Through Its MBA Pipeline Strategy, TalentoTotal Aims to Empower Black and Indigenous Business Leaders in Colombia
TalentoTotal intends to increase diversity among the business leaders in Colombia by helping black and indigenous people pursue graduate programs abroad.
The non-profit organization, which recently hosted an International Business Leadership Forum in Medellín, offers a rigorous eight-month program that outlines a professional roadmap for students to get into top schools in the United States and a world-class support network.
Photo: Gem McCreary, founder and CEO of Talento Total, is a West Point alum, US Army veteran combat helicopter pilot, and University of Chicago Booth School of Business MBA who lives in Bogotá, Colombia. (Photo: Loren Moss)
Specifically, the organization provides what it calls a “TotalMBA Prep Program” that will help prospective applicants strengthen their professional profiles and score well on key tests like the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) or Graduate Record Examinations (GRE). And by working closely with the private sector, governmental agencies, higher education institutions, and non-governmental organizations across the Americas, TalentoTotal believes it can make a difference not just in Colombia but in Brazil — and eventually other countries in Latin America.
To learn more about the organization’s mission and efforts, Finance Colombia Executive Editor Loren Moss recently sat down with TalentoTotal founder and CEO Gem McCreary.
In addition to the conversation below, readers can find out more about TalentoTotal by visiting its website, TalentoTotal.org, and following the organization on social media via LinkedIn, Instagram, or Facebook.
Loren Moss: Gem, you just held the first successful International Business Leadership Forum (IBLF) with heavy hitters from companies like Chevron and institutions like the Victoria Business School in New Zealand. You held this event in Medellín and Quibdó, Chocó. Medellin seems like a natural choice but what gave you the idea to host an international business forum in Quibdó?
Gem McCreary: While I have been living in Colombia for more than two years, I have witnessed Colombia’s immense potential, something primarily derived from its human capital. Historically, Colombia has been overlooked because of the dominant negative stereotypes associated with its history. Yet today, Colombia is one of Latin America’s economic stars and currently attracting international investment and broad global interest.
Good entrepreneurs and business professionals spot opportunities that often go unnoticed by others who are not paying attention or who do not possess the intellectual curiosity that leads to discovery, innovation, and business development. For me, Quibdó and the department of Chocó are a microcosm of Colombia’s relationship with the rest of the world. Very few Colombians, irrespective of wealth, have ever been to Quibdó, despite multiple short flights per day at less than $60 USD from Bogotá and Medellín.
I believe that the driver for Colombia’s economic growth will come from the untapped talent and potential that exists in the Colombian departments that have been left behind for decades. TalentoTotal focuses on Afro-descendant and indigenous (ADI) young professionals, therefore much of our work takes place in Chocó and other departments that have large ADI populations.
It is TalentoTotal’s mission to shed light on the immense untapped talent pool that exists within these communities and to bring investment, opportunities, and support to these young professionals and students so that they may be empowered to add economic value as leaders and productive members of Colombian society.
Loren Moss: So, tell me about how you organized the event, the reception and support you got in Medellín and Quibdó.
Gem McCreary: This may come as a surprise, but we simply seized an unexpected opportunity. Almost a year ago, professor Ian Williamson’s younger brother, Eli Williamson, wanted to learn more about Colombia and the work that I was doing here as a fellow non-profit CEO. I invited Eli to visit Colombia under one condition: that we veered off the traditional path and visited Chocó.
Eli was blown away by the experience and the untapped potential of the community in Quibdó and told me that it his older brother Ian — the dean of the Victoria Business School in New Zealand and a globally recognized expert in the area of human resource management — must visit Quibdó. Fortunately, Ian was invited to speak at the World Business Forum in Bogotá a year later and informed me that he had several days before he opened the forum to explore and contribute to TalentoTotal’s efforts.
It was at that moment that the concept for the International Business Forum was born. We wanted to focus on Chocó, but also provide an opportunity for our speakers to engage students and young professionals in Medellín. Several weeks prior to the event, my good friend Marc Payne, CEO of Chevron Colombia, reached out and said that he would love to participate. We worked closely with ColomboAmericano-Medellín, a nonprofit organization that furthers human and social development through academic, multicultural experiences among Colombia, the United States, and other countries. ColomboAmericano was able to assemble young professionals and university students from their Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Scholars Program who were eager to learn about leadership, international business, entrepreneurship, and international education.
