An Open Letter to the Cycling Industry about Recruitment

By Luke Batten

A little background

Tenspeed Hero is a company made up of two people with the assistance of freelance artists and designers. The two people who post, photograph, and respond to customer emails is myself, Luke and Carolina. We both come from Mexican-American backgrounds, although I am biracial with a white father. We run the show 3 to 4 days a week in a 900 square foot studio located in Chicago, IL. Tenspeed Hero is an independent company and to this day I have kept TSH at a scale that does not compete with my main profession as a Professor at the University of Illinois. I always tell people my dream was to become a teacher of art and not an owner of a cycling apparel brand. I am happy with my choice of being an educator and in in creating a small sustainable brand that is growing that I am deeply passionate about.

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In the last several days, I have seen the cycling industry addressing specific and systemic failures to engage poc communities and from the perspective of representation, development, sponsorship and the lack of diversity of their employees. It is no secret that when you walk in the door of these cycling companies you see a sea of white faces. At the upper management level it is not only 99% white but it is also male dominated. Some of these companies have been soliciting feedback to see how they can improve and they have even offered some action plans (in 2020! but hey it’s a start). If I could offer one word advice to make your cycling company representative in the community you live in, it would be RECRUITMENT.

A modern company cannot hope to change the culture and representation of its employees by relying on the current stream of people applying to your company. Cycling companies in particular are very dependent on friend networks, and the social scene of the bike community. Based on the evidence, it’s clear that this is not the path to sourcing a diverse community of cyclists, designers, students, and workers.

At the University of Illinois, I have been part of the recruitment committee since I started teaching in 2002. Our goal is to create a diverse community of artists at the School of Art and Design. We did this because when we looked at our enrollment numbers and we could see the University of Illinois, the flagship research institution of the state, was failing in attracting black and latino students. If you look at racial makeup of the Chicago Public Schools alone you can see that the student body is 46.7% Hispanic and 36.6% African-American and 10.5% white. We had to do more to recruit talented students that represented the ideal of and future our community.

I have attended dozens of portfolio reviews, scholarship forums and recruitment events. Since TSH is located in Chicago, I work mostly with high school students from the city at national events like National Portfolio Day, local art organizations like Gallery 37, and the All City Senior Exhibition. When I walk into these events of aspiring designers and artists they reflect the total diversity of the city and suburban community. I’m happy to report with the support and leadership of our Director, Alan Mette, we have increased our overall enrollment and raised the underrepresented student population by double digit growth. Last year the State of Illinois helped our efforts in recruitment with the Illinois Committment by providing free instate tuition to families making under $67,100. It has been a decade long process of teamwork between faculty and staff.

Some Things I Have Learned in Recruitment

Recruitment is a forever project: Organizations need to create structures (committees + events) that can be sustained. It is about creating momentum and sustaining outcomes. A year of active recruitment may not show immediate results but five years in, people will see your initiative and feel your presence as an organization committed to increasing diversity.

Networking is key: Every city has a network of schools, art organizations, programs, individuals that are trying to advance the potential of poc students. The first thing I ask students at portfolio reviews is, where are they learning to making art? I keep a notebook at my side and give these names and organizations to our administration so they are on our radar for the future. Two organizations that every bike company should connect with are the student groups of the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Design) and the IDSA (Industrial Designers Society of America). The student that run the University chapters are looking for jobs. Show up to their events by contacting their programs. Their events usually happen in the early spring semester. In Chicago we are lucky to have a few organizations that serve all communities but specifically serve POC communities. They are Experimental Station, Marwen, Gallery 37 and Yollo Calli Arts Reach.

Informed engagement: One year when we attended the All City Senior Exhibition in Chicago we had two well funded scholarships to give out to students of color. Of the 20 students that applied for the scholarship only 3 or 4 actually had applied to the school. Ouch! We knew we were missing the engagement with the art teachers and counselors on informing students about opportunities earlier in the process. It’s is great to provide scholarships but if you do not engage and inform the community you are trying to connect with, you both miss out on providing resources to students. It has been important for our school to share our experiences with other stakeholders and learn from our mistakes.

Focus on Potential and Dig Deeper: Very few people go to college to specifically work in the bike industry so you need to expand your horizons on what skills your company needs. Many students of color would love to work in the industry but they are not likely to have a portfolio of only bike related stuff. It is the same for us. High School portfolios do not always translate to what we are looking for at college so when we review portfolios we look for potential based upon where the student is coming from.

Host Students and Your Community: Recruiting is not just focused on one event. It is an open door process where you share your space and invite folks to see what you are doing. An open house can reveal a dream in someone they did not know existed. It can be the start or a great way to follow up with a potential group of students. At the University of Illinois we host tours and student admit days where we encourage families and their students to attend.

Recruit but also guide: Carolina and I are the first generation of our families where going to college was a possibility. As much as my parents and her parents wanted us to go to college they were not experienced themselves in the process. We had support but no real guidance. My advice for recruiters is you are not just recruiters but guides. It is an important role that requires empathy. Imposter syndrome is real and guides understand this.

Two Steps Forward and One Step Back: Yes this happens to us. We are bolstered by our good numbers in recruiting underrepresented communities and then we fall back occasionally. You listen, learn and move forward with new strategies.

An Action

If any one has any other great advice about recruiting underrepresented groups into the cycling industry we would be glad to add this to our post, especially since this post is focused on students. Also if you are looking for ways to invest in our collective community via scholarships and other educational opportunities to develop the next generation of cycling professionals, this is a profound way to impact a life. Every College and University development office would love to share with you opportunities to fund for scholarships or off campus experiences. Please contact Luke if you want more information: