Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
Malcom Glenn, strategic partnerships manager at Uber Technologies, discusses what led him to join Uber and the work that Uber is doing to increase accessibility for people with disabilities as well as other diverse populations. Malcom shares his perspective on the Google memo, both as a man of color in the tech industry, as well as a former employee of Google. He also discusses his perspective on what needs to happen to create lasting change in the tech industry when it comes to diversity and inclusion, and expresses why he believes the tech industry will be a source of positive social change.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Malcom’s diversity story and how it led him to where he is today (3:06)
- The gift of being an outsider (5:33)
- How Uber is helping people with disabilities (14:30)
- The progress that Uber has made with accessibility issues (18:30)
- The transportation challenges that face underserved populations (26:25)
- How to increase diversity in the tech industry (34:00)
- The “doubled edged sword” inherent in the culture of tech companies (41:30)
- Malcom’s perspective on the Google memo (43:00)
- How change really happens in organizations (45:03)
- How to create sustainable change (46:00)
- Why Malcom is bullish on the tech industry as a place for diverse talent (50:30)
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Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Welcome to The Will To Change. This is Jennifer Brown.
My guest today is Malcom Glenn. Malcom is a strategic partnerships manager at Uber Technologies in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on policy and community engagement with national organizations.
Prior to joining Uber, Malcom was an executive communications manager at Google in Mountain View, California, where he developed strategic communications for Google’s chief financial officer and his leadership team.
Malcom received a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard College, where he was the president of The Harvard Crimson.
Malcolm, welcome to The Will to Change.
MALCOM GLENN: Thank you, Jennifer, I’m happy to be here.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m really glad to have you here on a personal level, and also with all of the wisdom and insight that you’re going to be able to provide today. In particular, relating to your role at Uber and your tenure in the tech field. We’ll dig into that in a moment.
First, we always start at The Will to Change with our diversity story. As we say, everyone has a diversity story, and it’s not always the story that you ascribe to people based on what you’re picking up about their identity. It can be a lot of invisible things about who we are and things that we, perhaps, have kept to the side, downplayed, or struggled to bring along with our full selves into the professional sphere.
I’d love you to take us back. Tell us about your background, perhaps where you worked early in your career, and your diversity and inclusion journey on a personal level.
MALCOM GLENN: That’s a great question, Jennifer. Quite frankly, it’s a story that has evolved over time. To start at the very beginning, I was born in Denver, Colorado. I’m a person of color. I’m black. I’m very used to being one of a few people who looks like me in a whole host of different environments, whether a school environment, involved in extracurricular activities, and as I went on through my education and my career in a host of different places. Very early, I became extremely aware, and quite frankly, just used to being one of only a few people who looks like me in a room.
Over time, I’ve realized that what you look like is just one component of who you are. I realized that diversity is a lot bigger than the aesthetic. I discovered that there were lots of people who perhaps didn’t look like me, but had a lot of similarities to me. And there were people who did look like me, but came from completely different backgrounds.
One of the things that was really interesting, particularly early in life, was that people saw me a certain way, but there were a lot of things that they didn’t know about me. For example, I grew up in a single-parent household. It was a unique experience getting to know people and then discovering that I was raised by just my mom. That wasn’t something they could necessarily tell simply by looking at me.
As I have gotten more involved in my career, particularly working in the corporate and tech space, I realized the value and importance of recognizing that diversity and inclusion means not just what you look like, not just how you appear, but also your background, your experiences, the invisible things that people don’t know about.
I was very aware of making environments where I worked and where I had some role in who was going to be involved in what people were doing as inclusive as possible. Particularly in the last couple years in my career trajectory, I’ve realized that’s a much bigger world than I had even realized in the first place. It’s actually been quite rewarding. It’s helped me broaden my own view about how to really open up an environment to be inclusive of every type of person who may be interested or who may be beneficial to that environment itself.
