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Career
January 9, 2024

Opening the door to the C-suite

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Student internships may be a proven foot-in-the-door career advancer for young people starting out their working lives, but many can’t afford to put in all those hours for free, as most such opportunities require.
That’s where INROADS is making a difference, providing paid internship opportunities for underserved minority communities. For more than 50 years, the nonprofit founded by a white businessman unhappy with the inequities he saw in corporate America has helped diverse students develop their skills to make the most of what can be life-changing placements.
From modest beginnings—starting with 25 interns and 17 sponsoring organizations—INROADS has grown into the leading organization of its kind. Each year around 1,500 students secure internships at some 200 sponsoring businesses, including leading Fortune 500 companies.
The INROADS 30,000 alumni include top business leaders like Thasunda Brown Duckett, the CEO of Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America and one of only two African American females leading a Fortune 100 company. But the success of INROADS is not only to be seen in corporate boardrooms but in personal bank accounts: 76% of alumni are homeowners while 40% have family assets between $500,000 and $5 million.
That’s very different than the norm. INROADS cites 71% of whites being homeowners compared to 45% of Hispanics/Latinos and 41% of Blacks. Meanwhile, the average net worth of a white family stands at $171,000. For Latino/Hispanic families it is $21,000 and for Black families just over $17,000.
“We’ve known this all along,” explains INROADS President and CEO Forest T. Harper, “that a paid internship actually starts you off with good economic balance.” It starts with being rewarded for your skills, then leads to full-time employment possibilities which bring with them benefits, bonuses, 401(k) plans. “They begin to get on the economic train for mobility and to higher income,” says Harper, “and that’s why internships pave the way to economic independence by starting off with paid internships.”
‘Power skills’
INROADS internships are intended for undergraduate students in a four-year college or community college. Anyone with a 2.8 GPA can apply for a spot (www.inroads.org) and the application is free. However, acceptance is not a shoo-in. Nor is an internship; INROADS sends two candidates for each opportunity.

“They get to compete for that one role, and it should be that way,” Harper says. “We want you to put your best foot forward… it’s not guaranteed. Nobody makes a promise. You have to go out and earn it just like you would in sports, just like with anything else… it’s highly competitive.”

INROADS programs aim to help prepare students for their interviews and then support them through the internship experience. They are required to complete mock interviews to get used to presenting themselves professionally and showcasing their problem-solving abilities.

INROADS calls the abilities it wants students to develop “power skills,” not soft skills as many people refer to them. “Like the Power Rangers, right?” says Harper. “If you get these skills, you can do just about any job, no matter what the specialty is.”

There’s coaching in communication, written and verbal: “Can you have a conversation? Can you write that conversation and have people correspond with you?” Then there is problem-solving. “It is so fundamental, but companies hire people to solve problems and be creative.” Finally, there’s leadership. Put all three together and “you can basically write your ticket doing just about anything.”

No small further benefit is the internship pay—between $8,000-10,000 for a typical summer slot—and most likely an invitation to return the following year. Ideally, there’s eventually a full-time position—thousands of program participants have graduated into one so far. “And that is what catapults you into a position of greater future earning potential,” says Harper.

“We get so many comments coming back from students saying that they met people (during their internships). They increased their network. Not only that, they proved themselves, they also discovered things about themselves they didn’t know.”

Among those who have benefited from INROADS is Hakeem Everett, a 2017 graduate of the program. Before his INROADS experience he was shy and unsure of himself. “But the program helped me with public speaking and interview skills,” he says, “and it also taught me how important it was to do well in school.” INROADS boosted his confidence and prompted him to better himself, he says. “I learned to expand my vision and now I’m not afraid to go after what I want.”

Marlene Rios is “beyond thankful” for her INROADS experience, which included workshops, mock interviews, resume writing and impression management. She credits what she learned with helping give her “a pathway to my future!”

Now a successful digital business consultant, Josette Towles remembers how her INROADS involvement 30 years ago “helped me get where I am today” by providing “a strong foundation for my entry into the corporate world.” Towles is still using the power and technical skills she learned.

Yet, for all of the efforts INROADS puts in, imbalance persists. Harper references a National Association of Colleges and Employees survey last year of the top 200 companies in corporate America. This survey shows that of the 42,000 paid internships offered, less than 6% went to Blacks and less than 4% to Hispanics.

‘Up to bat’
The fallout of the coronavirus pandemic hit minority communities disproportionately hard, leaving some of their young people wondering whether it’s really worth the financial struggle of pursuing further education. What would Harper say to them?

First, he knows how tough it can be; back when he was young, he worked 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. at UPS, loading trucks. He also knows there’s good reason to be discouraged right now. INROADS research after COVID-19 hit found that Black and brown students were most concerned about two things; they lost jobs and their grade point averages went down. “We understand you’ve been through a lot,” Harper says to those questioning the point of more schooling. But don’t be discouraged, he urges. “I think it was Denzel [Washington] that said, if you’re going to fall, fall forward, don’t fall backwards.”

