Building a diverse and inclusive team should be a top priority of every growing organization. Healthy diversity practices not only give you access to the best talent but foster an environment where each member can shine.
But how do you make diversity a priority in your organization – and how can you ensure that your DEI&B programs are productive and built to last?
This month, we had the opportunity to invite DEI&B thought leader Albrey Brown as the guest for our December Fireside Chat. Previously serving as head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Airtable, Albrey has forged his career building belonging in top SaaS and software teams.
We’re excited to share some highlights from the talk, featuring his best practices for creating diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging within teams of every size and stage.
Years of building leads to belonging
After some early learning experiences building startups from his ideas, Albrey decided he wanted to take the development process into his own hands. He spent a year learning software development through a popular coding boot camp Hack Reactor and landed his first developer job with a well-known financial firm.
In his own words, Albrey “went from having zero earning power and not knowing how to code,” to possessing the skills necessary to start a new chapter in his career.
Two years later, they would welcome him as their Director of Diversity and Inclusion.
Hack Reactor's first Telegraph Academy coding class
The drive to succeed comes from a deeply personal place for Albrey. When his mother was diagnosed with cancer when he was 16, her one desire was to see her son graduate from high school. Her wish wasn’t just a race against the clock; at her diagnosis, Albrey had been at risk academically.
“I was the worst student — taking naps in the middle of the day, showing up late to class. I just didn't have my head on straight.”
Overnight, his mother’s diagnosis propelled him toward better grades and greater responsibility. “For me, that moment was really a moment of obligation,” he explains. With the help of teachers and tutors, he changed his course, rising from academic uncertainty to a top student and graduation speaker, fulfilling his mother’s final wish.
The meaning and power of workplace diversity
Albrey’s experiences have given him a unique perspective and approach to diversity. In his view, the truly diverse organization goes beyond simply hiring for good stats or delivering uplifting narratives (when they’re available).
It’s about recognizing the strengths and differences in each individual, celebrating the experience and world-view that makes them unique, creating equitable opportunities at every stage and level, and fostering a sense of community in which each team member feels welcomed, respected, and valued.
“That’s really the lifeblood,” he explains. “Making sure that everyone has an opportunity every day to learn from people who are different than them.”
If diversity recognizes difference, inclusion helps it shine. As Albrey sees it, “inclusion is really leaning in and learning about the things that make people different. Both subtly recognizing it within your company and helping bring that out, celebrating those things.”
Belonging, therefore, isn’t a practice, but a result. Albrey sees it as “the outcome of doing all of those things: bringing in multiple people with different backgrounds, making sure that they have equitable opportunities, and then celebrating their differences.”
These practices create a tight-knit community where everyone feels a connection to the whole.
Achieving better diversity in your organization
Diversity success can’t be achieved with a section in the employee handbook or a single point of action. The work of DEI&B is a continuous effort, with well-structured processes upheld by every member of the organization.
While diversity and inclusion may look different depending on your company’s stage and scale, Albrey sees a few central ways that companies can integrate it into their practices.
Taking this systematic view of diversity practices allows you to organically grow your organization into one that supports diversity and equity. This approach also allows your practices to scale.
Here are some of the most powerful ways Albrey and Airtable have been creating diversity and inclusion within their teams.
1. Build top-of-funnel systems to create diversity
We rely on systems to enable nearly every aspect of our business. From tech stack to product development to marketing, we rely on processes to improve our lives. People management should be no different.
Albrey challenges leaders to look at what they’re doing and say, “we've done [a specific function] the way we've done it since inception and it's been working for us. But what if it hasn't been working for us?”
Opportunities to challenge ingrained beliefs can help you reimagine the process in a more efficient and diverse way.
In Airtable’s case, this took the form of more inclusive hiring and referral practices.
Albrey and the team acknowledged that their previous referral process, though producing high-quality candidates, wasn’t helping the company meet its goals for diversity. They rebuilt the process from the ground up:
- Referring employees were challenged to refer not only their close contact but to tap their networks “for someone who was both amazing and underrepresented.” Under this model, the employee referred both of those people. Doing so allowed Airtable to “widen the pool of folks that we typically get, as well as continue to talk to the folks that are naturally in folks' networks.”
