Torin Ellis: "I’m not throwing in the towel; I’m not surrendering on this message. I’m not giving up."

December 14th, 2016
“I’m not throwing in the towel; I’m not surrendering on this message. I’m not giving up.”
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I’ve met a lot of men in recruitment. I mean, you can’t not. It’s an industry that’s dominated by them, and diversity is still just lip service to some organisations.

The men I’ve met are generally cut from the same cloth. They’re white, middle-class, sharky type of guys. They’re nice enough, but they’re mostly in this game because they ‘fell into it’ and are waiting for the big pay-out so they can fall right back out of it. They’re money driven and they don’t have much to say for themselves.

Because I’ve met so many of these guys, I just assumed it was the rule. The given. The status quo.

But then I sat down to talk to Torin, and he flipped everything I knew on its head, and suddenly, there’s a new kind of guy in recruitment, and he’s got so much to say.

Do you know who I want to meet when I die?

(I’m a little confused at this point, as I swear I’m the one who’s supposed to be interviewing Torin, but he seems to have just dived in).

Erm, no. Who?

Whoever said it was a good idea to work five days and only have two days holiday. The weekend is just too damn short.

(I sigh in relief. I really thought I was going to get a string of difficult questions, or a ‘meaning of life’ kind of debate. Seeing as it’s Monday morning, it’s just too early for that kind of conversation).

Ha, tell me about it. Perhaps we can both chat to them when we meet them.

That would be good.

It’s weird, I feel like I already know you because I watched you so much on Top Recruiter.

Well thanks for tuning in to it.

It was great to watch. I was really rooting for you to win by the way. (I try to say this nonchalantly without sounding like a total fan girl, but I’m not sure I altogether succeed).

Well thank you, that’s really kind of you.

What I never figured out from the show though, was why you got into recruitment? If the show is anything to go by, it’s pretty intense, and dramatic.

I feel like we have an invisible responsibility.


As an African American, many of us have this invisible responsibility on our shoulders to portray to the world, to our communities, to our families, even to ourselves, that we are responsible. We’re productive. We matter.

(I umm and ahh for a bit, as this doesn’t sit too comfortably with me. I’m a person of colour and I’ve never felt that responsibility that Torin speaks of. Does that make me a bad ethnic? Eeek)

Some would argue that it’s actually not your responsibility as a person of colour to portray all of that, because actually, it’s the responsibility of the majority, the majority that have typically and historically done the oppressing, to understand and educate themselves and not buy into stereotypes. Why should you as a black man in business, continue to work and be super productive so that you can counter balance a stereotype. Not a truth, not a given, but a racist stereotype that has acted against you for years and years?

We have a media that portrays people of colour in a particular way, continually doing that over and over and over again. When you think about the 90s, and you think about how many African American’s were in prison, it was about a million. Then they changed some laws and now we have two million African Americans in prison out of the three million that are there.

So that’s the narrative and the undertone of so much of what we experience here in the US, and I just feel like I have to make sure that I’m always working hard, and always showing people around me, whoever that is – black, white, Asian, Latino, Hispanic – that I’m never off my game because I don’t ever want people to think, ‘oh he’s just another lazy person’ and he’s hoping someone gives him something. He thinks he’s entitled.

I’m not entitled to anything. I’ve got to work hard for it, and I don’t mind working hard for it.

I’m a Muslim woman born in Africa, and the media has told me for years that I’m a terrorist. However, at no point do I think that I’m going to be an upstanding citizen to let everyone know that I’m not what the media says I am. I don’t think it’s my responsibility. I’m not going to be your patron saint so that you can believe that we’re not all like that.

I totally understand that, but I just figured if I could help other African Americans get jobs in a system that is against them, then that was a good thing.

Well yes, that’s a very honourable thing to do.

I don’t know if it was honour, more frustration. In 98 I had one of the top producing sales teams in the entire country for my company. But still, I couldn’t get a promotion. Leadership would tell me they couldn’t trust me because I had a beard.

