Conversations with Black Talent Professionals: Ifeyinwa Walker, CEO of Offor, New Orleans

Liz Desio Diversity, Organizational Development, Talent Strategy

Meet Ifeyinwa (Ify) Walker, CEO of national talent brokering firm Offor, and diversity trailblazer in executive recruitment. I began following Ify on LinkedIn a few years ago, where she shares impassioned posts about racial justice in relation to hiring. What struck me the most about Ify was first, her skills as a writer, which drew me to notice her unique journey into the talent industry.

With a background in law, education, and nonprofit administration, Ify has used her career to continuously reframe her desire to be an advocate for others–this is how her company, Offor, was born. Offor uses revolutionary tools conceived by their Black-owned and run organization, including a “talent and culture audit” of any potential clients. Offor helps organizations reimagine their hiring and talent management processes to bring Black, Latinx, and Asian executives into their C-Suite, and maintain a company culture where they can thrive, succeed, and have influence.

Ify is living proof that recruitment and talent management can be used as catalysts for meaningful and sustained change. And if I wasn’t already fangirling over her enough, she even quoted “The Wire” in her interview. If your company is looking to revolutionize their diversity efforts, this interview is a great place to start!

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LIZ: I started following you because I really love the content that you post about racial discrimination in the hiring space, and you’re also a young female CEO.

I wanted to know everything about what led you to starting Offor, and what your past was like prior to launching your company.

IFY: Sure. So the quick origin story is as follows. I am the oldest of 6 kids, and I am also the child of Nigerian immigrants, so from a very young age it was just clear to me that education was everything, because my parents had left home in pursuit of it. So I grew up in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin, I was one of three Black kids in my school and the others were my brothers. So imagine that for a moment…

But I had a great education. The teachers really pushed us, they expected great things from us, and it wasn’t until college where I had an experience with a professor who essentially said he didn’t think I was capable of earning the grade that I’d earned on a chemistry final. And it was absolutely devastating, and was one of the first times that anyone had ever questioned my intelligence or my integrity. It was the confrontation of the ‘soft bigotry’ of low expectations, and so I channeled that energy in thinking I was going to go to law school. 

So eventually I was working at this really large nonprofit, where I saw firsthand again that the people who were making decisions in cities all across America about the education of Black and brown children were largely white and largely male. 

And when I questioned why the only people in positions of power were white and male, the answers that I received were really dismal. When I left the organization, it was to start something that would just demonstrate — very clearly–  that genius is equally distributed, but access is not. I wanted to change who was in the corner office. I’ve got 2 young kids, an 8-year-old and a 6-year-old. One day, when they open up Forbes or Fast Company it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see someone like me or their father on the front cover. These are the questions I use every day at work: “Will this work matter? Will I be proud to tell my kids what I was doing?”

LIZ: You seem really interested in helping people to make the best of their careers and be noticed, I feel like teaching and recruitment definitely go hand in hand in that way.

So what was the transition for you from teaching to law to talent, and what drew you away from practicing law? I see it as you did, kind of a vehicle for justice, as talent can be as well.

IFY: It was a couple of things. One, take a step and think about how the legal system, and typically law schools, are set up. You realize very quickly that it’s designed to push you towards big law, and what I mean by big law is corporate law. Most of the big firms that are coming to recruit you are not focused on justice; they are focused on making companies more money- that is their bottom line. I had this moment where I thought, OK, I can spend every moment in an office, reviewing documents and making sure that the semicolon is in the right spot, or I could be trying to work on a mission that I believed in. That’s actually what led me to go work nationally [where I had previously taught] at Teach for America, and to spend time actually growing and bringing teachers to other cities.

That brought me to see that people making the decisions were often times not the people who were impacted, so usually white men making decisions about Black and Latinx children, and that led me to think “why are there no women CEOs? Where are the Black CEOs? Where are the Latinx CEOS? Why is every meeting that I’m taking with a man?” That questioning mindset was always there. And that’s a good thing to have from a legal perspective. And I just translated that into this broader question about who was leading, who was making decisions, who’s deciding, and wanting to see those deciders ultimately look different. 

