Diversity breeds innovation. Period.
It’s just that simple for Nicole Sanchez, VP of Social Impact at GitHub. Sanchez has been working to increase diversity in tech since before many of today’s hottest startups were even formed— yes, including Facebook and Google. From her position at AmeriCorps in the ’90s to her time spent operating her own diversity consulting firm, Sanchez has been diligent about bringing people from all backgrounds together. And not just because she thinks it’s the right thing to do. It’s because she has seen firsthand the astounding results that teams can achieve when they eschew homogeneity and embrace their differences.
Now, at GitHub, she’s leading a team that’s on the forefront of the movement for diversity and inclusion in tech — and their results speak for themselves. Under Sanchez, GitHub has hired more women of color (now comprising 10 percent of the company) and Latinos (6 percent), increased the number of women in leadership (35 percent) and partnered with a number of socially-minded companies creating world-changing innovations (think: 3D printed medical equipment) to name just a few.
We sat down with Sanchez to discuss how inclusion is tied to tech innovation, her vision for GitHub and what folks get wrong about diversity.
Glassdoor: How would you describe your role at GitHub?
Nicole Sanchez: Part of why my team is called social impact is because we’re focused on the benefits that diversity yields, and we know from lots of data that people who are building tech will build it to solve the problems they’re facing. We have plenty of apps that tell us how to find a date or get food delivered to our front door, but not enough around how to find clean water, track the health outcomes in your neighborhood or other things that impact communities of color. We’re aiming to diversify not just the company, but open source overall, because we believe that if you support an inclusive culture, the kinds of technical innovations we’re going to see will be very different in this generation. Another part of our mission is community partnerships with organizations like Maven, which teaches queer youth how to become involved in tech careers, and Code 2040. The third thing we do is leverage our platform for positive social change. We help more people come onto the platform to build a new type of disruptive technology that can solve problems that are faced by millions of people rather than just you and your cohort. And we believe open source is the way that’s going to happen. So my role’s not just about the diversity of the company itself — it’s about building a product lots of different people can use.
Glassdoor: What are some examples of innovations that diverse teams have created on or at GitHub?
Nicole Sanchez: There are several that I like to support, but one that blew my mind really early on was GliaX. They uploaded the specs for 3D printed medical equipment on GitHub, so technologists in conflict zones can access them. Getting a 3D printer in once and materials after that is much easier and more efficient — an entire stethoscope, for example, will cost between $2.50 and $5 to produce as opposed to having to order thousands of dollars’ worth.
Another one is REFUGE restrooms. At a hackathon hosted by Trans*H4CK, some gender nonconforming and transgender folks built an app that allows people to crowdsource safe, free public restrooms. We know that violence can and has often occurred in bathrooms when people have been misgendered or forced to use a bathroom that doesn’t match the gender with which they identify. And on this app, you can open it and walk down the street and see where there’s a safe space to use a restroom. It’s so specific in terms of being a problem, but the solution is so elegant, relatively simple and impactful.
We’ve also supported a major initiative in the United States with the former administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) called ConnectHome where we helped connect 28 communities living in public and HUD-assisted housing with internet in their homes for the first time — we put about $500,000 and several thousand hours of staff time into that. Once they were up and running, we made sure they had access to GitHub and sent people out to do training and introduce them to careers in technology.
The list goes on and on, but those are some of the things I like to highlight. It helps people understand that Social Impact is not just the philanthropic arm of GitHub — while that’s true, we’re also connected right back to the business. If we’re not investing in a more diverse group of users and employees, we’re going to be left behind in an increasingly crowded space.
Glassdoor: Many companies blame a lack of diversity on “the pipeline problem.” In your opinion, what are the real reasons that companies aren’t succeeding in diversity?
Nicole Sanchez: It’s a lot of things. Here’s the quick version — diversity is not one of those things that will stick if you treat it like an ancillary exercise. People think diversity is about recruiting and hiring, so they’ll stick it over in HR and be done with it. It’s usually kept very far away from the CEO. If your mandate is not coming from senior leadership, though, your ability to create a truly diverse staff and an inclusive culture plummets… I’m not looking for CEOs to know how to [drive diversity initiatives themselves] yet, but what this sector needs is CEOs who clear the path for experts to come in and do the work. In coming to GitHub, one of my requests was that I report directly to the CEO, and I do. It clears a path for my team to explain what we’re trying to do and get the resources we need, and it indicates to the company that this is as important of a business initiative as finance, sales, engineering, etc., which has allowed us to recruit a much more diverse crowd of people than ever.
