Editor’s Note: The following Q&A was originally published by Project Include, a community dedicated to accelerating diversity and inclusion in tech.
Why do you care about diversity and inclusion?
There are a few different ways we think about this at Asana. The first and most tangible is that it’s important to our employees. Many members of the team are from underrepresented groups and they want and deserve to work in an environment where they feel they belong. Additionally, the Asanas who do not have those backgrounds have clearly expressed that they want this kind of environment too (and explicitly do not want to work in a homogenized or “bro-y” office). The culture we create is part of achieving that, but the only way to fully succeed is to actually have a diverse group of people in addition to an inclusive one. So it’s important to the team that I’m responsible to, and therefore it’s important to me.
“Companies with more diverse teams are more innovative, make better decisions, and are more effective at achieving their financial goals. It’s a better way to work.”
Building a more inclusive workspace is also impactful to the business. Again, we see this as critical to creating a culture that attracts the best people in our industry—whether or not they themselves are from underrepresented groups. The only thing harder than D&I in the tech industry is recruiting, so at some level we can’t afford to not be inclusive. Research also clearly demonstrates that companies with more diverse teams are more innovative, make better decisions, and are more effective at achieving their financial goals. It’s a better way to work.
Finally, there is the bigger picture of social justice. We’re ultimately part of a much larger community and we need to manifest the change we want to see in the world. Progress won’t happen unless individuals and teams make it happen through everyday decisions. I feel strongly that the company I run contributes towards a more inclusive future, and I’m grateful that this goal accords with our business objectives.
What is the hardest part of diversity and inclusion for you?
The hardest part about D&I is that it’s hard! There are no shortcuts, no easy wins. You won’t see results without a lot of patience and persistence. We make progress one small step at a time, which is a big part of why it’s important to start as early as possible.
It’s been especially hard for us to achieve our goals in leadership positions, and the senior team at Asana is not as diverse as I’d like it to be. These positions only open up occasionally, so failing to fill one with someone from an underrepresented group is a huge missed opportunity every time it happens. Over time, we’ve been increasingly focused on those candidates first when we open up a new search, but empirically we haven’t gone far enough.
For people who are having a hard time with diversity and inclusion, what would you tell them?
Be persistent; if you defer this work because it feels hard and distracting now, you’re just setting yourselves up for a much harder (and eventually perhaps impossible) problem to solve later. Culture reinforces itself and becomes more rigid over time, so it’s important to nudge it in the right direction as early as possible. Moreover, building a large homogenous workforce is a surefire way to alienate candidates from underrepresented groups. They’ll definitely take note when interviewing, and that creates a negative feedback loop working against your efforts.
Don’t forget that you don’t have to do this alone. There are great organizations like Project Include and Paradigm that can help you find your way, and more are starting all the time. Take their advice!
What do you wish you knew about diversity and inclusion when you started? What would you tell other CEOs about diversity and inclusion?
At the beginning, I (naively) assumed that we would excel in our diversity goals naturally simply by creating an environment that is warm and welcoming to all. Good intentions and abstract support proved to be clearly insufficient, so the primary recommendation I have is to build a real program around it, with real resources and commitment. We hired a dedicated lead, Sonja Gittens-Ottley, when we were 175 employees, and I wish we had hired her even sooner.
Why did you join Project Include?
When Project Include started in 2016, we were already intimately familiar with just how difficult it was to create a diverse and inclusive company. We wanted the opportunity to learn best practices from experts and to share notes with other companies going down the same path, so that we could build on each other’s successes and failures.
“There are no shortcuts, no easy wins. You won’t see results without a lot of patience and persistence.”
On a personal level, it was really helpful to be able to connect in an open and honest way with other leaders about the issues. I left many of the roundtable discussions thinking “phew, it’s not just us!”
What is the most impactful thing you’ve done at Asana to promote diversity and inclusion?
Our Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) have become amazing communities. Even in context of the ways we’re fairly diverse, like gender, it’s not necessarily evenly distributed (e.g. there are still few women in the engineering org even though there are many in other groups), so it’s essential that there’s space and time set aside for people from similar backgrounds to come together. That’s also why this year, we launched an event series called Real Talk, which we host quarterly to bring the community together to multiply efforts across our peerset. The events focus on topical issues in underrepresented groups, and all are welcome to attend and take part in the conversation.
Allies are also welcome at many of the internal ERG meetings, and I aim to attend one each month myself. Participating keeps me attuned to the issues most important to our employees, and facilitates deeper empathy for the experiences they’re going through. The news cycles in recent years have been filled with stories of injustice, and I’m grateful to get a chance to understand these better via listening to the group and, more importantly, that they get the opportunity to commiserate and process what’s happening in a shared space.
We are seeing some white male backlash and bewilderment at the changing workplace—a sense of feeling that things are being taken away. Is there anything you would suggest to people to help them through these feelings, to help them process the changes?
Remember that it’s not just about you. Your coworkers, their families, and people all over the world are suffering because of deep structural injustices. You have to really engage with this truth and develop empathy to become comfortable letting go of the past.
In addition to doing this by attending the ERG groups, a big part of my own journey has been through media, particularly books. Ellen Pao, who we had the pleasure of hosting at our first Real Talk event, made some great recommendations in a recent Vox interview: So You Want to Talk About Race (Ijeoma, Oluo), Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times (Eyal Press), and Born a Crime (Trevor Noah). And her own book, Reset, of course belongs in the list as well.
Hearing about injustice in the abstract is psychologically easy to dismiss, but individual stories are quite impactful and will widen your perspective on the scale of the problem.