Experiencing SXSW – Insights into Tech, Data, Diversity
A Q&A with Mark Taguchi
Just back from a whirlwind trip to Austin, TX, Mark Taguchi, MLT’s VP/ Managing West Coast Director and resident trendsetter, shared his experience at South by Southwest. Mark joined Professor Maya Beasley, CEO of T10, and Guy Primus, CEO of The Virtual Reality Company for a panel discussion: “Beyond Transparency – Leveraging Diversity Data.”
You’re just back from the South by Southwest conference? How cool was that?
As business travel goes, it was a very cool experience. You hear a lot about “intersectionality” and “convergence,” and this is the one conference that brings it all together. It lives up to its reputation and delivers.
What do you mean?
It’s the one conference where all these things – tech, entertainment, art, sports, movies, music – diversity and civil rights – all converge. This is what makes this experience unique. It’s an incredibly stimulating environment where you get to see, meet and learn from so many diverse people. Each brings their voice and perspective to the mix, adding to the richness of the event. Being different is normal and everyone is valued. You can be your authentic self.
It sounds a bit overwhelming.
It is! There are so many astonishing things going on at any one time – concurrent sessions, concerts, meetups, dinners, parties, demonstrations, keynotes. And, it’s all the in-between conversations with so many people. So much to choose from and so little time. But all worthwhile.
Tell us about your panel discussion. What were some of the takeaways?
Four years ago when tech companies began releasing their diversity numbers, the results were disappointing. For the most part, they still are. Not much has moved. But when you look beyond the numbers, you can see that change is taking place. Companies were pressured to release their data initially from the outside.
When they first began releasing the data, there was a sense of relief because they could all hide in the pack knowing that they weren’t the only ones doing poorly on diversity. But that initial transparency opened the door to continuous attention from the media, outside critics, and most importantly, from inside the companies. That level of scrutiny is a good thing. The pressure for transparency – including peer pressure with other tech companies – keeps these companies in the limelight. That keeps people attentive and focused on diversity. Releasing diversity metrics – even disappointing ones – creates accountability and gives employees more reason to support these companies as they work to make good on their commitments to change.
Were there any new issues about diversity?
I think people are hungry for tangible actions. They want to do better, and they want to know what to do. People have already heard a lot about diversity in general. What people are looking for is, “Now what?” What’s working? What are examples of new approaches? People want bolder thinking and brass tacks to get it done.
Your panel discussion was about data. Any new insights there?
One insight I shared is that you can’t make meaningful decisions based on flawed data. And a lot of diversity data is flawed because bias is built into the data. That bias in the data maintains the status quo. For instance, if only eight percent of the tech workforce are black or Latino, and you decide that’s the “addressable market” on which you peg your hiring goals and decisions, then you are making a big mistake. You’ve now optimized to keep the status quo – to be average. There isn’t a single company in Silicon Valley that says they’re shooting for the market average in their business – to just stay at the status quo.
Every company here is trying to increase the addressable market, to grow their share of the market, or both. To make a change, you have to shoot for a much higher target: MLT aims for critical mass of diversity at all levels in the organization.
I’m also interested in ways to make diversity issues be more inclusive.
Say a little more about wanting to “make diversity issues be more inclusive.”
By that I mean that often diversity efforts evolve into “us” vs. “them,” and the people we want to become more included with the majority actually become more isolated. Diversity and inclusion involve change – at an organizational level, a team level, and at an individual level. The people who hold the power to include or not – generally the majority – need to participate in that change. The more empathy and compassion they have for those not yet included, the more they are likely to effect change. We can also use language to change the narrative. People at SXSW spoke more about “underrepresented minorities,” rather than “diverse” individuals. Diversity implies different and separate, whereas there are many qualities and layers of meaning in “underrepresentation.” Language is fluid, so it almost seems more unifying to talk about underrepresentation.
Did you pick up any other kernels of wisdom?
Yes! When I advise our rising leaders about careers in tech, I explain the importance of teams – that great teams often move from company to company, startup to startup, and often their allegiance is stronger to the team than to the company. I recommend that rising leaders identify top people they would want on their team. More importantly, I recommend they build reputations of trust and respect with the best people so that when there’s an opportunity to join their teams, they get invited. The team concept for careers is the foundation for building a diversified portfolio of career opportunities.
I met an entrepreneur building a powerful recruiting platform that happens to have a lot of underrepresented minorities in its talent pool. The question he asks is, “in your list of contacts, who would you want on your team.” Brilliant!
Did you see many MLTers at SXSW?
Talk about representation! MLT was well represented in Austin with many accomplished alumni living there and in the surrounding cities of Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas. We got together over a dinner, fireside chat, and networking reception that Google hosted in their new offices in Austin! Waziri Garuba, who was MBA Prep 2007, organized that event and hosted the fireside chat with Marlon Nichols, who was in the same MBA Prep class and is co-founder of Cross Culture Ventures.
Several MLTers at SXSW spoke in sessions or represented their companies, and many MLT partners were there. I met up with Emeka Oguh, Career Prep 2001 and MBA Prep 2009, who is the Founder & CEO of PeopleJoy. It’s a financial wellness benefit provider, which offers a suite of tools and advice, e.g., helping employees manage their student debt. This is his second start-up (he sold his first company). Emeka told the story of being recruited into MLT’s Career Prep by John Stephens, before he became John Legend, and thinking, “I hope the singing career works out for him.”
HBCUs@SXSW had a packed program and gave scholarships to 150 HBCU students to attend SXSW. Just like last year, many of them were MLT Career Prep alumni. .
Tell us one last surprising thing about your time at SXSW.
I got to see the entire cast of “This Is Us.”