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The Future of Work

New Diversity Chiefs Share Their Biggest Challenges

Companies like Airbnb and Autodesk have made headlines by hiring diversity chiefs. We talked to them about why this new position matters.

[Photo: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images]

The tech industry is well aware of its diversity problem. Women, people of color, LGBT, veterans, people with disabilities, and other groups are vastly underrepresented.

As such, reports have been generated, strategies outlined, and other measures aimed at creating a more inclusive workforce have begun. But none are quite so focused as appointing a chief diversity officer.

The business case for diversity is pretty straightforward. Differences in gender, race, age, and educational background support better decision making through conversations that come out of varied experiences. Other studies support the fact that diversity increases the bottom line. But what does it take to lead the charge?

In less than a year, Pinterest, Twitter, and others have either created a position or hired a new person to lead diversity efforts.

We asked some of the newer members of this growing tribe to weigh in on the biggest issues they’ll be facing, and what skills they need to take on the challenge.

David King III, Director Of Diversity And Belonging, Airbnb

David King is the first person to hold this position at the company and just took on the role at the end of February. As the former director of diversity for the Peace Corps and the State Department sees it, leading the charge for the global home rental platform is concurrently strategic and tactical work. At Airbnb, King tells Fast Company, "We’ll be doing some of the things that everybody does," including assessing the existing workforce, conducting internal surveys and training, and retooling strategies around recruitment and retention.

Where Airbnb will differ, says King, is that the very nature of the effort will be on a global scale by virtue of the company’s core mission "Belong Anywhere." This extends the initiative well beyond Airbnb’s workforce (60% of whom come from outside the U.S.) to include its guests and hosts as well. For example, he notes, product changes such as instant booking will make the entire process more equitable. "This won’t address every issue," King says, referring to the Harvard study that found some Airbnb hosts were paid less than others due to their race, but it should alleviate some concerns about bias.

Although he’s coordinating these efforts, King does point out the necessity of making everyone responsible for diversity and inclusion. Metrics and targets are important, he says, because without them there is no accountability. Still he maintains, "If everyone feels like they belong, it takes it to another level."

Most important skill for the job. "Being willing to take risks and try new ideas. Some things will work and some things won't, but if we aren't taking risks we aren't trying."

Biggest issue facing right now. "Coming up with new and creative ways to reach and inspire people that haven't traditionally been reached by our recruiting efforts."

Danny Guillory, Head Of Global Diversity And Inclusion at Autodesk

Before he landed at Autodesk, Danny Guillory spent 20 years at Innovations International, developing diversity and inclusion initiatives at organizations including HP, Apple, and Disney. Now less than five months into his new position at the $11 billion design software company, Guillory is working to move the needle through several initiatives, including creating a diversity and inclusion task force, leadership and management competency assessments, and workshops on creating an inclusive culture both in classroom and virtual sessions. 

The company recently received a score of 85 out of 100 on the 2016 Corporate Equality Index (CEI), a national benchmarking survey and report on corporate policies and practices relating to workplace equality for LGBT employees, he notes.

Guillory tells Fast Company that even though the business case for diversity is strong, to affect large-scale transformation, there has to be an ethical rationale for encouraging diversity. "If someone in my role and/or the company is strictly about profit," he says, "then you are stuck."

Most important skill for the job. "As someone who is working in diversity and inclusion and facilitating transformation, by far the most important skill is committed detachment. I’m committed to diversity and inclusion for the organization, but detached from you personally as an individual.

I really see my role as [helping people] understand the consequences of decisions and actions. People have to choose to go through that transformation on their own."

Biggest issue facing right now. "I honestly think if the will is there in a focused way around retention and advancement, that is not as challenging as we make it out to be. I've seen organizations that move forward very quickly if there is a true will to make that happen. The larger challenge is how wide ranging diversity and inclusion really is in all parts of the ecosystem."

Aubrey Blanche, Global Head Of Diversity And Inclusion, Atlassian

On March 8, team collaboration software company Atlassian released its first diversity report, but took a slightly different approach by focusing on team diversity data as the benchmark to measure its progress. 

As the company’s first head of diversity hired nine months ago, Aubrey Blanche says this was a necessary widening of the lens. "Team-level data provides crucial insight into how well people from underrepresented backgrounds are spread across the company," she said in a statement.

At the same time, Atlassian also revealed "n-Space," a concept that recognizes and supports both the complexity and constant change of diversity by expanding its analysis beyond traditional diversity metrics, adding LGBT identification and international representation and age—a first for the tech industry—to its report.

Most important skill for the job. "My job requires a highly developed capacity for empathy. As people, we're all trapped in our own experiences. The only way for me to understand the specific experiences of people who are different from me is to proactively and continuously ask questions, and try to put myself in their shoes.

On the macro level, that means consuming as much information as I can on the political, economic, social, and psychological barriers that people from underrepresented groups face. On the personal level, it means surrounding myself with a diverse group of people willing to share their experiences and give me candid, honest feedback about how their identities affect their experiences, and how that relates to the programming I'm creating."

Biggest issue facing right now. "A simple lack of education. People usually have good intentions, but if they don't understand how to empathize with someone with a different perspective, they may not be aware of how their actions or words can affect others. 

This starts at the team level. One of my biggest focus areas is ensuring people feel empowered to make their teams more inclusive by finding new ways to engage everyone in our diversity efforts. Storytelling is a key component. We have internal forums where we encourage people from any background to share how their unique identities shape their experiences. The more we understand each other's experiences, the more we recognize our shared humanity. It transforms the way we approach diversity and inclusion initiatives. What could be 'us versus them' becomes 'we.'"

Fast Company's Sarah Kessler contributed reporting.

Related: How Twitter, Facebook, Google, And Other Silicon Valley Giants Can Fix Their Diversity Problem

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