I worked for a small online social-networking service in Silicon Valley from 2006 to 2009. Of the 100 or so people on my team, more than 60 of them were women, and nearly 20 were black or Hispanic. At that time, this didn't seem so remarkable to me. After all, our numbers more or less reflected my personal norm, both in my community growing up in Oakland and throughout college. But soon after I joined, an executive came to speak to my team, who opened my eyes.
The first thing she said to us, with a look of shock on her face, was, "Wow! You're so … diverse." Some of the brown people in the room, including me, sort of giggled uncomfortably and exchanged glances, because her surprised statement seemed like the thing a white lady living in Palo Alto might say. It was only after that awkward moment that I realized my team was so unusual, and that our group's diversity wasn't planned, it was accidental. I became more aware of the lack of women and people of color all over the Valley and in particular at my own company. I don't have data for the whole company at that time, but I wouldn't be surprised if our team's percentage of women and minorities was higher than the rest of the organization's. It certainly didn't feel like a diverse place outside our cozy group.
A month ago, I returned to tech to work at Slack. Sadly, very little changed during the seven years that I was gone, and there still is consistent racial underrepresentation in Silicon Valley. I'm proud, however, that the company I joined is demonstrating that, for an entire workplace to be truly inclusive and diverse, the transformation must not happen as an unintentional surprise or by accident.
Earlier this month, Slack took the unusual step to update its annual diversity report. To me, this move didn't reflect some self-congratulatory message that we are doing better than our peers; rather, it was a gut check that recognized the need for persistent measurement. What stood out especially was Slack's release of intersectional data, which often is not reported among tech companies. Slack shared that 9 percent of our engineering organization identifies as women of color.
What follows is a conversation about diversity in tech with Duretti Hirpa, Erica Baker, and Megan Anctil, all of whom are black women engineers who work at Slack.
Meena Harris: In your previous jobs, some of you were the only black people in your engineering departments. Does a general lack of diversity by itself make the Valley feel unwelcoming to people of color?
Erica Baker: To walk around and not see anybody who looks like you makes the Valley feel unwelcoming to people of color. But it's not a very obvious feeling.
Duretti Hirpa: It's isolating.
Erica: Isolating, but not immediate. It's not like, "Oh, I feel bad." It takes a while; it's a slow buildup of pain that you're feeling, because you're so isolated, but you can't put your finger on the isolation.
Duretti: Until you're in a room with other people of color.
Erica: Then you're like, "Oh, I don't feel that anymore!" We had a [Slack #earthtones] event recently, and just being in a room that was all people of color and, like, one white dude sitting in the back, Stewart [Butterfield, Slack's CEO], made me realize, like, "Oh! OK, that weird feeling I was having was that."
Meena: It sounds like you're also saying that it's not hostile, or at least it's not immediately hostile.