San Francisco skyline

At Goldman Sachs in San Francisco, the ambience was formal and there were plenty of suits. At the consulting firm Accenture, one of the leaders wore jeans and sneakers but kept a blazer handy. At another company across the bay, the highest-paid employees wore shorts. (That would be the Golden State Warriors.)

In the working world, clothes are a clue, but they might not tell the whole story. That’s just one of the lessons 12 Pomona College sophomores who identify as low-income or first-generation college students learned last fall in an innovative new program. Smart Start Career Fellows is designed to teach students about a working world unfamiliar to many of them. The program concluded in January with a three-day trip to the offices of seven Bay Area businesses.

Lesion Garifullina, Class of 2020, Economics Major, Smart Start

Leisan Garifullina ’20

One of the things Smart Start taught Leisan Garifullina ’20, an economics major from Russia, was the difference between business casual and business formal.

“I had this awkward situation last semester where I went to an information session, I think it was Citibank. I showed up in shorts and the nicest, nicest t-shirt that I had,” she says. 

Now, with the help of a stipend from the program, “I have business casual,” Garifullina says. 

A Joint Effort with Pomona Alumni

Created with grants from Accenture and John Gingrich ’91, a managing director at the firm, the Smart Start program was facilitated by Mary Raymond, director of the Pomona College Career Development Office, and senior associate director Wanda Gibson. Raymond won a “Shark Tank” style pitch session against competition from USC and UCLA to earn the initial grants, but she and Gingrich say it will need funding from other sources to continue beyond next year after the initial jump-start.

Smart Start began last fall with a series of two-hour Friday night dinner sessions where the students took part in self-assessment exercises and various networking, resume and career-coaching sessions. They also completed outside assignments and came away with new headshots for LinkedIn. 

On the Bay Area trip, they connected with new contacts as well as Pomona College alumni, visiting the offices of Kate Walker Brown ’07, an attorney at the National Center for Youth Law, Natalie Casey ’17, a software engineer at Salesforce, and Adam Rogers ’92, deputy editor at Wired magazine. The group also went to LumiGrow, a startup company that offers high-tech, energy-efficient horticultural lighting solutions, in addition to Goldman Sachs, Accenture and both the business offices of the NBA’s Warriors and a game that night against the Los Angeles Clippers.

A Growing Comfort 

Kaylee Null, Class of 2020, Psychology, Smart Start

Kaylee Null ’20

Kaylee Null ’20, a psychology major who grew up in a military family and moved around the country a lot, says arriving at college without the same background as some other students can be disquieting.

“It can feel like everyone knows what they’re doing and people are very outspoken about that, so being unsure in that realm of things can make it kind of intimidating to speak up,” Null says.  “Doing that kind of networking work felt really comfortable with that group of students because we’re all low-income, first-gen, and we didn’t have the same support system that a lot of our peers did.”

A comfort level with launching a career is precisely what the CDO’s Raymond is seeking for these students, who are far from alone on campus: 19.2 percent of the students offered admission to the Pomona College Class of 2022 would be the first in their families to graduate from college.

“They’re academically talented. They’re motivated,” Raymond says. “Our goal is to help students feel comfortable in these different types of environments they haven’t been to – before they’re there for a job interview. 

“It’s the comfort in understanding some of the business jargon, the language that’s used in different organizations. I think it’s the culture of what an office looks like, and how they’re different in different industries. We’ll talk about consulting, we’ll talk about finance, but they haven’t been to a workplace like that. It’s only something they know from TV or what they’ve contrived.”

From Majors to Careers

It can be difficult for students to see what careers their majors might lead to, particularly if their parents didn’t graduate from college or aren’t working in the professional world.

“I thought if you have an economics degree, you just go and become an economist or someone in finance,” Garifullina says. “But then I heard a lot about how the skill set is what matters. It was hard for me to realize that, but when I heard real-life stories from professionals that majored in one thing but became very successful in something else that they are passionate about, that really reinforced this idea that I should focus on acquiring different skills.”

Null agrees.

“One place we went to, they do lighting for plants and you could control it from your phone, that type of thing,” she says. “But hearing them talk about plants so passionately, I came out thinking, plants are something you could make a career out of, who knew?”

Shy Lavasani, Class of 2020, Economics, Smart Start

Shy Lavasani ’20

Shy Lavasani ’20, an economics major from Millbrae, California, whose family emigrated from Iran, says he was considering consulting as a career before the trip.

“But I didn’t know exactly what it entails. People said you can work on projects with people, kind of like in college. I still didn’t know exactly what it was. But it was just so cool to see the variety of projects they work on, as well as that it was less hierarchal than I expected. It was really a collaborative team environment.

Lavasani’s networking paid off. Gingrich introduced him to someone who introduced him to someone who offered him an internship in San Francisco, a classic example of networking – and the sort of thing that might happen more naturally for students whose parents are professionals or have old college friends in many fields.  Others Smart Start students have divergent plans: René J. Valenzuela ’20, a public policy major born in Mexico and raised in Chicago, will be conducting research after being selected as a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, and Garifullina was offered an internship in Singapore in the American Chamber of Commerce.

René J. Valenzuela, Class of 2020, Public Policy Analysis, Smart Start

René J. Valenzuela ’20

Talent for the Workplace

There is more in this venture for Accenture than philanthropy.

“We have a very public goal of sourcing diverse talent to Accenture, providing under-represented groups greater access to digital-economy jobs,” Gingrich says. “We would love to have a large group of diverse, qualified candidates for our openings.”

Organizations like Accenture can help level the playing field, especially for first-generation students or those who identify as low income, giving those groups the same insight and understanding of what jobs are available post-graduation as other students.

That’s the side benefit of getting involved in programs such as Smart Start: Organizations get access to candidates, and over the past five years, Gingrich says Accenture has expanded the profile of graduates it seeks to hire.

“Prior to that, we were looking for a lot more engineering and computer science skills in consulting,” he says. “Now it’s a lot more focused on the well-rounded individual.  So, demonstrating that you have had some leadership responsibility, demonstrating that you work well in a team and are an effective problem-solver, demonstrating initiative, and obviously, communication is a big part.”

Amid all the talk of “marketable majors,” liberal arts graduates often stand out.

“The advantage the liberal arts students have is they collaborate naturally and they know how to learn,” Gingrich says. “In our business, consulting, but really in our clients’ businesses as well, the world is changing so much faster in terms of business process and technology in the digital age, you have to be able to continuously adjust and learn. That’s where a lot of the liberal arts students actually have an advantage.”

For Lavasani and others, the experience was an eye-opener.

“Every single place we went to in San Francisco, you could ask yourself, ‘OK, could I see myself coming in here every single day for a long period of time, maybe two, three, or 10 years? Could I see myself really enjoying this job?’ It just really helped me thinking about that at every single location, what I really want, what I really need. It gave me a clear direction in terms of what I want to do.”

No job seemed out of reach, except maybe one.

“I don’t think any of us were considering pro basketball,” he says. “It’s always nice to dream.”