I also remember reading this article about top individuals from Philadelphia all the way down to Virginia. It highlighted all the successful people in tech, but there wasn’t one person of colour on the list. No one.

How is it that you can go from Philadelphia, pass over Baltimore and Washington DC and Richmond Virginia, and not find anybody of colour that should be recognised within technology?

Well, you can’t. That’s just wonderful discrimination for you.

Exactly! So this thing about recruitment and diversity, it’s not new for me. it’s something that I’ve been perusing since 1998.

You don’t meet many people in this industry that make an active choice to go into recruitment. People often do it for the cash, or because they fell into it. 

Well you know, making the cash isn’t a bad thing either.

It’s a definite bonus. So how many years have you been in recruitment now?

Eighteen years.

Wow! Taking into account what you set out to do, do you feel like you’ve affected change over the last eighteen years?

I do. Some of the change at least.

So what’s next?

Now I’m on this really, really deep pursuit of trying to build something that doesn’t exist. I’m trying to build a recruitment marketing and talent acquisition firm that focuses on diversity. We don’t have one like that in the US.

So the company you dream of setting up, it’s one that would recruit ethnic minorities?

Yes. It would also make sure that we come up with the messaging that resonates with that audience. Then I want to go beyond that. I want to make sure that we have the resources in place, the personnel in place, to screen those individuals and really distil them down. To really help take the burden off.

For a lot of the internal recruiting teams, the problem is not that they can’t do their job, they just don’t have the bandwidth, so a lot of the talent gets ignored. I want to make sure that as an agency, as a business partner, we’re able to help them on the full continuum of the human capital strategy.

Do you run the risk of reverse racism? 

I don’t think so. I just feel like we’re focused on diversity. For example, right now, you have certain organisations and companies that will run an ad in, let’s say a glamour or GQ magazine. Then they’ll try and take that add and run it inside of Ebony or Essence magazine, or they’ll try to take that add and put it on Hispanic news or maybe run that on Al Jazeera TV.

That same ad does not resonate all the way across all those channels, so I don’t see it as being reverse racism, it’s just a matter of me trying to put a team in place to develop message appropriate advertisement that drives the human capital strategy, and brings the people into the pipeline that they are trying to get.

Some would argue that with South Africa and apartheid, it’s really dangerous to create specific spaces for one race. That instead we should be elevating everyone altogether. 

Again, what I always say is that my presence in the equation is a compliment. So if I insert this heavy emphasis on diversity, it’s merely a compliment to all the other efforts you have in place already. I’m not looking to do business with people who aren’t trying to embrace diversity. I couldn’t care less about them.

I want to work with those who want to create diverse organisations, but don’t necessarily know how. They will come to me gladly because if it’s of interest to them. They won’t see it as being something that is reverse, or discriminatory, or negative.

Even though we’ve come so far, there’s still such a phenomenal way to go when it comes to diversity. You’re tackling a real monster here. What’s been your lowest point so far?

Back in 2001 when the bubble burst and I had so many clients that owed me hundreds of thousands of dollars. I was really trying to figure out how to get myself out of this ditch.

I mean, I’ve had some peaks and valleys, but that was a real low point.

Not that I want to re-live your worst moments or anything, but has there been more recent examples?

Probably in 2014 when we were working on a film project regarding diversity. I can’t tell you how many calls and emails I made, probably a sum total of 750 to a thousand. A combination of phone calls, and emails, and LinkedIn messages from people reaching out saying diversity is important, but we got dismal participation. We were ready to pull the project. It was very disappointing.

Do people still care about diversity? There’s an idea that we’re done. Especially with a black president.

I think for some people that’s exactly how they feel. It’s those individuals that I have to educate. But I don’t feel like that’s the majority. I think most people are still open to the conversation because they recognise that we really wouldn’t be having this conversation if it wasn’t true.

But how do you show people that we really need to still have these conversations?

Well for example, Twitter has 47, maybe 50, African American employees inside the company.

