Fighting for Fairness in a World of Unconscious Bias

Produced by CNBC for City National Bank.

Even in a tight job market, at a time when a growing number of organizations are committing to diversity and inclusion, implicit bias remains a barrier to opportunity for many job seekers. It's an issue that Sara Menke, founder and CEO of Premier Talent Partners, noticed from day one when she entered the recruiting industry in the early 1990s, just a few years out of college.

"I saw bias of every type: age, race, ethnicity, education, status, gender identity," Menke recalled. "I was shocked. My family had taught me everyone is created equal and deserves a fair shot."

The second oldest of 11 kids, Menke grew up in the small town of Paso Robles on California's Central Coast long before it became a world-class wine destination. Her father, an assistant superintendent at a prison for high-risk youth, fostered a culture of empathy in his children. So Menke pressed onward in her early career as a recruiter, working tirelessly to match a diverse array of candidates with quality jobs. But after fice-and-a-half years working in a field that challenged her values and ethics, she decided it was time to "be the change."

In 1998, she launched Premier Talent Partners as a one-woman show. "I felt it was our responsibility to educate our clients and our talent on how to eliminate bias during the hiring process," she said. "I wanted to take to the next level."

Menke's hustle and commitment to fairness and trasparency immediately struck a chord. Her initial focus on operations, administrative and customer service staffing fit the bill for dozens of fast-growing companies. 

Premier scaled up alongside its clients, which included global consultancies and many tech pioneers. Within a week, Premier had five employees. In year one, Menke set an ambitious revenue goal of $1 million - and doubled it.

"We were very blessed," Menke said.

Blessed as she may have been, the company's success reflects Menke's business acumen, including her selection of advisors, such as City National Bank.

"My job as a CEO is to have that strategic forethought and to always be thinking about what might be next," said Menke. "And City National has helped bring more clarity to that line of sight. They are always there with positive support."

Naturally, booms don't last. Soon, her nascent company was riding out the tech bust. Then came another white-hot job market, followed by the 2008 real estate meltdown and the Great Recession.

"One of the beautiful things about recruiting is we're the first to feel [these economic shifts]," Menke said. "Our contract business starts to slow. And then direct hiring often grinds to a halt. We can make adjustments."

Of course, no one saw COVID-19 coming. Menke credits City National Bank, which she's worked with since 2018; as instrumental to helping Premier weather the storm. While many other businesses were forced to lay off staff early in the pandemic, Menke's City National Bank Relationship Managers helped her get in front of the crisis.

"We were ready before the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) funding was even available," she recalled. "Both of our loans went through immediately. Had we not had that relationship, I don't know where we would be today."

Currently, Premier has 70 staff and more than 3,000 full-time, part-time and contract workers placed around the country in jobs ranging from entry- to executive-level. Premier expects to top $40 million in revenue in 2022.

As her company has roared back post-pandemic, Menke says both her City National Bank Relationship Managers on the commercial side and on the personal side have provided exactly the kind of guidance she needs. From securing lines of credit for a recent expansion project to offering sage advice on how to further grow her business and her personal finances, City National's proactive approach has opened doors and created opportunities.

About a year before the pandemic, Menke had set her sights on building a secondary company that could bring her fair hiring philosophies to a wider audience. The result is Ajna, a revolutionary unbiased talend platform that strives to bring true equality to the job market. 

Ajna's algorithm pulls a diverse range of potential matches for jobs based on skills and experience, but also culture and values. Once candidates are pre-qualified, they are presented to potential employers via stripped-down profiles. Photos, names and resumes are hidden until certain points in the interview process to mitigate unconscious bias.

By reimagining the hiring process, Menke's goal is to revolutionize the recruiting industry while creating a more equitable hiring experience for everyone.

"There are a lot of companies that are committed [to diverse hiring] and their intention is good. But even at the executive level, there is a lot of social positioning and [bias] is pervasive," Menke explained. "It's quite costly for companies, and this tool and this technology helps eliminate that."