Over the last year, Slack engineer Erica Baker has become a well-known advocate for diversity and inclusion in the tech industry. Although she started at Slack as a build and release engineer, her role has since evolved to include some work around diversity and inclusion.
Baker recently sat down with me to discuss diversity, inclusion and her role at Slack. Here’s the full Q&A, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
Megan Rose Dickey: What needs to happen in order for the tech industry to be diverse and inclusive?
Erica Baker: A lot of the industry right now is built around the mold of the nerdy white dude from MIT or Harvard, Stanford or whatever. The perks, for example, it’s like oh, ‘we have ping pong tables and slides and Settlers of Catan and that sort of thing, and that doesn’t appeal to everybody and so, acknowledging that this industry that we have right now was built for a certain type of person and then figuring out how to change it so that it will appeal to all people. And there needs to be some acknowledgment that diversity doesn’t mean assimilation. There needs to be more activism from people at the top of the industry.
MRD: Like CEOs? VCs?
Baker: CEOs for sure. It’s interesting — the VCs right now seem to be more interested in diversity and inclusion than ceos. It’s odd.
I can’t turn off my black. If I walk into a place, the first thing people see is a black woman and immediately have a set of biases and judgments about me. Erica Baker, engineer at Slack
MRD: Kapor Capital has started requiring startups joining its investment portfolio to have diversity baked in from the start. Do you think that can help?
Baker: CEOs set the tone. If the CEO wants something done, it’ll get done. If we get CEOs to say, ‘this is a priority for us,’ it’ll get done.
MRD: You recently tweeted something about how instead of hiring heads of diversity, CEOs should be the head of diversity. Could you elaborate on that?
Baker: As I said, a CEO sets the tone. If the CEO says this is important and it needs to get done and by Q3 of 2016, we need to hire X many people of color or increase our percentage by this many and this is our number one priority. There’s no VP of engineering reporting to a head of diversity. The VP is going to say ‘well, diversity is this person’s job. I don’t need to worry about it anymore.’ But if the CEO says this is everyone’s job and you have to answer to me about it, people will start moving.
MRD: Some tech companies have been hirings heads of diversity…some white and some black. How diverse does someone need to be in order to be a head of diversity?
Baker: I can’t turn off my black. If I walk into a place, the first thing people see is a black woman and immediately have a set of biases and judgments about me. A white guy walks into that same room, even if he’s gay, nobody knows that unless he chooses to share that. He doesn’t have that same experience that I have. He doesn’t have the experience of walking into a room and having to deal with instant bias, instant stereotypes. Having someone who knows that experience in the position of the head of diversity — if you must have a head of diversity — is probably the better move.
MRD: So, 20% of your role is diversity at Slack. What are your goals? What do you hope to accomplish?
Baker: Internally at Slack, actually internally and externally, I want to increase accountability. internal advocacy wise, i want to encourage companies to go beyond the percentage of employees they have for numbers that they share. like, share your retention numbers, that’s a great start
MRD: Are you going to be pushing for that…to share retention numbers?
Baker: Yeah, I already push for salary stuff.
MRD: So, salary transparency?
Baker: Salary transparency is a huge deal because that forces sort of a level playing field for people who are coming into a job. If your salary bans are published and known, you can’t deviate from them without some major risks.
MRD: Where do you see the conversation going this year around diversity and inclusion?
Baker: I see it, if companies have their druthers, sticking to the recruiting bit because that’s where people like to focus their attention. That’s a thing they know how to do. I would like it to go more into the direction of inclusion because I feel like that’s where the hard work is. Working on making it so people who they end up hiring feel good about where they work.
MRD: Can you give me an example of how Slack goes about making you feel included?
Baker: The Earthtones channel, that’s my home.
MRD: That’s the employee resource group?
Baker: I feel like employee resource group is overstating what it is. it’s a channel full of people of color who talk to each other and beyond that, there are things that make me feel heard at Slack and knowing that I can speak up about that — of the values of the company — something that is very important to the company and it will be heard and addressed is huge. It’s such a big deal. Being heard is very important and I feel like a lot of people, especially people of the color in the industry, don’t feel heard. They don’t feel understood and that I feel heard and understood at Slack is huge.
This is part two of a five-part series. Come back tomorrow to check out an interview with Trans*H4CK founder Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler. If you’re new to the series, be sure to watch our interview with Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant.