“I'm not going to give you the solution to diversity and inclusion in tech.”
“I don’t have any D&I data for you.”
“I'm going to ask you to leave your ‘representative’ behind today.”
These are not the disclaimers you might expect from eBay’s first Chief Diversity Officer, who held roles at Google as its Diversity Strategist and at Uber as its first Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion. But Damien Hooper-Campbell isn’t your traditional leader when it comes to his approach to diversity and inclusion. Each step in his life and career — from front-of-the-house manager at an organic Chinese food restaurant in Harlem to Assistant Director of Admissions at Harvard Business School to Vice President at Goldman Sachs — has shaped how he views diversity and inclusion, whether it’s through hospitality, education or its manifestation in some of the most influential industries.
Drawing from his First Round CEO Summit talk (which received a standing ovation) and follow-up conversations, Hooper-Campbell shares how he believes we can humanize an increasingly popular discussion that’s otherwise at risk of becoming a rote phrase in tech: diversity and inclusion (D&I). He shares a snapshot of the state of affairs of D&I in technology and suggests how it can be approached differently to generate more authentic, effective and — wait for it — inclusive conversations. Lastly, he offers a few exercises and tactical takeaways that every leader can try at her organization.
(Literally) Searching for Diversity in Tech
Let’s start by getting a quick, unscientific pulse of how D&I is being covered before jumping into what should be discussed. If you've ever Googled “diversity in tech,” you’ll get a smattering of headlines, such as these:
Imagine how entangled this issue can be if there’s this level of contradiction and questioning in the headlines. “It took just minutes of searching to come up with these titles and more. What's happened with this conversation? It's supposed to be about people and something good. In many ways it's become a bastardized, sticky conversation to have,” says Hooper-Campbell. “Add in the backdrop of the United States and the racially polarizing acts that we're seeing happening across all of our cities. Add in the backdrop of what's happening in the UK with Brexit. Add in the backdrop of what's happening in Germany with refugees. This has not become the most fun discussion to have. It's not for lack of trying to start the conversation.”
The Current State of Affairs
The intensity and complexity of the issues involved in conversations around diversity and inclusion has sent the tech sector in a number of different directions in search of meaningful change. Hooper-Campbell has noted some common patterns:
D&I leadership roles. “We hire a Chief Diversity Officer.”
Progress via percentages. “We double down on recruiting because there is a narrow and almost singular definition of progress as having a higher percentage of women, of Blacks and Latinos than you had last year.”
Formal trainings. “Many of us do D&I programs. Usually it’s in the form of trainings. For example, unconscious bias has become the buzzword of the last few years. Training after training takes place. People who are underrepresented minorities feel forced to speak up and represent more than their individual feelings, and people who might not self-identify as underrepresented minorities are sometimes scared to speak at all in fear of saying the wrong thing.”
Take A Different Step First
It’s not that Hooper-Campbell believes that investments of money, resources and time is ineffectual — it’s just usually that they’re often applied in a silo without considering the human element that is at the foundation of this conversation. “It will seem cliché to some or too simple to others, but the first — and most often skipped — step is to humanize this issue. This is not just about metrics and percentages. Yes, ultimately, those are absolutely necessary for progress. But what I'm going to ask us to do is to put the trainings aside for today. Toss out the money for a second, too,” says Hooper-Campbell. “For those of you who have been afraid to talk about it with your teams, go through the following steps so you can encourage them to join you, too. This is especially important for leaders of early-stage startups because you have the best opportunity to make a change here. I'm going to push you to have a conversation, so you can push them to have a conversation. It’s not rocket science. Let's kick this off.”
Redraw the Circle of Trust
This phrase, Circle of Trust, became most popular thanks to Robert De Niro’s character in “Meet the Parents.” As a reminder, De Niro plays the cynical father — and former CIA agent — who believes no one is good enough for his daughter, especially her current boyfriend who is meeting him for the first time. “The boyfriend, played by Ben Stiller, is desperately trying to make a good impression, but he stumbles all over himself. The most infamous scene is when Robert De Niro corners him and introduces the ‘Circle of Trust’ concept. He talks about how his entire family is in it, how he knows Ben Stiller is trying to get in the circle and that he’s watching him,” says Hooper-Campbell. “The point of bringing up this movie is twofold. First, go see it — it’s hilarious. But second, most of the time, we don’t know each other. Whether it’s at conference, at a company that skyrockets from 20 to 2,000 people or on a commuter train, we are often in environments where we see but don’t know each other.”
The goal is to draw wider Circles of Trust — faster. “The challenge is that even among those we see every day — for hours and hours at a time — we don’t get beyond those surface-level conversations,” says Hooper-Campbell. “Even among those we know, we choose not to dive deeper when we’re at work. Most of us join companies and bring ‘our representatives.’ You know what I'm talking about. What we need to do is push beyond the boundaries of surface-level conversations. We need to do what we very rarely do as human beings when we first meet each other. We need to be okay being politically incorrect for the moment as long as we’ve established an assumption of good intent. That allows us to get our real views out there and gives us permission to call BS when we see it.”
Being in the Circle of Trust is like being in the exit row on a plane. You need verbal confirmation before proceeding.
Define Diversity and Inclusion — But Parse Them First
The point of the Circle of Trust is to quickly create an environment that is conducive and safe for open conversations about diversity and inclusion. The first thing you want to do is define the topic in your own terms: What does diversity actually mean to you?
It doesn’t have to be perfect prose — the process of sharing definitions is what’s powerful. Break your team into pairs of people to do this definition exercise. “What I'm not looking for is what does it mean as defined by the dictionary. Or what it means as defined by what you think people want to hear or what the media says,” says Hooper-Campbell. “What does it actually mean in your world? That’s where I want you want to start.”
Reconvene your team and ask for volunteers to share. Let there be moments of silence, if they’re needed. As the leader, give your definition, too, but not before a handful of your people do. The answers will range. Here are some sample responses that your people may share:
“It means to me a people who come from a wide, diverse background and places. Diverse backgrounds mean various experiences, whether that's life experiences, job experiences or regional experiences.”
“We all have cognitive biases. We all have things that we carry with us. It’s our baggage. Diversity to me means I want people to bring that wide variety of baggage.”
“It means not letting your culture be defined by a single or few narratives.”
Come on, folks. Let’s define ‘diversity.’ Remember, we said Circle of Trust. We said no BS. We said no surface level stuff.
Here’s what I’ve noticed: conceptually, most us get what diversity means. “It's everything,” says Hooper-Campbell. “Oftentimes, this conversation narrows to be about only race and gender. While, yes, race and gender are very important aspects, diversity goes well beyond them. It absolutely should include them, but goes even further into hundreds of attributes.”
Next, define the other word: inclusion. “What does this word actually mean? Again, I don't want you to do what we typically do which is just define ‘inclusion.’ Forget Merriam-Webster,” says Hooper-Campbell. “Again, break into groups of two — make sure people are paired with new partners — and give them this prompt to ask each other: Dial back in your own life to a personal event when you felt excluded — regardless of when or why.”
Now these conversations don’t have to be about race or gender or age or sexual orientation, but they absolutely can be — no judgement here. “This could be from when you were four-years-old and you didn't get picked for the kickball team. This could be from earlier today when you realized that people at your company held a meeting and didn't invite you. It doesn't matter what it is,” says Hooper-Campbell. “I just want you to talk openly and candidly with the person across from you about a time in your life when you felt excluded. Before you finish, come up with a couple of adjectives that describe how you felt at that moment. Go!”
There’ll be buzz in the room. You’ll find that most will be so engaged that they won’t hear you say that time is up. But, again, regroup as a team and ask for a few brave volunteers. These answers won’t just be responses — they’ll be stories of the human condition. Let them unfold and don’t tolerate interruptions. Here are some sample responses that Hooper-Campbell has heard:
“I was fat as a kid. The things that I thought were important, like school, weren’t what others thought were important, like sports. The majority didn’t care about what I did. Whatever everyone thought was important was how people judged popularity. That was a multi-decade recurring theme for me. My adjectives are ‘loser’ and ‘lonely.’”
