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Why we’re entering a significant moment in the fight for equity in tech

Reflecting on the first anniversary of 2020’s racial justice protests, venture capitalist and executive Ken Chenault says that the key “is going to be what happens in year two.”

Why we’re entering a significant moment in the fight for equity in tech
[Photo: courtesy of Ken Chenault]
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In summer 2020, protests erupted across the U.S., sparked by the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black Americans. Within the tech industry, many leaders made public statements, financial commitments, and policy changes meant to improve equity and inclusion within their walls—and in the products they peddle.

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To commemorate the first anniversary of these protests, Fast Company partnered with The Plug, a publication that covers the Black innovation economy, to examine what those commitments are, what they have achieved—and how much work still remains. (You can see the resulting data visualizations and first-person testimonials from Black employees, entrepreneurs, and customers here.)

For Ken Chenault, the chairman and managing director of VC fund General Catalyst, a board member at Airbnb, and the cofounder of OneTen, a group of executives committed to upskilling, hiring, and advancing one million Black Americans in the corporate world, the amount of talk about DEI feels promising—but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Fast Company: The tech industry responded to the George Floyd protests by acknowledging that it had not made enough progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion and saying it would do better. What kind of progress or lack of progress have you seen?

Ken Chenault: I’ve seen an increased awareness of the need to do something. There’s been activity, but the reality is, in a year we certainly have not seen much progress. Now, I wouldn’t expect to see a great deal of progress in a year, but I do think people have started to put together initiatives and I think that there is a sincere intent to try to bring about progress.

The key thing at the end of the day is, are we going to have persistence? And I think that the key signal is going to be what happens in year two. Will there be the same intensity? Will there be the level of focus, and will we start to see some tangible progress in the tech and venture world?

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Have we seen companies put themselves in a place where year two can be more tangible and obvious?

I think we’re seeing some companies do that. I’ve certainly seen more engagement in, one, trying to come to grips with the race issue. And so I think that there’s a lot of work on the awareness side that’s taking place. I think that people are starting to look at how can we help founders—people of color—in the ecosystem. And so I think there’s more activity that’s going on there

And then what I’m also seeing is we have several technology companies involved in the initiative that Ken Frazier and I have been leading with Ginni Rometty and others, OneTen. And I think that that’s an area where hopefully we can start to see some tangible progress and movement. This is one where I’m encouraged by the words. Now we’ve got to see some action and we’ve got to see some results.

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Can you talk a little bit more about OneTen and the kinds of things you’re doing to try to help?

Roughly 75% of Blacks between 18 and 50 who are in the job market don’t have a college degree. And however many of the jobs require a college degree. And so one of the things that is happening is we’re re-speccing jobs. We’re working with a range of sources on training and development programs. I think it’s going to be incredibly beneficial. What’s important is it’s a 10-year journey. So people are making a financial commitment, an annual financial commitment for 10 years, and an annual jobs commitment for 10 years. I think that will spread. While a million jobs in 10 years may sound lofty, what I would hope is we’ll achieve a multiple of that.

And I think what’s also going to happen, frankly, is it’s going to benefit all employees, all people, because if you re-spec the jobs, it certainly opens up opportunity for everyone. And I think what’s important here is—OneTen is an example—you’ve got to change what we’ve been doing. You can’t just say, “I’m going to work harder and do the same things,” because you’re going to get the same result. What we’ve recognized is there are things that are systemic that need to be changed and improved. And I think we can succeed without any diminution of quality.

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Does the tech industry have any particular opportunities—or maybe challenges—given that there are all these engineering jobs where you need a certain background in some cases?

I think what’s very important is the tech industry has to be involved in apprenticeship programs. It has to be involved in training. It has to be involved in the initiatives that are going to up-skill people or in fact provide people with the knowledge. The tech industry is, in a number of respects, behind other industries. And that doesn’t make sense, because if you are focused on innovation, this is an area that I would hope 10 years from now, the tech industry is by far the leader. And that’s not the case today.

You’ve said that blaming issues on “the pipeline” is a cop out. Can you talk a little bit about that traditional excuse?

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Let’s be clear: There are pipeline issues that need to be addressed. But when people tell me their pipeline issues for senior management, and you have been CEO for 10 years or 15 years—with all due respect, my view is you control the pipe and you control what goes into the pipe. Has that been a strong focus for you, getting individuals into the company who in fact can move through?

I think you can find those people. Because it’s not about finding a thousand people. My challenge to CEOs is: In your network, do you have five, 10 people of color that you think might have the opportunity to advance in your company? Have you gone after them? To me, that level of focus and intensity has to be there.

So both top-down progress and bottom-up progress.

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Absolutely. You got to have both. And if you want to make a difference, you’ve got to show results over time.

You’ve spent the last few years of your career in the venture capital world, which has come in for a lot of criticism in terms of favoring, basically, white guys and showering them with capital. And it’s harder for anybody else, including Black founders. What have you learned about the problem and ways to make progress?

Well, I think the concern is real. And I think what’s important here is you’ve got to look for those founders and those terrific ideas. So it’s not that you can’t achieve good returns. But what you can’t do is, frankly, just operate in your own ecosystem, because that ecosystem is not going to reflect the broader society.

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And so what we have been able to do is keep focused on founders and people of color. And we’ve made some progress there in the investments that we’ve done and in our companies. We certainly can do more and we need to do more. But I think that the venture capital industry sector has been closed to people of color and to women, and that needs to change.

Our job is to find some of the best investment opportunities and some of those investment opportunities are with people of color. We’ve got to find them. They’re absolutely there.

Thinking out over that 10 year horizon, if you fund small companies today, hopefully some of those are some of the large companies of tomorrow—is that an important part of the puzzle?

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It is absolutely an important part of the puzzle. Definitely, definitely. And you know, you’re starting to see some movement. The IPO of Compass with Robert Reffkin is an example. I think there are other examples that are out there, and I think it’s a matter of building it. It can be done. And part of what we do in venture is, we’re finding that diamond in the rough and that’s what we’ve got to do for people of color.

You’re also a board member. Can boards play an important role?

Yes. And we’ve made it very clear to our portfolio companies that we want to have people of color on their board. I think that is absolutely important.

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My point that I also say to other board members is, it shouldn’t just be me. It should be them also championing it, to make sure one there’s representation at the board level, that we have diverse slates when we’re looking for people. That we in fact say, we want to identify a woman for this position or a person of color for this position. I think that’s very, very important because you’ve got to make sure the founders take diversity seriously.

Experience the full Black in Tech project here.

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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