An open letter to tech CEOs and leaders on the importance of diversity
Dear fellow tech CEOs and leaders,
I’m writing to you on this beautiful Sunday in Austin because 2020 has truly been an eye-opening year for me as a long-time tech entrepreneur and CEO. I’ve been founding tech companies and movements since I was 24-years old, and I’ve never thought more about the power of diverse teams than I have this year. 2020 is truly one for the history books on so many levels, including my own personal growth as a leader.
Let me be upfront. My goal in this letter is to help you see what I’ve concluded, and I apologize that it has taken me until 2020 to work so hard for this:
I believe that the more success you earn, both by grit and luck, and the more educated you become on the very real history of racial inequities in our country, the greater moral imperative you have to strive for a much more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce in tech.
This has been building for a long time within me, and I feel extremely fortunate to have had the learning experiences I’ve had. My realization about the importance of diversity in tech is the result of many friends and institutions investing in me, and then me taking the time to invest in myself. In this open letter, I’m going to do my best to share the resources that have most helped me and I believe will help you. I’ll also go beyond theory and give you a prescriptive call to action. I’ve put so much time into this because I believe it is critical to do so for those that are fortunate enough to be in a position of leading (and that is a much bigger tent than you may think).
To give you some background on those investments, in 2014 my good friend Josh Baer nominated me for the Henry Crown Fellowship at the Aspen Institute. The Fellowship looks for successful leaders at inflection points in their lives. I was “retired” when Josh told me he nominated me. I had achieved my dream of founding and taking a company public with Bazaarvoice right around my 40th birthday (this was a goal I had set for myself at age 25). I was primarily backing startups with our family office, Hurt Family Investments (and still am, as you can see with our growing portfolio), and I honestly wasn’t sure if I would start another company myself. But the Fellowship really motivated me to do so and that led to the founding of data.world alongside my three incredible co-founders, Bryon Jacob, Jon Loyens, and Matt Laessig.
It was in the Fellowship that I was first introduced to the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates. We read Letter to my Son, which quite literally moved me to tears multiple times while reading it. And then we had a very intense discussion about it, along with two of my Fellows who are both very successful Black American leaders. If you haven’t read it, I really encourage you to open up your heart and do so. I was in denial while I read this — I just couldn’t believe this was still America. I frankly didn’t want to believe it, it was just too painful to accept. Our Fellowship discussions are strictly confidential, so I can’t tell you what happened as we discussed it, but I can say that tears were shed there too. Our willingness to be vulnerable around the issue of racial inequality opened my eyes to the harsh reality of contemporary injustice. How could this be in the country that I love so much?!
We also read and discussed Frederick Douglass’s speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Mr. Douglass gave this speech nine years before the Civil War. He was just 34-years old. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve sent this speech to my friends. I truly consider it the best speech I’ve ever read. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor — now is the time. As a leader who knows how much preparation you put into the most important speeches you’ve ever given, you will truly appreciate it. As you read it, think about the time in history that it occurred and how he was the only Black man — a former slave — at the crowded July 5th, 1852 event, surrounded by American flags waving in the wind as a large crowd looked on. Mr. Douglass spoke in his booming, deep voice, made all the more resonant by his powerful 6-foot stature. I only wish we had some recording of it to listen to (if I were in Devs, it would have been the first speech I jumped to).
And we also wrestled with MLK, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. Written almost two years prior to the March from Selma (watch the movie) to Montgomery, Dr. King’s letter is a powerful reminder of the relationship between race and democracy. Like Frederick Douglass’s speech, I have sent this to a countless number of friends. Yes, I studied it in school at some point as a much younger man, but it just didn’t have the resonance then that it does now after being a leader and entrepreneur for so long. Again, do yourself a favor and read it — it’s a masterpiece.
The Henry Crown Fellowship also took me to South Africa, where we really delved into the origins of apartheid and the incredible leadership of Nelson Mandela. How Mandela pursued racial justice and dignity after apartheid remains fresh in South African political and cultural imagination. I’ll never forget standing in the former jail cell of Mr. Mandela on Robben Island — imagining how a man of his considerable stature managed to live in such a tiny cell. How cramped it must have been and yet how it didn’t break him after 27 years of captivity. And how gracefully he dealt with his oppressors after becoming South Africa’s first Black President.
Fast forwarding to another period in my life, thanks to Stephen Straus, Christopher Kennedy, and Heather Brunner’s (three incredible leaders in Austin) encouragement last year I took the Beyond Diversity™ Courageous Conversations two-day course. After becoming more educated on how race shows up in everyday life in America, the course gave me the tools to discuss race with people of color. I’ve had my haircut from the same friend for 18 years now, even before either of us had children. And we had never really discussed his experience as a Hispanic man in America. What I learned from our frank discussion about race really moved me and it led to a much stronger bond as friends.
Lisa Novak, our head of HR at data.world, attended the course with me. She had an equally profound experience. Given how much it moved us, we wanted the rest of the executive team involved. They subsequently took it and were equally moved. Then we decided together to fund everyone at data.world to take the course, starting with the rest of our leadership team. It is taught all over the nation, and here are the dates/links in Austin from Christopher’s Leadership Austin. Please let me know if you have trouble finding it in your local area and I’ll do my best to help.
