Rick Sinkfield, chief legal officer, chief ethics & compliance officer, Laureate Education, Inc.

Rick Sinkfield believes that education can transform not just individuals, but societies. He discusses his work in making affordable, high-quality education accessible to all.

My personal experience, and certainly the experience of my family, really shows the positive impact education has made when it comes to gaining opportunity. I do not mind sharing that only one of my grandmothers was able to attend teaching school, and that was under very dire conditions during segregation in the United States.

My grandmother faced legal and de facto restrictions on her ability to travel within the U.S. and never could barely imagine traveling outside its borders, yet within a couple of generations, her grandson became the chief legal officer for a company that, at one stage, spanned 30 countries.

This really shows that in the span of just 50 to 60 years, education can change your family situation. Even more inspiring is, if you can replicate this thousands, or hundreds of thousands of times – you can change society.

Such massive change can seem like a daunting task. But you have to start with one family at a time, one institution at a time. That is how society can move forward.

Making it affordable

As a company, Laureate has always been on a mission to create opportunity for its students, faculty and community. We believe that access to affordable, quality education is essential to increasing opportunity.

Although the history of our company has been global, we now work in Mexico and Peru, where we educate a combined total of about 380,000 students. Many of the countries that Laureate has operated in have suffered from vast inequality. There is this nexus that the more people you bring into the economic livelihood of a community, you will, by definition, promote and expand diversity.

Laureate is a for-profit company, so unless we can deliver quality educational experiences to our students, the students won’t come. We know very well that our services have to be affordable. Moreover, our institutions have to be of a certain quality as well.

We know people get educated not just for the value of that education, but for what that education can really do for them in their lives. So, it is important to ensure that our students get a return on investment.

There is this nexus that the more people you bring into the economic livelihood of a community, you will, by definition, promote and expand diversity.

For example, when we were operating in Brazil, our universities had some of the highest enrollments for minorities and women. But, diversity in the Brazilian legal profession was lacking. A group of local lawyers started a program  to encourage Black, or Afro-Brazilians, to join the legal profession. As a company, we were very quick to partner with this program to get our graduates additional training and to give them the best chance to compete in this highly competitive profession.

There is the social aspect of education, but there is also the economic aspect. The two are interrelated and that is why we focus on quality and affordability. Different markets have different needs. The US market is the most expensive market in the world; this model does not work for other countries. So we adapt. Some countries offer very little financing for non-public education, so that is a huge driver for us to make things affordable.

Leveling the playing field

When it comes to building a more diverse and inclusive legal profession, the first barrier is the difficulty of getting positive exposure to who lawyers are, what they do, and what are the many avenues that a career in law can provide.

There are a lot of good people trying to make the profession more inclusive. But the profession, by its very definition, is designed to be exclusive. You have to take difficult entrance exams and professional exams. It’s all designed to make entering the legal profession even harder.

So, when people make it through law school the question is not who gets to become a lawyer, but who stays a lawyer? Retention is an area that often gets overlooked. People have to ask: are diverse lawyers getting the same exposure and making it to the higher ranks of management?

It is important that diverse lawyers do get the opportunity to move up the corporate ladder. If you do not have diversity in the people who make laws and the people who enforce laws, you will get unequal results. One group will be favored over the other – and we have seen that happen time and time again in countries around the world, not just in the United States.

Institutions are made up of people, and if you want institutions to grow and enterprises to be effective, then people have to be happy.

My legal team has always been diverse. At one point, my group was about 75% women and that was across lawyers and non-legal staff. I am very proud of that, because it has been in countries where the barrier for women to achieve senior leadership roles is even higher than in the United States.

In the past, we have also intentionally focused on diversity among our interns so that we are training the next generation of diverse lawyers. That includes diversity in gender, race and economic disenfranchisement. Interestingly, when you focus on economic disenfranchisement, you can end up impacting other cleavages of inequality.

You are welcome too

Institutions are made up of people, and if you want institutions to grow and enterprises to be effective, then people have to be happy. People are speaking up now. They are saying that their beliefs, goals and wellbeing should not be separate and subservient to some corporate or institutional goal that they did not help to define.

An interesting example, which I think is going to become more common generally, is gender identifiers in your email signature block. This is a strong social shift that I can see taking place at universities. Universities tend to be ahead of everybody because they have young kids who are cementing change.

A few years ago, I attended a planning meeting at a large U.S. university. As we went around the room all of the students, faculty and administrators introduced themselves, while also sharing their pronouns: he/his/him, her/she/hers, they/them, etc. Now, I have seen this shift happening within corporate circles and in business meetings.

I never had to grapple with feeling shut out due to my gender identity, but over time I have realized that what is important is the community. If people are telling you they do not feel welcome, you need to listen. If I introduce myself using gender pronouns, I am signaling to others in the community that they are welcome.

This is a critical pivot in worker management and corporate behavior. The key is to listen and try to make the workplace an environment where everybody can excel on their merits and performance. You cannot sustain a world in which people are forced to work in ways that they believe are antithetical to their very existence, to their very being.

If colleges and workplaces are willing to have the tough conversations, we are moving in a positive direction to building more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces.