Leadership & Management

“We Need to Stop Tiptoeing Around Race”

In this podcast episode, corporate diversity experts discuss the challenge of creating paths for inclusion.

October 15, 2020

In the midst of a powerful social justice movement, Quita Highsmith, VP and Chief Diversity Officer at Genentech, and Simone Hill, MBA/MA ’14, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion strategist at Omidyar Network, work to steer their organizations toward a new definition of corporate responsibility and leadership.

Moving the needle in the direction of racial equity, they say, will require a long-term investment, a willingness to “stop tiptoeing” around issues of race, and an updated corporate culture that allows all employees to be their authentic selves.


Full Transcript

Edited for clarity by Julia Rose Segal

Brian Lowery: Give me a sense of the sizes of your organizations and the diversity of your workforce and leadership.

Simone Hill: Omidyar Network is about 55 employees. Over the past two years, we have been focused on improving the diversity of our workforce; I think we’ve done a good job — not a great job. We’re a majority female organization, and underrepresented minorities such as African American and Hispanic people make up around 10% of our workforce. Our leadership team is currently quite diverse — it’s predominantly female and there are people of color like myself, which is something that we specifically worked on in our efforts last year.

Quita Highsmith: Genentech is based here in the Bay Area, so we have a high population of Asian talent. I would say we are about 50/50 people of color and people that are white. In the last couple of years, we have been much more transparent about what our needs are in terms of diversity in our leadership, and have started to release those numbers to the whole organization. We hope that this will allow people to see the challenges we are facing for themselves and we can begin to make a real difference. Recently, we set a goal around more women in leadership, and as a result now more than 50% of our most senior ranks (directors and officers) are female. We would like to go back and think about how we take the lessons we learned in increasing our female leadership talent for our black and Hispanic employees.

Brian Lowery: What exactly do you mean when you use terms such as “diversity,” “equity,” or “inclusion?”

Quita Highsmith: A few months ago, Genentech defined diversity as the visible and invisible differences that exist among all people. Inclusion represents a type of culture where everyone feels respected, and we define it by 3 words: respond, belong, and thrive. Equity, on the other hand, means giving fair access to everyone while taking into account the barriers or privileges that come with being of a certain race.

Simone Hill: At Omidyar, we believe diversity is all the ways that individuals differ from one another in both the demographic and physical aspects. It could be race, gender, ability status, identity expression, sexual orientation, or something else. We also think of diversity in terms of cognitive diversity — meaning, the types of industries or schools that people come from. We don’t want to be a place where you have to come from an Ivy League school in order to work for us.

On the equity side, I want to stress the difference between equity and equality. Equity acknowledges that people come from different backgrounds, different levels of privilege, have had different opportunities to succeed, and will need different levels of resources to be successful. Equality, on the other hand, gives everyone the same thing regardless of where they started. Inclusion is like offering someone a seat at a table, but not necessarily listening to what they have to say. When belonging comes in, your voice, your experiences, and all of the things that make you authentic are valued and amplified at that table; you’re not just a butt in the seat or there for numbers. That’s what we strive for.

Brian Lowery: To this diversity thing — I’m left handed, are you taking care of me? It just seems really broad — how do you identify what characteristics of diversity matter? Everybody is unique.

Quita Highsmith: Diversity and inclusion are multifaceted; it’s complex. But, we do know that there are systemic issues preventing black and Hispanic people from reaching their “seat at the table.” At Genentech, fostering belonging is one of our key pillars, but we are also advancing inclusive research to help equity. Right now, we have seen that black and Hispanic people are being disproportionately impacted by COVID. Often, this is because they’re the front-line workers and many do not have good healthcare. The work that we’re doing is not just about representation of people in a seat — it’s about the foundational aspect and how we spend our resources.