“We shared very similar stories, which is why I feel confident or comfortable sharing. We both recently had friends — not close, but not acquaintances — who had weddings recently, to which we weren’t invited. Both of us expected we might be invited to them. It wasn't necessarily a deep exclusion — compared to what’s been said — but it still prompted some insecurity. It made us wonder if we weren’t as good of friends with those people as we thought. My adjectives are ‘insecure’ and ‘fear of not being missed.’”
“My experience was in high school. I was on our soccer team. There would be these big parties over the weekends when someone's parents were out of town. It was really awesome except I would always hear about it on Monday after they happened. Nobody told me or invited me. It was always one of these things. My adjectives are ‘sad’ and ‘unwanted.’”
“I went to high school in Japan. I was on the math field day team. I was the only girl. I was the only non-Japanese person. My teammates would literally just speak Japanese in front of me like I wasn't even there. This exercise reminded me of that and the feeling of just not even mattering that I was there.”
“Mine’s about age. In the first few internships I had, I walked in the front door and said, ‘I have a million ideas on how to make everything better.’ I immediately got shut down. It happens a little bit less now, but I still remember it. I was the youngest person around and getting shut down. My adjectives are ‘crippled’ and ‘demotivated.’”
What’s Being Shared, What’s Being Said
The experiences shared through these exercises will naturally bring your team together — maybe in ways you can’t immediately diagnose. To conclude, ask yourself a few questions:
How would you describe the type of exclusion shared? “Notice something about the experiences mentioned. They won’t necessarily have to do with race and gender only,” says Hooper-Campbell. “Those experiences were about human beings regardless of backgrounds or attributes — it was about those who have felt excluded.”
What were the words you heard? “Insecure, fear, lonely, right? Crippled, demotivated,” says Hooper-Campbell. “These adjectives aren’t mutually exclusive to any one category of people.”
From when did these stories come? “It’d surprise me if a handful of the stories told were not from childhood or teenage years,” says Hooper-Campbell. “In the previous examples, there were stories from grade school, high-school and early in one’s career. These are clearly long-lasting, strong feelings that have made a deep impression.”
The power of these exercises is that suddenly the stories that get voiced belong to the people you see often. It’s a step toward truly knowing them — and making them feel welcome. It’s also a step towards getting more people involved in the conversation on and commitment to diversity and inclusion. While an experience of being overweight may never be the same experience to being excluded because of the color of your skin or gender, it should help all of us get a bit closer to making ‘inclusion’ less of a buzzword and more of a human experience. “Folks, the point of this is there are people who are working for you right now or are trying to work for your company who feel this way,” says Hooper-Campbell. “If you ask for a show of hands of those who have ever felt excluded, you’ll see many, many more. Nearly every person has felt excluded at least once in their life. Now ask your team: How many of you have ever been responsible — intentionally or unintentionally — for excluding someone else? If people are really in the Circle of Trust, you’ll see just as many hands go up.”
Keep Those Hands Held High
Ask your team to keep their hands up for a few minutes more. “That’s what you want to fix at your organization. I'm not asking you to start with a training. I'm not asking you to take money and throw it at the problem. I'm asking you to simply start with a human conversation and a commitment to use your positions of leadership to never knowingly — either directly or indirectly — allow anyone in your sphere of influence to feel the adjectives of the excluded,” says Hooper-Campbell. “If you still aren't getting this diversity and inclusion idea, consider this metaphor — which is not mine, but I love it and so I continue to use it: Diversity can be likened to being invited to the dance party. We all open up our texts or email and have received an invitation to the party.”
“So fast forward and now we're all standing around at the party and there's tons of diversity in the room. Awesome. But that’s only part of the equation,” says Hooper-Campbell. “So what if only people of a certain weight are dancing? Or only certain people who are close enough friends to be invited to the wedding who are dancing? Or only people of a certain age who are dancing? Or only people who speak a certain language who are dancing? Or only people who are cool enough from the soccer team who are dancing? Inclusion is getting asked to dance when you’re at the dance party.”
