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Reflecting on the Black Experience in Tech and Entrepreneurship

In February, NEA held a panel exploring the Black experience within the entrepreneur and tech community titled “A Conversation on Diversity & Leadership in Tech.” The panel was presented in honor of Black History Month with the goal of providing an array of perspectives from Black investors, entrepreneurs, and executives on how they reached success within their careers.

The panel was presented by NEA’s Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (DIB) initiative and featured Anne Beal, CEO, AbsoluteJOI Skincare; Amanda Johnson, CMO, Underlining and co-founder, Mented; Deon Nicholas, CEO and co-founder, Forethought; Kumi Walker, investor, advisor and board member, Tracy Williams, Chief People & Diversity Officer, New Relic. It was moderated by NEA Associate, Hunter Worland.

The conversation’s primary focus was on entrepreneurship. The panelists discussed the challenges they faced working in a field that lacks representation and racial diversity and explored what it means to be a trailblazer as a Black professional. Additionally, the conversation reflected on the corporate promises made in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the continued work that needs to be done regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.

The central themes of the conversation are provided below, and an edited and condensed transcript of the panel conversation is available here.

Bucking tradition: Embracing the risks of entrepreneurship

Despite the panelist’s wide variety of backgrounds which spanned from Paris to the Deep South to a tiny island in the Caribbean, most shared a common thread in their upbringing: their parents had guided them towards traditional, risk-averse careers.

Tracy, for instance, who worked as a regional HR director for several Fortune 500 companies before joining the software company New Relic in 2016, said that her family encouraged her to pursue a traditional role because there was a lot of risk involved in “starting my own business. There was no knowledge about bringing in investors and mentors to help [me] back and grow [a] business in new ways.”

Similarly, when Amanda, the co-founder of Mented, told her parents she wanted to pursue a career in business, they advised her to pursue the conventional route of investment banking. It was only after working at Goldman Sachs as an analyst for two and half years that she went on to build a company of her own.

The notion of going out and starting her own company was an idea that took root only when she joined Harvard Business School in 2012. “At HBS, I’d hear kids say things like ‘I've started three businesses and they all failed’ or ‘I did this thing, and it didn't succeed,’' she said. Surrounded by people who had already founded (and often failed at founding) their own companies, she soon warmed to the notion of taking risks in her own career. “I started to normalize that fear,” she said.

Anne, the founder of the skincare company AbsoluteJOI, began her entrepreneurial journey later in life, after she’d spent 30 years working in health policy. “I took this path because it was traditional and safe,” she said, reflecting on the early days of her career. It was only once she paid off her mortgage and her childrens’ college tuition that she decided to pursue an entrepreneurial role.

Despite her success in business, she’d come to realize that, as a woman of color, her career was “going to be capped within the corporate world,” she said. Anne founded AbsoluteJOI in 2019 in part because “I wanted to create a place where [people like me] could come and flourish as professionals,” she said.

Sponsors not mentors: ‘We don't need to be more excellent’

When it comes to introducing meaningful change regarding DE&I at organizations, the panelists agreed that inclusion efforts are preoccupied with providing mentorship programs rather than offering real opportunities to grow in the workplace.

“A lot of these DE&I efforts are always focused on mentorship and on training people,” said Anne, the AbsoluteJOI CEO. “But there's a lot of talented people sitting right here, and frankly, we don't need more training. We don't need to be more excellent than we currently are.”

At New Relic, where Tracy serves as the chief people and diversity officer, there are no mentorship programs. In their stead, New Relic has introduced sponsorship programs, something which has proved pivotal within Tracy’s own career.

A sponsor differs from a mentor in that a sponsor is someone “who’s speaking on your behalf and who's looking to help you navigate your career opportunities and growth,” said Tracy. Whereas a mentor is defined more broadly as someone who advises and supports a person in their current role, a sponsor is typically a high-ranking professional working within the same organization who takes a hands-on approach to advancing the career of the person they sponsor.

Fostering diverse, inclusive work environments

The real failure within the workplace isn’t that Black professionals are showing up unprepared for their roles, “it’s that [the workplace] environments aren’t genuinely inclusive,” said Anne.

Fostering a genuinely inclusive workplace culture should be prioritized especially in the early days of building a company, the panelists agreed. Many founders tend to hire their close friends when founding a new startup, often creating a monoculture as a byproduct. When hiring, it’s just as important to recruit people from a variety of backgrounds as it is to bring in top talent.

While working at Twitter, Kumi found that the company was highly intentional when it came to building teams. This intentionality is even more important at a smaller company “because there's fewer people,” Kumi said. “If your networks aren't diverse, and your investor base networks aren’t diverse, then you as a startup aren't going to build a diverse team.

Most of the panelists agreed that diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are not the job of a dedicated department but the job of the organization as a whole. DE&I is “the job of our executive team,” said Tracy, who works as the chief people officer and the leader of diversity for New Relic. If DE&I is a high priority for the executive team, then there’s a trickle-down effect where every department places equal weight on providing an inclusive environment and bringing in diverse hires, she said.

Reflecting on corporate promises made in the wake of George Floyd’s death

It’s been nearly two years since the killing of George Floyd, which prompted many business leaders to make promises committed to prioritizing diversity within their organizations. While many of the panelists agreed that most of these promises rang hollow, it did “open dialogue about tech’s commitment to drive change,” said Tracy. “I see so many more young African American and Black folks joining the entrepreneur ranks and starting up Black VC funds. So many more people are deciding that if they're not going to give me a seat at that table, I'm making my own table.”

Kumi, who spent his career as a senior operator, and now sits on the board of early and late-stage companies, said that he has seen little material improvement from companies over the last decade when it comes to fulfilling promises regarding diversity efforts.

Kumi pointed out that there’s a compelling business case for fostering more diverse teams in the workplace–a fact that’s underscored by a 2020 report by McKinsey & Company which found that companies with greater ethnic and cultural representation outperformed competitors by 36% in profitability.

Most people have racially homogenous personal and professional networks. A diverse and inclusive team is fundamental to building a differentiated business because “a diverse and inclusive team is a differentiated experience for most Americans today,” Kumi said.

When asked how they reflected on their personal successes in the field of entrepreneurship and what advice they might offer their younger selves, many of the panelists said that they would advise themselves to continue to be trailblazers in their field.

Deon said that the lack of representation by people of color in his field had led him to struggle with issues of imposter syndrome in the past. “Anyone in this role, in this environment, is a trailblazer,” he said. “By definition, that means you're doing something for the first time that the people around you aren't doing [for their first time].”

Anne offered a piece of advice she heard from a friend which still resonated with her today. When a mutual friend, a Black woman who held a high-level government position, complained about the difficulties of her job, another friend advised her to stop complaining. “Harriet Tubman had a hard job,” Anne recalled her friend saying. “What you are doing is not hard. Okay?”

This advice has helped Anne keep the day-to-day difficulties of her career in perspective. “Showing up is trailblazing, but it is nothing compared to what our ancestors and predecessors went through,” she said.

Anne noted the way in which the Black community has evolved aspirationally over the previous decades. Only a few decades ago, “it was getting a unionized job that was a big deal. And then it evolved to getting a professional job. The next generation is about creating jobs,” she said.