clark newell

Silicon Slopes D & I

by Clark Newell

March 10th 2020

Silicon Slopes D & I Panel at Goldman Sachs SLC by Chris Federer

Silicon Slopes D & I Panel at Goldman Sachs SLC by Chris Federer

TLDR: Diversity and inclusion are great for the bottom line. Thank you to the Silicon Slopes Organization for inviting me to moderate a D&I panel at Goldman Sachs. It was an exciting and inspirational opportunity.

On Thursday February 20, 2020, the Silicon Slopes Organization, Salt Lake Chapter, held a Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) panel and discussion hosted by Goldman Sachs in downtown Salt Lake City. 150+ people showed up to participate in the discussion. I had the very unique and humbling privilege of being asked to moderate the panel. This invitation came from my involvement in the Silicon Slopes / Utah tech community as co-organizer of Queer Tech SLC. I was also very humbled by the achievements of my “peers” on the panel who included Sara Jones, CEO of Inclusion Pro, Michael Deninno, Consumer and Investment Management at Goldman Sachs, Neelam Chand, SVP, D&I Officer at Zions Bank, Emma E. Houston, Director of D&I for the Office of the Mayor, Salt Lake County, and Elle Griffin, Editor in Chief, Utah Business Magazine.

From the Silicon Slopes Summit 2020 to the D&I panel this week, there is an overarching message the organization is conveying to tech businesses in Utah: If we want to be a player on the global stage then we have to act like one, which includes philanthropy, ensuring a future talent pipeline by funding science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in Utah schools, attracting and retaining top talent, and fully supporting diversity and inclusion initiatives from the top down.

So, first and foremost, let’s get down to why I was fortunate to be invited to moderate this panel. What is Queer Tech SLC, and what are we all about?

“Why use the term “Queer?” The answer is it’s an inclusive and way more efficient term than the ever growing acronym LGBTQIA+. Also, it’s a way this community can reclaim a term that was once considered derogatory.”

What and Why is Queer Tech SLC?

Queer Tech SLC is a meetup group for LGBTQIA+ people in the Silicon Slopes tech space to network and socialize. Having formerly been co-organizer of Denver LGBT Tech while still in bootcamp at Galvanize, I was surprised to find that such a group did not even exist when I arrived back in Utah in late 2018. In early 2019 Queer Tech was founded by Megan Rich, a local developer and BYU graduate. I excitedly attended the first meetup and immediately offered my services as a co-organizer. Ever since then, we have been having at least one or two meetup events per month and are now officially one year old. We hope to continue growing our numbers and evolve beyond networking and socializing to also include community outreach, and multidisciplinary impact projects. Queer Tech SLC is not meant for just developers, we are for all people who are performing any role in the Silicon Slopes technology sphere and / or is interested in a career change to such a role.

There are some who ask why use the term “Queer.” The answer is it’s an inclusive and way more efficient term than the ever growing acronym LGBTQIA+. Also, it’s a way this community can reclaim a term that was once considered derogatory and meant to harm.

There are some who ask if the group is even necessary in 2020. The response, especially when I speculated this out loud to the audience at this panel session, is a resounding “yes!” As long as any LGBTQIA+ person working at a Utah tech company does not feel that they can completely be themselves at work without apology, without experiencing unconscious bias and microaggressions, and command equal respect as their peers, then such a support group is needed. The honest truth is, we are not there yet. Until D&I initiatives are more fully realized in the United States, and the Utah tech space in particular, then there will be a need for such a group to exist.

“If we couldn’t measure the impact of our diversity and inclusion efforts and programs, it would be a hard sell among company executives.” ~Huey Wilson, SVP, Mattel (2)

What is Diversity & Inclusion?

Diversity refers to the traits and characteristics that make people unique while inclusion refers to the behaviors and social norms that ensure people feel welcome. (1)

Inclusivity is crucial for diversity efforts to succeed, and creating an inclusive culture will prove beneficial for employee engagement and productivity. (1)

Diversity and inclusion is a company’s mission, strategies, and practices to support a diverse workplace and leverage the effects of diversity to achieve a competitive business advantage. (2)

Approximately 50% of diversity and inclusion best practices are not directly related to diversity and inclusion practices per se but are practices desired by everyone such as fair treatment and organizational flexibility. (2)

To be successful, diversity and inclusion has to be a top-to-bottom business strategy and not just an HR program. However, 65% or senior executives believe it’s HR’s responsibility to implement diversity and inclusion programs. (2)

