By Ellen McGirt
January 25, 2017

“It’s really hard, isn’t it?”

It had been a year since I first talked to Freada Kapor Klein, the founder of the Level Playing Institute, investor, and outspoken advocate for diversity and inclusion in technology. Our first conversation was during the reporting for Fortune’s Leading While Black, a look at what was keeping black men out of executive ranks. It was also my first foray into diversity as a beat. When we spoke again two weeks ago, we talked about the year I’d spent reporting on the diversity efforts in the corporate world. She greeted me like a seasoned veteran. “Now you really know how tough this work actually is.”

Few can hold a candle to Kapor Klein when it comes to doing the work. “I go back to the Paleolithic era, when I was hired at Lotus,” she says with a laugh. It was 1984, and her first employee relations job. Already a longtime advocate for women, she’d made the call early on that a critical part of diversity and inclusion had to involve a safe complaint and communication channel that would allow employees to anonymously ask a question or air delicate grievances. “It was a hard thing to do, there were some legal risks to consider,” she said. But when the CEO pulled star engineers to build the internal tool, it sent a message. “It’s got to come from the top.”

Today, she says CEO engagement is essential, but only if they are consistent and persistent in pursuit of measurable milestones. More than just a checklist or a tweak to recruiting methods, the effort has got to be systemic. “When a leader makes a statement they are raising expectations. And the failure to deliver on that generates huge cynicism.”

Her message to CEOs, tech or otherwise: Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. She is one of eight founding members of Project Include a community working to make tech companies more diverse. (The first founder is investor, entrepreneur, and former Reddit interim CEO, Ellen Pao.) She points to their 87 recommendations for CEOs, which have been organized into seven distinct categories of inclusive leadership, from defining and implementing culture to employee life cycles and measuring progress. “It’s all open-sourced and very practical,” she says. Her tl;dr version is simple: to succeed your efforts must be inclusive, comprehensive and measurable.

But what’s not practical is the courage it takes to sustain the effort. To that end, she points to a more competitive spirit for inspiration.

Through the social impact fund, Kapor Capital, Kapor Klein and team are investing in entrepreneurs who are entering significant markets that are often invisible to bigger players, precisely because the company founders have lived different lives than your straight-from-central casting engineer. She ticks through a list: Data-enabled platforms for English language learning for students and families, money-saving disruptions to payday lending, a private network for home cooked meals.

“You could lock up top-tier VCs in a room on Sand Hill Road and they wouldn’t come up with many of these businesses,” she says. “Having a lived experience and an entrepreneurial passion for a market is going to give you a competitive advantage that no meritocracy can replace.”


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