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Slack co-founder calls out tech world on racism issues

Melody Hahm
Senior Writer

The push for diversity in the workplace feels stuck in gridlock.

The tech industry is notoriously behind the curve when it comes to diversity and inclusion efforts. But employees hit a breaking point recently and are now speaking out louder and more urgently.

Mark Luckie, who worked as a partnerships manager at Facebook (FB), wrote about how challenging and discriminatory he found the company culture as a black man. He titled his post “Facebook is failing its black employees and its black users.”

A few days later, The New York Times published a piece detailing the black experience at Tesla (TSLA). Black employees at the electric carmaker’s Fremont factory opened up about the racial slurs and threats they hear on a regular basis as well as the demeaning assignments they receive.

‘Sounds like a terrible place to work’

Across Silicon Valley, diversity seems to be an afterthought rather than a guiding principle. But at Slack, inclusion has been stitched into the company’s DNA as the workplace messaging app has grown to 1,200 employees across 9 offices around the world since its founding in 2009.

When asked his thoughts about the pervasive racism in the Valley, specifically at Tesla and Facebook, Slack co-founder Cal Henderson said, “That sounds like a terrible place to work, and not one that I would want to [be at].”

“I’m really focused around making Slack the kind of company that I still continue to want to work at five, 10 years from now. And that means, you know, representing the population of the city that we’re in, the country that we’re in. And also, of our user base as well,” Henderson, who is also Slack’s chief technology officer, told Yahoo Finance in an interview for “Breakouts” Monday.

In the U.S., underrepresented minorities (black, Hispanic, Latinx, American Indian, Alaskan) make up 12.6% of Slack’s workforce. And 6% of leadership positions and 12.8% of technical jobs are held by employees from underrepresented racial backgrounds in the U.S. The company does not have a head of diversity.

At Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, underrepresented minorities hold between 4% to 8% of technical roles and make up less than 11% of all workers, according to The Atlantic.

Being an advocate for change

Erica Baker, who until recently was a senior engineer at Slack, made a splash online when she wrote a post on Medium titled “The Other Side of Diversity” in November 2014. She shared how being a black woman in Silicon Valley made her “stick out like a sore thumb” and candidly detailed the stress and isolation that took a mental, emotional and physical toll on her.

At the time, Baker was an engineer at Google, where she had been working for eight years. “I know this: I am not my job. I am not my industry or its stereotypes. I am a black woman who happens to work in the tech industry. I don’t need to change to fit within my industry. My industry needs to change to make everyone feel included and accepted,” Baker wrote.

A few weeks after her post, Baker protested alongside 1,000 others in Oakland, Calif., following a grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson for crimes related to the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Baker posted a video on Twitter of herself with other protesters as police officers came toward them on a highway. Stewart Butterfield, the CEO of team messaging platform Slack (and co-founder of photo sharing site Flickr) tweeted her telling her to “stay safe.”

“I thought, ‘Wow, the CEO of this company is paying attention to what’s going on in the world.’” Baker told Yahoo Finance at the 2016 TechCrunch Disrupt conference. She then checked out his Twitter page and found that he was as passionate about confronting the same issues of injustice as she was. “He is woke. I want to go work him,” Baker says. She ended up landing a job at Slack and worked there for a little over two years.

While the overall picture of Silicon Valley is overwhelming white, those with power have the ability to build teams that value respect and inclusion, said Henderson.

“I think we realized very early on that we were going to have a tough uphill battle because there are four co-founders, we’re all white dudes,” he said. “We realized that if you grow a company and you, like, get to 100 employees, and everybody looks the same, it’s going to be nearly impossible to break out of that cycle. So we realized that it would be very important to do that early on, to put a lot of focus on building a diverse team right at the beginning. And that has continued to pay off.”

Slack employees dress up as co-founder and CTO Cal Henderson on Halloween. They call the day “Caloween.”

Melody Hahm is a senior writer at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and real estate. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm. She hosts Breakouts, a monthly interview series for Yahoo Finance featuring up-close and intimate conversations with today’s most innovative business leaders.

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