Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court considered oral arguments for a highly visible and divisive case against affirmative action, or the ongoing practice, action or policy favoring individuals who tend to suffer from discrimination, especially in relation to employment or education. The case, Fisher v. University of Texas, No. 14-981, was brought by a white student, Abigail Fisher, who alleges to have been denied admission to the University of Texas in 2008 because of her race.
Unsurprisingly, the topic of affirmative action as it relates to our education system got heated, with advocates and opponents alike passionately weighing in over social media. Personally (translation: my opinion alone), I am torn about affirmative action. The biggest problem I see with the conversation is that explanations base affirmative action's relevancy on giving preference to students of race or class who come from bad schools and neighborhoods without the same access to the educational preparedness that privileged children receive.
Nobody, however, is stopping to ask, "Why do we have bad schools and neighborhoods?"
It all stinks of putting a small bandage on a very large, festering wound.
Fix the elementary and high school education system, make it fair for all children from any race, class, gender or generation to receive the same quality education, and you would eliminate the need for affirmative action at universities and trade schools -- but that is another topic altogether.
In reality, it is important for us to understand that there is a growing class problem when it comes to income and opportunity equality in the U.S. A recent Pew Research Center report suggests that the middle class is losing ground, falling in total share of the population from 61 percent in 1971 to 50 percent today. Unfortunately, it just so happens that minorities have been and continue to be disproportionately impacted by this shrinking middle class, namely in unemployment, average income and education level.
So what should we do? I am not here to lobby for or against affirmative action, or to suggest aggressive changes to our education system (year-round school anyone?), but I do believe strongly that entrepreneurs can have a significant impact on achieving equality in student education and placement, and consequently income and representation in the workforce. All it requires is time, energy and desire from our business leaders.
So regardless of your stance on affirmative action, here are a few simple and extremely influential things we can do to help level the playing field for the next generation of underprivileged and aspired business leaders.
1. Mentor a student.
Ask any successful entrepreneur about his or her path to success, and more than likely that story will include one or more mentors along the way. Having access to an experienced individual as a sounding board and advisor is one of the most valuable tools available to young professionals. Take the time to work with a young, aspiring student, even if to just offer moral support. And remember that the relationships you build with your young mentee can offer great benefits to you in return.
2. Provide internship opportunities.
As the relevancy of college degrees continues to be questioned and as ubiquitous access to the internet lowers barriers to education and opportunity for billions of people around the world, U.S. students need new ways to differentiate themselves. By and large, one of the best ways is to get real world practical experience while still in school. While this can be done with direct employment, internships offer employers unique benefits because of their short-term commitment. While I support paid internships over unpaid internships, I also believe that outgoing and ambitious students will take any opportunity for real experience, as long as it helps them achieve their career goals.
Internships should provide a value to both employers and interns, however, so do your homework about how to host one. As well, state and federal restrictions exist for student workers, especially if those workers are under-aged or working during the school year. Contact your nearest high school, community college or university and inquire about what is required to set up an internship.
3. Share your time with schools.
As I look back at my educational experience, what I remember most are the experienced professionals I had the opportunity to hear speak. These included Warren Buffett and Donald Trump, as well as a host of other less-known but no less amazing entrepreneurs and business leaders.
As an experienced business professional, your personal story and advice have incredible value to young minds who will, like sponges, absorb any real-world experience you share. Again, contact a local high school or college and inquire about speaking opportunities. Educators are always seeking individuals who can speak to and bridge the gap between theory and application.
4. Volunteer with organizations.
If you have more time and energy to devote, consider joining an organization that works specifically with young, underprivileged adults. National organizations, such as Junior Achievement, Future Business Leaders of America and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America (just to name a few) are always seeking experienced volunteers to work with and mentor their youth. If you are from a smaller town that may not have national organizations, consider volunteering with or serving on the board of a local charitable organization that supports youth programs.
Better yet, start a youth organization of your own.
5. Raise awareness.
And if you are like most entrepreneurs and consumed with balancing your business and family obligations, consider at the very least speaking openly about the situation. Talk does matter and can have an impact, especially if we are united in a common and consistent message. It all starts by raising awareness and creating a call to action.
As the old saying goes, there is power in numbers.
So while the Supreme Court ruling on this affirmative action case is not expected until summer 2016, the reality is that it should not matter. As business leaders, we need to be proactive, not necessarily about race, gender or income inequality, but rather about the growing problem of opportunity inequality. We can no longer turn our backs on our youth and expect colleges and courts to sort this out for us.
Moral aspects aside, as business leaders, we must care about this issue, because these young adults are our future workforce and customers, and their skill level and purchase power is dependent on our ability to provide them the opportunity to better themselves. Moreover, if not addressed, opportunity inequality will impact our collective ability to be competitive and relevant on the global business stage.
All of it is rooted in our youth and nurtured by our business leaders -- and it start with you.