I’ve been appreciative of the fact that I’ve had a pretty wide awareness of diversity and inclusion just based on my own background. But then through my own experiences, I’ve realized that it’s much bigger than even I realized. Through that evolution and new encounters, I’ve been able to educate people around me about making sure that when we are inclusive, we are inclusive of all different potential backgrounds and experiences when we’re thinking about bringing people into our environments.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s beautiful. I call it the “gift of the outside.” The gift of being an outsider forces you to really think about how to build bridges, build trust across difference, and be that role model. It teaches us also how to talk about diverse identities in a more nuanced way. As we do the work of bringing more of ourselves into the frame and utilizing it as part of our story, we become better advocates for others, and have an ability to monitor for inclusion around us at all times. It doesn’t surprise me that you grew up where you did in a family that was less represented from a structural perspective, and perhaps stigmatized as well, but you took that and learned how to then advocate and bring other voices and be conscious all the time about how to do that.
What do you consider the gifts of being an outsider through a career as a communications executive? I think it’s especially intriguing because your job is to make meaning out of all of these different pieces, make it personal, make it resonate. Did that equip you with some particular leadership skills and competencies that are useful to you in this day?
MALCOM GLENN: Well, Jennifer, I appreciate you referring to it as a gift. It’s not something I hear very often, but I think that’s exactly right. One of the things I think is important about someone in a position like mine doing things like communications and telling stories of others, is really being able to put yourself in the perspective of someone else. Being a part of a community that is underrepresented, however you define underrepresented, is exceptionally important in being able to put yourself in someone else’s position.
I don’t know if this is necessarily what spurred me to get onto the path that I’ve been on, but I think it has been helpful. Even very early in high school, I became extremely involved in my school newspaper. It was something that I ended up doing in college as well.
The reason I liked doing that is I liked telling the stories of others. Something that makes one good at telling the stories of others, whether that means you are a reporter or someone who works in communications and public policy like me, or someone who represents the needs of other communities, or someone who writes stories like a novelist, being able to put yourself in the position of others is very important. Being a part of a community that is not as well represented, by definition, makes you put yourself in the position of others because the perspective being put forth by most people is a different perspective than you would put forth. It helps you broaden your mind, it helps you think outside the box, and it helps you get better at telling stories. That’s an elemental component of what I’ve done for the better part of my professional career, first in communications, and in the last couple of years shifting towards public policy. I think the two are actually probably cousins of each other, so there’s a great deal of overlap. I don’t know that I would have gotten into this arena had I not come from the background that I have, but I certainly think it has helped me understand how to tell the stories of others much better than I would otherwise.
JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely. I’m curious, going back to your own thinking about diversity and the broadness of the ways that we can be diverse was even surprising to you as you moved through your career. What was your edge? What were some of the surprises about the nuances and the language that we have about diverse identities? I’m sure at Uber you’re doing cutting-edge work around understanding the definitions of diversity, but I think often we default to understanding it as race and gender. I spend a lot of time pushing into that and expanding it, not just for my audiences, but for myself. I’m constantly learning new words and ways to refer to communities. What was your edge? What is it today that you see on your radar screen and say, “Wow, I haven’t thought about diversity that way. That’s a new domain that I need to understand”?
MALCOM GLENN: Yes. I can tell you about one example which ties into why I came to Uber and what inspired me to get into this work and how it’s evolved over time.
I used to live in San Francisco. One of the things I noticed about San Francisco is, certainly on paper, it’s this city that has this reputation for being a city that is open and inclusive to all. In a lot of ways, that’s absolutely true.
One of the things that the city actually does a relatively poor job of is building systems that take care of its least well-off. One of the central tenets of being inclusive is making sure that you’re taking care of and being inclusive of the people who are least well-off, however you define that.
In San Francisco, this manifests itself in large part around housing and transportation. Certainly, I don’t have to tell anyone, particularly in the U.S., about the amazingly expensive housing market in the San Francisco Bay Area. A lot of that stems from the fact that over the course of many years and many generations, there’s been a lack of willingness from local government to invest in the infrastructure that makes housing less expensive. In short, there’s rising demand, but there hasn’t been a willingness to build out the supply.
When that happens, what I saw when I lived there was huge swaths of people who have lived in neighborhoods for many, many generations being priced out of where they lived, where their parents lived, where their grandparents lived. As a result of that, they lived further and further away from where they worked. In the absence of robust public transportation, it made it much more difficult for these families to maintain the jobs that they needed to survive.
What I saw was in the absence of that infrastructure investment, there was a unique opportunity for a company like Uber to come in and serve the needs of these people. These people were disproportionately low income, they were disproportionately black and brown. I understood from an infrastructure and transportation perspective how important having that safe, reliable, and affordable access to transportation was for these communities.
That was part of the reason I joined Uber. I saw up close the impact that it was having on those communities. Now, this was an interesting perspective for me. On the one hand, I looked a lot like many of the families that were being priced out of these neighborhoods, but on the other hand, at the time I worked at Google. I was, by many accounts, the very person who was helping raise these housing prices, the very person who was helping to gentrify these neighborhoods, the very person who was a cause of these people being priced out of where they lived.
For me, it was interesting. There was a unique intersection where I both represented the tech industry that was changing the fabric of the city, but I was also a person from one of those underrepresented groups who was really struggling as a result of those changes.
I came to Uber, in part, because I wanted to help communities like that with some of their issues around transportation and mobility.
What I realized when I got to Uber is the number of groups who have massive issues and barriers to transportation and mobility are huge. A couple of examples which I hadn’t thought of in a deep way are people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, a central tenet of the law was accessible and equal outcomes around transportation.
When I got to Uber, I began to get much more involved in how we could solve those problems for people with disabilities. I thought the same about older Americans. The notion that people who have driven their entire lives, but oftentimes have to have their keys taken away. That’s a hard pill to swallow for folks who have had independence and mobility most of their lives. To what degree can a company like Uber begin to solve some of those issues around mobility for older Americans? How can we make the app and the platform more accessible for people who are not as well versed in using smart phones and technology?
I entered into this work understanding that we have a real opportunity to serve the needs of what I like to define as “underserved populations.” But I didn’t realize just how widespread the group of underserved populations is. I have been really excited as I’ve worked at Uber, and as I’ve spent more time in this space, to understand that the underserved is quite a large group. If we’re really thoughtful about all of the different ways, and all of the different groups within that group, we can begin to come up with some creative and innovative solutions to these problems.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m so glad to hear that the company has made this a priority in the form of you and all the investment being made. I couldn’t agree more. There is so much data to support the sheer size of the older market generally, and the disabled market is enormous, underserved, and poorly understood. It’s exciting to hear that you’re focusing on this. We’re being asked to do a lot more on the consulting side when it comes to diverse talent in the diverse ability space, and thinking about the dynamics of attracting and retaining people with diverse abilities in order to then turn around and better serve communities, customers, community partners, and constituents with diverse abilities as well. It’s a virtuous circle.
You mentioned, too, when you started at Uber that your focus area was identified as riders and drivers, but over time it’s evolved to touch the employee population. I’m curious about how Uber is doing the work externally with its constituents, but also maintaining and growing its employee focus on diverse employees. How is Uber defining those these days? Whether it’s affinity groups, or a network for people with disabilities, how are all those touchpoints being connected into a virtuous learning circle for the company and for the audience?
MALCOM GLENN: Yes, that’s a great question. You’re right, I came to Uber almost two years ago. My remit at the time was to develop relationships with organizations and folks in the advocacy world, particularly those who represent the interests of underserved populations, particularly around ways that we can develop solutions for riders and drivers.
We made a ton of important progress around making sure that the app was accessible for riders, making sure that we were creating work opportunities, particularly those that were important and necessary for groups that struggle with significant underemployment from the driver perspective.
As we worked on those issues, we developed a working group internally, a cross-functional group at Uber that was focused. I’m part of the public policy apparatus at Uber, and there were folks from the communications teams, there were folks from the community operations teams. These are the folks who deal with support when riders and drivers have issues. There were people from our operations teams, these are the people who help drivers get onto the platform and make sure the platform is accessible. There were also people from the marketing team, who make sure that we’re figuring out ways to let riders know that the platform works for them and their needs.
This was a cross-functional working group of people who were heavily focused on how we can make the platform accessible for riders and drivers with disabilities. We got together internally, and as we began having conversations, particularly the conversation around corporate and internal diversity at Uber and writ large in the tech and corporate worlds, we realized that we had a unique perspective and could have a value-add internally as well.
I like to think of my job as twofold. One is to advocate on behalf of the good things that Uber is doing in the world to advocates and other folks externally, but also to take their feedback and promote the work that they’re doing and the feedback that they’re looking to see implemented internally to folks at Uber.
