Protocol | Workplace

Shaka Senghor, fresh off a Nas track, wants to shake up diversity in tech

Shaka Senghor, head of DEI at TripActions, wants to make conversations around DEI "less volatile" and ensure folks with nontraditional paths can also find a place for themselves in tech.

Shaka Senghor wears a black baseball cap in a black and white photo.

Shaka Senghor joined TripActions as its head of diversity, equity and inclusion amid the 2020 racial justice uprising.

Ernest Sisson

Shaka Senghor, the head of diversity, equality and inclusion at corporate travel startup TripActions, was hyped to start his weekend. The latest Nas album had just come out, and he was excited to celebrate the fact that he'd been featured on the album. Still, Senghor took the time to chat with Protocol about his journey into the tech industry and how his life experiences have shaped the work he's doing at TripActions, a travel and expense platform for businesses.

Senghor's memoir, "Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison," put him on the map and became a New York Times bestseller in 2016. Senghor has gone on to serve as executive director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and more. Last July, Senghor joined TripActions to lead its diversity efforts.

"Obviously I have a very unique life path that has played out over the years and continues to get more interesting as I grow older and grow grayer and all those things," Senghor told Protocol.

Senghor said his life experiences have made him more sensitive to "what's really happening in communities that are underserved and marginalized." For example, he said, he has a better understanding of "what happens when opportunities aren't presented or created for people who come from different backgrounds."

Making non-traditional paths traditional

Whenever the TV would lose reception in Senghor's childhood home, he would grab a coat hanger and wrap it in aluminum foil to build a makeshift antenna.

"That's iterating," Senghor said. "You're solving a problem and you're fixing it with the resources available. And when you come from that type of community and you get placed in a space where resources are abundant, and the only thing you have to do is actively engage your mind, it's just a game-changer. And I think my experience has really helped our staff see where innovation is taking place and recognize these other opportunities that typically wouldn't come up in these conversations."

What's most important for Senghor is to ensure TripActions has a culture that makes conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion "less volatile," he said. Senghor also sees his role as helping to challenge the thinking around talent pipelines and which pipelines have the best talent. There is plenty of talent, for example, among those who have been impacted by societal systems.

"It's not just people coming out of incarceration, it's also people coming out of foster care, it's people coming out of communities that oftentimes resources don't reach or people don't think of when they think of creativity, curiosity and all of the things that make a great employee," he said.

That's why Senghor has prioritized company field trips into a variety of communities. Last year, for example, Senghor took some employees to Old Skool Cafe in San Francisco's Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood, which has the largest proportion of people of color and financially insecure households in Bayview. The cafe, founded by a former correctional officer, solely employs people who have been impacted by a societal system in some way, whether it's foster care, juvenile detention or prison.

"It's different from me just coming in with a pitch deck and saying, 'Hey, we should hire people who were formerly incarcerated,' because a lot of times that proximity removes fear and removes those barriers," he said. "And that's why those in-person connections are so important."

The workforce

In March 2020, prior to Senghor's arrival, TripActions laid off about 100 customer support and customer success team members over a Zoom call in March 2020. Despite the work-related travel industry and the travel industry as a whole suffering at the time, the layoffs still came as a shock to employees due to the amount of money, about $480 million, TripActions had raised at the time. In January 2021, TripActions raised another $155 million at a $5 billion valuation.

Senghor, who had consulted with TripActions for a few years, officially came on board in July 2020, four months after the layoffs and two months after the murder of George Floyd. Senghor's hiring came amid an uptick in companies seeking out employees for diversity, equity and inclusion roles. Between June 8 and July 15, 2020, for example, job postings for DEI roles rose by 55% after decreasing by 60% in March, according to Glassdoor.

TripActions' DEI department "is relatively new," Senghor said, despite having been founded in 2015. The company employs more than 1,200 people across the world, but the diversity of its employees is not clear because TripActions has yet to release a diversity report. Senghor, however, said it's something the company is working on.

TripActions is starting to track diversity data and is thinking about the best type of data to collect, he said. The company is also looking at retention and exploring how to better understand "the experience of people of color when they come into a predominantly white workspace," he said. "Are they able to show up as they, you know, who they truly are?"

As Senghor says in Nas' new track, "Composure:"

Keep your composure
And believe in the magic of who we are
Because what you believe is everything
And what someone believes about you is nothing
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