The MLK Fellowship Program is an initiative of the United States government to provide scholarships to outstanding Afro-Colombian and indigenous university students to learn English as a second language and receive leadership training. Thus, we were able to assemble an audience of amazing bilingual ADI students. The support and reception we received was much more than expected, considering the short notice and limited time we had to plan the event. We are very excited about next year and look to use the momentum from our first International Business Leadership Forum to host an even better event next year.
Loren Moss: Who were the participants? How were they selected, and how hard was it to obtain their buy-in?
Gem McCreary: The participants were Ian Williamson (dean and pro-vice chancellor of Victoria Business School in New Zealand) Marc Payne (CEO and country manager of Chevron Colombia), Lawrence Watkins (COO of the Black Business School), and Diby Escobar (marketing director and communications strategist of TalentoTotal).
TalentoTotal is focused on leadership and performance excellence. One key criteria was that each individual be an accomplished business leader of an internationally recognized institution. Our mission is not only to develop leaders of character but to also inspire. Our forum participants possess very unique and non-traditional backgrounds, in addition to being prominent global leaders of African descent.
It was imperative that we showed the Afro-descendant and indigenous young professionals and students present at the forum that they are capable, and our panelists are living proof of what they can achieve with hard work, dedication, and excellence. Ian, Marc, Lawrence, and Diby faced many of the professional challenges that our forum attendees face today in Colombia. So, once our executive panelists understood the concept of the IBLF, obtaining their buy-in was relatively easy because they see so much of themselves in the young students and professionals who were in attendance.
Loren Moss: How did you get the idea for TalentoTotal? Who are the backers?
Gem McCreary: TalentoTotal is a 501(c)(3) international non-profit organization that aims to make the business landscape in Latin America more competitive and inclusive by accelerating the careers of high-achieving women and men from underrepresented communities, specifically Afro-descendant and indigenous.
The mission of TalentoTotal is achieved through coaching, professional development, and leadership training to increase the number of diverse leaders in major businesses and multinational organizations in Latin America. We are a data-driven and values-based organization that collectively leverages our experiences and presence across the Americas to harness the support, relationships, and resources required to build a thriving leadership pipeline for companies, organizations, and communities worldwide. At TalentoTotal, we are committed to instilling the values that create an ecosystem of giving back, leading by example, and empowering our communities.
Doug Nagy and I, classmates from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, reconnected in 2016 when we began working in Colombia. We were both at leading multinational companies, Citibank and McKinsey & Company, respectively, and noticed one key similarity within our respective industries: the lack of diversity, specifically Afro-descendant and indigenous employees. In discussions with our coworkers and peers, we realized that ADI communities had limited access to higher education (especially abroad) and job opportunities in competitive industries (i.e., finance, consulting, and tech). I also witnessed similar circumstances during my time working in banking and finance in Brazil, where there was minimal ADI representation.
Influenced by our experiences growing up in Afro-American and Latino communities, as Booth alumni we understood the value of support networks and Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) programs. I was supported by one of the most successful D&I development programs in the United States (US), Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT). MLT provided the path for my successful entry into several top-tier MBA programs and a career in global banking and finance.
While at Chicago Booth, I also noticed that there were virtually no international Afro-Latino or indigenous MBA students across the multitude of U.S. graduate school programs. Knowing that MBA programs are a major source of leadership talent for multinationals and leading national companies, Doug and I believed that developing an MBA talent pipeline for ADI candidates could rapidly change the diversity and leadership landscape in Brazil and Colombia.
In 2017, we came up with the concept for TalentoTotal and set out to raise the number of international ADI MBA candidates and accelerate the careers of high-achieving women and men from underrepresented communities. TalentoTotal, empowered by an exceptional cadre of coaches and mentors, professionally develops and trains ADI candidates to increase the number of diverse leaders in businesses and organizations across Latin America.
Loren Moss: What is the goal? If we go three years in the future and evaluate progress, how will you define success?
Gem McCreary: We have a very challenging mandate and mission, but it is very clear. Next year, we intend to place the first cohort of Afro-descendant and indigenous young professionals from Brazil and Colombia in top-tier MBA Programs in the United States for the first time in history.
