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Episode 3 – Interview with Damien Howard, Sr. Vice-President of Social Ventures at Per Scholas

Building a Diverse Tech Workforce: Interview with Damien Howard of Per Scholas



Steve Sidwell:

On this episode, we interviewed Damien Howard, the Senior Vice President of Social Ventures at Per Scholas. Damien explains why there’s a growing need for more skills-based professionals, how Per Scholas is helping build a more diverse workforce, and ways that companies can support the organization’s mission and so much more. Brace yourself, you’re now entering the Tech Bench Podcast.

               (music)

James Patrignelli:

Welcome to the Tech Bench Podcast. I’m James Patrignelli, and with me is my co-host, Rob Ruehle.

Rob Ruehle:

Hello, everyone.

James Patrignelli:

And today, we’re interviewing Damian Howard of Per Scholas. Damien, welcome.

Damien Howard:

Thank you for having me. Appreciate it.

James Patrignelli:

Thanks for taking the trip in. We really appreciate it.

Damien Howard:

Of course.

James Patrignelli:

So you’re with Per Scholas, a not-for-profit. I was hoping you could tell us a little bit about what you’re doing.

Damien Howard:

Sure. So, as you had mentioned, I’m Damian Howard. I’m the Senior Vice President of Social Ventures at Per Scholas. I’ve been with the company for 17 years, and I oversee all of the revenue generating lines of businesses inside of the company. So I’m responsible for launching and scaling all of our revenue generating enterprises, that they’re all working capital to support all of our sites across the country.

James Patrignelli:

That’s amazing. So now, you started at Columbia Business School, is that correct?

Damien Howard:

Yes, I did.

James Patrignelli:

And how did that lead you to working with NGOs?

Damien Howard:

So inside of that program that I was in, it literally was focused around ensuring that you can have the most social impact that you possibly could realize. So inside of that program, I met some really brilliant, talented individuals, a lot of EDs, MDs, CEOs, that basically, all had the same focus around social impact and making sure that we can find areas where we can use our talent to help people in need. Inside of that, it was such a rewarding and such an enriching experience, that I decided that this is something that I really wanted to do. I wanted to make sure that I climb the corporate ladder, but I had one other hand down picking somebody else up along the way.

James Patrignelli:

Sure, and 17 years ago, how did you begin working with Per Scholas?

Damien Howard:

I actually was introduced by a close friend of mine that I went to church with. Her name was Nerida Love and she came to Per Scholas and I was in between jobs at the time. I was with Tia [inaudible 00:02:46] and then I also had received sort of a part-time job at Macy’s. And she was like, “Look, you will be perfect for an administrative position here,” and it worked out from there. Haven’t left yet.

James Patrignelli:

So you started in admin and you really climbed the ladder. [crosstalk 00:03:00] What are some of the other roles within your organization have you had over the years?

Damien Howard:

Oh. I believe that this is my 11th role within the company. So I’ve held positions like director of sales. I’ve been a director of access sales. I’ve been assistant vice president. I’ve been the vice president over business development and employer engagement. Prior to this role that I’m in now, I was a vice president over business development. Now, I’m the senior vice president of social ventures.

On a Mission to Develop Diverse Tech Talent

James Patrignelli:

Wow. So over the course of the 17 years, how has your mission changed or is it pretty much stayed the same throughout that time period?

Damien Howard:

Sure. The mission has remained the same, the amount of people that we serve. And we could probably say the way that we deliver our services have changed just a bit, but it’s still serving the same people. We want to make sure that we always are reaching out to underrepresented individuals who need that bridge into the corporate space. So we provide that training inside of IT to make sure that they get there, and we haven’t changed that since we started.

James Patrignelli:

Sure, sure. We’re seeing a lot of organizations that we work with increase diversity initiatives. How does your program support that and really increase diversity and technology?

Damien Howard:

Sure. So one of the really innovative ways that we support that initiative is through our Diverse by Design conversation series. So I started a national conversation series that primarily focuses on gathering C-suite executives and other decision makers throughout many companies that cover a span of industries to basically, not talk about the grim stats around diversity and inclusion, but to talk about the actionable items that they can take in order to move the needle around diversity and inclusion. So what we have to do is begin to change the mental model around needing employees that have degrees.

