Nitzan Pelman : Founder & CEO of Climb Hire

Episode 427

In this inspiring episode, Founder and CEO Nitzan Pelman, a serial social-impact entrepreneur whose life mission is to create economic opportunity for hidden and overlooked talent, shares all about how and why she founded Climb Hire. Climb Hire’s program model is based on the powerful role that social networks can play in securing living wage jobs. Nitzan also discusses her journey in founding ReUp Education that focuses on re-enrolling students who have dropped out of college as well as Citizen Schools, a middle school initiative for low income students. Listen in as Nitzan shares her journey as a dedicated, mission-driven entrepreneur, what lessons she has learned along the way and how Climb Hire is providing impact. This is a not-to-be-missed episode with tons of information and gems of inspiration that you don’t want to miss. On this episode of #TheKaraGoldinShow.

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be, you just want to make sure you will get knocked down. But just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone, it’s Kara Goldin from the Kara Goldin show. And I am so excited to have my next guest. Here she is the founder and CEO of an incredible company called climb higher. We are joined by Nitzan Pelman, who is the founder and CEO, and climb hires program model is based on the powerful role that social networks can play in securing living wage jobs. I love her journey because she didn’t start out doing this. From birth. She actually worked in education and helping many, many people, actually around education. So in cluding, founding important initiatives with reup education and Citizen Schools, really, really cool stuff. So I’m going to get Nitzan to share her journey and really share how she got into mission driven entrepreneurship. And obviously has done it multiple times. But I think it’s really, really cool and very inspiring. So welcome.

Nitzan Pelman 1:52
Thank you. It’s so great to be here, Kara. Thanks for having me.

Kara Goldin 1:55
Very, very excited. So tell us all what climb higher is.

Nitzan Pelman 2:00
So climb higher is an organization that focuses on identifying people who are generally coming from low income backgrounds are generally people of color, who have dreams and aspirations and goals and desires to want to work in a job that pays them a living wage, that are oftentimes stuck in retail or, you know, other kinds of minimum wage, low wage jobs. And because they may not have an in demand skill, and access to networks and social capital, we help them to build both of those things, so that they can get access to well paid jobs. So we create economic mobility and opportunity, through both learning some new hard things that are relevant to today’s society. And also by helping them build social capital and networks alongside of it.

Kara Goldin 3:00
So how did you identify the need for founding and building a company like this?

Nitzan Pelman 3:08
There, there are many origin stories of climb higher. So if you’ll allow me to kind of indulge in a couple of them, them to tell the story in a couple of different ways. So one of them was that four years ago, I was an entrepreneur in residence at LinkedIn. And when I was there, they put a referral button on their platform. And what they learned by doing that was that the vast majority of job seekers were getting jobs through referrals. And I really started to think about that for my own life. And for the first time I ever realized, like, oh, my gosh, all of my jobs have come through networks, relationships, people I knew, you know, and one kind of led to the next and the next and the next. And, gosh, where would I be without all of those people that opened their doors referred me from one opportunity, the next and I spent so much of every day of my life, like talking to people that somebody introduced me to and, you know, and so much of the world goes round that way. And then I start to think, Okay, well, where do networks come from? Ken, I have a six year old. So you know, I’m like, Where do babies come from? Where do networks come from? So I started to think about it and realize, you know, if you are in a middle or affluent class, neighborhood or community, you’ve probably been building networks for you know, since you were before kindergarten, because that’s just like you’re embedded in a in an orbit that is socializing and connecting often and frequently. But another place that people get to build networks, again, is generally in college. And if you you know, go to a four year liberal arts institution, and you live in dorms and you sing in an acapella club and you play lacrosse, and you You know write for the newspaper, you get to spend hundreds of hours in this kind of coming of age moment in time, with peers and friends and build organic, loving, funny, depth filled relationships in that sort of period of 18 to 25 years old. It’s it’s a, it’s a moment in time for people that so formative for so much of the rest of their lives. But many people of color from low income communities don’t get to do that. They oftentimes are going to community college because of cost. And there, they have to take care of family members, and they have to work. And so they don’t have the luxury of time, and the luxury to just hang out for hours on end with friends. And when you don’t have that, that privilege, you don’t get to do it. And then when you finish whatever education, you’re part of the new end up applying to a retail job, and you kind of get stuck there. And so I had this hypothesis, that there was all of this hidden and overlooked talent. People that have have motivation, grit, drive, tenacity, and aptitude, who just are hidden to us and don’t are not known in our world. And if we could find ways to identify them, and help them build those skills, we can help them get access to opportunity and jobs that many people in the middle class are just naturally accessed to, from you know, finishing up school. That’s kind of one big origin story. There’s another one that I’d love to tell but

