People

Coronavirus led this company to cut diversity staff. The protests prompted a reversal.

Thumbtack says it will invest more in remedying inequities — and start by hiring a new head of D&I again.

A protester holds up a sign at the George Floyd memorial

Worldwide demonstrations against police brutality are also putting pressure on companies to do more to promote diversity and inclusion.

Photo: Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Thumbtack's co-founder Marco Zappacosta published a blog post on Friday. Like many tech CEOs, he took a stand "against injustice, racism and hate." Included was a pledge that his services marketplace would make practical changes, including recruiting black employees — the company currently has none in senior leadership — and hiring a new head of diversity, equity and inclusion.

But some of Thumbtack's promises weren't new initiatives, but rather reversals of course, a sign of rapidly changing priorities in the tech industry as a racial injustice crisis layers on top of a disease outbreak.

Until March, the company had a head of diversity and inclusion, as well as a D&I team member focused on recruiting. But Thumbtack laid them off along with 30% of the workforce. Now, in the wake of a Minneapolis police officer's killing of George Floyd and the subsequent demonstrations, Thumbtack says it will invest more in remedying inequities — and start by hiring a new head of D&I again.

"As the business has bounced back from the effects of COVID-19, which caused us to lay off one-third of our employees, a new Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is the only new position that has been approved," a Thumbtack spokesperson said. "We are intentionally making this our first before any others as part of a plan to build a more diverse, equitable and inclusive team."

It's an about-face for the company, but not an entirely unexpected one. Diversity and inclusion efforts were already threatened by the coronavirus pandemic, as Protocol reported last month. With protests continuing around the country, many companies are waking to the realization they have a lot of work to do.

The venture capital community in particular, where black investors make up only 3% of all venture partners, is under pressure to diversify firm partnerships and invest in more founders from underrepresented groups. In the last week, firms have rolled out initiatives from increased office hours for black and Latinx founders to new funds, like SoftBank's $100 million opportunity growth fund, that are investing in underrepresented groups.

Before Thumbtack's announcement, the company's previous head of diversity and inclusion, Alex Lahmeyer, posted on LinkedIn that he had seen the number of D&I roles decline over the last few weeks.

"Frankly, I'm scared. Not for my own job search, but for the future of strategic, corporate DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] work that we saw being placed on a pedestal just a few months ago," he wrote. "While it doesn't surprise me, I'm upset that companies use DEI programs for PR strategy and then slash them like they're deadweight."

Lahmeyer told Protocol he doesn't plan to return to his former employer. "Thumbtack informed the former D&I team that a headcount would be reinstated, but I'm not interested in returning," he said in a statement.

But the tech industry's approach to diversity could be changing. Companies including Medallia, GitHub and The Infatuation have advertised D&I-related job opportunities in the past week.

Work opportunities have also rebounded for diversity and inclusion consultants, said Will McNeil, CEO of Black Tech Jobs, a recruiting platform. "We have seen a surge," he said. "Some due to our marketing and our Coffee, Tech & Opportunity event, but much of it has been pushed by the events on the ground related to police brutality and the protests. There has been a push to action."

McNeil is hopeful he can bring back staff members he had to furlough after clients started dropping at the beginning of the pandemic. "We are looking to do that in the next week or so," he said. "And we may have to hire some contract workers, too. I'm keeping my fingers crossed."

Update: A statement from Alex Lahmeyer was added shortly after publication.

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