Profiles in Diversity and Inclusion: Project Include’s bethanye McKinney Blount

An engineering career turned bethanye McKinney Blount into an unexpected role model. That was when she realized that she needed to start taking her own advice.

The surprise came from nowhere — or maybe everywhere, depending on how you look at it. bethanye McKinney Blount had done plenty over the course of her career: working her way up the technology industry as a software engineer, founding a startup, eventually negotiating its sale to Facebook. And along the way she’d mentored other young engineers and been asked to act as the “closer” for companies hiring other women.

Still, though, it was a shock to realize she had become a role model.

“There were some other senior women at Facebook that I could connect with, and just by the nature of having survived that long as a woman we were all role models,” she says. “Whether we signed up for it or not.”

The strangest thing about being looked up to though, wasn’t having to give advice — she had plenty of things to tell up-and-coming engineers: advocate for yourself, don’t undervalue yourself; don’t say your accomplishments weren’t that great. The oddity was that it helped her realize that although she was giving lots of advice, she wasn’t necessarily taking it herself. In fact, she had spent years trying to fit in, keep a low profile, be one of the guys (even dressing like one of the guys), concentrate on getting shit done and staying in her lane. Suddenly she was holding a mirror up to her own behavior.

“I think the first thing that happened, the first pebble in that little avalanche of me losing patience with this shit, was when I realized that I was trying to model these behaviors for the younger women that I was working with and being a little bit surprised. That was kind of weird,” she says. “It made me realize how much I hadn’t been doing it. I guess I wanted better for them than I had ever really wanted for myself… but once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it.”

She credits some of that to Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book on women in the workplace. Even if Blount doesn’t agree with every element of the philosophy put forward in the book, she appreciates how much space it made at the company to have conversations that would have previously been off-limits. Being honest about tough things became a little bit easier.

“It was almost a mandate to be willing to have some conversations about gender specifically,” she says. “We were actually going to have these conversations that I very carefully avoided having for two decades. It took a lot of work to push through that careful training and discomfort.”

The result was a candid re-appraisal of what she wanted and how she wanted to do it. Not too long afterwards, she moved on from Facebook and joined reddit as the VP of engineering, where she linked up with her Project Include co-founder Ellen Pao for the first time. They discovered they had a spark — and later, when Pao started putting together an organization that focused on giving tech companies the tools they needed to be more diverse and inclusive, Blount was all in.

“I think that there are a lot of founders and a lot of companies that want to do the right thing, but it’s really hard to know how to navigate if you haven’t been in these situations,” she says. “If you want to win you have to grow. If you’re going to grow you have to get awesome people and keep awesome people — not just people that you hire, but also the people that use your product.”

“If you have zero people inside your company who look anything like your user base you are more likely to make mistakes that alienate that user base. I think we’ve seen this over and over again, right?”

Often, she says, this stems from an engineering mindset that cares about building solutions to problems — and loses the context that the real world lays on everything.

“I think that in tech in particular we tend to fall in love with the idea of the magic bullet,” she says. “You see this in engineering organizations all the time because they always move to the new hotness, to whatever the new tech is. Everybody moves to Node, or to Meteor, or to Go. And sometimes those things are better, but often it’s just because they’re looking for the magic bullet. I think for Project Include, the opportunity is to continue our research and continue bringing CEOs together who are focused on trying to make their companies better, and also by extension the rest of the ecosystem better.”

Instead of coming up with single, one-shot solutions, Project Include tries to address diversity and inclusion through ongoing progress and improvement.

It’s about how far you’ve come, as much as how far you need to go.

“People don’t appreciate the distance that they’ve traveled, because they said that ‘we’re going to go 10 miles’ and they end up going two, because they underestimated how hard it would be. Just because you didn’t get to the 10 today doesn’t mean you didn’t make a big chunk of progress towards it. Don’t give up, keep going.”