Uchechi Ihenacho on how her digital platform HIVE DIVERSITY helped set her up for success
Trying to find a first job or internship after college is difficult enough, but last year, that stress was further amplified for students when the academic year was cut short by the pandemic. For students of color, who were even further traumatized by the events that led to Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, the concept of job searching might seem totally overwhelming. That’s where HIVE DIVERSITY comes in. The digital career development and recruiting platform connects employers with recent grads in order to create a diverse workforce that all companies should strive for. We spoke with one young student, Uchechi Ihenacho, who is currently attending Princeton University, about growing up as the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, how the events of last summer affected her, and how HIVE has helped her to realize that closing the representation gap in the workforce is possible.
“On June 7, a Black Lives Matter protest swept my hometown of Jersey City. Signs in hand and masks on, the crowd moved across the street circling City Hall while encouraging people on the sidelines to join the movement. Summers in the city are hot, but the passion of a city united burns fiercer.
At the front of the crowd was a girl with a loudspeaker in hand. Three years younger than me, she was president of the Black Diaspora Club, my high school alma mater’s version of a Black Student Union, a body composed of Black students and allies seeking to recognize and improve the Black experience. It was initially difficult for me to spot her from a few feet away, but her words reverberated through the city — an echo of 4,000 voices.
She recounted the unjust murder of George Floyd and numerous other innocent Black lives, then called for ‘defunding the police.’ The enthusiastic crowd audibly dulled down a bit with the call. Skeptical eyes shifted to the floor. We all agreed that something had to be done, but the term was ripe. Police officers were lined up behind her and littered across the whole neighborhood — the most I had ever seen at once in this part of town.
June 7 was also the day my family celebrated my parents’ birthdays. They weren’t born on the same day — in the process of emigrating from Nigeria, my father mistakenly put down my mother’s birthday as his own while filing documents. That was the first of many mistakes they made upon their arrival. The next was assuming that life would be easier in this country.
As they searched for jobs, they had their first bittersweet taste of the country. My father eventually found a part-time job as a taxi driver, where racial slurs from frantic passengers and drivers overcome with road rage were common. My mother obtained a job as a pharmacist after several failed attempts to show her extensive credentials from Nigeria. Three years later, my sister and I were born on the same day, then my brother arrived nine years later.
Having developed a hard shell from their experiences, my parents raised my siblings and me to prevail. Mantras such as: ‘You have to work twice as hard as anyone else to succeed,’ and ‘education is the only way you can guarantee security,’ floated through my household as often as complaints about New Jersey taxes. It felt like I was fighting an unseen power that was keeping anyone who looked like me down on the basis of my skin color. Competition served as motivation, although it took many years for me to understand that my opponent was systemic racism. Unlike many others, I had the privilege of having a support system that believed in me. The concept of progress and struggle were inseparable in my house. I couldn’t shake the feeling of unfairness out of mind, but knew dwelling on it would not get me anywhere.
I didn’t grasp the concept of systemic racism until recently. As the most diverse city in the country, my Jersey City classrooms were quite colorful. It wasn’t until I started advanced educational programs in elementary and middle school that I realized I was often one out of perhaps three Black people in the room. And it wasn’t until my acceptance to Princeton University that I fully came to terms with being a marginalized minority.
Going from a high school with an African American student population of 25% to a college with 9% representation required some time for adjustment. At this predominantly white institution, there have been many times in smaller classrooms settings where I have been the only Black person. Princeton meant searching for community, reexamining my social identity, and putting in more effort to develop the diverse friend groups that I grew up with. It also meant receiving a stellar education with amazing professors and a support system. It meant living in dorm rooms that used to be slave barracks, entering buildings built by former enslaved Africans and named after slave owners, and having my school, formerly known as the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, glorify a man who adamantly supported racial segregation. A month after the death of George Floyd and a few weeks after the City Hall protest, Princeton took Wilson’s name off of its residential college and school. Progress.
Last summer, I started a summer internship at HIVE Diversity, a recruiting platform meant to transform the way employers and employees engage by diversifying the workforce. During the course of my internship, I was assigned a project of examining the DEI efforts of Fortune 500 companies. In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, I saw an overwhelming number of companies releasing statements in support of the movement and more importantly, listing actions that they would implement to support diversity and inclusion efforts. Some action plans were vaguer than others, but it was encouraging to see a near universal recognition of inequality that penetrated private companies, and taking steps to make change. HIVE Diversity makes it easier for companies to close their representation gaps and provide students the opportunity to connect with companies that value their diversity and want to make a difference — a direction I hope all business will follow.
As a student in my third year of college, it seems as is if everyone is preparing for the future. People think there isn’t much they can do besides voting and attending protests — what can be done if you aren’t in the White House or at a think tank? If there’s anything I’ve learned over the last year, it’s that there’s so much progress to be made in every corner of our lives. From our schools to our offices to outside city halls, there are opportunities to advance a more whole America that equally supports all of its people, despite their color or immigration status. 2020 was a wake-up call, and it’s our responsibility to move ahead.”
This conversation has been lightly edited.