I want to start by sharing a very personal story I haven’t told a lot of people, including many of my closest friends.
When I was in 6th grade, I was skipped ahead a grade in the middle of the school year. In my new class, I was quickly alienated by everyone. Teenagers will find arbitrary rules to create cliques and ostracize others, and the fact that I was a year younger and deemed “too smart” was a reason for the popular kids to bully me, and for many others to avoid me in fear of jeopardizing their own social status. I went from being a normal kid who was loved by her friends to someone who wore weird clothes and couldn’t say anything right. I ate my lunch in the bathroom every day for what was the longest 6 months of my life. The next year I went to high school and made many friends, but I never forgot how it felt to be an outsider.
That experience changed me in many ways. One of the fundamental ways in which it has shaped my value system is that I deeply value inclusion, in both social and professional settings. I always see the person at the party who is stuck in the corner alone and I go over to talk to them. I always see the person at the meeting who is cut off, who doesn’t get a chance to speak, and I fight for vocal space for them and ask them to share their thoughts. I see the shy but capable person who hasn’t been given enough chances, and I ask them to sit at the table. I can’t stand cliques and groups who are exclusive. Acceptance is incredibly important to me; it’s something I want to give back to the world.
At work, I value diversity of opinions and thoughts. To me, diversity should not be about gender or race. It should be about opinions, backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences. We should surround ourselves with people who do not think like us, who are willing to have constructive discussions and disagree and expand our world view. “Hiring for culture fit” is often misconstrued as “hiring people like ourselves and who agree with us” or “hiring for people who we’d want to hang out with”, and I believe that is what creates the diversity problem in Silicon Valley. Hiring for culture should mean that we hire for people who we enjoy arguing with. It means dropping your ego and hiring people who are smarter or better than you on a number of dimensions.
At Trace Genomics, we hire people who are smarter than us, who teach us something, and who bring a different perspective to the table. We never consider gender or race into the hiring decision — in fact, we forbid it. And yet, we have build an incredibly diverse team. Our team is comprised of 47% ethnic minorities, and our engineering team is 40% women. These are statistics that I literally had to calculate just now — they’re not something we strive towards. We don’t actively work on “improving our numbers” and yet, because we hire for differences in perspectives and opinions, diversity has naturally fallen into place.
Diversity should not be a dirty word. Diversity is only controversial when it’s executed in a way that actually creates more prejudice and judgements based on race and gender. There is a better way forward. We need to think more deeply about the fundamental drivers of lack of diversity, and try to remove those fundamental biases and cultural values which alienate people who are unlike ourselves. A culture that fosters diversity is one where anyone of any background or personality can walk into the room and feel respected, valued and appreciated. Let’s focus on inclusion, not diversity, because inclusion is the cause, and diversity is the effect. When an inclusive mindset is in place, diversity naturally follows. But if we hire just for diversity of gender or race without creating an inclusive culture of opinions and backgrounds, then we’d be just living in a differently biased world.