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.
White men hold the vast majority of leadership positions
in the tech industry, but Washtenaw County's tech leaders of color are working to change that by building more diverse, equitable, and inclusive companies.
We recently chatted with three local tech leaders of color about the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) challenges their industry faces, and what needs to be done to build an industry that is welcoming and accessible to all. Here's what they had to say.
Jamal El-Mokadem: "I am always willing to go the extra mile"
When Jamal El-Mokadem, vice president of engineering at Ann Arbor-based Clinc
, first got involved in the tech industry, he knew that there needed to be more diversity in the workplace. Clinc is an artificial intelligence company that employs natural language processing to allow users to have complex conversational interactions with financial apps.
Clinc Vice President of Engineering Jamal El-Mokadem.
El-Mokadem came to the United States from Lebanon in 1993 to go to college and start his career in the software development industry. Starting as a programmer, he moved to quality assurance, then to leadership roles. He feels that he has personally been affected by challenges in the workplace based on his culture and background, some of them beginning when he was in college looking for employment while on a student visa.
“I did not have the flexibility to look for a job,” El-Mokadem says. “You need a sponsor that is willing to sponsor an employee, especially somebody who lacks experience and is a cost risk.”
Now, as an employer himself, El-Mokadem says he's "always willing to take a risk on someone with a visa" because he empathizes with their experience. In one case, El-Mokadem enlisted former U.S. Rep. John Dingell to help him obtain a student visa for a young person who was seeking a job at Clinc.
“I am always willing to go the extra mile, as I understand being a minority in the field," El-Mokadem says. He reflects on another employee who came out as transgender and the support he gave them by listening to the unique concerns they had in the workplace.
El-Mokadem has also been engaged in bigger-picture diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives at Clinc. The company has created a committee of company leaders who have formalized Clinc's core values, and has also hosted a HackerX
networking and recruiting event that aimed to engage more diverse talent.
El-Mokadem says it's hard for tech industry leaders to control the industry's talent pipeline, which is "not as diverse as we want it to be." However, he sees mentorship as a key tool to develop new talent, particularly from groups that are currently underrepresented in the industry. He is currently mentoring an Indian woman and a Middle Eastern man.
“The way you mentor people of different backgrounds is not the same. There is not a one-size-fits-all for everyone," El-Mokadem says. “You mentor people for their needs to gain the proper opportunities.”
Ram Vasudevan: "Give them what they need to succeed"
Ram Vasudevan, co-founder of Ann Arbor-based delivery robot company Refraction AI
, agrees that it can be a challenge to find truly diverse candidates for engineering jobs.
Refraction AI co-founder Ram Vasudevan.
“We need to find the right people and give them what they need to succeed," Vasudevan says.
Vasudevan and his co-founder Matthew Johnson-Roberson, who is an African-American engineer, know the importance of diversity in tech industries. Both are faculty members at the University of Michigan and they've been working in tech for more than 20 years combined.
“We have to make sure we are recruiting the right people and make them aware of these opportunities,” Vasudevan says.
He says the tech industry can take a number of steps to become more equitable. He notes that efforts to implement more bystander intervention and unconscious bias training in workplaces have been "very smart," and suggests more workshops along those lines would be helpful. Vasudevan also suggests that the tech world "could benefit from having mandatory requirements to complete a certain amount of workshops or training in [DEI]."
“If we had a tenure track for entrepreneurs [like in higher education], they could get certification, which could make the tech industry more inclusive," he says.
Vasudevan acknowledges that there's still a lot of work to do on DEI in the tech industry, and he and Johnson-Roberson are trying to do their part at Refraction. Within weeks of COVID-19's arrival in Michigan, Johnson-Roberson implemented a new setup for employees to easily operate robots remotely, allowing employees to more easily juggle the added burdens of the pandemic.
In understanding the importance of dialogue among staff, Refraction also created a venue for employees to discuss their thoughts and opinions after George Floyd's murder. Johnson-Roberson and Vasudevan made sure their employees had a space to talk and discuss the challenges they were facing.
Ann Marie Sastry: "Everyone needs a seat at the table"
In 2017 Ann Marie Sastry founded Ann Arbor-based Amesite
, an artificial intelligence software product designed to improve learning. She says diversity in the workplace is not just a buzzword, but a key part of her company.
Amesite founder Ann Marie Sastry.
“Everyone needs a seat at the table,” Sastry says. “Our market is everybody. It is vital to have diverse representation on teams.”
Sastry believes the local tech industry needs to start with hiring and examining its pool of candidates to become more diverse and equitable.
“We see women dropping out of the workforce, so we need to offer more flexibility in the work that we do,” Sastry says. “Creating a template doesn’t work for everyone. We need to speak to people about their unique needs.”
Sastry understands the importance of expanding remote work so more people can have access to the types of jobs that they want. Amesite
has also implemented several strategies to create a more welcoming company culture.
“The way to do that is to operate on shared values rather than characteristics,” Sastry says. “You empower people to make good decisions instead of saying that you should have specific characteristics.”
She likes to hire young managers and teach them how to demand respect from everyone within the company.
“It is important that people stand up for themselves and have the support of management. That has to come from the top of the organization,” Sastry says.
Empowering people is the key, according to Sastry.
“It is important for people to understand that diversity, equity, and inclusion can’t be an overlay. It can’t be something added on at the end. It has to be foundational," she says. "It takes real thought, making sure that people are set up for success.”
Monica Hickson is a freelance writer currently based in Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in 2020 and is the author of the COVID Diaries. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jamal El-Mokadem photos by Doug Coombe. All other photos courtesy of the subjects.