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As an immigrant and CEO, here’s what I’ve learned about building an inclusive culture

Hiring immigrants gives companies an edge, so it’s important to create a welcoming environment.

As an immigrant and CEO, here’s what I’ve learned about building an inclusive culture
[Photo: solarseven/iStock]

Many companies approach diversity and inclusion from the perspective of improving gender and race ratios, but immigrants are often overlooked in this discussion. That’s a shame because immigrants have unique backgrounds and perspectives that can help make a company more competitive. Research firm McKinsey found that companies that had culturally diverse executive teams are 33% more likely to outperform their peers when it comes to profitability.

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Tech companies are no strangers to immigrants. Venture capitalist Mary Meeker’s 2018 Internet Trends Report found more than half of American tech companies were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants. Immigrants have a proven track record of enhancing technology but often face professional environments that aren’t accepting.

How can the tech industry create opportunities for immigrant employees? How can tech companies support immigrant employees’ success and build environments where they feel safe? As both an immigrant and the CEO of a tech company, I’ve struggled with these challenges on both sides. Here are several strategies I’ve implemented that companies should consider when working to build an inclusive environment for immigrant employees:

Review recruiting processes and policies

The first impression a potential employee gets about a company is often through the recruiting process. Unfortunately, many companies have introduced policies that come up during the recruiting process that deter immigrant candidates.

At Outreach, we eliminate questions relating to citizenship or visas from our recruiting process. The topics of citizenship and visas can be a source of stress or even a deterrent. We ask if someone is qualified to work in the U.S., then handle immigration status after we’ve made an offer. If a candidate needs help securing a visa or green card, we handle the entire process, including fees. If their work permits are delayed, we hold their jobs. We also offer access to a tool that allows employees to track their visa applications and give them access to an immigration lawyer.

Dig into your culture

Creating a company culture that is supportive and celebratory of diverse experiences, thoughts, and backgrounds can go a long way toward making employees feel accepted and embraced. For example, at Outreach, we celebrate and acknowledge holidays from a diverse array of cultures. We acknowledge colleagues that fast for different holidays, hold brown-bag meetings to learn the origins of celebrations like Juneteenth, and educate our employees about why specific days are significant to certain cultures. Our employees are comprised of diverse backgrounds, and they are encouraged to share what makes them unique with the entire company in whatever way they choose.

Help combat impostor syndrome

It’s easy for an immigrant or any employee to be struck by impostor syndrome—the feeling that we’re secretly unqualified for our job, despite evidence to the contrary. This was something I dealt with as we were building Outreach. I never doubted our product/market fit, but I did wonder, who I was to be leading the company? The only way to move past these feelings was to talk about them. Companies should encourage open dialogue with employees because chances are there are many people who question their value and what they bring to the company.

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Every employee has a unique perspective to share, and leaders need to set the tone by creating space for people to be open and vulnerable with each other. Recently, I was asked to step off a weekly status call as my presence was becoming a blocker to junior employees quickly and openly sharing their areas for improvement.

While being told you are a hindrance is hard to hear, it was a moment of growth for me. I want to build a culture where our employees feel safe to share, and if I’m prohibiting that, people are empowered to let me know. I shared this learning in my weekly company email. Safe spaces are a necessity for candor, honesty, and vulnerability.

Accents are an asset, not a roadblock

Immigrants face a different set of barriers than employees who are native to the U.S. Aside from differences like race, things like accents can lead to immigrants being misunderstood, dismissed, or at worst ignored altogether. Accents can trigger cultural bias and beliefs that accents are related to a speaker’s level of intelligence. This premise is simply false.

It’s essential to set the tone that an accent doesn’t impact a person’s success. I make it a big deal that I’m from Ecuador and that I speak with an accent. I’m always in front of people talking—whether it’s in meetings or 1:1’s. As a non-native English speaker, I have to translate in my head. If I forget the word in English, I’ll publicly acknowledge it—and do my follow-up thinking out loud. By showing my comfort level with not knowing a word or phrase and asking for help, it shows others that having an accent won’t hold you back.

When conversing with someone who’s not a native English speaker, he or she may be taking longer to respond because they are translating their thoughts from one language to another. I still count in my head in Spanish, and that used to hold me back in intense analytical environments where I was perceived as slower. Now, by doing my translations publicly, I make it clear that a language barrier has nothing to do with an employee’s performance or their ability to do great work.

Prevent microaggressions

As an immigrant, I’m in a unique position to be able to coach others on ways to avoid microaggressions. For instance, calling a Latino person “spicy” is a microaggression. Someone may just be calling me passionate, but there are negative connotations to calling me this that the speaker may not know. When I see or experience microaggressions, I address it directly with the speaker in the context of personal development. This type of openness can go a long way toward accelerating inclusion and promoting a safer culture.

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Pronouncing people’s names correctly also goes a long way toward making people feel included. I always ask people how to pronounce their name and practice so that the next time I see them, I say it correctly. While my full name is Manuel, a manager struggled to pronounce it, so he changed my name to Manny. Initially, I didn’t notice. It wasn’t until my parents asked me why people weren’t using my name that it came to my attention. It was somewhat frustrating not being called by my given name, but I find people mispronouncing my name even more frustrating. Learning someone’s name is empowering for the person, so it’s essential to practice and ensure you’re pronouncing it correctly.

Other inclusion approaches

Auth0, another startup with headquarters in the Seattle area, has taken a different tack by removing the issue of citizenship from its recruiting process altogether. Sixty percent of Auth0’s employees are remote, and they are dispersed across 32 countries. CEO Eugenio Pace is an immigrant from Argentina who credits the Seattle tech scene with changing his life. Now, he’s able to pay it forward by bringing the types of job opportunities usually only found in U.S. tech corridors to people around the world. As Eugenio says, “A global workforce creates a diversity of thought and experience and are the building blocks for innovation, success, and customer empathy.”

By creating environments where immigrants feel supported, companies can create an inclusive culture that attracts the best and brightest talent.


Manny Medina is CEO of Outreach. Medina previously worked at Amazon and Microsoft. He has an MBA from Harvard Business School and a master’s in computer science from the University of Pennsylvania.

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