Q&A with Kelli Newman, Head of Diversity & Inclusion at FabFitFun

Q. Companies have been talking about Diversity & Inclusion for years now but there seems to be a different urgency, a different expectation of results today. Can you speak to this?

The corporate diversity and inclusion discussion has been going on for decades, really! I began my career in D&I as a law student, running a non-profit that sought to bring transparency to law firms’ representation of women, people of color, and openly LGBT people in the partnership ranks. I remember being in shock at learning that official D&I initiatives had been in existence at many law firms since the ’90s but that the needle on representation had moved very little in the 20+ years since. Luckily, I was a law student at Stanford, immersed in the Silicon Valley ethos of urgency and transparency, two values law firms aren’t traditionally known for. While tech companies still have many miles to go, I do credit their proliferation as corporate standard bearers for creating the recent sense of urgency and expectation of results around D&I. On the proactive side, tech companies have applied their values of transparency, urgency, and data-driven decision making to employee representation. They gather data on the recruitment, retention, and promotion of underrepresented groups, set KPIs, and measure progress against their D&I goals in much the same way they would measure progress against their sales or product goals. On the reactive side, the recent proliferation of social media as a public shaming tool has also meant that all kinds of companies have been pressured into prioritizing D&I in response to social media exposure pointing out missteps they’ve made that might have been avoided with the presence of more diverse decision makers at the table. This type of public accountability simply didn’t exist decades ago when companies could give themselves a gold star for D&I by simply having a program in place.

Q. Wharton Professor Alice Eagly recently wrote that the data doesn’t support that diversity yields better results. Yet McKinsey, Deloitte and nearly every business research group says it does. Not holding you to arbitrate between the academy and corporate America, but what’s your opinion on this and why?

I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the argument that companies should increase diversity because it yields better financial results. Beyond the research, anecdotal data shows that a lot of companies have performed exceptionally well despite abysmal numbers on diversity. Of course, who knows how much better these companies could do if they improved employee diversity? What I do know is that arguments about whether or not diversity yields financial gains can easily turn into a distraction. Instead, I prefer to promote one of the clearest benefits of diversity and inclusion: the creation of more innovative solutions. In our increasingly global marketplace, companies are realizing that having an employee base that better reflects your user base allows you to (1) better understand the needs of a diverse user base and (2) create solutions that better address those needs. There is a classic D&I story about YouTube building an app that let people upload videos from their phones. After pushing out the product, Youtube noticed that about 10% of the videos uploaded were upside down. It turned out that the employees who created the app, all right-handed, hadn’t thought about user experience for left-handed users, about 10% of their user base. The moral, of course, is that whether or not it leads to increased revenue, more diverse teams are certainly better at anticipating and addressing the needs of more diverse users.

Can you share your own story about diversity and inclusion? I bet you have more than one. Ha! In a couple hundred words or less :)

So many stories, good and bad, but I’ll share one that I hope provides something valuable for readers. I was working with a company where many of the employees, including execs, weren’t entirely sold on why diversity and inclusion was something they should be spending time or resources on. One employee even admitted to a concern that promoting D&I would mean he might not get the same professional development and advancement opportunities afforded to colleagues from underrepresented groups. So what I focused on at that company was the inclusion piece, with the knowledge that increasing inclusion would inherently increase diversity through better retention of the diverse employees. In particular, I worked on inclusion in the new hire onboarding process and inclusion in team meetings. After I’d implemented some new processes and conducted a few trainings, one of the most reluctant execs sent me an email saying how much he learned from the training and that he had already seen personal success feeling more comfortable sharing his ideas in exec team meetings as a result of the training. I love this story because it shows that D&I efforts can directly benefit all employees, not just those from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. It’s not the most radical approach to D&I, but it is definitely an approach that opens minds and ultimately increases a company’s internal pool of D&I allies, which is an important win for the effectiveness and sustainability of any D&I initiative.

You’re an attorney, HR expert, an African-American woman and startup tech executive, I know you could write your own ticket. Why has DNI become such a calling?

Years ago I read an Annie Dillard quote that has stuck with me since: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” For many of us, myself included, we spend a large part of our days, and thus our lives, at work. When I was a practicing attorney, I spent a lot of my days stressed out, feeling pressured and unfulfilled. I transitioned into HR, and found a lot more joy, particularly in the employee experience part of the work. I knew employee experience couldn’t just be about company-sponsored happy hours and getting the coolest swag, though. Focusing on Diversity & Inclusion allows me to draw on my background in law, HR, and tech, as well as my personal experiences as a black woman, to create workplaces that are optimized to bring out the best in every employee and thereby propel innovation. I can see the fruits of my labor in data showing shortened time to hire, improved retention, and other metrics, as well as in conversations with colleagues who say they’ve never felt so at home in a company. Working in D&I, I find so much fulfillment in my days, and my life, and at the same time I’m able to improve the days and lives of others.

In the last couple of years, we’ve had the Uber implosion, Google’s James Damore’s memo, Ellen Pao suing Kleiner, Perkins, studies showing only 2% of VC dollars going to female founded companies and, now, the #MeToo movement with men likely going to prison. What’s in the future for tech companies and inclusion?

One big trend I’m seeing in my D&I work and in conversations with colleagues in D&I is a push to steer the conversation a bit more toward “inclusion and belonging” and away from “diversity and inclusion”. It’s not just semantics, though semantics is part of it. “Diversity” is a buzzword that leaves too many people feeling un-included. By focusing on inclusion and belonging, employers can create a culture where everyone feels heard, regardless of their background. Another trend I’ve seen in the last couple of years is tech companies taking a much more proactive approach to D&I. We’ve talked about suggestions that diversity may or may not lead to better financial results for publicly traded companies. One thing that is clear from the financial perspective is that failing to address diversity problems and then having to deal with the legal and PR ramifications of those failures is incredibly expensive. Companies are recognizing that risk and seeking out D&I guidance much earlier than they did several years ago, whether it’s bringing on a consultant or hiring someone to manage internal- and external-facing D&I efforts. Finally, on the VC front, I am so excited to see the successes of women like Arlan Hamilton of Backstage Capital and Erin Shipley of The Helm raising larger and larger funds with the explicit goal of investing in companies with founders from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. It’s slow and steady work, and sometimes it feels like the more things change, the more they stay the same, but I know the future for tech and inclusion is bright!

Kelli Newman

Kelli Newman is the Head of Diversity & Inclusion at FabFitFun, where she enhances the entire employee experience, from recruiting to onboarding to performance reviews and promotions, with a focus on creating a culture of belonging. Prior to joining FabFitFun, Kelli worked as a corporate lawyer and co-founded Paradigm, a diversity strategy firm. She was named to the Forbes “30 Under 30” list for her work in workplace diversity and inclusion. Kelli is a graduate of Stanford Law School and Rice University, cum laude.

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