Widen the Gates, Without Lowering the Bar

July 12th, 2017

There is an old adage that says talent is universal, and opportunity is not. There is much wisdom in this saying, for it also explains the growing inequality we see in the world today. A small subset of the world’s population gets access to more opportunity from the outset—whether it is access to education, networks, or opportunities. This access makes all the difference, setting individuals upon a lifetime upward trajectory away from their peers. Those that didn’t gain access to that golden ticket—being born in the right community or even zip code, for example—have to constantly fight against the social order to get noticed and take advantage of their full potential.

In my 15 years of experience in the field of education and employment, I have witnessed first-hand that access to opportunity is accidental. By sheer luck, one is born in a wealthy family, attends a good school or university, or gets a really great first job. That job that you got when you first graduated college? You may have deserved it on merit, yes. But so did hundreds of others—you just happened to be in the right place at the right time to land it. That scholarship that you were able to access when you applied to university? A combination of privilege and accumulated social capital gave you that edge to get in, when thousands of others didn’t.

Over the past week, I had the fortune and privilege of hosting a conference, titled “Education for Employability,” as part of the work we do at Africa Careers Network (ACN). ACN hosted 90 young university students from African Leadership Academy (ALA) and Mastercard Foundation Scholars program for 2 days of intense programming on professional development. Launched in 2012, ACN now serves over 2000 young Africans across the continent to expose them to skills, networks, and opportunities that will kick-start their careers in Africa, to offset some of the systemic disadvantages faced by many young people in Africa today.

During the conference, I met incredibly promising young university students from Makerere University in Uganda, for example, whose passion, skills, and determination far outstripped the limited social capital and networks that they had been exposed to thus far. However, with the gift of a scholarship from the MasterCard Foundation, for example, many of these young students have a critical advantage over their peers—in gaining access to opportunities that will forever set them apart from others.

What if we were a lot more intentional in designing an opportunity ecosystem, one that allowed for equal access for deserving candidates—one that leveraged a credentialing system that did not depend on where you went to school or university, or the accent with which you spoke English? What if employers were able to evaluate candidates based on potential, not performance—keeping in mind that many students will simply just not have had exposure to opportunities to showcase what they are truly capable of? What if we employed a radical shift in our gate-keeping–university admissions and recruitment for starters–that allowed us to challenge our incoming biases, and started to take in more, deserving candidates? Can we then level the playing field?

Well, I’m a die-hard optimist and a firm believer in incremental progress. We can all at least do a few things to change the social order:

1. Let’s “widen the gate” without lowering the bar. 

University Admissions representatives—ditch the “magic formula” of grades and extra-curricular activities that imply future success. Instead, move past the SAT scores, see a candidate for his or her true worth. In our work with Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at ALA, we’ve seen universities benefit richly from those they would have otherwise denied entry, had they judged by traditional criteria alone. Employers, give that young candidate a chance, and try and see past what they’ve been exposed to. By taking a chance on young, inexperienced professionals for example with short-term internships, I’ve seen many organizations radically shift the trajectory of a young individual, but also gain immensely in return.

2. Evaluate for potential, not for performance.

In my own career, I have benefited greatly from those that believed in me—people who imagined futures for me that I myself could not dream of. Educators and employers owe it to their stakeholders to adopt a growth mind-set and coach towards results, as opposed to expecting impossible standards at the outset. Constructive and developmental feedback is key—if you see something that deserves feedback, say something. At ACN, we believe in career coaching towards eventual success–no one is born ready for any job.

3. Hold the door open for someone behind you. 

Students and young professionals—never forget that you got to where you are on merit and talent, but also, on sheer luck. To break the cycle, “hold the door open” so that those behind you can enter. While it’s easy to apply this simple, literal courtesy in our daily lives, we often forget to hold the door open metaphorically. Students, forward the info on that scholarship program to someone unlikely to come across it. Professionals, actively coach and mentor someone younger than you to find that job and excel at it. Access to opportunity is not a zero-sum game–we all benefit from others’ growth.

The future of bleak, jobless growth is right at our door, manifesting in a variety of situations–service delivery protests, youth unemployment, xenophobia, populism. We all have an obligation to address some part of the structural inequality by changing the opportunity ecosystem.  Otherwise, we run the risk of enforcing the rules of the game, locking so many people out of the system. We all lose.


This blog is written by Sharmi Surianarain, Vice President of Lifelong Engagement at ALA. Read her profile here.