The I-Thou in Building an Inclusive Tech Ecosystem

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<p>Showcasing the actions I will take to build an inclusive tech ecosystem at the Tech Inclusion Conference in San Francisco on October 26, 2016.</p>

Showcasing the actions I will take to build an inclusive tech ecosystem at the Tech Inclusion Conference in San Francisco on October 26, 2016.

Creating an inclusive tech ecosystem is no small feat. This fact was brought to light over and over again at last week’s Tech Inclusion gathering in San Francisco. Featuring a powerful lineup of speakers and facilitators such as Leslie Miley, Director of Engineering at Slack, David King, Director of Diversity & Belonging at Airbnb, Nancy Lee, VP of People Operations at Google and Gil Gonzales, State of California Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, it seemed that every sector was weighing in on this important topic. Unlike many other traditional diversity and inclusion conferences, this event featured a ThoughtWorks Solutions Lab, focused on solving many of today’s diverse talent challenges, and panels covering topics ranging from government policy to race to wage equality to accessibility and usability in design. Embracing and demonstrating inclusion, the event even featured gender neutral restrooms. At the end of the two days, my mind was racing, filled with so many ideas and questions, but also hope, for these conversations, unlike so many to date, focused on solutions.

Hosted by Change Catalyst and presented by Google for Entrepreneurs at the Innovation Hangar, it should not have been a surprise that solutions across the entire ecosystem of tech, from government policy to community advocacy to organizational culture, were addressed directly. During one panel discussion amongst directors of diversity and inclusion, the topic of bias came up, to which LaFawn Davis, Global Head of Culture & Inclusion at Paypal, stated, “You have to systematically remove bias in order to actually get results.” This refreshing response, which immediately put aside the notion that unconscious bias training alone could resolve this systemic and countrywide issue was indeed needed. Dominique Guzman, a Could Infrastructure Security Engineer who leads Twilio’s current diversity efforts, added, “Your best tools are educated employees.” This is indeed another great point in efforts to mitigate bias, thus supporting the need for education and awareness within the larger systemic changes needed to address policies to support and address diversity in areas such as succession planning, promotions and hiring.

In a talk by Leslie Miley, he began, “The pipeline has never been a problem” and while the heart of Silicon Valley’s employees seemed to be in the right place, the money did not. With this in mind, Miley continued, “What if, for example, Google opened up a facility in Atlanta instead of Boulder,” where there actually is a large pool of qualified diverse talent? He went on to state that Slack is opening an office in Toronto to take advantage of this exact opportunity. Throughout the conferences, voices such as Miley’s spoke up and out, acknowledging the fact that there is indeed a problem in tech, but there are also plenty of solutions, and not one of them is simple or isolated. It truly takes a village, and even an entire country, to create and support the inclusive tech ecosystem of the future.

In reflecting on my time at the conference, surrounded by start-up founders, entrepreneurs, new college graduates, experts and policy makers, I was reminded of the diversity required to even create this ideal ecosystem addressed above. For decades, this task has been left to Diversity and Inclusion professionals, siloed and buried in Learning and Development Departments or deep within HR Departments, without budget, without resources and without access to the CEO. And, yes, all of these aspects matter greatly in whether Diversity and Inclusion is seen as a true business, instead of a philanthropic, priority. Never in my career had I met so many people from across so many sectors, ages, levels and dimensions of diversity, all joining together as one inclusive group to address today’s diversity challenges, in the workplace and in our communities.

In a recent article in The New York Times titled, “Read Buber, Not the Polls,” Brooks begins with the statement, “If America were a marriage we’d need therapy.” While he is referencing the elections, this statement more than aptly applies to the “therapy” needed in addressing today’s complex diversity challenges, especially as they pertain to race relations and the carryover into today’s workplaces. With workshops such as “Under the Radar: Exploring Beliefs & Assumptions about Race & Each Other” and “How Companies Can Prepare for the Next Racially Charged Spaying Before it Happens,” this Conference addressed the uncomfortable topics needed to bring this conversation forward. This sort of “therapy” is definitely what is needed to push the boundaries, to even break them, in order to then circle back, sit down and say, “OK. I’m ready now. I’m ready for a change.”

Brooks goes on to educate readers about Buber’s writings and the distinction between two different types of relationships, the I-It and I-Thou. The I-It relationships being either “utilitarian” or “truncated versions of what should be deep relationships.” On the other hand, the I-Thou relationships, as Brooks states, are “personal, direct, dialogical — nothing is held back.” Imagine a world in which these types of relationships existed everywhere, without hesitation, on a daily basis. Now imagine a corporate workplace in which this sort of ideology is not only embraced, but also enacted upon, in meetings, in corporate wide communications and in one-on-one interactions. This is the type of ideology that will truly change tech’s dismal diversity story from one about utilitarianism to one about emotive realism and progress.

As Brooks so eloquently states, “You can’t intentionally command I-Thou moments into being. You can only be open to them and provide fertile soil.” This year’s Tech Inclusion Conference definitely did so by providing this needed and yet so seemingly void “fertile soil” in the Silicon Valley bubble. Having worked in this field for many years, I have seen it evolve from one about compliance and basic diversity to the current conversation around inclusion and innovation, both of which are harder to measure and define. As such, the field needs new ways to address these areas, and the best way is by embracing the I-Thou relationship, that which evokes intimacy and goes beyond the traditional and often superficial conversations to date. It’s time to be uncomfortable. It’s time to be real. And it’s definitely, once and for all, time for solutions.

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