Kellie Wagner & Jiun Kimm

15 December 2020

10 min read

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The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and this summer's protests around racial inequity stemming from the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others brought into sharp relief the need for companies to re-think how they deal with questions of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. To learn more about how the tech industry is approaching the issue of social justice, our Head of D&I Jiun Kimm, interviewed Kellie Wagner, who is the founder of Collective, a national diversity, equity, and inclusion consultancy and research lab focused on shifting how companies build, grow, engage, and retain diverse teams in today’s world.

To start, can you tell me historically... what has social justice looked like in the tech industry, and what has it meant prior to this summer?

I think that even the language -- of social justice versus DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] versus D&I [diversity and inclusion] -- in and of itself that kind of paints a history. The fact that we're using language like social justice in tech at this point, I feel is indicative of so many of the things that have happened this year.

And I would offer up that maybe the biggest precipitator of what got us to this moment, this summer in tech, and the response from employees in the tech industry is because we were doing DEI work and not social justice work.

I would say that historically, from what I've seen at tech companies that have teams and cultures that are very analytical, they want to see proof. They’d ask, "What's the data?" It makes sense that historically the focus was on increasing diversity, because it was so quantitative in nature and companies were like, "Oh, we can track this. This is something that we can track, that feels very clear cut."

What's interesting about that, is that despite taking something that should hypothetically be super easy and clear cut, we didn't see a lot of movement in tech. When you look at the numbers in actual representation, we weren't seeing a shift and I think that what people are finally starting to realize is that it is because they weren't centering around social justice and they weren't centering around equity.

So you have to create a space where top talent from marginalized or historically disenfranchised or excluded groups want to work, and where they want to stay. I think we definitely saw a leaky bucket syndrome. So, companies, especially in big tech were funneling a ton of money into recruiting and seeing talent turnover just as quickly because they weren't focusing on inclusion and equity.

We've also seen, in this political climate, particularly since 2016, that in the tech industry and the workforce in general, has become more saturated with Millennial talent as Gen Z enters the workforce.

When you mix that with just how divisive and out-in-the-open certain sentiments have been in the socio-political space, companies are less and less able to be neutral. There is a demand from employees to take a stance on these things related to social justice and human rights.

When you mix all of that together, that historically there hasn't been that same emphasis and focus on inclusion and equity or access to opportunity once people are in organizations, then it rang false when these organizations all of a sudden were like, "Oh, this big thing is happening. Black Lives Matter, George Floyd. We have to take a stand. We have to say something."

But I think the resulting sentiment from so many employees was like, "But you haven't prioritized Black lives in your organization. You have perpetuated these same problems. So yes, while you're not killing black people in your organization, you're systemically disenfranchising them, you're preventing opportunities and access and growth."

It just rang so hollow and I think it blew up in people's faces in a way that really made them have to look honestly at like, "Well, what have we been doing internally? And how are we prioritizing social justice?"

Historically diversity efforts have just been about getting people in the door and, to your point, not about centering on inclusion and equity. Do you think what happened this summer catalyzed people's understanding and gave them a deeper understanding of that?

I think that what was invisible to people became more visible. I do feel like we're still grappling with what it all means. And it's interesting because there's been such a push on identity, particularly racial equity and identity-centric solutions. And that's always an interesting area that I look at, because I think there's benefit to both.

But I think there's a feeling of like, "Oh, we need to create Black ERGs. We need to create mentorship or sponsorship programs for our black employees."

And while those targeted efforts can definitely help elevate your efforts, they're still missing answers to questions like, "Systemically, how are we making access more just? How are we creating clarity around decision-making so that people do feel they have a voice?"

These are solutions that are systemic in nature that will impact all people positively. I think sometimes there's this overlooking of DEI work, of really interrogating your systems and processes, creating more transparency and clarity and structure that can enable equity and that justness. I think it's overlooked because we kind of miss the forest for the trees.

To the part about the systemic nature of the problem... Given that it is so systemic, do you think tech can solve it on its own? For instance, one thing we saw happening over the summer is a lot of companies partnering up with non-profit organizations, and some going so far as to donate a lot of money. When you look at that, what do you think are the necessities of partnerships across systems in order to make this work?

I think there's so much to be learned from community organizers, and activists. I think it's really hard to solve a problem when you don't have the right people at the table solving it.

And so, this is a problem that is going to take many, many years to solve. You don't change these things overnight, you can't change representation overnight. If you want to change the leadership structure of a company like Google, for instance, it takes time.

My concern is that there's a lot of well-meaning folks and I think tech tends to be a more progressive space than other industries. There are people that do have good intentions and want to fix these things, but they're fixing them without the stakeholders that are actually experiencing the challenges being part of the solution creation.

I think that's where we miss the mark a lot, when people in power want to use their power for good, but they don't partner with the right people to elevate their voices, elevate their perspectives, and elevate the right solutions that are going to be meaningful and impactful for the populations that they want to support. So I think the more that they can go and partner with the actual people who are living these experiences, the better.