Simone Hill: At Omidyar, we’re working on both increasing representation and making sure that the culture makes people from diverse backgrounds feel that they belong. If you’re only focusing on the front of the problem, you’re going to have a revolving door of talent going right back out if they don’t feel that their voice is valid. We assess our workforce, and try to figure out what voices are missing, and not just on the physical side, but again, the cognitive side as well. So no, it’s not left-handed folks, but it’s assessing the problems that we’re trying to solve and figuring out who we need in the room in order to solve them.

Brian Lowery: As a Stanford professor, I present myself very differently at work than I do at home with my family. As a black man, there is code-switching involved in being in these different settings. When you are talking about belonging, are you telling me I could just show up to Omidyar or Genentech and act exactly as I do at home?

Quita Highsmith: For many years, I wore my hair in a relaxer because I thought that was the code to fit in. I finally decided that I no longer wanted to do that, and wanted to grow the hair that came out of my head and be who I was naturally. Sometimes we believe we have to change our appearance or who we are in order to work. But I believe that organizations are making changes, because they know if they put more diverse people in leadership, they’re going to attract more talent. People want to join companies where they see people who look like them in high ranking positions.

Simone Hill: Top talent is especially demanding of that now; they want space to allow them to be themselves. In order to get there, we have to dismantle a whole bunch of white supremacy. In my role at Omidyar, I try to be as authentic and vulnerable as possible. For instance, I say “y’all” as opposed to “you all.” Something as small as that opens the door for people to be more of their authentic selves.

Brian Lowery: If I’m coming to work at your organization with a PhD, I’m not going to start talking the way I talk at home at work because I care about my career, I want to be successful and I know how things work. What are you doing to change that for me?

Quita Highsmith: At Genentech, we hope to combat this by setting up interviews with our employees to gain a qualitative insight about what it is like to work for us as people of different ethnicities and races. We know we won’t be able to make people feel like they belong without understanding their unique experiences.

Additionally, we are now requiring all of our most senior leaders to have a diversity and inclusion plan of action. It can’t just be the Chief Diversity Officer and their team doing this work — it needs to be everybody, from the CEO on down. I’m happy to say that our CEO and executive council have been very supportive, but it is the middle managers we have to convince.

Brian Lowery: What do the leaders that you have worked with not understand about your work that you’d want them to know?

Quita Highsmith: People need to understand that diversity and inclusion must be budgeted - you budget what you value. Just as you have a line item for marketing and sales, you must have a line item for diversity and inclusion in order for people to take you seriously. Additionally, you should watch out for “friendly fire,” people who claim to support diversity and inclusion but don’t act upon it. You have to take people for what they actually do, not just what they say.

Simone Hill: You also must be in a space in which you understand that this will be a journey. If you could dismantle white supremacy in a year, I don’t think we would be in the situation we are in. You will get more wrong than you get right, but it is important to remember that this is a learning journey for everyone.

Brian Lowery: How has the recent surge in awareness of racial inequity affected you all?

Quita Highsmith: At Genentech, we’ve instituted dialogue circles, where we allow senior leaders and employees to come and just have a conversation — many people still simply don’t know how to talk about this. Our CEO had never put out a statement before, but really felt compelled to do so recently. Even though COVID has been a terrible pandemic, I think it has had an upside in that it has allowed us to sit still; we can’t escape this by going to the movies or shopping. Organizations have no choice but to face this head on.

Simone Hill: People are awakening to things that some of us have experienced our whole lives, and many people have to come to terms with their bias and privilege. Now that a lot of big companies have been coming out and supporting BLM, it’s important to see if their statements are performative or if they’re actually going to make changes. For me, the litmus test is seeing if they actually approach this from a systemic standpoint and start to make changes underneath the hood, or simply do one bias training and expect that to fix the problem.

Brian Lowery: Have any of you gotten any pushback on your efforts, and if so what does that look like and how have you responded?

Simone Hill: For us, we don’t get serious pushback, it’s more like polite inquiry — actual, genuine questions. We’ve been hosting trainings for our middle managers — because they’re the ones on the front lines, doing most of the hiring — and I think through our conversations we’ve been moving forward in terms of understanding and actual deliberate practice.

