As noted in previous articles in this ongoing series to mark Black History Month, the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor saw the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement gain huge momentum in 2020. The start of 2021 has been seen by some as another seminal moment in the fight for racial equality as the US swore in a new President with a stated aim to shift away from the divisive politics of his predecessor – one of the first Executive Orders Joe Biden signed was to advance the cause of racial equity.
So does this represent a turning point and real cause for optimism in enabling equal opportunities, irrespective of race? Unfortunately that’s not necessarily the case, admits Alexandra Siegel, Director of Equality and Recruiting Content & Enablement at Salesforce:
I would be careful to use the word optimistic. As we see in the news and around us, there's still a lot of work that needs to be done for us to reach true equality, justice and freedom, particularly in the Black community, in this country and around the world.
That’s much the same sentiment expressed by Judith Michelle Williams, Chief Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) officer at SAP as well. However, Siegel is encouraged by the way there was mass mobilization around racial equality issues and the Black community over the summer last year:
I remember years before when we saw a lot of the same events take place and the support wasn't as loud. I feel as though the consciousness of our society has moved forward in that way, and that encourages me.
This raised level of consciousness means the community is increasingly holding companies accountable for their actions. Customers are much more likely to scrutinise what firms are doing around equality, and will know if they are just paying lip service rather than taking useful steps. Siegel adds:
That's a huge driving force, although it shouldn't be the only force. There are definitely companies - I would put Salesforce in this category - where we're led by our values, and that helps us ensure we're doing the right thing, or at least trying to do the right thing.
The tech sector should be well positioned to take a steer on issues of diversity inclusion and racial equality, according to Siegel, because it leads the corporate world as far as culture goes. However, the efforts of technology companies must be authentic to the communities they’re working to serve and that should come from listening to Black, Latinx and indigenous American employees, she adds:
A big part of that is making sure we're elevating the voices of these under-represented communities, that we're doing deep listening sessions. Just making sure that the voices of the communities are what is leading us, because I think that's where you could really go astray.
The equality programs and employee resource groups Salesforce has in place are typically led by individuals from the community they focus on, people who are on the front lines and can make sure the efforts of the group actually serves those on whose behalf its efforts are directed.
Salesforce has long been committed to equality and is well-known in the tech sector for pioneering in areas like equal pay. The company established an Office of Equality in 2016, has a Chief Equality Officer to head it up - in the shape of Tony Prophet - and has longstanding Employee Research Groups (ERGs) focused on ethnic and racial identities.
For her part, Siegel began her career at Salesforce as a leader of the Boldforce ERG, geared for black employees:
When I came to Salesforce, I just started to naturally be curious about representation - why don't we see more women of color like me in tech companies? That's how I got involved with Boldforce and through that started to do training and helping to educate people on some of the systemic issues that exist, which led [the company] creating the role that I have now.
Last year, Salesforce took further steps to strengthen its racial equality efforts, including adding Head of Recruiting to Prophet’s Chief Equality Officer remit. Siegel explains:
That was done intentionally so that we're focused on making sure that we're weaving inclusive processes into every stage of our hiring. Most recently over the summer, we launched our Racial Equality and Justice Task Force, [made up] of some of our most senior leaders and frontline employees, who we brought together to take action across what we call the four Ps - people, philanthropy, purchasing and policy.
On the people side, Salesforce has expanded a number of existing programs, including a development program focused on under-represented minorities and a mentorship program focused on employees of color. The firm also introduced diversity-focused recruiters and sourcers, who spend 100% of their time sourcing candidates purely from the Black, Latinx and indigenous communities.
While the firm is making progress here, the stats indicate there’s more work to do if Salesforce wants to meet or exceed the industry average. The firm’s US workforce is currently 3.4% Black or African-American, up from 2.9% year-on-year, so the direction of travel is the right one, but the total is still below the five percent average across technology firms.
Salesforce has also launched its first racial equality ally training series, notes Siegel. As seen before on diginomica, allyship isn’t always an easy concept to implement, but in this case, considerable progress has been notched up:
We were able to train nearly 7,000 employees in just a few months, because there was so much appetite to understand better, ‘What language do we use when we're talking about these issues? What are some tangible steps I can take to drive racial equality, either on my team or at home with my family or community?’.
And of course issues of equality are not US-specific, so Salesforce has looked beyond its domestic market, she adds:
We led a UK-specific cohort of that [ally] training in partnership with our Boldforce UK team, so we are able to have a global conversation about racial equality and what does that mean for our business.
Other initiatives include the donation of millions of dollars to support organizations that are driving racial equality and justice, including the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), while on the purchasing side, it committed $100 million to minority- and black-owned businesses, as well as creating a venture capital program to develop future Black entrepreneurs and investors.
Salesforce is also keen to drive systemic change in the community, which can only happen with broader policies rather than internal measures. The firm has taken activist stands across a number of critical areas, including like voter rights, police reform, civic engagement and hate crimes. And with leadership coming from the top, this has benefited from Salesforce founder Marc Benioff not being afraid of speaking out against racial discrimination. Siegel says:
We believe we [as Salesforce] have the power to be a platform for change. We have a government affairs team and they're completely dedicated to finding ways for us to influence policy as far as government policy. They work really closely with the local governments to really see how we could position to advocate for change.
As Siegel says, it’s not necessarily a time for optimism, as there’s still so much work to be done around racial equality and justice. The multi-faceted approach Salesforce is taking, as laid out by Siegel, highlights just how much work this entails.
This scale of work isn’t something all businesses would be able to replicate, but just picking out one of two of the ideas – the diversity-focused recruiters, or ensuring any existing/new racial equality schemes are led by people from that community - are good starting points for other firms wanting to do more in this area.
Salesforce is certainly going into 2021 putting its money, influence and day-to-day operations behind racial equality. The question now is what positive impact these measures will show on its annual workforce diversity stats come November?