Product Culture Marty Cagan

Advocating For Racial Equity

For those that haven’t yet met Christian, he joined as an SVPG Partner about a year ago.  He is one of the most effective and inspiring product leaders I have ever met, but even more than that, he’s one of the most exceptional human beings I know.  So many friends at tech companies around the world have been asking what they can do to help correct the injustices in our country.  Christian has been getting this question from leaders he coaches and advises, and he agreed to let us share his suggestions more broadly.  My sincere hope is that this article makes it to the leadership team of every tech company and inspires the dialog that can lead to real change.

What Can We Do: The Tech Company’s Guide to Advocating for Racial Equity

By SVPG Partner Christian Idiodi

The past few weeks have been tough for me as a black man in America. In the morning, I take calls and respond to emails as I work with and coach tech companies. At lunch, I help my teenage son respond to questions and comments from his white friends. After dinner, I spend time helping my youngest children understand why the police killed a black man, why people are protesting, and how people can feel angry, afraid, and helpless at the same time. Yet this all pales in comparison to the pain and hurt facing the black community. 

All my life, I have looked to technology to solve meaningful problems. In many cases, I am amazed at seeing how fearless many of the tech giants have been in approaching some of the hardest problems in the world. Google is trying to stop aging and death. Elon Musk is trying to colonize Mars. So what is it about the problems of racism and racial injustice that are so daunting? Are these not problems worth solving? Do tech companies not feel an obligation to participate in solving them? Or like many organizations, have tech companies become complacent in a system that unintentionally enables racial injustice and systemic oppression? 

My ten-year-old son loves technology. He wants to be an engineer and invent the first flying car. But my son now believes it is more likely for him to become President than to build technology that changes the world. He has seen a black President but has not seen leaders who look like him in technology. There is not a black Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Elon Musk, he says. It’s hard for him to fathom how people who don’t look like him could talk about, care about, empathize with, and more importantly, really try to solve these problems. As the ever optimist, I told him I truly believe there is so much the tech community can do to support the black community. 

So what can tech companies do to support the black community and advocate for racial equity?

  1. Don’t look for permission to solve the problem. Problems worth solving are simply that — worth solving. You have never let a lack of congruence, expertise, or experience stop you from taking on some of the hardest problems in the world. Hire the smartest people, bring together the best thought leaders, and facilitate the right collaborative environment to tackle some of these issues. 
  2. Find your voice. You don’t know what to say. That’s okay. You don’t know how to say it. That’s okay too. But let us know that you see us, you see our pain, and you want something to change. You don’t need permission to use your platform to stop hate and call out injustice. 
  3. Be specific. Embrace your freedom to be specific in this particular cultural moment. There’s no point in saying something if you’re talking about everything. It is absolutely okay to speak specifically about issues black people are facing right now. It is absolutely okay to say “Black Lives Matter.” If you break your finger, you don’t go to the doctor about a body ache. Yes, your whole body matters, but the pain is in your finger is what needs to be addressed now. 
  4. Overcome the imposter syndrome. Many companies feel like they understand the problem very well and at the same time, feel they do not have the credibility to take action. You don’t need a black person on your team to commit your time and resources to educate yourself or your organization. You don’t need to be a thought leader to show up in a way that is meaningful. But you do have to show up.
  5. Have a conversation. Set aside time as a team or organization to dialogue about race, diversity, and justice. Talk to your black colleagues, teammates, and employees. Acknowledge their need for and your responsibility to provide physical and psychological safety for all employees. Give them a platform to contribute to conversations and share their unique experiences. Let them know you see the color of their skin and you value them.
  6. Interview someone who does not look like you. If you are not deliberate about interviewing someone who looks different, you are not trying hard enough. Look for bias and pay inequality in your system. Black people in technology will only become the norm when giving black people opportunities to work in technology becomes the status quo.
  7. Consider your influence. Take inventory of the power of your platform and how it can be used to address racial injustice. Consider how much influence you have and dream about what it would look like if your product amplified the voices and actions of those fighting to break down the barriers of systemic racism. 
  8. State your commitment to the problem. Share the internal solutions that are already being generated and advocated for. Are you using your employee resource groups? How are they being supported and how can you amplify what they are trying to achieve. Technology companies may already have people working internally to solve challenges related to race and equality. These people are already invested in your company. Take action that shows you are invested in their objectives.
  9. Empower black youth in technology. Find and invest in STEM programs in local black communities. The generational disenfranchisement of black youth has created barriers to them realizing the same opportunities as their white peers. Be intentional about going out to invest in the next generation of black technologists, engineers, and thought leaders. We are raising the next generation of tech leaders. 

It is naïve to think that the world has any chance of accelerating its path out of these issues without technology. It has been the single biggest driver of growth and development in the 21st century. Consider the fact that if the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery had happened 15-20 years ago, the majority of us would have never known they happened. Racial injustice has always existed, but technology has given us the ability to capture it in real-time, empathize, have conversations, and work together to take meaningful action. It gives companies the reach and power to create dialogue and connect communities. There’s always a cost to resisting the status quo. Be brave enough to recognize that no matter the dent in the world you are trying to make, issues of racism, hatred, and injustice have and will continue to derail you from your mission.

The SVPG Partners, January, 2020