If you want to create systemic change, you can’t handle just one piece of the supply chain.
Dr. Arthur M. Langer is the Chairman and Founder of Workforce Opportunity Services (WOS), a leading nonprofit committed to developing the skills of untapped talent from underserved and veteran communities through partnerships with organizations dedicated to diversifying their workforce. He is Professor of Professional Practice, Director of the Center for Technology Management, and Academic Director of the M.S. in Technology Management programs at Columbia University. He also serves on the faculty of the Department of Organization and Leadership at the Graduate School of Education (Teachers College).
In his role at WOS, Dr. Langer consults with corporations and universities on information technology, staff development, management transformation and curriculum development around the globe.
Where did the idea for your company come from?
I was born and raised four blocks from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx — my dad was a Teamster during the Jimmy Hoffa era. I was the only one in my family to go to college, both of my parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe, and neither knew much about higher education. Growing up I thought about joining the union like my dad, until junior high school when I met a man named Mr. Ness, who gave art lessons at his furniture store. He became my mentor, and if it wasn’t for him, I would have never gotten out of the Bronx. I eventually went to Queen’s College to get my bachelor’s degree in computer science. I first became a software developer then worked my way up to Executive Director of Computer Support services at Coopers & Lybrand.
I went back to school to get my MBA at Iona College and Ed.D. from Columbia University, bringing my total number of years in night school to 18. A student in a tech management course I taught at Columbia University approached me about starting a class for men and women in Harlem to help them get jobs. Fifty people showed up! I ran that class for five years. It was free, and we were successful. Through that we found out something crucial to the creation of Workforce Opportunity Services — the talent was there, they just needed support to secure and maintain jobs. We discovered self-esteem was crucial to finding a job, and that if we could solve the tertiary issues, like finding money to get a train to work or having access to child care, we could provide a long-lasting solution to a systemic problem. Since 2005, WOS has served 3,800 individuals through partnerships with more than 60 corporations, like Prudential, General Electric, and United Rentals. There is a demand to diversify the workforce, and WOS is successfully providing the supply.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I segment each day at WOS into three categories: executive tasks, workforce issues and day-to-day operations. Keeping the three branches separate increases my productivity. For executive tasks, I work on relationships with C-Suite at various corporations looking to diversify their workforce. For the workforce issues, I work with my company on addressing the shortage of talent and addressing the lack of diversity and inclusion at corporations. With day-to-day operations, I work with directors and leaders who are on the ground working with underserved communities and veterans.
How do you bring ideas to life?
By building a company focused on social entrepreneurism, we bring ideas to better the world to life. With WOS, we are using a business to implement solutions to social or cultural issues. In our case, there is a lack of diversity in corporations and unemployment among underserved and veteran populations. A lot of people don’t even know they are missing something like this in their lives. Employees are seeking an organization that has a passionate mission, and in this case, the organization is run like a business, making it incredibly successful.
As a leader, I’ve seen that if you are open and share ideas, faults and successes with the people in your organization, your passion will be infectious. At WOS, you are given opportunity to make a difference and everyone has a crucial role to play in our success.
What’s one trend that excites you?
