Reflections from a white CEO at Black is Tech
I believe lived and shared experiences shape our views, influence our decision-making, and connect us on a deeper emotional and personal level. So when our People Operations team and Black GumGum employees told me that we had the opportunity to sponsor the Black is Tech conference in Atlanta, GA, and that it would be good for me to listen, learn, and be a part of the sponsorship, I knew there was no other place I wanted to be. As I reflect on my experience as a white CEO there, I’m left more self-aware, inspired, and committed than ever.
I am an out and proud gay CEO who knows the importance of visibility firsthand. And even still, I cannot compare my experiences as a white, cisgender man to the inequities that Black people face because of the color of their skin. My skin color doesn’t negatively affect how other people see my performance and potential in the workplace. And in most settings, since many of the other people I’m surrounded by in the ad tech world look like me, it also doesn’t affect my comfort level in being my true authentic self.
When I was in my 20’s, I hadn’t yet come out. I moved from Illinois to Los Angeles hoping to be who I truly was, and at one of my first gigs in the city, I had a gay man as my manager. That experience altered my life’s course by changing how I understood the world. I knew from then on that if I were to become a leader, I would have to emulate the same encouragement and support I received from my manager and create a culture where everyone could be heard and seen.
When it comes to the tech industry, Black representation is severely lacking. I know it. You know it. We all do. But there’s so much talent out there, and it’s not up to Black people who have been intentionally excluded from these environments to seek us out. The Black tech ecosystem is full of bold, brilliant, and bright talent. We have to meet people where they are, which means showing up in spaces like Black is Tech. I’m inspired by the people I met and from our own Black employees to reflect on why I and other CEOs who look like me haven’t shown up in these spaces before.
The answer to that is twofold:
1. I was not aware of how important it is.
2. I was aware of how uncomfortable I would be.
Confronting the uncomfortable.
“What is different about how you need to show up and lead in a space where you are the nonmajority group member in terms of race? What do you need to think about and consider as you’re showing up in this space?” These are essential questions to consider as a white person in the United States who has participated in and benefited from systems created to perpetuate white supremacy and continuously ‘other’ those of us who are non-white. Confronting white supremacy head-on is critical to move the needle, even if it is uncomfortable. That means naming the system as it is–white supremacy–and showing up in spaces to listen and learn even when you are in the racial nonmajority. It’s rare in my career that I’ve been in the racial nonmajority, so to be in this position at Black is Tech gave me a glimpse of what it could be like to walk into a space in that position. I think about our colleagues and peers who are Black, and how that is just another day in corporate America and in tech.
Listening and taking action.
When it comes to understanding the experiences of others through the lens of race, listening is one of the most powerful places we can start as allies. And after listening, we have to take action to learn and unlearn, to grow and change, and to evolve into better versions of ourselves, even when it’s uncomfortable. We must admit where we are in our learning journey and open ourselves up to making long-lasting and meaningful changes.
I had the opportunity to meet so many individuals and listened to people at all stages of their careers talk about what drives them and inspires them. From three Black women launching a retail commerce platform aimed to help consumers get easy access to Black-owned retailers, to an engineer with a passion for gaming who was looking to find a way to translate their skills into an industry that holds his passion. To Black people sharing stories of their white peers who have been able to transfer skills into other sectors but that they have faced constant obstacles in doing so as easily. I listened to other Black people with direct industry experience share how they were still not given a fair and equal opportunity. These types of connections and stories were exactly what I needed to hear, and I soon realized that this was just the very tip of the iceberg.
Leading with authenticity.
I also learned that leading with authenticity is much harder to do when you are in the racial nonmajority. As a white man of privilege in a position of power as the CEO, it’s easier for me to bring the full tenor of my personality to work every day. It’s also easy for me to think that everyone should be able to do the same. But I learned that leading openly and authentically also means building that same culture for everyone through our policies and by taking action. This way we can create a culture where everyone feels comfortable sharing their own–and each other’s–unique life experiences and how those experiences can enhance our company and culture.
Last year I wrote an article about how showing vulnerability can be difficult, but it can also be viewed as a sign of courage. Being at Black is Tech, I connected with so many attendees who were vulnerable with me about their experiences either trying to break into tech or are working in tech. I learned so much from each individual I met and it taught me to lean more deeply into my vulnerability as a means of admitting what I don’t know. I also learned how I have contributed to the problem of the lack of representation of Black people in tech.
Here are my takeaways from the Black is Tech conference:
I now know what it feels like to stand as a white CEO and leader of an organization and be asked by several Black people in front of other Black people why GumGum has such a low representation of Black employees.
I now know how I feel when I walk into a tech conference as the racial nonmajority when before, I wouldn’t have noticed how that could feel for someone else.
I now know I need to challenge my team and myself to create more effective ways to be a stronger ally through thoughtful programs that would better serve the Black tech community.
I now know that as I ask others to incorporate a commitment to diversity and inclusion into everyday practices, I have to take the lead and do that as well.
I now know how I can impact the development of socially responsible AI not just at GumGum, but everywhere.
This list can go on and on, but I believe that to be the point.
By listening, feeling, and connecting, I feel even more empowered to make a difference and help lead this effort. We will only make sustainable advancement by challenging ourselves–to put ourselves as leaders out there to lead from the front even when it’s uncomfortable.
Show up. Listen. Be vulnerable. It makes more of an impact and difference than you might realize.
After reflecting on my time at the conference over the last several weeks, I want to challenge other CEOs to show up not just in the boardroom, but at events and gatherings that allow you to truly connect with individuals on the personal level. This is especially important for executives passionate about creating real impact on diversity and equity and want to make their companies one that champions inclusion and belonging for all. For groups who have been historically dismissed and underrepresented like the Black community, we have to be better. Do better. And as leaders, we all must strive for this goal by confronting the uncomfortable, asking questions we don’t know the answers to, and continuing to unlearn and relearn.
Thank you to the organizers of Black is Tech for creating such an empowering and uplifting event. Thank you to everyone I spoke with for being so open, honest, and authentic and for challenging me to be better. I’m also thankful for the Black GumGum employees for challenging me and daring me to be and do better. I can’t wait to be back next year.