We need to talk about class differences so underprivileged kids can know their potential

Diversity comes in many forms.
Diversity comes in many forms.
Image: Reuters/Jason Reed
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I live in an apartment in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn that was built three years ago. It has a gym, game room, and furnished rooftop. The place is bougie—and out of place. Its grey, freshly-painted lacquer shines from the outside, standing out as a painfully obvious token of gentrification amongst the traditional brick brownstones that more accurately represent the neighborhood’s humble beginnings and proud history.

Just as my glossy Brooklyn apartment screams “I don’t belong here!” I sometimes feel like I don’t belong in the world I’ve built for myself, especially when I consider it in contrast with my own beginnings.

On the career front, I’ve spent my time building mobile and social experiences, formerly at the formidable DoSomething.org and a startup out of American Express. Now I’m about to embark on one of the most exciting adventures of my life: running Shine, the startup I cofounded to help working professionals live with more mindfulness.

But the keywords that describe me today are not the descriptors I could have envisioned for myself while growing up. Back then I couldn’t have imagined the things I would accomplish, largely because I wasn’t exposed to the concepts or people that define the world I now live in.

There are many ways to view how I grew up, and one necessary lens that I don’t often talk about is class. Of all the words commonly used to describe my family’s financial background—“low socioeconomic status” or “underprivileged”—none of them ever felt right. I didn’t know the words for the challenging, confusing emotions I felt in our financial struggles. I did know that the McDonald’s Dollar Menu was a lifesaver when it first came out—that epic, greasy perfection was unlike anything we could get with our food stamps.

I knew that my family would occasionally split up and stay with friends for months at a time when we were between places. It was tough, but it also often meant more time hanging with my close friends. I knew that mobile homes were what some people used for camping, but were also roomy spaces for small families with short-term leases. (Though living in trailer parks wasn’t something I was keen on sharing with all the really nice kids at school who would definitely not have bullied me for it. Definitely not.) At times, I was aware of the sucky realities of having a parent spend years in prison. Weekends were spent visiting a stepfather my baby sister saw so little of in the outside world—and so much through the revolving door of prison visitation rooms—that she called it the “Daddy door.”

I had life experience in spades, but none could have been listed on my résumé under “my path to entrepreneurship.”

Of course, those experiences have molded me into who I am: an empathetic, kind, strong woman who works hard and takes very little for granted. My story is by no means the most challenging one out there, but it’s mine and I am incredibly grateful for my struggles, because they made me who I am today.

Still, even as I’m settling into my new, shiny world, there’s a fear I can’t shake. I worry that other young women with similar upbringings won’t realize their potential, in part because they rarely witness someone “like them” in the kinds of careers they dream of having. I certainly didn’t.

I worry that companies don’t understand all the nuances around diversity that would allow them to see more than just gender (see: diversity and the “white woman problem“) in order to consider everything—race, religion, ability, socioeconomic status—that makes us who we are as individuals and employees.

As a person of color (POC), I appreciate the recent efforts made by tech companies like Google, Twitter, and Pinterest to increase diversity within their organizations. There are the obvious benefits of having a more diverse staff—increased innovation, creativity, productivity, and easier recruitment—but they sometimes forget the true realities of intersectionality and the significant role that a person’s financial background plays in his or her life.

So, what does increasing socioeconomic diversity in our organizations actually mean?

It means shifting the way we think about recruiting. It means turning off the “see candidates in a 50-mile radius” filter (which, yep, also means paying for relocation). It means hiring fewer people from our own networks and sticking to an unbiased, systematic hiring process. It means reevaluating and clearly defining what it means to be a “culture fit” in offices that have previously been dominated by middle-class norms. It means considering the teens we mentor from “at-risk neighborhoods” not as side projects, but as the potential future lifeblood of our companies.

Mostly it means we have to stop being afraid to talk about the tough stuff. And as much as the elitist entrepreneurs of the world find economic inequality a necessary evil, we need to start considering hiring smart people from lower socioeconomic statuses and diversifying the class level of our organizations as an absolute necessary good.

Once diverse candidates are hired, it’s time to focus on inclusion

Once we get these candidates in the door, it’s just as crucial to embrace their presence and take the time to understand how they operate—and the different assumptions that they carry in a workplace setting.

In the book Hidden Rules of Class at Work, authors Ruby Payne and Don Krabill describe a set of “hidden rules” that we all learn in childhood in order to survive within our economic class. This synopsis describes it best:

Hidden rules are unspoken mores that cue an individual as to whether or not they belong in a particular situation. Behaviors develop that support the hidden rules of each class and those same behaviors show up in the workplace. The extent to which an employee fits in and achieves success within an organization depends largely on how their resources, connections (relationships) and hidden rules mesh with the resources, connections and hidden rules of the organization. The differences clarify why the typical business, run with middle-class norms, might not feel comfortable to every employee and why some employees might not easily adapt to the culture or succeed in these organizations. The hidden rules are foreign.

In other words, many of our traditional workplace structures are skewed to support middle-class norms and often don’t account for what someone from a more financially-challenged background might struggle with in the day-to-day life of office culture. The way many organizations operate in regards to salary, higher education (i.e. “looking for candidates from good schools,” whatever that means), time management, meetings, public speaking, and travel (i.e., “just pay for XYZ, and we’ll reimburse you”) are all influenced by the creators of that culture—bosses who were likely raised with the middle-class norms and values that feel totally foreign to someone who was not raised in similar circumstances. We have to be mindful that those with middle-class upbringings are more likely to be equipped with savings, a basic understanding of financial planning, and often, the last-resort availability of family funds. That simply isn’t a reality for employees from low-income backgrounds who typically aren’t starting with much in the way of springboards or back-up plans.

This will be hard to get right, but it’s important we try.

We don’t just see this disparity in the socioeconomic makeup of existing companies; it is also abundantly clear when we examine the type of person who goes on to create her own business. One study found that more than 90% of these entrepreneurs come from middle-class or upper-class backgrounds, and that 73% of them heavily rely on their own professional networks to build their companies. This is a recipe for approximately zero socioeconomic diversity.

“You’re either born an entrepreneur, or you’re not” is a phrase commonly thrown around in the startup world, which I’ve always interpreted to mean: “You’re either born with enough privilege to achieve the means to execute an idea you have, or you’re not.” Listicles touting the God-like traits of entrepreneurs include things like “confidence,” “restlessness,” and “the inability to sit still.”

Let’s get one thing straight: People who grew up focused on fulfilling the very basics of feeding themselves and securing a place to live aren’t typically the type of people who have so much spare time that they become so bored they can’t sit still (see: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). Believing otherwise is part of the privileged way we talk about entrepreneurship. And while it’s exceedingly more challenging for people from low-income backgrounds to become self-made entrepreneurs, I’d argue that their hustle and survival tactics make them more poised for entrepreneurship than anyone. I’ve felt that deep-seated connection more than ever in starting my own venture.

I can’t wait until the day intersectional diversity is so widespread that we no longer need to talk or write about our human attributes as if we were all individual islands that exist on their own. But for now, we have to break it down. We need to be talking about the role that our socioeconomic background plays in shaping our lives. We need to do more to hire and support smart, awesome people from underprivileged backgrounds within our companies. Only then can we truly benefit from the intersectional diversity that makes our businesses—and our perspectives—even better.

This post originally appeared at The Well.