Searching for Opportunity: How COOP Careers is Changing the Digital Marketing Hiring Landscape

Every year, our team here at Search Engine Land puts our heads together and selects an organization to donate $5,000 to on behalf of our annual Search Engine Land Awards program. Per the suggestion of our Editor-in-Chief, Ginny Marvin, we happily landed upon COOP Careers (“ko-op”) for our 2020 selection, and I had the honor of sitting down (virtually) with its Founder and CEO Kalani Leifer and alumni / Captain Oscar Alejandro Vera to find out more not just about COOP’s mission, but what it’s doing to open opportunities to the new generation of SEOs, SEMs, and digital marketers of all verticals. 

KJ: Oscar and Kalani, Thank you for meeting with me today! Before we fully dive in, can you, Kalani, give us a brief background about how COOP got started, and give us an overview of how everything came to fruition?

Kalani: COOP’s journey started 10 years ago when I was a high school history teacher in New York. I taught in the Bronx at a public school, and what’s critical here is that I felt like I made a promise to my students that said, “If I worked hard and made the right choices and earned a Bachelor’s Degree, that it would be a pathway to a meaningful and upwardly mobile career; a middle class career.” And I certainly wasn’t the only person making that promise, I think that’s really kind of a nationwide social contract that we have with young folks.

A lot of young folks make huge sacrifices and beat long odds to get that degree, and then are stuck in retail jobs, restaurant jobs and driving for Lyft or Uber. There’s nothing wrong with any of those jobs, but that’s not why most people go to college. For me, I really felt like I promised this contract with my students and I felt like it was hollow.

In 2014 we started COOP and it started really small and modest. We had a cohort with just 12 COOPers and we met every night for four months.

COOP is a place where you can learn skills but much more importantly it’s a place where you build really meaningful peer connections, because our basic observation has been that it’s not skills that hold people out of jobs it’s a lack of casual relationships.

So many jobs are filled through employee referrals, which makes sense. Good people, know good people, and [it’s] beautiful that we have trust based hiring, even in 2020, in the digital economy. The problem though is that our schools and our neighborhoods are pretty segregated. We often can only refer people who look like us. 

I think at COOP, a lot of people come for the skills, and then are really transformed by the community. And, that’s what gives them the confidence and the connections to build that upwardly mobile career. 

KJ: Oscar, I’m going to jump over to you. When did you start with COOP and what did your experience look like for you? 

Oscar: COOP came into my life when I – kind of like Kalani said – was underemployed. I went to work in retail after I had gotten my MBA, and just could not get into marketing. And then I found this program. I transferred in as I was running these big multi-million dollar stores for Ross Dress for Less, and then COOP came into my life and helped me transition into SEM. SEM just spoke to me, because I like a lot of Excel heavy stuff and I like marketing. I was either going to do one of the two when I was in grad school and I thought, “Oh this puts both of them together. Perfect.” Not only that, but a lot of the interview skills and marketing MBA classes were kind of antiquated in the way they were teaching that.

I came back to [COOP] and they created a position because I had my feedback for them, and they said “Well here’s the answer to your feedback. You will oversee the people who are teaching and help coach and support them.”  I’ve gotten at least three folks into agencies just through my referrals. 

Kalani: I think that we got lucky early on realizing that we can simultaneously continue to give our alumni career support at the exact same moment that they are giving it to someone else. Oscar was an Executive Captain for a year, who are essentially the coaches of the coaches of the grads. Our hope is that every minute that Oscar’s doing that, he’s also growing and learning and [thinking] “Oh, this is how I’m going to apply this at work. Look at this experience I have; I’m going to put this on my resume and go get an even better job with even more leadership opportunities.” From the very beginning, we’ve operated on the assumption that they have a ton to give. Yes, they have a lot to learn. So does every human I’ve ever met. But they also have so much to give and that’s sort of the energy that runs COOP.

KJ: Oscar, when you were being mentored, what kind of things were you working on specifically?

Oscar: When I was a student we were learning AdWords and Excel. They preach “Head, Heart and Hustle.” “Head” being the technical skills so it was primarily SEM, but exposing us to a little bit of paid social, display and programmatic as well. The resources are there if we want to learn that stuff but primarily when I was there it was more very tactile SEM. The people teaching us had gone through the program, and some of them were in the industry, working SEM jobs.

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Kalani: I’d say 80-90% of the time the coaches are literally doing that entry level job, or the second or third level job that the student is hoping to get into. But as Oscar said at the beginning, since we’re alumni led like at the beginning of a new site, so we do the first round and then it’s, “Okay, you guys have to come back and be the coaches” even before they’re quite ready. Even a one month break from going from student to teacher can impart so much value.

Often when you’re entry level at an agency you might not be getting a lot of step-up opportunities to flex your leadership muscles – which is okay, you have to grind it out a little bit – but this gives you that opportunity, and the hope is that you come back in the evening after a long day of being at the bottom of the pyramid, and when you get there, you’re the one who is the source of wisdom and inspiration and connection.

