Risha Talks [VIDEO]: Systemic Racism in Tech

by | Jul 25, 2020 | Blog, Career, Video | 0 comments

In this episode, Risha discusses systemic racism in the technology field with two professionals that share their insights with us. Michelle Manglal-lan, Senior Manager of Talent and Culture at Samsung in North America. And, Obum Ukabam, Head of Admissions and Marketing Manager for The Holberton School Tulsa, which is a two-year software engineering school.

All of this and more in this episode of Risha Talks.

Transcript For Episode #3 Risha Talks: Systemic Racism in Tech

[MUSIC PLAYING] We are having tough conversations about race. People want to understand and learn how to create change. But conversation is just that. It’s talking. And while that’s insightful, action is powerful. Racism speaks to a system of disproportionate opportunities. Policies and practices were created to stop Black people and people of color from achieving upward economic and social mobility. First, we have to dismantle systemic racism. It is pervasive, and touches every area of our lives, from business, incarceration, and government, to housing, banking, and health care. Let’s talk to a couple of folks in the technology industry.

So we have two people here with us today. And I’m going to allow them to introduce themselves.

Thank you, Risha. Thank you for having me. My name is Obum Ukabam. I am the head of admissions and marketing manager for the Holberton School Tulsa, which is a two-year software engineering school.

Great. And then we have Michelle.

Hello, everyone. My name is Michelle Manglal-lan, senior manager of talent and culture at Samsung in North America.

Thank you to both of you for being here today. Now, the tech industry gets a lot of heat when it comes to diversity, and it has been for many years. You know, you watch the numbers come out, and the percentages are so low regarding diversity. First and foremost, how can we get better representation? Michelle, what are some of the things that maybe you guys are doing at Samsung?

You know, it’s a real growing process for us. And I think the toughest thing for us is being a Korean company that’s operating in the United States. And there is a lot of choice out there on who you can work for. So it’s really, really difficult. It’s very competitive. Some of the things that we’ve been trying to do is really focus on diversity and inclusion initiatives, really supporting and embracing ERGs that are organically growing in our organization, taking a look at some tools and practices that we have from a hiring perspective to try and increase some of our percentages to have a little bit more of a diverse workforce. It’s a growing, learning process, and we’re constantly evolving.

Thanks. And I would like to ask you, Obum, what does systemic racism in the tech industry look like?

Yes, thank you. It has many faces. We can speak about systemic racism in even what technology is used for. We could talk about systemic racism in the workplace. And so when we talk about systemic racism and the kind of technology that we’re using in today’s society, we see it in our social media. We see it in our face recognition technology. We see it everywhere, because we have algorithms and all these things are used to help us, you know, fight crime, for instance. And if it’s biased, if it’s biased against people of color, Black people, or Latinx communities, it’s really, like you said, the system is working, but it’s not good. It’s messing up a lot of people’s lives.

So when you look at that, you have to also look at technology in the workplace. You’ve talked about how Silicon Valley is very white. Very white, male-dominated. And if anything, you have white males and you have a lot of Asians, but you don’t have a lot of Latinx people, Black people. And why is that? It’s because they have this thing they call culture fit in Silicon Valley. So even when you’re being interviewed, they’re asking you, are you a good fit in our culture.

Well, if your culture is predominantly white males, of course I’m not going to– you know, I might not jump out as a fit to be in your culture, because you’re not asking me if I fit well with the job that I’m doing, you’re asking me if I’m going to fit well with my colleagues. And if they’re all white men, that’s not fair to me, because you’re asking me questions like do I like Radiohead. I mean, I like that band. I may like Usher, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to do my job well. Doesn’t mean I’m not as skilled in technology. So I think systemic racism has many faces in technology, and it’s very detrimental to our society because technology is running the world right now.

Exactly, exactly. And Michelle, being from such a large company, is that something that you guys are facing? When you talk about AI and you talk about bias in technology, is that something that you’re facing from your role or within Samsung?

I think, for us, it’s really important to utilize some of the technology that already exists, and how can we internalize it with some of the processes that we have. And so AI is so fascinating to me, and I have a lot to learn in that particular space, but utilizing technology for, let’s say, gender-neutral language in your job descriptions so that you’re able to attract specific talent, skilled talent into your organization I think is really key. There’s a lot of things that we haven’t been able to maximize on in the past from an HR perspective. We never had that technology, where you can think about masculine words or feminine words or negative words or positive words.

