June 18th 2020
mother of unicorns. not a hacker. social distancing since 2018.
What Alexis Ohanian should have done.
Changing The Cultural Narrative
Right now, the Black Lives Matter movement is widely discussed to be seen as an ‘anti-racist’ movement. And that’s what I believe Alexis Ohanian is trying to do, as an act of technology leadership and as a showcase to his family that he is doing the right thing. Is he?
In other places, the small, subdued discussions happens at home, gathered around the family table, where little children step up to educate their parents on why it is important, not to be racist.
Negative Discrimination vs. Positive Discrimination
These acts of removing racist statues shape the cultural narrative of today, and is a strong statement that these figures, although earlier installed due to their philanthropy in the area, should not be tolerated now, should not be seen in our common places, if we also celebrate equality.
During the fervor of the past ‘LGBTQ in technology’ rights movement, I was invited as a “VIP” leader of Diversity and Inclusion, to a very savvy marketing event held by a large technology co-working company to promote and celebrate their Diversity and Inclusion initiatives. I balked at the notion of having each attendee make a showy ‘pledge’ at the end of the event to show their commitment to the initiative. I felt that it wasn’t meaningful enough to put up a rainbow flag without actually committing to a long-term, concerted effort to simply raise awareness about the troubling insights that we all knew existed in technology workplaces. The list of the tech leaders invited were named, and counted, as they pledged. If you were to ask any of them what they did to inform and shape LGBTQ initiatives in their tenure, years later, they probably would have forgotten even attending the event. I was thoroughly saddened that such an important initiative could be construed as a marketing tactic, with rainbow flags as a farcical showcase, and I hope many others like me recognized the event for what it was.
Change The OKRs = Change The Biases
These two movements echo the same underlying issues around biases.
The problem is not about tech leaders making pledges or commitments to inform change. All tech startups are under immense pressure to grow 80 – 100% in a year. In a year. In Silicon Valley, everyone is super focused on that ‘hockey stick growth’ curve, because if you don’t grow 30x – 50x that year, someone else will overtake you, plus you don’t look good to investors (and getting that next insane valuation.)
And when you are being measured on how many people you hire, how fast you hire – while checking all the boxes so that you don’t impede growth (and be fired as a result of your poor performance), then all humans will act on their base instincts.
Your value is measured in terms of how many people you hire, and how fast you do that.
You will become more conservative than ever. Hire only the ‘tried and tested’ people from the same background, industry or those who went to the same schools, the people who look most like the people you have already hired. It’s less rewarding, but safer (in terms of job security.)
What do tech leadership teams do about this? They create rules around promoting affirmative action in response to the ongoing criticism about their ‘all white, all male’ boards. They set quotas to eliminate discrimination from the hiring process. But I think that setting quotas and rules on talent, doesn’t really fix the problem. If Reddit now has a black person on its board, he surely can’t be expected to fix all of its problems, especially the deep issues surrounding their unwillingness to become ‘anti-racist’. I have been invited to join companies to fix the same problems, but I quickly realised that this is not an enviable position – in fact, the odds are against you if the change is not led from within, and from the top.
What Alexis Ohanian should have done
Firstly, I think an act to resolve long-held biases in the company should be addressed.
1. Commit to long term plans to build a better company. The people you let in, and the people who leave you, speaks volumes about the company you built.
2. Change the OKRs of your hiring team if they are expected to check boxes, hire ‘tried and tested people’, and if they are being rewarded only on the number of people they hire in the shortest time.
3. Do not operate in a mindset of ‘less risk, less reward’ and only caring about the growth metric. Your talent biases is a mirror of what you value. Do you only value the growth metrics because it makes you look good in front of investors? What other things bring value to your company?
4. Limit entropy for the future of your workplace‘s environment. I fear that the current perceived stigma of staying silent during these times means you are implicitly saying you are racist. And perhaps many have rushed out a statement to fill in the void, in case they may be thought so.
Think about how you can meaningfully shape the narrative, for instance, departing with some of your revenue to create change, donating and committing to a long effort to a worthy cause that will create impact for blacks within and outside your organization.
The impact of those initiatives may only be seen a year or two from now. Be the one that brings the radical, sustainable winds of change. This would be the kind of company leadership I would gladly work for.
Anna Wintour is famously well-regarded for cultivating strong leadership, both in the fashion circles where she resides, and outside it, as well. Watching her on MasterClass, she shares about making decisions and taking risks. I understand that she is fully aware of her role as Vogue’s editor, to shape the cultural narrative of our times. And that means taking risks. Over time those rewards outweigh the risks, and she is widely respected in all she does.
Why I am not silent
I am rather nonchalant to share my opinions online, in writing, as I usually do so privately, and when solicited to share.
But in the recent months of the pandemic, I noticed how people working in tech startups became more and more insular. They continue to employ a short-sighted notion based on fear and lack, in regard to hiring talent. I felt quite sour inside mainly for the strong talent being forsaken because everyone refused to take risks. I fear for the repercussions it would bring on the industry, in a longer term.
I reflected on what are the best ways I could create some meaning. I found this Japanese word, ‘kokorozashi’. It really spoke to me about the cultural narrative I could create now, for my own community, a type of community service where I would be able to help others without expecting a return for my deeds.
(From : https://ikigaitribe.com/kokorozashi/ )
I feel like I am standing in the days where a new history could be made for those who dared to lead. As an individual, I cannot do much. Probably this (article) is the best individual effort I can do to fight racism.
Are you (as a tech leader) only interested in fixing things on the surface, or are you going to have the determination to provide a roadmap for others to follow?
Positive Discrimination, UK: https://uk.practicallaw.thomsonreuters.com/5-200-3419?transitionType=Default&contextData=(sc.Default)&firstPage=true&bhcp=1
Affirmative Action, NYT: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/opinion/sunday/does-affirmative-action-do-what-it-should.html
Sethembile Msezane: https://blog.ted.com/standing-for-art-and-truth-a-chat-with-sethembile-msezane/
Blackout Tuesday: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/02/blackout-tuesday-dominates-social-media-millions-show-solidarity-george-floyd
The curse of modernity is that we are increasingly populated by a class of people who are better at explaining than understanding, or better at explaining than doing.―