Diversity in 2018: Now as Important as Ever

Originally published in the Phoenix Business Journal. Photo Credit – Soroush Karimi.

While catching up on reading this week, I came upon Robert Backie’s ‘My View: Here’s another take on diversity, inclusion in tech community’. I couldn’t help but sigh. Although my own technology company had stacks of work caused by last week’s shutdown of the Instagram API, this felt even more pressing. The author had shared a one-sided viewpoint on diversity and inclusion (D&I) and I felt compelled to share my own.

The author lessens the importance of D&I business programs, insists we forget the many ‘isms’ that exist in life and business, downplays the value of mentors one can relate with culturally, and attacks hiring with an open mind towards diversity.

Re-reading the article, I wondered if the author had performed research on this topic or if this was truly just ‘His View’. I looked for examples, statistics, or any type of symbolic research in the text but found nothing but hyperbole. I was not shocked, however. Sparked by the example from our current political leaders, why should our business leaders be afraid to speak their minds on a subject they may know little about. Why bother to consider other more knowledgeable opinions in this day in age.

From the outset, the article references the Declaration of Independence, in that, “…all people are created equal.” It is citing a document that was written in contradiction to this equality statement as it was during an age when a white man had the ability to legally own another individual (slavery) and nearly 150 years before women would permanently obtain the right to vote. His inclusion of this is fitting in that the points the author makes are also misguided. Let me explain why one point at a time.

The author insists we eliminate business programs that focus on race, gender or sexual orientation. First off, the author implies that there is segregation in business programs that support diversity which is not the case. In most (if not all) of these programs, anyone is welcome to join so long as he or she supports the mission of the group. If a Caucasian male would like to join the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, for example, he easily could. They would welcome the man with open arms just as they have for the past 66 years.

Now let’s talk about the economic impact of these groups. It is important to know that supporting a diversity program is not a zero-sum game. Contributing to diversity groups does not take away from other programs. Conversely, when done correctly, a rising tide lifts all ships. The Arizona Million Dollar Circle of Excellence, which includes a roster of more than 30 Arizona companies spending at least $1 million in procurement contracts with minority and women-owned firms, was formed to further understand these benefits. They report that women and minority-owned business contracts in this one program alone support over 9,200 jobs, $1 billion in economic activity, $416 million in employee wages, and $34 million in tax revenues. Furthermore, for every $10 million in diversity spending, corporations create 178 new jobs, encourage $20 million in total economic output, generate $8 million in total wages and support $668,600 in state and local revenue.

We should promote business programs that exist to celebrate culture, gender, sexual orientation or any other interest, especially in fields such as tech. These groups offer strength to their members as they find commonalities with other group members that come from similar places, speak similar languages and have had experiences that they can share and grow from. This has value in every industry in every country across the globe.

The author warns against D&I initiatives in hiring. He fails to note the purpose of D&I is to level the playing field by teaching that unconscious bias and a tendency to hire people that look like you leads to a lack of diversity in the workplace. And this strategy has results. A 2015 McKinsey study shows that companies that hire diversely deliver 35% more effectively than companies that do not.

While the author’s small business of 4 other employees may survive without a D&I strategy, much larger institutions such as Mortenson, one of the largest commercial builders in the nation with 2,500 employees and just under $4 billion in sales are taking the initiative in D&I. A focus on D&I has benefitted Mortenson which was cited as being involved in many of the high-profile construction projects in Phoenix, including Salt River Fields and the downtown Phoenix Hampton Inn & Suites.

With this initiative, Mortenson can attract and attain strong female construction professionals such as Tammy Carr, a principal with Mortenson. Carr stated in a recent article:

“Research has proven that leaders who engage the perspectives of diverse individuals provide far more value to their businesses and their customers than those who otherwise rely on team members who come from majority backgrounds. Companies such as Mortenson whose culture embraces individual team members’ differences will continue to attract individuals such as myself”.

What we should do is rethink our hiring processes. One of the key reasons we have a lack of diversity in tech is because the way we hire for it. Think about who may be the best person for the team, rather than just for one specific role. If you have an all-white male C-suite, ask yourself why, and if that may be holding your team back. This is a matter of better educating those that do the hiring as opposed to forced hiring practices.

The author attaches little importance to finding mentors one can relate to culturally. One of the D&I groups the author would disband is Arizona State University’s program ‘Advancing Women in Construction‘, which has the industry-led initiative to increase the number of women successfully obtaining degrees in construction. This organization’s mentorship program benefits mentees as they are able to gain insights from female members of the construction community who have experienced biases in their work history while working in a male-dominant industry such as construction.

In my own tech company, OYE Intelligence, my business partner of 8 years is our CEO. A female Latina CEO. She has numerous mentors of all backgrounds but speaks most fondly of her conversations with her female peers that also come from the tech field. They truly provide guidance on how to know whether a male peer is sincerely being helpful versus looking for a date. Or how to be taken seriously as a female tech founder in an industry where 95% of founders are male. We should encourage young people to find mentors that can share guidance on how they succeed having come from difficult backgrounds. An impactful mentor may come from similar cultural upbringing, or from a similar economic background. It makes no sense to limit these opportunities.

The author implores that we ignore the ‘isms’ that exist today such as racism or sexism. Many companies have diversity issues and are afraid to call out these problems until it is too late. Uber had to suffer through scandals and negative PR before realizing they needed more diversity in their leadership. They replaced CEO Travis Kalanick and put in place modern-day thinkers such as Bozoma Saint John as their Chief Branding Officer.

The efforts of #YesPHX and the tech community in Phoenix should be commended as they have taken the initiative to address issues including the ‘isms’ that occur to this day in all industries especially technology. As mentioned, this country was founded with an acceptance of sexism and slavery. Prominent 19th-century American scientists “discovered proof” that Caucasians were superior to other ethnicities. Hispanics and African Americans were denied basic privileges until the civil rights era of the late 1960’s. To this day, black men are still shot unjustly based on fear while their killers receive little or no reprimand. To ignore the ‘isms’ or deny them today, as the author states we should, is not just idealistic, it is ignorant. What we need to do is understand where we came from and support those who are truly working to progress from a time when the ‘isms’ were plainly accepted.