Leveraging the power of community with Malinda Coler from LessonsUp
We were recently joined on the Talent+Tech podcast by, Malinda Coler, the Co-Founder, and CEO at LessonsUp. Malinda shared her journey from classroom educator to community builder and diverse talent advocate.
At LessonsUp, Malinda is connecting companies with diverse talent through programs like Job Search Boot Camp that build job seekers’ confidence and skills which enhance their ability to stand out when communicating with recruiters and decision-makers in the hiring process. She is using the strength of a community to empower and support candidates in the job market. Malinda feels that “just about everything that we do in life we do as a community” and job searching should be no different.
LessonsUp’s philosophy on diversity is to allow individuals to self-select as diverse or underrepresented. “If you’re on the job market and you’re not connecting with leaders or getting traction, we want to know why.”
Maren and Malinda discussed the challenges that candidates face in today’s job market and the relevance of implementing a more formal approach to the activity of job searching. Maren shared content from her book Going Remote, which outlines a proven process the best candidates use to stand out.
Malinda talked with Maren about the importance of making remote work part of the larger company culture conversation. The new emphasis on remote work is great for some employees but it’s not a one size fits all solution for every company or every employee. According to Malinda, we need to “recognize on both sides that there are probably pros and cons and the more flexible that we can be as employers and as employees the better we can come to aligning and building a relationship that’s going to make us the most productive.”
If you liked this podcast and are interested in learning more about diversity in recruiting check out our conversation about Creating an inclusive and enjoyable candidate experience with Tianna Johnson, Head of Talent at Notion.
Be sure to check out Malinda’s go-to podcast, How I Built This.
Resources & Referenced Links
Contact Malinda at Malinda@lessonsup.com
Maren Kate: Awesome. So welcome to Talent and Tech. Today I have Malinda Coler on the show. She's currently the Co-founder and CEO of LessonsUp and previously was the Co-founder and Head of Community at Almanac and she's been building communities in the tech space for the last decade. Malinda, thank you so much for being on the show today.
Malinda Coler: I'm super excited to be here and talk about hiring in tech and diversity and get to know a little bit more about what you're working on too.
Maren Kate: Awesome. Well excited to have you on and I guess my first question, which I always love asking is, what was your very first job?
Malinda Coler: I actually started my career as a teacher. My mom was a teacher. My mom's mom was a teacher. I was actually leading reading groups in summer school throughout my elementary school year so it was a really natural progression. Then I started in the classroom and then I pivoted directly from teaching into product management.
Maren Kate: How did that happen? What was the impetus for that?
Malinda Coler: I had moved to the bay area and most of my social life was software engineers and people working in tech. I happened to visit a software engineer friend at the end of the workday and they were working at a start-up - this was close to the release of the iPad - so they were working at a start-up that made interactive books for the iPad and they were about to bring on Disney as a client and I kind of went around and met everyone and asked a bunch of questions and then the next day the CEO invited me in to interview. And I said “well no I’m a teacher” and he said, “well we need someone to produce interactive books with Disney”. I said, “okay let's talk”.
Maren Kate: How did that feel? Was there some hesitancy to shift and jump? I mean they're not very different jobs but they're very different kinds of industries quote-unquote.
Malinda Coler: Such different industries and yeah there was a lot of hesitancy. I thought that I would always be an educator. And, as I learned more about what it took to be a leader in tech and lead the production of, say, an interactive book built on new software, I definitely saw a lot of similarities in teaching and leading. Especially with designers and engineers, it's “are you able to listen, to show curiosity, ask the right questions, give feedback, and really just empower the team?”. But the other big thing too was you know my primary passion has always been storytelling. And so, this was an opportunity to work with one of my favorite and greatest storytellers ever, Disney. So that was hard to say no to but also I just loved meeting the team when I first went into the office and knew that working with them would be just as fulfilling as being in the classroom.
