Listen, learn and launch: A resource guide to end racism in tech through lasting systemic change

[Editor’s Note: Dave Cotter is chief product officer at cannabis website and marketplace Leafly, a serial entrepreneur, startup CEO and veteran of companies including Zulily, Amazon and Microsoft. He is one of the guests on the new GeekWire podcast episode, “Race in Tech: Where do we go from here?”]

Dave Cotter.

Last week I wrote an article trying to capture my feelings as a black man in America today, a black man who was raised within the protective blanket of white privilege and has grown up professionally in the tech community.

Since posting, I’ve received a lot of feedback. I’ve been surprised and heartened to hear that the article has triggered a large number of conversations, most notably within the tech community. Which is great, as the tech sector has a long way to go.

As I think about my 26 years in the Seattle tech scene, I started to wonder if we’ve been operating with a kind of “tech privilege” that has given us a false sense of progress and a belief that anyone with an idea can make it. After all, we see races of all kinds in our daily workplace. BUT the simple fact is that blacks in tech are a very rare breed — 6% at Apple, 4% at Google and far fewer in the actual technical jobs in tech. You can read about this in the Wired article, Five Years of Tech Diversity Reports and “Little Progress.”

So what do we do?

At the risk of oversimplifying, here is a way for tech leaders to break up the challenges of ending racism into a series of steps. It’s how I’m approaching my own journey. Of course the steps don’t have to happen in this order, but I suspect that the more we dig into #1, the richer it will make #2, and, in turn, #3. The only purpose of this sequence is to flex our bias for action that can be taken to see if we can’t make a dent in the problem together.

Listen

We need to listen to the voices. What are black employees feeling and saying? What are black leaders saying? This involves us coming to understand white privilege. It means understanding what the Black Lives Matter Movement is really all about. You need to read articles, watch documentaries, listen to podcasts on the conversations that are happening today. Here are some great resources a friend shared with me.

Learn

We need to learn the history. What is the root cause of where we are today? Just as we dig into what caused a website to go down in order to fix it, we need to research the root causes of racism in America to begin to address it. This means going back 400 years and understanding where it all started and how we got here. We have to really internalize the length *and* the depth of the problem in order to figure out the right long-term solutions. Some places to start as primers are the documentary 13th and Dog Whistle Politics.

Launch

Then we launch with precision and urgency. At a macro level, for tech, I think it really involves addressing two urgent areas of need at opposite ends of big spectrum: (1) investments in early education and access to technology, and (2) investments in black-led businesses and in bringing more black people into leadership and board positions.

  • To address this, we need to introduce even very young kids to tech and to make sure that ALL kids have computers and access to technology.
  • In addition, young kids need to see more and more blacks in tech leadership positions, which would offer them something they can aspire to. Images of Gates, Zuckerberg, Bezos, and Jobs flash across American screens every day as the titans of tech. We need more black faces.
  • We need to settle on effective policies and behavioral changes that need to be made to our technology corporate cultures. These will be specific to each company, but as we work through #1 and #2, it becomes more clear what to do in each case.

As technology leaders, we need to accept responsibility for this work within our own companies.  We need to devise specific policies and changes that work in our specific company’s culture.  We need to do it with clarity and without apologizing, even though we know it will highlight areas that we aren’t quite hitting the mark.

So I am talking to you, my peers in the tech community, as well as your company leadership. It is incumbent on you to take action against racism, and foster a more diverse and equitable workforce.

Technology can help end systemic racism in America. After all, the technology of the cell phone has led us to this moment.

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