As a hiring manager in the tech industry, Rahim Fazal kept seeing the same candidates applying over and over again for the same jobs. At least, it felt that way. The marketing and sales jobs he was hiring for attracted a typical candidate profile, with little variation.

But he wasn’t seeing applications from what he calls “nontraditional” tech job-seekers—those with a bachelor’s degree, coming from different academic backgrounds who were stuck in cycles of underemployment, or perhaps out of work altogether, and with little or no connection to the tech industry. Fazal also considered what he saw happening on the employer side—continually fighting over limited tech talent, a constricted and nondiverse talent pool, and too much turnover. It was obvious that there were many good candidates who were not being considered, and who lacked access to a profitable and rewarding career path in tech.

Fazal and his cofounder, Joel Scott, launched SV Academy in 2017 to help address both of these issues. SV Academy offers a tuition-free, short-form training program to prepare job-seekers for entry-level business development roles in the $278 billion Software as a Service (SaaS) industry.

By working closely with employers, SV Academy is creating an approach to training and hiring that emphasizes merit over educational background and past tech work experience when evaluating candidates. Fazal emphasized that SV Academy was designed with employers’ needs in mind, which has been key to the organization’s success. Companies work with SV Academy to identify the core skills and competencies needed to perform a job. SV Academy students learn these through a curriculum focused on both technical and social-emotional skills. Students also put these skills to work through a structured applied-learning environment that functions as an internship, providing solid work experience and opening doors to potential jobs for program graduates.

Fazal notes that more than 70 percent of graduates have been promoted in their first year on the job—success that has facilitated a good reputation and strong cooperation from employers as well as growing interest from job-seekers.

We talked with Fazal about his vision for SV Academy, how employers benefit from meritocratic hiring, and how SV Academy combines training and support to foster long-term career success.

How do students hear about SV Academy?

When we started, it was tough to get applicants. Every time an application would come in, we would raise our hands and celebrate because it happened so infrequently. And now, sometimes, we are getting more applications than we have people to review them. I think it’s a direct result of the success of the job-seekers who have already gone through the program who are now motivating others to give it a try. Many of them have been promoted multiple times and are getting paid well over six figures and are telling their stories. They may do this on LinkedIn or other social media channels. They may be going back to their schools or back to their communities. And now, they are rising leaders, and people look up to them and want to follow in their path.

How does SV Academy prepare graduates to succeed in the tech industry?

Graduates have gone through a three-month interview with us before they even get introduced to an employer. They already have a bachelor’s degree and are being trained for hundreds of hours and then are rigorously assessed on all of the pre-identified competencies that the hiring manager is looking for. And we have been very disciplined, cohort after cohort, to ensure that employers are receiving high-quality candidates to interview and hire. From there, we continue to support those hires for the first 12 months on the job.

What does SV Academy provide to students that they may not be getting elsewhere in their lives?

Most individuals, particularly the population that we’re interested in, aren’t as fortunate to have had a social network or a mentor in their lives who can really hold their hand and support them and walk along with them through their journey into the tech field. So SV Academy is really designed to provide that role to someone who probably doesn’t have it. They likely didn’t come, let’s say, from a background where they went to an Ivy League school or where their parents worked in the tech industry. What we’re trying to do is make this less about luck and make it more about a deliberate structured support system that can be offered to anyone who can demonstrate their commitment and interest in taking that support and turning it into something that can be truly life-changing.

What’s the connection between meritocratic hiring and creating a more diverse workforce?

Our graduate pool, the individuals who are going into these companies, are 60 percent women, 25 percent African-American, 17 percent Latinx, and 70 percent first-generation or low-income families. They are individuals that you cannot find often in the tech industry. The reality is that some employers do care about diversity and some see it as a nice to have. What I think is most important for us in terms of our North Star as an organization is to focus on meritocracy. And by that, I mean specifically that when we speak to hiring managers, we say, don’t worry about anything else beyond whether or not they can do the job. Let’s start with the competencies that are necessary to excel in this job, in terms of what are the specific tasks and activities and mindsets needed to succeed.

How has SV Academy persuaded employers to change their approach to hiring?

There’s such a big mismatch today in the tech industry between supply and demand where the demand far outstrips the availability of talent. And when you look at the research reports from CEOs, you will often see that talent acquisition is the number one or number two part of their job that keeps them up at night. So I think we’re coming into a market that is ready for behavior change. Entry-level positions, particularly those in sales, have 30 to 35 percent annual churn. And for that reason, the hiring managers have become skeptical of hiring individuals who have not done the job before. In the methodologies that we have now perfected, with over nearly 500 graduates, we have reduced that churn for employers significantly. And when the hiring manager sees that data, I think that opens up their willingness to hire someone new that doesn’t, perhaps, fit a traditional profile they are used to seeing.

What are your goals for SV Academy’s future?

What I’m excited about is really unblocking and increasing the percentage of job-seekers that we are able to support, and that means additional geographies, roles, industries, and also educational backgrounds. And the more that we succeed, the more employers will become comfortable with changing hiring behaviors. We are so excited to help lead the way.