‘It’s been a long journey’: Google CEO Sundar Pichai on new, widespread commitments to racial equity

June 18, 2020, 9:42 PM UTC

“[This] feels like a one of those rare moments, capturing awareness at scale,” Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Alphabet, told Fortune via Google Meet. We were meeting to discuss a lengthy announcement of new commitments to racial equity that Pichai made yesterday, including increasing black employees at senior levels and a new goal to increase leadership representation of underrepresented groups by 30% by 2025. 

In the announcement, Pichai vows to work more deeply with black employees to address the cultural barriers that have prevented the company from full representation in the past. “I’m also convening a task force, including senior members of the Black+ community at Google, to develop concrete recommendations and proposals for accountability across all of the areas that affect the Black+ Googler experience, from recruiting and hiring, to performance management, to career progression and retention,” he wrote. 

To help fuel opportunity outside of the company, Google is dedicating more than $175 million to an “economic opportunity package” that will target black business owners, startup founders, developers, and job seekers. In addition to financing and grants for business owners and reskilling training for job seekers, Pichai is directing some $100 million in funding participation in black-led startups and capital firms, including Plexo Capital, a diversity-minded venture fund, incubated inside GV (formerly Google Ventures) by founding managing partner Lo Toney.

To reach these commitments, Pichai convened a series of internal meetings, including a race and equity “crisis response team,” modeled on one the company used to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. (Read more on that below.) Pichai hopes that other companies will set similarly big goals and become more transparent in their efforts to achieve racial equity. Sharing metrics isn’t enough, he tells Fortune. “I think it’s important to realize the top companies have a disproportionate impact on all of this,” he says. “There are more accountable goals over time, and there are areas where we are improving as a company, but I think Fortune plays a unique role in the mindshare it has amongst the top companies.” 

Below is a record of our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Fortune: We’ve been dealing with and discussing issues of race, equity, inclusion, and police and criminal justice for a long time. What do you think is different about this moment?

Pichai: I think it’s a good question as to why this is the tipping point now, but it’s been extraordinary to see it, that it’s not just in the U.S. For me, watching the Black Lives Matter protest in Paris—even within the company—I’ve never quite seen anything like that. When we did the gift-matching campaign [for causes related to the Black Lives movement], it was the largest participation ever in terms of number of people and the amount raised in our entire history as a company. [Google matches donations of up to $10,000 per employee per year.]

I think next week we are doing some work to reflect how unique a moment it is. Even in our Search—many terms hit all-time highs they’ve never seen before across all these topics and from people querying around all this.

So, for sure, it feels like one of those rare moments capturing awareness at scale, obviously what’s been long-lived experiences for members of our black community.

How did you formulate your plan to respond? Where did you start?

Over the last couple of weeks, we had a series of conversations with what we internally call our Black Leader Advisory Group, as well as leaders from our Black Googler Network, which is part of the wider Black+ community at Google. It’s been a long journey. I’ve heard it before, but to hear stories, particularly in this context, it’s clear that there is systemic racism that permeates not just dealings with law enforcement, but be it housing, be it education, be it health care and in the workplace, right? And so I think the question is how can we capture the moment and translate it into attention and effort that sustains over time to create change.

I’ve previewed your announcement and it’s a long list of actions. Could you identify a couple of initiatives that you’re hopeful will have an unusual impact? All of them will have impacts, but some that you’re really hopeful about.

Yeah, obviously diversity and inclusion has been one of our core values as a company. We’ve been working hard to try and make progress. And so, there’s been an ongoing effort, and as part of that, we have well-established teams with our chief diversity officer, Melonie Parker, and we have a diversity inclusion team. Through the past few weeks, we have consulted deeply with the Black Advisory Leadership Group and our Black+ community, and internally it’s one of the areas where I felt a lot of Google has come together to volunteer and spend their time. So, we set up an equity project management office for the past two weeks. We modeled some of the setup around how we responded to COVID-19.

Really? How did that work?

So, we realized when we saw COVID-19 as a crisis, we kicked into gear and set up a project management office and a crisis response team. We brought that same process to bear while this [systemic racism] is an ongoing long-term problem. We realized, if we responded that way, we could capture the energy and the desire from the company to make change also using our platform and products. So, for example, for COVID-19, we set up a products team where people from around the company could email ideas. We followed the same process for this, and that was one work stream. And as part of that, we quickly realized there has to be two broad buckets of what we can do as a company.

What was the first?

While we’ve been committed to [diversity], progress has been slow, and we still have big gaps. And so we have to commit ourselves and do the work even harder to make real change in where our internal representation is. We feel it has to start there. If we can’t address that, I don’t think we are in a position to drive change outside our walls, and so that’s been a big focus. In conversations with black leaders and members from the community, it’s been clear that there are a few things we could do better. For example, in the past, we have had diversity training, anti-racism training as a separate thing. How do we integrate it, make it more part of something which everyone goes through, as an example of how do you more structurally drive change?

