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Q&A with Joe Baratta and Marcus Felder on Blackstone’s New Diversity Initiatives

We sat down with Joe Baratta, Global Head of Private Equity, and Marcus Felder, VP in Portfolio Operations, to discuss two new initiatives that build on Blackstone’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Blackstone recently announced two initiatives to increase diverse representation on our portfolio company boards and expand employment opportunities for people from underserved communities. We sat down with Joe Baratta, Global Head of Private Equity, and Marcus Felder, VP in Portfolio Operations, to discuss how these new programs build on our longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Joe Baratta (left) and Marcus Felder (right)

Joe Baratta is Global Head of Private Equity and a member of the firm’s Management Committee. He serves on the board of Year Up, an organization focused on youth employment and one of Blackstone’s partners in our new Career Pathways Initiative.

Marcus Felder is a Vice President in Portfolio Operations, where he will be managing the Career Pathways Initiative. Marcus has over 15 years of experience developing peer mentoring and college access, success and transition programs for New York City public high school and community college students as well as U.S. military veterans.

Blackstone recently announced a target of one-third diverse representation on our portfolio companies’ boards. Joe, give us some background on that goal and why it matters to the firm.

Joe Baratta: Over the last several years we’ve been working on ways to foster diversity both at Blackstone and in our portfolio, which includes more than 200 companies. We have an obligation as a leader in the business community to ensure that diverse backgrounds and perspectives are represented at all levels of our companies, including on their boards. Not only is championing diversity the right thing to do, it will also make our companies better. Portfolio company leaders are making important decisions every day, and we want to make sure they have the input of people with different life experiences and perspectives.

We’ve made progress in this area, and I’m proud that half of the independent private equity board seats we staffed last year were with women. But we need to be doing more, and this board diversity target is a natural next step. The mandate will apply firmwide to new portfolio companies where we acquire a controlling stake, starting in the U.S. and Europe, and it’ll define diversity based on race, gender, and sexual orientation.

Marcus, you recently joined Blackstone to lead another program for portfolio companies, the Career Pathways Initiative. How does this new initiative tie into these efforts?

Marcus Felder: Career Pathways is a complement to the “top-down” approach that Joe described. It’s a program to expand the traditional applicant pools for our portfolio companies. We’re going to start small with a pilot, but given Blackstone’s scale, there’s a big opportunity to grow the initiative and have a meaningful impact.

Our goal is to work from the ground up to increase employment opportunities and career mobility for folks from underserved communities. We’re partnering with two nonprofits as we launch this initiative, Year Up and COOP Careers, to help bring new talent into a range of roles that can lead to meaningful careers, including in customer service, I.T. and operations. But this isn’t just about getting somebody a job; it’s about supporting their development and providing opportunities for coaching and training so they can have long careers. So rather than opening the door for one person, we’ll be creating pathways for them, and hopefully keeping the door open for folks behind them.

What does closing the opportunity gap mean to you? Why is this a cause you’re passionate about?

JB: Over my professional career, I’ve found that certain industries have developed exclusionary patterns of recruiting that only focus on one kind of talent pool. I really came to appreciate this in my time serving on the board of Year Up, which helps companies create a path to change this recruiting cycle. When you meet the people currently in their program, and the graduates of it, you realize that these are the very kinds of people we try to hire at Blackstone. They’re smart, ambitious, and dedicated. It’s not a gap of talent, but one of networking and opportunity.

To me, breaking down these old hiring patterns is a central issue of our time. We have to find a way to give more people the platform they deserve.

MF: Exactly. In my career, I’ve seen countless talented, qualified folks who just don’t have that connection to get them to the next step. And sometimes when companies have an established hiring strategy, they assume it’s working just fine. Initiatives like Career Pathways can help employers expand their thinking around that.

For me, there’s also a personal connection. I come from a family that very much valued education and made sure that I had access to the opportunities and networks to put me on a good trajectory. I’ve seen that many others don’t have that kind of support. So I’ve committed a lot of my life’s work to do whatever I can to provide other folks access to opportunities so they can make the choices that are right for them.

Marcus, you’ve worked in this field for more than 15 years. What are some of your takeaways, and how are you applying that experience in your new role at Blackstone?

MF: One of my main takeaways is that issues around access are very complex. There’s no silver bullet. A new applicant pool may come with unique struggles or advantages, and you have to try and understand those in order to inform the potential solutions.

I’ve also found it essential to have backing at the top of an organization, and I’m excited to see that at Blackstone. It’s great to have senior leaders championing these initiatives, whether that’s based on their personal experience or just their values. I’m looking forward to keeping that momentum going and tapping into the firm’s scale and resources as we grow our programming.

What impact do you see the Career Pathways initiative having over time?  

JB: First, it should hopefully give opportunity to those who haven’t had it. Second, it should make our companies better, because they’ll have a more diverse opinions informing their business decisions. And third, it should help define what it means to be a Blackstone portfolio company. Over the last 20 years, we’ve developed a playbook for how we engage with our portfolio companies that today includes everything from capital allocation and procurement to emissions reduction. Now, recruiting from different pools of talent is going to become a part of the standard for how we engage with our companies and what we expect of them.

MF: I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic, but based on what I’ve seen in my career, providing these types of opportunities can change people’s lives. There’s a shared impact. If people are able to build meaningful careers, that can empower them to support and reinvest in their own communities. The outcome can be really powerful.

To Joe’s point, there’s a reset in expectations for companies. For some firms, that might mean strategizing together on things they were already working on. For others, it might mean learning from this program and eventually becoming experts themselves. Over the long term, we’d like portfolio companies to own a lot of these practices, and to actively think in ways that help them attract and retain diverse talent. That leads to more inclusive and thoughtful decision making, and more opportunities for those who deserve them.

JB: This is a new initiative for Blackstone, but it’s following a process we’ve established for many other programs. We identify a model for success—by working with organizations like Year Up, or through our existing efforts to promote diversity on our boards—then roll it out across the portfolio. And when you implement these programs at the scale of a firm like Blackstone, that can ultimately have an outsized positive impact on the communities where we operate.

Read more about Blackstone’s Board Diversity and Career Pathways Initiatives in the Wall Street Journal.