As I was taking back a lot of that feedback, one of the things that I was hearing from advocates was, “Continue to work to improve the platform from a rider and driver perspective, but what people in our community are also looking for is a stake in this growing corporate rocket ship that is Uber.”
I got together with a number of my colleagues from that cross-functional working group, and we had conversations with a number of folks involved in employee resource groups, ERGs, which are also known as affinity groups. For me, it was particularly interesting because I was already a prominent member in one of our ERGs called UberHUE, which is the ERG for African-American employees. What I realized was we have an opportunity to create a similar group for people with disabilities.
We came together and we created a new ERG for people with disabilities, it’s called UberABLE. I’m one of the inaugural board members for UberABLE. It’s become a powerful resource for employees with disabilities, but also folks who are allies, people who have an interest in how they can improve the experience for people with disabilities from the rider perspective or from the driver perspective, but also from the corporate perspective.
There’s another unique perspective that a company like Uber has, and a vested interest that we have in making sure that we have employees with disabilities and that we’re being inclusive for folks with disabilities in that we’re building a platform every day. We can work as much as we possibly can, and we can devote as much time and resources into making sure that the platform is accessible, but ultimately, the people who have the greatest expertise into how this platform is going to work for their communities are the people with this experience themselves.
We certainly have a vested interest in building a diverse and inclusive corporate environment. All the data and all the studies show that the more diverse voices you have, the better your end product is, whatever you’re creating. But we also know that people with learned experience are exceptionally good at making sure that the outcomes for that product are best at serving those people with learned experiences. If we’re trying to build an application that serves the needs of people who are blind or have low vision, let’s make sure that we have some engineers who are blind who are working on our team. If we’re making sure that we’re focused on building out a product that can serve the needs of people with wheelchairs, make sure we have wheelchair users who are helping build the products on the operations side.
We know that from a broad, macro perspective, inclusivity is going to be good for our business, but particularly when you’re building a platform, and particularly a platform that has on-the-ground, real-world ramifications every time someone uses it, instead of just building software and hardware, we’re building a logistics and operations apparatus. To make sure you get that right, you need to make sure that you have inclusive voices who are helping build that platform.
In part through the work of the ERG that we started, we’ve been hyper focused on getting folks into the building from an employee perspective who can help make sure that their learned experiences are taken into account. By doing that, we also include the platform perspective. So it’s this virtuous cycle whereby if you’re getting diverse and inclusive voices as employees, you’re going to improve your platform. If you improve your platform, then people from those communities will see that you have a commitment to this, which will want to make them become employees, and the cycle will continue to build on itself.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s the most perfect business case. It’s a clear line of sight and input to the product itself immediately that is the envy of business-to-business companies. They struggle with asking, “Well, who’s the customer?” The customer is another company.
MALCOM GLENN: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Whereas you are really on the ground, and it sounds like you’ve connected the employee insights. Who is at the table really matters, and making sure that you have that mix of people from the identity community and allies of that community partnering together to contribute insights that are real, practical, and actually showing up in the product in a short cycle time. It’s a beautiful thing.
Talk about employee retention. When you’re giving that kind of input and you’re being asked and included to play that role, that is the ultimate retention mechanism for diverse talent in particular. In much of corporate and much of tech, let’s be honest, they’re not represented well, especially in engineering teams, for example. You’ve got a wonderful, ready-made connection point there.
Back to your participation in the black ERG. Do you have a similar call to action or a similarly concise and powerful business case for that ERG? Each ERG struggles with the question of where they fit in, the burning platform they’re tackling, and how they’re tackling it. I know some constituencies feel like they are still on the margins or are not being included in critical decisions in the same way that perhaps UberABLE is touching the product — literally.
Is the business case similarly powerful, just very different in the ethnicity-based networks at Uber? And what work do we have to do there to make it an urgent business case?
MALCOM GLENN: The business case really does exist, and this hearkens back to some of the reasons why I joined Uber in the first place.
I can’t tell you the number of times, Jennifer, that I have over the course of my life simply tried to do something as basic as hail a cab, but have not been able to because of something equally as basic as the way I look. I don’t mean the way I’m dressed, but particularly the color of my skin.
