WHEN MOST PEOPLE think about diversity, they think recruiting and hiring, and it ends there. They are mistaken.
To be successful, a company's stated commitment to diversity must go beyond recruiting and tracking gender, race, nationality, sexuality, and age of employees in an HR system. True diversity, and more importantly inclusion, sets the company’s culture. It says, we not only hire black women but we invest in the neighborhoods in which they live. It says, we not only hire same-gender loving people but we want to build a relationship with the small businesses they own. When you have a corporate culture that values the differences that make up your workforce, it drives company innovation and employee retention through the roof.
Everyone knows the tech industry is white and male and typically from the same social circles. So, diversity and inclusion staff will pat themselves on the back when they fill a few seats with minorities, and will give themselves a standing ovation should their diversity statistics increase by a percentage point. But what they don’t tell you is many of those new hires don’t stay long. Why? Because a culture of true inclusion, which determines retention, doesn’t exist.
Imagine how you would feel if your employer expected full assimilation and culture fit, but knew nothing about nor inquired about you, or your culture. Would you stay?
Now, imagine how you would feel if your new employer valued your different perspective and experiences so much that it partnered with minority-owned small businesses to provide all of the hoodies the company hands out? Or the company supported your black employee community group by having a day-long event full of speakers and ensuring that every piece of swag, every bite of food, every photo taken, and every beverage served came from black-owned businesses? Would you be proud to work there?
When I was an attorney at Facebook, the company lacked a proactive program of partnering with minority-, LGBTQ-, and women-owned businesses. Our consultants, service providers, hardware, and infrastructure suppliers reflected the majority company itself. So, taking the cue from my favorite black woman proverb, “Fuck it, I’ll do it,” I decided to take matters into my own hands and start a supplier diversity program.
A supplier diversity program goes beyond the usual bean-counting provided by Human Resources. It’s where community engagement and having a positive economic impact on social capital of the communities in which you do business becomes a priority. In other words, it’s not just making money, but also investing in local communities so that they can make money, too.
Fortunately, I worked at Facebook, where if you have an idea, you can implement it and own it. I was not in the diversity department. I knew nothing about creating a supplier diversity program, but and as an attorney, I knew all about researching. Undeterred, I rolled up my sleeves and learned everything I could about key organizations in the industry, talked with experts and consultants, learned how programs were created in different-sized companies, and then came up with a plan. It took eight months of researching, meetings, writing a strategy, and distilling all of that down to a 5-slide PowerPoint presentation in a room with the CFO, who I’d never met. I had to show and tell him why partnering with minority-owned small businesses was a worthwhile investment. I only had 30 minutes to do this.
He got it in 15.
Getting support for this program was not a problem once he understood what the company had to gain: It could build better products by having deep insight into marginalized communities, and invest and engage in the communities it does business with. Despite its huge user base and staff, Facebook didn’t have a supplier program to drive and blend brand equity with employee retention and community empowerment.
Supplier diversity is a great way for women- and minority-owned small business to make money in tech without knowing a stitch of code. Common small-business partnership examples are human resources consulting services, temporary staffing services, catering, print shop services, and swag — the hoodies, shirts, stickers, and pens that tech companies love to give out.
With increased purchasing power of minorities, women, and LGBTQ populations, including these groups in a company’s supplier base provides understanding and insight into these communities, while also encouraging and increasing reciprocal use of services. Simply put, you can’t ask people to patronize your business if you aren’t willing to patronize theirs. As of 2015, the Latino/a community accounts for control of $1.3 trillion in spending power, and the black community isn’t far behind at $1.25 trillion. What's more, marketing to millennials and younger generations must be driven by multicultural insights, as younger-age cohorts are already more than 50 percent multicultural, and women start companies at twice the rate of men. Ignoring the input of these demographics can break a business. To serve and partner with key groups, you first have to respect their influence.
Diverse suppliers create jobs wherever you do business, and that makes their communities stronger, more vibrant, and safer. Fostering authentic community investment and engagement is crucial for a business. By launching this program, Facebook sought to increase economic opportunity and vitality and make the company more accessible to the community at large. By creating a supplier diversity program, Facebook and other tech companies can show commitment to the communities they want to do business in by providing economic opportunity and access, respect, and validation for those markets. It also shows employees their communities are valued, thereby indirectly supporting retention.
I’m all about providing people the tools they need to reach their full potential, by any means necessary. That is true freedom and power. And don’t wait for someone to tell you that you can. Don’t let someone tell you to wait your turn. I didn’t, and I don’t. Lots of people will tell you no, but you just need one yes. Sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, and gain power by empowering others.