There was recently over the weekend, a Wall Street Journal article that talked about how the value of master degrees are now declining because of the high cost of schooling and then how we are literally inside of a skills-based economy. So you want people to be trained towards your business, so that they can become more productive in a shorter period of time. So we want to make sure that we’re providing that bridge. We’re not saying that you should not source individuals from colleges. What we are saying that it’s not either, or. It’s both and, and Diverse by Design helps address directly, the issue around diversity and inclusion and changing people’s perception around people without degrees.

James Patrignelli:

That’s great. Yeah, I think many of us can point to people in our lives who have gone on to higher degrees and aren’t even in that role anymore utilizing those degrees, but the skill set is really what’s important and providing that is a great mission.

Damien Howard:

Agreed. Thank you. Thank you.

Developing Diversity in Tech

Rob Ruehle:

So just to backtrack a bit, obviously you’re in charge of the revenue stream and kind of building Per Scholas and your mission is to get people the education for these tech jobs and helping place those jobs. Tell us about the program. What exactly did you do to get them there?

Damien Howard:

Sure. So we have two facets of the organization. So one is the training program that has been in existence for over 25 years. It’s primarily focused on entry and mid-level roles. So we’re talking about eight plus, net plus, security plus, CCNA tracks, as well as some of the more mid-level tracks, which is quality engineering and cybersecurity. What we do is we source individuals and we put them through a very serious and rigorous vetting process to make sure that they actually have the bandwidth and the capacity to understand and to digest this information and also, make it applicable once we place them into a job. So after they go through a very rigorous vetting process, we then find out which track works the best for them based on the aptitude that we’ve seen and that candidate. Once they have completed that vetting and we have selected the track that fits them perfectly, they go through that training track.

 Now, that can range from anywhere from six weeks to 18 weeks. It just depends on what track they actually land in. While they’re in this process, it’s a training experience. So we always tell our students because it’s at no cost for the student, but it costs us anywhere from $8500 to $10000 to put a student through our program and it’s free to them, but you have to reciprocate that in passion, grit, ambition, making sure that you’re actually there day in and day out because at the conclusion of that, we’re working alongside with you to ensure that you’re placed inside of a job. Not a job, but actually a career to help you move your life forward in a way that you probably would not have been able to do previously. Then a nutshell, that’s our program. We make sure that we provide entry to people who are in need, but who are super talented and who have been overlooked by really… adjusted in weird hiring systems inside of corporate America. We want to make sure that we provide that bridge for them.

James Patrignelli:

Can you talk about how many companies you’ve placed your students into at this point in time? And I don’t know if you could share with us some of the companies that they’re currently working with.

Damien Howard:

Sure. So nationally, we have over 500 employer partners. We work with companies like Accenture, Christy’s, Cognizant, Infosys, Google, a number of major companies actually absorb our students. So from Fortune 500 to Fortune 1000 companies, we’ve we pretty much deal with all of them.

James Patrignelli:

And you’re currently located in six cities in the US, correct?

Damien Howard:

Yes. So we have offices in New York and with three locations, one in Brooklyn, one in the Bronx, and we will have a center possibly by 2020 in Manhattan. We also are opening up one in Newark, starting in the beginning of next year. So that’s just New York. Then we have Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio. We have Atlanta, we have Dallas and Silver Spring, Maryland. Now, we are opening up two additional locations. One will be Boston, and we’re still going through vetting on the other location. So we’re expanding pretty aggressively.

James Patrignelli:

And this expansion, strategically, is there a specific reason why you picked these cities?

Damien Howard:

Sure. So each city has to go through a vetting process as well. And the top three criteria that we have for the cities that we actually pick; one, it requires that, of course, that the jobs are there. So we take a very immersive approach to engaging with employers to ensure that the jobs are actually there. Secondarily, we look for sustainable funding. At least two to three years of funding have to be available in order for us to enter into a market. Then of course, we have to make sure that the people are there in order to make sure that we can make it work.

Tech Training Programs At Every Level

James Patrignelli:

Sure. And you mentioned a couple of questions ago that the average cost for student, the cost to put a student through this program could be between $8500 and $10000. How do you fund the program if the students aren’t paying?