The notion of difficulty in that space, particularly for African Americans, goes back as long as there has been transportation and cabs. The jitney service — which is an underground, less regulated transportation service that rose up in large parts of the northeast, particularly in New York — came about in large part because the widespread taxicabs in New York, oftentimes, didn’t serve black people. When they had open seats, they would literally not pick up African Americans, or they didn’t go to neighborhoods that were predominately African American like Harlem or the Bronx.
I have certainly heard the stories, and have seen first hand the difficulty of getting access to transportation as a black person.
When Uber came along, whether intentionally or not, it began to change the calculus for African Americans. I know there were some black engineers involved in the creation of the product in the early days, not a ton, but I know there were at least some who gave insight and expertise into how we could tailor the product to better serve the needs of African Americans.
For example, when you’re a driver and you get connected with a rider, you get a request from a rider saying that they need a ride. There are a couple things that people may not realize happens during that calculus that is intentionally put in place to remove some of the discriminatory barriers that have previously existed.
If I’m a driver and I get a request from a rider, I only see a couple of pieces of information about that rider. I see the rider’s first name and where they’re located. I don’t see their last name, I don’t see their picture, what they look like, and importantly, I don’t see where they’re going. In addition to basic discrimination based on race, location discrimination is a robust part of the taxicab experience. Again, that has disproportionately negative impacts on people who live in black and brown neighborhoods.
The Uber platform is especially designed to remove some of those pieces of information so drivers aren’t able to make those snap decisions, unconscious or not, about who they’re going to pick up and where they’re going to take those people. That’s made a significant difference for people, particularly in underserved neighborhoods, areas not well served by taxis and public transportation, and their ability to get around.
If you look at a city like New York, where something like 10 percent of taxi rides either start or end in the outer boroughs, meaning outside of Manhattan, Uber is a very different story. Something like 35 percent of Uber rides in the city of New York start or end in the outer boroughs. The degree to which people who have not had transportation are now able to get it through Uber is quite significant.
You can look at it from the other side as well. We’ve done a handful of snapshots of our driver population just to get a sense of demographics, what they look like, and where they come from. 60 percent of our drivers are people of color as well, and we’ve invested a number of resources and made a number of significant community relationships with organizations representing black and brown folks.
What we’ve seen is there is a nice cycle in that respect, too. When we recruit drivers from some of these underserved areas, folks who are looking for flexible work opportunities to drive for the Uber platform, they’re disproportionately likely to recognize and make special gains to serve the needs from a rider perspective in those same areas.
If you look to build a diversity of drivers, you realize that you’re getting a diversity of geographic areas from a rider perspective. That significantly decreases the difficulty that people from those areas have traditionally had in terms of getting transportation.
I don’t know if this is necessarily a remit for the UberHUE ERG, but certainly from my perspective, and that of a number of my peers, we recognize significantly the power that our platform has in improving the experience of our community from a transportation and work perspective. We’ve certainly taken those ideas to UberHUE, and it’s helped benefit the way we’ve thought about the platform internally and has also helped the platform be of better service to our community in the external world.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you for those insights and those numbers. It makes it real, and it’s an education for people listening to hear some things that aren’t widely understood or thought of, particularly the privilege that some of us have to be able to step on a curb, hail something, and not face discrimination in those very small moments of our everyday lives.
MALCOM GLENN: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: I want to ask about UberHUE. Turning the attention to the difficulty of attracting and retaining talent of color at employers like Uber.
You’ve highlighted the importance of the inside matching the outside, and vice versa, with organizational talent and constituencies or customers. That’s widely viewed as important, as you explained earlier, from the perspective of innovation, optics, and role modeling. People are able to see people who look like them in their organization, and know that they can succeed and move up the pipeline.
Unfortunately, as you know, in tech we are still looking at single digits for talent of color, in particular in technical jobs. Those numbers are really stubborn. They’re not moving year over year, notwithstanding some pretty sophisticated efforts.
In your opinion, why does tech struggle so much with the representation question? If you could wave your magic wand and somehow increase the demographic mix that we see in the staff and employee ranks in the industry, which we both agree is critical, what would be the one thing that you would focus on to make the biggest difference in unleashing that talent and retaining that talent over the course of their careers?
MALCOM GLENN: That’s such an important question. There are a number of different things that we can do. I’m going to focus on one that often doesn’t get talked about in the conversations that we have around diversity and inclusion in tech — the focus on employee referrals.
