Diversity Series: What DEI Initiatives Can—And Can’t—Accomplish

GrepBeat graphic by Ximena Colopy.

[Editor’s Note: This is the third part of a four-part series on diversity in the Triangle’s tech ecosystem. You can find Part I on Access To Capital here;  Part II on the role that HBCUs play in creating a more equitable talent pipeline here; and the Roadmap to the series here.]

Greg Boone remembers one of his first days of work as a Senior Software Engineer when he told an officemate that he went to college at North Carolina A&T State University. NC A&T is one of the country’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), located in Greensboro.

Boone says the coworker responded, “Oh, one of those schools. We never really had luck with anyone from one of those schools.”

Greg Boone

Boone, who began his programming career as an intern at IBM, took that to mean HBCUs. Boone started working for the company iCi early in the company’s existence and led the emerging technology group, which spun out as a new independent company called iCiDIGITAL in 2014.

In 2017 iCiDIGITAL was acquired by Beringer Capital and went on to merge with Blue Acorn in 2018 to form Blue Acorn iCi, Adobe’s Enterprise Emerging Partner of the Year 2020, where Boone is now co-CEO.

“I had to earn respect,” Boone said, “versus someone just coming in and being respected for my skills, knowledge and expertise.”

For many people of color, discrimination in the workplace—whether subtle or overt—can make them feel like they don’t belong. That is, if they can land the job in the first place.

The NC TECH industry report for 2020 ranks North Carolina 23rd in the nation in its Tech Sector Diversity Index from 2018. North Carolina has an index score of 81 out of 100, meaning the people working in tech are less diverse than the state’s overall population.

The NC State of Technology Industry Report ranks states’ diversity index among tech workers. North Carolina finishes in the middle of the pack.

Whether this discrepancy is due to outright discrimination or institutional racism, the result is that the tech workforce is not representative of the people who live in this state.

Why does that matter? We posed that question to Denitresse Ferrell, a Transformation Strategist and Success Coach based in Apex.

“The script, the politically correct thing is how diversity is profitable, and it adds efficiency, and it adds innovation, and it adds revenue to the bottom line,” she said. But Ferrell, who works with both organizations and high potential employees within those organizations, doesn’t necessarily buy into that.

“The truth of the matter is,” she said, “Black people, brown people, LGBTQI—we’re humans. Why do I have to make a business case for you to treat me the same way as you treat your cousin Josh? I shouldn’t have to give you a business case for things to be equitable.”

Denitresse Ferrell

Ferrell, who worked corporate jobs for 20 years before launching her coaching services in January, says that she has probably experienced everything a “typical minority would face” in her career, but she has also experienced triumph. She says one reason she wanted to work for a startup is she could be a founder and leader without facing a corporate ladder.

When it comes to the stereotypical workplace D&I training, the typical one-and-done seminar isn’t enough. That’s where Ferrell tries to fill the gap.

“If you follow up your implicit bias training with coaching,” Ferrell said, “so that someone is really helping you to internalize and apply that, and challenging you in the decisions that you make, and the assumptions that you make, and how you speak, and how you communicate and all of those things, now it goes from a one-day class, or two-hour class, or maybe a two-day class, to a 6-month engagement. When you repeat it, it has the ability to stick.”

Bias baked in

Last month, Boone led an unconscious bias panel during NC TECH’s inaugural Diversity and Inclusion in Tech summit (which GrepBeat covered).

He shared experiences of when he faced discrimination outside of the office, because outside the office he was “just another Black guy.”

Boone later told GrepBeat he was trying to make the point that if people believe they can excel in a professional setting so much so that race or gender doesn’t matter, they’re “fooling” themselves.

“Unconscious bias, by definition, is essentially the shortcuts the brain takes to quickly assess things,” Boone said. “They’re quickly assessing you, and one of the things they’re not saying is, ‘I wonder if this guy is a CEO, or a this or that.’”

As a psychological process, unconscious bias can cause prejudice and discrimination in all aspects of life. In the tech space, that means everything from the pitch to customer acquisition can be more of a challenge for people of color and other minorities.

Several free, online tools exist to assess unconscious bias, one of which is an Implicit Association Test offered by Project Implicit, a collaboration between Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington.

More than winning the day’s news cycle

Donald Thompson, the CEO of Raleigh-based marketing agency Walk West, has been riding this wave since he launched the Diversity Movement in August 2019.

Based in Raleigh, The Diversity Movement offers diversity and inclusion training, consulting, certification and more to organizations.

Thompson says when an idea is woven into the fabric of the company, it affects everything the company does.

Donald Thompson

“I think what every company should do,” Thompson said, “is ensure that their D&I programs are led by leaders in the business that have a seat at the table with CEO access. That Diversity & Inclusion is part of the strategic plan to become a part of the DNA of the brand.”

A slew of organizations have taken public stances denouncing racism and pledging new DEI efforts following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, and the long-running protests that followed.

Thompson says there is reason to be optimistic about more companies putting dollars behind words, but D&I is a marathon, not a sprint.

“It’s something that in companies today, it’s very much ‘en vogue’ to try to win the day with the press release,” Thompson said. “We still have a lot of work to do with putting things in practice.”

These corporate efforts for inclusion are not just something they should do, but something they are supposed to do, Ferrell says.

“They are responsible for developing the talent,” she said. “They are responsible for setting up the processes that will enable success. They are responsible for creating a system that is equitable and not saying ‘Oh, we’re a meritocracy,’ because that’s not true.”

About Elizabeth Moore 38 Articles
Elizabeth Moore tells the stories of the Triangle's tech startups as GrepBeat's summer intern. She is a rising junior at UNC Chapel Hill majoring in journalism and Spanish. You can contact Elizabeth on Twitter (@elizltmoore) and LinkedIn.