Folks, diversity alone isn’t enough. If diversity is getting invited to the dance party, inclusion is being asked to dance when you’re at the party.
The message here is that diversity alone isn’t sufficient. “As leaders, it’s great if you're trying to recruit people from diverse backgrounds. But that’s just table stakes as one of my colleagues says,” says Hooper-Campbell. “I challenge you all to get rid of the noise that focuses all of this conversation on recruiting and statistics alone. That's a major part of it. We call that workforce. We've heard it already. We've heard it tons of times. A diverse workforce helps with profits and business because many of our customers and end users reflect a broad array of diversity. Okay. Got it. But what about the workplace? How do you actually feel when you're there? Have you only been invited to the dance or are you also being invited to dance when you're actually in the workplace?”
A Challenge for Your Company
Run these exercises at your startup — start with this conversation to gain important ground if you value diversity and inclusion. “This type of thinking will blossom throughout your company as it grows. You’ll likely give voice to employees you’ve been missing out on. Or customers you’re not welcoming onto your platform,” says Hooper-Campbell. “Because you're now thinking in a more inclusive way.”
In summary, here are a couple takeaways to try immediately with your people:
Start with a conversation. “You can bring in experts to talk about unconscious bias all day long. You can hire a Chief Diversity Officer — for the record, I’m grateful. But have you actually had a real conversation to understand what diversity and inclusion means to your people and peers?” asks Hooper-Campbell. “Do you know? Maybe it is about physical appearance. Or about languages. It's probably also about race and gender, but don't miss out on bringing people into the conversation because, by yourself, you’ll narrowly define diversity and inclusion.”
Demand that inclusion be inclusive. “Diversity and inclusion can easily become a very U.S.-centric conversation. Just because you start to decipher what diversity and inclusion may mean in the U.S. does not mean you’ve identified what D&I means in France or Ghana,” says Hooper-Campbell. “By having the conversation and listening, you get what you need to figure out where to meet people in the dialogue.”
Keep the aperture wide to counteract polarization. Diversity and inclusion is an all-encompassing set of ideas — and participants. “We've gotten to a place in this discussion around diversity and inclusion where we have awesome initiatives that are focused on certain populations,” says Hooper-Campbell. “But what good are those initiatives if people in the majority don't feel welcome in that conversation? If it's simply an initiative inside of your company that's focused on women, that’s fantastic. But include and encourage men to participate! Otherwise, they say, ‘I'm not going in that room.’ How will the needle move with that type of fragmentation?”
Own D&I language before you own metrics. If you are intent on measuring the efforts and efficacy of these conversations, there’s a good early litmus test. “If you are at a place in your organization where you don't know if you should call me Black or African-American, get to a place by having a conversation where it's okay to ask that question,” says Hooper-Campbell. “Also, if you don't know if you should say homosexual or gay, get to a place where you can ask that question. The worse thing you can do is say nothing at all.”
Find the business case. “I want you to find the business case for diversity and inclusion in your company. I’m telling you, it exists. Diversity and inclusion drives revenue. Forget any research study for a second. This should be foundational. Find the opportunity in your business model,” says Hooper-Campbell. “At eBay, diversity and inclusion is core to our business model. We’re driving economic empowerment for sellers from every corner of the world while also offering over 1 billion selections to meet the needs of an extremely diverse set of buyers. If we don’t focus on this, our business doesn’t grow.”
Progress comes with vulnerability. “I’ve coached leaders for years. The biggest Achilles heel I see with senior leaders — those with big salaries and titles — is an inability to be vulnerable and a pressure to appear perfect,” says Hooper-Campbell. “With these inclusion conversations, that has to change. Folks, it’s that conversation — that exchange about exclusion — that’s the real takeaway. In less than an hour, you can fast forward past political correctness and surface-level conversation. You can talk to each other about something that we all have in common and can connect with each other on immediately: feeling excluded.”
Whatever you do, include. Commit to never ever, doing anything — knowingly — to let the people who are in your sphere of influence feel excluded. The health, happiness and longevity — of your people, business and industry — is in the balance.