CEO-to-CEO: Ana Roca Castro on what works for Diversity in Tech

Ana Roca Castro is the founder-CEO of Genius Plaza, “igniting the genius in every child” in schools across the globe, and founder of LATISM (Latinos in Tech Innovation and Social Media). She is also a member of the first cohort of Startup Include, Project Include’s program to bring tech startup CEOs together to improve tech diversity and inclusion from the top down. We interviewed her as the first in a series on CEOs and diversity.

Why do you care about diversity at Genius Plaza?

When I first came to this country teachers did not realize how advanced I was in math because of my accent, so at Genius Plaza we know that your accent, background, neighborhood, or economic situation does not define your intelligence. I also know because of my personal experience, that if we do not give all students the same access they will not succeed. Fortunately technology allows us to provide this access. To do this right, we need a team that represents the communities we are serving. I’ve seen the importance of inclusion — making sure you have diverse voices in the thought process and development. I have also seen what happens when there is a lack of diversity. I have been a victim of discrimination and racism, and I know how much it hurts and how much it can damage the person. But also how much it can damage an organization. I feel very strongly about the importance of having diverse voices, backgrounds and experiences, which is why I am so proud of the team we are bringing together and the work we are doing.

Can you share some examples to show where you’ve seen diversity help in the startup world?

It’s very easy. In development, when we have people from different backgrounds, they can think in the conception phase, they can think of the different angles coming from their own experiences and have it work for different users. This means you don’t have to wait until you have it in the hand of the end-user, after having spent millions of dollars, to realize you may have some issues.

Our main users are children of color in Title I schools. [Title I is a government program that provides funding to schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards.] It’s very important for us to know that in many schools — and in their homes — internet access is low. It’s important for us to know that certain names and characters would be offensive. Kids learn better if they can related to the characters they are reading about and learning from. It’s very, very interesting.

We are also using our experiences as we develop new content. For example, a few years ago I was invited to speak at two career fairs — one in an affluent district and one in a Title One school. The first school had doctors, engineers, scientists speaking to the students. In the second one, I was the only speaker with a college degree. As you may imagine, I was frustrated, so we came up with a solution that is now one of our most popular features. We created a section focused on careers in STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math] in our platform that profiles diverse professionals. When kids join the platform, their avatar is based on their career goals. They can see the starting salary of that profession, they can see pictures of professionals who look like them. They can go into their labs and see 360 degree videos of them in their place of work. We send a video crew and capture as much as possible, asking questions on their background and experience.

We give the kindergarteners content for their reading level, tied to the careers, such as: “My name is Ana, I’m a doctor. I’m a pediatrician.” As we move up in grades, it becomes a telenovela [serial drama] about her challenges, her obstacles.

The content is built by a group, who takes the theme — turning the professional character into a cartoon. We start by creating different properties with a real professional, someone students can relate to.

We also see every day why diversity is important. Let me share a recent example. We created a profile of a Latina pediatrician. The team that began working on the content after the taping was not diverse. So what happened? The first draft of materials we saw had stock pictures with a blond doctor that looked nothing like the doctor we were profiling. It was fascinating how the team was not sensitive to this — obviously it was not done maliciously, they in fact were not sensitive to how this may come across. Keep in mind we sent three crew members to her office, we took videos, we took pictures, we took all kinds of angles, we took 360s with 10 cameras, and we actually changed the images of a real doctor with pictures we actually had.

It happened in our very diverse company — and it was a true “Aha!” moment for all of us. Of course, we caught that and changed it, but if we had not had diverse voices in our team that would not have been flagged.

How do you prevent it from happening again?

The resolution was a checklist. “Make sure we are inclusive” is one of the checklist items. It’s not just: Is it leveled, is the grammar perfect. It’s also: Is it diverse? For me, it’s a given — it’s the first thing I see. For others, not. Diversity became a systematic, intrinsic part of the process. Slowly, we start building a habit.

I say it’s a puzzle. When you are excluding a group of people, you’re really not completing the puzzle. You have an incomplete picture.

What would you tell other CEOs about diversity?