For folks who don’t work in the tech world, employees are often significantly incentivized to work to recruit people from their own networks to be a part of these companies. There is usually a very specific process through which you as an employee can submit the name, resume, and thoughts and comments that you have around that person for a particular role. It’s helpful for recruiters and the HR staff in getting people into the pipeline who an employee has a sense of for a role or specific team. That’s good, and it helps us as employees identify people who we know who would fit well and help improve the products and platforms.
Now, the problem with that is quite obvious. The reality of so many people is that our friend groups, our networks, people with whom we are associated are quite homogenous — homogeneous in whatever way you’re talking about, whether it’s the stereotypical ways about which people think about diversity, race, and gender, but in a whole host of other ways as well.
If companies are looking to their employees to draw on their networks, which are quite homogenous, and are given those employees very significant financial incentives to bring people into the company from those networks, I think it’s a little bit odd that those companies can then turn around and act confused that their employee populations are not becoming more diverse.
We need to make sure that we are looking beyond the existing networks of the employees if we really want to change the diversity calculation of these companies. I understand that there’s real value in employee referrals, and in the tech companies I’ve worked in, I’ve been a beneficiary of employee referral. I certainly understand that it does help get folks in the door, particularly folks from diverse populations.
The reality is if you are a company that says your percentage of African Americans, people with disabilities, Hispanics, or women is significantly lower than you would want it to be, and you’re asking a disproportionately male, able-bodied, white employee group to draw on their disproportionately similar-looking networks, you’re not going to change that calculus.
Understanding that we cannot depend so heavily on employees who are not diverse looking to their non-diverse networks to bring employees into the company, to me, it’s such a basic and elemental way to change the calculus. I don’t hear about that when I hear from companies around the diversity plans or the ways that they’re changing their internal policies. I think that would go a long way.
That’s one of a whole host of different suggestions that I would have for companies, but it’s one that goes to a very core psychology of the way that these companies have thought for a long time. It would be good to change that if we’re really serious about changing the makeup of our employee population in these tech companies.
JENNIFER BROWN: I know what the response would be to that suggestion. That kind of targeted strategy might be viewed by some as privileging some identities. Right?
MALCOM GLENN: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: I find myself constantly defending and explaining the rationale and the importance of particular strategies that some define as exclusionary. Often, they are challenging me about the importance of an affinity network and the very existence of a group.
I have to bring up the Google memo, of course I do. But one of the arguments for affinity groups even existing is making other people feel excluded just by their very existence. It’s amazing to me because the sheer emotional support that’s needed when you are the “only” on a day-to-day basis who looks like you. There’s an expectation that you just need to deal with it, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, this is a meritocracy, and you just need to work harder and everything is equal. That belief is still a very, very strong belief. We heard that loud and clear, among many other things, in the memo.
The other challenge once we get people in the door, if we followed what you’re saying, as a somewhat exclusionary strategy, which is needed and I think is brilliant. The math that you describe makes perfect sense if we truly want to diversify. But once we get people in the door, then we’ve got these stories that are breaking about the company’s leadership. Uber itself was embroiled in something that feels like ancient history at this point given everything else that’s happened in the last couple of months.
Every brand is getting itself involved somehow in a pretty uncomfortable and awkward public story that is causing a lot of feelings of disconnection amongst diverse talent in particular. Whether it’s a story about a female engineer, or a story about this memo writer and the impact of this memo on people who felt very singled out, and everybody else who feared they may be next.
It’s been a tough moment for morale of diverse talent who actually made it into the company, which is a miracle in and of itself. We know the odds are stacked against us, but then to be there and watch these stories break and wonder if the company truly supports you, wonder if your colleagues see you, and wonder whether your activities in the diversity networks like UberABLE are actually being experienced as discriminatory to others. It’s a very confusing time, I would imagine, because you’re working really hard to be seen and heard, but you are statistically a minority, and you’re trying to find community so that you can get the support you need. And then you’re being buffeted by the activities and what your leadership says, or doesn’t say, on the public stage — and all of it.
How have you all weathered the storm? When I say “you,” I wonder about the diverse communities at Uber. How was the Google memo situation interpreted? You’re also an ex-Googler. How has this all been absorbed by those communities? Where do you come out on all of it on a personal level?
