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What It Takes to Build Momentum Around D&I Initiatives in Tech

Embracing authenticity and differences in approach can still lead to strong solutions

Left to right: Pema Lin (Medium), Khalida Ali (Zendesk), Jeffrey Huang (Salesforce), Jennifer Kim (Inclusion at Work, Mission Driven), Lisa Gelobter (tEQuitable)

For so many, conversations about diversity and inclusion (D&I) feel rehashed and unproductive: the same stats outlining the dearth of women and POC in leadership roles, frustrations about insufficient executive buy-in for internal D&I initiatives, the old argument over whether diversity is a pipeline problem or a wider societal and structural problem. (Hint: It’s both.) Over time, despite their importance, these carefully presented facts and conversations can cycle into inertia and fatigue.

At Medium, we feel that as long as these conversations take place exclusively within the bubbles of individual organizations, we miss out on the opportunity to come together, perceive the commonalities between our struggles, and shed new light on fresh solutions. When we ask for help, new opportunities emerge.

That’s why, on February 13th, 2019, Medium invited a community of panelists and community members into our San Francisco office to discuss the state and struggles of D&I initiatives in the workplace. We had the pleasure of spending time with Khalida Ali, head of D&I at Zendesk; Jennifer Kim, founder of Inclusion At Work, a weekly advice column and collection of resources for startups that care about D&I, and former Head of People at Lever; Jeffrey Huang, Senior Manager, Employee Engagement and Events, at Salesforce; and Lisa Gelobter, CEO and Founder at tEQuitable. Our audience included 30 employees from Bay Area companies who are looking to making more impact around D&I in their roles. They hailed from Rinsed, Grammarly, Contentful, HotelTonight, Two Chairs, the San Francisco Federal Reserve, CircleCI, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Zendesk.

We began the evening with questions that addressed common frustrations among the larger D&I community in tech: How do you create and build momentum around D&I in your organization? Should D&I be a “top down” or a “ground up,” grassroots effort? What should come first, diversity or inclusion? While there were common threads between the panelists’ answers, what was most refreshing were the friendly but passionate disagreements about approach.

How do you create and build momentum around D&I in your organization?

We also dug into the panelists’ personal experiences with D&I initiatives. When discussing where to start with D&I, Jennifer Kim spoke about co-founding and leading Lever’s taskforce when they were just a company of 10. Without much of a budget, she relied on creative approaches to community building in order to grow and foster inclusivity. She found success by emphasizing authenticity and empathy in her small team, which helped her to build a stronger case for institutional support for her D&I efforts. Kim’s goal was to humanize the concept of diversity and inclusion, and communicate the importance of everyone in the company’s involvement in initiatives. One particularly impactful program was “Soundtrack to a Life”, informal sessions in which Lever team members shared songs that represented a piece of their life experience. Team members would then host listening parties to explain why each song was so meaningful. The program facilitated moments of connection at work and helped the team discover new ways to empathize with their coworkers, particularly those from underrepresented groups. In that way, D&I sprang from a place of authentic caring, which, in turn, can open eyes and lead to greater organizational initiatives, conversations, and even executive support.

In contrast to Kim’s points, Khalida Ali shared that while uncompensated grassroots efforts are important, the burden to carry out D&I initiatives tends to fall on underrepresented groups. There should not be an expectation that efforts go unpaid or without support. From Ali’s perspective, securing a budget for D&I efforts should be a part of the overall strategy, or else we risk overburdening already marginalized groups.

Lisa Gelobter agreed that unless D&I is appearing in your organizational key performance indicators (KPIs) with buy-in from the executive team (and the resources and public support that buy-in entails), the business has not signaled that they stand behind D&I as a priority. The key to concrete progress is to have company leadership take a measure of responsibility: Make them “put their money where their mouth is” and identify what D&I goals they will support by including them in organizational KPIs. What gets counted gets measured. And goals must be tangible — for example, ask yourself: How many people of color make up your leadership team? What does retention (not just recruitment) look like for your employees in underrepresented groups? How do you measure outcomes and set goals around them?

Jeffrey Huang, who heads up OutForce, Salesforce’s global LGBTQI + Ally employee resource group, gave other examples of how D&I can start with a narrative instead of numbers. For National Coming Out Day, Huang organized a global storytelling event where trans, gay, bi, and genderqueer folks shared their individual coming out stories. Huang also invited allies to share how experiencing their own family members come out changed their perspectives. By telling stories, we can pull heart strings and make people care, said Huang. From that foundation, D&I efforts can be built and implemented.

After the panel, the event broke out into smaller discussion groups focused on supporting and mentoring underrepresented minorities, creating employee resource groups, recruiting, and building organizational support for D&I. These discussion groups offered an opportunity for attendees to come together and share their victories, setbacks, and resources.

After the February event, the D&I Committee at Medium took time to reflect on our own goals and efforts, and found ourselves taking cues from the panelists. In an effort to develop clearly measurable goals, we have set KPIs for our committee around how to increase diversity at the highest levels of our organization along with measurable steps for how to get there. Additionally, one of our committee members organized an effective narrative-sharing campaign centered around Women’s History Month. Writing on Medium’s internal blog, women-identified Medians shared the moments in their lives that most defined what womanhood means to them. Though the impact is less measurable this narrative-sharing effort connects individuals to each other, demonstrates that inclusion efforts are not abstract, and empowers people to share personal parts of themselves at work in inspiring ways.

Those of us working in Silicon Valley and tech and business at large have a long way to go to reach workplace equity, inclusion, and representation. The conversation around diversity and inclusion needs to be started and restarted continuously. We hope that by creating a space for D&I practitioners and community members to share and reflect on ideas, we can re-invigorate others who feel alone and tired in their efforts. We at Medium certainly feel more inspired, and look forward to making more progress along the way. What will you do?

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Cameron Price

Cameron Price

Writer, reader, runner.

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