Kara Goldin 6:44
a pause. I’d love to hear it. No, it’s great. So,

Nitzan Pelman 6:49
the reason why I’ve worked in education, I’ve never run a workforce organization before. So this was my first foray into helping people get jobs. But I, as a younger person coming out of college myself, I was really inspired by Teach for America. And it was really taken by a very dear friend of mine who was doing Teach For America back in 1998, was a long time ago. And I started my career there as well on staff and was really shaped and molded in so many ways by the values of, of bringing up bringing equality and bringing access to education and opportunity, through, you know, through education as education could be and should be the way in which we break a cycle of poverty. And as I say, I spent 16 years in that space, both working and building Citizen Schools working for the New York City Department of Ed working at Teach for America, working at some charter schools in the startup phase, lots of different permutations of ed reform in those 16 years. And then as part of my entrepreneurial journey, I got to found a company called RE education, I moved to Silicon Valley, I raised venture capital funds for it, and we re enrolled students that had dropped out of college. And when you fight so hard to make sure that from an educational equity standpoint, everyone gets to go to college. And then you start a company in which people are, you’re helping them re enroll in college who have dropped out, I just realized, you know, the cost of college has become so prohibitive, that it really is become a sorting mechanism for wealth more than anything else. And to ask people to finish college sometimes means that they’re going to be in debt for the next 2030 years. And we see so many societal impacts of that people are not buying homes in the same way they did. They’re not getting married or having children like, because like the costs of life are just so overwhelming for even the middle class at this point. And so I just started to think like, you know, I went into this work 20 plus years ago, because I’ve always had a passion for breaking the cycle of poverty. But if I do, then maybe we should find that talent out there. And give them some short term support, so that they can get an access to middle class jobs, but don’t put them through years and years of, of education that may or may not lead to that outcome, but will definitely lead to a lot of debt. So this was sort of a potential solution for that. And the last part is that I this is really the most personal part of this story is my own educational journey. As a first grader, many years ago, I was labeled as a special education student. And what that meant in my life, is that nobody ever believed that I had much aptitude, and I was really underestimated by a label that came to me at such a young age. And because they struggled in the classroom in whatever ways in first grade, that label followed me for the next decade plus, and I really graduated from high school without having the ability to read at a at a at a 12th grade level or right at that level. And they were very painful educational experiences were school was a place that I was embarrassed that I felt less than that I felt like that I wasn’t smart, or intelligent. And amazingly enough, I ended up having a boyfriend who went to Harvard. And I started spent a lot of my college life at Harvard as the girlfriend of a Harvard student. And all of a sudden, my personal label went from being a stupid kid, to a smart kid. And the expectations of the world changed. And what I was believed to be capable of changed overnight. And I then very quickly realized that I had a lot of aptitude, I had less skill, because I hadn’t learned a bunch of important things as a younger person. But I taught myself those things in my 20s. And I become a really successful social entrepreneur. Because I found my my grit and my drive and my motivation, and my aptitude in my 20s. Because somebody believed in me, that wasn’t a teacher, that was appear. And it really helped me understand that there is so much human potential that oftentimes gets left out there in the wind. And that happens so much more often to people of color from low income communities than it does to people that are white and middle class. And a note, my time at Teach For America was really molding and shaping me, in thinking so much about the inequity in society, like I was able to push through those labels and to reinvent myself as an adult. But But that comes with privilege of having white skin having, you know, having some needs economically, and what does that look like when you have none of those things working in your, in your advantage and in your privilege? And that’s why my life’s work has always been about helping people identify their human potential. And that’s what we do at climb higher.

Kara Goldin 12:30
I love that. So what is the process of people signing up for climb higher than and how does that work?

