Politics

Banning politics at work? Not at Asana, says DEI chief.

When Sonja Gittens Ottley joined Asana in 2015, she knew all the Black people at the company — all two of them.

Banning politics at work? Not at Asana, says DEI chief.

Sonja Gittens Ottley has led Asana's DEI for nearly six years.

Photo: Asana

Sonja Gittens Ottley, Asana's head of diversity and inclusion, is a bit of a unicorn. It's not because she's Black, or because she's a woman, but instead because she's been in her job for nearly six years.

There's a lot of turnover in diversity, equity and inclusion work. The average tenure of a DEI leader at any one company is about three years, The Wall Street Journal reported last year.

That makes Gittens Ottley's nearly six-year tenure at Asana stand out. Gittens Ottley joined Asana from Facebook in November 2015 to serve as the company's first-ever head of diversity and inclusion. Asana hired her a few months after Twitter user @BlackGuyCoding tweeted about how there was only one visibly Black person on Asana's team page. In response, Asana CEO Dustin Moskovitz said there were actually two whole Black employees across the company.

At that time, in July 2015, Asana's workforce was just 1.6% Black. But Moskovitz, at the time, said he already had a plan in place to improve diversity. The plan included bringing on board a D&I leader. That person turned out to be Gittens Ottley.

"When I joined, I knew all of the Black folks that worked at Asana," she told Protocol. "I knew them, and now I don't. When I joined, people would not feel comfortable saying 'Black' candidates. They would say 'diverse.'"

Asana overall has come a long way since 2015. When Gittens Ottley joined the company, it had fewer than 200 employees. Now, Asana employs more than 1,000 people.

Today's Asana is 4% Black, 46% white, 30% Asian, 5% Latinx and 5% two or more races, with another 11% of its employees identifying as either Middle Eastern or Pacific Islander, according to the company's July 2020 diversity report. Within the Asian employee population, 17% are East Asian, 7% are South Asian, 5% are Southeast Asian and 1% are Central Asian.

Being able to see those demographics change, as well as the buy-in from senior leaders and other employees, has made Gittens Ottley want to stay.

"We're not perfect," she said. "But I think all of those things, that's why it's still the place I want to be."

Leadership is the thing that "ultimately" keeps Gittens Ottley at Asana, she said. "Knowing the commitment we have to doing this well is not just from Dustin, our CEO," she said. "He's vocal and a real participant in this work, but so are so many of the other leaders."

The company recently completed a review of employee pay to see if there were any disparities. There weren't any statistically significant disparities, according to Gittens Ottley. The company also launched ongoing allyship workshops for employees.

But there's also more work to be done, Gittens Ottley cautioned. In the aftermath of the 2020 police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, two unarmed Black people, Asana launched anti-racism training workshops and began to think more deeply around how it could be an anti-racist company, she said.

"The reckoning so many companies have had to face or deal with, I think it was a little easier for us because we had already started to lean into that work," Gittens Ottley said. "It was not new to us."

Asana has made other changes in the wake of last year's events, as well as in light of the uptick in racial violence targeting Asian people.

"Particularly with all the racial attacks, we want people to be comfortable checking in with their teams," Gittens Ottley said. "Something I'm clear about is the first time you check in with someone, it should not be because something happened. You should be building relationships with folks throughout this time because something will happen, and when you have that relationship, you're able to lean into that a bit better. And it's more authentic because you've built that relationship."

Meanwhile, the remote-first environment of the past year has motivated Asana to be more intentional about creating safe spaces through its employee resource groups. Last spring, an ERG hosted a discussion about the impact of COVID-19 on Black, Latinx and Asian communities.

"People adjacent to these communities didn't really know the impact of this," she said.

Asana also tries to recognize the work and leadership of its ERG leaders, who are tasked with organizing and leading these discussions, Gittens Ottley said. Empowering ERGs is considered to be an element of ensuring racial equity at a company. Asana provides ERG leads with budgets and also offers them leadership development workshops.

"I think ERG leads are so crucial to D&I work," she said. "We want to make sure we support them as much as possible."

