Inclusivity is more than just a seat at the table

In addition to tapping talented people of different races, ethnicities, religions, and educational backgrounds, tech companies also need to do the hard work of cultural change to help them succeed.

By Lesley Slaton Brown, Chief Diversity Officer, HP Inc. — October 20, 2020

As a black woman born and raised in the United States, I’ve experienced firsthand racial and social inequities. But that doesn’t make me a victim, it’s made me bolder, braver, resilient, and it has made me strong. It’s taught me perseverance. It is, in part, why I do the work I do.

I come from a legacy of strong, determined men and women. At 40, my grandmother went back to school and got her master’s degree in education so that she could teach — she saw the inequities in the education system. Each of her siblings were standouts in their respective career fields. 

My grandfather and his brothers started their own trucking company when they realized they were being left out of lucrative opportunities and denied the better hauling routes. They learned how to repair their own trucks because mechanics would intentionally delay working on their vehicles to give non-minorities the upper hand. So they learned how to fix their vehicles themselves. Some were entrepreneurs by choice, others by necessity. But they were all problem solvers. That was passed down to my parents and my siblings and me.

Dinnertime at my home was centered around conversation about our day, our friends, activities, and talk of what we learned in school. It was normal for my parents to edit and add commentary to the backdrop of what we were being taught, be it US history, Black and African American achievement and the civil rights movement, or even home economics. Sadly, biases and microaggressions permeated the mindsets of educators, so it was a constant consideration of which battle they chose to address with the school administration.

Racial inequalities have long been the large purple elephant in the room, but to be more competitive and innovative as a nation, we must be more racially, ethnically, and culturally inclusive. In addition, we’re leaving Black/African American and other people of color out of economic growth opportunities as a result of not having a seat at the table in the tech industry. 

While you’ll see pockets of hope, the tech industry has not been a leading sector. And these are the innovators, the visionaries, the early adopters, so you think, Why isn’t the tech industry leading on this? You’d think there would be a different level of openness. But there isn’t. 

While African Americans are 13% of the US population, in 2018 the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that just 3.5% of engineers and other professionals in computer and electronics manufacturing were Black, and just 1.7% of tech executives were Black men and women, as compared to the 77% who were white men and women.

Illustration by Olivia Fields of Lesley Slaton Brown's personal essay: Inclusivity is more than just a seat at the table

Olivia Fields

Once you get people in, you must make them feel psychologically safe. They need to be included and have a sense of belonging so they can perform at their best.

And it’s not just the workers, but startups and founders receiving funding from banks and venture capital firms. Black investors make up less than 1% of venture capitalists, and only 1% of startup founders who receive venture funding are Black.

Whole groups of people aren’t being welcomed in and it’s still not fair or equitable. Companies across the board, including HP, have a lot more work to do, from executive leadership to the rank-and-file workers. For example, 3.7% of Google employees and contractors are Black and 5.9% are Latinx, while 3.8% and 8.7% of HP’s workforce are Black/African American and Latinx, respectively. Nvidia’s workforce is just 1% Black, and Snapchat’s is 4%. There have only been 18 Black CEOs or chairpersons of a Fortune 500 company (and of those just two were women), and currently there are five. In the corporate context, it hasn’t been easy to talk about racial injustice, but the current Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd have given us the space to raise the topic, and the very top of our company has made commitments to act. 

HP’s CEO Enrique Lores announced earlier this year that HP will double the number of Black executives by 2025. HP also launched an employee-led Racial and Social Equality Task Force that will work on issues around policies internally, in the industry, and at a local and national level to help promote racial equity. No single business can solve this problem, but HP’s commitment goes back to the early days of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. Packard set in motion programs that brought minorities into the company because that was a value of theirs from the very beginning. 

