State of the Pledge: Seven Lessons We’ve Learned about DEI Work in Tech

As we mark the release of our third-annual survey report of diversity and equity in the Los Angeles tech sector, here are seven reflections and critical questions that business leaders should ask themselves – if they are serious about their organizations' progress around diversity and equity work.

Almost three years ago, the Annenberg Foundation and the Office of Mayor Eric Garcetti convened PledgeLA – a growing coalition of more than 215 LA-based tech companies and venture capital firms that agreed to increase diversity and equity in their organizations. In that time, we’ve supported our members in doing this work, and learned some important lessons along the way. While we work to promote social mobility and access for all Angelenos, the breadth of our membership means that we have a vantage point across different industries, company sizes, and organizational cultures. We believe that this vantage point offers a unique perspective that can serve companies worldwide in our collective mission to advance belonging and justice for people of color, women, folks with disabilities, and other traditionally marginalized identities in the workplace.

LA’s tech sector is experiencing unprecedented growth – and the lessons of this ecosystem have implications for the future of our nation. As we mark the release of our third-annual survey report of diversity and equity in the Los Angeles tech sector, here are seven reflections and critical questions that business leaders should ask themselves – if they are serious about their organizations’ progress around diversity and equity work.

1. Too many leaders expect the work to be easy.

In 2018, over 100 companies in Los Angeles signed our pledge to increase diversity, belonging, dignity, and justice in their organizations. While this monumental step reflected an essential statement of commitment, we’ve learned that the real challenge lies in moving from good intentions to meaningful action. Many organizations support the idea of equity and diversity: they release statements of support, they attend and may even speak on panels, and they agree with egalitarian notions of work. But we’ve come to understand that many companies joined our coalition believing that a public statement of support was enough. After all, it’s easy enough to sign up for a list. This propensity towards DEI-related PR is a dangerous trend in the corporate community. We’ve also seen an explosion of dialogues, roundtables, and panel events about diversity, with sponsors presuming that merely talking about the problem is doing the actual work. We’re now clearer than ever that DEI work without explicit shifts in power, representation, access, and resources does very little. Beyond making public statements or hosting panels, what resources, actions, and barriers will your company remove to create an equitable company? DEI work must be measured by what companies do, not just by what words they say.

As a result, we’re committing to being more explicit about which of our members walk the walk and talk the talk. While we plan to continue providing tools to assist companies in setting their own goals, sharing industry-wide best practices, and working as a thought partner to our members, companies can no longer signal their commitment to diversity through public platitudes and panels. Genuine commitment looks like allocating staff time, leadership buy-in, creativity, money, and metrics to develop an inclusive company culture, just like any other company goal.

2. In 2021, EVERYONE has room to grow… Yes, everyone. 

Given the recent calls to #stopasianhate and to create a world where #blacklivesmatter, we know now that justice and equity are everyone’s work. Over the years, we’ve seen that this means that even progressive organizations have room to grow. DEI work often gets conceptualized as a destination – either you have it, or you don’t. From experience, we’ve come to see DEI as an ongoing process of building and rebuilding company culture, practices, and power dynamics. We’re learning that even those organizations who think they are pillars of equity, like companies owned by women or people of color, often have massive room for growth. Taken from Ibram Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist, we know that one of the primary issues in overcoming systemic racism is that no one wants to admit that they are a part of the problem. This is a critical challenge we have to overcome in the future. For organizations that genuinely already have made significant progress or already represent women or people of color well, we strongly encourage them to ask, where do we still have room to grow? We’d like to suggest one place to start: as an industry, we’ve largely ignored caregivers, socio-economic diversity, folks with disabilities, and queer people of color in our efforts to reflect traditionally marginalized voices and communities. 

Instead of just naming DEI leaders and walking away, we plan to hold our members accountable for growth and demonstrable change over time for everyone – even firms led by women and people of color. 

3. LA is a hotbed of untapped talent, but employers are missing the boat.

LA is one of the most diverse metropolitan areas globally, with more talent produced than any other region (as measured by college graduates produced). With our Fund for South LA Founders, we received 200+ applications from Black & Latinx founders, and more than 300 people from underrepresented backgrounds applied to our Summer VC Internship program. These factors combined let us know that creating more diverse teams is possible, especially in LA. People of color are hungry to break into this industry, dispelling the myth that there is an issue with the pipeline. Instead of a pipeline problem, we’ve found that we cannot find opportunities quickly enough for the large cohort of qualified talent ready to work. In short, LA, like many other cities, has no excuses for being able to bring in diverse talent. Why then, do we continue to see a shortage of people of color in our companies and teams? Like other industries, our research indicates that LA tech companies over-rely on their own homogeneous networks to find talent, with most employees finding out about their jobs from a friend. And when companies DO target candidates of color, they often just prioritize HBCUs and LSIs – overlooking Black and Latinx talent at our own local universities. We all need to evolve from this antiquated and unjust model. 

More broadly, companies need to recognize that talent is out there… it’s just not in your current channels. Talent may be at universities where you currently don’t recruit; from other industries with applicable skills; people with training outside the conventional four-year degree, etc. The critical question is, what creative approaches are you willing to take to open new deal flow or previously-untapped talent pools?

