UWM alum working to ‘tell a different story’ amid diversity issues

If you don’t like the story, change it.

That’s the view Adam Gabornitz brings to his position as assistant director of diversity and inclusion at Northwestern Mutual.

Like many Fortune 500 companies, Northwestern Mutual faces challenges in recruiting diverse talent, he said. However, Milwaukee has some greater challenges because of its reputation as a highly segregated city that is seen as not as welcoming to people of color.

“One way you fix that is to tell a different story,” Gabornitz said. “That doesn’t mean you gloss over or pretend those things don’t exist, but every time I hear a negative story about Milwaukee, I feel we’re not giving enough emphasis to the great things happening and the great people here. We’re not helping our chances of getting the people to come here, stay here and make a great Milwaukee possible.”

‘Do people feel comfortable and welcome?’

Gabornitz, who graduated from UWM with a degree in communication, is a booster of both the university and the city. Both need to answer the challenge of making the city more inclusive, he said. “Universities and businesses have to be more intentional about creating environments where everybody can show up as their true selves and feel comfortable.”

Creating that climate and culture is up to the businesses and universities, he said. “We’re responsible for recruiting people and building out spaces. Do people feel comfortable and welcome at the corporation or the school? If the answer is no, we need to fix that.”

Gabornitz grew up in Wisconsin and chose UWM for two reasons: “I wanted to go school in Wisconsin, and I wanted to go to school in a city. UWM checked both of those boxes.”

He particularly remembers one of his UWM academic advisors, Nelson Bolden, from African American Student Academic Services. “He was really helpful from the beginning. He was a great guide and was with me all the way through.” (Bolden now works for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina.)

Communication skills important

Gabornitz initially started studying marketing but switched to communication, which he really enjoyed. He’s continually using those skills in his career and within his current role. “The job I have now is very much internal facing,” Gabornitz said. “I’m always using my communications skills, written and oral. I’ve spent my whole career talking, which is something I like to do,” he said with a laugh.

Since graduating 14 years ago, he’s been an entrepreneur and worked in small organizations and Fortune 500 companies. He started at Northwestern Mutual as senior project manager of tech advancement and outreach, working on recruiting and retaining tech talent in the region. This spring, he was named one of the Business Journal’s “40 Under 40,” which recognizes promising leaders under 40 years old.

Gabornitz recently moved to the Lake Country area, and is the father of two sons, ages 2 and 4. “It’s an evolution and an experience going from figuring out your own life and now having responsibility for taking care of other people’s lives.”

He sees the young people just out of college that he’s trying to recruit as being more mobile, and willing to change careers more frequently than previous generations.

“A lot of people graduating more recently don’t typically stay at a job for more than two, two and half years. It’s been similar for me, so I guess I can relate to wanting to try new things.”

‘The world of work is changing’

Having himself started his second career in two years at Northwestern Mutual, he sees young workers being interested in seizing new opportunities and making moves even within the same company. And he likes the area he’s now in – helping create a diverse and inclusive environment to help find and retain talent.

“It’s our job to get sharp, motivated people excited about coming and staying. It’s not a space anymore where companies have the upper hand in the sense of unlimited people or being the only game in town. The world of work is changing, and companies have to become innovative.”

Companies need to not only keep recruiting and retaining employees locally, they need to attract people from outside the area as well, Gabornitz said.

“As people come here from other places, we need to show them how great the city is… how many cool things are here, wonderful people and opportunities to do big things. Places like UWM and Northwestern Mutual can be great amplifiers of that narrative.”

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