Maren Kate: So where did you go from there? And how did you start to build out the community side in your various roles that got you up to co-founding LessonsUp?
Malinda Coler: My first startup was also the first start-up that I saw fail. And you know, they say, 9 out of 10 start-ups fail. We had an amazing time building with Disney for over a year, and at this point, they came back and they said “hey, the cost of production to build these interactive books is the same as it is to build video games on the iPad”. And we all know, if we look back at the beginning of the iPad, what happened to video games but those are selling and making us money so Disney kind of stopped the project which for us stopped the production of our software and was kind of you know, the writing on the wall. At that point, I had a pretty good network in tech and I didn't know that I was going to pivot from product to community building but the next company that I really started talking to and building a relationship with they had a community of 200 on-demand technicians. They would go around and fix people's IPads and this community just reminded me of the community that I grew up with in Stockton. Very diverse people trying to build an extra income stream to make ends meet and I got really excited about the programs that I could build to empower this community and wound up joining, and it was just incredible we went from you know 200 on-demand technicians when I started to over 2000 at the point that I wound up leaving but we did a lot of educational programs and gamification lots of things that you hear about now that are just commonplace that you know we felt like we were kind of doing it as they were just being discovered in the product world.
Maren Kate: There's definitely a theme there. And so fast-forwarding to today, tell us about LessonsUp and why you decided to leave Almanac and found this new company. It seems like there's a lot of themes that tie into it, but I'd love to hear from your words what got you to be like, all right, I'm going to do this.
Malinda Coler: Yes, you're right there are some unifying themes. I mean, as I was building out our community of on-demand technicians and then went to a fintech company and was building a customer success org with bilingual English-Spanish speakers empowerment was always the key. How can we build pathways for these people to achieve economic stability? How can we take the knowledge and relationships that are necessary for economic stability and share them and give everyone equal access? So, Almanac was a big piece of that. We kind of sat down and said hey there are all of these people working in these roles at tech and they all have you know, maybe a protocol or a way that they do work. If we get all of them to share their documentation and create the largest open-source documentation platform for how to do every job in tech, whether its product management or strategy or marketing, and it's just available for the masses we're unlocking knowledge and we're giving it to everyone. So that was amazing and, as I got further into that work and we got closer to the pandemic, the other piece of it that was missing was the relationship. So you can have access to the knowledge, and now with the Internet so many of us widely do, and Almanac is filling a huge piece of that, and I still continue supporting from the sidelines. But people also just need that proximity and that relationship with the people who can uplift them. I mean the reason why I broke into tech is I just happened to be surrounded by all of these software engineers right. Why can't everyone have that? And I would also say, one of the reasons I've been successful in tech is because I had this network around me the whole time that I could just go to and ask questions and I never really had to find a job. Jobs just sort of found me through conversations with friends and they’d say let's come build this thing over here. And as the reality of the pandemic set in and 30 million people were unemployed, like well, I need to take these programs that I've been building internally at companies to empower and uplift and just make them external, and so I began LessonsUp.
Maren Kate: And so, tell us, for someone who doesn't, what are you guys, what's the offering? What’s the offering for companies and then also how are you empowering the individual, the professional, the worker?