Nitzan Pelman 12:38
Well, the people that we serve are generally the people who are, you know, stocking our shelves at Trader Joe’s are driving your Uber and Lyft cars. And we find them on social media, through you know, platforms, and Tik Tok and Reddit and Spotify and LinkedIn and that and things like that. You know, and and people come to our website, and they apply, we generally serve people that are in their 20s and 30s, who have a little bit of work experience, working in low wage jobs, and who have that aspiration and belief and desire to want something bigger for themselves. And then they generally, well, a prerequisite for the program as they need to be earning below livable wage. So those are really the criteria and the profiles of the people. They enroll in the program. It all happens at night or on the weekends, so that they can work during the day. And it happens on Zoom twice a week for three hours. They’re learning either Salesforce administration, digital marketing, or we’re about to launch a cohort in cybersecurity. So skills that we know are really needed in our economy, and that we can teach them in five or six months. And then we really help people learn the art of relationship building. And how do you have open ended conversations instead of closed conversations? How do you use your body language to show that you’re an active listener? How do you find connection in a conversation so that there’s rapport that gets built? How do you tell the that story that everyone wants to know about yourself? Like, when they asked the question, tell me about yourself? How do you tell it in a compelling and concise way, especially when you might not have you know, here’s all my metrics, and here are my outcomes. And here’s the ways that I have, you know, operated in this corporate job. So we really teach people around the art of storytelling. And then we give them many, many opportunities to practice with each other with alumni of the organization, and then ultimately with middle class professionals, who are working at Google and LinkedIn and Salesforce and workday that really support them in both their own It storytelling and in their capacity to build relationships and, and learn those skills and ultimately, build opportunities for referrals and networks that will open up doors for the long haul.

Kara Goldin 15:15
It must make you feel so good when you’re able to really help somebody and be able to place them into an opportunity that they feel successful. And, and also, they feel better about themselves. Right, and that they’ve actually achieved something. I’d love to hear a story from one of those moments when you really feel like you’ve seen somebody from the beginning to the poster child of climb higher. And if you can share that, that’d be amazing.

Nitzan Pelman 15:47
Yeah. But the hard the hard part of this question is that there’s so many and I, I love, I love these people so much that I think that they’ve changed my life so much more than I’ve changed theirs. So it’s hard to figure out one or two even to tell, but I’ll tell a story of of Abdul of dual came to this country as an Afghani immigrant. And about six or seven years ago, when we met him, he was sweeping and mopping floors that Jack in the Box during the day. He was a security guard at night and driving Uber and Lyft. On the weekends. Will you expect that a typical hard working immigrant is doing in this country to make ends meet and to find a better life for themselves. He went through our Salesforce administrator training and did you know really well. And we helped him network into a company called gusto. Gusto is really kind of well known Silicon Valley company that helps many small and medium sized businesses with all of their back office operations. And he became their Salesforce administrator, and was and he started out as a contract to hire role earning about 50 or $60,000. And very quickly, they realized that he had so much in him, he was working so hard. And they quickly promoted him. And I think at this point, he’s had maybe four or five promotions, he’s earning well over $100,000 at this point. And I think what’s so spectacular and amazing about Abdul is that he became this company was incredibly fast growing for many, many years and continues to be, um, he became one of the top five employees at gusto. And, and he did that driving Uber and Lyft, at night, and on the weekends, even in this corporate job, because the Taliban were coming to Afghanistan, and he knew that his family was going to be in danger. And he wanted to get them out. And so he saved up enough money to get all of them visas, nine of them, so that he could get them into Pakistan, right, really, the day before the Taliban came. And in all of this, he also then was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and like was became a cancer survivor. And in all of this continues to, like, maintain his stature as like one of the top employees at gussto. That’s what we mean by hidden and overlooked talent. Like nobody would have like Abdul would still be driving Uber and Lyft. And working with Jack in the Box, if like, we didn’t help him, quite honestly build social capital to you know, get into gusto, and he’s doing awesome.

Kara Goldin 18:52
Well, and I think also, to your earlier point, having somebody that believes in you, that’s sometimes all it really takes right to be able to say, you know, you can do this during these hard times, and I’m sure there’s, I would guess there’s probably somebody in his community who says, you know, how are you going to do that, you’re not going to be able to get that done, you’re not going to be able to go and work for that big Salesforce company or do anything around Salesforce and, and so the doubters that are out there, you need somebody that can believe right? And that can help you really understand that, you know, you can achieve big things. Now, when you’re building this company. You’ve done a few other social impact companies. A couple of questions I have, but what’s been the hardest piece of building your company today?