What else do you think is behind the slow progress in your diversity numbers?

Last year was one of our biggest progress years in terms of actual representation of Black+ employees, particularly in tech. We are committing to a 30% increase by 2025. And, small note—when you’re a company that’s growing and adding people, the math of it is actually harder. Committing ourselves makes you think and question what is the part of the work you’ve been doing that’s working well? What’s the part of it just not necessarily working well? One example: We realize we have to, as a company, go to places and establish offices and invest where there is diverse talent available—and more importantly, they’re available in a way in which people have the community structures and institutions which will support them and help them live in a way that is fulfilling. And so it’s part of us going to these newer places. It’s understanding and saying, “Okay, let’s do long-term planning to invest in Atlanta, in D.C., in Chicago, and other places around the world that we can actually make progress.” 

The retention piece is often the most challenging.

For us, it’s also been a realization that it’s not just hiring for representation, but it’s about once people are in, what does their career progression look like? How do they feel included within Google? So [we’re looking at] what happens in the context of a workplace and where we can improve.

So the second bucket is the externally focused? How did you make commitments there?

As I mentioned, drawing parallel to what we did with COVID, I think there’s a whole set of stuff we can do externally as well. For me, I’m particularly interested in investing in education and using our ability to close the gaps there. For example—I think, I’m trying to understand the numbers—but I think there are roughly a very small number of black Ph.D.s graduating in computer science in the U.S.. We hire a lot of Ph.D.s, so what is it that we can do? We know the talent is there. So, what is it that we can do to meaningfully make change? What funding can we do? What are the programs that we can sponsor? So it’s about thinking like that, and once we start thinking like that, we realize the opportunity is very broad.

Does this include your own products?

[Thinking about] how can we better support black-owned small/medium businesses—how can we better showcase them in our products like Google Maps when people are coming looking for it? In fact, black-owned businesses, it’s been an area where we see a tremendous rise in search queries for the past few weeks. People trying to understand that and people wanting to support them. So, it’s bringing all of that, so a long answer to your question of what the process has been.

I want to ask about transparency. You first released your diversity report in 2014, and a lot of people thought it was going to ignite a wave of transparency. But in my world of the Fortune 500, the number of companies making this data available is still low—barely 14%. What do you think makes people afraid?

I think it’s a great question. I think change is hard. I think people are afraid of being criticized. I think that’s part of it. I think all of us are talking about what are the right CSR—corporate social responsibility—metrics, and be it representation, be it sustainability. I think the more we can standardize and actually make it more a part of the annual reporting we all do as companies, and maybe making progress more structurally—I think that’s the way to increase the numbers from 14% to much, much higher numbers. I think the tide is turning. I think if you and I have this same conversation in a few years, I expect the numbers to be significantly different. At least that’s the hope I have.

So we’re often talking about culture change—and not just Google, but technology in general—has a certain stereotypical type of a person, perhaps a tech bro who’s maybe resistant, very proud, has a very specific way of presenting themselves in the world. Media has the same person. Finance has a different version of the same person. So part of the work is asking in a variety of small and big ways for individual people to think differently, to take a breath, to use a new term, to push past some awkwardness. How do you think about culture change? What’s your advice for any leader who’s facing their version of resistance inside to these kinds of changes?

It’s a good question. First of all, our work on representation—even our work we have done to get better gender balance over the years—all of that contributes to a better environment and world. I think the nature of tech representation is slowly changing over time. When I look at computer science programs, I can see that change underway. That’s a part of it. The training, which we are talking about, the new version, we’ve been working on this for a few months—I think this becomes a catalyst for it, to find programs which we can scale globally and make it more integrated in training as part of what everyone asks. In fact, we are having a full conversation for the entire company in lieu of our normal TGIF meeting, with john powell, who runs the Othering and Belonging Institute at Berkeley. [powell is also a professor of law, African-American studies, and ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley. He prefers to use lowercase letters in his name.]

We need to model it from leadership. I think we—all of us, including myself—have to acknowledge the process. I was an immigrant to this country, and it’s been a journey for me to understand race relations in America, and it’s been a learning and so acknowledging that to people and saying, “Look, all of us are learning, and we understand that there’s work at an individual level for all of us to take the change. I think it’s important.” 

What should media be doing now? Or Fortune?

I think you asked this question about [diversity data from Fortune 500 companies] transparency being at 14%. I think holding all of us accountable to make sure that we’re not just sharing metrics. There are more accountable goals over time, and there are areas where we are improving as a company, but I think Fortune plays a unique role in the mindshare it has amongst the top companies. I think it’s important to realize the top companies have a disproportionate impact on all of this. And so I think it’s a very impactful way to drive it. 

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