Opportunity for All

LinkedIn’s Nicole Isaac believes that the power of connectivity can change both your world and ours

By Pat Olson

You may have heard the phrase “I didn’t choose my career, it chose me.” For Nicole Isaac, head of US public policy at LinkedIn, that couldn’t be more true. Growing up in a tough neighborhood in the Bronx, she saw firsthand what opportunity, or its lack can mean. She had the good fortune to receive a scholarship and attend private school, where she had only to compare her classmates’ aspirations with those of the children in her neighborhood to see that where you live can make a big difference in your future. Isaac vowed early in life to bring opportunity to the underserved.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in English and African American studies from Brown University, she obtained a law degree at University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she gained a solid framework for understanding civil and human rights. In a dual program between Pennsylvania Law School and Columbia University, Isaac received a master’s degree in international relations and affairs. She then completed a master of law in international human rights from the University of Oxford.

Isaac spent a decade in federal government in increasingly responsible positions, and today, as part of her job, she educates government and other groups on LinkedIn’s Economic Graph, which identifies trends and digitally maps the global workforce with an eye to providing more employment opportunities worldwide.

Diversity Woman: How did your upbringing affect your career?

Nicole Isaac: Because my mother made education a core value in our family, I studied hard and put school first. As a result, I received a scholarship to a private school through Prep for Prep, a leadership program in New York. I decided to try to create access to opportunities for everyone who came from places like I did, and I went to law school to pursue that dream. Following that, I worked in South Africa to further solidify my goal.

In South Africa, I clerked at the Constitutional Court, the highest court of the country, for the deputy chief justice. My job was providing advice and recommendations on comparative international legal systems and ways in which these could add value when designing a democracy. Then I returned to the United States and worked in the federal government. My last job there was deputy director of legislative affairs in the Office of the Vice President, in which I acted as liaison between Congress and the White House. In that role I also assisted in the implementation of the economic recovery plan after the 2008 recession. Through a series of jobs in my 10 years in Washington, I learned how politics, along with the processes and policies enacted by our government, affect citizens’ lives. I joined LinkedIn roughly three years ago as head of Economic Graph policy partnerships, a role that allowed me to work to help those who are underserved.

DW: What does your role at LinkedIn entail?

NI: I manage our efforts related to US public policy, which includes local, state, and federal engagements, and the ways in which we as a company operate, especially with respect to leveraging our data to help cities resolve the skills gap. We’ve built the world’s first Economic Graph, which aggregates jobs data. I spend a lot of time managing our government efforts to help organizations use data for good. For example, we explore using data like ours for investing in the workforce: providing access to jobs, investigating the skills related to supply and demand by locality, and explaining how, through partnering with companies like ours, governments can fill some of the gaps that exist in other data sets. Our goal is to disseminate complementary information that provides transparency into workforce systems, and optimize workforce development across the board.

DW: Your path seems well planned. How did it come about?
 All my jobs came from applications. 
I did go to the library before LinkedIn existed and researched places where I wanted to work. But there’s something else. When I was at Columbia, I worked hard to meet the executive director of a prominent human rights organization that I wanted to work for. I spent months trying to get on his calendar. When I finally met with him, I said, “Your job as executive director of this phenomenal organization with a global impact is a dream job. How did you get there?” And he said, “You’re not going to like this, but it was serendipitous.”

I remember choking up and holding back tears because I couldn’t believe I waited months to hear the secret. Every time I’m asked this question, I’m reminded of how serendipitous my path has been, too, accompanied by two core values—education and opportunity. They’ve influenced each of my decisions.

DW: What are your challenges at LinkedIn?
 One of our main challenges is combating the presumption that we’re a network for professionals only. We’re well beyond that and are working hard to expand opportunities for everyone—the welder in Denver, the plumber in the Bronx, the statistician, as well as the manufacturing IT czar. We want everyone on LinkedIn so we can help connect them to their best opportunity.

DW: What are you most proud of in your career?
 That I’ve taken risks where others perhaps thought the opportunity may not have been the best one, or that I’ve stepped away from what was expected. For instance, taking a leave of absence from my job on the Hill to work for free at the Constitutional Court in South Africa was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I learned about the systems and the processes applicable to our own democracy, and about other countries’ systems on which South Africa modeled their constitution.

DW: What are some challenges women today face in moving into the upper echelons of leadership? How can those challenges be addressed?
 One challenge is the pay gap for the same roles as men, which I’ve experienced in some former positions. Part of the problem is that many men tend to think of women narrowly, such as in their role as caregivers. Another challenge is overall gender bias. Our team works hard to address these from the company perspective of how we can support our employees, including developing new support mechanisms. For example, we have a Women in Technology group where female engineers get together with other women across the company to discuss best practices and how we can empower them. I suggest women look for groups like this for networking and all they can offer when seeking higher positions.

DW: What LinkedIn features should women be using more?
 We’d like to see women listing additional skills in their profile. Women include 11 percent fewer skills than men, and list fewer occupations and experience levels. Including more skills means you’ll likely have up to 17 times more profile views by recruiters, other employers, or potential peers. It not only empowers women—it results in a higher level of employment across the board for them. Listing more skills also results in greater connectivity for women because ideally it connects them to individuals in their network with comparable skills.

The LinkedIn salary tool can also be a resource for women relative to a pay increase. Studies have shown that women are more likely to be uncomfortable with salary discussions, and the tool provides visibility into what an average individual in a particular career and occupation makes, by industry.

DW: How does one find not just a job, but a meaningful career that they love?
 By finding that thing you’re most passionate about. I knew at a young age I was passionate about expanding opportunity for those who didn’t have a seat at the table, or didn’t have access. If you find what keeps you up at night or wakes you up early in the morning, you will naturally find a network where you’re able to express yourself.

Our goal is to create a world where we can help every individual not only understand what their passion is, but to connect to it. Even if you haven’t identified your passion, we want you to connect with people who can help guide you to the answer, to an educational institution, internship, apprenticeship, or job opportunity that will bring you a step closer to an expression of yourself and your core values. DW

Pat Olson writes the Workspace column for The New York Times.

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