But African Americans over index in how they use Twitter. Like we really use it. We love it. If we suddenly went off it, Twitter would plummet in terms of activity. So how is it that you only have 50 people of colour in the entire organisation?

It’s definitely a topic that should still be discussed.

But how do you get people to care more?

I think you just have to keep going. You have to stay motivated. When I’m trying to get people to care, I still make calls. I still send emails. I still go to networking events. I still volunteer to speak, I do interviews, I do articles for publications. I have radio presence. It’s a matter of just being present. Being active. Being engaged. And not quitting. Not throwing in the towel. I’m not surrendering on this message, I’m not giving up.

(This man is so inspiring, I’m ready to jump up and shout it from the rooftops, but instead, I play it cool). So what’s been a great moment for you in your career?

This sounds crazy, but just sitting here today is a high point.

So much of what I’ve set out to do has been accomplished. It may have taken longer, it may have come in ways that were a bit unorthodox, it may have presented itself to me in another package that I didn’t necessarily expect, but, they’ve happened. I’ve had a radio show. I’ve had a magazine. I’ve had a seven figure recruiting firm. I’m now on radio. I now have a PR team. I’m meeting people internationally that I would never have met before. I’m setting up to do a couple of pilots. There’s so many different things that are happening right now that I wanted to happen years ago. So the high point for me is that I never quit.

What do you think got you to this point?

It’s funny, I told my wife last year that when I return from Top Recruiter, I’m going to be on a six-month switch of who I am. I’m going to be a totally different person. And that’s exactly what I’ve done. I’ve come back a stronger more fortified person. This shit isn’t pretty and when I hit, I hit hard and you’re going to feel it. But it’s a good hit. I’m just playing the game like a line backer right now, and I’m coming through every hole available to me and I’m going to hit you extremely hard.

Why did you think you had to go through a metamorphosis and become a whole new person? 

Because I was still in that valley. Still thinking, ahh it’s not going the way I want it to. Or thinking we’re still having this conversation around diversity. I had to remind myself that if you want to change it, you have to be different, you have to change.

So you’ve never been tempted to go off and do something else?

Oh very, very tempted. I want to do a t-shirt line. I want to open up a super club for men.

For men only?

Yeah. Just really cool club, poetry, membership based. Just because we need things that are safe for us.

Surely the last thing we need is another all boys club? 

Uhhhhhh. Well, it’s just a little fun thing right there, I’ve always wanted a club.

So why not have a club for everyone? (If Torin is working this hard at Diversity, there’s no way I’m letting him get away with creating a man only club – not on my watch).

I’ll take that under consideration, how about that. When the time comes, you’ll be involved. Deal?

Okay, deal.

So by the sounds of things, you’ve achieved so much. Yet we still see such a lack of diversity in business. Are we headed towards a breaking point, or is there hope?

There’s definitely hope! Things are happening that the market can’t stop from happening. For example the shift from millennials coming into the workforce and Gen X’ers leaving. Millennials have a different observation of what diversity looks like.

So we can put the mantle down?

I don’t think we can ever put it down because that’s part of the problem now. Folks look at the problem of diversity now and they often approach it like it’s a race, and in a race, you know there’s a finish line. The race is never over.

I think we still have another strong decade of carrying the mantra of diversity and I think towards 2025/2030, organisations are going to get the message and they’ll probably do a better job of hiring diverse talent and the conversation will become second nature.

So it’s a never ending movement?


Speaking of movements, what does The Movement mean to you? 

It’s an assembly of people that are authentic and very committed to the work that we do. It’s about combining likeminded individuals with different perspectives on the work we do.

We have some really good and strong people inside the family that The Movement has created, and I suspect that in the years to come I’ll be able to look back on some of these relationships and talk about how they helped me overcome challenges, and encouraged me as I built my dreams.

And just like that, Torin Ellis managed to shatter everything I knew about men in recruitment. I could have talked to him for days and not gotten bored, although I suspect he has a million other things he would rather do. But talking to someone who entered recruitment, not for the money, but to change the very seams of our world, that is a pretty impressive thing if you ask me.