Nitzan Pelman 19:49
I mean, the hardest piece is that like You’re never in full control, right? I mean, you and I were sort of chatting before the recording started about you know, a big contract that hey, God and then it couldn’t implement it because of, you know, what the truck drivers, you know, company came from right? Just like we sometimes have these like incredible successes or you know, these downward moments that oftentimes live and die by, you know, external factors like what’s happening in the economy. So, you know, when we started climb higher, it was about six months before the pandemic, and there was a lot of talk about the economic bubble that we were in the economy was very strong then. And then when it started, the pandemic started and everything moved to zoom, I was like, Oh, my God, there’s no way that we’re going to be able to build relationships and social capital off zoo like, this organization is going to die even before it ever got started. And I was I sort of quietly mourn the loss of it. But then, quite honestly, you know, the murder of George Floyd, like really awoke our country. And really what put into very sharp focus, that the racial inequality that exists for the experience of black and brown people are so radically different than those of white people in this country. And it was, I think it was this real awakening of a moment. And so many companies wanted to all of a sudden hire black and brown people. And we were training black and brown people. And so there were a lot of companies that were reaching out. And we were seeing people get jobs all over the place, it was incredible. Who would have thought that the pandemic would have like, opened up all of these doors, but it did. And now here we are four years later, well, like the economy is taking more of a hit, although it’s a little bit more mixed. But certainly in corporate and intact, there’s been a mass layoffs. And so some of those amazing people who got those jobs one or two or three years ago have now been laid off. And and so there’s just a lot of cycles to helping people find jobs, helping people survive layoffs, helping people survive, you know, from one state of the economy to the other. And I would say that that just creates, you know, a lot of emotional roller coasters. For anyone in a leadership position. Yeah, definitely.

Kara Goldin 22:22
I think we’re going through a whole transition with so many companies right now, just trying to figure out what not just what jobs we need, but also like, you know, which are virtual, which are, there’s just so much going on right now. And I think that any, I would imagine that what you do at climb higher is impacted by people just kind of being frozen, because they just don’t know what to do on that front. So I would imagine that that would be really interesting, but at times challenging, but I do believe that it’s getting sorted out. And I’m optimistic that it will get more and more so sorted out. So have you raised money for the startup as well.

Nitzan Pelman 23:14
I have this, this organization is is a non for profit. And it was really intentionally designed as a nonprofit with a revenue model. And so we have philanthropic support, the employers pay us when they hire our people, like essentially a staffing fee. fee structure, we get some government funding as well, for upskilling work. So it’s kind of a braided approach. And then the last six I think, is the most important part of our revenue model, is that because the climbers, which is what we call our participants, are not in a position to pay for the program when they started, because the criteria to be in it is that they are earning below livable wage. So we’re not going to ask people who are earning below of which to pay for something. But when they finish the program, and they get a job that pays them about 47 to 50k or above that, which most people get that, then they pay for the next person to be in the program. And so they pay $150 a month for four years. And that allows them to pay it forward. And that is the value of our community, which is that everybody’s helping everybody rise. No one’s in it to just build their own skills, but to really build the skills and the collective community of people that are coming from a certain background or in a certain you know, life story.

Kara Goldin 24:46
I love it. It’s it must be so inspiring for you to be able to watch that all grow significantly. So it’s really, really, really great. So what advice Would you give maybe some advice that you’ve gotten over the years around, just starting a social impact company, you’ve got an idea, an idea that you really want to get off the ground that you believe, needs to be out there, but you just don’t know where to start. I mean, you’re, you’re passionate about something. But how do you do it? I mean, you’ve been able to focus on three companies now. I mean, you’re a serial social impact entrepreneur that has been able to do it. But what what do you think is kind of the best advice that you’ve ever gotten? Or that you would give to people? Knowing what you know, today?