And then this year, during the pandemic, I got an email from a close friend who is also a Henry Crown Fellow and fellow CEO. Following the horrific murder of George Floyd, he asked me if I wanted to get involved in his group, White Men for Racial Justice. He recalled my referencing our nation’s original sin of slavery during a 2018 SXSW talk and thought I would be interested in further study and investment. He was right and it’s been a really moving and challenging endeavor. We’ve met every other Tuesday night for six months and have discussed many readings and listens, including the very moving podcast series Seeing White and documentary Suppressed (watch it if you really want to understand voter suppression in Georgia and the incredible leadership of Stacey Abrams). We are a support group for each other and I’ve gotten a lot of value out of being involved. To be really candid, it has been very uncomfortable sometimes as ignorance is bliss when it comes to our history and how that has translated into our current reality. But I’m just not wired to shy away from a learning opportunity like that. I’m a perpetually curious person and as I wrote in Chapter 4 of my book, “The Entrepreneur’s Essentials”, I believe in an Always Be Learning life.
Now, let me address an elephant in the room before some of you tune me out and stop reading. Most white people do not want to discuss race, and it is also true that many white people are financially hurting in our country and are scared about their futures. Opioid addiction has run rampant in many white communities. Poverty and pain aren’t limited to people of color. So, before I discuss how these learnings and endeavors have moved me to create a much more diverse company at data.world, I understand that for many this isn’t a comfortable subject.
The fact is: we live in a country that is roughly 73% white. If you were born white, there are inherent advantages you have. When you are in the majority, that majority shows up in leadership positions more often and the majority of wealth is concentrated there. When you were born, you weren’t aware of this (I certainly wasn’t). But this also doesn’t mean if you are white that you don’t have to work your ass off to become a successful entrepreneur, especially one that is self-made. When I got married, I had $1,000 and my wife had $2,000. It took a lot of both grit and luck for us to become successful. But it is also true that the more you learn about the way our country has been set up — quite literally, starting with the original sin of slavery — the more you realize the institutional, structural, and personal privileges that come with being born white. There is no amount of preaching that I can do for you in this short open letter to convince you of that. You simply have to do the internal work to get there. I’ve given you some of the resources above that have helped me get there. And, again, please understand that I’m not saying to you that you don’t deserve the success you’ve earned because you are white — I’m just saying that the odds were far more in your favor to do so.
I know that some of you reading this will simply write me off as “woke” and perhaps a far-leftist. “Woke”, after all, is the new “virtue signaling” insult — it is a way to nullify someone’s message because they aren’t part of your “tribe” or “beliefs.” But let me set a few things straight — first of all, I’m an Independent voter, having voted for as many Republicans in my lifetime as I have Democrats. Second, I believe in meritocracy. I truly want to hire the very best at data.world, and I absolutely believe we do so (if you haven’t read Chapter 11 of my book, it describes how we do it). Third, I tune into podcasters like Coleman Hughes, who I believe has some really good ideas and is very critical of the far-left. If you haven’t listened to his episode on Is Black Lives Matter Right?, I encourage you to do so. I seek diverse perspectives on this sensitive topic to help crystalize, and often challenge, my own. Fourth, I very much believe in the power of capitalism to lift people up and make our lives better overall, especially conscious capitalism. Fifth, I’m unafraid of critiquing the tactics of movements that I am sympathetic to. I disagree with the Defund the Police branding (setting up an us vs. them “punishment” dynamic from a branding point of view) even as I understand the larger meaning of the phrase to be about investing in Black and Brown communities so that they can thrive rather than experience chronic punishment and violence. Public safety requires a racially just and equitable commitment to law enforcement and communities. I believe that the Biden+Harris Administration will strike the right balance there. And, finally, I believe that we can work together to make this the best time to be a person of color in America. Both things can be true at the same time: we have real equity challenges to address and it can also be the best time in America to be a person of color.
Ok, so hopefully you are still with me because now it is time for the crux of my message and the reason I wrote this letter. I believe that the more success you earn, both by grit and luck, and the more educated you become on the very real history of racial inequities in our country, the greater moral imperative you have to strive for a much more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce in tech. In 2020, data.world has really advanced on that path — in partnership with Lisa, we are now 54% female or minority. And there have been zero tradeoffs on performance — in fact, it has made our company much more fun and higher performing. There has been no “lowering of the bar” or whatever you may be thinking right now, and, in fact, if you are thinking that then you really need to stick with me for the rest of this letter.
One of the aspects of the Biden+Harris Administration that I love most is that they really get this. They are striving to have the most American (i.e., diverse) presidential administration in history. Of course, Biden’s pick of Kamala Harris as Vice President helped set that tone as she is the first female, Black, and Indian Vice President (both all and any of these three) in American history. And over 81,283,000 Americans voted for them — the most in history, by far. What we truly love most about this country is the melting pot that it has become. We can debate all day long about the 1619 Project or 1776 (one of my favorite books), but it is really missing the point if we do that. Look at the architecture, entertainment, foods, literature, and mosaic of people that truly make this country great.
