yesEmily BirnbaumNone
×

Get access to Protocol

I’ve already subscribed

Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

People

How companies can really support Black Lives Matter: Listen, invest and overhaul hiring

Albrey Brown, head of diversity and inclusion at Airtable, shares his thoughts on what tech companies can do right now.

Albrey Brown

"This isn't going to be solved with one blog post," says Albrey Brown, Airtable's head of diversity and inclusion. "You need to build this muscle and get ready for a marathon."

Photo: Courtesy of Airtable

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.

People

Beeper built the universal messaging app the world needed

It's an app for all your social apps. And part of an entirely new way to think about chat.

Beeper is an app for all your messaging apps, including the hard-to-access ones.

Image: Beeper

Eric Migicovsky likes to tinker. And the former CEO of Pebble — he's now a partner at Y Combinator — knows a thing or two about messaging. "You remember on the Pebble," he asked me, "how we had this microphone, and on Android you could reply to all kinds of messages?" Migicovsky liked that feature, and he especially liked that it didn't care which app you used. Android-using Pebble wearers could speak their replies to texts, Messenger chats, almost any notification that popped up.

That kind of universal, non-siloed approach to messaging appealed to Migicovsky, and it didn't really exist anywhere else. "Remember Trillian from back in the day?" he asked, somewhat wistfully. "Or Adium?" They were the gold-standard of universal messaging apps; users could log in to their AIM, MSN, GChat and Yahoo accounts, and chat with everyone in one place.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

People

The future of the cell phone, according to the man who invented it

Martin Cooper on 5G, AI, and why sometimes in tech it's helpful to have an enemy.

Martin Cooper with his original DynaTAC cell phone.

Photo: Ted Soqui/Getty Images

Martin Cooper helped invent one of the most consequential and successful products in history: the cell phone. And almost five decades after he made the first public cell phone call, on a 2-pound brick of a device called the DynaTAC, he's written a book about his career called "Cutting the Cord: The Cell Phone Has Transformed Humanity." In it he tells the story of the cell phone's invention, and looks at how it has changed the world and will continue to do so.

Cooper came on the Source Code Podcast to talk about his time at Motorola, the process of designing the first-ever cell phone, whether today's tech giants are monopolies and why he's bullish on the future of AI.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

People

What $9 billion would do for the Technology Modernization Fund

The Alliance for Digital Innovation's Matthew T. Cornelius looks at how a new administration's big investment could alter the fund he helped set up.

The funding itself is only half the battle.

Photo: Joshua Sukoff/Unsplash

The Biden administration wants to give the Technology Modernization Fund a $9 billion payday. In doing so, they could change what the fund actually does.

Matthew T. Cornelius, now the Alliance for Digital Innovation's executive director, was instrumental in getting the fund off the ground back in 2018. As a senior adviser for technology and cybersecurity policy at the White House's Office of Management and Budget, he helped make some of the fund's first investments in government IT modernization. At the time, though, there was only about $100 million in the fund.

Keep Reading Show less
Kevin McAllister

Kevin McAllister ( @k__mcallister) is an associate editor at Protocol, leading the development of Braintrust. Prior to joining the team, he was a rankings data reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where he oversaw structured data projects for the Journal's strategy team.

People

Amazon’s head of Alexa Trust on how Big Tech should talk about data

Anne Toth, Amazon's director of Alexa Trust, explains what it takes to get people to feel comfortable using your product — and why that is work worth doing.

Anne Toth, Amazon's director of Alexa Trust, has been working on tech privacy for decades.

Photo: Amazon

Anne Toth has had a long career in the tech industry, thinking about privacy and security at companies like Yahoo, Google and Slack, working with the World Economic Forum and advising companies around Silicon Valley.

Last August she took on a new job as the director of Alexa Trust, leading a big team tackling a big question: How do you make people feel good using a product like Alexa, which is designed to be deeply ingrained in their lives? "Alexa in your home is probably the closest sort of consumer experience or manifestation of AI in your life," she said. That comes with data questions, privacy questions, ethical questions and lots more.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

People

Poshmark made ecommerce social. Wall Street is on board.

"When we go social, we're not going back," says co-founder Tracy Sun.

Tracy Sun is Poshmark's co-founder and SVP of new markets.

Photo: Poshmark/Ken Jay

Investors were keen to buy into Poshmark's vision for the future of retail — one that is social, online and secondhand. The company's stock price more than doubled within a few minutes of its Nasdaq debut this morning, rising from $42 to $103.

Poshmark is anything but an overnight success. The California-based company, founded in 2011, has steadily attracted a community of 31.7 million active users to its marketplace for secondhand apparel, accessories, footwear, home and beauty products. In 2019, these users spent an average of 27 minutes per day on the platform, placing it in the same realm as some of the most popular social media services. This is likely why Poshmark points out in its S-1 that it isn't just an ecommerce platform, but a "social marketplace." Users can like, comment, share and follow other buyers and sellers on the platform.

Keep Reading Show less
Hirsh Chitkara
Hirsh Chitkara (@ChitkaraHirsh) is a researcher at Protocol, based out of New York City. Before joining Protocol, he worked for Business Insider Intelligence, where he wrote about Big Tech, telecoms, workplace privacy, smart cities, and geopolitics. He also worked on the Strategy & Analytics team at the Cleveland Indians.
Latest Stories