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How the Tech Industry Can Be More Inclusive to the Black Community

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Marcus Knight, VP of Go-To-Market, Shipium speaks to Crunchbase on how the tech industry can be more inclusive headshot
Marcus Knight, VP of Go-To-Market, Shipium

Marcus Knight, the VP of go-to-market at Shipium, weighs in honestly about his own diversity and inclusion experiences within the tech industry—and how industry leaders can avoid making common DEI mistakes.


It’s no secret that tech companies struggle to attract and retain Black employees like me. 

With less than 5 percent of the workforce being Black, oftentimes we are left feeling unheard and unseen within organizations. 

With more than 14 years in this industry—and being one of a few, or oftentimes the only, Black person within an organization—I hear quite a bit from companies that they “don’t know where to find Black talent.” 

My response?  

If they treat the issue like any other business-critical problem, they will commit to doing the uncomfortable internal work necessary to figure out why. 

 

Why the tech industry struggles to cultivate more inclusive teams

We’ve all had access to the McKinsey report, which illustrates the benefits of cultivating more inclusive teams: For example, the report shows that in the case for cultural diversity, in 2019, companies with a high diversity count outperformed the ones that didn’t by 36 percent in profitability. According to a separate McKinsey report published in 2017, companies with leadership teams that rank in the top 25 percent for racial and ethnic diversity are 33 percent more likely to outperform their competition. And although this data has been at our fingertips for quite some time, we continue to progress at a snail’s pace. Here’s what that looks like for Black people and other people of color: Inequities in pay, a lack of leadership opportunities, a lack of a sense of belonging, and pressure to perform without the promise of promotion. 

Early in my career, these inequities were extremely frustrating. Young, hungry and talented—constantly finding creative ways for high-sought-after decision-makers inside and outside of my organization to take meetings with me—I found myself outpacing my colleagues and exceeding my quota, only to be passed over for promotions. When I brought this to my managers’ attention, they would tell me to just focus on my day job and the promotions would come. 

A few years into the same role, I realized a promotion was never on the table. I looked around and realized I was far from alone; within about six months the company experienced a POC talent drain; the majority of the Black and Brown employees including myself, left one by one.

 

Red flags in the hiring process

This kind of thing happens because leaders are unwilling to self-reflect, and ultimately take responsibility for,  their role in creating or perpetuating these conditions. These “conditions” show up in a number of ways across tech organizations of all sizes, particularly via gatekeeping in the hiring process. Here are a few examples of red flags I’ve seen:

  • Candidates in the hiring funnel being labeled as “not a culture fit” by hiring personnel. This is problematic because organizations should be looking for value and culture additions. Homogenous workplaces perpetuate the problem. For example, at another company I worked for, I referred several Black candidates for roles I knew they were qualified for. After not hearing much about their progression through the interview process, I logged into our applicant tracking system to check on their status, where I was dismayed to learn they’d been flagged not a culture fit. Without context it read like coded racial language. After speaking to the hiring manager about this issue, who did not seem to understand the problem, I decided to stop referring Black people to the company.
  • Candidates being labeled as having “a lack of industry experience.” Like anyone in the tech world knows, desirable skills are easily transferable from other industries within the tech industry, particularly in sales. When I hear this, my thought is the hiring managers are likely not well-versed in how to successfully engage with, let alone train, sales or customer success reps from diverse backgrounds. This equals not having the right people in positions of power within the company, namely more diverse ones. 
  • Using Black and Brown employees, even if it’s unintentional, as poster children for diversity. In my working experience, I have too often been leaned on, informally, to help recruit or “be the face of” an organization unrelated to my professional qualifications. I get the logic of this: If Black employees see someone who looks like them already working within an organization, they may be more inclined to apply to work there. However, this can be misleading and potentially problematic for both potential candidates as well as existing ones if the company hasn’t done the work to create a conducive to supporting and retaining this talent.  

With all of this said, hope is far from lost. It’s clear that after the Great Resignation companies are getting the message that they should be more concerned about hiring and retaining POC talent. Without POC recommendations or guidance, it can seem like they’re going round and round on a hamster wheel in their attempt to get it right.

 

Overcoming systemic obstacles during the hiring process

Here’s how tech companies—from startups to giants—can begin to crush some of these systemic obstacles during the hiring process and far beyond.

  • Have tough, honest conversations. It starts at the executive level. Executives should address inclusion topics companywide. Let the organization knowit is a topic of leadership conversations. Bring on amazing organizations like Pink Cornrows, a social impact firm catalyzing for equity, which advise leaders on data-informed policies and practices that advance fairness in their internal and external practices, policies and people dynamics.  
  • Recruit from the 107 historically Black colleges and universities there are nationwide. With access to hundreds of thousands of high-performing graduates each year, tech companies need only do a better job of marketing to them. Not only from an entry-level perspective, but also an alumni perspective concerning alums who may already work in tech. And this is not just about hiring immediately—tech companies are in a position to offer internships to help coach and train desirable candidates to the specifics of what they are looking for. Being plugged in to these communities could not only help expedite hiring for key positions, but create a pipeline of talent for years to come. 

And for the Black and POC tech talent you may already have:

  • Provide them with the resources necessary to progress their careers within your company. Organizations like SasSy Sales Leadership offer management training for employees. It also makes scholarships available to people of color. Part of the issue concerning Black advancement within  organizations is leadership not providing insight to their star employees about what happens at the executive level, how decisions are made, and how promotions are earned, if the sincere desire on behalf of the organization is there. By offering shadow opportunities and management/executive coaching to those who would benefit, these employees can at least get a sense of whether the leadership path is one they want to go down.
  • Work with a DEI consulting firm or internal program manager and the human resources department to integrate cultural literacy and inclusion training into your onboarding process. Offering this to new employees on Day One sets the tone for behavior at the organization and gives underrepresented groups a sense of belonging, informing them of their points of recourse should they feel like they are, at any point, being discriminated against. 
  • Recruit Black subject-matter experts in fields besides DEI (e.g. revenue, engineering, finance, marketing, etc). Making it a priority to hire a non-homogeneous set of experts within your organization sends the implicit message to the internal employees, as well as stakeholders and the public, that not only does expertise have a face, but that face is not always white, straight and male. 
  • Create employee resource groups (ERGs) if you don’t already have them, and don’t shortchange the ERG leaders on pay. ERGs, when organized and facilitated well, are an excellent resource for both new and existing employees as a means by which to be heard, seen and encouraged to make meaningful suggestions that lead to positive cultural change within an organization. ERGs can also assist with employee engagement, skill development for future leaders, and the promotion of positive  cultural awareness. While this is not typically the ERG leader’s full-time job, most are committed to creating a more inclusive work environment in a number of critical ways, which can only enhance the organization. 
 

Conclusion

Now is the time to act. With all we’ve learned, to include all of the studies that point to why inclusiveness is the way to go, the tech industry has the chance to become a leading industry in this area, while further expanding its bottom line. What does this equal? Nothing but wins. The bottom line? Taking these steps toward inclusiveness won’t be easy, but for the good of the tech space and our society at large, they sure will be worthwhile. 


Marcus Knight is the VP of go-to-market for Shipium, as well as a serial entrepreneur who’s founded, among others, the groundbreaking revenue growth consultancy Cultured Perspective. Cultured Perspective assists startup founders and rising revenue leaders in implementing the sales processes necessary to plan, execute and ultimately scale their businesses. He sits on the boards of nonprofits Sales for the Culture and Us in Technology and is an advisory board member for the University of Washington’s School of Professional and Continuing Education. 

  • Originally published February 23, 2022, updated April 4, 2022