MLTer’s recognized as part of “40 under 40” – Justin Steele
Can you briefly tell us about your career path/story to date?
Growing up, I was a sensitive, brainy kid who thought a lot about how to improve people’s lives. I’ve also always enjoyed puzzling my way through how things work. A curious mind took me to engineering school and a management consulting job out of college to get better at wrestling with complexity, but my lived experience eventually drew me into the social sector to work for justice in socially and economically excluded communities. In order to set myself up to influence social change at a large scale, I enrolled in the MBA/MPA dual degree at Harvard, after which I spent four years helping lead the Washington D.C. site of an IT job training nonprofit called Year Up. I joined Google.org three years ago to pull together my background in engineering, strategy consulting, and nonprofit management in order to advance social change.
What do you do at Google?
I lead U.S. philanthropy for Google.org, the charitable giving arm of Google. I manage over $20M of local grantmaking in major U.S. cities with Google offices as well as a national racial justice portfolio that I created in 2015.
When you think back to your MLT experience, what stands out in helping you achieve your success?
I played sports a lot growing up, and I learned early on that confidence has a huge impact on performance. Whenever I got into a shooting slump on the court, I knew it was less a reflection of my ability and more a reflection of whether I had the confidence to play at the highest level. Because I do not have many people in my family who have held influential positions in business, I have had to go on my own journey to find my place in business sector and feel like I truly belong. MLT gave me the confidence I needed to own my place within business school and future leadership positions in management.
How has your MBA helped propel your career?
I have always been someone who challenges the status quo, particularly when it comes to standing up for justice and insisting that “good enough” is not good enough. When you are someone who rocks the boat, you attract a lot of attention from people who might prefer you not disrupt the equilibrium, and that often takes the form of intense scrutiny and attempts to undermine the perception of your competence. Having an MBA degree has not only helped me to raise the bar of my performance so that my work stands up to close examination, it also has helped me to hold on to influence when others might seek to raise doubts about whether my background qualifies me to challenge the norm.
Did you ever think you would be where you are today?
I always thought I would have a job cracking difficult science problems, but I never thought it would be at the intersection of social science and technology. I also come from a family of teachers and law enforcement officers, so I had very little concept of what opportunities even existed in business.
Anything you wish you had done differently?
I studied Chemical Engineering in college mostly because I enjoyed chemistry and didn’t have anyone encouraging me to explore other disciplines. Given how computer science is reshaping the world as we know it, I sometimes wish I had pursued computer science beyond my introductory coding classes in engineering school.
Since you know that MLT is big on people discovering their passions, what are you passionate about in your work? How do you bring that passion to the company?
My consistent passion has been to seek justice for people who are being unfairly excluded from opportunity. I bring a justice lens to much of my work at Google.org, including an effort I founded to fund racial justice innovators in the U.S. I am proud of the fact that Google is one of the only companies in the world funding #BlackLivesMatter and Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative.
Share briefly your experience so far in Silicon Valley. Include some of the things you’ve learned or discovered. How long have you been in Silicon Valley and what changes are you seeing?
Silicon Valley is a magical place. I draw a lot of energy from the mass of talented people here striving to disrupt the status quo and make our world even better. Principles like a bias towards action, striving for big scale, and a commitment to innovation permeate everything we do, and it makes for novel opportunities in philanthropy and social impact. That being said, the lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity in tech is deeply disappointing and can leave you feeling lonely. I have tried to balance that by building a strong community inside the company through the Black Googler Network and outside the company in Oakland where I live.
How do you feel about winning this award?
It is humbling to be recognized among so many talented leaders in Silicon Valley. It is particularly gratifying to see those of us using technology for social impact in disadvantaged communities to be included in these lists.
With so much in the news lately about the need for greater diversity in tech, what advice do you have for someone who might be interested but unsure about pursuing a career in Silicon Valley? Anything you think that differentiates career paths in this sector from other more “familiar” ones – like finance or consumer packaged goods? Any advice for someone who may aspire to senior leadership in Silicon Valley?
Silicon Valley is one of the most dynamic places in the world to apprentice in the process of innovation, and I believe it is incredibly important for more talented people of color to become part of this network in order to lead the companies that will shape our lives in the future. It is a challenging place in which to assimilate, and many of the biases that permeate society exist (or are even magnified) here. To be honest, I am not sure if I would have been ready to succeed in this environment in my 20’s, but my experiences in consulting, graduate school, and nonprofit leadership gave me the confidence and sense of self to compete in Silicon Valley and be unafraid to challenge the status quo where I need to.
What’s next for you?
I have entered a phase of my career where my next step is more emergent than deliberately planned. The job I have now is one I could not have dreamed of, and I still have so much work to do here. Where that takes me next, only time and opportunity will tell!