Ali Asaria on Diversity in Tech: Follow the Money
A quick intro:
My name is Ali Asaria, I’m the CEO and founder of Tulip Retail. I have been in tech for maybe the last 10, 15 years. I started a company called Well.ca in Canada, and this is my second company Tulip.
Why is diversity important and why should we try to foster an inclusive environment?
Part of the reason diversity in tech is important goes beyond economic and business reasons, I think it’s a moral one, too. We, as technologists, are building the next generation of companies, we are going to be the new industry titans going forward… As we build this new economy on this new digitally focused industry, we are deciding what that industry is going to be composed of, and the types of jobs we are going to create, and who’s going to be included in that. And I don’t think we spend enough time thinking about diversity in that context.
Have you ever experienced unconscious bias in the workplace?
In terms of my exposure to diversity in tech, there are two sides: I worked at Microsoft and at one point, they had programs that focused on diversity and my demographic wasn’t actually considered a minority in tech. There are a lot of Indians in tech, so, in a way, I’m part of a majority of elites. On the other hand, when you start talking to VCs in the US and Canada, visible minorities, myself included, have experienced bias. We feel like we don’t belong.
A lot of it is subtle in the sense that you don’t feel that you come from the same group of people you are trying to do business with, so how do you build an interface and a connection with them? And that’s what a lot of us have to overcome. And for me it’s been tough. For me, a specific example, is that I will see peers of mine like other entrepreneurs who can form a deep bond with VCs as they can go drinking with them, and can hang out with them and act like their family. I feel like that’s a little harder for me, there’s a cultural barrier. It’s harder for me to transcend that relationship beyond just a business relationship. I don’t come from the same world as the people I’m trying to do business with. And that’s tough.
I think the thing with entrepreneurs is that their whole life is about overcoming barriers. Some of the best entrepreneurs and some of the ones I talk to wont even admit that there is a bias. Their whole life is about jumping over hurdles. And I get that. And I think there’s more of an obligation on everyone else: the investors, the government, the community and organizations around the technology to support minorities…
What should the industry do about the diversity gap in tech?
It can’t be just a platitude. So part of what I believe is that we need to put an onus on the venture capitalists and folks that invest in the VCs and put an obligation on them and say, “as you fund this company, make sure it’s transparent what this company is composed of, and where are the dollars are going.”
Some of the biggest investors that control the money in tech and entrepreneurship genuinely don’t believe that we have an issue around diversity. To a certain degree, they believe it’s a liberal agenda, and that tech is a meritocracy, that, no matter where you come from, you will succeed because you are the best at writing software. Most of us know that’s not true but a lot of folks in power don’t believe that there’s a problem.
I think that society in general, in Canada and the US, needs to put an obligation on the government and the people controlling the dollars and say “hey this is a problem and this is something we care about”, and there needs to be an obligation to transform some of this stuff from the folks who are driving all this innovation.
The first step for me comes from transparency. It’s hard to address these challenges, if we don’t know numbers and facts are, and where the dollars are going and where the jobs are being created. I think one of the most important things we can do is to have companies, VCs and boards to disclose the numbers behind their companies so we can know what the industry looks like.
What are your thoughts on hiring for diversity?
I see both sides of the story when you talk to tech entrepreneurs about meritocracy. At Tulip, we as a company, would love to have our company represent everyone in our society. But it’s been tough sometimes. Some of the graduating classes of the universities we are hiring from don’t have a diverse talent pool. Many entrepreneurs will blame the supplies and say that there aren’t enough in the talent pool applying for the job.
One of the things we have seen successful at Tulip is to think outside of the box. Number one is that we give leadership team opportunity to get more involved with the hiring process if the folks getting hired are minorities… we often get executives to help a a candidate coming from a minority background to move along the pipeline. The executives need to be involved so they can get the folks hired to reflect the general population.
I think we need to think outside of the box in terms of how we hire and what type of folks they are. One of the things we have done at Tulip that is proven successful …is to open some of the positions as internships. Maybe you are someone who has never built a program before or haven’t had the opportunity to go to an elite university, you can come to Tulip for 4 months and we will train you on that. At the end of the 4 months, we might hire you full-time and it’s a chance to get that skill on your resume that you have done IOS and have written software.
My advice for entrepreneurs who try to enable diversity within their company is to really deal with the tough problems. And that has been a challenge for us. It’s easy to say that we should open up more jobs to a diverse population but how do we actually deal with boards pretty much filled with white males, even at Tulip. We’ve had the same problem pretty much from the executive all the way down, so how do we get that more diverse. I think the most important thing for CEOs is to address this problem from the top down. Let’s change the leadership structure and everything else will trickle down.
Do you have advice for fellow minorities?
It’s almost impossible for me to give advice to minorities and ask them to take on any blame. Just do your best and try your hardest, but do understand that there’s systematic issues that will cause hurdles that you will have to incur. If I was looking for a job right now, I would look for the company that’s most supportive and realistic on what’s happening on the industry so you can find an environment that is conducive towards your success.
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Originally published at blog.stackadapt.com.