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During his first two stints as a head of diversity and inclusion at tech companies, Albrey Brown had to deal with a lack of trust and resources as he tried to prove the worth of the role. Now, things couldn't be more different.
Brown, now head of D&I at Airtable after stints in the same role at DocuSign, Pivotal Software and Hack Reactor, says he's seen significant changes in the tech industry's stance toward his line of work over the last five years. Now, he says, executives seem more ready to contend with the racism and discrimination at their own companies, particularly because it has the potential to affect their bottom line. Now, amid the reignited Black Lives Matter movement, Brown thinks the tech industry could be at an inflection point — if it's able to turn its latest commitments into action.
Protocol spoke with Albrey about specific actions companies can take, the mistakes executives make when embarking on that mission, and the challenges that Brown himself has faced on the job.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In recent weeks, we've heard countless tech companies pledge their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, even as they maintain workforces that are predominantly white and homogenous. What do you think these companies have to do in the short term to live up to that stated support for the movement?
When I first started doing D&I work, I wouldn't have anticipated as many tech companies expressing this collective feeling and intention to vocally support the Black community. Tech companies need to take those statements and really reconstruct their processes and programs that have been disadvantaging marginalized folks for years. The first step towards doing that is hiring a diversity and inclusion expert. I can't tell you how many emails I've gotten from recruiters [and] organizations now looking to hire a D&I person to take this on for 40 hours a week.
The second step is, specifically for this moment, consulting with your Black employees. When I say consulting, I really mean consulting: listening, asking questions about what the culture is like, what their experience is like, but not putting the work on them to actually solve it. The action should be on leadership, in partnership with an expert like a diversity and inclusion or people team member that has the expertise.
Airtable recently committed to several racial diversity initiatives. How is the company making good on its pledge to "invest in long-term support for Black employees experiencing trauma, and loss"?
The first thing that we did when the George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Brianna Taylor stories started popping up in May was reach out to our Black employees at the same time and ask, "We know these things are happening, we know that Black people are being killed by the police, what would you like us to do?" And we took their lead. They said, "We would love for you to put out a statement, we would love for you to support us, we'd love to do a donation campaign to these organizations, and we want to start thinking about having some organized efforts to support Black employees." I think that will look like an employee resource group [or ERG]. We haven't landed on the exact model just yet.
And then, we decided to look at our demographics and take an approach of "progress over perfection," continuing to work with our Black employees on tapping their networks, intentionally networking with Black professionals that might be interested in Airtable. And as we hire, just making sure that we are reaching out and seriously considering Black candidates.
I saw you speaking recently about the role of ERGs. Do you think it's an issue when, often, management says, "OK, we're having an issue with discrimination and inequity in our company," and they turn to the ERG, a group of marginalized employees, and say, "What should we do about it? Can you guys fix it?"
The way ERGs have operated in the past has been that you bring this group of underrepresented people together, and you ask them, "Hey, can you both find the problems and fix the problems?" Then marginalized folks become burned out and actually have a worse experience because now they're doing double-duty, both doing their job and suffering at the organization while also trying to fix the problems.
I think the new operating model, and a more effective operating model, can be seeing your Black employees and your ERGs as subject matter experts when it comes to the experience of Black people at their company. And then you can have the people who are paid to do the work apply those learnings to the programs, to those processes and to marketing efforts. Also, the folks who are spending the time leading these ERGs, guiding these ERGs as partners to the business, need to be compensated in some way, shape or form. That could be taking it into account in a performance review or actual cash compensation. Money and status talks within any organization.
When we talk about diversity issues within the tech industry, we often hear that it comes down to a "pipeline problem." What do you make of that assessment?
I think the "pipeline problem" is a reasonable assessment if you're only looking at numbers. But using that as your excuse stops you from solving the problem. If folks are underrepresented, then why don't we put time and effort towards increasing the number of marginalized folks holistically in tech, if we see that as a problem? Generally, when I hear there's a pipeline issue, that's where the conversation stops.
It goes back to looking for talent in different spaces. If you go back to the '70s, the finance industry had this really huge diversity and inclusion uprising, very similar to where we are now. They put a lot of time and effort towards developing talent from marginalized communities that were in the service industry, that were in retail, and moved them to finance because they realized that marginalized folks were going to be an economic powerhouse moving forward. They created the pipeline. I think tech has a great opportunity to do that.
What are some of the major mistakes tech companies tend to make when trying to address issues around racial inequality, and how can they avoid those pitfalls?
I think the first is just not being in lockstep with whatever community they're trying to support. I've heard of tech companies rushing to donate to a cause or rushing to put out a statement, even with a DE&I person, and not talking to their internal employees that identify with that group before doing all of that. DE&I people are amazing, they have subject matter expertise, but you can't rely on them to speak for the individuals that are experiencing this.
And from there, I think it's about centering that community. I saw a lot of statements that were more about the companies than they were about the death of George Floyd or police reform. And I think it's really important that when you are trying to support or resource or amplify a community that you're centering that community in the conversation.
The third pitfall that I see from companies is just sticking to one initiative or action. I think that companies are now sophisticated enough to know that each department, each function, each layer of the organization can do something. If you're centering this to just recruiting, you're doing it wrong. If you're centering this to just doing antiracism training, you're doing it wrong.
And what does it look like for a company to be genuinely committed to dismantling white supremacy?
I think the first thing is realizing that this is a marathon, not a race. Specifically, Black people have been underrepresented, marginalized, enslaved even for 400 years. This isn't going to be solved with one blog post, it's not going to be solved with one DE&I person, it's not going to be solved with one really well-run employee resource group. You need to build this muscle and get ready for a marathon as we approach 2040, when America's going to be a majority-minority state.
The second piece I'd say is diverting resources towards the external black community. Netflix [on Tuesday] put $100 million into Black banks. I think that is an incredible, impressive move because it doesn't hurt them, they're keeping their money, but they're also resourcing the Black community. I hope more companies think of more elegant and collaborative ways to do that.
Lastly, I think really reexamining the importance of referral networks. The reason why I think tech is so homogenous is everyone just hires their friends, and I think the key to truly breaking down these silos is by building relationships across the board, with Black professionals, with queer professionals, marginalized professionals and bringing them into your company, really seeing them as true partners. Until the industry stops believing that it's built on a meritocracy, they're always going to be folks who are ahead just because they were in first.
You have been working in the tech D&I space for a long time. What are some of the hardest challenges you've had to overcome in that role? How can companies ensure that their D&I leaders are properly empowered to make change?
The evolution of the industry has been super rapid. During my first and second stints as the head of D&I, being a new function meant that you had to both earn your keep and prove your worth. And that manifests itself in a lack of trust and a lack of resources. It's very new for a company of more than 1,500, up to 3,000, to have more than one diversity and inclusion person. And I do optimistically see that changing moving forward.
The death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests were a real wakeup call for companies to say, "Hey, we need to trust you and we need to understand how we can meet the next challenge because they will continue, and we need to make sure that we're ahead of it — not just because it's the right thing to do but because our business and our bottom line will really be affected if we don't."
I think tech companies are understanding that D&I can't just sit under HR … and really needs to be resourced to work across the breadth of the business.
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Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.