are where we are. Everybody in this room, in this space together considering all the obstacles, you know, that you all have overcome. Take a moment now to be proud of yourself. It’s Women’s History Month, and we’re all making history, right?

Odette Nemes: This story’s a dime a dozen, people being the only in spaces being the first. Y’all are leading teams, you’re leading companies, you’re changing cultures, you’re starting companies, you’re being bold. So pat yourself on the back. But let’s also remember that it doesn’t have to be this way, right? It should not be this hard at all. This system should not be built this way. It should not be this hard. Thank you to the powerful and amazing women that are here.

Odette Nemes: Let’s dig into what we can do about creating change. We all know that talent system is broken, okay? It’s amazing that we’re all here and especially when it comes to the positions that you’re in, in tech. So throw in there, think about your experience. I’m not trying to give anybody PTSD right now, or you know, anything really difficult to think about, but think about when you were going through application process, applying for jobs, promotions, anything.

Odette Nemes: How is the talent system broken? You know, share some examples if you want. And if you don’t wanna go that route, you know, going back down memory lane, what would you like to see changed in the talent system? So let’s dive in and get all levels set here on how the talent system is broken.

talent system broken sourcing screening upskilling retention

Odette Nemes: First I wanna say that we don’t have a talent pipeline problem, right? We have a systemic oppression problem, all right? There’s not a talent pipeline problem. I’m sorry. A a minor example of this – at Onramp, we have 60,000 people on our platform trying to get into tech. Just a tiny, tiny example right there. There’s not a pipeline problem. People, there are systems in place, you know, that are keeping us out of these roles and we need to change it.

Odette Nemes: First and foremost, when we’re talking about sourcing screening, yes, recruiting for only university. I see it there in the chat. I see you Angie. Then we’re hiring folks. Degrees being required. We can’t do this, okay? We can’t keep going to the top colleges and looking for the CS majors. The stats are out there.

Odette Nemes: 83% of Latino folks and 76% of black folks do not have college degrees, okay? Do not have college degrees. So if you’re recruiting at universities, you’re gonna eliminate automatically 80% of black and brown folks approximately. All right? Not a good tool for you.

Odette Nemes: The next piece is referrals, right? I got my job from a referral. I imagine most of the people in this space got a job that a referral, right? 85% of jobs are hired by referral. 85% are hired by referral. But get this, this is the killer. 91% of white people’s friends are white. Okay? Sit with that for one second, please.

Odette Nemes: The 91% of white people’s friends are white, okay? So we’re talking about 85% of jobs are filled by referral. 91% of white people’s friends are white. How in the world are black and brown women getting into these spaces? We’re not in the room to be referred. We’re not connected on LinkedIn. We’re not Facebook friends, we’re not texting, we’re not on Instagram. We’re just not connected, okay?

Odette Nemes: We cannot keep using referrals as the only system. I know that talent folks are strapped and it’s so hard and it’s easier to just look at the folks who are flagged. But we can’t, we can’t keep doing that, and expect different results. So the same deal. We’re looking in the same places, we’re looking in the same communities. We can’t do that when 95% of white people’s friends are white. We need to be in different spaces.

Odette Nemes: Another piece is poaching. And you all know the recruiters are coming after you. But the majority of the folks that are being poached are cis white men. Cuz there aren’t enough of us in positions to even be poached yet. The other piece we’re looking at is bias and interviews. We just listen to that talk on bias, man, that was some kind of sta there. So looking at bias, just your names on your resume, your experience. How about the whiteboard interview, huh? That some of you have struggled through. Yeah, that’s not assessing anybody’s skills. You can share in the chat how you feel about all that, but interviews are, the process is not done well. And I saw in the chat there at three to five interviews, it’s just, it’s not okay. The other piece is there’s no investment in upskilling, right?

Odette Nemes: Okay. Not none, but much less. Now, the research shows that upskilling retains employees. We’re looking at 98% of tech workers consider strong training and upskilling and important feature of prospective employers and companies use to invest millions of dollars in upskilling, but they don’t anymore, right? They pass the buck to the applicant now. That’s not helping our cause. And the last two things really are reviews, promotions, and mentoring. Read the research, go ahead, check out the lean-in studies.

Odette Nemes: There’s a lot of research out there about women of color. We’re not being reviewed in the same way. We’re not even giving feedback the same way, right? And then we don’t have the mentors or the sponsors we’re overlooked for promotions. The cycle is endless. And I’m not even gonna go here. We could have 18 different workshops on toxic work environments and how they’re not supportive for underrepresented folks.

Odette Nemes: I’ll leave that there. Here we go. The solve for this. Stay with me. In my mind, a great solve is the apprenticeship. Okay? It’s addressing the issues that I just highlighted. All of those issues talked about in with our barriers in, in our talent system here and apprenticeship can address.

