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Tech companies promised to do better on diversity. Here's how they can.

Holler CEO Travis Montaque calls for an agile approach to make systemic, not surgical, changes, both internally and externally.

Black Lives Matter protestors

"When you're looking to solve a big, complex problem, you can't expect to achieve it in one fell swoop," says Holler CEO Travis Montaque.

Image: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Travis Montaque is the founder and CEO of Holler, a messaging technology company.

In 2020, protests against police brutality and racism erupted across the country. Issues of racial injustice were brought to the forefront of our national consciousness. In response, business leaders from just about every industry came out with statements acknowledging the work that needs to be done, and committing to making a change.

It was a long overdue start to a problem that is structurally embedded in our society. This is especially true in the world of tech, which has struggled to strike a balance between its save-the-world ethos and actually making the world a better place. Today, the challenge will be ensuring that the moment of racial reckoning and acknowledgement we witnessed is more than just a moment. If 2020 was the moment of reckoning, 2021 will be the year of accountability.

Let's take ownership as we move forward

The tech industry has played a role in enabling a divide in this country, from encouraging information to spread — regardless of whether it was true — to inadvertently creating echo chambers that confirm existing beliefs without question. While we work to create internal programs to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, it's important for us to also examine the external impact of our products. Ask yourself: How can I ensure our products are aligned with the company's core values? How can I ensure my company is promoting diversity, equity and inclusion, not just internally, but in society at large?

Have those tough conversations with yourself, your team and your investors. Once you've laid the foundation, here are a few actions you can take to foster lasting change:

1. Don't just measure progress by headlines and press releases.

Just last month, Netflix launched its first Inclusion Report, which comes on the heels of investing more of its money in Black-owned banks. Apple announced major new projects as part of its Racial Equity and Justice Initiative, supporting HBCUs, an Apple Developer Academy to support coding students in Detroit, and venture capital funding for Black founders and other founders of color. Ulta Beauty just pledged $25 million to combat racial injustice.

These headline-making, sweeping initiatives are incredible, and no doubt important. But we can't think of them as the only way — or even the most impactful way — to create change.

This year, don't be afraid to also embrace smaller, everyday projects that might never make headlines or require an announcement. In fact, we're looking for a world where efforts to strengthen diversity and inclusion are not newsworthy. These could be as simple as creating a Slack channel dedicated to sharing relevant DEI news and research, or creating a book club where employees are given a book about racism to read and discuss.

One of the most impactful, smaller-scale initiatives you can adopt is quarterly employee temperature checks. At Holler, we created an anonymous survey for employees to share how included they feel at work, and to evaluate the company's progress in achieving DEI. This not only gives employees a safe space to give honest feedback, but also provides leadership with hard data to compare our progress quarter after quarter.

By the end of 2021, your goal should be to make DEI an organic part of your company's DNA, not a one-off statement or press release. Make it a part of regular, daily conversations happening at your company.

2. Embrace an agile engineering approach.

When you're looking to solve a big, complex problem, you can't expect to achieve it in one fell swoop. You create something, you build on it, you learn, you improve it. You create systems to ensure it continues to evolve. As an industry, we know this model well; it's at the core of all product innovation.

I'd argue that we can think about our diversity and inclusion efforts in a similar way. The focus should be on collective improvement rather than one all-encompassing attempt at a solution. What that means is that teams should be continually testing and iterating what works for your company. Much like in product engineering, once you find a solution to one problem, the project is not over. It needs to be maintained.

Consider this need for constant improvements and "fixes." There will be stumbles and there will be systems and programs that once worked for your team and company but suddenly do not. Sustaining your company values and behaviors to include elements of inclusion requires intention and vigilance.

For example, I recently hosted a town hall in which I moderated a discussion about the challenges women have experienced in the workplace. After the fact, we received feedback that maybe I wasn't the right person to lead this type of discussion, and we would have benefited from another female voice in the room. It was an important moment for us to grow, practice transparency with my team, and remember that even though the intent was right, there were ways to make it better and more impactful to our team.

3. Think systematically, not surgically.

In response to the calls for immediate responses to a lack of diversity in tech, many companies brought on high-level diverse talent over the past few months. But, unfortunately, the number of current or potential minority leaders is finite. In fact, only about one in 10 employees at large tech companies is Black or Latinx. There have only been 19 Black CEOs in the history of the Fortune 500.

We don't need to see big companies poaching talent from one another to prove a point. To ensure diverse leadership is the norm in the future, we need to create a better system of development. We need tech leadership to commit to making the talent pool bigger, and invest in their own teams. Not only do we need to continue to welcome more women and people of color into the world of tech, but we must support them when they've joined our teams and ensure avenues for advancement. We need to create more pathways so that we can also promote from within, and make sure that retaining valuable employees is just as important as recruiting them. This is a much more difficult and ongoing challenge, which is why it's often overlooked.

For example, we've unveiled a new training program that connects all young employees to senior leaders for ongoing mentorship. In this way, we hope to better help our employees envision leadership roles for themselves one day — and know there is a place for them. We aren't focused on a one-off event or hire to show our commitment to creating more diversity internally at the company; it's a continuous, systematic process to foster development and grow future tech leaders from within.

Looking forward

All of these efforts seek to achieve the same thing: unity and togetherness. And while that may sound fluffy and vague, it's still something we need to talk about.

Leaders should be intentional about the specific things their company is working on to improve, but it's also important to carve out a way to better measure the tone of a company's culture. We need to do a better job of bringing the human factor into conversations of diversity and inclusion. Does a decision fit into your values and your business decisions? Does it feel right?

We, as an industry, have tremendous power to change the tone and tap into the subtle and slow changes to change culture for the better. Let's embrace our collective power, and hold tech to a new standard in 2021.

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