How Employers Can Connect with Diverse Talent

Chances are, diversity and inclusion has become a strategic objective for your company. It’s not only because combating systemic racism and improving race and gender equality is the right thing to do. Top companies have shown how diverse teams positively influence culture and drive innovation and performance.

According to a study by McKinsey & Company, “companies in the top-quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity of executive teams were 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability.” The same is true for gender diversity – companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity at the executive level are “21% more likely to outperform on profitability.”

However, effectively sustaining a diverse executive team requires filling the funnel for mid- and entry-level positions with more diverse individuals. This is where many leaders and recruiters feel overwhelmed or frustrated by the lack of results.

Traditional recruiting pipelines, overflowing with job seekers, often lack a proportional number of people of color and other under-represented groups. What’s more, for entry-level hires, vetting candidates is incredibly challenging with limited skills and experience to distinguish between them.

Successfully recruiting diverse talent begins with an understanding that it’s not an availability issue, it’s a connectivity issue. Diverse talent is out there but tends not to make it into and through the existing hiring funnel.

To address this, employers must move beyond transactional labor pools and build meaningful relationships with the communities producing our next generation of diverse leaders.

Student-Athlete Affinity groups are one such community. In our work with universities, we’ve helped employers tap into these groups, providing a simple and direct path to achieving their diversity goals. Below, we’ll explore what makes student-athletes a go-to for recruiters, and provide some tips for connecting with the talented individuals in these communities.


Student-Athlete Affinity Groups represent the coveted intersection of talent and diversity.

Their experience as student-athletes has helped them develop the skills and attitude essential to success in the workplace. They have a growth mindset – they’re driven to learn and improve, are coachable, and persistent. Their 15+ years of competing and training with various teams and coaches has developed their emotional resilience.

JJ Jelks, Head of Human Resources for Excel Sports Management and a United States Army Major said “If I could work with more athletes I absolutely would – they make great teammates.” She goes on to explain how athletes “are disciplined, goal-oriented, and understand how to be a part of a team. They know it’s not always about them – it’s about the larger goal. When the team succeeds, they’re happy to share in that success.” She also referenced this mindset to that of the US military.

In short, student-athletes have been stress-tested. When trying to separate the wheat from the chaff, applications from former student-athletes are easy to put in the interview pile.

As for diversity, according to the NCAA data for 2019, colleges over-index for Black and Hispanic groups with 15% Black and 28% Hispanic students, compared to 13% and 19% respectively in the general US population. The same is true for women, with female college students comprising 54% of the student body compared to 50% of the US population.

Although stats vary by sport, student-athlete cohorts are even more diverse than the general university population: 48% of student-athletes are Black, Hispanic, Asian, or mixed-race, and 44% are women. 

Beyond race and gender, diversity of experience, and thought is rich in these communities. Student-athletes come from a wide range of backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, sexual orientations, political affiliations, religions, and cultures. Additionally, international students make up 12.5% of Division I student-athletes.

Because of their transferable skills and the diversity of this cohort, student-athletes are primed to contribute to companies looking to build a competitive advantage.

The Connectivity Issue

Our work with universities and student athletes has strengthened our belief that finding diverse job candidates is not an availability issue, it’s a connectivity issue.

Having helped manage recruitment and hiring at several sports entities, Jelks noted that a big area of focus is reminding hiring managers to be aware of the “similar to me” effect. “It’s easy to look at where someone went to school or who referred a candidate and make a judgement. But for us to be more inclusive, we need to be intentional about expanding our own personal networks and not go with what’s familiar, easy and comfortable.” Jelks as a military officer who transitioned off active duty back in 2012 recounts that she was not the “conventional hire”.

For all job seekers, about 85% of all positions are secured through personal networks. However, a study by the American Sociological Review found that “black and white job seekers utilize their networks at similar rates, but network-based methods are less likely to lead to job offers for African Americans.”

Their research delves into the apparent reasons behind this. They note that “black job seekers are less likely than white job seekers to (1) know someone at the companies to which they are submitting applications, and (2) have their network mobilize key resources on their behalf.”

Compounding this challenge is the fact that 56% of today’s undergraduates are first-generation students (meaning their parents did not have a bachelor’s degree). Of those, 49% are Black, Hispanic or Asian.

For those working closely with student-athletes, the disparities for students of color preparing to graduate from college were striking. Kyle Mumma, founder of NextPlay, started the company because he witnessed this first hand while working for the Men’s Basketball and Football programs at Duke University.

“We see significant disparities in how different athletes leverage their opportunities in college, and much of those disparities are based on upbringing and background. Some kids have parents with undergrad or advanced degrees, have grown up cultivating professional relationships, and step into college feeling at home,” said Mumma, who often cites his own privilege as a reason that he was able to make the most of his time at Duke. “This is not the case for many of the athletes of color we work with. We see a lot of first-generation college students who don’t have that same built-in network or comfort in the system, and those athletes deserve our support so they too can leverage the college athlete experience.”

NextPlay aims to help student-athletes expand and improve the return from their personal networks. “By building more relationships with people who are invested in their growth and motivated to mobilize their resources to help, we believe we can close the gap,” said Mumma.

Connecting Employers With Diverse, Best-In-Class Talent

Student-athlete affinity groups can address disparities and more effectively connect diverse, best-in-class talent with employers.

In a previous article, we discussed how Student-Athlete Affinity groups improve outcomes for current and former players, as well as some of the unique challenges they face. These micro-communities are geared to help student-athletes thrive from day one and build meaningful relationships that endure after graduation.

By tapping into these student-athlete groups, employers can build awareness of and affinity for their brand early. Providing an overview of their industry and skills needed gives student-athletes an opportunity to explore various job functions. Helping them network with people in your organization empowers them to create valuable connections. Finally, student-athlete friendly internship programs offer an opportunity to develop their skills, gain hands-on experience, and further grow their networks.

“Fostering diversity in an organization is not a lay-up,” said Jelks. “It takes all of us, from HR to the hiring manager to leadership and more to make the change we all want to see.”

The Right Technology Partner

NextPlay’s mission is to equip athletes with the knowledge, skills, confidence, support and network to build a fulfilling life after sports. In doing so, our Student-Athlete affinity platform offers a direct channel for employers to access diverse, best-in-class talent.

Our “next recruitment” vertical marketplace allows employers to easily search, assess, connect, and engage with diverse job seekers. As a mobile-first solution, NextPlay is able to connect recruiters with candidates where they live: on their smartphones. Mobile is especially critical for people of color who rely more heavily on their phones to access the internet.

Our HBCUnite program illustrates how we are committed to eliminating outcome disparities for under-represented student-athletes. Tennessee State and Morgan State have implemented NextPlay’s solution to help strengthen their community and improve outcomes for their student-athletes.

To discuss how your company can connect with diverse, best-in-class talent that can drive innovation and performance in your company, schedule time to talk with us.