Diversity is an Innovation Strategy
Christie Pitts is CEO of Backstage Capital, which has become one of the most high profile firms in Silicon Valley for its support of underrepresented founders. I sat down with Christie to discuss her views on diversity & inclusion, and how her experience is relevant to corporate innovation professionals.
Scott: Christie, I think a lot of people know about the incredible story of your business partner Arlan Hamilton, but tell us your own background as a corporate venture capitalist and how this led you to Backstage.
Christie: I’ve actually only worked for one company before Backstage: Verizon. I was lucky to have 11 different roles in 13 years, starting in customer service at a retail store and eventually winding up in corporate venture capital. I started in January 2005, and the growth at Verizon created a lot of opportunity for me.
Within the wireless unit, I worked in operations and marketing, where we were managing a customer base of 5 million people and over $4 billion in revenue. I was focused on customer acquisition and retention in California, Nevada, and Hawaii, and this territory has a very diverse population. Traditional marketing tactics didn’t work, so we had to be innovative about reaching new audiences to compete against AT&T, which was our most entrenched competitor. This was when I really began to think about diversity as a business problem.
After that, I was doing business development work with startups on behalf of Verizon, which then led to the opportunity to join the Verizon Ventures team.
When I eventually joined Verizon Ventures, I brought with me the overall corporate goal of reaching diverse customers. The venture group also knew that it was supposed to help the corporation adapt, which should have included this diversity objective, but the dots were not connected to make investments that helped achieve this goal. But I do want to give credit to Verizon Ventures for being very forward thinking about backing women-led businesses.
The result of those experiences was that I came away with the idea that VCs seemed to understand the social aspects of impact investing, but not the business case for funding underserved founders.
When I met Arlan, my initial goal was actually for Verizon to be an investor in Backstage. When that opportunity didn’t work out, we stayed in touch and eventually I partnered with her.
Scott: You and I have discussed the idea that big companies can put themselves at a disadvantage by ignoring diversity & inclusion initiatives. But what do you mean when you say diversity is an innovation strategy?
Christie: A lot of innovation work is envisioning the future and helping companies understand how to transition their business units and keep them relevant. Companies want to adapt and avoid the fates of Blockbuster and Kodak. But diversity seems to be a blind spot: these big companies don’t always consider who their core customers will be in the future.
This is a problem for big companies and startups, by the way. The tech startups are not always the most diverse, either. As an example, some sensor companies don’t test their products on people with darker skin, so a paper towel dispenser or automated soap dispenser might not “see” them. Similar sensors are used in IoT, A.I., autonomous vehicles, and many other innovative applications; if there is a lack of diversity in the team building the products, it’s easy to overlook potential customers.
On the corporate side, the problem is focusing on technological trends and not who the customers will be five or ten years down the road. Money is being left on the table because the people building the products just aren’t thinking about all their future customers.
Scott: What do you say to people who think that diversity is just the realm of human resources professionals?
Christie: HR folks are often tasked with limiting legal liability and not maximizing upside. But with innovation we are talking about a strategy function and you can’t expect progress and growth with a purely defensive mentality.
Scott: D&I has an obvious potential marketing benefit. How can big companies keep these efforts authentic and avoid having them be little more than marketing ploys?
Christie: Pursuing diversity as a PR strategy has really backfired on corporations. When you don’t have a diverse team yourself, it shouldn’t be surprising if you aren’t viewed as authentically caring about diversity or inclusion. You really need to be critical of what you are doing every step of the way.
Scott: Give me an example of how you’ve seen a company think about this less superficially; how a corporate D&I effort can be deeper.
Christie: Microsoft is a good example. They’ve partnered with something like 16 different groups — for full disclosure, including Backstage — to support underrepresented founders. It’s not just one effort. They’ve also hired internally to support diversity. Satya himself has said it’s a priority—it’s coming from the top and that’s why it’s working. I can’t draw causation, but I also believe they have attracted a more diverse customer base as they’ve made these internal efforts.
Scott: How would you combine diversity efforts with other forms of corporate innovation, including business development, venture capital, and M&A?
Christie: Diversity shouldn’t be isolated. It should be integrated with any other strategic effort like the ones you mentioned, and not off in its own silo. Corporate innovation folks, this is not someone else’s problem. It’s your problem, too.
Scott: How do you think about reducing defensive reactions from potential allies who might feel insulted or even threatened when confronted about topics like white privilege or male privilege or class privilege?
Christie: I’m not responsible for other people’s feelings. At the end of the day, this is a business conversation, and I don’t think there is anyone who wants to sell their product to half the potential customers. When we make these products more inclusive, it’s a better experience for everyone. Once you show people that there is enough economic opportunity for everyone, I believe there will be more receptivity.
I recently heard a sociologist on a panel say that to shift public opinion, you just need to get 30%. On the other hand, this could have been a totally made up statistic, but it gives me hope that we can get there!
This article originally appeared on Forbes.
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