Leadership In Diversity: Analytics Giant SAS Steps Up

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Students visiting SAS for a day of networking with employees, learning about analytics, and programming with robots. Credit: SAS

As a legacy of separate and unequal education continues to hinder African-Americans from fully participating in and benefiting from today’s technological revolution, one lawmaker is challenging elected officials and industry leaders to do something about it. In September 2017, U.S. Congresswoman Alma Adams (D-N.C.) issued the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Partnership Challenge, calling on lawmakers and corporate executives to increase their level of investment in HBCUs.

“Leveling the playing field for our schools and our students requires a collective approach to ensure HBCUs have access to the same federal resources and private sector opportunities as their peer institutions,” Adams announced at a meeting of the Bipartisan HBCU Caucus, which she founded in 2015 to both promote and protect the interests of HBCUs. “There is no workplace diversity, especially within the tech industry, without HBCUs.”

Adams is a graduate of North Carolina A&T State University, an HBCU, and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. HBCUs comprise roughly three percent of all colleges and universities, but they produce 24 percent of African-American college graduates nationwide. Furthermore, HBCUs account for more than one-third of all Black STEM-degree earners and produce over 40 percent of Black engineers, including close to half of Black women engineers.

Yet, Blacks are particularly underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) disciplines. Blacks represent 12.3 percent of the U.S. population, but account for just 6 percent of engineers in the U.S., for example, compared with Asians, who represent 16 percent; Whites, who represent 12 percent; and Hispanics, who make up 9.4 percent. The persistent disparity in education from pre-kindergarten through secondary levels means that Black youth are missing opportunities to learn the skills that would qualify them for the higher-paying jobs in STEM-related disciplines, including such popular career tracks as analytics and data science.

To date, more than 21 major corporations, including include Airbnb, Spotify, Ally Financial, Live Oak Bank, and Microsoft, have taken up Rep. Adams’s challenge and are working to establish stronger, more strategic partnerships with the 102 HBCU across the country.

Earlier this year, SAS, a Fortune 500 global leader in analytical software and solutions, signed on to the Partnership Challenge. “We’re a global company with employees in 59 countries. So by nature, global diversity has always been very ingrained into our culture, and into our workforce. And that was without even necessarily being as intentional about diversity as we are now,” said Danielle Pavliv, senior diversity and inclusion manager at SAS, in an exclusive interview with The Network Journal.

SAS consistently ranks as one of the best places in the world to work. In 2017, Fortune Magazine ranked it one of the best workplaces for diversity.

“When we talk about diversity, we’re really looking at it from many angles, not just gender, race, or ethnicity, which one can readily see, but from different ways of thinking and different backgrounds, experiences, ability, etc,” Pavliv noted.

The company’s website supports her statement, showing that SAS’ diversity and inclusion program includes women who aren’t of color, as well as people with disabilities, and even people with autism.

“When the HBCU Partnership Challenge came our way, it was the same thing for us. We’d already been recruiting at historically black colleges. We had been providing free software to HBCUs and hiring people with backgrounds at HBCUs. So for us, it was, again, a no-brainer, because we’ve already been committed to diversity.”

Pavliv also pointed out that diversity plays a significant role in the quality of SAS’ products. If diverse ideas are not taken into account in the development of a product, there’s a good chance that it won’t work for everyone.

“We have employees that are very different, very diverse, but we have customers that are also very diverse. So there are two things: One, customers come first and since our customers are very diverse, we want to make sure we’re considering how we develop and market our products. We want to make sure we have inclusive design and that we’re able to connect with our customers at all different levels. Two, there’s all sorts of data out there around how diversity is important to innovation,” Pavliv continued.

In addition to such initiatives as leading the charge for greater access for low-income and/or at-risk 4-year-olds to North Carolina’s high-quality pre-K program to boost early childhood literacy, and providing free software and training to students, SAS hosts what it calls “HBCU STEM Connect” for HBCU students in North Carolina. The state has the highest concentration of HBCUs, with eight of them in the Tar Heel State.

“All eight HBCUs in North Carolina are invited to come to our campus, in Cary, which is right outside the capital of Raleigh, and we have a day of activity. They get to see people who look like them working in fields to which they aspire. They also get to network with employees and hear about their experiences—almost like a mentorship and networking opportunity,” Pavliv said.

It doesn’t end there. According to Pavliv, there are also panel discussions and one-on-one open networking opportunities, where the students “learn a little bit more about why employees who attended HBCUs are drawn to SAS. They get to learn about what makes us different and some of the cool stuff we’re doing around technology. They leave feeling very inspired.” SAS also uses HBCU STEM Connect “to pipeline students into our internship program and full-time opportunities. As a result, we have hired several from these programs each year,” Pavliv added.

She also notes that SAS frequently works with North Carolina Central and North Carolina A&T universities. “They’re pretty much in our backyard. We do professional development workshops with them, where we help students with their resumes and interviewing skills.”

SAS also has a different take on its Employee Resource Groups. “We instead call them employee inclusion groups,” Pavliv emphasizes. “We want to be very clear that all of our employee inclusion groups are open to everyone, whether you identify as the group’s originally intended audience. So, for the Black Initiatives group, you don’t have to identify as Black to be in that group.

There are no hard-and-fast ways for SAS to measure its progress in diversity.

“It’s not just about checking the box. We’re tracking how many students we talked to; how many of them turn into applications; how many of those applications go to the interview process; and how many are eventually hired,” Pavliv reveals. “For us, it is about continuing to promote SAS and sharing with people that we want to be a part of changing the landscape and making it more diverse and accessible.”