We will select up to 24 ADI candidates from Brazil and Colombia each year for the TotalMBA Prep Program. The TotalMBA Prep Program provides talented ADI professionals with 8 to 20 months of personalized guidance and strategy to understand the MBA application process, identify target schools in the United States and Europe, and plan their postgraduate careers. Each ADI candidate will be paired with a local coach in Brazil or Colombia who earned an MBA at a top-tier program and who will help candidates highlight their unique background and abilities to craft a strong application.
Upon graduation from an MBA Program, each candidate will be primed for a leadership role in their home country and join a lifelong network of professionals committed to helping each other and improving the diversity and inclusion landscape in Latin America. TalentoTotal will provide a robust leadership and talent pipeline for major corporations, companies, and organizations through a rigorous professional development program that provides the skill sets necessary for success in global leadership and executive management.
We will define success when leading multinationals have hired some of the few, if not the first Afro-Colombian or indigenous young professionals to work in their firms in managerial or leadership roles. Today, across Latin America, many multinational and national companies don’t have a single black employee in their organization in a leadership or managerial position. The goal is simple: We will change the professional development paradigm and create a diverse pipeline so that companies can truly achieve their diversity and inclusion goals on a global scale.
When the program achieves success in Brazil and Colombia, we will expand. Many of the diversity challenges in Colombia are no different in Peru, Costa Rica, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and other Latin American nations. We will expand and add value to organizations and businesses by demonstrating how diversity leads to profitability and innovation. We will assist them in tapping into a diverse talent pool that that can lead to the competitive advantage all companies seek. Success requires the best minds from a diverse range of talent, with rich, varied experiences, who can help organizations achieve their mission.
TalentoTotal will continue to fill a key expertise and knowledge gap by implementing a proven model that leverages concepts that have been effectively employed at the same corporations we seek to partner with to positively change the D&I landscape across Latin America.
Loren Moss: What can businesses do? How can they do good, at the same time do well, and be profitable?
Gem McCreary: Larry Fink, CEO of Blackrock, in his 2018 annual letter to CEOs, wrote the following: “Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.”
Most companies, especially multinational companies, have a mandate to add social and economic value — because it is good for business. Businesses can benefit society and create economic value by challenging their traditional recruiting pipelines and looking for innovative ways to serve their customers. Ironically, professor Ian Williamson, highlighted this concept during his presentation at the World Business Forum in Bogotá. He stated that when companies create demographic specific and creative marketing initiatives in distinctive communities and emerging markets, they outperform 5-to-1 versus established competitors that fail to tailor their approach to local customers.
Understanding your customer is fundamental to providing the services and products your customers need and having employees and leaders who are representative of the community you serve is an obvious step towards that end. This concept especially rings true in Brazil, where more than half of Brazil’s almost 208 million people define themselves as African descendants who are “black” or “mixed race.” McKinsey & Company’s analysis of financial results for 366 companies, including 73 in Latin America, shows that diverse companies perform better financially, with gender-diverse companies 21% more likely to outperform their competitors and ethnically/racially diverse companies 33% more likely to outperform their competitors. The data says that you won’t just be good — but you will be better and more profitable than your competitors.
Loren Moss: What about education? There are lots of disparities in access to education in Colombia depending upon who you are and where you are? What needs to be done and who needs to do it?
Gem McCreary: This is a fundamental impediment to progress globally, but the disparities in Colombia are particularly alarming. In the OECD’s analysis of income mobility across generations, Colombia is at the bottom and it takes roughly 11 generations for those born in low-income families to approach the mean income in Colombian society. Education is a primary factor in socioeconomic mobility and the drastic differences in the quality of education do not help ADI communities, especially in departments like Chocó.
The first step is recognizing and acknowledging that there is a problem specific to ADI communities. Secondly, there must be concerted effort to address not only economic disparity but the effect of race/ethnicity and the impact of slavery on an individual’s educational and economic opportunities today. There is a reason that, according to Colombian governmental statistics, 65.9% of the Chocó’s population lived below the poverty line and 37.1% lived in extreme poverty in 2015.
Much of these factors are associated with the legacy of slavery, which was an economic institution in Colombia. If your parents or ancestors did not have access to quality education and were systematically denied educational and economic opportunities for more than 100 years post abolition, then the likelihood, especially in Colombia, is that you do not either. So, the two issues, class and racism, are intrinsically intertwined and are not mutually exclusive.
