What do chief diversity officers know about tech?

October 15, 2021, 7:12 PM UTC

Fortune’s Most Powerful Women have left the building! Also: The trouble with Dave Chappelle, a victory for fintech, and lessons learned (or not) from the yellow fever epidemic of 1790. Plus, a bonus track from Jonathan Vanian on how to bake the insights of 150 chief diversity officers into a breakthrough tech product.

But first, here’s your Adele new-album mania week in review, in Haiku.

Go easy on us,
Adele! We waited so long:
Clicking your Insta

Parsing your Twitter
looking for clues that the ride
or die was not dead

on arrival, with just
enough time to add tissues
to our shopping lists

Rolling in the deep
and out into a new life
(and love) is a good

reason to sing a
new song to better feel the
world that you helped make.

Wishing you a perfectly styled and emo weekend.

Ellen McGirt

In brief

You can learn a lot by interviewing over 150 chief diversity officers.

Elise Smith, 30, and Heather Shen, 25, certainly did when they conducted research for the startup they co-founded, Praxis Labs, which creates virtual reality-powered diversity training sessions for organizations. Praxis Labs, where Smith is CEO and Shen is chief product officer, said Friday that it raised $15.5 million in funding from Norwest Venture Partners and Penny Jar Capital, the early-stage investment firm of NBA superstar Stephen Curry.

The two co-founders wanted to learn what chief diversity officers think about diversity training initiatives in order to identify “pain points” with current programs, Shen says. The surveyed diversity chiefs told the co-founders that some training programs can be hard to “scale” across an organization, especially when employees are increasingly working from their homes, and that they lacked ways to track data to help inform management practices, among some of the issues.

The Praxis Labs executives, who are both people of color, used this information to inform their VR diversity and inclusion trainings programs. Using the software— either via a VR headset, smartphone, or PC—employees can experience various scenarios intended to help them build empathy with others who have different life experiences. One program, for instance, puts people in the shoes of a Latinx man named Carlos who is in the middle of a job interview with three white tech executives. If people aren’t aware of microaggressions, they will be after witnessing what it’s like to view the world through Carlos’s eyes when the executives ask him where he is “really from” and comment that he looks like a soccer fan.

Shen, who previously worked on Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented reality headset, explains that their product was informed by “the fundamental belief around how VR can change the way that we learn.” Although VR hasn’t been a hit with consumers, some companies have had success using the technology as an immersive training tool.

The executives refer to their software as a “perspective-taking product,” in which the enveloping quality of VR can help heighten people’s empathy for others. This concept of “perspective taking” can be both disarming and meaningful to people who believe diversity and inclusion training is “someone lecturing to you and saying you're biased and you're racist,” Smith says.

Employees who take part in the VR diversity programs can also leave feedback to management during the courses, which Smith pitches as helping companies continually gather the kind of data needed to actually make specific changes to corporate culture. For instance, workers could be prompted during the VR courses to give advice to management on diversity issues they should focus on, like providing access to mentorship and sponsorship programs for women of color, Smith explains.

The goal is for Praxis Labs to be more than a one-and-done diversity training program, a check-box solution and false panacea to the kinds of systemic diversity issues that are often embedded into company culture.

“I mean this to our core, like we aren't about checking the box,” Smith said. “We’re actually about trying to make a difference for all of our workforces that we get to touch.”

Both Smith and Shen also know firsthand the kinds of microaggressions that can occur in the business world. Prior to raising their first seed funding round, for instance, Smith recalls an investor asking them “who’s building the technology?,” apparently oblivious to the notion that not all technology has to be created by men. Other investors asked them if “DEI has staying power” and referred to diversity, equity, and inclusion training as a “fad.” Those were not the investors Smith and Shen wanted to be involved with.

“For us it was really important to find funders who are aligned with our mission and values and the idea of making society more equitable and doing it at scale, because that's actually where we'll see change not just in workplaces, but the places we frequent every day,” Smith said.

Other participants in the funding round include Emerson Collective, which co-led the latest investment, along with Concrete Rose Capital, SoftBank’s SB Opportunity Fund, Ulu Ventures, Precursor Ventures, and Firework Ventures

Jonathan Vanian 

On point: MPW

Powerful women assemble Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit went off without a hitch this week in Washington, D.C. For attendees, it was a wonderful way to re-enter real world conference life, but we can all reap the benefits of their hard work. You can read our coverage from the entire event here, but I’d like to flag a couple of conversations that might be particularly useful for you.

My colleague Lucinda Shen led an insightful conversation on race, power, and privilege in corporate life in the long shadow of George Floyd’s murder. “It has felt taboo to me, forever, my entire career really, to talk about it so openly,” said Kim Seymour, chief people officer at WW International. “And the few who did were deemed as courageous.” “What good did come from that really afforded us the opportunity to call it”—racism—“what it is and deal with it straight on,” said Lesley Slaton Brown, chief diversity officer at HP.

If you’re worried about bias and ethics in A.I. technologies, the clear prescription is to make sure a diverse set of people are in the room, and that they are committed to the big picture principles. Mastercard’s president of data and services Raj Seshadri, points to a governance body who is prepared to sort out the big issues. “Sometimes the problems are quite tricky and difficult," she added. “It’s not that straightforward—we need a few brains to come together to think about it.”