Then the hope is that the Captain can take this experience in the evening back to their day job and try and get that promotion or maybe jump to a different agency and drop the “junior” from their title.

KJ: Oscar, as an alumni and now Captain for the program, what would you say makes a great mentor?

Oscar: I think the biggest thing with mentors is just helping. Don’t give people the answer but lead people to figure it out, instead of saying “Here’s the answer.” That’s not the goal of a mentor. It’s the “Why?” Why is this not happening for you? What do you like? Most of us know what we need to do to get to where we want to be, and sometimes they do need a little more help. [Being able to] guide to answers are when mentors are most effective. 

KJ: Absolutely. On that same sort of note, how do you think those who are newly being trained or mentored can get the most out of being in that position?

Oscar: Just be open with that person. Asking a lot of questions to their mentor. I think sometimes it’s in those conversations that they realize what they need to do, and that’s what I try to do: Get them to ask me the question, then also [figure out] how to apply that to their workload.

KJ: So in summary: Never stop asking questions! Kalani, you mentioned you were a history teacher, and then wanted to fulfill this “contract” as you mentioned at the start.  I’m curious why was digital marketing was your area of interest?

Kalani: For a couple reasons. One, I was fortunate in my career to spend a little time working at Google, when I knew nothing about the world of digital marketing and honestly not even the world of tech beyond coding. When people hear tech they think coding and, yes, coding is really important, it’s the tentpole skill that holds up the internet, but it’s not for everyone, and it certainly wasn’t for me.

Meanwhile, I became aware of all of these jobs at Google and then this construction of the whole digital marketing partner ecosystem. With all these exciting jobs and career opportunities, maybe you’re not going to earn a $100,000 entry level position, but a $45-50,000 job is transformational, especially one that leads to a $60, 70 then $100,000 job after five years. And that really struck me.

I looked at this challenge of “Why are smart, ambitious young people – especially when they’re the first in their families to go to college – why aren’t they getting good jobs?”

The way that a lot of people interpret that is through something called the “skills gap” narrative. This idea is that if young people had the right skills, then they would have the right job. But to me, that never really held up because I had gotten a lot of jobs in my career that were completely unreal. I didn’t have the skills either – I just could kind of call “BS” on that. I really thought the most critical thing would be the skills, and I think they are tremendously important because when you’re in the final interview, I’m not going to be there with you, [your Captain] is not going to be there with you, you’re going to have to earn that job, and that’s when your skills really stand out.

What’s so exciting about digital marketing was the realization that we could teach people quite a lot, and then give them a big advantage over other fresh college grads with 200 hours. We have our program pillars: Head, Heart and Hustle. We’re really only spending about half the time on the “head” portion and within that we’re teaching Excel, Google Ads, Google Analytics, some paid social, and introducing programmatic [advertising]. It’s not necessary that you reach the point of mastery. I think what’s necessary is that you get a lay of the land, you understand what are the big important things, and what the keywords are, (no pun intended) that really can make you stand out in an interview. If you can just talk about ROI in a digital marketing interview, I guarantee you the vast majority of college grads are not going to be able to do that. They just haven’t come across it and haven’t been trained on it. 

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I think what Oscar called out with the “What makes a good mentee and what makes a good COOP apprentice” question…It’s curiosity. It’s one of our core values as an organization and that’s really what we’re trying to spark in this time; their curiosity about this industry and about these different skill sets, tools, platforms and channels in community. If you can show that to an employer in an interview and say “Hey, I took the initiative to join this community and learn these skills. And then I took these three, four, or five steps on my own.” I think that’s one of the most compelling things that you can show an employer. 

I think another thing that’s really valuable about COOP is sometimes you are at a company where you don’t feel well supported, and maybe you’re the only person of color on your team and you don’t feel comfortable reaching out to someone to ask a question. We want you to get on Slack and ask the question to the 2,000 other people who are in your shoes or have been in your shoes.

KJ: Absolutely, what a great resource for them to have access to. 

In addition to financial support of COOP, what are some other ways that folks who might be reading this can get involved?

Kalani: I love that question, thank you for bringing that up! There are so many ways to get involved in COOP. So, if you’re on a team that’s hiring, or wants to just talk to our partnerships team, I would love for folks to reach out to Rychelle McKenzie, our Partnerships Director. You can reach her at [email protected]. Just reach out to them and say “Hey, we’re a small agency, in Chicago, but we’re excited to interview people from all over.”

There are so many different ways for us to collaborate at the nonprofit agency level as partners, but then as individual professionals, maybe you’re not in a leadership position yet. There are also so many ways to help that we have a volunteer signup sheet.

We also do many mock interviews and panels. Mock interviews are a great way to just dip your feet in the water and sort of get to know and see what it’s all about. It provides such an invaluable experience for the person on the other end, and sometimes a mock interview turns into a real interview halfway through!