Quita Highsmith: There are people that just continue to say that we should hire the most qualified candidate. But what is the subtext? Are they saying that if someone is black or Hispanic they’re no longer qualified? There are still people in the organization that have not quite bought into this, and feel that people have to come from certain schools in order to be considered. There are over 5,000 colleges in the U.S., and if we continue to hire people from the same 3 schools we’re going to continue to live in an echo chamber where people who are similar to you are the ones who are hired. That’s not diversity, and that’s not how you cultivate the best minds.

Brian Lowery: There’s clear research and evidence that the disparities we’re talking about at the level of these organizations exist at all levels of society. There’s inequity all throughout the system. There are people who aren’t getting the seat at the table - not because they didn’t have talent - but because they didn’t have the opportunity, and now you can’t hire them because they aren’t qualified enough. Do you feel a responsibility to go deeper down the societal pipeline?

Quita Highsmith: We do. Genentech has an initiative called kindergarten to careers, where we put an emphasis in our charitable funding on kindergarten and secondary school. We know that there are systemic barriers that are preventing people of color from receiving the same opportunities, so we’re focused on starting from the bottom and working up.

Brain Lowery: Quita, I’m gonna stay with you for a second. You’re a big organization focused on maximizing shareholder value. Are you out there wasting resources on lobbying the government on behalf of issues of racial equity?

Quita Highsmith: I actually just sent out an email today regarding California’s Prop 16 and Genentech’s strong support of that. Not only are we supporting it with our words, but we’re supporting it with our dollars. We believe that race is a strong factor in college selection, and because much of our workforce comes from the California school system, we absolutely want to support opportunities that will make a fundamental difference in who that workforce is.

Brian Lowery: Simone, you work for a philanthropic organization. What do you think the role is of philanthropy in dealing with these big societal issues, and shouldn’t that really be the role of government?

Simone Hill: That’s a great question, because there are definitely people that also argue it should be on the multi-billionaires to do more. Our role at Omidyar Network, as a philanthropic organization, is to distribute wealth that we’ve been given back into society. We do that through our grant making, and view that as a huge piece of our work. The work that we’re doing — largely focused on re-imagining capitalism — is based on the understanding that we can’t do this work without centering race in our strategy. Specifically, through our funding and advocacy, we are trying to build an anti-racist economy. In tech, we are trying to incentivize more ethical behavior and equip workers with the tools to implement that when building their products. We believe pluralism is all about racial justice, and we really have taken racial justice and equity as core to us.

Brian Lowery: Would you like to leave us with any closing thoughts?

Quita Highsmith: We have to stop tip-toeing around race, and in our industry, health inequity. I think people have to realize the stark contrast between being an ally and being a change-maker. Where an ally simply says “I agree with you,” a change-agent must be willing to put their capital on the line, and confront issues headfirst. I’m asking the students and the people listening on this call to step up from being allies and be change-makers.

Simone Hill: To those on this call looking to do the actual work of diversity, equity, and inclusion: I applaud you. Get ready for the ride of your life. It will be some of the most exhausting and invigorating work that you do, but it’s so necessary. We are at a place right now where we are really just trying to fight for the soul of humanity, and it really does start with everybody taking the time to confront their own issues, privilege, and bias. We all have it - even as a black woman, I have bias. Being willing to do that work personally, and become more aware so that the unconscious becomes conscious, is essential. It will also make you much more comfortable and able to have conversations with others on this topic, and allow you to help educate others.

This is Leadership for Society: The Podcast, a series of conversations hosted by Brian Lowery, senior associate dean for academic affairs, which focuses on the most pressing issues of today. In this season of the podcast, Lowery explores the role of race in society, how race interacts with structures of power, and how systemic racism manifests itself in day-to-day business and policy decisions.

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

Explore More