One example is San Francisco and tech. San Francisco is a city that I love, but I find to be a really difficult place to visit because you look at things like the issues of homelessness and substance abuse and housing inequality, and you might think, "Okay, you have so much money, and so many brilliant minds in tech, why can't we solve for this?"

And in many ways, they've perpetuated this problem. But even if they’re the most brilliant minds, they need to partner with the community to solve these problems. You can't just go and sit in your skyscraper, and think, "We know what's best." I think that has been a misstep for tech and I think it can feel insulting for people who are experiencing challenges to not be included in the actual solutions.

Component year end social justice 1
How do we change the narrative, so that when people see corporations making donations to community organizations or partnering with community organizations, it’s not seen as charity work? Or around D&I more broadly so that more people understand the business case?

There are so many studies, and the thing that I hate about the business cases is, McKinsey puts out studies, leanin.org puts out studies. Everyone has a study, the data is clear, the business case is clear and it hasn't changed much. So, I don't think that you can just say, “If the business case was enough, then we would be in a different place.

I think that we get back to centering humans as -- and this is super philosophical -- but I do think we have to get back to being reminded of why we work in the first place, what our purpose is. And if you are creating a company as a leader that people don't feel good at, they don't feel respected, they don't feel treated with dignity… it's like we have gotten to the point where it is so much about maximizing profit that you can't do anything unless it has this business case.

I remember someone saying to me, "No one ever asks what the business case is for hiring white men." So why does there need to be a business case to want to include people of color or women in leadership positions, from all of these different backgrounds?

So instead of looking at it as charity, we have to think about, "What do you want to put out into the world as a leader, as a person, as a company?" That should matter just much as profit and business strategy. And I think for some companies it does.

I do think there is inherent value in centering how we do our work, not just what work we do and what the output is, but how we do it. At the end of the day, you can create products, but your people spend most of their life with you at your workplace.

Do you want to be responsible for someone being miserable and not feeling valued as a human? Or do you want them to walk away, and say, "I spent 20 years at this company, and it was the best 20 years. The best way I could have spent my 20 years, because I felt truly respected, and treated with dignity, and valued as a human being every day and it made me want to contribute to building this product, or this service."

To your point, I think an orientation towards that would be so powerful instead of treating D&I so controversially all the time. That's often how I feel. I'm in such controversial work. And it's tiring.

We've made it so political. And it's so interesting to me, because I'm wondering, "What is political about wanting to treat people with dignity, and to see their humanity?" I think if you asked people that question, they'd be like, "Yeah, of course I want my employees to feel that way."

it's so much more about just being effective humans in a time when we are divided and polarized and lonely. And there is, I think, a collective emptiness. Certainly COVID has not helped with that, but it’s brought it to the forefront. Despite being so connected, I think we're more isolated than ever in many ways, and the workplace has an opportunity. Leaders have an opportunity.

There's a really great book called The Art of Gathering. These two Harvard Divinity School grad students did this study on the fact that this is the most secular generation. And as church and small town life where you have this community, as it's disappeared, as we've become more globalized, as we become more secular, people are looking for purpose and meaning in different places.

So one of the outlets that they were observing was fitness and how, when you look at things like SoulCycle and CrossFit, how there is an almost religious and community aspect element that draws people to it.

The same can be said for the workplace. People spend more time at work, they build their community around there, they want to align with the organization's purpose and mission, and they want to feel values align. We can't just say, "Well, we don't want to play that role." The fact of the matter is, you do play that role. So, how do you want to play it is an important question to ask yourself as a leader.

Given this moment and what's happening now, what do we think the future is? What should we think about moving into 2021? What do you think the future of DNI is? What should be top of mind for us?

I will say that, in solving these problems, I think we have often lost sight of the vision of what future we want to create.

So, there's a lot of “anti-” going on right now. Anti-racism is really front and center at this moment. And one thing that I always ask my team and people around me is, "Okay, we know we don't want racism. That's why we're focused on anti-racism. What do we want to build?"

And I don't think that as DNI practitioners or as organizations, we've gotten clear on, "Well, what do we want to build in its place, if we don't want these things? What do we want the future to look like?"

I would just offer up that we could go back to just some simple frameworks around Maslow's hierarchy of needs. People wanting to feel safe and respected and valued, and this idea of human dignity and grace. We don't give each other nearly enough grace in being able to make mistakes, to know that change is possible in ourselves and in others.

So that's what I really think the future of DNI is hopefully going to focus on, is more of that socioemotional development, and more interpersonal effectiveness -- and certainly exploration of our identities, but how our identities shape how we show up in relationship with one another, and how we can be more effective.

And I think, if we can do those things, and then also focus on systems and structures that are rigorous and thoughtful and set level playing fields for people, and provide additional supports where people are starting behind the curve, through no fault of their own, then I think those two things working together could get us to a really great place.

That's so great. Thank you, Kellie, I really appreciate this for all you do and for sharing your thoughts with us.

Of course, my pleasure. Thank you for thinking of me.