Spotlight Exclusives

Access Your Potential Provides Clearer Paths to Opportunity for Black, Latinx Students

Shannon Schuyler Shannon Schuyler, posted on

Black and Latinx college students faced daunting obstacles to finding paths to career opportunities before the pandemic—and the last two-plus years have only made getting over those hurdles more difficult. To help, PwC established Access Your Potential several years ago to offer an ecosystem of learning and connections for Black and Latinx students across all fields of study, and recently shifted focus to college students as they explore their future careers. Starting with a five-year goal that was achieved years ahead of schedule, Access Your Potential now has a goal of supporting 25,000 Black and Latinx college students, including connecting them with companies for potential roles. PwC has a goal to hire 10,000 Black and Latinx employees into the firm by FY26. Spotlight spoke recently with Shannon Schuyler, Chief Purpose and Inclusion Officer at PwC, about the program’s past and future. The transcript of that conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Why don’t we start with some general background on Access Your Potential and a little bit about yourself and how you ended up in this role?

Sure, absolutely. So, I’ve been with PwC for 26 years, and so it’s been a long and winding journey in many different roles. In about 2008, I started our first corporate social responsibility group, followed by our foundation—it was kind of our first focus on our environmental work and different elements of policy. And one of the things that came out of that experience was that we didn’t have a great focus. We gave a lot, we were very generous, but we weren’t very focused on the things that we were doing. We started to hone in over the course of the next several years and obviously our organization is about people, so business education certainly seemed like the right fit. We then started to get our donations and our volunteering and our pro bono work more focused on that area.

In 2018 to 2019, we felt it was time to do our first multi-year commitment; before then we were doing individual types of things, but we felt that there was so much happening at the time, specifically around the need for financial literacy, and specifically around underserved communities, that we wanted to do more. Access Your Potential really started there as a galvanizing force for the firm to address an issue and to help us get better at having people understand the financial system, especially underrepresented students going into college.

We started with a five-year goal and a $350 million investment, and we ended up exceeding our goal in two years. We wanted to reach 10 million students; we got to 12.5 million students and were like, ok, what’s plan B? And so even during the pandemic, we said, there’s more that we need to do. There are further investments that we need to make. And at that point, we really turned our focus to continuing with the curriculum that we had but adding a lot of digital upskilling and really realizing the power of going virtual, as so many companies and individuals and students did.

We then started to pivot from, instead of getting the 10 million, what did it really look like to help our Black and Latinx individuals in society find jobs? And what was the way that we could really reinforce the college experience? How could we really go beyond just going to over 600 colleges and universities, and really focus on over 150 HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and HSIs (Hispanic-Serving Institutions)?  And how do we get people years of experience around financial literacy, digital upscaling, mentoring, visibility, and connections? And then ultimately our goal was to hire 10,000 individuals and facilitate introductions at other companies.

Have you been part of Access Your Potential since it started?

I have, it has definitely been a labor of love. One of the things I say, I’m the only person in my family not to be in education. So, this is a way in which I can join our Sunday calls when everyone talks about everything that’s happening. I can say, no, no, no, we too have a commitment, and this is what it looks like.

Can you try to give our readers a sense of the scope of the problem that you’re trying to deal with?

It’s interesting—I think the issue has truly grown over the past couple of years with both the social and racial unrest, as well as with the pandemic. And what we’ve seen is that, unfortunately, our society has become one where access seems to be a privilege and not a right. So, to start, we need to determine how we get people to look at college in a different way. How, once you get into school, can we help you develop the capacity and have the tools to look at careers that maybe weren’t represented in your family, and maybe you didn’t know about, and to be able to make sure your financial future is secure?

People have gotten even further away from the system, whether that’s banking or insurance. Additionally, when you look at school districts, whether that is elementary and high school or college, the more that we’ve gone virtual, the more we’ve gotten disconnected, especially for our underrepresented individuals who don’t necessarily have the bandwidth to get past the digital divide. How do all these things come together? And how do we make sure that there’s the access, the support, the curriculum, and the jobs, specifically, for this group and this population to enable them to be successful.

And the pandemic only exacerbated a lot of those issues.

