5 Things I Have Learned While Working At a D&I Startup

Source: Clark Tibbs / Unsplash

I grew up in a very small town during the 80s and 90s. It was the kind of place where nothing of significance ever happened, and everyone knew everyone else. If we ran out of sugar or milk I would run to my neighbor’s house to borrow a cup. It was a place where I spent long summer evenings riding bikes with my friends around the neighborhood — without a helmet — and I could walk by myself down the street in the mornings to catch the bus to school. It was a great place to grow up and I loved it, but despite the fact that I was surrounded by my friends and family, and this town was the only place I had ever called home, I couldn’t wait to leave.

For all its perks, my town had one major flaw: I lived in a place where 99% of the people looked like me. To the best of my recollection, there were only three — yes, three — non-white families in my town when I was growing up. At that time, you would have been hard-pressed to find a restaurant that wasn’t part of a national chain, a film that had subtitles, or even an art museum. I realized very early on this was not the place for me and I left to attend college in Boston, where I’ve lived ever since.

About ten years ago, I took some time to really think about the course of my career. I felt a strong desire to do something I really cared about and I figured since I had about 40 years of work ahead that I should spend my life doing something that matters to me. It didn’t happen right away; in fact, it took quite some time. I finished school and was very fortunate to work for and with several individuals who were invested in helping me grow professionally. Recently, in quite a roundabout way, I started working for Aleria, a Diversity & Inclusion startup based out of New York City that is focused on helping companies plan, execute and measure workplace D&I programs. The work we are doing is so important, and everyone on our team is committed to this mission.

The nature of this work requires a lot of reading and research in order to truly understand the breadth of this issue we’re taking on. Changing perspectives on D&I so that companies see how diversity and inclusion is a benefit for their employees and their bottom line is no small feat. And while I’ve learned a lot about D&I over this past year, here are five things that stand out to me.

1. Being diverse goes beyond race

This may seem obvious to some, but truly cultivating a diverse workforce means seeking people from all different perspectives, and it’s not all just about race. It’s important to consider the LGBTQ community, people with different income levels, people with disabilities, veterans, and other underrepresented groups. The transgender community, for instance, faces double the normal rate of unemployment.

2. Fatigue around D&I has already started to set in

Sadly, this is happening. Hot button issues often face nearly insurmountable odds as progress is slow and it can take years before any real change occurs. Diversity, culture and inclusion have been in the media quite a bit over the last several years, from #BlackLivesMatter to #MeToo, there’s no shortage of coverage. Despite all of this attention, between 2007–2015 there has actually been a 13% decrease in the number of black women professionals. Atlassian’s recent State of Diversity in Tech report, which they released this past June, shows that fewer people are making an effort to improve D&I and that fatigue has set in and progress has stalled.

It takes time and resources for a company to create an open culture around diversity and inclusion. However, many organizations do not feel they have these, or have no idea how to even get started. (Side note: Aleria offers introductory workshops which can be a great way to kickstart your D&I initiatives.)

3. There’s a reason it’s called diversity AND inclusion

There is so much focus solely on diversity that some organizations are forgetting what to do after they’ve hired their amazing and talented workforce. The work doesn’t stop after you’ve reached your hiring goals.It takes a significant amount of effort to maintain an environment where everyone feels included and as though they belong. Fortunately, there are plenty of great articles that can be found online to help you create and maintain an inclusive work environment. From Why You Should Help All Your Employees Look For Outside Job Offers to 8 Ways You Can Support Women In Your Workplace, there is no shortage of information.

Aleria’s CEO Paolo Gaudiano

4. D&I still faces a lot of challenges

Aside from fatigue starting to set in and companies having difficulty implementing changes within their organizations, D&I faces other challenges, most notably backlash. Backlash against large movements is hardly new (think about the backlash against feminism in the 1970s and 80s and, more recently, against the #BlackLivesMatter movement), and backlash against diversity in tech is no different. There are people who still do not think that we have a diversity problem in the US, and that this is all made up by the media to sell newspapers or politicians to win elections.

5. I can make a difference

Perhaps one of the most important things I have learned is that I can make a difference. In a talk he gave earlier this summer, Aleria’s CEO Paolo Gaudiano gave a talk at TEDx Fulton Street in New York City. While he said many important things in his talk, one line really resonated with me on an individual level:

“You don’t have to be an activist. You just need to be active.”

It may seem overwhelming at times and easier to just sit back and be complacent, but I think we all have a responsibility to ourselves to effect positive change within our communities.

Working at Aleria this past year has enabled me to take accountability for my own response to diversity and inclusion, and I have decided that ignorance is not bliss. I hope that everyone reading this will join me. To get started, you can watch a video about unconscious bias or use your own ordinary privilege to advocate for someone at work. It’s the little things we do each day that will make a big impact over time.

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