Poornima Vijayashanker

Diversity and Inclusion: Why You Need to Rethink Your Approach to Diversity And Inclusion


We’re probably all aware of the famous proverb, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I think it’s very apropos when it comes to diversity and inclusion efforts. Too many of us think that having a diversity and inclusion initiative within our company will produce the change we want to see in the world.

Yes, it’s a necessary step, but sadly, many initiatives and programs have failed to get off the ground and make a mark.


The first culprit is stopping at intentions and not really thinking through what is needed in terms of budget, resources, and timing. The second culprit is not being realistic about expectations, and really asking the question, “What do you expect to see at the end of a year from a program and is that achievable?”

Just like we build a business case around running an experience when it comes to our product, process, or policies, the same rigor needs to be applied to diversity and inclusion initiatives.

In this week’s Build episode, Melinda Epler and Wayne Sutton, the founders of Change Catalyst and Tech Inclusion, are back. We’re going to talk about best practices and what to look for if you’re interested in starting a program at your company or participating in one outside.

So if you’re thinking about starting an employee resource group or another program, or want to know how you can improve an existing program, you’ll want to watch this episode. Here’s what you’ll learn:

  • why it’s important to start with a business case—just like you would for any product, process or policy change in a company;
  • why you can’t expect immediate results, but it’s OK to celebrate incremental progress;
  • what to do when people within your organization say no to your proposal; android
  • the microchanges you can into practice daily as you lead and work with teams.

Listen to the episode on iTunes!

Diversity and Inclusion: Why You Need To Rethink Your Approach to Diversity And Inclusion Transcript

Poornima Vijayashanker: In the last episode of Build, we talked about how diversity and inclusion initiatives are impacting tech, and how to navigate conversations with teammates and peers. If you missed that episode, I’ve included a link to it below. In today’s episode, we’re going to dive a little bit deeper and talk about some of the best practices that you can use to kickstart a diversity and inclusion effort at your company, or if you want to go and contribute somewhere else, what to look out for, so stay tuned.

Welcome to Build, brought to you by Pivotal Tracker. I’m your host, Poornima Vijayashanker. In each episode of Build, innovators and I debunk a number of myths and misconceptions related to building products, companies, and your career in tech.

We’re continuing our conversation with Melinda Epler and Wayne Sutton, who are the founders of Change Catalyst and Tech Inclusion. In today’s episode, we’re going to dive a little bit deeper into some of the best practices that you can use to kickstart a diversity and inclusion effort in your organization, as well as get others to help you out. Wayne and Melinda, thanks for coming back on the show.

Melinda Epler: Absolutely.

How to measure success for diversity and inclusion initiatives

Poornima Vijayashanker: Before we jump into the best practices, I want to just remind our viewers and our listeners out there how can we measure success before we start to pursue any sort of tech practice?

Melinda Epler: It gets to our number one—the most important thing to start with is measuring where you are now, really benchmarking where you are now in terms of diversity and inclusion. That means doing—if it hasn’t been done already—looking at the demographics from race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, veterans, people with disabilities, people all across diverse backgrounds, and then also looking at engagement, and inclusion, and really measuring those as well. There are some surveys out there that you can take internally in a company to really gauge where you are. Before you start, you need to know where you are.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Oh, yeah. Of course.

Melinda Epler: That ranges from obviously looking at the demographics, but also looking at how do people feel? Do they belong? Are they supported? Are they able to really thrive in the company? Are they allowed to rise in the company? Are they supported in growing as a leader in the company? All those things you want to know before you really dive in to programs.

Under-resourced diversity and inclusion programs are rampant

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. Now, I know one issue that I run into, and you’ve probably experienced the same, I think we touched upon this on the last episode, is people come with a lot of great intentions, and a lot of times when you come into these internal groups though, they haven’t really thought beyond those intentions. When I ask them questions like, “Who’s going to be working with me?” or, “What are the meetings going to look like on the calendar? Is there a budget?” Just the basic logistics, it’s like, “Oh, I guess there’s some more work to be done,” right? Because they haven’t thought through what’s budget, what’s a roll out, what sort of opposition. How can we get around that initially, and what’s the homework you would recommend after doing what you said about the benchmarking?