He points to opportunities like those with INROADS that he claims are still worth pursuing. “First of all, there are really two key things that you want to have as a human being,” he adds. “You want to have access and opportunity, equal to you just like anybody else. Unfortunately, the playing field is not even for you. It’s not, let’s be realistic about this. You can have as much talent as you want, but education gives you a chance to get up to bat.”

If graduating from high school and college gives you the opportunity to take a swing, then internships are a chance “not only to bat, but to round the bases, to come home, to get the kind of check you want.”

But most importantly, he says, it’s about realizing the lifestyle you want. “You all have dreams,” he says. “Doesn’t matter to me if you want to be a superstar, if you want to be an entertainer, if you want to be the best in the world of celebrity. That’s a lifestyle, and a lifestyle costs money.”

Leading INROADS for more than a decade now, Harper is continuing the legacy of INROADS founder Frank C. Carr. A graduate of Princeton University who had served in the Navy, Carr came from a well-to-do family but “had a consciousness about what was right and what was wrong in the country,” Harper relates. “And what that was, was racism. Not only was it racism, but it was poverty for those who were underrepresented in Black and brown communities. So, he decided to do something about it.”

Carr took a busload of kids from minority communities to the nation’s capital in August 1963, for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. “Once he heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, he had a vision,” Harper says. “‘Let me go back and figure out how we can build a pathway with training and development and mentoring of students in underserved communities, particularly African American and Hispanics, to get them inroads into corporate America,’ because what he knew at the time was that if he could get them into a corporate job, he could at least get them on an economic mobility to get to the middle-class and earnings.”

Quitting his job, Carr found some businesses willing to work with him in offering paid internships and launched INROADS in 1970. A deeply religious man, he would later go on to train for the ministry and serve as a Roman Catholic priest.

‘My purpose’
Echoing the INROADS founder’s sense of calling, Harper describes his work there as “not a job. This is ministry for me, because it’s about my purpose.” When he speaks about the possibilities for young people to overcome adversity, he’s not just talking about the success stories of INROADS, but from personal experience.

He grew up in the projects of Fort Pierce, a small town on Florida’s Atlantic coast best known as the home of celebrated author Zora Neale Hurston and NFL outside linebacker Khalil Mack. Harper and his sister would go up on top of their building at night with a bag of oranges and watch the movies playing at a nearby drive-in theater. “We couldn’t understand anything, but we could watch.”

More importantly, though, they would “dream about where we were going to go.” Those conversations were fueled by their proximity to the space launch center at Cape Canaveral, some 90 minutes up the coast.

Harper would tell his sister that when he grew up, he was going to be an astronaut. She would counter by declaring that she was going to be the first African American female in space. “I would come back and go, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to be the first African American male astronaut with a Miami Dolphin helmet on,’” he remembers, “I mean, we just dreamed…”

For Harper, a more down-to-earth vision meant leaving Florida and going to college. Taking the advice of a mentor who told him to “go north,” he went to Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland. He had “a wonderful experience” at the historically Black college, where he joined the ROTC. Graduating with a degree in social work, and as a commissioned officer, he served eight years with the army’s 82nd Airborne Division. “I loved that experience because it taught me how to lead any and everybody.”

From there he went into the pharmaceutical industry. “It wasn’t just by accident,” he says, “I wanted to do something that would make a difference and being in the pharmaceutical industry [. . .] was about discovering and helping people with medicines that helped them live longer.”

Harper had eight promotions during the first 20 of his 30 years with Pfizer. From sales rep he rose to hold several vice-presidential positions before leading some of the company’s worldwide public affairs and policy efforts. Then, one day, “I looked in the mirror and I said to myself, ‘Forest, there’s nothing you can do about being the first, but there’s always something you can do about being the only.’ So, from that point on my purpose became: I’ve got to make sure I help others, not just be the only, but be more.”

More businesses have been talking about improving opportunities and access for minorities in the past couple of years. Harper notes that, according to one report, corporate America pledged a total of over $70 billion for social and racial impact strategies and initiatives in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020. What does he think about that?

While recognizing that it is a lot of money, he also speaks of having seen “Band-aid” responses to things in the past. Nevertheless, he welcomes how businesses have increased minority hiring at the pipeline level. HBCUs have received “all kinds of funds that will lend itself to getting the pipeline ready,” he adds.

“Now that’s a good start, corporate America, but guess what? Let’s see you finish it. And what that means is, let’s now hire them. We’ve seen the spending; we’ve seen the commitment. Now let’s go through with the hiring, and we’ll see that in a couple of years.”

From an interview with Louis Carr

This article was originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of WayMaker Journal.