Damien Howard:

Sure. So what’s interesting is that historically, it has predominantly been funded by foundations, which have been great, but one of the things that we learned from some of our counterparts, over the last couple of years, nonprofits have been closing their doors rapidly. So we said, how do we ensure that we’re able to continue to offer this service to individuals who absolutely deserve this? So we decided to start to march towards making sure that we generated our own revenue so that we can be more sustainable, and that’s why we launched Platform by Per Scholas. Platform by Per Scholas is our customized training arm. That’s where we take an immersive consultative approach to understanding what our clients need as far as training is concerned, and then we develop a really aggressive solution that is easy to implement and we train either. We do preemployment training where we source new candidates for our corporate partner, or we do re-skilling and up-skilling with our corporate partners. So now, that portion of the company or of the operation actually represents 30% of our operating revenue and the rest is covered by foundation, and city or government.

James Patrignelli:

And that platform by Per Scholas program, is that done your facilities or do you actually go to your clients and partners in train onsite?

Damien Howard:

Both. So right now, we have a co-branded beautiful facility in the Bronx with Cognizant. We also have another co-branded facility in Dallas with Cognizant. But we also have engagements with the city of White Plains where we do training. We just launched last week, a training with the city of New Orleans. So we actually go to their site to host a training. It just depends on what solution works best for our partner and we’ll be able to deliver.

James Patrignelli:

What are some other ways that companies can help support you and your mission?

Damien Howard:

There are a number of ways, but one major way that they can support us is by helping support our relationship with Liquid Technology. If we can get their assets in through the door and make sure that we create a solution that’s a win-win for them where they can actually realize some revenue, and we can actually realize the revenue because we have a wonderful partnership with Liquid Technology, that will be one way that can really move this partnership forward and support us. If we can get functioning assets with high value, that can really help us out. The second way is through funding streams. If their companies have a CSR or philanthropic arm, if they’re interested in really helping us move this mission forward, of course we would take the donations to help further our mission.

James Patrignelli:

What would be the best way for somebody to contact you about that? Just going to your website, speaking to you directly?

Damien Howard:

Yeah. I would say that they can contact me directly at DHoward@perscholas.org. D-H-O-W-A-R-D@perscholas.org. Selfless plug.

Developing Tech Talent

James Patrignelli:

Outside of the Platform by Per Scholas, are there any new initiatives that you’re working on right now?

Damien Howard:

Platform By Per Scholas has many streams under it. So when I mentioned the training that we’re doing with the city of New Orleans, that’s actually geared towards 10th graders because we believe that if we’re going to have the kind of tech talent that we need to fill these roles as we move forward, you’re going to have to start digging a little bit deeper and starting a little bit earlier to develop the kind of talent that we need for the workforce. So that’s one of the things that’s really near and dear to my heart, because I want to make sure that overlooked individuals from New Orleans, especially after they had to go through the disaster that happened with the flooding and the inside of the city and they rebuilt in such a resilient way, that’s really exciting because we’re able to help 10th graders and give them an industry recognized certificate coming out of the 10th grade and really setting the path forward for them as they move forward. So that’s just one of the things that I think is interesting.

James Patrignelli:

That’s amazing. That’s great. I’m sure over time, it’s going to get younger and younger and we need to be training students on technology.

Damien Howard:

Absolutely. And it doesn’t hurt that I get to go to New Orleans.

James Patrignelli:

Hopefully, not in the summer. It’s really hot there in the summer.

Rob Ruehle:

So can you give us an idea of how many students over the years your program has helped?

Damien Howard:

It’s just over 6000, I believe. I think 6000.

Rob Ruehle:

Wow. I can say from personal experience, we actually have a Liquid Technology employee who went through your program. He’s still with us. It’s been over 10 years now. He’s one of our beloved employees. He’s in charge of all of our data destruction here, Liquid Technology. I guess, do you have any… That’s my story as far as knowing about your program. Do you have any good stories you could share of maybe some graduates and kind of what they went on to achieve?

Damien Howard:

Absolutely. One that immediately comes to mind is this one student who was living in California and was managing gyms and was making somewhere around $35000 a year. He came to Per Scholas, went through one of our quality engineering tracks, had a phenomenal experience, but there was a little delay in finding him a job. So he became a little disgruntled. So I reached out to him personally. I said, “Hey, listen. Why don’t you come in and let’s have a conversation and let’s try to figure out what track we can get you on for employment.”