Malinda Coler: We connect companies with diverse talent. On the talent side, we create programs that build confidence and skills that you need in order to have meaningful relationships with leaders at these top companies. There really is a language in tech, and especially around job search and interviewing and if you just happen to be from a culture that doesn't know that language it's very hard to stand out. And people will go overlooked. Pratiga came to us, she had a master's in computer science and she told me she had been job searching for months on her own, wasn't getting any traction, had applied to I mean 100 different companies, and this just made absolutely no sense. I talked to her and she was bright and ambitious and she had a master's degree in one of the, you know, computer sciences - skills in highest demand on the talent market. So she joined one of our programs, Job Search Boot Camp, where we just learned how to talk about key results she identified. She'd actually participated in a Microsoft student partner program and she helped over 200 kids learn how to code. She had an internship where she'd achieved some really stellar key results. So she started speaking to those key results and literally within 10 weeks she got a job with REI Systems. And that's what we're trying to just continually recreate. Who's overlooked in the talent market right now? And they're going to be diverse people who don't know the language and culture. And what do they need to speak that language and then get directly in front of companies? So what we do on the other side is we say “hey” to all the leaders we love working with, “come, hang out with the community”. And so we have these mixers that we do once a month and we actually just had one this week. Leaders from Hazel Health came, from Doordash, from Otter, from The Routing Company, from Shift, great leaders - great companies. And we just went into breakout rooms and talked to eight or ten candidates or so. And for these candidates, for some of them, it's the first time they're in front of, say, a Head of Acquisition or the CTO and it's not an interview. So it just creates this relationship and all of a sudden the CTO gets to have conversations with people he would never have conversations with and so it opens his eyes to “oh here's all the talent that's overlooked, here's who I should be talking to” and yeah the magic starts to happen. People apply, they get referrals, and now leaders are open to meeting them.
Maren Kate: One thing I’m always curious about is how people, how individuals, define diversity. Because there's so many different types of diversity. There's obviously what we initially default and think of which is like ethnicity or like the color of your skin and, to be fair, like where I come from my dad's family's all Irish, my mom's families Middle Eastern, and my great-grandma was from Syria and was very light skin had green eyes had like very almost darkish red hair versus a cousin or an uncle who is very dark and it's like there's ethnicity which doesn't necessarily always visually appear. There's your socioeconomic status - how you grew up, there's educational levels, there’s did you grow up with certain benefits and privileges, did you not, gender or gender identity. How do you kind of - especially for LessonsUp when you're thinking we're supporting diverse professionals and candidates - how are you defining that?
Malinda Coler: That's such a great question and you did point out so many factors that we consider as well. So we look at it as, who is underrepresented and who doesn't have access to opportunity. And, you're right, it could be ethnicity, it could be socioeconomic status, it could be age, gender, it could be all of these things.
Maren Kate: Yeah age is a really good one. We tend to overlook that absolutely.
Malinda Coler: And parents re-entering the workforce. We're getting a lot of parents who took time off to work and now they're trying to get back in, and how do they manage those gaps on their resume. But the bigger thing that we found - so we can sit here and we can categorize and figure out “okay who do we want to bring into the community?”. But when we simply share the message of “hey if you're on the job market and you're not connecting with leaders and you're not getting any traction we would love to hear why”.
Maren Kate: It's like you're letting that self-selection, really.
Malinda Coler: Exactly
Maren Kate: I love that. I think honestly that's how it needs to be done because there's almost an issue when you're like “all right I'm going to go find diverse [people]”. It's like the flip side of the coin can be, okay, so are you just picking a group of people that look a certain way or represent a certain way and only targeting them because of that? That also doesn't work, necessarily. It's very nuanced and I think very few people have figured out how to approach that right. So I really like that you're saying, “if you identify this way we can support you”.
Malinda Coler: Absolutely and you do bring up such a good point. For a lot of companies diversity simply means the people who don't look like the people who are already here.
Maren Kate: Exactly. It's like women and people of color, pretty much.
Malinda Coler: Right, exactly. And then that's tough because you don't want people to feel like they're going to be hired simply to fulfill that, right, but then at the same time, it's hard to hire people if they don't feel like there's a community where they belong. So it is tricky to balance and that's why our messaging is “hey if this is how you're feeling, let's chat.” And companies that we work with, they adopt that too.
Maren Kate: I like that. I love that. So one of the things that we kind of discussed before the call is around remote work and I would love to know how you think remote work can help enable more diverse and inclusive workforces? How can people do it right and what should people be careful about from the company standpoint?