Melinda Epler: Yeah, I think you need…if you’re going to start an employee resource group, an ERG, or an affinity group, or something like that in your company, you need to know what are your objectives? What are your goals? What does it look like at the end of the year? What have you accomplished at the end of the year, and how do you design a program that’s really going to get to those outcomes, because we see that as well. We see a lot of affinity groups, and it’s important to find a safe space for people to get together, and then the next step is how do we go further? How do we do more? How do we start to develop each other as leaders? How do we grow as an organization? How do we help the company change its processes and systems? How do we get to the next level?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

How to set expectations around diversity and inclusion efforts

Wayne Sutton: Yeah. I believe, also, in setting realistic expectations around what the goals and outcomes could be. Often people come to us like, well, they put resources towards this, they made this type of investment, they hired this person, they did this event, and they expected magic to happen. They expected the doors open where all the other underrepresented categories is gonna come apply to the company. They expect their brand to change. They expect some heat from the press to take off. It’s like, “No, you did one thing.”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Wayne Sutton: It’s like you send one tweet, you don’t expect the world to follow you, right?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Wayne Sutton: There’s certain expectations around diversity and inclusion, as well.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. I think a lot of the product analogies apply here, as well. Like you said, you don’t do one marketing campaign hoping that you’re gonna 10x your revenue, so why would it be any different with a lot of these efforts?

Wayne Sutton: Exactly.

Melinda Epler: Yeah, and also you need to use agile design, as well, like really think. If it’s not working, change it. If something is not effective, do something different.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. Let’s get onto the first best practice that you would recommend to our audience out there who wants to kickstart an effort.

Connect diversity and inclusion programs to a business case

Wayne Sutton: Yeah. I’d probably say the first best practice is one where we need to identify who our core audience is, right?

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Wayne Sutton: If you are someone in HR, or is in a role of heading diversity inclusion, or even in product, it’s like Melinda articulated, you do need a measure, right? You need to start with see where we are. See what our numbers look like. Or, it could be, “Let’s talk with executive leadership about how creating inclusive culture, having a focus on diversity and inclusion is connected to our core values and our business goals.”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, that’s great.

Wayne Sutton: Let’s start right there.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yep.

Wayne Sutton: Right? Not “let’s just run with it, or we’re gonna do diversity and inclusion,” because in a day what we’ve seen, and what has been happening is people say they’re working on diversity and inclusion, they put resources behind it, it’s not connected to the business goals, and they haven’t set the benchmarks around measuring success.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Why diversity and inclusion programs fail

Wayne Sutton: It’s like end of year, what do you have to show for it, or at the end of a program, what do you have to show for it?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, and there’s a huge disconnect, and then people feel like, “Oh, nothing’s changing.”

Wayne Sutton: Exactly.

Poornima Vijayashanker: “All these programs are useless. Let’s just go back to the way things were.” Yeah, yeah.

Wayne Sutton: Yeah, exactly.

Poornima Vijayashanker: I like that you mentioned tying it back to business goals, so do you have an example or a case study you can share of either a company that you worked with that was really good at doing this, or even took a first step?

Wayne Sutton: We have several companies that we worked with, but it goes back to what we were saying earlier. It’s like the reason why we pause is because there’s not a single company we can point to to say that it’s doing it well.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Sure.

Wayne Sutton: In doing this work what Melinda and I have learned is that there’s also this opportunity of shaming.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Wayne Sutton: Right? We can say we work with Asana, right? We work with Reddit, also. We work B Corp. That’s just in some of the consulting training or workshops. We also worked with Capital One. We did a workshop for their network of startups on how to create inclusive cultures from the start with. That was about 20 startups from the size of five to 200, and we could name…there’s some well-known name companies in that area, as well.

At the same time, we can say that some of the impact at those companies, we can give an example saying that we worked with them, they completed X, but that’s not necessarily an endorsement that those companies have it all figured out.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Wayne Sutton: It’s almost I’d like to say a disclaimer on that. We’re not saying that, “Oh, here’s an example that Asana’s doing, or Reddit is doing, and everybody should copy it.”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Wayne Sutton: That’s not saying that they have everything figured out, not saying that they don’t have everything figured out.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Wayne Sutton: It’s just the state of the narrative around this industry, and around the conversation about diversity and inclusion. It gets emotional fast.

