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Uber's chief diversity officer on why the tech industry still has a long ways to go

Bo Young Lee speaks at the #MoveTheDial summit in Toronto on Nov. 7, 2018 (Supplied photo by Lu Chau, Photagonist)

When Bo Young Lee graduated from New York University’s School of Business in 2003, she was a vegan yoga teacher that expected to spend her career working at non-profits. At the time, she found they were the few groups doing the type of work she aspired to do – implementing change and making organizations more inclusive.

“Everything I was taught in business school was created assuming the leader who is going to be sitting at the table is a 40-year old white, straight man,” she told a group of mostly women at the Move the Dial Summit held in Toronto earlier this month. (The inaugural conference was aimed at discussion and promoting women in tech.)

“Every strategy that was being taught was not made for someone who looked like me at that time. So I said to myself, I gotta change this.”

Today, Lee is trying to implement that change as the first-ever Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Uber, a company that has had a tumultuous history when it comes to diversity and inclusion, to say the least.

In 2017, a blog post written by former software engineer Susan Fowler accused the company of sexual harassment and discrimination, which eventually led to the resignation of Uber’s cofounder Travis Kalanick. Just this summer, a New York Times story revealed that company’s chief operating officer Barney Harford had made what some of his colleagues perceived as insensitive comments, including about women and race. 

Eight months into her job at Uber, Lee spoke to Yahoo Finance Canada about Harford, the tech sector’s culture, and whether the company has progressed when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Yahoo Finance Canada: You began your new position at Uber in March. What has been your priority since arriving at the company?

Bo Young Lee: I think one of the biggest focuses I’ve had in Uber is that I tell people that I don’t own diversity and inclusion. It’s not my responsibility to change the organization. It’s my responsibility to create the pathway forward. Unless our leaders, our managers, our workforce are fully engaged, we’re never going to make progress.

What I found at the organization is most of our senior leaders are engaged. A good plurality of our workforce were engaged but there was a very large chunk in the middle that simply didn’t think it was their responsibility. And I think that’s been one of the biggest focuses when we are creating those programs, when we are creating those opportunities. We are trying to ensure that every person, at all levels, is thinking about it.

YFC: Can you tell me about what kind of specific policies or programs have you brought in at Uber to improve the state of diversity and inclusion at the company?

BYL: So in about four weeks, I’ll be making some pretty significant announcements about our policy changes around caregiver inclusion, which will give a much more gender-balanced policy. We will be launching training for not only our colleagues, but also our people managers, to help them navigate how you manage somebody with caregiver responsibilities.

And so from a purely pragmatic, very policy-oriented way, we will be making some announcements very soon. We have already started launching a number of resources to our colleagues around training, around navigation and then in 2019 we’re really looking at completely revamping our culture to make it much more inclusive and feasible.

YFC: According to Uber, as of March 2018 less than 40 per cent of employees at the company are women. How do you go about increasing representation at the company? 

BYL: We are working on a number of initiatives.

Pretty much every tech innovation-oriented organization out there engages in what I call our unfair share strategy of pipeline development. Right now, there is a fixed number of women, a fixed number of underrepresented people of colour, and we all are trying to get our unfair share of that.

What we ultimately have to do is we have to actually develop an alternative pipeline of people who are not represented, whether it is women, people of colour, people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. We are working with a lot of programs and partners who are actually creating those alternative pipelines and trying to find them. What we hope is that by working with these organizations, people will actually start to see that we are doing the right thing and that they start to come to us.

In any organization, the way you diversify your workforce is never going to be through a pull strategy – where you’re convincing people that this is where you want to grow your career. People have to come running to you, but that will only happen if you do the right thing from a cultural perspective, a trust perspective, and if we build a culture of engagement.

YFC: Do you think things have fundamentally changed at Uber since your arrival?

BYL: I think it has. Materially, it feels like there’s a different level of conversation.

The level of discourse that is happening during our annual performance process is amazing. We have all of our leaders talking about it. People have come up to me who have been with the organization for many years saying there is a level of discourse around diversity and inclusion that didn’t even exist in 2017.

People are asking questions, asking for numbers, and I think the best testament to this is people want to see the data. Suddenly people want to see our culture survey, down to demographics, so that people can really understand the nuanced differences of the experiences people are having. That’s progress.

YFC: Tech companies have been grappling with diversity and inclusion issues for years. Recently, the way Google had been handling sexual harassment claims prompted employees to stage a walk-out at offices around the world. What did you make of the Google Walkout?

YFC: I think that it is a wakeup call, not just for Google, but for the entire tech sector because Google was in many ways a “north star” for a lot of companies. A lot of us aren’t doing it well, but Google is probably doing it better than most. Then suddenly you’re like: ‘Oh my gosh. Maybe we are not having the real fundamental tough conversations to make change.’ Because what the Google walkout really pointed to is a fundamental aspect of their culture.

So I think for a lot of tech companies, the lesson we learn there is that we really have to look at our core values and say, do our core values support us doing the right thing? It’s led to some really constructive conversations within Uber.

Since last week, I’ve talked to more of our (executive leadership team) ELT members more frequently bc they asked me, are we are risk of any this? And I said I don’t think so. I think the Me Too movement came a little bit earlier for Uber, and I do think we tried to fundamentally build the infrastructure to ensure that something like this wouldn’t happen to us.

Q: How does Uber’s chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi approach diversity and inclusion?

A: It’s been great working with him. He has been so open and so willing to engage in tough conversations. He fundamentally gets it from a gender perspective and he’s really evolving his thinking around other dimensions of diversity as well.

We’ve had some really tough conversations where we don’t agree on things, but I think the fact that I can have that conversation has been really valuable. But I don’t want to centre it all on Dara, because we have some other leaders who are really amazing.

And I know that Barney has been in news quite a bit but I will tell you, even before everything that happened, he probably leans more into the conversations than anyone that i have ever met actually in my life.

He and I speak on a weekly basis. We love to discuss his leadership, and what he can do to be a better champion for diversity and inclusion. I give him constructive feedback, and he has never been defensive, ever. He will push back sometimes when he doesn’t agree, but he really wants us to do the right thing and because he oversees our business, he has a lot of influence to shape the culture there. And I think we’re having the right conversations.

YFC: During your keynote speech at Move the Dial, you emphasized the importance of acknowledging your own biases as a way to overcome them. Do you think the tech sector overall is doing an adequate job of that?

BYL: Not really, and I’m being very honest about that.

Even now, even though we have seen so many organizations facing such fundamental issues around diversity and inclusion, the conversation still hasn’t moved to the core fundamental beliefs that we have built our tech culture around that actually ingrain exclusion into the industry and how do we dismantle that. It has to be conversations about the culture.

I fundamentally believe that tech’s problem isn’t actually diversity and inclusion. Diversity and inclusion is the byproduct of a larger more fundamental culture issue.

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