Diversity Dialogues: A Personal Reflection
If there’s one question you’re guaranteed to get in a job interview, it’s “what’s your proudest professional accomplishment?” Up until last week, my answer would likely have included the phrases product launch, demand generation and integrated campaign – a nod to my rich product marketing experience at WePay. But now, I would answer the question very differently.
A couple of weeks ago, WePay held its first ever event on diversity and inclusion in the workplace. The event was a panel discussion moderated by our CEO, Bill Clerico, featuring Dr. Beverly Tatum, author and President Emerita of Spelman College and Marco Rogers, Engineering Leader at series D tech startup Clover Health. The event was also the culmination of several conversations I found myself having recently about the importance of a racially diverse workforce, especially in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore.
Like most people, I watch the news, see the headlines, and am deeply pained by images of communities torn apart by violence and divided by mistrust. Yet, against this backdrop, I’ve always allowed myself to wonder – often out loud with close friends – how things would be better if we focused on the collective potential of our differences, instead of letting them drive divisiveness. My current industry, the technology industry, has come under scrutiny in recent years for its largely homogenous workforce. How might increasing the representation of ethnic minorities across tech companies do the following?
- Drive better business results?
- Unlock economic opportunity for underrepresented groups?
- Promote an office culture of empathy and cross-cultural understanding?
- Even disrupt systems of oppression that are often the root cause of race-related violence in our country?
It wasn’t long after sharing this line of thinking with my company’s leadership, something I felt completely empowered to do, that WePay decided to play a more active role in advancing and elevating this important dialogue. The goal of last week’s event was to begin the conversation, unpacking the forces that make race such a thorny issue to discuss, while building the case for increased diversity in the workplace – in our workplace.
The event was championed by our CEO and drew a full crowd of employees across our Redwood City and Providence offices as well as a few WePay investors. For over 75 minutes, Dr. Tatum and Marco took us through personal stories, scholarly research and historical information to help us break the ice on the sensitive topic. While I can’t possibly recap all that was discussed, I do want to share three profound takeaways from the dialogue.
- We are socialized at a young age to not talk to about race. When asked why race is uncomfortable for most to openly discuss, Dr. Tatum invited the audience to reflect on their own earliest race-related memory. She then asked us to shout out the emotions that we associated with these early memories. Most everyone mentioned fear, anger, sadness, shame, embarrassment and even guilt. When asked whether we discussed that experience with a trusted adult at the time, many people said they did not. Dr. Tatum went on to conclude that we did not speak up then, and often avoid doing so now as adults, because we’ve internalized the idea that race is simply too uncomfortable to discuss.
- Diversity is not a zero-sum game. Zero-sum is a situation in economic game theory in which one participant’s gain is equivalent to the other’s loss. The issue with this analogy when applied to diversity and inclusion efforts is that it presumes the creation of more equitable environments means loss for some in those environments. When asked to look at the shortcomings of this analogy, Dr. Tatum did so through exploration of another, more adequate one. The audience was asked to consider a seesaw. If white Americans are in the “upper” position due to the ways in which they’ve been systematically advantaged and underrepresented groups are in the “lower” position due to the ways in which they’ve been systematically disadvantaged, the goal of diversity and inclusion efforts then becomes balancing the seesaw to correct for this inequity. This is a very different visual than that of one group crashing down while the other rises, which is what the “win or lose” mentality of the zero-sum game analogy implies.
- Diverse teams enable better business performance. Many people don’t know that the business case for racial diversity is just as compelling as the social justice case for racial diversity. McKinsey & Company has reported that companies in the top quartile in terms of racial diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns higher than the national median in their industry. In fact, far from being zero-sum, this implies that diversity and inclusion efforts result in improvement for everyone. Marco credited this business benefit to the range of experiences racially diverse teams bring to bear on complex problems. He shared an example of the time when his team needed to translate some web content into Spanish to serve the company’s largely Latinx user base. Instead of having to leverage an expensive translation vendor for the job, a spanish-speaking engineering colleague was able to take a stab at the translation. He then called upon another spanish-speaking colleague from a different department (who would not ordinarily have even heard about the project) who helped the team arrive at a translation that everyone felt good about without using an expensive and time-consuming third-party service.
While Dr. Tatum and Marco covered a number of topics on the panel, the event was titled “Diversity Dialogues” to indicate that this wasn’t a “one and done” effort. After the event, I was approached by several colleagues who had expressed interest in planning additional “dialogues” to keep the tough conversations going. And with this very successful event behind us, I now know that this is completely possible. It’s possible because my company is receptive to this type of discourse. We’re willing to put ourselves in the uncomfortable position of openly talking about social issues and taking actions, so that we may learn, grow and act in a way that promotes inclusion at WePay and in society at large.