LIZ: Wow, that’s an amazing mission, and I think that it definitely explains your desire to start the company. On that note, with Offor, how exactly does it operate, and what are your plans for the future growth of your company? 

IFY: Offor is a national talent brokering firm working with companies all across the country, helping them identify top talent for their C-suite roles. We typically focus on organizations that are willing to do a couple of things: One, they’re willing to examine themselves and examine their culture.

We see it as our job to identify an organization’s brand of crazy, and then help the organization identify it, own it, be clear about it, and transparent about it, and then identify people who are excited and interested about opting in to that organization and that culture. 

And we do that by examining their cultures first, and then introducing them to top people, and running a process that’s “de-biased,” so to speak, to help them bring executives into the organization, and to ultimately help them excel in those organizations. 

LIZ: With that in mind, how do you select the companies that you work with? Do they usually approach you, or do you typically approach them?

IFY: That’s a great question. So we do zero marketing–everything is inbound, everything is based on relationships and referrals, so they’re approaching us. We probably at this point take about 10-20% of the clients that come to us, and part of that is because we are unapologetic about who we are–we know who we are. Candidates know who they are. The question is, who are you [CEOs/Boards]? Who are they [the organizations]? 

Part of that analysis is that before we go work for an organization, we actually insist that they go through a talent and culture audit. That usually takes a day or two of conducting between 10-15 interviews on our own dime, on our own time. In a week, we come back to the executive team and we share our findings: “Here are the places where your constituency and your team and your board want you to show up differently, and here are the things that will aid in getting the right person, and here are some of the things that might stand in your way of hiring the right person and having them thrive in your culture.”

That is a very telling conversation for us about whether or not we have a client that is able to confront the brutal facts about themselves and their company. We use the client’s reaction to the findings as a litmus test before saying yes to the client. And as you can imagine, that throws a lot of people off because they are accustomed to firms who are very eager to submit a proposal and ask questions later. By the way, the information that we surface during this culture audit is put into a user guide that is made public for any potential candidate. You have to be really ready as a client for that level of radical transparency, and [laughs] a lot of them are not. 

LIZ: I love the idea of a culture audit, and I’ve never heard of anything like that before. That’s the new frontier, because I feel like all companies say “we value diversity,” and “we do this/that, our culture is this way,” but 10-15 interviews where you ask real questions and confront them on it is amazing. I feel like that’s a good way of finding out what it’s actually like to work there. 

So my goal in this series of interviews…I’m trying to interview Black people in the Talent space and understand how companies can improve their recruitment and talent management of diverse candidates, with emphasis on Black and Latinx. With companies making statements about how they support #BlackLivesMatter, and what they want to do to help the Black community, what are efforts similar to the “culture audit” that you think would help increase diversity in their company and make their company support the Black community? What efforts do you think that they could employ?

IFY: The first thing I would say is–don’t be in a position of being called out, and being asked to practice what you preach. You should preach what you practice. If you are not actually hiring Black executives into your core function roles–meaning heading up Product, Business Development or Strategy, then don’t come out and say that you stand with the Black community, XYZ, because you’re going to be called out–your results are actually the measure of your commitment and your results, not what you say. 

And number two, conduct a talent and culture audit, and have someone from the outside, specifically a Black-owned firm or a Black person or Black team running that culture audit. The reason for that is there are patterns that we–on average–have been equipped to see what someone else will not see, based on lived experience and training.

Number three, I would also say hire experts–hire actual experts. Hire executive firms that are actual experts in hiring Black executives. 90% of Offor’s clients are CEOs at historically white institutions; their results in terms of the makeup of their organization makes it clear that they do not know how to diversify their executive ranks in any meaningful way. I don’t know any high performing CEO who would decide to do anything else in-house if they were going into a new market or their current efforts and produced subpar results. They would actually go directly to the experts, and say, “let me hire people who already know how to do this and to do this well.” 