The majority of companies measure the success of their diversity and inclusion efforts with metrics such as employee productivity and turnover. “If we couldn’t measure the impact of our diversity and inclusion efforts and programs, it would be a hard sell among company executives.” ~Huey Wilson, SVP, Mattel (2)

Businesses need to adapt to our changing nation to be competitive in the economic market and improve employee retention and reduce turnover. (3)

The bottom line is this: D&I is reliably and measurably positive for profitability and the bottom line! (7)

“When asked by show of hands if they would leave Utah for a better job offer, the vast majority of the panel audience, consisting of several minorities in tech, affirmed, yes.”

Discussion Results

First and foremost, we wanted the panel and audience to answer, why are we still having this discussion in 2020? The answer is because in 2020, things still have not dramatically changed, especially in the tech sector as the statistics from just 6 years ago demonstrate. From the US EEOC, here are the national numbers as of 2014: compared to overall private industry, the high tech sector employed a larger share of whites (63.5 percent to 68.5 percent), Asian Americans (5.8 percent to 14 percent) and men (52 percent to 64 percent), and a smaller share of African Americans (14.4 percent to 7.4 percent), Hispanics (13.9 percent to 8 percent), and women (48 percent to 36 percent). (4) I could not find specific statistics for the State of Utah, but unfortunately it’s an easy assumption to say we're probably fairing worse than the national averages.

We unanimously decided to cut the prepared panel questions short and within 30 minutes of beginning the discussion we were having open dialogue with the audience over the next hour. We invited “real talk” to occur and that’s what we got.

By and far it seemed the largest and most vocal minority represented at the panel discussion was women. Many women working (or trying to work in) technology feel they still face inequality in general, and in Utah in particular. Women still earn $0.82 on the dollar compared to male counterparts. Women also vocalized a major concern that access to childcare is still a huge challenge particularly in Utah. There were also women in the audience who are running programs to train incarcerated women to code. It was speculated out loud whether they would ever be given the chance to contribute these skills to society. I believe the general consensus is we hope they can, however, they will be limited to which sectors they can work in due to federal regulations (so, for example, banking and fintech would not be an option). While change is happening for women, it continues to be slow. It’s not surprising that another meetup group, Gender Equality in Tech SLC has just recently been formed and I will be interested to see if we could join forces with Queer Tech SLC to further mutual goals of awareness and outreach.

We also heard from someone from the hearing impaired community who felt they are often overlooked for opportunities commensurate with their skill level. According to Fortune magazine, businesses should make an extra effort to connect with workers with disabilities, a ready, capable, and sizable workforce 20 million people strong (nationally). This group often faces an uphill battle to get hired: The labor force participation rate for individuals with disabilities was 20.8% in July, compared to 69.2% for those without disabilities. Also according to this same article, the number one reason cited for people with disabilities not getting hired? Here’s that word again: unconscious bias. Another reason, because people don’t want to feel uncomfortable. (7)

There weren't any concerns brought up from the LGBTQIA+ community other than briefly from myself with a quick anecdotal expression of some unconscious microaggression I had experienced in the workplace. To be honest, I’m not sure whether it’s because this group doesn’t feel that relegated to the sidelines anymore, if there is still fear of coming out in the Utah professional sphere, or if we just weren’t that successful at reaching this interest group.

Of course one of the biggest challenges to diversity and inclusion is talent recruitment. Clint Betts, Director of the Silicon Slopes organization is quoted as stating that Utah has a branding problem (5). He’s right, we have a fantastic quality of life here in the best managed state in the US, with close access to absolutely glorious outdoor amenities. So why is it that people don’t want to move or stay here? What about Utah’s image do we need to change?

In addition to recruitment, talent retention in Utah was a huge concern brought up during the panel discussion. When asked by show of hands, the audience consisting of several minorities in tech, if they would leave Utah for a better job offer, the vast majority of the panel audience affirmed, yes, and not just for financial reasons. One woman appearing to be of non-white descent, said she’s lived here for 7 years and still doesn’t have very many friends. She stated, this is the biggest reason she would leave. Are Utahans really that prejudiced or unfriendly, if so, how can we change this? This also leads me to wonder, to what extent is the prejudice and awkwardness mutual? I touch more on this speculation below.

