Q&A: Trey Boynton on dismantling "barriers to brilliance" in Ann Arbor's tech industry

This article is part of a series about diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in Washtenaw County's tech sector. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK.
 
For over 20 years, Trey Boynton has spent her professional career working to create inclusive environments. Boynton shifted to the tech industry in 2017 when she joined Ann Arbor's Duo Security as head of diversity and inclusion. After Cisco acquired Duo in 2018, Boynton took on a new role as Cisco's global lead for inclusion strategy, managing a team dedicated to building and delivering on inclusion promises. Boynton studied at Spelman College, Georgetown University, and the University of Michigan, where she earned a Master of Arts degree in higher education.
 
In our interview she discusses her commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in her past roles and in the tech community, as well as her thoughts on how to continue advancing DEI in the local tech industry. 
 
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
 
What originally drew you to work at Duo? 
 
Duo was a startup company looking for a DEI lead. I had a wonderful conversation with Dug Song, co-founder and general manager of Duo Security. I realized [Duo] are game changers in this work. Duo was really doing diversity work before I even got there. The culture was fantastic and understanding. They were doing the work without even knowing it. The company embedded diversity within the business model. Diversity was grounded in the culture of their core values and set me up for success. They created a path to speak about culture in the workplace. They had a strong foundation, they had commitment, and they had it as a core strategy. It was clear that it was critical to the business process.
 
What were some of your expectations for your role at Duo? How has the actual experience compared to those expectations?
 
To be honest, I had zero expectations. I had been in higher education doing diversity and inclusion work for almost 20 years at the University of Michigan. My main experience was with students, faculty, and staff on a college campus setting. So, for me, it was new ground. I had a desire to join this amazing “green” company and I just figured it out along the way. I was drawn to the conversations that I had and their enthusiasm as an organization, and as a group of people, managers, and individual contributors, all willing and able to engage in this work from day one. 
 
How did you get into DEI work?
 
I worked at U-M Housing in their residence education program, which had a deep commitment to social justice. I came from working with students and student community leaders, and I saw an opportunity for students to learn about themselves and to learn about others, to leverage the power of that knowledge, to make change within the organization. 
 
I identify as a queer woman of color, and when you are in spaces where you are the only one, you take it personally. It’s the systems of oppression that are at play. Things are working at an institutional and societal level. Once I understood that, I could make meaning of my experience and help others understand the dynamics, but also how to make change and understand how those systems work together to create barriers. At Duo, our vision was to reduce barriers to brilliance. I never thought I’d work in tech. I thought you had to be an engineer. Of course there are all these other people like HR, marketing, and communications professionals. How do we debunk and demystify to actually get rid of these messages? There is so much brilliance and intelligence. There’s just no opportunity or engagement to make it happen. 
 
What do you see as the Ann Arbor tech industry's main DEI challenges?
 
I think it’s similar to the challenges for any organization. There is a thriving tech scene in Ann Arbor, and I think the question is more: How do you think about expanding that tech scene instead of keeping it insular? That is the challenge of any organization: I am going to hire someone that looks like me without having the lens of whether that pool of candidates is diverse or not. We usually operate in the spaces that are mostly like us. So how do we expand the spaces? People talk about thought diversity. If you hire diverse people, you will get diversity of thought as well. You have to make this a part of your business strategy. It’s not necessarily a challenge. It’s where leadership commitment on diversity needs to be a priority. Make it part of your business strategy. Industries need to treat DEI like a product. You have to design, debug, and iterate it and then loop back again. You have to embed diversity into everything that you do.  
 
How have you addressed some of those challenges through your work at Duo?
 
I had to come up with a strategy to wrap DEI within our values. We wanted to think about equity, embedding into the culture that we already had. I had to be accessible and think about our diversity strategy as being part of what they’re trying to accomplish, and it was to get these people to see it as part of  their work. I think they were predisposed to the work. I didn’t do anything groundbreaking; I just came in and galvanized the troops. They were already buzzing about with the energy to get things done. Cisco had a transformative strategy and was thinking about how collaboration and digitization drive inclusion outcomes so everyone can be respected.
 
What changes have you seen as a result of your work?
 
One of the things that I am most proud of at Cisco was that in the past year we were trying to navigate what it means to bear witness to the horrific murders of Black people. We are looking at how the pandemic was showing up in communities of color for Asian, Hispanic, and Black individuals. The pandemic just exacerbated what we already knew about inequality.  
 
What are some of the main recurring themes that you see in your DEI work?
 
Ongoing commitment to DEI is like a marathon, not a sprint. Some people were tuning their radars to this work for the first time, while others have been doing this work for a long time. Depending on your awareness level and your exposure, some are asking, “Do we still have to think about diversity?” Progress is made through constant attention, pressure, and action. 
 
Monica Hickson is a freelance writer currently based in Ypsilanti. 

Photo courtesy of Trey Boynton.
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