Nitzan Pelman 25:41
I mean, what I would just say like social capital really matters, you know, matters. And I’m not saying that, that means that every entrepreneur that doesn’t have a rich, robust network, like you’re dead in the water, but I’ve been spending many years building a network. And like, one opportunity has led to the next because of these robust networks. So you know, another part of the origin stories of climb higher is that there’s this guy named Tom. And Tom was Clinton and Obama’s Chief Technology and Science Advisor in the White House for almost 20 years. And many of the people in my network knew Tom and I had been hearing about Tom for probably about 20 years, but I’d never met him, he was kind of like Snuffleupagus in my head like, this, like mysterious creature who, like no one ever really sees. But here, we hear about him a lot. And then four years ago, I was at a dinner party, and Tom was at this dinner, and I couldn’t believe it. I was so excited. And I went over time at the end of the dinner. And I said, You don’t know me, but I know lots about you. And I’ve been following you for a long time. And so exciting to meet you. And we ended up having a long chat. And it turns out that at this point, it was a new administration that the Trump administration and it was clear that he was not going to be working in the Trump administration. And so I was like, what do you do now? And he said, I work for Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, and I help them find entrepreneurs who, who are who have big ideas. And I was like, Okay, I mean, and I didn’t even think about it. But I offered him a ride home. And we both lived in the East Bay, and I was at dinner in San Francisco. And I gave him a ride home. And we had a, you know, lovely 3040 minute chat in the car. And I in the car ride. I mean, I was asking him many questions about his time in the government and what he’s up to, and we were trading stories. And he was asking me about LinkedIn. And, and then I was telling him about this insight that I had that social capital really was this, this lubricant that, that opened up all these doors, and then I really was thinking that there needs to be a workforce upskilling organization that focuses on helping people to build that. And it just seems like everyone’s just focused on building skills. And that’s it. And I was kind of like, so how’s this gonna work? The coal miner in West Virginia is going to become an AWS cloud practitioner. And then they’re going to start applying cold for jobs with no relevant experience and no one vouching for them, like how is this going to actually create any opportunity for people? And I, you know, so I said, I have this idea in my head. And at the end of the car ride, he said to me, I think Eric Schmidt would really like this idea. And I think you should write me a one pager. And I was like, Are you kidding me? Like, Eric Schmidt is not gonna like this idea. Eric Schmidt likes blockchain and AI, and robots, and things that are automated people. And I, you know, I wrote him a one pager. And you know, a month later, he called me back and he said, Eric is gonna give you a million dollars to start the organization. Oh, that’s. And it’s just kind of like, rolled from there. And I don’t take any of that for granted. But I think like, knowing how to really engage people, and I didn’t do it with a real agenda, like it was a really authentic relationship. And so I would say, you know, you’ve got to be authentic, you’ve got to constantly be like, thinking about this work and touching it and feeling it and knowing it, and falling in love with it every day. And being passionate about it, and then finding good ways to tell stories about it. So that people come alive with you have become curious about it and become interested in it. And then to have the resolve to like weather, the storms, there’s a lot of ups, there’s a lot of downs, there’s a lot of lows, there’s a lot of highs, and to sort of know entrepreneurially like, that’s a lot of stress. There’s a lot of stress that comes with this work. It’s not for the faint of heart. But like if you can, if you’re a people person in your relationship builder, and your storyteller, and you can like bring people along with you then Then I think and then you need to find, you know, where are your non strengths? Where are the places where you’re not really great. I’m not a great operator, I’m a great storyteller. And I’m a great galvanize, er, and I’m an Inspire. And I have ideas and I bring them into the world. But I have an incredible team, a clam hire that like makes these ideas become reality. And, you know, I have I have people I’ve counterparts met the president of the organization, her name is surbey. Grant, she is the best operator, I know. She’s the best people manager, I know. She’s the best culture builder I know. And so like when we were working together on and after 13 years, and in various various venture ventures, and I think that that’s the last part is like, know your strengths, like know what you do know how to do and know what you don’t know how to do, and what you don’t know how to do, get out of the way and find the right people who do and then double down on the things that you are really uniquely good at.

Kara Goldin 30:57
I love that. Well, thank you so much for coming on and sharing more about your journey and also climb higher. We’ll have all the info in the show notes as well, for people to check out more information. But best of luck with everything. And thank you for doing what you’re doing. Because it’s really important social impact is is important, but building companies that actually connect people and show them that they have the support, and that they can jump into jobs, if they believe is is really, really critical. So, absolutely. So thank you again, and thank you everybody for listening. Thanks, Kara. Thanks again for listening to the Kara Goldin show. If you would, please give us a review. And feel free to share this podcast with others who would benefit and of course, feel free to subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode of our podcast. Just a reminder that I can be found on all platforms at Kara Goldin. And if you want to hear more about my journey, I hope you will have a listen or pick up a copy of my book on daunted which I share my journey, including founding and building hint. We are here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. And thanks everyone for listening. Have a great rest of the week, and 2023 and goodbye for now. Before we sign off, I want to talk to you about fear. People like to talk about fearless leaders. But achieving big goals isn’t about fearlessness. Successful leaders recognize their fears and decide to deal with them head on in order to move forward. This is where my new book undaunted comes in. This book is designed for anyone who wants to succeed in the face of fear, overcome doubts and live a little undaunted. Order your copy today at undaunted, the and learn how to look your doubts and doubters in the eye and achieve your dreams. For a limited time. You’ll also receive a free case of hint water. Do you have a question for me or want to nominate an innovator to spotlight send me a tweet at Kara Goldin and let me know. And if you liked what you heard, please leave me a review on Apple podcasts. You can also follow along with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn at Kara Goldin. Thanks for listening