The talent pipeline and consequently the available talent pool is by far the biggest reason cited for why there is still very little diversity in technology. Access to computer science education has been limited by socioeconomic status and zip code. As previously discussed in another blog post reporting on the 2020 summit, the Silicon Slopes organization is leading the way with a foundation and philanthropic arm targeted towards Utah schools. Other organizations are also working to level the playing field, such as Lambda School which doesn’t require tuition payback until a job producing a certain amount of income is obtained. A big hindrance for many people, especially for minority youth is that they don’t see people like themselves working in tech. This will require outreach from minorities working in tech. I was personally flattered that a representative of Park City High School has invited me to speak to her students, and I plan to take her up on the opportunity.

Companies need to offer required D&I training, beginning with the C-suite (since as mentioned before, this needs to be a top-down initiative in order to work).

Several organizations offer such training such as InclusionPro, which is the company headed by panelist Sara Jones. I also previously blogged about the inspiring seminar offered by Troy Williams, head of Equality Utah at Silicon Slopes 2020, and the inclusion training that is offered by that organization.

Corporate training and the examples lead by company leaders can help bring awareness of unconscious bias and microaggressions. Building awareness is a first step towards real change. Assigning peer “Success Mentors” to new hires, especially those recruited from out of state could also be a great strategy.

Since it’s been proven that D&I is great for the bottom line, it’s important to bring awareness of these issues into hiring practices. To quote Clint Betts again, he admonished hiring managers at SIlicon Slopes 2020 to “hire people who don’t look like you.” Of course we all know that things like budget, and time to market, matter. Needing the fastest most skilled people currently available vs. time constraints and money for training can make a difference in a sink or swim situation. Whenever possible, however, I would admonish hiring managers and executives to consider the long game, and weigh those outcomes against short term objectives.

My Experience So Far

I have peers who were not supportive of my involvement in this panel in particular and not supportive of Queer Tech SLC in general because they are afraid that it will get in my way of finding a full-time tech job and / or they feel I should remain quiet about who I am. I wholeheartedly disagree. My involvement and belief in the importance of these topics is genuine and intentional. Things that hold me back are imposter syndrome, lack of self-confidence, and personal awkwardness (more on that below) and those are things I am working on and changing. At the end of the day I choose to believe that willingness to learn, performance, and value to the team are way more important to the people of Utah and elsewhere than sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or ethnicity. As I mentioned before, one way to get more diversity into the talent pipeline is to be a face of diversity so someone can look at you and say, “look someone like me is doing it, and so can I.”

I’ve been supporting myself throughout this career change including the lower-paying internship by working a side job for a national retail chain. Shout out to Kroger Company including Kroger Technology, and their Utah subsidiary, Smith’s. The store I work at is one of the most diverse, supportive, and friendly places I’ve ever worked at, and it’s right here on the very “Silicon Slope” of Lehi, Utah. Also of note is the new Kroger / Smith’s slogan, which is “Fresh for Everyone” a new marketing campaign featuring multi-ethnic cartoon characters aimed at a diverse audience. There is diversity here, national brands know it, and they are leading the way.

One thing that we never really touched upon during the panel discussion, but I would have brought up if time allowed was reverse prejudice, reverse unconscious bias and reverse microaggressions as well as projecting personal insecurity and awkwardness.

If I want to command respect, I have to also give respect. This means I too, also have to check myself, multiple times per day, for unconscious bias, prejudice and microaggressions. It’s also on me to make sure that I am confident and secure in who I am, putting other people at ease about my honest and professional intentions. My side gig at a local retail store mentioned above is proving to be a great training ground for this since it is frequented by people from many walks of life.

A desire to build on common ground, however, does not mean apologetically going out of my way to make others feel comfortable with who I am. Reaching out, being understanding, being empathetic and caring for other human beings is a mutual responsibility that falls on the shoulders of everyone.

I had never moderated such a panel in front of 150+ people, let alone a panel of such accomplished individuals. Overall the consensus was that I did a great job. So, whew! I’m ecstatic and currently seeking the next thrill!

To the woman, who indicated she’d leave Utah in a heartbeat if recruited away, I would say wherever you go there you are. Would I leave right now, for the right paycheck? Sure I would. I have, however, already had the experience of leaving Utah and then coming back, and the lesson I learned is that I took my own awkwardness and insecurities with me every time. I’ve decided to address those issues right here and now, so I can be successful here or anywhere else.