Odette Nemes: First of all, let’s level set. There are some folks in the room that know what an apprenticeship is or has had experience with it. Please start in the chat, throw in there anything you know about apprenticeships, your experience with it, any companies that have them. The kinds of positions. Let’s just get everybody here on the same page. We’ll run through this quickly that apprenticeships are earn and learn programs. They’re combining formal learning with on-the-job training experiences. The candidates are getting training and mentorship and they need to develop the proficiency in targeted areas, and they’re also developing soft skills. They’re guided and supported by an advanced expert in the work.

Odette Nemes: And most important, I’m gonna say it again. You earn a wage during the program and then you have the opportunity to convert to full-time employment different than an internship, right? We have the apprenticeship and then you can convert immediately after. You don’t have to be in college. You don’t have to wait two years to come back. It’s immediate. It’s a full-time conversion. It’s a full-time employment. I’m sorry. They’re also from four months to two years. And I’m only talking about the US here. I’m sorry.

Odette Nemes: If you’re looking abroad, the federal governments and other countries invest in apprenticeships way better for many, many years. And their programs can be four years. They can be looped in with college degrees, but not so much here in the us. These programs target folks with zero experience, so never have coded a day in their life. Never had any experience in the position of life to some that have experience like WeWork with folks who have graduated from boot camps. Onramp. That’s why you can book at apprenticeships from four months up to two years.

Odette Nemes: And what kinds of apprenticeships are out there, right? We have registered apprenticeships. They, you have to register ’em through the Department of Labor or through individual states, and then you have to complete a certain number of hours, training components, and then really document what the on the job training looks like. And they’re meeting different competencies and at the end you get a certification or credits. And then some companies, they don’t register them and they just do them on their own. Different skill sets and positions from software engineering to developers, IT to marketing to data analysts, scientists, TPM, cybersecurity.

Odette Nemes: And you can do an apprenticeship <inaudible> and set it up. Then the specific populations, are you gonna be working with caregivers for returnships, justice involved folks, veterans, folks of color, women, it looks all different ways. And then the federal government here, they’re starting now, right? To invest, not starting, but made a new investment of billions of dollars to the Department of Labor and Department of Commerce in the infrastructure.

apprenticeship programs landscape software engineering department of labor caregivers return to work formerly incarcerated veterans third parties intermediaries

Odette Nemes: The state of California in itself has invested 231 million in its state budget for this year. What is the landscape? Feel free to screenshot this cuz I’m not gonna read for you. Everybody here knows how to read. But apprenticeships.me is a nice place to just get the lay of the land on software engineering apprenticeships. A lot of individual companies do them at Onramp. We set them up for other companies.

Odette Nemes: Then they’re various positions. You can look at the Department of Labor website to find them on an Accenture or great leaders in this space. And then we’re looking at different demographics looking at veterans or caregivers or previously incarcerated folks. And then third-party intermediaries. Everybody’s not on here, okay? It’s just a start for you all to reference. There’s so much work out there that you can dig into.

Odette Nemes: What are the benefits? Why are we talking about this today? First and foremost on the DEI side, obviously we’ve hit this over the head. We need different systems. The other part is with an apprenticeship, you bring in a cohort model, so they’re not gonna go in as an only, right? This really impacts inclusion and belonging and you’re building your ecosystem. When we said 91% of white people’s friends are white, well now you have people of color and then they’re gonna bring in their friends, right?

Odette Nemes: If we’re hiring 85% by referral, well let’s get the referrals in for the underrepresented folks then career changers. Man, I’m imagine there are plenty of career changers in this space. We’ve heard so many different paths from so many different leaders today. But you acquire many, many skills in the different jobs you have. Career changers are more productive, they’re curious, they’re agile.

Odette Nemes: Think about it, somebody who’s doing a bootcamp on the side while they’re juggling a full-time job or they’re taking care of their family while they’re learning to code at night. These are folks that are agile, they’re curious, they love learning. They’re gonna learn new technologies, which is what you have to do to be successful. Anyway, these are all the traits that you’re looking for in folks.

Odette Nemes: What our partners say is the Onramp apprentices are promoting faster than university grads, and we really think that’s cuz of the soft skills that these career changes are bringing. The other part why you wanna do this is, is impacting the DNA of the company. Start early if possible, right? Some companies here have 10 employees, 50 employees, a hundred employees, starting, get some apprentices in play. You’re creating a culture that values your employees, you’re mentoring your diversity, you’re upskilling.

Odette Nemes:It’s a little bit more difficult to move the needle later, you know, to have that huge of an impact on your DNA, but it definitely still impacts your teams no matter the size of the company. Then it’s a strategic investment, right? You’re getting, you’re investing in your future leadership and employees are feeling invested. They’re staying in their positions longer. The apprentices are trained so they have a different kind of commitment to you, and these are your future leaders. All of you who are looking for, we need mid-level talent, we need senior talent, it’s diverse. Well, your apprentices are eventually gonna be that.