Stephen DeBerry, who is a Black American venture capitalist and also a Henry Crown Fellow, put it best when he said that we all just need to chill out and really think about what is on the other side of racial equity. It’s beauty, it’s holding hands, it’s dancing in the street, it’s celebrating the best of being American.
That is my goal at data.world — to make it not just a standard-bearer for diversity in tech, but also to make it a more American company.
When I hear my fellow white tech CEOs and leaders tell me they just can’t find enough _____ (fill in the blank race or gender) candidates for a role, a big part of that is that they just aren’t in the places where those people hang out. I’m white but also Jewish, and therefore I’m going to get invited to more Jewish events than you are. I’ve been invited to just one Black Chamber of Commerce event and that was for me to see a friend get an award. If you are female, you get invited to more female events. And so on. To hire diverse people, you need to figure out a way to show up at diverse places. If you aren’t seeing diverse candidates in your pipeline, you need to think hard about if you are part of the problem or if this really is important to you (this is why it is so important that you do the internal work). How hard have you tried, really?
Let me help you. Lisa and I collaborated on five steps to take in an interview in Authority Magazine back in September. Here they are again:
“Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
First, I’m not sure any of us are qualified to suggest the right five steps to change society, but we can sure start with our own company, and likely much of that thought process can translate to society.
- Recognize and accept that there is a problem that needs to be solved, and that we (both our company and our society) must be actively involved in the solution.
- Learn. Get yourself educated. And in our case, get all of data.world educated — leaders and individual contributors. After George Floyd’s murder, it galvanized us to send all of our people to “Courageous Conversations: Beyond Diversity.” It’s why we have book clubs with books on racial injustice or being better allies. It’s why we invite expert diversity speakers in.
- Develop a philosophy and goals early on. Make it part of our fabric, and an ongoing part of who we are from the onset. Include it in our values (“community” is one of our five) and our company goals (we always have a diversity OKR). It’s easier to build on than to correct down the road.
- Create an internal voice (in our case, our #parliament-pod) to ensure there’s a place for even the challenging conversations, as well as an opportunity for new ideas and ways to constantly improve.
- Share. As a company who may be doing things well, it’s our responsibility to share that approach and those ideas with other companies like us and spread the positive results. It’s why we speak on panels about driving diversity. It’s why we’re part of groups in Austin to help guide other tech start-ups through their diversity journey.”
To sum up this open letter, I really hope you will join me and do the internal work first. If you would like to get involved in White Men for Racial Justice or take Beyond Diversity™ Courageous Conversations, please let me know. If you are in a position of power, especially in tech, then you really can shape the future. If there is one business takeaway from the pandemic, it is that tech is clearly the most valuable industry of the future. Let’s work together to have the gains for tech go to more people of color than they have historically.
If you don’t do the internal work, then you won’t entirely get what I’m talking about here. If you approach diverse hiring as a corporate social responsibility endeavor, or a check-the-box activity to signal that you are “with the times”, then you are missing a huge opportunity. You have to get to a place where you truly believe that by becoming a more American company, it will make you a truly better company. That diverse perspectives lead to better outcomes. That it will actually accelerate your performance and everyone wins, including society.
I’ll leave you with this. Did you realize that the median Black American family household has just 1/10th the wealth of the median white American family household? In 2020? I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know that until this year — yes, I’m 48 and just learned that about six months ago. I think that is all you need to know that we have a problem that can only be explained by the original sins of our country and the structural inequities that have flowed out of racial slavery, Jim Crow, and oppression of all sorts. Again, watch Suppressed to see how this happened just recently in Georgia, especially if you think, “But, Brett, all of that was so long ago.” And please check out the work of UT Austin’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy for the intersection between racial justice, public policy, and history. I’ve been proudly supporting Dr. Peniel Joseph and his team’s work there.
I’m advocating for you to recognize that your company can have a workforce that reflects the best of what America truly offers. What a boring place America would be if we were all of one race, with one type of food and drink, one type of architecture, one type of entertainment, one type of literature, one type of political party, and so on. We have a moral obligation to lift each other up and embrace our uniqueness and the beautiful melting pot that our country is. It is the source of our strength as Americans, and it can be a huge source of strength in your company. It is certainly a huge source of strength at data.world, and this year was the first where we were named in the top three companies to work for in Austin. It’s also been a banner year of financial performance for us, even with the incredible challenge of COVID-19.
As you think about what your New Year Resolutions will be, perhaps you’ll consider joining me in my quest to make tech much more diverse. To help make sure the incredible gains in tech don’t just primarily go to white males. To help nudge capitalism to be a little more conscious in this area. Perhaps we can even make Austin known for this, and we can hit another #1 best place for ____ list.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this open letter, and your ideas on how you’ve made your company more diverse, higher performing, and more fun. Let’s do tech better together.
CEO and Co-founder, data.world, a proud Certified B Corporation