Nearly two years ago, author, activist, and changemaker Shaka Senghor joined Navan as Head of Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion with a vision of how to cultivate a more equitable culture in tech. He’s since charted a new course for how DEI can be approached in tech and his programs serve as role models throughout the industry for their thoughtful, grounded, and transformative impact. There is still much work to be done, but in honor of Black History Month Shaka shared some of the lessons, challenges, and hopes for all of us looking to cultivate more opportunities for diversity in tech and beyond.
“One of the first learnings that I’ve gained in building a more diverse culture is that DEI works best at a company when it starts from the top down — meaning that the CEO and executive board make a commitment to creating pathways for diverse recruiting and inclusive experiences. They need to really be tuned into what’s happening through the company with staff, employees, external partners, and vendors,” says Shaka.
“A second learning is around the importance of proximity to the communities, clients, and partners that we serve and work alongside of…What that looks like is philanthropically contributing to communities that we are able to provide resources to as well as ensure that we're learning. We need to listen to the feedback from our vendors and clients and make sure that we're spending volunteer time contributing to the growth of organizations that we partner with, that we're spending time going into communities in service and volunteering.”
While that has looked different at times due to COVID-19, Navan team members have engaged in virtual and hands-on volunteering, ranging from mentoring young adults looking to join the tech industry to distributing food to families across Santa Clara and San Mateo counties around the holidays.
Raising a Diverse Choir of Voices
This tactical, practical approach to cultivating creative opportunities that foster DEI differs from many companies that simply speak about their diversity goals but lack action to back it up.
“It's important for companies to make sure that whoever is leading their DEI efforts has experience with social impact issues and that they're bringing in speakers with diverse backgrounds, hosting fireside chats, and creating external partnerships with the community,” advises Shaka.
Shaka will regularly host conversations with thought leaders from other industries including actor and Emmy Award-nominee Dulé Hill, author and CNN host Van Jones, and PLUS ONE founder Kristen Ingram to provide insights and perspectives that Navan employees wouldn’t otherwise hear.
“Bringing in speakers from different backgrounds ensures that the company can learn about perspectives that often don't exist in the corporate world,” says Shaka. “Bring in people who are thought leaders in their particular field, which can range from people running organizations to celebrities who have a voice and care about issues around climate control, racial equity, mental health, and women's roles and leadership. Hosting diverse voices from different fields of study is really integral to growing a more diverse culture.”
In addition to bringing in outside voices, Shaka and the DEI team at Navan work diligently to raise the voices of diverse members within our own organization. Earlier this year, Navan reimagined the structure of our Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and developed a new DEI council called Belong to further empower and support employees.
“Our goal is to empower employees to share their perspective, bring their unique gifts and talents to the table, and have some ownership over the DEI department. The Belong Council is really a guiding tool that ensures that we keep our eye on the big picture, hit our markers, and hold leadership accountable,” explains Shaka.
“It'll continue to evolve as the needs of the organization evolve, our staff grows, more people join the ERGs, and new areas of interest arise. For example, we have a parenting ERG, which in recent times has proven to be very integral to the success of DEI. It's important for us to understand how parents are managing remote work and the return to office as well as what their experiences and needs really are as it relates to childcare and self-care.”
Tech Industry Rises to Overcome Challenges Together
Despite the success of Navan’ diversity, equality, and inclusion efforts since Shaka joined the organization, there have also been plenty of challenges.
“One of the biggest challenges we face is recruiting during a time when many people are changing industries and looking to work differently. You have to recognize that every office is different and make sure to keep our eyes on what those needs are and how they change across markets. It’s been a challenge but we continue to rise to the occasion,” says Shaka.
What’s also helped cultivate greater diversity is a growing trend in which companies are more intentional about collaborating among DEI departments. Shaka speaks with other leaders from founders to DEI stakeholders about the work we’re doing at Navan, which raises awareness around the kinds of opportunities that exist for greater DEI in tech.
“One of the biggest things in creating these opportunities is being creative and thinking about areas that we haven't looked into when it comes to recruiting and the type of content we’re creating to ensure that we have a welcoming, exciting, and fun environment that will compel people to come and join our company. The more opportunities we create through those two particular portals give us the greatest opportunity to create the kind of culture that we want.”
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