Leadership – Today
- June 3, 2020
This is an adaptation of an email I sent to my clients on June 2, 2020 (and a subsequent Bookface post I made) to stimulate founders’ active leadership in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the longstanding ripples of American oppression it resurfaced.
To contextualize this post: I’m white. I’ve studied race and social justice for nearly 15 years (including when I worked at YC and saw low-income folks in my therapy practice on the side). I wrote my undergraduate thesis about racism and studied to be a therapist at a grad school that focuses on social justice. With this perspective, these are my thoughts on the question of how we, as leaders in tech, can all respond right now.
I believe we’re moving into a world in which leaders’ silence and their lack of action to counteract American systems of oppression will be increasingly perceived as violence. By virtue of being a startup founder, each of you holds social and economic power that I think must be channeled into short and long-term, sustained actions. The best place to start is where you are. The best time to start is now.
Here’s a mix of the actions I’ve encouraged my clients to commit to and what they’ve done independent of me so far this week:
Think, Feel, Reflect
Carve out additional time to process your experiences of the world right now – as a human, as a founder, as an oppressor, as a victim. How is everything affecting you? How would you for like it to? There is no right or wrong way to be feeling. As a founder, you have an added responsibility to place yourself ahead of the curve in terms of identifying, understanding, and managing your feelings so that you can show up and support your team with empathy, clarity, and consistency. Talk with friends, family or a therapist (many of whom are specially trained to navigate these exact situations), journal or meditate, cry with helplessness or shout with rage – whatever works – just do it. If you’re feeling numb, be curious about why. If you notice yourself talking a lot/ideating about solutions, stop and ask yourself what you’re feeling.
Learn and Listen
If you’re new to the American oppression game, then you need to spend time researching the problem and developing the empathy required to be a part of the solution. Pretend like you’re building a very technical product for a user that’s a domain expert in a space you’re unfamiliar with.(1) If you throw out solutions or philosophize wildly without having done enough heavy lifting to actually understand their problem with humility and deference to their being the expert, then you’re going to alienate your user – immediately. If you’re aggressive about pushing your solution anyway, they’ll disengage, probably with some heat! If this happens, the fault is yours for not doing your homework, not theirs for not articulating the complexity of their problem for you. DO. YOUR. HOMEWORK. I have been in the ‘learn and listen’ stage for 15 years if that gives you a baseline (and I still feel clumsy and screw up all the time).
For my clients, listening has looked like:
- Blocking time on their calendars to listen to their employees with a goal to understand (not to solve).
- Recognizing that there are things happening that are bigger than work right now.
- Finding a balance between giving people space so they don’t burn out, and giving them support so they don’t feel like they’re alone.
- Listening and forming actions with empathy.
- Consuming books, podcasts, movies, articles, and other media to fill gaps in knowledge. If you don’t know enough to take informed action, starting here is a-ok!
Communicating with your teams about the trauma that’s resurfacing is a small action that can have outsized impact. It’s also something you can do right now. Here are three articles to help guide your conversations:
- How Managers Can (and Should) Address Race and Violence in The News (Maria Louisa, Medium)
- Check in on Your Black Employees, Now (Tonya Russell, NYT)
- My White Boss Talked About Race in America and This is What Happened (Mandela SH Dixon, Medium)
For my clients, speaking has looked like:
- Hourlong Q&A/discussions with their team
- Dedicated time and discussion at All Hands
- Following up with employees in 1:1s or following up with black employees who might be particularly affected
- Being empathetic and sensitive to what their employees need, knowing that might be space and not to talk(!)
- Talking through their racial identities and commitments with me
Here are examples of statements my clients (all YC founders with companies whose headcounts range from 7-800) have pushed to their companies so far this week (I’ll keep adding more as they float in). See how they’re all different but also the same? Find the authentic balance that works for you and go with it. If you don’t know what to say to your companies right now, go back up to my first suggestion.
Commit to short-term actions now AND strategize the long-term actions you’ll continue taking after this media cycle is passed. The anguish we’re all witnessing and experiencing will only be resolved when many people in positions of power (us!)(2) commit to continued engagement over the course of our lifetimes.
For my clients, these commitments have looked like:
- Donating (recurring pls), amplifying donations via Catalyst Network, and setting up donation-matching for their companies
- Setting up a scholarship fund that provides reliable internet service to low-income communities in need of it (related to core product)
- Reprioritizing a feature that allows users to make charitable donations in-app (related to core product)
- Reprioritizing D&I so the team composition is reflective of the founder’s values
- Closing a round with an investor whose values and actions related to social justice match the founders’
- Being willing to sacrifice growth by negotiating heavily with a user whose company values and business practices do not align with the founders’ principles of social justice
On the topic of speaking, I’d like to acknowledge that many people feel blocked in talking openly about race because we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing.(3) To this, I will observe how frequently all founders act despite uncertainty. Each of you can name dozens of actions you’ve taken that have felt both deeply right and scary. You have been able to act despite your fear because you’ve learned to trust your ability to navigate the unfamiliar terrain that these actions open up in front of you. I encourage you – emphatically – to take what you’ve learned about yourself in building your startup and give yourself the opportunity to learn to trust yourself in this new landscape too.
(1) I’m using a very rough product-building metaphor here because I think it will carry well with founders but keep in mind that IRL, the ‘problem’ we’re all talking about here is literal life and death for a huge group of human beings. Because of the emotional weight of the lived experiences you are seeking to adjust, it’s even more important that you do your research and learn on your own before postulating solutions. The high stakes are also why it’s important that if you’re told you’re wrong about your ideas or the way you present them, that you simply own your mistake, apologize, and restate that your position is to listen and learn. I will also mention that racism is a white problem, perpetuated by white people who benefit from it and don’t even notice it until it’s shoved in their faces. If this product metaphor were a good one (which I admit it is not), the ‘user’ in it would actually be – surprise – white people. Unfortunately racism is so hidden from our experience that the main data points we rely on (erroneously) to understand the problem end up being the people affected by it – people of color. V problematic!!
(2) I’d like to acknowledge that many of you self-identify as belonging to groups that experience forms of oppression other than racism (e.g. female/sexism). I acknowledge those identities and the differences in their lived experience, yet have chosen to speak in this post to your identity as a founder.
(3) Resource guide that can provide knowledge to unblock your communication in informed ways.