Building an antiracist company: From idea to practice

Twilio’s chief diversity officer says it’s time for a new approach to DEI.

Lybra Clemons

“The most impactful way to prioritize DEI and enable antiracism is to structure your company accordingly,” says Lybra Clemons, chief diversity officer at Twilio.

Photo: Twilio

Lybra Clemons is responsible for guiding and scaling inclusion strategy and diversity initiatives at Twilio.

I’ve been in the corporate diversity, equity and inclusion space for over 15 years. In that time, I’ve seen the field evolve slowly from a “nice-to-have” function of Human Resources to a rising company-wide priority. June 2020 was different. Suddenly my and my peers’ phones started ringing off the hook and DEI leaders became the most sought-after professionals. With so many DEI roles being created and corporate willingness to invest, for a split second it looked like there might be real change on the horizon.

Today, while we’ve seen some pockets of innovation here and there, the world of corporate DEI continues to do the same thing over and over, expecting a different set of outcomes.

It’s time for a new approach to corporate diversity, equity and inclusion. At my organization, that means applying antiracism as a lens to reimagine and deepen our DEI strategy.

Why antiracism and what does it mean?

Ibram X. Kendi, author of "How to Be an Antiracist," put it best: “Being antiracist results from a conscious decision to make frequent, consistent, equitable choices daily. These choices require ongoing self-awareness and self-reflection as we move through life ... Being racist or antiracist is not about who you are; it is about what you do.”

Though the term “antiracism” is most widely used in the United States and specifically refers to race, it speaks to something universal: the necessity of ongoing and conscious action to challenge and redistribute power and move toward equity. We are educating our team on how the principles of antiracism, which extends to anti-oppression and anti-bias, can serve all communities and address all forms of oppression. Across the company, we are also embracing deep, practical shifts that will allow us to embed antiracism in how we operate and hopefully inspire other companies to do the same. Here are the three shifts that have made the biggest impact so far.

1. DEI is a business priority, not a side hustle. The most impactful way to prioritize DEI and enable antiracism is to structure your company accordingly. Give your DEI leader a seat at the executive table. Have your chief diversity officer report directly to the CEO, so that all business decisions are made with an equity lens. This means DEI doesn’t get siloed just under the HR or People team (though alignment with People team strategy is important). It’s a vital, company-wide strategy. This creates the infrastructure for antiracism to be practiced throughout the organization as a framework for DEI. This has allowed us to embed antiracism in our yearly business objectives and our culture. We’ve incorporated the idea of antiracism – Be Antiracist – into our refreshed corporate values so that it can thrive as a top-down, bottom-up initiative. Dr. Kendi wrote that antiracism is about making “frequent, consistent, equitable choices daily.” These choices won’t result in change overnight, but backed by the right structure and given time, they lay the foundation for change.

2. Go beyond representation. In the 2010s, corporate DEI hinged almost entirely on representational headcount data as a measure of “success.” Today, we are broadening that focus to evaluate all stages of the employee lifecycle. Equity in action, not just equal headcount. Day-to-day, when making decisions about our office and team locations, company-wide security policies or our approach to hybrid work, we apply an antiracist lens to promote as much equity as possible. These decisions impact our policies, which impact our employees, which ultimately impact how we deliver our best work for our customers. Of course representation is important (especially at leadership levels), but real progress requires that we measure more than headcount quotas or moment-in-time data targets. Speaking of data...

3. Use data to move, not prove. Data should be used to help make decisions and evolve policies and practices, rather than a means to pat ourselves on the back. Instead of reporting on what we did well, data can spotlight areas of opportunity that can or should be addressed. For example, a consistent dip in promotion rates of women of color would be a jumping-off point to look at manager effectiveness scores across women, and to re-evaluate promotion rates among that group. Those insights should then inform next steps toward a solution, whether that’s broadening leadership programs to support women of color, or bolstering efforts to address a career advancement gap.

The path forward

When it comes to building an antiracist company, the best advice I can leave you with is to prepare for the long haul. This is about ongoing action and education. It will take time and patience to push through growth and change.

The playbook is being written as we speak, and for every idea above, we’ve experimented with three others that didn’t move the needle. But in the spirit of constant, conscious action, we want to share what’s been working at Twilio as we look to shake up the old approach and build a new paradigm for corporate DEI.

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