Imagine you’re sitting in a crowded room. Looking to your left and to your right, you see absolutely nobody who looks like you. At first, this might feel alienating and at times, even lonely. However, you continue to push through a potentially uncomfortable experience, unable to be your authentic self.
This is the reality for many Black employees and leaders in the adtech space and the technology industry at large. According to a report by Coqual, Black people account for about 12% of the US population, but occupy only 3.2% of the senior leadership roles at large companies in the US and less than 1% of all Fortune 500 CEO positions.
As we close out on Black History Month and enter Women’s History Month, it’s important that we look at these disparities in the tech and corporate landscape and work to ensure that all people are represented and equally heard. As a Black woman in adtech myself, I sat down with two Black women leaders whom I greatly admire and talked about their career experiences and why diversity is important in the advertising industry.
Making up part of the 3.2% of Black corporate leaders in the US is Kay Malcolm, senior director of product management for the Database Development Group at Oracle. As Malcolm navigated her career, she didn’t see many other Black executives in her current role.
“I did not see or meet another African-American in my chosen profession as a Database Administrator until I got to Oracle. Before that, I thought I was the only one, and it made it tough. Careers are tough, and you've got your ups and downs. So, it took a lot of internal strength and crying to my mom to stay and not give up,” said Malcolm.
Though these numbers exist as a disparity for all Black people, the numbers are even lower for Black women in leadership positions. Faith Humbles, co-chair for Oracle Alliance of Black Leaders for Excellence, said that she was only mentored by Black men for most of her career.
“How Black women are perceived compared to Black men is very different. There were times when I was going through something professionally that I truly didn't have anybody to reach out to. I did not have a female Black mentor until now, in my co-chair leadership role. This was when I was truly introduced to Black women that were at the VP-level or the director-level that could reach their hand out and be a mentor to me,” said Humbles, “Now I feel very blessed having that network of Black women behind me.”
“The world is a melting pot,” said Malcolm. “Boardrooms and meetings should reflect the world. And everyone, not just the people of color, should make sure that the natural balance you see in the world is reflected inside the boardroom. When people say, ‘Oh, OK, I see all of the diversity and inclusion work you’re doing, you’re the D&I person.’ Actually, I'm an engineer. I am also a woman. I'm also a person of color. I'm not doing D&I work per se. I’m doing human work.”
Diversity and inclusion initiatives shouldn’t just be reserved for a specific month. They should be prevalent in the company culture every day.
“Sometimes, people almost want to put diversity efforts in a box to the side where you only have to open up that box in February, or in March for Women's History Month, but that box should be open all the time,” said Malcolm.
Having that box always open doesn’t just positively impact your internal organization, but it helps your external brand perception, too. Research shows that nearly 60% of Americans want the companies they buy from to take a stance on issues like racial equity, social justice, and anti-discrimination. This sentiment remains the same for internal leadership and representation. If diverse voices aren’t present in the decision-making process, it poses a sticky situation for consumers.
“Number one, you don't have diverse voices to influence a brand. And when you have a brand that you are trying to position as being humane or human, you need to make sure that you have diverse points of view to emulate that human touch,” said Humbles.
“When audiences see that there's not a diverse team really behind the brand, it starts to make people think, ‘you know what, what kind of voices are being portrayed when it comes to decisions that the company is making even outside of the brand?’ Those decisions that will then enhance how far we can go, and will then dictate stock prices and the issues that are important to customers.”
Malcolm offered a personal account of prejudice she witnessed during her professional experiences.
“When I was in sales, there was a quote that my manager shared with us. He said, ‘People buy from people they like. When was the last time you bought a car, and you hated the car salesman?’ Similarly, when you move that into leadership, people will naturally pick from their friends. You have to be intentional about avoiding sameness. And you can't be intentional if you're not communicating and you're not exploring and not taking the time to get to know everyone.”
Representation of diverse voices creates an all-encompassing worldview and approach to advertisements. The more your organization and ads reflect the real world, the broader your reach and more impactful your brand.
How does that idea of sameness look when it comes to being competitive in the market?
“I think what people don't understand is that the battle is for innovation, which translates to dollars. Because if you innovate, you can be competitive,” said Malcolm. “If you have the same ideas as your competitor, neither of you are innovating because you're going to come up with the same thing. Business leaders have to ask themselves: What does our company have that differentiates us from our competition and makes us stand out in the market?”
“In this day and age, you may have people’s attention for nine, maybe fifteen, seconds. If you're just giving them the same thing, they’re not going to spend their valuable attention on something that's similar. They’re going to be drawn to something different and more representative of this melting pot.”
When it comes to a solution, both Malcolm and Humbles emphasize a key professional capability: Being able to bring your authentic self to every situation.
“I challenge corporations to do something different, to actually figure out and choose a ‘so what’ that is based on really getting to know the people of color in your company,” said Malcolm. “I make no attempts to assimilate. When you get me, you're going to get 100% me. If you're uncomfortable with that, it just means that you haven't been around too many people like me. And that's your homework to do. It's not on me because I have spent my entire career making sense of and understanding a culture that I'm not a part of—and you should do some of that work too.”
Humbles believes progress has been made but noted there is still more to be done.
“Even though we have a long way to go, there's progress being made, and the organization that we have now at Oracle actually caters to a larger pool of people than we have in the past. It’s important to nurture the people you already have, taking the time to support and take care of them. It really takes managers and people within leadership levels to see the talent that's already there and let them know what they can do to reach the managerial levels,” said Humbles.
She sees a path forward if the right questions are being asked at all times and all levels of an organization.
“Is diversity represented? And not only that but what kind of environment are you creating to make sure that people of color feel that they can be their authentic selves? Are you building a work environment that makes employees truly want to stay? Do people of color feel that they belong within the tech industry? Do they feel that they belong in your company specifically? These are questions that need to be answered, and they should be answered by the people who are already at the company making the decisions. That is when you move from a sense of inclusivity to a true sense of belonging.”