One of the most prevalent themes throughout the Wired Business Conference was diversity and inclusion in tech. At this point, the lack of gender and racial diversity in Silicon Valley is a regular topic of conversation, and one that every big tech company (Apple, Google, Facebook, Intel, Microsoft, and Twitter, to name a few) have attempted to tackle. But there are still mountains of work to go.
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As Erica Baker, Senior Engineer at Slack, put it during her conference keynote, inequality is everyone's problem. Before joining the red-hot business collaboration start-up, Baker was a longtime Google employee and the woman behind the famous secret salary spreadsheet addressing pay inequality at the search giant.
"I am not just a woman, I'm not just black person. The experiences I have are of black women, and that intersectionality is the theory that racism and sexism play against each other and with each other in ways that need to be addressed together," said Baker.
Sr. Slack Engineer Erica Baker
Diversity issues in tech, Baker explained, can be as subtle as a new Snapchat makeup filter not having an option for African-American complexions. Trace that back, she said, and you may find there wasn't a black person in the board room or on the engineering team when that design decision was made.
Tech is still overwhelmingly white and male, and it's a topic that makes people uncomfortable because they don't know what they can do. The first step, Baker said, is to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
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"Right now, I can recommend increasing empathy. Empathy is the first step toward understanding how people are really feeling in your company," said Baker. "Put yourself in the shoes of the only black man or only Latina woman in the room being asked to represent their entire race or gender, and then you can begin to understand the pressure they're under. To make good progress in these discussions we need to recognize it's going to be uncomfortable for a while."
Diversity in the Board Room
One of the places diversity can make the biggest difference to a tech company's culture, decision-making, and bottom line is on the executive team and the board. A panel entitled "Boss Ladies" put theboardlist and Joyus founder Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, venture capital veteran and BBG Ventures President and Managing Partner Susan Lyne, and Mindbody CEO Rick Stollmeyer onstage to talk about the diversity challenges start-ups and established tech companies face, and where their respective companies and ventures have succeeded.
Cassidy is an established, successful Silicon Valley executive who's worked at places like Amazon, Google, and VC firm Accel Partners. In launching theboardlist last year, she aimed to create a LinkedIn curated professional marketplace of vetted and recommended female executives and entrepreneurs. CEOs, executives, and VCs can browse theboardlist to find capable and experienced female board members to join new start-ups receiving funding or apply to be an endorser.
"We're trying to create a private, high-end, and highly vetted LinkedIn," said Cassidy. "If five people you know nominated this woman, all of a sudden she's in your network."
From second on left: Cassidy, Lyne, and Stollmeyer
Lyne approaches tech diversity with a similar mindset. After spending decades in media and commerce, Lyne's BBG Ventures only invests in tech start-ups with at least one female founder. Lyne said that when it comes to the start-up pitches she's sat through over the years, women pitch businesses, while men tend to pitch "unicorns."
"A lot of CEOs and public companies are coming around to the fact that they need to put females on the board. All the research that's been done says the more diverse boards with more women on them end up with higher performing companies," said Lyne. "The results are better, the stock is higher, and it's logical. If you have a room full of people who think alike and have similar backgrounds, you may not wind up making the best decisions."
Mindbody is one of theboardlist's biggest success stories. Through the platform, Stollmeyer was able to fill two of its board seats with experienced female executives: Katherine Blair Christie, former Cisco CMO, and Gail Goodman, former CEO of email marketing platform Constant Contact. The company's general counsel, corporate secretary, and compliance officer, Kimberly Lytikainen, has also served in legal positions at Pivotal Software and Nvidia.
Stollmeyer said start-ups need to think about the variety and depth of skills they need on a board.
"We focused on the qualities we needed, and with Sukhinder's help, we were able to find them," she said. "It wasn't that hard. It was just about making that commitment and daring to make that criteria. The best leaders are comfortable in their own skin, and it's being comfortable in who you are that produces the most effective leadership. Gender doesn't matter."
For Lyne, the biggest change she's seen during her time in the tech industry is that diversity is now actually on the agenda.
"It didn't make sense to me that companies were not trying to recruit great executives who knew the company and know the end-user well," said Lyne.
A Woman In the Driver's Seat
GM CEO Mary Barra
For definitive proof of Lyne's sentiment, look no further than General Motors CEO Mary Barra, who appeared onstage earlier in the day. Barra is the first CEO of a major global automobile manufacturer, taking over the role in 2014, but Barra's been working for and around GM her entire life.
Barra's father worked in manufacturing at Pontiac for almost 40 years. She started working for GM at age 18 in 1980, in various administrative and engineering positions at the company's Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly plant. Barra worked her way up over the next three and a half decades to roles including VP of global manufacturing engineering, VP of global human resources, and EVP of global product development.
In talking about how GM's corporate culture has changed over the years and where the company is going, Barra inevitably touched on the decades-worth of experience and know-how she distills from the top down. She knows her company better than anyone.
"When you look at a vehicle, we're integrating 30,000 parts into a supply base. I'm a second-generation lifer at GM, and I know we have great people in this company," said Barra. "To really get to know how to make a great vehicle, it takes a couple generations. We have that kind of expertise, and now we're partnering with people bringing in new skill sets and technology giving them the freedom to go do. Our culture welcomes the challenge."