Penda Aiken, founder and CEO, Penda Aiken Inc.

Her staffing agency has been a pioneer in bringing diversity to the workforce

Says Aiken: "As a woman of color it was an excellent opportunity for me to place people of color, different ethnicities and genders, in well-paying positions” (Photo courtesy of Penda Aiken Inc.)

Diversity hiring is a business watchword these days, but Penda Aiken was pursuing it long before corporate America fully realized its importance. Launched in 1990, her Downtown Brooklyn firm Penda Aiken Inc., is now a leading staffing agency, uniting job seekers and employers in more than a dozen industries.

She didn’t grow up planning to be a workforce specialist, even if it now seems like her destiny. Moving to Brooklyn after graduating from high school in Long Island, Aiken tells us in our podcast that she “was a single parent and needed to generate income.” To do so, she started taking on freelance typing work, which she and a friend turned into a temp-typist business.

“That company blossomed to the point where I had to drop out of school,” Aiken recalls. Her clients wanted work done in-house, so she became the one who would “recruit the personnel and send them to the worksite.” She realized it was the staffing role, not the typing, that would become her career. “I closed down the typing service and worked five years at a staffing firm to learn the industry.” (She later earned her BS at CUNY and an MFA in fiction writing at Columbia.)

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The early days of Penda Aiken Inc., which started business in Manhattan, were focused on staffing in legal and office administration. “The corporations and the Wall Street companies were very selective in the type of personnel they requested,” Aiken recalls. There was “a clear need for people with diverse backgrounds,” she says of the time, but “a lot of the people of color were hired in the maintenance, mailroom type of positions.”

Knowing that diverse people had the skills for a broader array of jobs, Aiken’s firm helped expand the opportunities, including those at blue-chip companies. “As a woman of color it was an excellent opportunity for me to place people of color, different ethnicities and genders, in well-paying positions.”

Aiken moved the firm to Brooklyn in the early 2000s. “My life became Brooklyn,” she says.  Although she has lived in several neighborhoods, she now calls Bedford-Stuyvesant her home. Vividly aware of gentrification in neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy, she says “there clearly needs to be more of a conversation around that and how do you maintain that integrity of the neighborhood.” One of the ways Aiken contributes to the discussion and change is through a community group, the Brooklyn Neighborhood Improvement Association. “They are based in Crown Heights. They’ve been around for 38 years, so these issues existed back then in regards to maintaining the buildings the tenants lived in from a lower economic class.”

She sees her firm’s work as related to the issue. “My part as a staffing company is to provide people with good-paying jobs that will at least enable them to make a living wage where they can support themselves and their families. On the other side is affordable housing so people can remain where they want to live.”

The staffing industry has evolved quickly in the years since Aiken started, especially on the digital front, and her firm has moved energetically to stay at the forefront. The company hosts cloud-based front- and back-office platforms, access to job boards and user-friendly apps. Revenues have grown to $15 million. Staying relevant, Aiken says, “is a matter of remaining aware, being forward thinking, being innovative.”–By Kora Feder