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Diversity: It’s not them, it’s you

This CEO explains how he pushed himself out into underrepresented communities to broaden the pool of talent at his company.

Diversity: It’s not them, it’s you
[Photo: Skitterphoto/Pexels]

I hear a lot of CEOs and managers say that they are trying to diversify their teams, but that not enough women or people from the black, Latinx, or LGBTQ communities are applying for their job openings.

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The truth is, as the CEO or hiring manager, if your teams are not diverse it’s your fault. No one else’s.

I learned this the hard way. I had decided to diversify the teams at my company, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because our product appeals to a wide demographic, and I wanted to be sure that we were designing our product for everyone, not just a select few.

But, after a year of trying (posting on a wider range of job boards, creating an inclusivity page on our site, and signing a diversity pledge), I looked around at our 70-person company and we were still a bunch of (mostly) white guys. I didn’t understand why, so I made it my mission to find out.

I realized that I had few black friends and no Latinx business contacts. The truth is, I didn’t even know where to build those relationships. I tried to put myself in a black or brown developer’s shoes when applying for a job at my company. I couldn’t, because I had no information about how that would feel. I had no idea what it would feel like to be in the minority, so I set out to put myself outside of my comfort zone and try to find out.

My chance came in the shape of a barbershop. I had been going to the same book-online-and-get-someone-different-every-time barbershop for a long time. I needed a change. And I also needed a haircut. As I was driving one day, I noticed a black barbershop. I had never considered getting my haircut at a place that was frequented by predominantly black people before. This was my chance to be out of my comfort zone. I called and made an appointment.

All the chairs faced the middle of the room, which meant there was no way to escape being part of the group. Everyone was friendly, and no one did anything to make me feel like I wasn’t welcome. But they also didn’t change the way they were talking or what they were talking about. I felt nervous about joining in because I didn’t understand parts of the conversation.

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After my hair was cut, I realized for that brief moment, I had felt a tiny fraction of what it is like to be in the minority. I continued to return to that barber for several months to learn more empathy and build relationships.

I know that this experience in no way replaces the hundreds of years of systemic racism, but it gave me my first small window into understanding.

I started to get out of my comfort zone in other ways, too. I committed to changing the type of media I consumed to see things from a different perspective. The Seeing White podcast helped me understand that white is a color, too: a color that gives me privilege. It was challenging. I started to think about how being white affects everything around me when I had never really given it much thought. I also read The New Jim Crow, a book about mass incarceration, that changed the way I think about the justice system in the United States.

Although I was becoming educated about issues surrounding social justice, I still hadn’t made any actual business partnerships with people from underrepresented groups. I had heard of AfroTech and dismissed it previously. Nevertheless, I bought a ticket and went. I was probably one of two or three white faces in the crowd. I spent the day talking to so many great people and came out with a pocketful of business cards who would become new friends and allies.

Now that I had newfound empathy and allies, it was time to partner with them to discover the local talent who would actually apply for my vacant jobs. I used my network, including the guys I met in the barbershop, to put the word out that we were looking to hire. They suggested I contact some local nonprofits such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of America in Portland, Dress for Success, and the Urban League. They also sent us great candidates for our job openings.

Before long, we had one or two interviewees who were women, or black, or Latinx for every position we had open. And as our teams became more diverse, so too did the number of people from underrepresented groups applying for our jobs. Our diversity numbers are not perfect, but we are now heading in the right direction. More than that, we know that the talent is out there; you just need to know where to look for it.

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So if you’re trying to diversify your teams, remember it’s not on them to find you, it’s on you to find them. Now, you know what to do.


Ryan Carson is the cofounder and CEO of Treehouse

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