The Moral Imperative of Tech Companies

The Moral Imperative of Tech Companies

Often times, I find myself wondering if we are pushing our founders, directors, managers and colleagues hard enough to demand more from the companies we so freely give our time to. We’re willing to exchange our souls and morals for above market average PTO and a few bags of Skittles in a kitchen that smells like burnt eggs every day thanks to the engineer that doesn’t believe in using butter or olive oil. We spend 1 hour of our 8 or 9 in the office each day scrolling through social media and getting our knickers in a bunch over causes we share and keep refreshing for likes, but have never gotten involved in ourselves. To further exacerbate our shortcomings, somehow, we’ve given into the fear of rejection and anxiety associated with the planning, recruiting and execution of potential extracurricular work projects before even attempting to get higher-ups involved.

I’m tired of mediocre, cookie cutter populations taking up space that requires innovative thinking, diverse experiences, new ideas and the hunger to get their hands dirty and create change.

–Linda Eliasen, VP of Design at Help Scout

My first introduction to a work environment that valued my thoughts, experiences and ideas to push the envelope as a person of color came from someone who didn’t even end up hiring me for their team. For the rest of my life, I’ll probably credit Linda Eliasen with being the reason I’ve ever felt confident in starting to question why the companies I had and would start working for weren’t more fixated and thoughtful on hiring for the right reasons and investing back in the communities they’ve indirectly gentrified.

Indirectly gentrified? Yes, indirectly gentrified. In whatever order, tech companies entering a city means that developers are renovating neighborhoods, tearing down homes and businesses to build apartments, restaurants and bars, and parks. While beautiful, we have to keep in mind that the current residents of these places are often times priced out of their generations-old homes due to rising rents or property taxes, then never get to be a patron at these new, hip spots because they never got an invite to work at one of these high-paying, cool tech companies that just moved into their city. Instead, as has been the case in places like Silicon Valley and San Francisco, we have rapidly rising numbers of displacement and inaccessibility.

So how do we start addressing these problems in a sustainable, inclusive manner?

Over the past few weeks as I‘ve dived deeper into my Master’s Thesis with Penn State’s Community and Economic Development Program, I’ve started thinking over a few “wish list” items for tech companies based on experiences I’ve witnessed firsthand or been told about by my minority friends at other agencies and firms across the United States. In May I will be defending the plausibility of specific digital platforms guiding redeveloping communities towards level playing fields in terms of health, upward mobility, job security/attainment, entrepreneurship and gentrification. In the research I’ve conducted thus far, for this project, it would seem that while creating a replicable framework for communities to follow so both the haves and have-nots can benefit equally and equitably is extremely difficult. Of course, I’m further concerned by how easy it’s been to not see the same iniquities within the tech industry as well.

I think we should first define what it means to be sustainable and inclusive. Is everyone invited to eat at the table? Will all future generations and current populations be free from any harmful fallout associated with this process and will they be able to keep said solutions going with relative ease? If you answered yes to either of these questions, congratulations, you’re starting to understand both Philosophy 101’s Concept of Good and Evil as well why addressing such things is so imperative.

Hiring Diversely

With that, I would first implore tech companies to stop and really think about what they’re doing and what the implications are when they seek to hire diversely. Are you hiring because you truly believe that a more diverse team will benefit and help grow your company by challenging your preconceived notions and standards OR just because it looks appealing to clients and potential future employees? If you’re doing the latter, do us the favor and spare us the mediocrity that comes with doing so. We came to help and have a history of building great things for country and companies, but if you don’t want our help, someone else will.

Of course, that comes with a few responsibilities once you’ve made the hires as well. First, let’s make sure you’re cultivating an environment that feels free for employees to speak without fear of retribution. Your team will likely never talk if they feel they’ll face consequences (or being outcast) for voicing their thoughts. Their thoughts may differ from yours – but isn’t that why you hired them in the first place? Trust is a two-way street; trusting in the thoughts of your team leads them to trust that they can do the necessary work to make your company better.