Malinda Coler: Yeah absolutely and I mean we all know from the pandemic that we've been talking about remote work, we've seen the benefits, we understand the flexibility that it can build into life. But the other part that we're seeing too is that remote work is just part of this larger conversation that we're having now, as candidates, about the relationship that we want with employers. One of the companies that we're working with, Hazel Health, they're fantastic, they're on a mission to bring healthcare to disadvantaged children starting with telehealth solutions in schools but then also strengthening just culture in schools around health. So when I talk to them, they say, “well hey for us it's about building the relationship first with employees”. Does it make more sense for employees to be on-site? Does it make more sense for them to work remote? What are their needs? What are they looking for? And then how can we make that work together? So I would say that when remote work comes up treat it as a larger piece of the conversation and recognize on both sides that there are probably pros and cons to both and the more flexible that we can be as employers and as employees the better we can come to aligning and building a relationship that's going to make us the most productive.
Maren Kate: 100% and I think it's important, again back to the idea of nuances, we need to realize that there's people that are going to thrive in remote work environments and there's people that are going to thrive better in a co-located style and there's jobs that are going to be really - they can transition or they can be remote really easily, and there's going to be jobs for it's a lot harder, like if it's a receptionist at the front desk or a plumber. And to kind of be able to approach it in a more nuanced way, than this is the future of work, like this is the only modality. Instead being like this is a modality and it will work for you at different times in your life and it will work for different roles and different companies.
Malinda Coler: Yes, I love that, because if we do take the mindset that remote work is the best way or the most flexible way it's true we're completely leaving out people who like you said might actually prefer working in person and having that relationship or their job requires that they’re in person and now we’ve taken away privilege. Whereas if we talk about what are the pros and cons, the benefits, why do we need to be at work, when do we need to be at work, it just again becomes about empowering everyone, and like you said different points and work throughout their career, it may change.
Maren Kate: What do you see the best candidates doing that most others are overlooking or just don't realize is something they should be doing?
Malinda Coler: So this is actually for both candidates and companies. A lot of us think that starting a job search or even starting the search for a candidate starts with a job description or an application, but it's actually, it starts with a relationship. If you go and you look, 85% of jobs actually happened through networking and so the candidates who are standing out right now are the candidates who are reaching out to leaders. We actually had, she was fantastic, Connie in our Job Search Boot Camp. She was a retail executive actually and her industry collapsed so she started just doing weekly posts on LinkedIn - insights and observations about the industry and tagging different industry leaders and companies. And now she has an executive leadership position at Janie and Jack. But, you know, it was through relationship building and very intentional like, here are the companies that I want to call out for what they're doing. Here are the things that I'm seeing. Here’s some thought leadership that I am sharing. Anytime you can take an action that starts a relationship, whether you're - sure you can send a message on LinkedIn but is there something even more powerful you can do? Is there something that somebody said that was particularly inspiring that you can write about or post about? Is there an event that you can show up to? Is there a way to get a warm referral and build a relationship? And so the candidates who are doing that are standing out right now in the talent market for sure.
Maren Kate: And it goes back to that word empower, feel, approach. It's like we weren't taught this in school. A lot of us weren't taught it in our homes. Instead of the job search happening to us, how can we happen to it? How can we be active versus passive when we're in the job search process? Which is a shift in mindset, but it's so powerful when people do it.
Malinda Coler: It is and you planted a really key piece there - process. Most of us as jobs searchers don't have a process. And in the process, all that we can think to do is update our resume and we start applying en mass on Indeed or LinkedIn but it's just not nearly as effective as posting a networking blurb, you know, sending messages to leaders, that kind of thing.
Maren Kate: I agree. During the pandemic for about six months when, you know, things were really most locked down our agency business at Avra slowed down, as everything did, and I actually wrote a small book called Going Remote and it was specifically for remote job seekers. But the book is really - the whole, part of it is - it's mostly process. It's just like, you know, thinking through what you're looking for, how you want to present yourself, and then literally create a spreadsheet each week. Part of getting a new job is it's your job to get a new job. Each day you set aside time. It's very much like product marketing or sales and I feel like when we can start teaching this, especially in schools, like this is how you find work, it's going to be really powerful. Versus four years of “here's how to do the work and then figure it out, kid”.
