On the eve of its annual fundraising dinner, the Walter Kaitz Foundation and its new president, Art Torres, are making plans to reach out to college-bound minorities and to seek help in achieving the foundation's goals from industry and national minority leaders.
Torres, chairman of the California Democratic Party and a 20-year veteran of that state's political scene, was named last week to lead the foundation, which has come under fire for not doing enough to increase the ranks of minority employees in cable. The last president, Paula Winn, resigned shortly after last year's dinner.
Torres said he welcomes the challenge of righting the 17-year-old foundation, which recruits minorities for jobs at cable operators and networks, mostly in middle management.
"I missed the debate over public policy, and I can't think of a more important issue than diversity," he said in an interview.
Torres, 53, has an impressive political resume, but no real industry experience. He served 20 for years in the California Legislature, eight in the Assembly and 12 as a state senator.
He was the first Latino to receive his party's nomination for a statewide office-insurance commissioner-in 1994. He lost that election, however, and became president of Cordoba International, an engineering consulting firm in Los Angeles.
In 1996, he was elected state Democratic chairman and is leading Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign in California. He will resign after the November general election.
The Kaitz Foundation has taken heat for cable's overall poor record in recruiting minorities, particularly for its lack of success in retaining them and guiding them to executive positions. According to a recent National Association of Minorities in Cable report, minorities hold about 30 percent of the jobs in cable, but only about 5 percent of the positions at senior vice president or above.
Some cable executives have questioned whether the foundation effectively spends the nearly $2 million it takes in every year, mostly from the dinner in New York. Recently, some executives said they were surprised to hear that only one of this year's 27 Kaitz fellows did not already hold a job in cable.
Foundation supporters countered that companies don't make enough of an effort to ensure those placed by Kaitz want to remain in the industry. The companies also need to create specific programs to attract and promote workers who aren't white men, they contended.
Torres said it's clear the industry and Kaitz have made progress, but not enough. "The industry's commitment has to go beyond just good intentions. It has to show more positive results," Torres said.
This week, Torres will present the Kaitz board of directors with a proposal for an outreach program that would visit college campuses to recruit fellows. "Outreach programs will be very important, especially to colleges with large minority student bodies," he said.
Torres also intends to work more closely with industry organizations such as the National Association of Minorities In Cable and the Cable and Telecommunications Human Resources Association to recruit and retain qualified minority employees. And he wants to step up collaboration with national organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The NAACP, in particular, has criticized cable's hiring practices. Last April, the civil-rights organization gave the industry a "C" grade in a report card on minority representation at executive levels and among suppliers.
Torres also wants to follow up more frequently with Kaitz alumni.
"We need to look to the alumni and find out where they are now, and if they've left the industry, find out why," he said. "The industry's input is necessary and the key to making [the foundation] a success."
CATHRA president Pandit Wright called Torres' appointment "phenomenal," and said his political experience and contacts would far outweigh his lack of cable experience.
"This is a major coup for Kaitz. Art Torres is a collaborator and knows how to get things done," Wright said. "By not being a part of the cable industry, I think he brings a fresh perspective to the foundation, and I think he'll perform extremely well."