This article is the first in a new series about diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in Washtenaw County's tech sector. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK.
At a national level, the tech sector is dominated by white men. Major tech companies including Facebook, Amazon, and Google announced a goal of diversifying their workforces in 2014, but their reporting shows that little has changed since then. More women now work at those companies than in 2014, but they're still vastly outnumbered by men. And the number of Black employees has in most cases hovered around the same already-low level.
In Washtenaw County, particularly the booming tech center of Ann Arbor, some companies have initiated diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives to address similar issues among their workforce. But many are struggling to get a sense of what DEI means, what investing in it entails, and its long-term benefits.
Rich Chang, CEO of Ann Arbor software development studio NewFoundry, says he and his partners have built their company on diversity "since the very first day." 36% of NewFoundry's staff are people of color, 36% are female, and Chang says he wants to keep growing those numbers. He was even recognized as a "Diversity Business Leader" in 2019's Corp! Michigan Salute to Diversity Awards. He points to research that shows tangible payoffs of a diverse staff, including higher profits, increased employee happiness, and overall success. New Foundry CEO Rich Chang.
But Chang says the measure of successful DEI efforts is in more than just numbers, and awards are "meaningless if we look back at some point and realize that we didn't make any impact and change in our community."
"In the end, DEI efforts are essentially about community," he says. "... ’Community’ includes everyone. It's centered around causing everyone to rise up. When you consider the role of DEI, it's something that plays into the total economic success of our community."
Dr. Lauren Bigelow, CEO of Growth Capital Network (GCN), agrees. Based in Ann Arbor, GCN is a strategic management, research, and evaluation consulting team. Bigelow has been involved in hundreds of consultations related to DEI. She's observed progress over the last 20 years, noting that the tech industry often has been scrutinized for its hiring practices.
"A rising tide raises all boats. You simply can't leave parts of the community behind," she says. "By being inclusive, we can create a denser, thicker tapestry across the tech industry in Ann Arbor."
Duo sets a local standard
Among Ann Arbor tech companies, Duo Security has been a trailblazer in integrating DEI efforts into company culture. Chang says the company avoided a pitfall he's observed at other companies: expecting employees of color, who already have a full set of their own responsibilities, to also take on the work of implementing company DEI initiatives. Instead, Duo hired Trey Boynton to be the company's dedicated diversity and inclusion manager.
"They just didn't put a well-known local activist in a position without power," Chang says. "They gave her real power to make changes across the board. A payoff was that the company was sold to Cisco for a lot of money in 2018."
Post-acquisition, Boynton's role shifted to the central human resources department at Cisco. Building on her work is Kendra Mitchell, Duo's chief of staff and head of belonging. Duo Security chief of staff and head of belonging Kendra Mitchell.
"Our former DEI manager was focused on dismantling barriers to brilliance, and that's still very much what my work focuses on," she says. "... By focusing on belonging, I'm creating an environment where people can show up as their best and whole selves, doing their best work to achieve their highest purpose.”
Mitchell has put both Duo's internal structures and community outreach work under the microscope. Some efforts to date include building diverse company programs, and being strategic about internship programs and job postings.
There is also an emphasis on ensuring that those in leadership positions sincerely value DEI. Mitchell says she's building on one of Duo founder Dug Song's convictions: When you're thinking about driving DEI in your business, it's important to move away from the paradigm of hiring for cultural fit. Instead, hire for cultural contribution.
Duo is developing standards that require leaders who are hired or promoted to understand the importance of what it means to build and support inclusivity. This will include demonstrating related competencies and pointing to an example of what they have done or will do to put DEI front and center in their work.
"Honing in on what inclusive leadership means is important to me because we're roughly a 1,000-person company," Mitchell explains. "Our team is small and mighty, but our leaders are embedded within their teams and they have the most impact on their team members' experiences."
In a recent employee survey, 90% of Duo employees said they felt a sense of belonging. Mitchell stresses that there will always be room for improvement and growth. She advises any company leader working on baking DEI into their corporate culture to "allow themselves grace."
Doing the right thing while doing good business
Despite rising awareness of DEI's importance, Duo is the exception rather than the rule among local tech companies. That's cause for concern for Chang, who wants more of his colleagues to take action.
"Let's have more conversations, especially in this time when we need to take a serious look at the future of our employee pipelines," he says. "There's a brain drain here and potentially things may bottom out. Down the line, do we really want all of us to be fighting for the same crumbs from the same university?"
He says it's also imperative for company leaders to move beyond lip service and invoking DEI just to score public relations points. He says he's seen some business leaders who are willing to invest in pricey frivolities like a ping-pong table for a break room, but hesitant to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to DEI.
"People can start off excited, but once they get a proposal from a DEI consultant it's a different story," he says.
"Unfortunately that does happen," Bigelow confirms. "But companies are as individual as fingerprints, and approaches to DEI work can be just as varied." Growth Captial Network CEO Dr. Lauren Bigelow.
Chang's own approach to DEI is multi-layered. Initiatives are integrated not only within the walls of his company, but also in its community outreach efforts. For example, he's particularly excited about participating in a new DEI-focused internship program through the Ann Arbor Entrepreneurs Fund.
"It's an opportunity to bring on someone with the potential to be an awesome worker, but who might otherwise be overlooked," he says. "It could be a game-changer for them and for us. We are being part of the solution to a real problem."
Ann Arbor robotics company Refraction AI is also participating in the internship program. Corey Turner, the company's director of administration, says DEI work has always been a critical company focus since the company's founders, Matthew Johnson-Roberson and Ram Vasudevan, are both people of color themselves. As a growing startup, hiring practices are at the forefront of their DEI efforts.
"One thing that we've been deliberate about is not just posting toward a diverse candidate pool, but also interviewing from a diverse candidate pool as well," she says. "We're doing well because we are a stronger company when all voices are represented at the table."
At Grand Rapids-based custom software company Atomic Object, which also has an Ann Arbor office, co-CEOs Shawn Crowley and Mike Marsiglia view DEI as a fundamental business tenet that will help them create a sustainable company. Atomic Object co-CEOs Shawn Crowley and Mike Marsiglia.
"Our truth is that we don't know all the answers — not even close," Crowley stresses. "But we do know that we want to work with creative, smart people, and that can really come alive in a work environment that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive."
To implement DEI goals, Atomic Object has worked with expert DEI consultants and provided internal education for staff. The company has been working with the Grand Rapids-based Cultural Intelligence Center on building cultural intelligence competence for employees since 2019. They're also working with Grand Rapids-based Global Bridgebuilders to develop inclusion systems assessments and assemble a diversity action council that will meet monthly to work on DEI efforts.
"There will be five measurable focus areas so that the DEI conversation is constantly alive in our organization," Crowley says. "I'm excited because a year from now it won't look dissimilar from any other of our core business processes."
Marsiglia says people often don't understand that there's no simple solution to embedding diversity, equity, and inclusion into a company's values.
"It's evergreen work that is done quarter over quarter and year by year," he says. "It's humbling because, personally, you can feel so vulnerable as issues come up in conversations. But it's worth it."
"You could do a one-time training session or some workshops and think that you're making progress, but those things sputter out," Crowley adds. "You have to invest time. You can't cheat time. The time for DEI in our industry is always now."
Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.