Malinda Coler: Oh my gosh I love the sound of your process. It sounds a lot like the process we have in Job Search Boot Camp, which is, “here's your spreadsheet, here the actions you're taking every week, here the deliverables”, and yeah, it is like a sales funnel, absolutely.
Maren Kate: And I think your boot camps, or even when we wrote the book and publish it and everything and got it out there, I think the thing that I realized, even though all the information is there, having a boot camp, doing it in tandem with other people, feeling supported, and having someone to be accountable to, I think is the most powerful thing. You can give people all the information but really having a period of time where they're going through things together as a community, I would imagine, leads to a much higher level of success.
Malinda Coler: Oh, my gosh you're right. Community is absolutely key to this. I mean just consider, to your point here, just about everything that we do in life we do as a community. We go to school with people, we go to work with people, and now, one day, I need to get a new job. Is it because I'm in a toxic environment? Is it because I don't have a job? But it's one of the most, its one of the hardest…
Maren Kate: You’re alone
Malinda Coler: Yeah, you’re alone. You do it alone. And it's a process based on rejection. I mean, as companies, we just haven't figured this out yet. We want to hire one candidate and we wind up rejecting hundreds.
Maren Kate: And so few companies have it done in a way that actually thinks about the person more than just a number. It's like if you were dating for years but you never had anyone to share it with, or any friends, or anyone to ask, and you're just constantly getting rejected and you're just in a silo. So it seems like, I don't know if this is what you're calling it The Talent Partner Program, it seems like you're saying that you guys celebrate wins, you track metrics, you track results, you approach this like a process versus just kind of like you're in a silo and you're just getting rejected until one day you get a ‘yes’.
Malinda Coler: Yes, absolutely. It is that. It's actually bringing our talent partners, so the companies who say “hey I really do care about building a diverse talent pool” and we say “okay great, be part of the Job Search Boot Camp program”. So Job Search Boot Camp, as a community and a cohort, we meet once a week. But we meet once a month with leaders and we're very upfront with leaders, as we invite them to our hiring mixers. Which, for them, is an opportunity to build relationships and meet talent but it is a candidate first event. We flipped the script and instead of leaders asking questions we actually show up as candidates and we ask our questions. And sometimes they're very in the weeds about the job search process, the approach to cover letters, interview questions, just literally how can we stand out as candidates and learn from the people who are making the hiring decisions before we actually get there.
Maren Kate: Absolutely and I think it shows it's a long-term commitment to talent, to diversity, to inclusion, to actually caring about people. It's easy for companies to say that and actually showing up and saying “hey we’re probably not going to hire someone directly from this but we're going to show up, we're going to contribute to the community and kind of know that Karma will come back to us”.
Malinda Coler: Yes. Oh, I love that you said that and that's exactly what it's about. And the companies who are showing up month after month and sharing their advice, their wisdom, and just the support. You know just to show up as a candidate and “oh here's this Chief of Staff, Tookie Graham at Otter, and she talked to me today and she told me about cover letters”. Then within this community of diverse talent, we're talking about it. We're telling everyone about it. And now everyone knows who Tookie Graham at Otter is and everybody wants to go work there. It does pay off.
Maren Kate: And it's just like the whole idea of the word of mouth. You know, it's like a positive. You're so much more likely to go down to the restaurant by your house if a friend tells you than if you see an ad or whatever. So it's like somebody, you, telling me “hey Maren, Otter’s a great place to work” would make me so much more likely to be like “Oh, I think favorably” versus if I just got an outbound message on LinkedIn from a recruiter there or saw a job ad. I’d be like it's a lot more weighted.
