A Lesson in Humility & Humanity: My Visit to a Prison-Run Call Center

I had the privilege of being part of the 2018 graduating class of the Valley Leadership Institute. Each year, approximately 55 leaders are selected for this nine-month program that explores the most pressing issues facing Arizona and sets participants up to have meaningful impact. As part of the program, members are encouraged to participate in group tours to understand the state’s challenges and opportunities and how class members can be a part of creating the solution. For example, one trip was the Salt River Project’s (SRP) Watershed helicopter tour. The tour focused on SRP’s Salt and Verde Watershed and how they play a critical role in water management and delivery for the State of Arizona. Another was a tour of Perryville prison in Goodyear, AZ. This was a trip I wanted to attend but couldn’t because of work conflicts. But I’ll share this: those who did attend raved about a program at the prison that was empowering women but really couldn’t explain it. They said that I had to experience it. I had just started my new job at Salesforce, leading *Supplier Diversity, so this piqued my curiosity. I wanted to learn more but as with all things, life and business needs take over and it fell off my radar.

Flash forward one year.

I’ve graduated VLI and have settled into my role at Salesforce. I’m chatting with an VLI colleague who mentions Televerde and the work they are doing with women incarcerated at Perryville. I told him the opportunity I had (and missed) to tour the facility. He immediately puts me in touch with someone at Conscious Capitalism who connects me to Televerde’s Chief Social Responsibility Officer Michelle Cirocco and, before you know it, I’m walking through the security check-point at Perryville Correctional.

Entering a Prison-Run Call Center

Hollywood informs our perceptions—good and bad. In the case of how we view prisoners, it’s all negative. For this reason, entering the facility, I had both anticipation and anxiety. The first thing I observe is that orange is everywhere. It’s the immediate realization of where I am (as if the 300-pound steel door closing loudly and locking behind me wasn’t a strong enough indicator). There are white vans driven by women in orange who take visitors over to the call centers (Televerde has four at Perryville).

I’ve worked in call centers before so I’m fully aware of what they’re like. But today, I walk in expecting different. I was met with a surprise. It wasn’t unlike any other call center in Silicon Valley or anywhere for that matter. There are about 60 cubicles with women seated, wearing headsets and engaging in conversations with prospects about technology. They are so well-versed in tech and IT infrastructure. They have to be considering they’re working to identify warm leads for some of the most recognizable brands. The center is bursting with energy.

After I’m given a tour of the center, we break into a conference room where I chat with five women who work for Televerde. I listen to their stories, learn about their roles, and they share with me their hope for a better future, made possible now because of the education, training and career opportunity Televerde provides.

Three Lessons Learned

While the entire experience was a lesson in humility and humanity, there are three takeaways I’d like to share that I hope will spark conversation and action as it relates to workplace hiring practices and diversity programs.

1. True Diversity & Inclusion means paving the way for all. As an African American woman in technology, I am all too familiar with the pains that a lack of diversity and inclusion brings to minority groups. For example, underrepresented groups in the tech industry often make up less than 10% of the total population. As an industry, we know there’s more work to be done. While I’m meeting and chatting with these remarkably talented women at Perryville, I realize I’m standing before a community that’s being marginalized. They are doing all the right things to learn, to grow, to change. They have the same passion for their work that you and I do and their plans for the future are vast. But I know what awaits them on the outside. Most companies have yet to become aware of the talent that exists in this disenfranchised population, and hiring practices continue to discard them from employment consideration. For me, this realization becomes personal and I want to amplify their stories to help bring about change so that when they’re released, they’ll experience pathways to success versus barriers. I was happy to learn, I’m not alone in this mission. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recently launched its Getting Talent Back to Work initiative that challenges companies to end outdated, non-inclusive hiring practices. As business leaders, it’s time for us to start paving the way for all.

2. There’s power in impact sourcing. If a company values workplace diversity and inclusion, it makes good business sense to put in place an inclusive and engaging supplier diversity program. The strongest champions of D&I practices recognize that we don’t have to buy from or do business with the same people we always have. We can be inclusive in our purchasing decisions. We can support diverse communities by sourcing from diverse-owned businesses and/or companies that employ a diverse workforce. We can strengthen the positive impact we have on disenfranchised communities by sourcing from B Corps and other companies that are purpose-driven, like Televerde. We can also commit to impact sourcing by pledging to hire impact workers, which is the mission of the Global Impact Sourcing Coalition. We need to begin leveraging diversity in ways that meet the needs – not just of our business – but of individuals and communities as well.

3. The trailblazer community is vast. At Salesforce, we empower diverse communities through open-sourced online training called Trailhead. Unbeknownst to me, the women at Perryville are part of our trailblazer community and when you meet them, you immediately recognize the characteristics of a typical trailblazer. They are continuous learners. They’re innovative. They’re curious. They’re both creative and strategic problem solvers. They have a deep passion to change the world. As a Salesforce business leader, it filled me with pride to see what our solutions are enabling and how we’re preparing these women for success.

Salesforce Co-CEO, Mark Benioff, brilliantly stated that the business of business is not business. The business of business is improving the state of the world. In this spirit, let us continue to evolve our business strategies to ensure we’re raising the bar and continuing to operate as a force for good for all.

**Supplier Diversity is the inclusion, development and promotion of diverse-owned businesses.

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