Katie Lawler remembers them all.
She remembers the student who turned to taekwondo to help her overcome a disability. She remembers the one who left Haiti to escape her abusive stepfather. She remembers the one who learned upon returning from an everyday walk that he’d lost his father suddenly and swiftly to a brain infection.
These people, these stories, have moved her to tears. They couldn’t possibly escape her memory.
When it comes to the stories heard through U.S. Bank’s diversity collaboration with Wallin Education Partners, Lawler will never forget.
Building a diverse talent pipeline — filled with people of different races, ethnicities and experiences — is a goal for many businesses, including U.S. Bank.
“We know our future workforce will be more diverse; we know our future customer base will be diverse,” said Lawler, U.S. Bank’s senior vice president and deputy general counsel. “When people come to the table with different life experiences and different perspectives, people generate new ideas that they might not come up with in a homogenous group.”
But that can be difficult when nearly four in 10 students — who are most often minorities or the first in their generation to receive a higher education — drop out of college and ultimately the candidate pool, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Lawler said she is no stranger to this statistic, as it often plays out near U.S. Bank’s corporate office in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. The company wanted to look for a way to address the issue.
“In the Twin Cities,” Lawler said, “there are significant achievement gaps with students of color. We had a strong diversity and inclusion initiative, but we were taking a new look about how it can be more impactful.”
Toward the end of 2014, U.S. Bank found Wallin, an Edina, Minnesota-based nonprofit that supports local students who are at risk of dropping out. They officially formed a partnership in 2015, hoping to guide pupils through an education so they can eventually enter the workforce from a position of strength.
“I think education is the key to that American dream,” Lawler said. “Once you get that college degree, research shows that you’re going to earn a million dollars more. That degree is going to open doors for them. This was an opportunity for us to help close the achievement gap and build a diverse workforce of the future.”
Wallin awards scholarships to alleviate the rising costs of college attendance but also provides continuous counseling, something that Wallin Executive Director Susan Basil King said is essential to student success.
“Money alone is not the only reason that students don’t complete their degree. We’ve discovered that the key ingredient to success is working with them [the students] throughout the college experience,” King said. “We stay connected with them through the ups and downs.”
In return, U.S. Bank chooses 10 Wallin scholars every year to support, which includes providing a summer internship or a job after graduation if they want it. In 2015, the first class of 10 students entered the program, and this year, 10 more joined the ranks.
This experience raises an interesting question: How can companies effectively manage and cultivate a diverse team?
For Jennie Carlson, U.S. Bank’s executive vice president of human resources, it means removing the stigma that’s so often attached to millennial workers.
A baby boomer, Carlson has been in her position since 2002. Throughout her time, she said she’s never seen a group work so collaboratively.
“I have enormous faith in the future. This group tends to be more team-oriented [and] less individually competitive,” Carlson said. “They do lateral moves; they are not content to stay in a job if they don’t feel like they’re learning. They look at the workplace as an intricate part of their life instead of as their duty.”
But to Lawler, those stories that she can’t get out of her head, the ones of hardship and pain but also triumph, have taught her so much.
“These essays were so moving,” Lawler said. “Parents who have passed away; parents with disabilities; immigrant students who faced horrors in their homeland that they’ve had to flee from. It’s really just incredible what some of these kids have overcome.”
Lawler believes managers should realize that they don’t always know what their employees or their interns have gone through.
“I’ve had the opportunity to read these applications and know things about them that a manager later in their life is never going to know,” Lawler said. “As a manager myself, I think, ‘Wow. Who knows about the stories that my own employees have?’ It’s made me more aware that we really don’t know what people have overcome to get to where they are.”
When it comes to establishing a diversity initiative or a partnership of your own, Carlson has an important idea to share: Expertise isn’t the most important qualification to look for in a potential employee.
“We can teach anyone banking, but we can’t teach intellectual curiosity or willingness to help people,” Carlson said. “That internal drive and motivation is what we want to look for.”
Last year, Lawler attended a Wallin reception, where she met with the scholars for the first time. She put a face to those stories. She even met some of their parents.
“I think, as a parent, knowing that this big company is taking an interest in my child is so powerful,” Lawler said. “It’s really rewarding to me to meet the families and to meet the students.”
Lawler said she’s often the one who’s learning from these students, not the other way around.
“The things that they have overcome and the achievements that they have accomplished are so impressive, and it’s so humbling to talk to them,” Lawler said. “It has driven home how much the demographics of our community have changed and how the workforce is going to look different in the future. By working with these students, we’re better prepared to meet that future workforce.”
Sarah Foster is a former editorial intern at Workforce. Comment below or email at email@example.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.
This article originally appeared in Chief Learning Officer‘s sister publication, Workforce.