It’s Time to Take ‘Diversity Debt’ Seriously

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises, fittingly describes the reality facing most tech companies: while they may be financially sound most are unknowingly and swiftly accumulating diversity debt.

Toronto, as the fourth-largest city in North America, is home to a booming tech scene and is named among the world’s most innovative and diverse cities. Therefore, there is every reason for the Toronto tech community to not only take diversity debt seriously but also consider following the lead of Silicon Valley companies and hiring qualified Chief Diversity Officers.

What is #DiversityDebt?

Evidence suggests that while some tech companies are working to embrace diversity, most are still struggling.

Aspects of diversity debt is captured in the recent wave of diversity reports put out by the likes of Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Google, Square, Lyft, and Uber, detailing company demographics. However, representation is just the start.

Diversity debt is company culture, chock-full of harassment that fails to retain diverse talent and costs the tech industry $16B annually; Diversity debt is Snapchat featuring filters that turn selfies into Asian caricatures and promoting ‘digital blackface’; Diversity debt is Apple’s glaring oversight to not account for women’s reproductive health; and diversity debt is AI systems misclassifying racialized people and not recognizing particular accents.

The cost of a “Get Shit Done” mindset

Although financial debt is taken seriously by the tech community, diversity debt has not been thought about in a similar way. Diversity debt begins with a few co-founders, bootstrapping in the early days, with a “get shit done” mindset. Such a mindset doesn’t typically include a focus on diversity; and when it does the focus is viewed as “nice to have.”

Without an intentional focus on diversity from the beginning, the unconscious bias of even the most competent co-founders will find its way into the thousands of decisions made each day – from product or service design, to marketing and communications strategy, to processes, organizational culture, and hiring.

Add in a round of funding, and start to scale, and new talent is hired quickly. The upshot is that without deliberate effort to hire diverse talent at the outset, it is more likely that co-founders will hire those that look and feel much like themselves (and often those within their existing networks). While there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this, drawing on the concept of combinatorial explosion helps us to understand why co-founders may suddenly find themselves with a team that lacks diversity — in look, feel, and mindset.

If you have 4 people on your team, how many one-on-one relationships exist within the group? The answer is 6. When you hire 4 new team members and double your team to 8, now there are 28 one-on-one relationships within the group. According to the concept of combinatorial explosion, when you double your team from 4 to 8, the number of relationships within the group nearly quintuples.

The problem is that the number of relationships between people grows at a much faster rate than the number of actual people. In this way, diversity debt moves from a gradual accumulation to a sudden accumulation, particularly when a company starts to scale.

Why is this reasoning relevant? Eventually, this growth in relationship complexity makes it difficult to encourage people who look, feel, and think differently to join your team, placing your company at a huge socio-economic disadvantage. Diversity debt can attenuate the very heart and soul of any company because employees’ wisdom and bias indispensably influence a company’s future trajectory.

We need a clear solution to the diversity debt crisis. Much like how financial debt in companies can be restructured or refinanced; how can tech companies learn to build diversity equity? How about hiring a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO)?

The rise of the CDO in Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley is setting an example of how to tackle diversity debt. Many companies have introduced CDOs (or related titles—Diversity & Inclusion Lead, Director of Diversity and Belonging, Chief Equality Officer, to name a few) and have been growing their diversity and inclusion teams. Pinterest announced Candice Morgan as their first Head of Diversity, eBay appointed Damien Hooper-Campbell as their first Chief Diversity Officer, and Apple named Denise Young Smith as Vice President for Inclusion and Diversity, and will report directly to Apple CEO, Tim Cook.

The CDO is an organization’s executive level diversity and inclusion strategist. The function of the CDO role is individualized and differs across companies. A CDO may work to advance a company’s global capabilities and help better understand, work in, or serve in new markets.

Take, for example, Facebook’s Global Head of Diversity, Maxine Williams. Williams has played a fundamental role in adapting Facebook’s platform to be culturally attuned to India’s 1.3 billion potential user base.

CDO’s may perform competitive analysis, support product innovation, and work to advance supplier diversity. As an example, before joining Salesforce earlier this year as the Chief Equality Officer, Tony Prophet set the benchmark for diversity in global supply chains in Hewlett-Packard by improving labour practices in China and highlighting the issue of conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A CDO may train sales and marketing departments on multicultural marketing, branding, and communication.

Last but not least, CDOs can also collaborate with human resources to better develop strategies to recruit, manage, engage, and retain diverse talent.

A CDO and their area of expertise is much more than a “nice to have,” but if in the early days it is difficult to justify the role, there are some great options to support your company.  Consider speaking with the team at Raw Signals Group, read this insightful resource, Change Together, by TechGirls Canada, and consider the support of platforms such as Culture Amp and Fortay.

It’s time to lead

It is time for the Canadian tech community to be a leader in taking diversity debt seriously.

However, the very strategists—the CDOs—capable of transforming the spirit of this letter into reality—are missing in the Canadian tech scene. The reality is, similar to our neighbors to the South, Canadian diversity has not translated equitably into the tech community. I urge Canadian tech companies to appreciate that diversity can be our strength if and only if we design it deliberately and intentionally. In the Canadian context, even the best-intentioned companies are overlooking opportunities to advance their diversity equity by:

1. Categorizing “diversity” under the HR function

The first common oversight of some Canadian tech companies is delegating the responsibility of diversity and inclusion under the ambit of human resources exclusively.  While the roles of HR and CDO are collaborative, they serve distinct functions.  HR focuses on the internal people aspects of a company, and while a CDO as well they also serve as a cross-functional role focused on organizational strategy.

Working with HR managers and executives, CDOs can assist to build an organizational vision to address diversity debt and create a company that utilizes diversity to improve performance, the bottom line, and culture.

2. Allocating “diversity” to an existing employee’s portfolio

The second common oversight of some Canadian tech companies is allocating the duties of a CDO to an existing employee—often those who champion diversity. Unless the employee receives the skills and training required for this role, they are likely to focus on the diversity areas with which they are most familiar or comfortable with.

For instance, if the employee’s bias is to advance women’s roles in the workplace, they may do this extremely well, but will likely fail to address other diversity-related concerns. What about your company’s product innovation, or global competitiveness, or multicultural marketing and communications?

3. Turning “diversity” into a one-time thing

Finally, while some Canadian tech companies conduct one-off training, and this is usually better than doing nothing, evidence suggests that one-off diversity initiatives are likely to be ineffective and can sometimes have negative consequences. As a full-time team member, the role of a CDO is to bring a diversity lens to a company’s operations holistically and consistently.

If companies do not put the effort to take diversity debt seriously then inspiring campaigns and editorials auspiciously declaring that diversity is the linchpin of innovation remain mere words on paper. CDOs are the trained strategists that can help to not only retain this vision, but help it to flourish. CDOs can turn this idea and hope into a reality.

Canadian tech community: let us not be another cautionary tale.

As Salim Teja from MaRS Discovery District and many others have proffered, diversity in Canadian tech matters—for innovation, for product development, for meeting future workforce demands, and for building a future that benefits everyone.

If there’s any industry poised to come up with radical, innovative solutions to a pressing social issue, it’s tech.  And if there’s a country to figure out how to work together and shape a future that benefits everyone, it’s Canada.

So, Canada, if you want to become the next epicenter for tech, hire yourself a CDO.