To get your corporate purpose on, start here.  “Companies are going to get left behind if they don’t believe in values and ESG,” said Maya Chorengel, co–managing partner of the Rise Fund. “It’s becoming a must-have, not a nice-to-have. We are now living in a world where it’s table stakes to be forward about your values.”

And raceAhead treasure Thasunda Brown Duckett, the still newish TIAA chief executive, weighed in with her perspective on how to increase the number of Black and brown women in leadership positions. She is one of only two Black women leading Fortune 500 companies. “I know that we have to operate with intentionality if we want to get to five, to 10, to 50,” said Duckett, citing a program called Inroads, which She claimed that her own success was in large part due helped her find her way. “Being intentional about supporting programs, I think, is key. Being intentional about receiving the power of the sisterhood, because it’s not always easy as you move up. And lastly, knowing that allyship matters.”


This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

On Point: Dave Chappelle

The trouble with Dave Chappelle is our trouble too The comic’s latest Netflix special, “The Closer,” has unleashed a firestorm of criticism — “a joyless tirade of incoherent and seething rage, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia,” says Roxane Gay, in one choice example — some of it is coming from inside the company.  While the show was a hit for Netflix, the New York Times obtained copies of the internal, company-wide debate about the special, in which Reed Hastings, Netflix co-ceo, defended Chapelle’s work. “We disagree with your characterization and we’ll continue to work with Dave Chappelle in the future,” he said. “We see him as a unique voice, but can understand if you or others never want to watch his show.”

At one point, Chappelle declares himself “team TERF” thereby supporting the “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” who believe that trans women aren’t real women. (For the record, Chappelle's entanglement with and occasional support of the trans community is very, very complicated.) According to the Times piece, Trans employees at Netflix are coordinating a walkout next week.

Other stars in the Netflix pantheon are also speaking out.

Hannah Gadsby, the award-winning performer whose work also appeared on Netflix, fired back on Instagram when Netflix's other co-ceo, Ted Sarandos, used her show as an example of Netflix’s diverse array of programming. “Just a quick note to let you know that I would prefer if you didn’t drag my name into your mess,” Gadsby wrote. “Now I have to deal with even more of the hate and anger that Dave Chappelle’s fans like to unleash on me every time Dave gets 20 million dollars to process his emotionally stunted partial world view.”

It quickly became clear that the trouble with Chapelle is the kind of trouble so many in the tech, entertainment, and media industry face: Are our stated values consistent with the way we do business? Is that even possible?

Gay takes on the free-speech-in-expression debate in her blistering critique, saying that “The Closer” does not rise to the level of art designed to make you think. “[W]hen an entire comedy set is designed as a series of strategic moves to say whatever you want and insulate yourself from valid criticism, I’m not sure you’re really making comedy,” she says. Or, perhaps, a valid point.

And therein lies the issue for Netflix and other media companies. Debates about free expression and unintended consequences are as old as time, but a modern lens reveals the deep complexities lurking behind the kind of artistic utterances that were once shrugged off as a valid cost of doing business. But neutral platforms are never actually neutral, and damage on one hand cannot be undone with representation on another. When do "uncomfortable" ideas, easily scaled on commercial platforms, cross a line? As the opportunities to engage in serious critique increase in new and very public ways, it's vital that leadership find ways to meet the moment armed with context and empathy. 


Ellen McGirt

On background

Research: Fintechs eliminated bias within the Paycheck Protection Program Black business owners struggled to find capable and willing lenders within the COVID-relief program, and a new research paper identifies a bright spot in a dismal picture. While bias led to loan denials in smaller banks, Black borrowers were significantly more likely to find a PPP loan through online lenders who used automated vetting systems. Fintechs, it seems, saved the day. “I was taken aback by the striking disparity—it was a surprising and unexpected fact, and we wanted to figure out why,” said Stern School finance assistant professor Sabrina T. Howell, lead author of the working paper. Despite protests from banking trade groups that the data showing race-based gaps in lending is incomplete, other research affirms the findings. “This fits very well with and complements our finding that minority-owned businesses were less likely to get loans because of racial bias, and to the extent that they do get them, they’re more likely to get them from fintechs than banks,” says Purdue’s Sergey Chernenko.
New York Times

Lessons from the Yellow Fever epidemic Philadelphia was the seat of the fledgling federal government way back in 1793; it also had the biggest population of free Black people in the country. But an epidemic of yellow fever tore the community apart in some very familiar ways. (Some folks blamed immigrants, others thought it wasn’t that contagious and totally overblown.) As people with means fled the area, Black folks (who were believed to be immune despite evidence to the contrary) stepped up to help care for the sick, dying, and transport the deceased. This fascinating video seminar from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History “Pandemic Perspectives” series, digs into this history, and tells the story of two formerly enslaved Black men, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, who formed the Free Africa Society that provided financial aid, health care and mortuary services support. Historians, they get the job done.
Smithsonian Magazine



Mood board

🎶Hello, it's she.🎶Yes, we WILL be streaming the new Adele single all weekend long. No, we will not be taking questions at this time.
Will Heath—NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

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