Another thing is if you ask people who are [inexperienced] to do this, it’s not fair. Right now, it’s seen as a talent acquisition function just like anything else and that’s not the case because [it involves] everything from the brand and credibility of your company to its reputation… A lot of tech companies don’t realize communities of color talk to each other. We have networks and events and we know which companies our friends and family have gone to. Many tech companies don’t have this network because they’ve stayed so homogenous for so long. Clemson University turns out the most black Computer Science Master’s students every year in the country, but [tech companies] don’t have an in, and can’t figure out why someone from Clemson wouldn’t want to come all the way to San Francisco to work for their hot startup. They don’t have a good narrative for that and don’t know how to talk about it, and this is where they ultimately fail.
The last thing I’ll say is that I think there are companies that want diversity, but also don’t want anybody to feel uncomfortable. And I don’t know how to do that because this is hard stuff society is working on. One of the first things Social Impact at GitHub did was say we’re going to normalize conversations around race, class, gender, sexual orientation and religion, and that was new for a lot of people. It made some people very nervous, but others relieved because they’d never been at a place where they could talk about these things. That was a major first step in trying to do things differently.
Glassdoor: What would you say to companies that acknowledge they may not be diverse in terms of race or gender, but say they make up for it in diversity of thought?
Nicole Sanchez: Diversity of thought is a huge cop out for a lot of reasons. You have diversity of thought any time you put two people in a room together, even if they’re twin brothers. The problem is if you don’t actively engage people on different parts of the human spectrum, you won’t get as wide a diversity of thought as you otherwise would. Being a Latina doesn’t make me think differently, but my experience informs how I look at problems… The blind spots people have on homogenous teams are not because they can’t solve a problem, it’s because they don’t even know that there is a problem.
Glassdoor: You’ve written that underrepresented minorities often “know we’re invited to your dinner party, but your house is not somewhere we want to hang out.” What can companies do to become more welcoming?
Nicole Sanchez: The first few key diverse hires have to be people who are willing to be the first ones in, and can still flourish and vouch for their experience. One of the key mistakes companies make is when they decide they want to diversify, they hire all junior engineers from underrepresented backgrounds. And these are the least experienced people, so the cultural implications are going to be different than they thought. It’s not about the actual work itself — it’s about “I don’t feel comfortable here and I can’t put my finger on why.” It’s better if your first Latina in, for example, is someone who has been doing this for 20 years and can help demystify for other Latinas what’s going on and what we’re trying to fix.
And remember that not every black and brown person wants to be working on that. There are so many people from underrepresented backgrounds who are hired to be something else (a marketing manager, an engineer, etc.) but they’re pulling double duty as a diversity expert. And that’s terribly unfair.
Glassdoor: What else do people “get wrong” about diversity and inclusion?
Nicole Sanchez: People often say, “I don’t care if you’re black, white, red, green or blue — if you’re a good enough engineer, I’ll hire you.” And that’s just not the case. If it were, our numbers overall would look way different than they actually do. Most companies have continued to pattern match and mainly only hire white engineers. People sometimes ask me, “How far do you want to go with this?” and I say “I don’t know, but we’re nowhere near the line.” If your employee statistics were to mirror the demographics of the United States, we would still have a really long way to go. [When people feel threatened by diversity], I think it’s much less about that being a reality and much more about the feeling of having new competition.
Another thing I hear people say is “you think all white men are the same.” I clearly don’t think that. I chose one white guy to marry. If I thought all white guys were the same, I would’ve just picked anyone walking down the street, but I didn’t — I chose my husband! [Comments like that] are about people feeling threatened by a changing world and demographic much more than anything that has merit.
Glassdoor: You probably get asked questions about diversity like this all the time. What’s one topic you don’t often get asked about that you wish you would?
Nicole Sanchez: One thing I’d like to talk about more is diversity numbers. It was good in 2014 when companies released their numbers, and they are a snapshot of a moment in time, but they only tell one part of a story. And you can tell more of a story with more data. I’d like companies to report on year-over-year retention rates. If in 2015, 3 percent of employees are African American and it’s the same in 2016, people often ask, “Why haven’t they grown?” But what people don’t know is that it’s often not the same people. The turnover is so great that some of these companies are having to dig the hole and refill it, which tells you a lot about their culture. So we have our data people [at GitHub] not just measuring how many people we have total, but also the tenure of people and how quickly they’re turning over. Right now, the outlook is good in terms of our retention. We’re much smaller than a lot of other companies who are doing this, but I’m interested in getting to the next level of companies reporting on what’s really going on. Are you able to keep the people you hired two years ago? That’s a much more interesting story to me than the growth numbers, even though those are important.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.