Tearing the paper ceiling: How one executive rose through the ranks without a degree

For Kristen Faris, senior vice president of customer success, solutions and partnerships at Checkr, a background check platform, sitting in a classroom was always like listening to the teacher on Peanuts drone on indistinctly. 

It was — and is — “excruciatingly painful,” Faris told HR Dive. 

Yet, Faris admittedly did well in school and enrolled in the civil engineering program at California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo after graduation. 

But the disconnect she felt in the high school classroom was amplified by the 300-person lecture halls of college. And the program thrust her immediately into the field, sending her out with an orange vest to do surveying. 

“It’s really hard to know at 17 when you’re applying to school what it is you want to do,” Faris said. “I didn’t know what civil engineering was.”

She dropped out, took a full-time job and signed up for night classes. 

“At the time, I really felt like, ‘If I don’t have a college degree, this is not going to end well for me,’” Faris said. 

Faris’ path is one that may become more common as employers drop degree requirements and applicant screening tools follow suit. However, while more job posts are omitting degree requirements, that hasn’t yet translated into more skills-based hiring, according to a recent LinkedIn study. 

The birth of Faris’ daughter and the relocation of the company where she worked led her to make a bold move. Inspired by her father’s entrepreneurial success, she launched her own background screening company in the Bay Area. 

Equipped with a couple fax machines and a phone system, she started cold-calling companies and created a business she would run for seven years, before selling it to a competitor. 

She took a year and a half off to be a stay-at-home mom for her daughters before deciding she was ready to rejoin the workforce. 

“What I didn’t realize at the time was that [applicant tracking systems] often blocked candidates that did not have college degrees,” Faris said. 

After applying for countless jobs without getting any interest, she turned to her network and got hired by the company that had bought her business. From there, she landed a job at Checkr and moved up the ranks. 

“I see a lot of companies removing the requirement for a degree,” Faris said, adding that more employers seem to be willing to turn to referrals. “I think that network really helps you to get a foot in the door.”

Faris now does a lot of mentoring and tries to help others without degrees progress in their careers. She recommends potential employees get out of their comfort zones, not be afraid to ask for help and learn how to market themselves and their skills. 

“Get prepared to hear ‘no’ sometimes more often than you hear ‘yes.’ And take those nos and and keep pushing through, grinding and being really gritty,” Faris said. “While college isn’t for everybody … how you learn, I think, is up to you.”