- Referrals were ranked on a tiered system, with a higher value placed on candidates with which referrers had tangible work experience than those who were second-level network contacts or simply those in the referrer’s sphere of influence.
- Referred candidates who met the criteria for underrepresented groups were automatically elevated to top-tier status, placing a higher value on diverse hiring potential regardless of network or personal connection.
Building an intentional system in this way allowed Airtable to bring more top-of-funnel candidates to the table while focusing on underrepresented groups as part of their process.
The structure worked for Airtable’s teams: Albrey reports a 25% bump in the number of underrepresented employees being referred on a quarterly basis.
Another way the company achieved this result was to incentivize diverse network-building. As a way to encourage professional networking, the company provided $60 stipends for “coffee chats,” available for any employee with interest in expanding their network to welcome in a more diverse crowd.
This initiative also found success with Airtablets; nearly 15% of team members used this benefit in its entirety month over month.
2. Stay open, transparent, and consistent (even when it’s hard)
Diversity measures often suffer a recurring failure: reporting stops when the news isn’t good. For this reason, Albrey is a strong proponent of telling an organization’s DEI story regardless of its twists and turns.
As Albrey explains, regardless of the narrative, “There is no point in hiding the bad at the end of the day.”
He promotes a simple antidote to the very human desire to omit the bad: Consistency.
At Airtable, the team is “sharing both our numbers and our tactics every quarter, no matter what.” This transparency is a necessary part of the conversation, “because at the end of the day, if we don't, people will have their own ideas about what's happening and there will be mistrust about what we're doing and why we're not talking about it.”
This consistent cadence helps the team tell an honest story and derive insights even when they miss the mark. Citing sunlight as the best disinfectant, Albrey reminds those navigating their DEI journey to avoid being “afraid of the places where you're weak or bad.”
The key is not to shy from these, but to find “motivation and conviction to make it better.”
When you’re met with resistance in sharing your whole, transparent whole diversity story, Albrey encourages diversity leaders to approach resistance with curiosity. Many times, resistance around DEI&B isn’t born out of reluctance, but apprehension.
Instead of taking a radical “tear everything down” approach, he instead starts asking questions to help surface their fears, and move them towards a world where DEI&B is empowering to them.
3. Be data-driven and story-driven
Data is the fuel that drives progress, and Airtable uses a data-driven approach to great advantage in building and monitoring the company’s DEI&B metrics.
Parsing the numbers in hiring and management can give you new insights into what you’re doing, reveal which efforts are paying dividends, and offer clues on reaching your DEI goals over the long term.
Understanding the numbers can help you get where you want to go as a company, Albrey says, but they only tell part of the story.
To truly understand the path you’re on and improve the power of quantitative metrics, you need the human side of the narrative. Qualitative data should work with quantitative data to paint the entire picture.
This is where open communication and good employee engagement systems can help.
- Even in the early days, Albrey encourages open communication through whatever channels make the most sense for your organization. This can be as easy as a system of Slack channels, where underrepresented groups can share insights, discuss concerns, and further engage in the important conversations around diversity and inclusion. As companies grow, the ability to scale and formalize these structures will be beneficial. However, in the beginning, the best approach is just to start.
- Employee surveys can give you a mix of qualitative and quantitative data from which to draw conclusions and build programs. For underrepresented groups, surveys can offer a chance to share insights for understanding the quantitative data.
- Communicating with employees from underrepresented backgrounds and seeking verification can help you contextualize the story the data seems to be telling. This practice doesn‘t just lend priority and a voice to underrepresented teammates but creates a culture of credibility. “Folks [will] appreciate that you came back with that transparency… you can dig deep into the nuances of that more quantitative data.”
By integrating these practices into your DEI&B journey, you can help your organization build a culture in which diversity is a priority, and your most valuable voices can be heard.
Make sure to read Albrey’s Fast Company article if you’d like to dive deeper into these concepts.