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Why unicorns can raise $1 billion but can’t figure out diversity and inclusion

In the early 2000s, Hasbro revived its “My Little Pony” toy franchise. Of all the colorful creatures in Ponyville, my favorite were the unicorn ponies.

Unicorn ponies were magical, whimsical and, most importantly, rare. I identified with the latter.

I was 13 years old and had just been selected for a competitive math, science and computer science program. Of the 100 students in the program, I was one of two black girls. But, I was lucky. Just like the Earth ponies embraced the unicorns, my white and Asian classmates made me feel welcome.

I wish that was always my experience in the tech industry.

The tech industry is no more diverse than it was when I was 13. But more tech companies than ever have committed to becoming more diverse and inclusive.

So why doesn’t commitment always translate to Ponyville?

Goodbye Ponyville, hello world

Six years in my intensive math, science and computer science program almost prepared me to study at MIT. Multivariable calculus? Check. Getting over the fact that you’re not the smartest person at school? Check. Having to worry about being discriminated against by your classmates? Not check.

Here’s an example. My senior year, I was working with a team of 21 other students to develop a new medical device. Peer valuations determined part of my grade, which concerned me. I worried that some of my classmates’ feedback would be clouded by biases against black women. I felt pressured to be perceived as intelligent-but-not-intimidating, confident-but-not-aggressive and approachable-but-not-dense.

Though I largely received positive evaluations, not one, but two, of my teammates told me to “be less aggressive.”

I felt singled out and discouraged until I heard from some of my other black classmates. They’d been excluded from team meetings, and assigned the most menial tasks.

Creating diverse and inclusive tech companies starts with individuals.

How could this happen at MIT, a place that prides itself on being a diverse and inclusive center of innovation?

People discriminate. Institutions tolerate discrimination. People learn to tolerate the discrimination against them. It’s a simple, vicious cycle that few institutions and companies design against.

During the three years after I graduated from MIT, I became fed up with being treated as “less than.” It was time to find a unicorn.

Unicorn (noun)

uni·corn | \ ˈyü-nə-ˌkȯrn

  1. a mythical, usually white animal generally depicted with the body and head of a horse with long flowing mane and tail and a single often spiraled horn in the middle of the forehead
  2. a diverse and inclusive tech company

Following the Rainbow Trail

Finding a unicorn was not easy. My Google search yielded plenty of startups with billion-plus valuations. Few startups were very diverse or inclusive.

That’s why Temboo, a NYC-based industrial IoT startup, intrigued me:

  • A tech company led by a woman of color.
  • An engineering team with an equal number of women and men.
  • A product focused on accessibility and the democratization of programming.
  • A diverse team of employees from different cultural backgrounds.
  • And, most surprisingly, when I arrived for my first interview, I was greeted with a giant hug. This is New York. Random hugs don’t just happen.

Every person I met had a background and interests different from the next. Of all the companies I interviewed with, only Temboo asked why I chose to lead the black employee resource group at my previous position. Even the company’s physical space was different than most tech companies — an independent office nestled in the heart of the TriBeCa neighborhood of NYC.

When I made the decision to join the team, I was hopeful. Maybe this would be a place where I would be respected and appreciated for just being myself.

My Little Pony: NYC tales

During my first few months, I held onto the past lessons that taught me I needed to formulate an acceptable version of myself for my colleagues. However, with time, I understood that at Temboo, Sarah is enough.

My kinky hair could be braided or in an afro, but my hairstyle had no bearing on my perceived intelligence. I could openly critique the lack of diversity at the industrial IoT conferences we attend, and hear resounding agreement.

There were, admittedly, a few times I felt judged. My deep love of obscure reality TV shows and pumpkin-flavored foods is questionable.

I found my unicorn and I’m happier for it. Now, I want everyone working in tech to find their unicorn, so I’ve started to think about ways that I can help pass the torch.

Stuck in Bro-nyville

Most tech companies are following the same recommendations to become more diverse and inclusive:

  1. Diversify your talent pool.
  2. Create community with employee resource groups.
  3. Tie performance evaluations to diversity and inclusion goals.
  4. Call out the lack of diversity.

Take the example of this medium-sized tech company that was preparing to revamp its employee resource groups. The company invited me to speak on a panel, and share what I’d learned from leading the black employee resource group at my previous company.

For example, my team organized Microaggression Awareness Week. The results were tangible: the next week during an executive leadership meeting, a senior manager stopped to ask his peers if something he said was a microaggression.

But we could not convince the recruiting team to tie their performance ratings to diversity and inclusion goals. They did not want the burden of responsibility, and asked my team to come up with new ideas to attract more diverse talent.

Diverse and inclusive tech companies have better retention and financial performance.

Another panelist shared her experience of coming out in the workplace at 50 years old. After 18 years as a senior executive at a Fortune 500 company, she moved to a small tech company. The atmosphere was totally different. Jokes about someone’s sexual orientation were faux pax, and the company even built a float for the NYC Pride Parade. After a 30-year career, she finally felt safe enough to be herself at work.

The panel ended on an encouraging note, but issues remained. One of the company’s employees shared with me that in order to avoid discrimination, he goes by his Anglo-sounding middle name. His job is to lead diversity and inclusion initiatives.

How to grow a horn

Unfair behaviors like stereotyping, harassment and microaggressions are the primary reasons employees quit tech companies. Women, underrepresented minorities and LGBTQ employees bear the brunt of discrimination (Kapor Center).

Diverse and inclusive tech companies have better retention and financial performance. McKinsey examined the relationship between the diversity of company leadership and financial performance in 2014 and 2017: companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15-21 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability compared to companies in the fourth quartile. For ethnic and cultural diversity, the likelihood of above-average performance increased to 33-35 percent.

Creating diverse and inclusive tech companies starts with individuals. From management to junior employees, everyone needs to continually rethink, unlearn and relearn.

Rethink personal biases.

Unlearn habits of discrimination.

Relearn how to respect others who are different.

Companies help end workplace discrimination by signaling their intolerance. Temboo’s culture and practices are a great model.

Unicorns are magical, but diverse and inclusive tech companies are not. They ask the people who work there to redefine what is ordinary.

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