So understandably, he was very upset and I let him express that frustration because that was important to him. And he was just saying, “Listen, I took a chance and I moved from California because I heard about your program and now, I’m having trouble finding a job.” I said, “Well, let’s fix that together.” Long story short, we worked together. He worked with the team and he landed a job with Accenture for over a hundred thousand dollars a year. So it’s a major transition from making $35000 in California to coming to New York, risking it all, and then landing a job with Accenture for $100000 is a wonderful story.

James Patrignelli:

That’s amazing. And I can tell you, I’m on the client side, obviously we’ve been in a lot of meetings together. Just telling clients about this opportunity that they can use their funds from their use technology hardware to fund underserved communities to help these kids get jobs and get a leg up and enter the workforce, they really respond to that-

Rob Ruehle:

Yeah.

James Patrignelli:

… and it’s exciting to see them engage in your program with you guys.

Damien Howard:

It’s always exciting just to see the impact that we’re having on the students because another mental model that we’re trying to attack where corporate America is that, just because they don’t have a degree does not mean that they’re less than. And this is not a project around philanthropy either. We don’t like our corporate partners to look at our students as projects or sort of pilots that we can test on. These are capable, competent people that can add value to your bottom line. Then it’s a great confidence boost once we’re able to install that into the student.

We’re saying, listen, first of all, you had to go through a very rigorous vetting process to get into the doors. There’s thousands of people that we see. So when we pick someone, that means that you’re super qualified to be here. So it’s a confidence booster, but once companies start to realize and to engage with our students, they realize the real value that our students bring in and that’s what we really hold on to is seeing the confidence being built up inside of our students, and then the value that they’re able to add to our corporate partners.

Success in the Technology Job Market

Rob Ruehle:

That’s great. Just out of curiosity, obviously you’re involved in sort of the job market and technology, especially in the New York area and the areas that you serve. What have you seen lately, as far as the job market, is it as strong as people are saying it is as far as technology careers?

Damien Howard:

It absolutely is, especially when you start to think about… And when I say strong… So in New York, it’s a very dense market, meaning that there’s a lot of talent available and there’s quite a few jobs available as well, but there’s enough talent here where employers and employees can go and pretty much make a good match. But what they are missing is specific skill training, and that’s what makes our students so strong is that we’re training them toward clients’ demands, but it is a very strong market here and it’s a high demand for the talent that we’re producing. There’s literally not enough and we’re trying to figure that out.

James Patrignelli:

Well, we certainly hope that you continue to grow. Obviously in three years, you’ll be celebrating your 20th anniversary with Per Scholas. What do you hope to be doing at that point in time? And where do you hope that your organization is?

Damien Howard:

I hope that we will be able to successfully shift the perception around alternative talent. We want to be able to see by our 20th, by the time that it will be my 20th anniversary there, I would like to see many more CEOs just openly embracing the talent that we produce. It’s a passion of mine. I know I will still be at Per Scholas at that time, so I really want to see companies continue to embrace the talent that we are developing because it’s valuable and it can really help their organizations move forward.

James Patrignelli:

That’s great. I’m certain that people are going to hear this and want to contact you. Obviously, you gave your contact information a little while ago. We’ll certainly post it on our website. Anything else that you want to share with us before we let you go?

Damien Howard:

The only thing I want to share is that I truly thank Liquid Technology for your partnership. Over the years, you guys have just been so supportive from not just from asset recovery, the work that we do on asset recovery, but how you embrace our students. You guys actually get it, and we need more companies like you that have the kind of people that you have inside of your company. So I just want to thank you for your partnership and thank you for it.

James Patrignelli:

You’re a valued partner. We really appreciate working with you all the time. Thank you.

Steve Sidwell:

Thank you for joining us for another one episode of the Tech Bench Podcast. On our next episode, we’ll be speaking to Blanco’s VP of North American sales, Matthew Anderson, and senior account manager, Karen Fetter. If you enjoyed this episode, please make sure to subscribe and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @LTB podcast. If you have any questions, comments, or show ideas, please feel free to email us at techbench@liquidtechnology.net. For show notes, visit liquidtechnology.net/techbench.

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