MALCOM GLENN: It’s an area that, as you might imagine, I’ve thought about a ton, not just in the last couple of months, but over the last number of years.
The culture in a lot of tech companies is very much a double-edged sword. On one hand, you have a culture that encourages people to speak up and cares deeply about transparency. That was the case at both Google and Uber where we had a weekly town hall that was broadcast globally to all of our employees all around the world whereby teams would give a presentation about a project or a topic that was coming down the pipe.
Most importantly, at the end of the presentation, there would be an opportunity for all employees, no matter where they sat and no matter what they worked on, to ask any executive, including CEOs and founders, any question about anything that was on their minds at the company.
That was great. There were also a number of internal channels where if folks feel like they want to speak up about something, they had that opportunity. It’s certainly not something you see in many other corporate environments, but it’s something that is a robust element of many different tech cultures.
On the one hand, that’s great. On the other hand, that often encourages people to speak out in ways that are especially detrimental for communities that are less well represented. You saw that with the Google memo. We’ve certainly dealt with a whole host of these issues at Uber over the last number of months. These are things that the external world sees, and many people internally as well, but it’s particularly damaging to the external world when people are considering whether this is an industry that’s going to be accepting to them. It does create damage to efforts to recruit diverse talent to the company.
The response to these things is profoundly important in determining the way forward for these companies. You never like to see progress made as a result of something damaging, painful, or bad, but speaking as an ex-Googler, in the long term, I’m hopeful that the memo is actually going to be a valuable opportunity for the company to recommit itself to creating an inclusive environment for people who are underrepresented, while also balancing the desire that employees have to speak up, to be able to make unpopular opinions heard. It’s a hard balance. I don’t envy the leadership of Google for having to find that balance, but it’s exceptionally important. You need that transparency, but you also vitally need underserved communities to feel safe and feel included.
At Uber, it’s a similar situation. Certainly, the blog post that was written earlier this year around a number of horrible incidents that a former employee dealt with was painful for her, it was painful for other women and other underrepresented groups at the company, and it’s been painful for every single employee. All of the things that have happened since have been painful as well.
But one of the things that I’m really hopeful for, and forgive my naïveté, but this is a real opportunity for us to begin to confront a whole host of things. When you as a company are doing really well, when you’re growing like gangbusters, it’s a little bit easier to sweep these things under the rug. Sometimes it requires that real magnifying glass on the warts that a company has for you to really begin to engage with them.
Certainly, in an ideal world, we’d begin to deal with these issues without an internal crisis, but the reality is if it takes an internal crisis to be the company that we should be, then it’s good that it happened. It’s not good that there was a victim in this situation, and I’m certain that there were other victims who haven’t felt comfortable speaking up, but if we can minimize the number of victims going forward, if we can create internal structures that are truly inclusive for all types of people, then I’m happy that we went through these significant growing pains to get to that point.
Now, the jury is still out on whether we’re going to do that, whether we’re going to become the company that I know so many of us internally want us to become. Even just looking at the progress we’ve made in the last six or seven months, I’m optimistic about where we’re going to go. Candidly, it’s taken getting rid of some personalities that were toxic to the culture, and that’s quite painful. But it has put us in a better place than we were at the beginning of the year, and it’s going to make our prospects for success — and I’m not talking about business success, but prospects for success from the perspective of diversity and inclusion for everyone — much more significant than they were before.
Ideally, we would start to get this right. I’m talking about every company from the very beginning. Clearly, that has not been the case. How we respond to those difficult instances like the Google memo or the blog post that the Uber employee wrote earlier this year, that is defining in terms of how we’re going to go forward. It’s going to take some time, but I’m optimistic that as a result of the courage that victims of these horrible situations show, we’re going to come out better than when we started.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love your viewpoint of how change happens. We want to minimize the number of victims, and that word is powerful. I find myself thinking about the unintended consequences — or maybe intended consequences — of the public shaming of certain high-profile writers that you’ve been talking about.
MALCOM GLENN: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: There’s an undesired consequence of shutting down a lot of questions that need to be asked because they are on everybody’s minds and hearts. If we want change to be sustainable, we’ve got to pull as many people along in the movement as we can. We’re failing that if there are fundamental questions, doubts, cynicism, or skepticism about what we mean when we talk about diversity and inclusion. I think your example about UberABLE beautifully encapsulated what we mean when we talk about why this is important.
