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Niche Recruiters Help Fill Diversity Gap at the Top

Jobs: More than ever, companies are seeking bilingual and bicultural executives to serve broader customer base.


In the world of executive recruiting, networking is everything. And the networks of people like Alex Rodriguez are suddenly in high demand.

Working as a business development consultant in Latino advertising and marketing four years ago, Rodriguez found himself doing favors on the side for industry firms, hooking them up with the bilingual and bicultural talent they needed.

Today he runs Diversity Consulting Group, an executive and mid-management search firm in Santa Barbara whose revenue grew 25% over the last year. Though Rodriguez usually carries about eight positions that need filling, he has twice that now.

"There's a huge need," said Rodriguez, whose clients range from New York insurance companies to Texas advertising agencies.

His firm, though small, has entered a promising niche.

More than ever, companies of all sizes are looking to diversify their top ranks. The motivations are varied: Major corporations want management to better reflect their minority work forces. Others need culturally sensitive--and often bilingual--managers to sell everything from insurance to shampoo to minority consumers. Others still are searching for executives to help them expand into Latin America.

Underlying it all is a desperate thirst for top-ranked job candidates at a time of record unemployment. And the search for high-level minorities is even more difficult.

Although 100,000 people will receive MBAs in the U.S. this year, only 3,300 will be Latino and 5,000 African American, according to the National Society of Hispanic MBAs and the National Black MBA Assn., both of which have seen corporate interest in their members skyrocket in the last few years.

"You're going to see tremendous growth in this area and those recruiters who are already in it are well ahead of the game," said Joseph Daniel McCool, editor of Executive Recruiter News and Recruiting Trends of New Hampshire.

"Large corporations are understanding that in order to serve a diverse customer base, they need to look more like their customers. Having an outside recruiter to turn to can really accelerate a corporation's move to look more diverse."

It would be illegal for companies to intentionally consider only minority candidates for a job. They can, however, turn to diversity recruiting firms to broaden their candidate slate. By networking with groups that represent minority MBAs, engineers and other professionals, niche recruiters can help corporations discover talent that mainstream firms may not be aware of.

And because many diversity recruiting firms are minority-owned and staffed, they rely on their well-stocked personal Rolodexes, much as Rodriguez did in his early days.

Robert Alaniz, managing director of public affairs at Hill & Knowlton, has received about 10 recruiting calls in the past year alone on behalf of companies ranging from "dot-coms" to Fortune 500s--most from recruiters he has known for years through industry circles of Latino professionals.

"Most of the big corporations wouldn't even know where to begin," said Alaniz, who is staying put but often passes on tips of other Latino executives he knows.

The niche is still small. Of 5,000 North American recruiters listed in a directory published by McCool's company, only 25 stated diversity as their focus or sub-specialty. But signs are that new entrants are discovering the market at a quickening pace.

Fred Flores, for example, launched Diverse Staffing Solutions in Fullerton in January to specialize in Latino, black and Asian candidates. About a third of the business is focused on executive search, and already clients include Walt Disney Co. and Nestle.

Much as the reasons for corporate diversity have evolved, so has the recruiting niche.

As a recruiter for Korn Ferry, Bill Hawkins was called upon to do a job in 1979: A major record company needed someone to head what was then called the black music division. The only African American in the Los Angeles office, Hawkins knew where to turn.

Placing Minority Execs Is 'Smart Business'

Five years later he formed Hawkins Co. Last year he posted $1.5 million in revenue, promising a diverse slate of top-level candidates to clients that include major corporations, school districts, hospitals and police departments. About half of his clients ask specifically for women and minorities, but faced with a diverse slate, about 75% actually hire them, he said.

Rather than placing token minority executives at the head of minority divisions, he said, "now, people want to do it because it's smart business."

When searching recently for a West Coast director of human resources, Avis Rent A Car Inc. Vice President of Human Resources and Diversity Jim Keyes turned to search firm Fresquez & Associates of Oakland, launched by Ernesto Fresquez in 1989.

Because the Avis work force in the U.S. is 50% minority--as is 27% of its management--Keyes was looking for a firm that could identify talented bilingual candidates.

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