Ime Archibong is best known as the director of product partnerships at tech giant Facebook where he leads a team working to connect Facebook’s products and strategies with various business partners. Archibong and his team have worked on everything from the Facebook Messenger app to a relatively new initiative called Internet.org, which aims to connect the world to the internet.
Prior to working at Facebook, Archibong attended Yale and Stanford and worked for several years at IBM, a global leader in not only technology, but diversity initiatives. We spoke with Archibong about his path to Facebook, the lessons that tech companies in their infancy can take from industry giants like IBM and why he has the utmost faith that Silicon Valley can and will solve its widespread diversity problems.
I was born in Kansas, but was raised in North Carolina. Both my parents were Nigerian immigrants and they’re both professors, so we found our way [there]. I went to school and undergrad up at Yale and double majored in electrical engineering and computer science. After graduating, I was trying to figure out what field to go into and clearly tech was where I spent the majority of my academic pursuits looking towards.
I joined IBM as a software engineer out in Tucson, Arizona, where I worked on storage systems and servers, which aren’t that exciting to the majority of people in Silicon Valley, but I worked on that for a solid two-and-a-half, three years before [realizing] where I really wanted to spend time was more on the business and strategy side of the house. So, I left for business school—which is what brought me to the Bay Area—and I went to Stanford.
For my parents, the pragmatic outcome that they see from education is, “Oh, you need to go be a doctor or go be a lawyer.” We couldn’t see what the pragmatic outcome was of going and getting a computer science degree. Or going and getting an engineering degree. And it’s not that the stories weren’t being told, but the stories weren’t being told with people that looked like me and resonated with me. Steve Jobs was around when I was going through school. Bill Gates was around when I was going through school. But I don’t look at a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates and say, “Hey, that’s immediately someone who I think I can be like one day.”
The immediate people that come to mind for me are actually IBMers. [IBM is] a 400,000-person company and you look to the top and there were two African-Americans. One guy named Rod Adkins and then another guy named Mark Dean. Mark was one of the early engineers that invented the hard disk or something ridiculous like that, something so fundamental and basic to technology and he was a distinguished engineer at IBM. I think about people like him and how his story probably isn’t told at the same level that the 21-year-old whiz kid coming out of whatever Ivy League school that created the latest whiz bang bing app is getting. Rod, on the other hand, had an engineering background, [but] decided that the place that he could be the most leveraged and spend the most time and have the greatest impact was on the business side.
So, those were some of the early figureheads for me that I would look to and think, “Oh, well, if they’ve done it, I can do something, too.”
IBM [is] a hundred-year-old company that has been thinking about diversity longer than I’ve been alive. So, they had some really well-baked thoughts, visions, structures, and teams built up around thinking about diversity and how they wanted to approach it. And I don’t even know the details on the different programs that they run these days, but I know that they’ve always been somewhat of a gold standard for big companies thinking about diversity and have been progressive about diversity and how it plays to the business. So, it was an interesting thing to be dropped into IBM where there were 40 years of thought being put to how they were approaching [diversity] and then being transferred over to Facebook where it was all being put together in real time.
Once we’ve attracted the right talent, similar to the rest of the employee base, how do we make sure that [Facebook] keeps that talent? I think it can all be fleshed out and thought about for individual companies’ needs. And then once you keep that talent, I think it’s all about growing that talent.
There’s an awareness that needs to be created there, whether it’s a senior person making sure that he or she is visible or even a junior person going back to their high school or their elementary school or tutoring on a day-to-day basis to make sure they stay connected with the community and are exposing people to these jobs and to this space at a really early age is critical.
One of the things that I do is I’ve connected with a small nonprofit organization called Live In Peace, an East Palo Alto based nonprofit. Their main focus is to try to figure out how to keep the East Palo Alto community together, [which] is predominantly African-American and Latino. One of the tactical ways that they’re trying to keep the community together right now is through finding employment in the technology space. The questions we’re tackling are all about how do we expose people in the East Palo Alto community to the fundamental tool, the education, to the opportunities that will expose them to the technology sector and actually prepare them and get them ready for the technology sector.
I think that there’s been a lot of data and research out there that hammers home the notion that when you have people sitting around the table that have diverse backgrounds or cognitive differences in their backgrounds, better products end up getting built. We see this time and time again. One of the things that I’ve seen Facebook do that I’ve really be excited about and celebrated is thinking about how to go tap into the really smart population at [historically black college], Howard University. How to tap into the really smart population at Georgia Tech. And that may not be the traditional [Silicon Valley feeder] school, but nonetheless have really incredibly smart, talented pools of men and women that are studying computer science and electrical engineering and, if anything, just need to be made aware of opportunities and see the pragmatic outcome of their degrees in the professional world.
We just have to get out there and talk to them because Facebook continues to grow [and] if we’re going to go from 1.3 billion users to 7 billion one day, we need to make sure that our employees reflect the real world and make sure we’re building the most relevant and impactful stuff for the world.
One thing I always say is when [Silicon Valley] people really care about a success metric or they care about a challenge that needs to be tackled or they care about an opportunity that needs to be unlocked, the smarts, the resources [and] the human capital out here in the Bay Area can get any of that stuff done. So long as we continue to push people to really care about the issues, opportunities, challenges for diversity out here in the Bay Area, there’s no doubt in my mind that the tactics that people take over the next decade will solve those issues and solve those problems.
This interview has been edited and condensed.