Why immediate results for diversity and inclusion efforts are unlikely

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK, so maybe a best practice is to not expect immediate results, but to say, “OK, you did one thing. Let’s see if that’s replicable, and then maybe in five or ten months, years, whatever your benchmark for time is, then take a look back.”

Wayne Sutton: Yes, yeah.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right, so don’t call it an early success until you’ve really seen a number of dots lining up.

Wayne Sutton: Yeah, but we have—

Melinda Epler: Yeah. You can celebrate incremental successes, but it’s not fundamentally shifting yet.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK. OK. Do you have—

Wayne Sutton: But one example is we did work with Asana around their recruitment process. Melinda and I, we held a workshop training on mapping out the entire recruitment flow, and identified areas where they can make some improvement on sourcing differently, and how they can do some of their screening and their in-person interviews better, and they implemented some of those changes, and we’re also communicating with their head diversity officer around how did that affect their goals around increasing their numbers around diverse employees or underrepresented employees.

That is one example, but was that a success?

Define what success looks like for your company

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Wayne Sutton: We know change was made. We know that there was a learning window created. We know that some process was changed, and people grew from that session, but they’re still measuring numbers, and there’s also these other quantified elements that goes into play when you’re talking about success, so yeah. It could’ve made success from us working with them to help change culture, mindset, and the process, but for the company in itself it is yet to determine in these other variables. Well, if the goal is to hire us to do that to help them increase those numbers, well, what other factors went into play around them increasing their numbers that’s outside of our control, and that’s where this work we do, we’ve been doing it now for a long time, and we feel like people need to broaden their mindset, or understand the impact of measuring success on diversity and inclusion. Success could be one thing, or success could be 1% or 2%.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right. What’s another best practice, then, if we’re thinking a little bit more broader?

Melinda Epler: Yeah, I’m thinking a lot of people come to us who aren’t necessarily in a position to go to leadership, or they’ve gone to leadership and leadership has said, “No.” What do you do there?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Melinda Epler: Do you just give up, or do you think about other things that you can do outside of that, and I think one of the big things that you can do regardless is lead with empathy, and whether that’s leading teams, that’s leading products, that’s just being a leader in your life and modeling inclusion and empathy, it starts with listening, and really understanding people for who they are and what they bring to the conversation, understanding the perspectives that people bring, and the unique issues that they’re dealing with in their work life. It’s also listening to your customers. Really, if you don’t have a diverse team, you can’t change that, listen to your customers, go out and learn from diverse people who are using your product.

If you are leading a team, you can change the way you’re leading you team. You can change who you bring on in your team, you can change how inclusive that team is. You can change a lot of things about your team, and really make a difference.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So there’s a lot of those micro changes that you can implement, like we were talking about in the last episode, on a daily, weekly, monthly basis, that are eventually gonna add up. Like you said, start with your team, your customers, your leadership, and then go from there, rather than always wanting to enact change top-down.

Wayne Sutton: Yeah.

Melinda Epler: Right, exactly. Exactly. There are a lot of things that underrepresented…that you can do as an ally, as well. There are a lot of really amazing things that you can do that make a big difference in somebody’s life.

How to be an ally for diversity and inclusion

Poornima Vijayashanker: Let’s talk about what an ally is first.

Melinda Epler: Yeah, so an ally can really be anyone. It can be you, it can be me, it can be Wayne. Pretty much anybody can be an ally to someone who has less privilege, or someone who has equal privilege, quite frankly, and really looking at the little things you can do to help support others. If you’re in a position of greater power or leadership you can bring others up with you that are underrepresented. You can disrupt little biases and microaggressions that come to play in daily meetings. For example, you see somebody who’s consistently, their ideas are being shot down, or taken over, or they’re never able to get a word out, then you can do something to disrupt that.

You can do something to disrupt…I mean, if you see harassment or something like that, there’s definitely something you can do about it. It’s really hard for an underrepresented person to come out against their own suppression, and so there are lots of things that allies can do, little things that can make a big difference in somebody’s life. There’s also mentorship, and sponsorship. Mentoring somebody who is underrepresented and really helping them grow their career, giving them advice about how to take the next step and become a leader. Sponsorship is more around, again, that if you’re in a position of power, really helping sponsor somebody else to be there, as well.