Colombia must address these disparities if it wishes to become more competitive globally. Neither Colombia nor Brazil will achieve its full potential if it does not take a proactive role in promoting and providing more educational and professional opportunities for a significant portion of its population. TalentoTotal’s primary focus is finding and developing ADI talent, but this is extremely difficult in Colombia. In Brazil, I can find a sizable number of exceptional ADI students studying in the STEM fields at what is arguably the best university in Brazil, the University of São Paulo. I could do the same at Stanford, Princeton, the University of Chicago, or Harvard if I were searching for Afro-American candidates.
Early on, I attempted to find Afro-Colombian students at what is arguably the best university in Colombia, Universidad de Los Andes (Uniandes). Uniandes is also where most top-tier U.S. and European MBA programs draw their talent from, so for me, Uniandes was an obvious source of talent for our program. However, with over 24,000 students, Uniandes has less than 100 Afro-Colombian or black students enrolled in any field, let alone STEM.
This indicates that Afro-Colombians make up less than 1% of all students enrolled, while Afro-Colombians make up approximately 25% of the national population. This figure (less than 1%) is shocking and absurd. You would have to go back at least 100 years and possibly into the 1800s to find similar figures for Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and other top schools in the United States, where Afro-Americans have historically represented approximately 12% of the U.S. population.
There is a lot of work to be done, but we must first acknowledge that there are extreme challenges and problems associated with access to education for Afro-Colombian and indigenous students at Colombia’s best universities. Again, these schools must take proactive steps to recruit and develop Afro-Colombian and indigenous students based on their ethnic/racial background and not only in consideration of their economic condition/status. It is the civilized thing to do.
Brilliance and talent comes in all forms, and with the right tools we can overcome some of the barriers created by poor educational institutions. I was recruited by the Minority Admissions Departments of West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy, and the U.S. Air Force Academy — three of the most prestigious educational institutions in the United States. These institutions have produced U.S. presidents, astronauts, Fortune 100 CEOs, and exceptional leaders.
These prestigious universities came to my predominantly black high school in an impoverished neighborhood to find exceptional Afro-American candidates, and they succeeded. Had it not been for the efforts of West Point and the other Service Academies to find and recruit black talent, I would have never gone on to become a West Point graduate, AH-64D Apache Longbow Helicopter Pilot, U.S. Army Officer, University of Chicago Booth MBA, and global banker/financier with Citibank.
I have made good on America’s investment in me and I encourage Colombia to invest in their Afro-Colombian and Indigenous young student and professionals, many of whom are more talented than I was. Once we have increased the number of qualified ADI students at Colombia’s best universities, we can then focus on professional development and mentorship post university graduation to create a more competitive Colombia that leverages its entire talent pool.
Loren Moss: You are a foreigner, and you have been here two years. Why should Colombians listen to you? Or your colleagues?
TalentoTotal is a data-driven and values-based organization. I want to emphasize the term “data-driven.” Data-driven means that progress in an activity is compelled by data, rather than by intuition or by personal experience, and determined by or dependent on the collection/analysis of data.
Race, ethnicity, and culture are extremely contentious issues across the Americas, and it is easy to get bogged down in one’s personal experiences or personal take on history. If TalentoTotal is consumed by an argument about whether institutional racism exists in Colombia or whether classism precedes racism, we will never accomplish our mission. So, we tend to focus on data and information to support our initiatives and circumvent positions and opinions driven by emotion or influenced by one’s nationality and personal narrative.
It is a very compelling exercise to present numbers, figures, and data and then ask questions. So, that is essentially what we do. The World Bank estimates that Afro-Colombians constitute between 20%-25% of the population, but represent 75% of Colombia’s poor. Only 3% of the members of Congress (9 out of 268) are Afro-Colombian. The life expectancy of Afro-Colombian men is 64.6 years, compared to the national average of 70.3 years; for women, the difference is even greater, from 66.7 to a national average of 77.5. The average infant mortality rate for Afro-Colombians is 45/1,000 births, almost two times the national average of 23/1,000 births. In addition, up to 30% of internally displaced persons are estimated to be Afro-Colombian.
Furthermore, Afro-Colombians often reside in regions of economic and strategic importance affected by the conflict and drug trafficking, making them highly vulnerable to political violence. These issues have been identified as a key barrier to sustainable growth in Colombia.
My question then becomes how can we address these issues and create sustainable growth for Colombia. If you are a Colombian citizen, and you want to see your country improve, this should matter to you.