Asana, unlike firms such as Coinbase, Basecamp and New Relic, is firmly in favor of allowing employees to discuss social and political matters at work.

"I think that's safe to say," Gittens Ottley said. "We are not on board with [banning those types of discussions]. One of the things is we've kind of leaned into having spaces for those sorts of conversations."

Moskovitz, who was a major Democratic donor for the 2020 presidential election, echoed that sentiment on Twitter. He pointed to Asana's ERGs as one place employees can go to have those discussions. Gittens Ottley also referenced an internal Slack channel called "American Politics," which she said was "on fire" throughout 2020.

"We think it's important to have those spaces because people aren't sitting at their kitchen table or office desk — if they have an office — and are divorced from what's happening in the world," she said. "They're dealing with all of these things and dealing with these colleagues for eight-plus hours a day. I think for me, it just makes sense to have it be part of the ways that employees engage with each other, because they will engage with each other a ton on these things. And it's worked for us so far."

Climate

2- and 3-wheelers dominate oil displacement by EVs

Increasingly widespread EV adoption is starting to displace the use of oil, but there's still a lot of work to do.

More electric mopeds on the road could be an oil demand game-changer.

Photo: Humphrey Muleba/Unsplash

Electric vehicles are starting to make a serious dent in oil use.

Last year, EVs displaced roughly 1.5 million barrels per day, according to a new analysis from BloombergNEF. That is more than double the share EVs displaced in 2015. The majority of the displacement is coming from an unlikely source.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

Sponsored Content

Foursquare data story: leveraging location data for site selection

We take a closer look at points of interest and foot traffic patterns to demonstrate how location data can be leveraged to inform better site selecti­on strategies.

Imagine: You’re the leader of a real estate team at a restaurant brand looking to open a new location in Manhattan. You have two options you’re evaluating: one site in SoHo, and another site in the Flatiron neighborhood. Which do you choose?

Keep Reading Show less
Enterprise

The limits of AI and automation for digital accessibility

AI and automated software that promises to make the web more accessible abounds, but people with disabilities and those who regularly test for digital accessibility problems say it can only go so far.

The everyday obstacles blocking people with disabilities from a satisfying digital experience are immense.

Image: alexsl/Getty Images

“It’s a lot to listen to a robot all day long,” said Tina Pinedo, communications director at Disability Rights Oregon, a group that works to promote and defend the rights of people with disabilities.

But listening to a machine is exactly what many people with visual impairments do while using screen reading tools to accomplish everyday online tasks such as paying bills or ordering groceries from an ecommerce site.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Fintech

The crypto crash's violence shocked Circle's CEO

Jeremy Allaire remains upbeat about stablecoins despite the UST wipeout, he told Protocol in an interview.

Allaire said what really caught him by surprise was “how fast the death spiral happened and how violent of a value destruction it was.”

Photo: Heidi Gutman/CNBC/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire said he saw the UST meltdown coming about six months ago, long before the stablecoin crash rocked the crypto world.

“This was a house of cards,” he told Protocol. “It was very clear that it was unsustainable and that there would be a very high risk of a death spiral.”

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

A DTC baby formula startup is caught in the center of a supply chain crisis

After weeks of “unprecedented growth,” Bobbie co-founder Laura Modi made a hard decision: to not accept any more new customers.

Parents unable to track down formula in stores have been turning to Facebook groups, homemade formula recipes and Bobbie, a 4-year-old subscription baby formula company.

Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

The ongoing baby formula shortage has taken a toll on parents throughout the U.S. Laura Modi, co-founder of formula startup Bobbie, said she’s been “wearing the hat of a mom way more than that of a CEO” in recent weeks.

“It's scary to be a parent right now, with the uncertainty of knowing you can’t find your formula,” Modi told Protocol.

Keep Reading Show less
Nat Rubio-Licht

Nat Rubio-Licht is a Los Angeles-based news writer at Protocol. They graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in newspaper and online journalism in May 2020. Prior to joining the team, they worked at the Los Angeles Business Journal as a technology and aerospace reporter.

Latest Stories
Bulletins