Technology is changing the world at an escalating and exponential rate. As a result, society is going through major challenges politically, socially and legally. We are falling behind, and embedded in that is my work bringing individuals from underserved communities to the forefront of the digital revolution. From executives to day-to-day managers, everyone is having problems keeping up the rapidly changing technology and a dynamic workforce. What excites me is the fact that socially excluded populations can fill the talent and job shortages. I couldn’t have picked a better time to be here doing what I am passionate about. WOS and the work we do is incredibly important and relevant as the marketplace rapidly changes.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I’m a skilled multi-tasker, it makes me exponentially more productive. I also think we need to allow time for our minds to rest. I paint and draw, read books, biographies specifically. I play golf, run and spend as much time with my family as I can. I also have aspirations to accomplish what I haven’t done. That makes me push myself. Plus, I have a habit of being excited every single day. It is motivating and makes me more innovative in the workplace.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Things don’t always play out the way you expect or perceive that they will. If you look at the original business plan for WOS, it played out much different than I anticipated. The mission is still the same, but how we got to where we are today is vastly different. So you need to be flexible, understand your expectations will change and know that your plan is just a plan.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
The tech people shall indeed inherit the Earth! All roads are leading to the those working in tech being in full control. I also think our future leaders need to come from the tech sector. Our future lies with CIOs and CTOs, not lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I bring my work life and personal life together in a fair way. I’m always on vacation, and I’m always at work. It’s all about having the perfect combination. When my social life and work can come together in a meaningful way, it is the most enjoyable way to have a sustainable career. Both areas of my life are permanently integrated.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
I wasn’t interested in creating a token, I was interested in creating a movement. If you want to create systemic change, you can’t handle just one piece of the supply change. We become a complete support system for people in communities that typically lack one. It’s our secret sauce, because it is something very unusual in workforce development programs. We help with family issues — you have two kids and the babysitter canceled? We find one for you. We handle housing issues — a veteran we worked with lost both of his parents, had nowhere to live, and was sleeping in his car. We put him up in an apartment. One of our program participants was being evicted, so we drove the cash up to the Bronx in the middle of the night to make he could keep his apartment.
Education is another big one we pride ourselves in. We pay for college tuition in full and upfront. When we handle every aspect of the life cycle, the change is systemic. We want to turn the tide of the way companies find talent and appreciate the diversity that they get by working with us. When you tell me a company like Prudential has hired almost 200 people from underserved and veteran communities from WOS, that is meaningful! It shows you we are different, and what we do works.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
When you are passionate about your idea, you lose your objectivity. I was running a business in healthcare, but the market was changing and the product was not proving to be successful. The business was tanking, so I had to make a choice. I had to give up equity even though it affected my overall stake, because the business would fail if I stayed the same path. Most people are taught to be resilient and not give up, but at some point understanding when to walk away or change directions is critical to growth and success.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Staffing and recruiting, as they currently exist, will be transformed. Today, staffing agencies and employers maintain the status quo in terms of pushing a candidate forward. Staffing agencies work on behalf of the employer, not the candidate.
As skills become increasingly specialized and in short supply, the talent (or the job candidate) will dictate the recruitment process. Agencies will be working for them, and not for the companies, creating a bidding war on their skills and competencies. This becomes even more true as our workforce becomes more gig focused. Skilled talent would rather be independent contractors and employees and thus can be selective of the businesses they do work for. Whether you are in education, technology or any other field, people will need agents to offer coaching and advisement in what could soon be a model of free agency.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
Recruiting my team. You can’t build a company unless you have a great team, and bringing on key people is the most important thing.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
LinkedIn – I use it to find talent around the world that are in my field- it is a great recruitment device. Right now I am looking to connect students in Columbia University’s Technology Management master’s program with mentors in the tech field. I just did a search for CIOs in Tulsa, Oklahoma for one of my students. Within two days I was able to connect that student with a CIO.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
The Once and Future King, which is the story of King Arthur. He had an idea to produce something that no one else was able to produce. With the round table, no one would be in control, everything would be fair. It teaches the reader how to maintain a level of ethics and be bold enough to take on something that had never been done before. From this book I learned to be willing to have some level of failure before moving forward to find success.
What is your favorite quote?
Think like people around you think. This concept is rooted in the need for diversity, why there is power in diversity of opinion and why diversity cultivates good leadership. To make well-informed decisions that best serve your consumers and employees, you need to think like the people you are servicing think. It is one of the few ways to know you are serving an expansive range of people.
- If you want to create systemic change, you can’t handle just one piece of the supply chain.
- Most people are taught to be resilient and not give up, but at some point understanding when to walk away or change directions is critical to growth and success.
- All roads are leading to the those working in tech being in full control. Our future lies with CIOs and CTOs.
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