So our specific area is really an evolving at a rapid pace. Especially when you’re in the high-tech industry, I think it’s really important. But there’s also little things that you could also do, in terms of removing a person’s name in the resume so that you give more of– unconscious bias is like off the table, and really giving the candidate an opportunity to stand out and be present during the process, the hiring process. So there’s also things you could do without the use of technology, I think, as well, to help increase the diversity in your organization.

Right. And let’s talk about hiring a little bit. One of the things that I hear a lot that I find extremely frustrating is, when we start talking about hiring, you will hear people say we have to find the most qualified candidates. And it drives me crazy, but I would love to know how both of you hear that, and what we can do to start moving people away from the thought process that diverse candidates are not the most qualified. Whoever wants to take that.

Well, yeah, I mean, I could speak on a little bit of that. When we say we have to have the most qualified, again, it goes back to what their culture is already set upon. So when we look at the software engineering industry, for instance, we think of a software engineer, we think of these tech guys, you think of a white male. So to everybody else, even Black people, to even brown people, we think of technology as white male, so we have imposter syndrome. So we struggle with ourselves feeling qualified, let alone the people who are hiring us thinking we’re qualified.

So that is a reason. We have a lot of imposter syndrome. We make these heroes. We make Mark Zuckerberg, he’s our hero. We amplify these white male as the saviors of technology. So we already don’t feel like we belong at the table. And with these messages and with the systems that are in place right now, it’s kind of like the in the barrel effect, where we’re just struggling to get anything, right? We’re fighting each other to get anything. And the fact remains that, if this system continues to just amplify white males, we will never be able to feel qualified. They will never feel that we are qualified, even though we are.

So what we need to do is I know there’s biases– we’re supposed to have blind bias in hiring, right? [INAUDIBLE]. That’s all good, too, but I also want to advocate we need to now amplify Black voices, amplify Black. So now, we need to intentionally hire Black and brown people. They are qualified, right? We don’t have to have this notion that, well, we’re just hiring them to fit– no, we have a lot of qualified people.

It’s where you’re looking. It may be your issue. If you’re only going to Stanford, MIT, which already has their own systemic issues, right, of recruiting people, they need to go to HBCUs. You need to intentionally find the Black talent that’s there already. You need to do that, instead of just making excuses that they’re not qualified. The places you’re looking do not give us a chance to be qualified.

Exactly. You brought up–

I wanted to add to that, you know, the beautiful thing about this conversation is a diversity of thought. So I absolutely agree with everything that you’re saying, but in addition to that, for me, when I think about hiring the most qualified candidate, it also means, look, for us, we gotta not only look at consumer electronics industry. But we need to kind of look outside.

We don’t necessarily also have to look at Silicon Valley. We should be able to look at different states or different provinces for the people that are qualified for the job. So I just wanted to add that caveat in, as well, in addition to everything that you said, because that also broadens your opportunity to kind of look for the right talent.

Right. And how do we, as companies, move forward based on quotas? Because what I’m getting from a lot of people is, well, now, all things being considered equal, if companies are focused on diversity, and say there’s a person of color applying for a job and a white person, and all things are considered equal, it’s going to go to the diverse person now because we’re doing diversity. What are your thoughts on that?

[CHUCKLING]

Judging by that laugh, we’ll let Michelle go first.

[LAUGHING]

We have a very different philosophy. I think we try not to actually have quotas in our organization, as we’re trying to– it’s a journey, right? So this is not a sprint. So we’ve intentionally not had any KPIs, have not had any quote [INAUDIBLE] having a diverse workforce, because it’s really difficult to be honest. If I think about how many are there that are women engineers anyway, so am I really going to be able to achieve that specific quota, especially in the high-tech industry, when other people are trying to be just as diverse when it comes to gender perspectives? So it’s a very difficult question to answer just because there’s just not enough people in general to go around, let alone having a diverse candidate.

OK.

Agreed.

Obum?

Yeah, I was going to say, agreed. There’s already a shortage in talent in the tech industry already, so you match that with diverse candidates, it’s not easy to find. But at the same time, I would say this to people who worry about quotas and all this, you know, affirmative action, if you want to call it. Even in the ’90s, there was this big deal about affirmative action, and how it was going to be– we’re still in the same– we’re even worse than we were before. What we’ve been doing already hasn’t worked. So if that means that you’re hiring more Black candidates and it feels unfair, well, let’s try it. Let’s try that, because what we’re doing right now is not working, and Black people, brown people, they’re not being hired anyway.