4. Business, as usual, creates injustices.

We’ve learned that one of the primary questions of any justice and equity effort must be what are the inequalities in our workplace and what are our goals to fix them? This question is critical because we know that an unexamined company is often an unequal one. For instance, our 2020 PledgeLA survey revealed that LA tech companies show a gender pay gap in management even larger than the national average – for every dollar a man in LA tech makes, his female coworker makes just 71 cents. This gender pay gap is happening in a city that calls itself progressive. And to a great extent, we believe LA is a space that values equity. But good intentions do not necessarily create equitable outcomes.

As such, we’ve learned that we cannot stop these patterns of exclusion unless we’re willing to look for them. Too often, we’ve found that companies tend to believe their workplaces are healthier than they really are. For example, we see hesitancy and sometimes push back on our insistence on collecting in-depth annual data re: each company’s demographics, pay equity, employee sense of belonging and social impact. If things are going so well, why are people afraid to face the data? After three years of work, we stand firm in the conviction that real DEI work looks like seeking out inequality and addressing it. Instruments like the PledgeLA survey not only allow us to find those sneaky inequities that harm company culture and morale but also interrogate why inequalities are there and deal with our own views, beliefs, or voting patterns that allow these inequities to be. And just like we’ve always done, PledgeLA provides these tools to our member companies at no cost.

5. Your employees are hungry for this work... and your future hires will expect it.

Leaders can sometimes be apprehensive about diving into DEI action. We’ve talked about #FOFO – or the “fear of finding out” – that many leaders face when beginning a journey towards self-examination. FOFO emerges especially when companies make proposed changes to promote diversity and belonging. The concern is that if we open Pandora’s box and reveal fundamental problems with our practices, maybe we won’t ever be able to close it again. In our three years, we’ve found that employees don’t share these concerns. They are eager to let their voices be heard and, even more so, to get their hands dirty to make a change. And while company leaders might hesitate to send out the annual PledgeLA survey to their staff members, we’ve found that those who do repeatedly receive responses at rates much higher than typical survey data. In addition, when we placed a call for mentors – to support marginalized college students on their career path, we had such an enthusiastic response, we had to turn mentors away. This is evidence that your employees are experiencing the discussions around racism and justice, and are hungry for ways to get involved. 

Moving forward, we’ll be challenging our PledgeLA member companies to see employees as a vital source of energy and ideas, asking: how can you mobilize employees to accomplish your equity goals? We plan to call for 50 more mentors for this year’s program and will offer additional training to ensure our mentors support students’ goals and needs. But, the overall lesson is that leaders who hesitate to dive into equity and justice work neglect the hunger and passion presented by members of their teams. Finally, engaging staff around internal DEI work must be optional, compensated, and shared equitably across the company. As we said before, it’s everyone’s work – so if only underrepresented staff are doing the labor, you’ve got it wrong. 

6. Team size matters.

So much of the attention on DEI has focused on the mega-tech companies of the world, but we’re learning the importance of baking in equity at an early stage. We’re planning to spend even more time and resources with small, early-stage, and mid-sized companies (less than 150 people); they are, in fact, the majority of all businesses, even though the media focus is often solely on tech behemoths like Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Being a small team is not an excuse to ignore equity. Even before a company enters the growth stage, leaders still need to interrogate their internal frameworks that determine critical choices like hiring decisions, collaborations, product direction, marketing, etc. For example, what does it say about a company’s culture or hiring practices when the first ten employees are all men? Even more urgently, small companies must prepare for decisions they will need to make in the future and how they’ll approach these decisions with an equity lens. 

Regardless of stage, we find that a critical question all companies can answer is how aware and willing are you to change your paradigms and patterns around hiring, compensation, and company culture?

7. This work is more relevant than ever... and LA provides lessons for us all.

In late April, some tech leaders decided to opt out of social impact work. We fear that this privileged stance to ignore current events will not only marginalize staff members of color, but lead to a more significant trend in the industry of white male founders erroneously deciding they have no responsibility to the rest of the world. This is especially unfortunate because the need for companies to take a stance on the future of work is more necessary now than ever before. Nationally, the country is experiencing whiplash from state-sanctioned violence against Black and Brown citizens. Meanwhile, the nation’s inability to confront racist rhetoric has led to a litany of hate crimes and terror against Asian Americans. In our home of Los Angeles, the pandemic rendered thousands of workers unemployed and created new dilemmas around caregiving and homeschooling. These collective crises make one thing clear: at an industry level, this is certainly not the time for businesses to opt-out of concern for their communities. As many on Twitter have pointed out, the personal is political. Taking a stance or holding space to mourn racialized violence isn’t political correctness. It’s a small way to acknowledge the many ways that Black, Asian and Latinx communities are emotionally taxed and over-extended. We have an opportunity to redesign the way corporations interact with society; failing to do so ignores the ways that business has long been an engine of oppression, our climate crisis, and social inequality. Now is not the time to give up and think of DEI as a thing of the past; this is the moment to leverage what we’ve learned through this handful of years that corporate culture has paid some semblance of attention to these long-standing issues. Our community is pushing us towards difficult conversations around our relationship to policing and security, providing equity for all employees, and redistributing power. How can you amplify community voices around these topics and within your sphere of influence? For those who are ready to take the blinders off, one key place to start would be asking: In what ways did the pandemic and other recent events reveal inequities in our organization? How do we create a new normal to deal with these challenges?