ViacomCBS Eyes HBCUs For Next Generation of Tech Talent Development

With a focus on the upcoming release of its streaming media platform 'Paramount+,' Super Bowl ads, profiles in the Wall Street Journal, and tech trade publication headlines are drawing international attention to how ViacomCBS will be able to find success in the streaming space. 

But while the industry watches for trends, the brain trust at ViacomCBS is thinking about talent. Reaching into untapped markets for diverse candidates and reliable pipelines to bolster its growth in tech and traditional media platforms is a priority.

HBCUs are quickly emerging as a potential talent hub for development and hiring.  

"The world has changed a bit in the last 12 months or so," said Phil Wiser, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer. "Companies are embracing more remote and distributed teams, which allows talent to look outside their geographic location for greater opportunities and access."

A Baltimore native with more than 18 patents and a record of technological innovation, including the launch of the iTunes platform, Wiser says that diversity will factor as a primary element of business function and success in the future. 

"From what I've seen and observed in the industry, people in the early stages of their career do perform better if they're in a team and they've got a lot of support for obvious reasons, they have a lot to learn and grow."

ViacomCBS is working steadily to infuse diversity into its content, workforce, and leadership strategies. In the final days of 2020, the company unveiled a new website for its diversity and inclusion initiatives. The aim: to highlight its workforce diversity as more than numbers achieved, but lives enriched. 

"This is a critical business imperative for us, so we strive every day to create a workplace where all of our employees can bring their whole selves to work," said Marva Smalls, Executive Vice President and Global Head of Diversity at ViacomCBS in a letter on the website. "Not just a piece or apart, but the full range of their backgrounds, cultures and life experiences that together make us better and stronger."

Could their strategic search for tech talent open up pathways to historically Black colleges and universities? Some officials say that mentoring and talent development partnerships with colleges and even beginning in high school are keys to success in the effort to hire more diverse talent into a more inclusive work culture.

"Through things like our internship program and Girls Who Code where, even as early as eighth grade, they can start to get involved in our programs," says Liz Carrasco, Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for CBS Digital. "We do lunch and learns and also hack days, where a bunch of people come together and can work on something in a totally different area than they're used to.  That's another good way for us to increase the group dynamics and to help people, especially newer people in the organization."

Months after heated protests faded into fall and a nation's focus shifted to a contentious presidential election, many corporate executives were still quietly working to address the long-standing, latent effects of race and racism in America. Along with greater visibility, hiring patterns and retention of Black workers became pointed topics within whispers calling for massive reform in a variety of industries.

Companies have answered the call with pledges to increase hiring and training for workers from underrepresented communities and racial groups within the next decade, with the growing corporate goodwill list including Google, Amazon, and Goldman & Sachs, among others. 

HBCUs have been at the heart of the push for equity within racial reckoning. The sector of 100+ colleges and universities has received more than $700 million in private gifts in just the last nine months, and Black colleges have become high-profile targets for high-profile talent acquisition initiatives in industries such as banking, agribusiness, and journalism. 

Officials within ViacomCBS Tech's executive leadership team see HBCUs as potential partners for expanding opportunities for minority candidates within and outside of its entertainment properties. Their mission, according to Senior Vice President of Human Resources Marchelle Johnson, is to find skilled talent from atypical talent hubs, and dealing with a millennial labor reality that long-term relationships between candidates and employers no longer exist, and is exacerbated by cultural or social tension in the workplace.  

"We’ve talked about this in the HR space a lot. Are you creating a culture where people stay with the organization for 20 years,” she asks. “Or are you creating a culture where people come in as recent college grads or early careers, stay for three to five years, and then they take that experience and go somewhere else? We approach the learning culture from both angles and either outcome is okay.” 

A 2016 Gallup report outlined engagement as a primary factor in millennial workers’ satisfaction with an employer and willingness to stay there. Diversity and inclusion for many minority candidates is the signature element of employer engagement

In July 2020, more than 23% of a ViacomCBS’ total 22,490 employee labor force self-identified as Black or Latino. In senior leadership, the composition was a collective 14%. As several labor unions within the entertainment industry recently called for legislative support in diversifying Hollywood, officials at ViacomCBS say a key to maintaining good numbers within the company requires earlier, and intentional outreach to potential candidates before and after they are hired. 

"The conversation is definitely around diversity and inclusion, but it's also about equity," says Johnson. "What happens when you join the organization? And where's the opportunity for growth, promotion, and development? That's the equity component of this. It's a conversation that I think is still evolving for a lot of organizations."

For HBCUs with thousands of Black creatives and advancing strengths in computer engineering, software design, eSports, and more, the timing may be perfect for public and private Black colleges to serve as piloting sector for early career training and hiring in tech and production niche areas within ViacomCBS' growing media imprint. 

“For recent college graduates, companies are rethinking how they hire entry-level jobs. We used to first look for candidates with training, but now we are also looking for candidates with the right skills and ability to work within the technology environment,” said Glenn Oakley, Executive Vice President of Operations and Engineering. “So, we're providing training to our employees and we're also bringing in new people to accelerate that transition.”

Stephanie Carroll supports ViacomCBS' university recruitment initiatives and says that schools should take a more prominent role in promoting non-traditional career options within industries which may benefit from diverse candidate pools and dynamic skill sets. 

All of the officials agree that refining culture, prioritizing diversity, and welcoming new talent is a top-down process requiring a full organizational effort. 

“I think we all push each other out of our comfort zone to make sure that we are truly investing in ourselves so that we can be better at creating an environment that is truly inclusive,” said Wiser. “To me, that's the core and then the rest of it comes by having programs and resource groups that can support different elements of our company, but it's the very heart of it to me it's that every day true internalization of the process that's very unique at ViacomCBS.”