So if you have to hire them, it’s going to work out for you in your favor. Trust me. We’ve seen historically we are very creative– you know, Black and brown people, Indigenous people, women, we’re the best of the best. I will say that. I would challenge you, white men, that we can come in and knock the walls down, knock the doors down, and do a better job. You know, I’ll even say that. We can do a better job. So if that means that you have to, without tokenizing us, having to hire more diverse candidates, do it, because it’s not working right now. So what do you have to lose?

Yeah. Thank you. Thank you for that.

And you know, I mean, I’m all for having a diverse workforce, obviously, for the nature of my role, and we want to be able to have that diversity of thought, people who have different experiences and different educational backgrounds and all of that for sure, but I think the other piece, too, that if you had to take a look at– and all things equal, you have two very strong candidates that are vying for a specific role, because diversity and inclusion is such a hot topic at the moment, sense of belonging in organization is also very key, you need to start taking a look at which is the candidate that is going to have the same set of values, you know, their personal beliefs, the company beliefs, are they going to have that sense of belonging in the organization. Because it’s great to hire someone, but if we’re not going to be able to retain them because they don’t feel like they belong in our organization, it’s just not a fit for them, then it’s also very difficult.

So I think when you get to a point where they’re both really skilled, you need to start also taking a look at your organization, are the values the same, and also taking a look at your teams. If I have a very strong team already and I want to make my team a little bit better, which candidate is going to round out my team? Which is the person that’s going to give me what I don’t already have to make my team better? And I think those are some of the things that we could continue to do to make it objective.

And I like that. And I think if we can lead from an inclusive mind, then that works great, because then we’re thinking about, too, what that person can add to the team. But I think sometimes what happens is, depending on who’s in charge of the team, if they look at that person and say, oh, this person doesn’t fit because of some diverse characteristics or something about them that makes me uncomfortable is where we’re getting into the issues. You know, I think we have got to, as companies, start leading inclusively, and thinking about what people can offer even if they don’t line up exactly, because what they bring may just be what you need.

Right.

So I know we’re almost out of time here. So you know, one of the great things about this is we are having conversations. We are empowering people and enlightening people with information. But conversation is just that. It’s conversation. What happens after the conversation? I want to ask both of you for a quick recommendation for what we can do to move away from systemic racism, to dismantle the systems that are creating inequity for a lot of people. Michelle, would you like to take it first?

You know, it’s really difficult for tech organizations, as well, because if you don’t have the changes happening in government, in the criminal justice system, in our society that we live in, it’s so difficult to sustain some of the changes that organizations and companies do. One of the great things that we’ve been going through lately– this month, I’ve gone through so many meetings with our ERGs, as an example, from our Galaxy of Black Professionals to our Equality Alliance to our Next Generation Leaders.

But I think it’s important that, for allies, that we continue to listen, learn, educate ourselves. Don’t be scared to ask questions if you’re not certain about something, just for clarification. And then, see what are some of the things that we can do to really not just say I’m an ally, but really do something to impact change.

And luckily, with all the horrible things that have been happening in America, our younger generation is giving me so much hope just for the things that they’re doing. They’ve just– they’re done. You know? And I think, with all of that, they’re coming together. The solidarity is there. It’s really forcing organizations and companies to take action. And silence is not an option anymore because our younger generation is just not having it.

Right. Right. Thank you. Obum, what are your thoughts?

Definitely agree, our younger generation is not having it. And that’s why you need to really be focusing on. They’re the ones who are going to run the world. And technology is helping, helping them become– they need to become one, because you see smartphones is a huge thing right now we’re using to fight these injustices. So now, we’re being able to tape injustices, and people are being able to see it now.

Things that I used to grow up, having to deal with myself growing up in Ferguson-Florissant, Missouri, the things– if I could have had a smartphone back then, people would be so astonished and shocked and amazed at what we had to go through. Now, we can see it, right? So we have these smartphones, we have social media to amplify, for people to even have rallies, to gather together across the nation using social media.

So what I would say to help fight systemic racism is to not just be diverse inclusive in the people, it’s also your systems, your algorithms, right? That’s a big thing about technology, is these algorithms. So we have this notion now of fighting algorithm bias with facial recognition, but we need to also have algorithm equality. We see that we use algorithms in credit monitoring and showing that a person of color is a risk. And we need to fix those systems. We need to fix it and use it instead to, as I said earlier, amplify Black voices, amplify Black investors, you know, Black candidates.

Having Black people in technology is not new. They want to act like it’s something that we can look forward to. No, no, no, no. Listen, black people have been inventing things for years that make your life easier. It wasn’t just peanut butter. It was even the filament in the light bulb was from a Black person, even though we say, you know, Thomas Edison and Benjamin Franklin and all these people. Black man did that. The doors open up an elevator, we did that.

So even with technology, we see with video cartridges, different– you know, there’s a lot of different technology that Black people a long time ago were involved in. So technology knows that. They need to stop hiding behind the fact that they have to find qualified candidates now and try to find– they know we’re there. They know we’re here.

And I work for a school that the founders, they see that. They said, we need to find a system that allows people to become software engineers, because right now, all we see is white men. And they’re two white men from France. And they saw that themselves. So they have removed barriers like upfront tuition, credits, GPA, all these things, a criminal background.

So I’m proud to work for a school in Holberton that is looking to break those barriers, and let women, and have Indigenous people, veterans, Black and brown people become software engineers, because to change all this, we’ve got to change the pipeline. It has to start from the access, right? We can’t just say here’s qualified, great candidates if nobody is having a chance. So I said a lot of things, but just to bring it back, Risha, I just want to say we have a lot of work to do not just in our hiring, in our actual system itself. The technology we have itself needs to be changed.

Agreed. Agreed. Thank you. You said something, though, that sparked another question for me really quick. You talked about them removing the barriers to payments and different things like that. What are your thoughts on– because I’ve been in conversations with professional organizations, and they will say, hey, we need to lower our prices so that we can get people of color in here. And these are professional organizations. And it always, frankly, rubs me the wrong way because I know that there are dollars in diverse communities. Trillions of dollars in diverse communities.

Yeah.

So I think that’s a fallback for certain institutions to say, well, yeah, we want to be diverse, but we can’t lower our prices. And that’s a myth, but I heard you say that. And so it just made me think about that. What are your thoughts on that?

Yeah, I too personally hate when people discuss Black issues, and all they say is, well, look what we’re doing for the poor. You know, it’s something– again, that’s another issue of what they want to perpetuate Black people to be. But yeah, it’s definitely something that we’re not just– but at the same time, again, we’re talking about systemic racism, so that a lot of things have to do– a lot of people are in those situations because of systemic racism, because of things outside of technology.

So yes, we have to make sure we include things like funding and– but like you said, there’s lot of Black venture capitalists that don’t have the backing from big companies. I think the biggest venture company back in Silicon Valley at one point in 2019 did not have a single Black VC. They weren’t backing. And now, they’re saying, I think, with the whole George Floyd incident, oh, you know, we need to listen to you guys, what do we need to do, because people challenged them. They said, you guys are not backing any Black venture capitalists, these Black firms that are putting their money where their mouth is.

So if it’s not coming from the top, even the people we do have, if they’re not being supported from the top, we’ll never see that. So that’s why we challenge you to open your doors, whether it be through finance, even though we’re not a monolith, and we’re not just a poor people that need help with money, no, we have money, as well, but we need to make sure from the top-down, because at the top, that 1%, we are not there. Black people, no matter what, we are not there. Brown people, we are not there. So yes, we do have to open up financially. Without creating this image that we’re just poor and charity, we need charity, we also need to realize that that 1% controlling the wealth doesn’t look like us.

Mhm. Thank you. Thank you to both of you for doing this with me. It was great dialogue, and I really appreciate your time today.

Thank you for having me.

Definitely.

Really appreciate it.

Can’t wait to meet you in person, Obum, and Michelle, I can’t wait to see you again, either.

Always a pleasure.

All right.

Thank you guys.

Everybody, have a good rest of your week.

Thank you.

Thank you. You, too. Stay safe.

Both Michelle and Obum gave you their recommendations for what to do after the conversation. I would add that we start taking serious looks at equitable practices. We have to be as interested and as serious about equity at work as we are about diversity and inclusion. This is Risha Grant with 2 works for you.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

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