It’s economics. One of my favorite authors is Amartya Sen. The key factor of building a prosperous country or community is actually inclusion. Political parties end up including each others’ opinions. Communities that are inclusive in ethnic races and religions end up being productive and actually making money. It’s the same thing in any unit we build. It’s also an economic gain they get in the long run.

If you look at our success to date, I can attribute it to the diversity of our team. I see us making much more profit than the typical education startup that has only one eye. We have 10 or more eyes: Latina, African American, Asian American, LGBT, bilingual and more. We understand it better: the concepts, the market, the customers, the challenges, the misconceptions and the opportunities and potential. I truly believe there is an economic advantage.

Of course, fairness is important when you think about diversity, but it is not the only factor.

What is the hardest part of diversity and inclusion for you? What have you learned?

Working together, getting everyone to generally respect and trust each other even though we’re so different. This year has been really, really tough with the political climate. I’m in the middle of Albany — not a very diverse community. I come from a different experience. We’ve been very intentional about building ways of protecting not just the productivity and systems that enable groups to come and work together, but also to acknowledge each other’s differences.

Recruiting is hard, so you have to look harder. That’s another advantage. Once you have one, the others come. Another lesson learned: 1. Say no to settling for less. 2. Once you find that jewel, they will help you recruit more.

For people who are having a hard time, what would you tell them?

Try harder and do better. We are active in the local SHPE chapters (Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers) and participate in different meetups for example. We don’t just go to recruit, we are actually very active in the communities where we want to recruit from. We are also investing in the next generation by helping with hackathons as well as bringing interns from diverse groups and clubs. Most of us come from those organizations. I was the president of a few of them back in my college years.

In the case of a non-diverse CEO, you just need to look harder and go to those communities. If you get the best out of a club in a university, you are getting strong talent and you can groom them. That talent now has a mentor or role model — and that is when the connections happen. The first step is recruitment and from there go for it. That is why it is important to build those relationships. It’s not just going, doing a nice presentation and getting some resumes. It’s about going, speaking and building relationships. These organizations are so open to getting entrepreneurs from the field to go talk and build programs with them, this expands access and creates real opportunities and loyalty.

It is hard because it takes time and commitment but I do think sometimes some don’t try hard enough.

What do you wish you knew about diversity and inclusion when you started?

To not settle for less. To look at quality and excellence and look harder. Just because I want a diverse team doesn’t mean I need to lower the bar — trust me there are strong, qualified, talented diverse candidates but you need to go expand your efforts. If you have a good recruitment plan you will find the quality level that I’m looking for. The pool is a lot smaller, and that’s why I need to invest more time and resources to find the best.

You need to build those systems I told you about earlier. Be proactive in thinking about diversity. Make it one of your values, spell out a list of behaviors that may be offensive and even racist. It happens to all of us, but you need to be open to understand these issues. In fact, we made it part of our training and orientation and specifically ask: “Give me the last time someone was racist to you and what did that look like.” Do those things really early and not when the bomb explodes — when someone is leaving or someone is really upset.

I found that it’s not just the group you think may be the offenders. You need to make sure you take a stand with anyone committing the offense and that everyone knows it’s not ok, period.

Why did you join Project Include?

I joined because of Freada [Kapor Klein] obviously; she was so excited about the initiative. She convinced me in the first three seconds. I also know it’s important to come together and make diversity a priority for a group of entrepreneurs, learn from each other and not feel alone.

That was to me the biggest asset of joining PI: to share best practices and share the pains and struggles and understand how they are handling them. Even though I am not the typical white male CEO, I go through the same kinds of problems. I also loved your analysis and data — seeing things from the data point of view.

Sometimes I don’t have the language — I get it from Project Include. I don’t know how to explain some issues or back up my positions.

What else should people know?

Those of us who care about diversity are feeling very lonely about diversity these days. If I could tell people the many advantages of building a diverse team, that would be great. I think we need to go back to data and understand how it really really helps on the business side, design, delivery, sales. I sell a lot more sometimes, because I’m a Latina. I send different teams to go sell to their communities, because they can relate. It’s just so much better. I would love to help companies understand that it is a benefit and not to be afraid of failing. I’ve failed, but I’m not to be afraid of getting vulnerable and I am always willing to learn.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Learn more about Ana and Genius Plaza, and about Project Include, Startup Include, and our recommendations for CEOs.

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