Project 99 pushes for dramatic workplace diversity change


Early morning meetings, traveling from Boston to New York: It sounds like a jet-set life for the well-traveled recent Babson grads, who have amassed impressive resumes working for the likes of Accenture, Goldman Sachs, EY and more.

They easily could have gone the corporate path to success. Instead, they detoured to social entrepreneurship, which hasn’t been easy for Yulkendy Valdez and Josuel Plasencia, co-founders of Project 99. They know, if you’re pushing for 30 percent workforce diversity by 2030, you have to start early—and work tirelessly.

“Young professionals want to be at the forefront of cultural change at their companies,” says Valdez. “Yet one in five find the workplace grueling or threatening—that’s not just millennials.”

Valdez and Plasencia have seen firsthand the problem of acclimating to corporate culture, where young professionals of color are three times more likely to quit than their counterparts. The problem is not just cultural, says Plasencia. It’s financial, too. American companies are losing $64 billion a year through retention failure—and spending another $8 billion to combat it.

But dealing with such sensitive topics as race, gender and identity has been what Valdez calls “taboo in the work place,” and so, effective communication is often legally charged, fear-driven and complicated.

“There has been a lot of questioning of whether diversity initiatives can work. At Project 99, we believe they can work if you address the elephant in the room, which is equity. It is tough, but if you’re a growing company and you want ROI, you have to leverage diversity,” Valdez says.

The diversity and inclusion dilemma is a much-discussed topic of late, with companies attempting to hire a more culturally diverse team, only to lose them once they’re hired and trained.

Black and Latinx young professionals feed a massive talent pool, but very little exists internally to support the growth and success of these workers. So Project 99 offers an array of corporate training that Plasencia and Valdez say cultivates safety, authentic conversation and action.

“In terms of our approach, it’s a different model,” Plasencia says. “We want to engage and retain talent, so our programs are born out of our own experiences. Young people are craving to go deep about their identities. We want to help them have these conversations. We do it peer-to-peer, so everyone in the room is learning from each other, and experiential, giving the onus to the people who can make change.”

Working with large companies presents a challenge, because each is in varying stages of understanding how diversity affects culture and their bottom line.

“We meet these companies where they are,” says Plasencia. “Some of these large, multinational companies, they are at ground level with these issues. At the foundation, it’s a new language for them. That makes (diversity and inclusion training) a totally different conversation. We want everyone to feel safe at work.”

Project 99—so named for the Human Genome Project that identified DNA as 99.99 percent the same, and 0.01 percent unique—finds commonality and leverages the collective power of a diverse work force while celebrating individuals’ distinct abilities and perspectives.

The duo has its sights set on a big goal, announced after their participation in Babson’s Summer Venture Program: the 30by2030 Summit. It’s described as a first-of-its-kind event to help advance black and Latino professionals into leadership positions.

“We want 30 percent racial and ethnic diversity, and we want people talking about that,” says Valdez. “Right now, we are too far from that, it’s only at 3 percent. We expect people to go, ‘Whoa, that’s a lot,’ so we can say, why is it not realistic? How can we expedite this?”

The 30by2030 Summit is Project 99’s official company launch event, slated to take place at WeWork South Station, Oct. 18 from 6-8 p.m. “We believe everyone is part of the 30by2030 goal, and we want to bring everyone into the same room on Oct. 18,” says Plasencia.

Valdez says talking frankly, listening and getting in action is key to creating a new kind of work place where identity isn’t left at the door, but rather, used to its full potential.

“First, we do have to talk about race, to listen to these younger professionals and then act on (what they share). Project 99 is about developing the innovative solutions to the problems they’re facing.”

She likens workplace inequity to any other business challenge, which means it can be solved using the same thought-critical processes.

“If you treat racial inequity as a business opportunity, you start to develop ideas like we do for hunger or the water crisis,” she says. “And in a way, diversity and inclusion issues are the reason we have hunger and a water crisis. At the root of diversity in the workplace, we have a lack of access, to education, to food systems—everything. That’s where the ripple effect is created.”

“This is a global challenge,” says Valdez, “one that started hundreds of years ago. If we want to solve it, it has to be about coming together and exploring solutions.”

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