You Can Go Back: CAO Boomerangs To Bright Tech Future For Many
Comebacks are a good thing.
For Michelle Pullaro, chief administrative officer of Per Scholas, a nonprofit leader in free tech training, coming back to the C-suite of a company she left almost 12 years earlier has turned out to be a very good thing.
A 1994 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in political science and economics, Pullaro went to work for Automatic Data Processing, ADP, in New York in sales, working in business development and corporate training until 2000. From there, she earned her MBA from Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business.
It was then she went to work for the first time for Per Scholas, joining in 2002 and staying until 2007.
“It was a grassroots local organization then,” Pullaro says of the Bronx-based company founded in 1995, now operating training in eight cities including New York, Washington, D.C., Boston, Newark, Atlanta, Dallas, Cincinnati and Columbus. Soon, Per Scholas is expanding to Philadelphia and Detroit.
In the early years, Per Scholas refurbished computers for low income families, having given more than 50,000 computers to families who could not afford them.
“I started in sales and marketing and expanded into fundraising,” Pullaro says. She was then offered the opportunity to be executive director of Taproot Foundation and jumped at the chance.
“I wanted to lead,” Pullaro says, and she did that at Taproot from 2006 to 2009.
From there, she launched her own nonprofit management consulting firm, Quidoo, helping nonprofits develop the management and organizational capacity to achieve results. She led her own firm as managing partner until 2015.
“I was missing being part of a larger mission,” Pullaro says, “and something bigger than myself. I never lost passion for the organization and I became a boomerang.”
She has landed back at a much bigger operation, as Per Scholas is launching a $31 million-dollar growth capital campaign, looking to expand its impact to take a piece of the $140 billion staffing industry.
Per Scholas has trained more than 9,000 students since 1998, breaking the 1,000 students per year mark in 2017, and will train at least 2,200 in 2019, Pullaro says. Per Scholas partners with companies including BNY Mellon, JP Morgan and AT&T, she says.
With 78 percent of companies claiming hiring diverse talent is a priority in 2019, Pullaro says some companies pay a portion of the training, which is free to every adult student.
The average age of the students in training is about 30, with requirements including a high school degree or GED. Only 20 percent of the students who apply are accepted, and they need to pass math and numeracy literacy tests for the challenging curriculum in courses such as cybersecurity, she says. Classes can run from 10-18 weeks, with the average course taking 14 weeks.
“Data shows that diverse technology companies perform better financially, yet today’s tech workers are still overwhelmingly white and male. Men held 76 percent of U.S. technical jobs last year, and 95 percent of the American tech workforce is white,” according to TriplePundit.
The demographic of the student body is 90 percent diverse, Pullaro says, with 30 percent female students.
“We are trying to push for gender equity,” she says. “We are looking for those who are passionate about these skills. We want to make sure they can have careers in tech and can take advantage of the full-time program,” Pullaro says. “We also have college grads and workers who find their IT skills are outdated,” Pullaro says.
The tech industry has long been discussing the lack of diversity—by gender as well as background and race—and blaming the pipeline while not addressing the industry culture itself.
Brenda Darden Wilkerson, President and CEO of AnitaB.org, writes in Entrepreneur, “We cannot allow the bogus excuse of ‘diversity fatigue’ to derail us. It’s no more acceptable a defense than ‘innovation fatigue’ or ‘profitability fatigue.’ Can you imagine if a CEO told investors that her team was too tired to turn a profit, or release a new product? Failure to improve our workforce problems should be equally absurd.”
Wilkerson adds, “Leaders who abdicate responsibility for addressing workplace inequality are setting their organizations up for failure. As tech industry executives, we can no longer blame outside forces for our inability to create change.”
Pullaro says organizations such as Per Scholas do have the solutions. According to Per Scholas, 85 percent of students graduate in 14 weeks and find, not only a job, but a long-term career, seeing a 400 percent increase in wages, on average.
The tech world is responding well, Pullaro says. “In technology there is no doubt that having a diverse workforce includes also having diversity of thought and that has opened employers’ minds. It is not just the right thing to do, but we can prove diverse teams perform better and have bottom line implications,” Pullaro says.
On average, employers will save $13-$19 million per year in hiring and training costs by working directly with Per Scholas to source diverse, skilled talent.
After graduation, students have coaching and mentoring access for two years, and can even stretch that to five years, Pullaro says. Coaching includes “how to handle conflict on a team that is not diverse,” she says.
Coming back to a company she left years earlier, Pullaro says, “I am having as much fun or more than the first time around.”
While Per Scholas is in rapid growth mode and will expand to 14 to 16 cities in the near future, she says, “The big mission is the number of individuals we train. We know there is talent that does not have access to opportunities. It is not about how big we are, it’s about how close we can come to solving the issue and to get more people to financial security.”
Pullaro adds, “At the end of the day, regardless of zipcode, you can have equal access in tech.”
About the Author
Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon www.micheleweldon.com