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As a Latino immigrant, I thought I understood the challenges of the Black community. I have a lot to learn

A CTO contemplates what actions he can take to change his company’s response and his own.

As a Latino immigrant, I thought I understood the challenges of the Black community. I have a lot to learn
[Photo: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash]

As an immigrant from Nicaragua, I’ve been open about the discrimination I have faced in my life. I’ve experienced it from police enforcement, in my professional life, my social life, and even in the affluent suburb where I live. Many of these instances were microaggressions, rolled out over time, that I don’t even notice anymore. I do, however, distinctly remember the difference in pay I received in past jobs. And I remember meeting to discuss the acquisition of a company I founded with its CEO, who completely ignored my title and instead, thought I was a sales development representative.

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I also thought I understood the issues faced by the Black community, with the impressions all forms of discrimination were somehow equal and the ability to transcend bigotry simply depended on hard work.

Racism against non-Black people of color in the United States is certainly real and worthy of attention. But the long-lasting legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, racist housing policies, and the criminal justice system, to name a few examples, make the discrimination endured by Black Americans far worse.

The last few months have made it abundantly clear that I have a lot more work to do to properly grasp the experience of this community.

So now the question is, what actions can I take to change the situation?

Self-education

Like many Americans, I am confronting the fact that I have been blind to contemporary and systematic racism against the Black community in this country. My experience as a Nicaraguan immigrant probably kept me from recognizing this blind spot as well.

My company also put together a list of anti-racism resources that I am working through. And my family and I are taking time to watch films and read books that educate us on the Black experience.

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While the onus is not solely on our Black friends and neighbors to teach us how to be better, it is vital that we listen and amplify these voices. I have had insightful conversations with my direct reports, encouraging them to share their experiences and keep me accountable and call me on my biases.

One of my direct reports, a Black man originally from the South, shared podcasts, videos, and articles with me that added historical context to the issues we see today. Some of these referenced Malcolm X, whose contributions I admittedly did not know much about. After spending time reading his works, I gained a greater appreciation for his perspective and approach to activism.

Picking a lane and making a difference

I’ll admit, before I began to undertake this path of self-education and enacting change, I had a moment where I felt paralyzed. There are so many amazing nonprofits to support, so many ways to channel my energy and resources. But I realized that I needed to pick a lane. None of us can do everything, but we all have to do something.

As someone who is incredibly fortunate to run a company with nearly 400 employees and four offices, I realized that my efforts are best directed through my business and career. My cofounder, David Cancel, and I both spent years in corporate America before meeting another person that looked like us. After this experience, we wanted to change the environment for future generations.

We decided that our “lane” can be one that supports STEM initiatives in the states where we have offices, because the lack of diversity in tech is going to continue to be a problem if we don’t start early. Through the Drift Charitable Fund, we doubled down on our support for organizations such as BUILD and Hack.Diversity, which work with Black and Latinx youth to bridge the opportunity gap in the technology industry.

Furthermore, we are looking inward at the hiring practices and diversity record of our own company. We know that we need to do more to make sure that Black voices are heard and that our employee base better reflects the rich diversity of the country. And we’re holding ourselves accountable by launching a DEI page on our website to track progress toward this effort.

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It’s important we set this precedent through authentic, and not performative, behavior. For white colleagues who wish to contribute as allies, they must demonstrate how they can show up for their BIPOC coworkers through consistent communication and action beyond mere lip service.

Keeping our “heads up,” instead of “heads down”

In the entrepreneurial community, we often lionize the act of being “heads down.” This means ignoring distractions, focusing on building, and shutting out the world. Success is often thought to come from sustained “heads down” work.

But the startling events over the last few months show that business leaders also need to be “heads up,” actively identifying the problems that affect our employees and the societies in which we build our companies.

The wake-up call for me was the brutal violence against George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, along with the protests of millions of Americans around the country. It made me realize I can play a role in this moment as an executive of a company.

As leaders of organizations affecting the lives of hundreds or thousands of people, we have a responsibility to move society forward even if other institutions lag behind. If leaders ignore the state of the world around them, and the impact these historic events have on their employees, they hinder progress.

This is not just “doing well by doing good.” As more business leaders answer the call that’s clearly coming from the community and elsewhere, we have to do good so that everyone can do well.

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Elias Torres is the founder and CTO of Drift, a conversational marketing and sales platform. Before founding Drift, Elias worked for companies such as Performable, HubSpot, and IBM, where he led the development of hypergrowth products and teams.

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