When you’re describing that, it’s not about biological gender differences that the memo writer wrote about.
MALCOM GLENN: Right. Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s not about special rights. It’s not about discriminatory or exclusionary practices that preference one group over another. It has nothing to do with that. It’s about making sure that we’re utilizing every asset that’s available to us in the most respectful way, and in a business-aligned way, so that we can keep the talent we’ve worked so hard to attract. We can make all kinds of people feel valued and able to give input, and we understand that a company’s role in communities can be powerful not just in terms of making money, but in terms of positively impacting social dynamics and discriminatory practices that have excluded, and will continue to exclude large swaths of the population. If companies are going after that, I get really excited. To me, that’s social business for good. Companies have so much weight to throw around when it comes to what they prioritize, why they prioritize it, and how they can move mountains in their product development and the way that they show up in communities that they do business with.
We should have that expectation of customers and consumers and employees as well. You’ve touched on all of that beautifully today.
I wanted to close, Malcolm, with one piece of advice. It sounds like you’re bullish on the tech industry as a place for diverse talent to come and thrive. It isn’t without difficulty, but is there one piece of advice you would give particularly younger people of any diverse identity around giving tech that look, and about not losing heart in terms of what they may be reading in the media and hearing on the news? Why is it an industry that you want people to come to? Maybe give us one piece of advice about how they should navigate that journey.
MALCOM GLENN: The reason I would say that it’s an industry worth considering is because the degree to which technology can innovatively improve the lives of people in so many profound ways, we’ve just scratched the surface of it. I’m quite bullish on tech being a source of good in the future.
To your question, I’m particularly bullish also on folks from underrepresented backgrounds having a place here. As much as it can be demoralizing to read what you see in the headlines and things like the Google memo that just make it seem like it’s becoming more and more difficult for folks who are “other” in some way to thrive here, I just cannot understate the degree to which the communities that exist within these companies are profoundly valuable in giving folks a sense of knowing that there are people who understand their experience, and who have thrived despite being the so-called “other” in these environments.
You may not see it from the outside, but there is a community, however small, for any type of experience you may have. The one thing I think about at Uber that sometimes doesn’t get talked about is when we talk about diversity, we mean diversity of backgrounds, too.
We’ve undertaken an interesting project whereby we’ve started to recruit drivers and employees who have certain criminal backgrounds. The notion being that you shouldn’t be judged based on the worst thing you’ve done, and you should be judged on how you’re going to do the job, and not on something that has no bearing on the job that you’re going to do.
What I’ve seen in that respect is the folks who are coming on board, whether employees or drivers who have some of these particular backgrounds, are thriving from a business perspective, but they’re also finding such great solace in other people who have their same experience internally. You may not see that in the headlines, you may not understand that that is something that the company is working on, but there is a community for almost everyone. Particularly when those communities are especially small, they’re even better at finding each other and giving each other resources and sharing ways to improve the experience. Understand that this community exists for you. That community is strong, and sometimes as a result of that community being small, that community is more determined and more powerful than you could possibly imagine.
As you’re thinking about whether or not to endeavor in a career in tech, understand that community is there. If you do decide to jump into this space, that community will support you no matter what for as long as you decide to work in one of these companies.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Malcolm. You just basically summed up the power and the importance of diverse communities in the form of affinity groups. As a member of the LGBTQ community in the workplace, I couldn’t agree more. It has supported me, taught me, advocated for me, and it’s been an incredible experience to be a part of that group, however small it is.
For our listeners, it may be tiny or nonexistent in your companies, but know that what Malcolm is talking about is a powerful experience that will change the way you look at your identity from a deficit to a positive. There is no value that can be placed on that, it is a priceless process of transformation.
Malcolm, I want to thank you for joining me on The Will to Change. This was fascinating. I learned so much. I feel better about being an Uber customer as well. It’s wonderful to see and hear the inside experience of somebody like you and what you’re all going after at the company. I look forward to inclusive transportation for all. Thank you.
MALCOM GLENN: Thank you, Jennifer. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about some of the things we’re working on, and look forward to continuing to see and hear about the improvements not just from Uber, but from the broader industry as well.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you.