It also could be, as an ally, maybe you’re a part of a dominant group being asked to speak on a panel, and it’s the same group of people. It’s all white men, or it’s all white women on a panel. Part of ally-ship is actually taking a step back and allowing somebody else to speak, and allowing other perspectives.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. Take a break for a while.

Melinda Epler: Yeah.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Rest your voice. Let someone else have a turn.

Why it’s important to be proactive when it comes to diversity and inclusion

Wayne Sutton: When I think about the tech industry, and this conversation around diversity and inclusion, and everything that is bundled up in that, there’s been a constant theme that most tech companies and individuals have been reactive instead of proactive, and that is disheartening. It’s like, “Let’s wait for something bad to happen,” someone to leave and write a leaving article, a sexual harassment situation, or some shaming to happen online, then let’s talk about diversity and inclusion. I would say that if there’s an individual on the inside of an organization, and they’re working in tech, and they want to create change, don’t wait.

Don’t wait until something negative happened before looking at creating change. That could be, yes, talk with an executive, talk with a manager, talk with the CEO. Set up a meeting, track it, let them know that, “I’m taking note that I had this conversation.”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Wayne Sutton: Look at the values of the company and speak up. That’s kind of more like, “Hey, go straight to the top. Go to the manager,” but it also could be just in meetings, right? Just in meetings say, it could be me saying, “I don’t feel like my voice, my opinion was heard,” or are you thinking about a program or a product and saying, “Well, are you thinking about black women, are you thinking about LGBTQ community, are you thinking about vets? Are we really looking at a targeted customer base from a global and inclusive scale, or a mindset?”

Melinda Epler: And also accessibility, really looking at accessibility from the beginning rather than a reaction to, “Oh, wait. It didn’t work. We have to do that now.”

Poornima Vijayashanker: People are dropping off, yeah. Why is that?

Wayne Sutton: If people want to create change, and they want to implement a diversity and inclusion strategy, or just get started, just speak up. Speak up, and there’s tons of articles, I mean tons of research. We have a blog, we have plenty of resources online, and some of it is finding the allies Melinda was articulating, and knowing that you’re not alone, and speak up.

Melinda Epler: Yeah, and take some of those daily steps like taking your vitamins every day, eating your veggies.

How you can get involved with Change Catalyst

Poornima Vijayashanker: Let’s end with this note of how can our audience get involved with you two and your company?

Melinda Epler: Yeah, a few different ways. One thing is as an organization focused on diversity and inclusion, we need funding. We always do, and so if you have the ability in your company to support us, we have sponsorship. We also can do training and consulting with your company, as well. That’s one. Another is we always need volunteers, and we cannot do this work without volunteers. They’re amazing. They are part of our team, and they really help make our events, in particular, happen, so volunteer. What are some others?

Wayne Sutton: Yeah. What I say to people who want to get involved is just if you’re working on diversity and inclusion, be successful, or often have a conversation with other underrepresented individuals and saying that if you’re working in tech, don’t forget to open the door for someone else.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Wayne Sutton: The tech industry, we know the numbers. We also know the numbers of our growing global population, how diverse it is, and if you can get in the door, we can do the best of our ability to help consult, train organizations to create inclusive culture, but if you get in the door and you need help, we’re here to help.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Melinda Epler: Yeah, and I just want to end with, I firmly believe that if we change tech, we can change the world, because tech is so much a part of the world, and it’s increasingly so. Almost every company is becoming a tech company, and we have the power to really make a difference, whether it’s in your startup, whether it’s in your team, whether it’s in your company, whether it’s in tech as a whole, the entire industry. If you can affect change in any one of those areas, even if it’s you becoming a successful entrepreneur, that in itself, as an underrepresented entrepreneur, that can make a big difference.

You have the power to create change. Do it.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Well, thank you so much for ending on that inspiring note, and to all of you audience out there, thank you for tuning in today. Be sure to share this episode with your teammates and your boss, and be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel to receive more great episodes like this one. Ciao for now.

This episode of Build is brought to you by our sponsor, Pivotal Tracker.

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