Erica Baker 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.
Reported figures from leading tech firms reveal that, on average, 71% of employees are men, 29% are women, 60% identify as white, 23% Asian, 8% Latino, and 7% black.
Baker quickly realized how pervasive the feelings of despair were for women of color in the tech industry. “I got so much feedback from other people in tech who had the same experiences. I was floored. I didn’t think I was the only one, I just didn’t think it was so widespread,” she says. “When I came to the realization that these issues are systemic, I realized I have to fix the industry for those that come after me.”
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 TechCrunch Disrupt conference, where she was on a panel discussion about diversity in the tech industry. She then checked out his Twitter page and found that he was passionate about resolving the same issues of injustice as she was. “He is woke. I want to go work him,” Baker says.
After staying at Google a few more months, she landed a job at Slack as a build-and-release engineer in May 2015.
“Working in a startup is so different from a giant company. Things move so fast, we’re growing so fast, and it’s been a phenomenal experience,” says Baker. Because the company is growing and nimble she was able to carve out a role to really work on diversity and inclusion efforts.
Her coworkers Duretti Hirpa and Diógenes Brito started a group called #earth-tones, which allows anyone inside the company who doesn’t identify as white to discuss issues they encounter and help provide solutions. On a larger scale, she joined forces with fellow female Silicon Valley leaders like Ellen Pao, Tracy Chou, Freada Kapor Klein to launch a new initiative called Project Include, which aims to compile and share data to help increase diversity among tech companies, particularly when they’re in the early growth stage.
Company founders could go all over the Internet to read various studies, talk to someone here, another expert there, but there isn’t a go-to place to get real insights from insiders, says Baker. “Instead of making people search for the data, we are making it easy. If you start at an early stage — 25 employees or even less — it’s easier to build inclusivity earlier so when you grow to be a large company you don’t need to bolt on [the diversity push] later,” she says.
When asked what she would advise young women who are looking for jobs in the tech industry, Baker, without skipping a beat says, “I would say that this culture may seem daunting but you CAN come here and you CAN succeed and you CAN achieve anything that anyone in this industry can — you’re probably better at it because you had to work harder to prove yourself. Come into this, don’t be shy about it, speak up for yourself and take what’s yours.”