Your employees of color don't need to be 'schooled'. Alexis Rosenfeld / Getty Images

There’s an uncomfortable scenario that keeps coming up in my journey as an entrepreneur in community media.

I’ll be in a business meeting with someone and suddenly the tone shifts. They’ll say something like: “I’m so supportive of what you’re doing. I’d love to have you join a training program we recently launched for [insert women, people of color, women of color]. It meets for six hours a week over Zoom and teaches you [insert some aspect of business].”

What’s often not offered: money.

A “training program” specifically targeting people of color is a red flag, especially when it is part of a company’s diversity initiatives. And such efforts are indeed growing. According to one estimate, the global market for diversity, equity, and inclusion was an estimated $7.5 billion in 2020—and is projected to more than double to $15.4 billion by 2026. Whereas diversity spending used to more often encompass anti-bias or sensitivity sessions, it is increasingly targeting people of color themselves.

There’s an irony in relying on training programs to help achieve equity. While often created to build a pipeline and show a commitment to BIPOC talent, this kind of training also implies something is wrong with the participant, as though they are lesser, not qualified, or warrant some type of “fixing” in order to gain acceptance or advancement.

Further, the programs require time and commitment, and cohorts find themselves brainstorming a more equitable future among themselves versus what’s actually needed: for marginalized groups to pervade and redefine the upper echelons of power and funding. In some cases, the training programs coming my way are led by people with a fraction of the experience I have. Yet the nature of entrepreneurship (and business dealings) often lead me to hide my feelings of being insulted and disparaged—because one never knows whether such programs might lead to real business. Or so you hope.

Training programs are hardly limited to circles of entrepreneurship. Since the racial justice protests of 2020, I’ve seen the growth of fellowship programs for nonprofit executives of color, training programs for Black female artists and curators, and programs for managers in product, technology and marketing.

In some ways, the rush to create programs signals a desire to solve the so-called pipeline problem. As I and others have written before, though, a lack of diversity across industries is more a function of not looking beyond the usual sources (think feeder schools, colleges, employers) in the recruitment process. Thus, training programs keep power dynamics stuck in the status quo—the exact opposite of the stated intent of DEI efforts.

“This stems from the mentality that POC ‘need a handout’ rather than fully recognizing our talents and accomplishments for what they are,” says Ruchika Tulshyan, inclusion strategist and author of the just-released book, Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work. “It makes white managers feel like saviors. I don't think companies as a whole are aware—just look at the in-house approach that exists at so many companies to still have ‘programs’ for women and POC rather than looking at systemic inequities that leave us out of leadership and opportunities.”

There are better ways to show support. Tulshyan rattles them off: “Money. Access to networks. Introductions. Transparency: Here's how this person operates, and here's how to land this deal. Opportunities. Money. Did I say money?”

Her book cites research on the need for more sponsorship of people of color. Three-quarters of senior leaders pick protégés who look like them, according to the Center for Talent Innovation, now known as Coqual. And since corporate leaders are white men, many women of color don’t get sponsored for career-making opportunities. This lack of sponsorship often contributes to a culture of not belonging and, eventually, attrition.

A report by Lean In and McKinsey titled “Women in the Workplace” last year found women of color experiencing the same level of microaggressions as they were pre-pandemic; 18% percent of Black women, 13% of Latinas, and 11% of Asian women say they hear surprise at their language skills or other abilities at work, compared with just 5% of white women.

“Women of color do not need special accommodations to excel (not even close); what we need is the unwavering belief in our potential to succeed and being offered opportunities to prove our capabilities, like our white counterparts,” Tulshyan writes.

Research from the Brookings Institution confirms this. “Black women are more ambitious and more likely to say that they want to advance in their companies than their white women counterparts but are less likely to find mentors who will aid their climb up the corporate ladder,” according to a Brookings report.

One of the challenges for people or color is their internalization of perception, reminds Sarah Green-Vieux, an adviser on DEI and ESG (environmental, social, and governance) issues. She points to how women of color often have multiple degrees and professional certificates to conquer impostor syndrome, likening it to a feeling of “what I know isn't enough and I have to make sure I know everything about the field…I need an external validator of my knowledge and experience.”

She also differentiates between mentorship and sponsorship, and defines the difference: “There is now a real push for sponsorship rather than mentorship in the DEI space. A sponsor is someone who will use their influence and power to help you advance whereas a mentor gives advice. Sponsorship (the art of supporting your protégé) has existed since the beginning of time, it's just not been available for POCs,” she says.

Indeed, Brookings similarly cites the findings of sociologist Tsedale Melaku who says this is a “function of white executives’ unfamiliarity and discomfort with Black women.…Executives who rarely, if ever, have Black people in their personal or professional circles may be uncertain or uncomfortable interacting with them as peers.”

Perhaps the training programs are needed but with an entirely different participant pool and focus: training these uncomfortable executives in the art of sponsorship.