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Why Companies Can’t Be Afraid to Talk About Race

Molly Ford of Salesforce, Rashida Hodge of IBM, and Bärí Williams of All Turtles discuss how to create diverse and inclusive workplaces at Fortune's MPW Next Gen Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif.Molly Ford of Salesforce, Rashida Hodge of IBM, and Bärí Williams of All Turtles discuss how to create diverse and inclusive workplaces at Fortune's MPW Next Gen Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif.
Molly Ford of Salesforce, Rashida Hodge of IBM, and Bärí Williams of All Turtles discuss how to create diverse and inclusive workplaces at Fortune's MPW Next Gen Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif.Stuart Isett—Fortune

“Everyone close your eyes, picture a person who works in the technology industry,” Fortune senior writer Michal Lev-Ram asked the room at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif., on Wednesday. “How many of you picture a white man in a hoodie?”

It’s a Silicon Valley stereotype, yet one that all too often rings true. For female executives at Johnson & Johnson, Salesforce, IBM, and AI startup All Turtles, building inclusive workplace cultures is a welcome challenge in the #MeToo era—but it’s not as simple as making a few diverse hires.

“Diversity is much more than a box to check,” said Duda Kertész, president of Johnson & Johnson’s consumer business unit HealthE, adding that making employees feel comfortable enough at the office to bring their own perspective to the table is where diversity really counts. But race, particularly, is a subject that people are often uncomfortable talking about and therefore is often overlooked.

“There’s a lack of language that people have to then feel comfortable to talk about issues around race,” Molly Ford, senior director of global equality programs at Salesforce, said. Executives have an easier time naming LGBT and gender equality, she says, “but there’s this weirdness around racial equality.”

Ford described a conversation she had when she was struggling to find other tech companies to join her in organizing a work day devoted to racial equality.

“One company literally said to me, ‘Oh no, we don’t talk about race. We are not comfortable with that conversation,’” Ford said. “And I was talking to a black person on somebody’s diversity team.”

“It’s the theory of, ‘If you don’t open your mouth, you’re not going to put your foot in it,’” Ford said. “But that’s not going to help us move forward if we’re afraid to have these conversations.”

Ford’s advice: Speak up—but pause and think before you react negatively to others.

“I think we need to have a level of grace for our allies,” Ford said, referring to the backlash Adele received for her Grammy acceptance speech in which she told Beyonce, “The way you make my black friends feel—is empowering.”

“I thought it was true and honest,” Ford said of the speech. “I know it’s hard, especially when you see somebody do something egregious.”

For IBM vice president of Watson strategic partnerships Rashida Hodge, the pressure to assimilate with her peers was strong when entering the corporate world.

“I saw people who looked like me every day,” Hodge, who is originally from the U.S. Virgin Islands, said of her childhood. “I went to work in corporate America and that changed. It took years to have that sense of belonging.”

It’s this pressure to be like everyone else that can cancel out whatever diversity gains are made in the workplace. To make everyone comfortable enough to express their unique points of view should be a company’s top priority when trying to diversify, said Bärí Williams, vice president of legal, business, and policy affairs at All Turtles.

“I’m black first and a woman second,” Williams said. “Someone else might walk in the room and might say they are a mother first. It’s really about trying to meet people where they are.”

So, what is the right way to diversify? Look at candidates holistically, Williams said. If you can’t, find someone else who can. And if you think there aren’t enough diverse candidates in tech, you’re looking in the wrong places. Williams advises companies to “widen the pool” of candidates by sending job openings to organizations like the Association of Black Women Attorneys and the National Association of Black Accountants, as well as other women-, minority-, and LGBT-focused industry organizations.

And learn from other people’s mistakes and public relations disasters, she continued.

“If you had a diverse person in the room, maybe you wouldn’t have done a bunch of different things,” Williams said. “Sometimes in order to make the right decision, you have to have people in the room that you wouldn’t necessarily think to invite. And if you have a homogenous room you’re going to come out with homogenous results, which means your blind spots are going to be bright lights by the time people find it out—and that’s when you get hauled in front of Congress and your stock price goes down.”