Diverse companies perform better and are more successful than those that aren’t, according to a McKinsey study, and 70% of diverse organizations are more likely to capture new markets, according to the Harvard Business Review. Successful companies are diverse companies because you get greater innovation and more creativity when you have different perspectives and experiences at the table. You need different races, different ethnicities, different religions, different educational backgrounds — that’s how you get to greater innovation and greater revenue.

Last year 63% of HP’s US hires were from underrepresented groups — up from 57% in 2018 — including women, ethnic minorities, veterans, and persons with disabilities. HP’s 12-member Board of Directors is 42% women and 58% racial minorities, making it one of the most diverse in the United States. But HP is committed to doing more, particularly by fostering new talent at HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities). This is the fourth year of the HBCU Business Challenge, a business school competition, with the National HBCU Business Deans Roundtable. About 85 of the more than 100 HBCUs are invited, providing students the opportunity to develop solutions to real business problems while gaining hands-on industry experience and a chance to earn an internship. This year the challenge will focus on “Distance Learning,” asking students to come up with creative solutions to the problems of working and attending college in an all-digital environment.

But it’s not just about HP recruiting students. We also build relationships with the colleges so that both our needs and their needs are met. Now we’re starting to expand that to engineering schools as well.

It hasn’t been easy to talk about racial injustice, but the current Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd have given us the space to raise the topic.


Earlier this year the students told us they needed to be able to do research with companies, not only internships, and this was an opportunity for us to provide them with apprenticeship-like programs on campus. We placed HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D printing equipment on the campus of North Carolina A&T State University and made a commitment for internships and apprenticeships to the university’s College of Engineering and College of Science and Technology. This pilot learning program will help us plan for a broader program with other HBCUs. HP has also contributed to the HBCUvc’s Student Relief Fund to help students during COVID-19.

I call this an end-to-end solution that is a win for us, a win for them. It is about building this very inclusive partnership that meets the needs of both organizations, and they already know that we’re committed. So far almost 300 students have participated in the Business Challenge, and our goal is to find talent, bring them in for internships, and then hire them. And now we see the effect. For example, Delaware State won one year and now Delaware State interns at HP are serving as a recruiting force for us. Once students have a good experience with your company and feel a sense of belonging, they tell others.

Some perception exists that because HBCUs don’t have the partnerships with industry leaders that other schools do, those students may not be on top of the latest code or JavaScript. But the reality is that smart people are smart people regardless of whether they graduated from MIT, Stanford, a community college, a predominantly white institution, or an HBCU. The goal is to expose our management and leadership to good talent that comes from different places.

At HP and for me, it’s always been about the work we’re doing. The company is now hyper-focused on these issues. Post-George Floyd I see leaders taking a bolder stance. For example, Kim Rivera, HP’s President of Strategy and Business Management, helped push new legislation in California mandating that Blacks and other minorities be included on corporations’ boards of directors. We all need to flex our muscles and use our influence as individuals and corporations. HP was intentional when we formed our Board of Directors after separating into two companies in 2015, and I think you have to be. It’s the intentionality of opening up and kicking in those doors and investing in that pipeline. Once you get people in, you must make them feel psychologically safe, and they need to be included and have a sense of belonging — so they can perform at their best.

Never in my lifetime or career have I seen or had the conversations that we’re having today. There are still some mindsets that need to evolve, biases people need to uncover, and microaggressions we need to dismantle.

But my source of optimism is twofold. Firstly, I wake up knowing I’m expending my energy in a place where I have the opportunity to influence the change that needs to happen for equity to exist. Second is HP’s leadership: The executive leadership and Board of Directors are making commitments that I know they will fulfill, because that’s what HP people do — we don’t just talk, we take action.

I am so excited about where we are. I still see remnants of pre-George Floyd, but my goal is that we’re going to bring people along on this journey and we’ll see the impact of our efforts. It’s a business imperative for HP. But we’re on a journey because it’s about humanity for us — it’s more than just our values. That’s what gives me hope. 


Related: 9 Black Lives Matter organizations to donate to today.