Actively listening to understand the ideas and perspectives of your diverse set of new hires is equally as important. Does your team operate within the confines of privilege or just generally all look the same? Well, your new hire has probably had access to neither of those scenarios and as such, experiences life from a previously unexplored-by-you perspective that could offer insight into what your clients, potential partners and future employees see when they look at your company. Chances are, they can also help to find a solution to whatever problem may have arisen from that. Finally, make sure that you’re getting the entire company involved in the work of diversification – through values, through action, and through interactions. One bad seed can keep growth from happening, make sure all of your team is buying in for all the right reasons.

Building Tech to Solve Real Problems

I would push more tech companies to realize the conscious and unconscious impact they’re having on minority and marginalized communities. You’re in tech. Three volunteer days or throwing $1k out of your millions of yearly profits doesn’t make up for the neighborhood you’ve helped indirectly gentrify and displace – use your tech and technical ability to solve bigger, global-scale community problems that you’ve helped create by encouraging cities to redevelop in order to attract and keep you.

True Story: My first day at Simple Thread, lots of my team was exhausted and getting into the groove of things as if was their first day back in forever. I didn’t know until later that day that they were one of the driving forces behind RVA JavaScript Conf, a conference dedicated to JavaScript. I didn’t know until I was writing this article that Simple Thread also has typically given tickets away to students so they could attend the conference and – gasps – learn (!) and eliminate barriers they’ll face once they get into the industry (!!). Afterwards, all proceeds are donated to charities such as Women Who Code, Code VA and other important organizations and support groups in the area (!!!) Later that same day, I also learned that a redesign of local non-profit The Giving Wall was having their website done as a pro bono project by members of the Simple Thread team. For those that are unfamiliar, the giving wall pairs community members facing different sorts of problems (paying bills, buying school supplies, affording groceries for their children) and allows the rest of the community to crowdfund a monetary solution to help keep their lives on track.

I would assert that it’s our responsibility to ensure that our communities benefit from our successes. In the end, without these individual human beings, we’d have no problems to build solutions for. I’ll never think we’re asking the tech industry of too much to be more thoughtful, to be more inclusive and to use tech for good – obviously we’ve seen the apocalyptic portrayals of how it can be used for bad. Good, of course is subjective, so perhaps we say “to help” and use the same listening ears we use to listen to paying clients and make profit to make something great for future generations. While totally understanding the need to remain billable and afloat, I also can imagine how inviting others to share in our successes becomes its own type of reward in and of itself in thinking how a ticket to a JavaScript conference could inspire the creator of the next great programming language. Mayhaps the community-oriented efforts of an app built to serve marginalized populations lands you your biggest client yet.

I’d challenge you, whatever position you’re in, to first identify what your company is doing to make room for progress within your given community. A few questions to ask yourself moving forward:

Do you have a recruitment program that offers apprenticeships/internships or makes just as much of an effort to visit and make connections at HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) as it does PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions?) What about at community colleges or institutions that aren’t as “prestigious?”

Do you have a sliding scale for new hires when it comes to experience with the understanding that minorities face an uphill battle due to the fact that “culture fit” typically means someone that looks and thinks like the rest of your team and as such, aren’t offered as many opportunities as their contemporaries?

Are you, as a leader, giving your team the ability to talk about disparities of this nature without fear of being ostracized?

How often do you take an honest analysis of your community and identify gaps in education, equity and accessibility to tech? When you do identify issues, how are you (if at all) being thoughtful about partnering with existing organizations or seeking buy-in from team members to address these problems with tech?

Are you listening to what your teammates have to say about issues in tech or that can be solved with tech? Are you, yourself, saying anything or participating in the conversation?

It’s time to start putting people on a similar playing field as profit because honestly, without people, there is no profit. We’ve spent far too long building tech into a giant profitable and exclusive industry without realizing that to balance the scales and truly be sustainable, our efforts should be put into diversification and inclusivity of all experiences, backgrounds and peoples to ensure we leave no stone unturned.

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