Malinda Coler: Yes, absolutely. It's word of mouth. It's those referrals. And it's also, for us as we work with our talent partners, it's who are the leaders right now that can make a difference, who will be able to support and build a positive relationship with the community? And it's just identifying those stories. For example, we just started working with The Routing Company and their Head of Global Expansion, Carlyn Hunt. She's fantastic. She got her start in tech as just a brand ambassador at Uber years ago, worked her way, and now she's in a leadership role at this fast-growing startup. And so, when that kind of person can show up and then tell people who are at the beginning of their journey or wherever they're at that “hey this is possible, I did it, you can do it too”, yeah, it makes a big difference.
Maren Kate: Yeah it goes back to stories. Being able to see someone and see their story, and not make the assumption like “Oh, they had all these legs up”. It gives you the ability to be like “Oh, I could do that too”. I love that. So I have a few final questions as we hit our time here. First of all, with LessonsUp, what do you all rely on internally for hiring? What is your talent stack?
Malinda Coler: We are so fortunate because we're building the fastest growing community of diverse talent and that's our mission what's happened for us is that people from the community who have joined Job Search Boot Camp, or one of our other programs pop up and they say “hey I want to help out, what can I do?”.
Maren Kate: That’s wonderful.
Malinda Coler: Our recruiting engine has just sort of built itself.
Maren Kate: It's your community.
Malinda Coler: It is our community, yeah.
Maren Kate: And what about tools for managing?
Malinda Coler: We do have tools that we love but we're actually building one and that's the tool that we of course use and that’s our Talent List, which anyone who's looking for a job or referral or just to increase their network can sign up for. And then we specifically use that list to match talent, the actual people to leaders that might be hiring.
Maren Kate: Is that the Candidate List?
Malinda Coler: Yes, we just rebranded it to Talent List. So we use that tool as well. We're if we’re saying “okay yeah we're probably going to hire for this role. Let's go through and see who could be a good fit.” And we do specifically look for key results. What have you achieved? That’s similar and transferable skills. And of course, we encourage the companies that we work with to look at those factors as well instead of education or specific title. Because we know that people might have been under-titled.
Maren Kate: Yes, yes, I think that's so important. The results versus the title. It’s just shifting from optics to results. What product or tool do you rely on most to do your best work?
Malinda Coler: Other than the Talent List that we're building, we are ‘no code’ tools. So we use Airtable. I know there are so many great tools out there right now for hiring. Lever is what most of our talent partners use. And so we'll probably wind up using Lever as well but for now, being that we're a startup just our talent….
Maren Kate: Airtable is pretty robust. We use a lot of things for that and there's a lot of customizations that are pretty mind-blowing.
Malinda Coler: Absolutely, so it's been great.
Maren Kate: What would you say your favorite podcast or book has been from the last year? So for 2021?
Malinda Coler: Oh my goodness, How I Built This is just a fantastic podcast. I learned so much about….
Maren Kate: I was just listening to that today. About Coinbase.
Malinda Coler: I feel like I got a lot of my learnings and inspiration from there. And in fact, as we're thinking about branding, we just found out the story of Zillow and how they got their name so we're kind of rethinking our name, or at least names for our specific products. We talked about the Candidate List was there and now its Talent List so we're going through some exercises that we learned on How I Built This as well for just some of our product naming so yeah that is definitely at the top of the list.
Maren Kate: Awesome. So how can people find more out about you? About LessonsUp? Where do you live online, so to speak?
Malinda Coler: You can absolutely come to our website www.lessonsup.com, email me Malinda@lessonsup.com, or I'm also on linkedin and all the social media profiles just Malinda Coler.
Maren Kate: Awesome. We'll be sure to link to that in the post and in the notes as well. Malinda this was so inspiring and awesome. Thank you so much for being with us.
Malinda Coler: Thank you for having me. This was wonderful.