July 25, 2017

An Open Letter to Leaders Trying To Improve Diversity

I grew up happy yet humble in Tottenham, London [United Kingdom], one of the most multicultural wards in the whole of Europe where over 90 nationalities co-exist and nearly 300 languages are spoken. I didn’t choose what school I went to as a kid or what kids went to school alongside me, we all just went to the school our parents enrolled us into.

I was friends with Stephen who was Christian and from Ghana; Ghasam who was Muslim and from Pakistan; and Lauren who was Irish, white and atheist. I didn’t realize at the time, but this was authentic inclusion.

We focused on doing what we loved most together, such as taking turns to play cricket because Ghasam liked it before playing football which I loved. We didn’t do this because of a teacher [or a parent], but because it got a better result; we all had more fun.

If diversity is a party full of people from different places I am the first dude on the dance floor. I’m pulling the outer circle to join me and dance. This is inclusion.

My journey to tech is a bit unusual as an I come from an under-represented community. I was often deemed as “hard to reach,” but I want to challenge this assumption. The reality is that recruiters never tried to reach me.

And I get it, there aren’t a lot of “faces like mine” on recruiting teams, or executive boards, or acting as hiring managers. But if tech is going to move beyond just “talking the diversity talk” it needs to stop hiring for likeness and start hiring for talent, grit, and drive. And yes, you’ll need to step away from the usual talent pools and start doing some hard work.

Let’s stop referencing McKinsey’s 2015 report on how diverse teams outperform non-diverse teams by over 35%. This is common sense and shouldn’t cost the price of McKinsey consultants to tell you this.

We need commitments from our leaders to promote future leaders who show great potential. And not just promises to hit quotas, but commitments to hire and promote based on performance, merit, and credibility; commitments to learning to spot potential that manifests in different ways.

For example, in 2008 I got fed up with hearing about all the foreign adventures everyone I bumped into in the corporate world had been on. In response, I decided to travel for three months on a backpacking adventure to South America. This experience was motivated by the fact I wanted to fit into the working environment and join in with these conversations rather than being a bystander.

I heard time and time again that this was not a “black thing” to do, backpacking was not a possibility to many within my local community, so I understood the origins of this opinion. Of course, the irony was that I was pursuing this experience to fit into a new environment which, at the same time, alienated me from my origins.

Where I was raised, and where I worked has always felt like a collision of two worlds.

I went on to have one of most memorable life experiences of my life. It served as an excellent reference point in interviews going forward as interviewees could relate to it and it often would spiral into their stories of when they went traveling. But few people from my background can invest in a trip like this, so recruiters need to look beyond the obvious signs and instead search for things like:

  • volunteering
  • something simple like maintaining a blog
  • signs of pursuing continuous learning

These are the things employers need to look for beyond lazy recruiting habits to spot potential. Recruiting non-white/non-ivy league talent doesn’t need to be difficult, it just requires recognizing potential and assessing candidates beyond simply career experiences or where they went to school.

Here are 11 questions I would like to pose to our leaders:

  1. Why do you still need a business case for diversity when it should be ingrained?
  2. Do you recognize that ‘lazy’ low-risk recruitment is creating a “mirrortocracy” rather than a meritocracy?
  3. Why do you take the quick and easy road to go for cultural fit rather than cultural add?
  4. Could you please ask your middle management to stop hiring based on the “pub test” or “plane test”?
  5. Diversity is hard, as it means hiring people that are different and may challenge constructively for the betterment of your company, do you realize that?
  6. Could you start hiring based on values, growth potential and skills in that order, and not in reverse?
  7. Could you create open environments where everyone is welcome and valued, where no conversation is awkward?
  8. Is anyone on The Executive Board held accountable for measuring whether you are moving the needle on diversity & inclusion?
  9. Social-economic backgrounds make a huge difference, are you willing to tailor campaigns and approaches to reach new untapped pools of talent?
  10. Can we not stretch our creativity to engage under-served communities naively through Snapchat, Instagram, Youtube [and other platforms they spend so much time on].?
  11. Can you seek to understand first, then be understood?

My final point is a must for addressing the current imbalance. My fear is that this time next year, we will continue to read TechCrunch publish dismal reports from Tech firms sharing how they are failing at diversity but succeeding in making their revenue targets. Change requires leaders to ask questions up front and learn to understand life and work in my shoes.

True empathy is built through experience, so I encourage leaders to visit my local school, come see my local community, offer opportunities to young people from underrepresented communities, be bold.

Let’s build up cultural capital together and create a working environment where we belong and can bring ourselves to work proudly.

Andy Ayim

Andy is Managing Director of Backstage Capital London. Previously a Product Manager who has traveled and worked in over 40 countries in the last five years. He is passionate about telling stories about founders & investors from diverse backgrounds and improving Tech Inclusion.

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