If you’re on something like the culture committee at your agency and you’re planning a big volunteer event, and you think you want 20 of your peers to do a day of volunteering, there’s so many ways to do that especially now that everything’s virtual.

Beyond COOP, I’d say really think of who your professional advice, favors, introductions and referrals are being given to. And then, for agencies, likewise to really think about the informal side of employee referrals. I’m not saying people shouldn’t use them – as Oscar mentioned he’s gotten three people hired because of him – but really think about who and where these referrals are coming from and the patterns that you’re seeing in the referrals.

If you’re trying to reach out and hire a more diverse group of candidates or meet a more diverse group of candidates, I think part of that really includes thinking about who you’re asking for referrals. I will acknowledge in my own life, I’m white, and my siblings are white, and my cousins are white…quite frankly the people I do favors for quite far out tend to look like me. And that doesn’t make any of us bad people; it’s a reflection of the neighborhoods we live in and the school we go to. But these things kind of get replicated or drawn into the hiring process unintentionally.

One last simple thing I’d say is to branch out. In every state and every city there are local public universities and colleges, and really take those candidates seriously. We work with the City University of New York and grads from there, and in California we work almost exclusively with California State University, colleges and there are so many incredibly ambitious first generation college grads coming from these schools.

Regardless of where someone graduated, especially during this recession and pandemic, there are a lot of people with Bachelor’s degrees who are not working in office jobs for many months or even years, and that should not disqualify them from being candidates. I think looking at folks who have a degree and might be in retail, or might be in restaurants or for driving Lyft or Uber – those are some of your most compelling, inspiring, resilient, mature, candidates. All too often we ignored them in favor of the fresh new crop of grads who deserve your attention too, but they’re not the only ones.

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KJ: When you look at kind of the digital marketing industry as a whole, especially when looking specifically at SEO and SEM, what do you see as one of the biggest overarching hurdles when it comes to diversity and inclusion? As anybody who’s been to a marketing conference knows, it is predominantly a very white landscape you’re going to see. 

Oscar: A few weeks ago someone posted about culture fit and how culture fit ends up being a big culprit of “Who makes me feel comfortable, and that’s like me?” and often people don’t think about that it’s somebody who’s a culture fit.

Sometimes that ultimately ends up being somebody that’s like me. Somebody that I can get along with and has a similar interest, that comes from a similar background…a lot of that subconscious. I think often we think they’re going to fit in because they also went to this Ivy League school and they also were part of the club, and I think it’s subconscious discrimination or bias and I believe that we need to stop the thinking of culture fit and trying to think outside of that. 

Also,  you have all these diversity talks, but the numbers don’t change. We have these giant conferences or they add this club, but then the numbers are the same and that’s the issue. I’d rather have less conferences and meetings, and have those numbers go up. It doesn’t have to be overnight, but they need to at least go up a little bit.

Kalani: Just to underscore what Oscar said, I think it’s casual relationships and employee referrals that’s at the core of this. Hiring is not top down. It’s not something that CEOs are talking about. It’s not something they might decide is the overall vision for the year.

Then it’s 10s of thousands of relatively junior recruiters who are tasked with actually filling the spots on their own; they never have enough time, there’s always too many slots to fill. So they have to rely on the quick ways to get people they think they can trust. I think what Oscar said about cultural fit is a huge example of that.

First, most who end up with an interview probably fit our culture because they came through a referral from someone of that culture. There’s so much that happens before the interview even takes place. So many people are filtered out because they don’t know someone who works there. 

KJ: Absolutely true, and excellent advice, thank you.

The only last thing I have for either of you both of you is if you have any kind of favorite success stories or very specific anecdotes that you love to share? 

Kalani:  I have way too many to share! I know I mentioned I was a history teacher, and I believe six of my own students have now gone through COOP. I’d love to share about a woman who is so dear to me. Bridget Aponte works in search at iProspect in New York. I was her history teacher and her economics teacher in high school in the Bronx, and now she’s just absolutely killing it. She’s incredible. Each of my former students who’ve come to COOP are really special to me. One is our program director in New York now.

KJ: Oscar, are there any specific COOP members that you’ve mentored that stick out to you?

Oscar: I think there’s one in particular because. The majority of COOPers are fresh out of college, but I found a COOPer with a similar kind of background as me that had gone into retail, hated it, and like found out about COOP. He called me, I met the guy, and he was just like “I don’t know if this is too late for me to career transition” and I said “I know the perfect person you need to talk to.” I got him his job in media planning, he is really happy with it, and recently just talked to me – he’s going to go back and get his MBA.

Another guy I wrote a reference letter for and helped him get into San Francisco State where I got my MBA. It’s always great to hear that they’re continuing to grow and grow in their careers like. To me, even if I was just a little help, it’s so great.

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