Absolutely. We certainly see that in the inability for people to have needed bandwidth on their video, the ability to be in schools where they have teachers who are able to visit with them virtually, the need for individuals to go out of high school and get a job, to be able to take care of their families who are otherwise unemployed due to the pandemic. Suddenly, there’s not the creation of more intellect and knowledge to be able to get into those jobs

So far with Access Your Potential since 2021, we’ve reached 200,000 students. And while PwC wants to hire as many of those students as we can into our firm, people need to have these skills regardless of where they go.

What would a representative success story for this program look like?

I’m smiling because we are very much a storytelling organization. The firm has now hired about 2,000 individuals towards our goal of 10,000 and we’re looking to hire another 2,500 over the course of this next year. A young man named Ryan is one of the individuals we came across just in our initial reach out.

One of the things that we thought was so important is that people need that on-the-job training as early as possible in their college career. We’ve started an externship program which allows students to take the skills that they’ve learned, both at the school as well as the mentoring skills and the digital curriculum that we’ve given them, and to work for nonprofits and solve some of the core issues they have. And Ryan was in our first cohort of students that worked for a nonprofit and helped them look at their tech and give them tools that they frankly couldn’t afford otherwise.

He now has come to work at the firm in one of our consulting practices. He never thought he would end up at PwC. He never thought he would end up on a digital journey. He never thought that his career trajectory could be what it has turned out to be.

Do all your mentors come from within PwC?

They do. So, we have thousands of prospective mentors.

So, you’re also able to present this opportunity for PwC employees

It’s a great opportunity for them to be able to share their stories and their different journeys and careers. In the TikTok videos, a lot of them talk about their stories. They talk about what it was like and how networking helped them to become more successful. They talk about things like, how do you not burn out on that first job? In interviews, how do you not just sell yourself, but how do you make sure that you’re questioning the organization, that it’s going to be able to meet your purpose and your passions?

So, tell me about this TikTok channel. How did that come about? Was it a difficult sell within PwC?

Our communications team came to us and said we’re doing lots of social media, but we’ve never had a TikTok channel. And I think we were skeptical—not that we weren’t willing to try but just wondered if there was an audience for videos featuring the kind of work we do. But the videos we’ve produced have been fantastic and have drawn hundreds of thousands of views. The content is really about helping people cultivate different ideas of where they want to go on their journey through school.

You mentioned the job target for next year. Is there anything else in particular coming up for the program in the coming months or in the next calendar year?

We have a lot of exciting things. We’re looking at adding some additional upgrades around financial literacy to the courses. We have a Start internship program that begins at sophomore year, an Advance internship program that starts junior year. We’re ramping those up significantly because we see such value.

We also have a program called While You Work, which enables people who are looking to get their CPA, to work at PwC and use those hours to pay for different parts of their schooling. We’re also exploring different ways of getting people engaged in community colleges and four-year institutions. How do we really fill some of the gaps that individuals have in wanting to get to the degrees that they want?

How do you deal with the issue of virtual work that has become so prevalent during the pandemic? Do you prepare students for both an in-person and virtual work?

The great part for us is that before this program was ever in person, all of this was virtual. So, we were able to be ready with a significant online presence with very sophisticated tools. We have a tech innovation office that actually sits within my team now that focuses on building the curriculum so people can access it in various ways. One of the things that we’re trying to get people comfortable with is meeting in person, because we do think you need skills for both settings. And we also need people to be sophisticated enough so that they can join from wherever. It’s exciting, because now we’re back on campus, where we have different kinds of gatherings.

Shannon, what is your biggest takeaway from doing this work?

I have been enlightened and sometimes disheartened about the education system and the lack of general appreciation for the different experiences that underrepresented students, especially Black and Latinx, have within it. I didn’t realize how great the need is for companies, who are so eager to have diverse employees come on board, to not sit on the sideline. They need to be supportive of what’s happening within the education system to make sure that those students actually get what they need to be successful. Education is at the cornerstone of making sure people are going to be able to be sustainable and successful, however, they define it. As you see the full length of that journey from kindergarten through to college, through being hired and what’s beyond, it has been incredibly rewarding and also challenging for me to fully realize the different levers we can pull and the responsibility that, as a firm like ours, we have to pull them.

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