And so I would say, hire an executive search firm that is actually run by Black executives and insist upon working with a recruiter who is Black, and has demonstrated a result in hiring Black executives into organizations where they have actually stayed. This focus will point you to a search firm that is demanding certain things of the institution first, and demanding that the institution change, that the institution look at itself, that the institution be better, so that everyone can thrive in the organization. 

LIZ: I think that’s really good advice and thought that I’m sure a lot of companies will benefit from, especially the point about hiring actual experts. You wouldn’t do consulting in house, you wouldn’t do certain things in house, but for some reason when there’s diversity training…when I was at Estée Lauder I was helping come up with a deck for diversity training for managers…as a white woman, and that shouldn’t be the case. 

IFY: And it doesn’t mean that you [as a white person] can’t [play a role in diversity work]. You should definitely be partnered with someone else, because it’s actually a really powerful role for you, as a white person, to play, assuming you have skills in that area. And those are just facts. You are able to have certain conversations that need to be had separately with white leaders who will be more open to hearing from you as a white person. 

And you may not want to admit that that’s true. We may want things to be one way, when they’re actually another way, to quote “The Wire.” The White Fragility author Robin D’Angelo, will sometimes lead training with a Black colleague, Erin Trent Johnson of Community Equity Partners, because there’s an understanding that there are certain things that need to happen cross-racially, but also things that need to happen separately. It doesn’t mean there’s not a role for you to play, but if you were to be the only person, that wouldn’t set you up for success. And you wouldn’t feel like you were totally equipped. 

LIZ: Definitely not…I think that partnership is what will lead us into the future, to ensure that as white people we’re doing our part to follow, and have those conversations within our community rather than speak over Black people who are already leading the movement.

IFY: The other things I would add [have to do with establishing clarity around] what is required to hire Black executives, and being clear about the facts. One of the myths that is out there is that hiring is a meritocracy, and there’s no evidence to support it. In almost 10 years, we’ve only had one client who hired someone who was not already known to them, or known to their network, or known to our network.

The second thing I’ll say is that the idea that it’s a pipeline issue, that there just aren’t enough Black executives, companies don’t know where to find them, they don’t exist, they’re just not ready, also just does not pan out in the research. 90% of the people that we’ve placed into historically white institutions are African-American, Latinx, or Asian–so this idea that there’s no pipeline is also just not true. 

And the final thing I’ll say is that oftentimes the conversation devolves into this, “well if we’re trying to improve diversity, that means we’re sort of lowering the bar, that it’s two teams, diversity versus excellence, and only one can win, and we’re choosing excellence, and that’s why our team is all white.”

And again, the research does not support that A 2005 McKinsey Report showed that diverse teams actually outperform teams that are homogeneous. So actually, diversity is the path to excellence, and currently most organizations are actually choosing between excellence and homogeneity, and they are failing this test. 

The answers for how to hire a diverse team are out there, but first companies would have to want to know the answers. They can start by examining their cultures through a talent and culture audit; hiring Black run firms with a track record for hiring Black executives into the c-suite; and debunking the common myths around hiring including the meritocracy myth, the pipeline problem and the false choice between team excellence vs. team diversity. When companies do this they won’t have to fear getting called out for failing to practice what they preach because they will be preaching what they practice. 

*SERIES DISCLAIMER*

My name is Liz Desio and I am a white author and talent professional. The purpose of this project is to highlight and amplify black voices within the Talent and HR communities by utilising my existing platform, Fistful of Talent. I have not profited from any of this work. Views of interviewees are entirely uncensored and the final product is pre-approved by each individual prior to running. Special thanks to Brianna Addison, my colleague and friend, for ensuring that this project was ethically conceived and executed in order to benefit the Black community.