Odette Nemes: How does this help you quickly? It helps you retain the employees that you have in place now. It’s giving them mentoring and leadership opportunities. It’s changing your culture. Forget this diversity theater. This is a real change here right now cuz the layoffs and the pandemic fatigue, the morale can be a little low. You’re gonna be bringing in energetic and engaged teammates. You’re doing a lot of cross-functional work and building up your cohesiveness and mission aligned work. People are tripling their salaries, you’re changing lives. They’re buying their first homes, cars, paying off loans. This impacts generational wealth, right? This is impacting lives, families, communities, and people are staying in their roles.

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Odette Nemes: They’re feeling less burnout and you have more balanced employees. Why now you might be like, oh, they, why are you talking about this now? The economy’s so bad, folks are getting laid off. I think that there’s not a better time than now to be putting this in place, right? You’re hiring, you’re gonna commit to hiring in an equitable way. Right now is a time when talent teams are not overwhelmed with filling headcount.

Odette Nemes: Get your systems in place now, right? Get these intentional systems, these equitable systems in place. Now build the infrastructure and then scale it. You know that the economy’s gonna turn, we know these companies are gonna start hiring again. Once they’re ready, you have all your systems in place, then you scale and you can bring in even more apprentices and change your culture.

Odette Nemes: There’s also a lot of partners out there that can support lean teams at this point. We know a lot of diverse folks getting cut right now. How are we gonna find diverse folks? Let’s do this through apprenticeship and digging into values for sure. And people are looking for jobs now, right? They’re looking for signals. Well, companies are really committed to DEI. This is a great way to send that signal.

Odette Nemes: You’re bringing in folks at a lower wage, right? Because they’re entry level, but you’re also retaining them longer and there’s lower churn. Of course it’s that’s good for business and you can get federal and state funds to support your work. What now? How do you make this happen? Hopefully you’re thinking that, right? Oh, this sounds great on it. Think about how are other ways that you’ve changed, made change happen in your company. What were the keys, right? This is similar to setting up an apprenticeship program. You need to enlist others, you need to be that evangelist.

Odette Nemes: You don’t need your entire company, you just need one major champion, right? And then you need somebody to be able to sign off. Maybe that’s you also in this room for sure and sign off on things. And you need your advocates around you. And then you need to think about your mission and your needs. So what are the goals of your company? What’s going on with your headcount? Do you need, what are your needs, right? Do you want entry level folks? Do you want higher skilled folks? Are you looking for future leadership? What’s the mission alignment with the population that you would wanna target in your apprenticeship? Or are you just looking for top diverse entry level talent? Well, take it. Then you need direct supervisors and mentors, right? Because the apprentices need to be supervised and and mentored by the right people.

Odette Nemes: You need those champions that are really gonna do a great job with your pilot. Of course, you need your headcount to convert folks at the end and then your pilot has to be con successful. You need great conversion rates. Then people are gonna be like, oh, it’s what those apprentices, I want them on my team too. And the budget of course can come from eng and L&D and HR and DEI, as you need to find the right talent.

Odette Nemes: Make sure you’re recruiting, you’re sourcing, and you’re interviewing for potential. Okay, no whiteboard interviews, please. And that you’re training is on point. So last things before we go, I just wanna share a quick story about Jomarie, she’s a Dominican woman who went to a private high school on scholarship and took one computer science class in high school.

Odette Nemes: Nobody looked like her. She thought she didn’t belong. She went to college, she got her BS in nutrition sciences. And then after college she became a sales manager at anthropology in Urban Outfitters. And after that, she moved into recruiting. She was there for five months, the pandemic hit. She lost her job and she went to a bootcamp.

Odette Nemes: When she completed the bootcamp, she heard about Onramp through Twitter, and saw that we had a position, an apprenticeship with Twitch. She got the apprenticeship and now she’s been done with her apprenticeship. She’s been a software engineer for a year and a half, and she’s been promoted twice in a year and a half. You can see her on the stage here. She was presenting with the Secretary of Labor, Marty Walsh, sharing her story and spreading the good word about apprenticeships.

Odette Nemes: She’s able to help out her family now and live in San Francisco, rent and afford her rent, live her life. And she’s giving back. Now she’s mentoring apprentices, delivering workshops on self-confidence and communication and how to ask questions. Jomarie could be your next teammate out there.

Odette Nemes: The moral of the story people is that we need you, right? Like, yes, this is personal for me. I need to pay my bills, put food on the table. But no, the reason why I really work on ramp is I want a better world, you know, for my kids, for future generations and for underrepresented folks that are out there now. We wanna see as many apprenticeship opportunities out there as possible.

Odette Nemes: And really it only takes one person, right? It only takes one person’s idea in a company mobilizing folks internally to create these life-changing opportunities. It’s time to step up, it’s time for us to change the world and get these opportunities out there for folks. Let’s do this. That’s all I’ve got for you all. Thank you for the time. And if you have any questions or wanna reach out, feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn or through email.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you so much, Odette. This was very, very insightful and so many people have written positive comments and you know, their own experience and their own insight through their own diversity efforts. Thank you so much. Thank you to everybody who has been attending the session so far. We’ll see you soon. Bye.

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