16 September, 2020
Episode 02 — It’s about time we build bridges
Modern-day Renaissance Man, Lawrence Humphrey, uses the skills he has honed over his tenure at IBM to address rampant systemic inequity through the Tech Can [Do] Better initiative. Listen in as he discusses building bridges across the tech industry, the importance of accountability, and the future of Black designers.
Transcripts are edited for readability and clarity.
Nigel: Hello everyone, my name is Nigel Prentice and I am Design Director at IBM. And, I’d like to welcome you to the Racial Equity in Design podcast, where we inspect, address, and discuss the issues, influences, and outcomes of the racial equity work that’s going on in the world today, and especially how it impacts the profession of design inside of, and outside of IBM.
I’m going to start it off again, like I normally do, with a little bit of wisdom from those who’ve come before us. And, in classic pop culture form, the death of Chadwick Boseman has been important to my family and his character, King T’Challa, reminds us that, “in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers.“
And, a true king in real life also leaves us, who left us this year, rest in health and rest in power to both of these gentlemen. John Lewis said, “nothing can stop the power of a committed and determined people to make a difference in our society. Why? Because human beings are the most dynamic link to the divine on this planet.“
And so, it’s these themes, it’s the themes of building bridges, the theme of resilience that come to mind as I think about my guest today. And, I’d like to introduce today’s guests, Mr. Lawrence Humphrey, Design Strategist at IBM. Lawrence, welcome and thanks for joining.
Lawrence: Thank you. I think that was the most generous intro I’ve ever been given; the themes that made you think of me.
That’s not one I’ll forget. I’m glad we have it recorded.
Nigel: There you go. Hey man, that’s what we do. This is how we get down. And so, what I’d like to do Lawrence is just get to know you a little bit. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing you for the last several years. And I want our audience to as well.
So, why don’t we just start at the beginning? Where are you from? Where’d you grow up?
Lawrence: Yeah, so born in Ohio, in some small town. My mom had me when she was really young, when she was in college, she was 19. So by and large, when people ask me where I’m from, I say, Nashville, my family is still there. I kind of bounced around a lot, being the byproduct of divorced parents, but also my stepdad was military.
So, bounced around a lot. Now I’m in Austin, Texas, been calling that my home for in total, like, 4 years. I’m loving it here, loving the community that I met here.
Nigel: Where’d you end up attending university?
Lawrence: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I was torn between a couple of schools, but that had the best engineering school and was the farthest from home. You know, I was considering like Vanderbilt and I was like, there’s no way I’m going to have a true college experience, if I’m this close to home. So I was like, I need to get out of here.
Nigel: Talk about your early experience, a little bit, on campus.
Lawrence: You know, academically I felt more prepared. I mean, it was still really hard, you know, getting. Um, going to a top 10 engineering school despite having, feeling prepared for it. But, you know, I was going in with kids who had been programming for years by that point. I basically didn’t know what it was or, you know, I mechanically didn’t know what it was. You know, I had an idea, but I was, you know, I was starting at ground zero and other kids were starting at like level three or four, you know?
So it was like, I was playing catch up. And, you know, culture shock too, because it’s a predominantly like white and Asian school. Um, but by that point I was used to being around, you know, non-Black spaces.
Nigel: How did you cope? Like, what was it that you were able to uncover in yourself or in what someone else was able to give you to make it over that initial hump?
Lawrence: Yes, that was when I really started grappling with what success looked like for me. Cause you know, the first semester I was just really trying to kill it in school. And, you know, by many standards, I joke, some of my friends know, I joke about it all the time. I wasn’t the best student. Like I’m not an academic.
I couldn’t tell you what my GPA is right now. So, um, it just, it’s something that quickly, uh, came to me that it didn’t really matter. You know, like I wanted to understand the material cause I wanted to get jobs, but more so than that, I wanted to make sure that the work that I was doing mattered to me and I wrestled with that a lot.
And you know, I think through it all. You know, I wanted to make sure that I had like a support system, you know, and I’ve, I’ve always placed a lot of stock in my, my friends and more broadly the people I surround myself with, you know. But I know that, um, I’m sure I’ve said it to people and it sounds dogmatic how I believe in it, but I do think there’s a lot of truth in you are the five people you surround yourself most with.
I think computer science and, you know, there’s… the computer science program is like the bare essentials. And it teaches you all sorts of backend and theory, yada, yada. And I was definitely that kid in school, even if I didn’t say it, I was always like, where’s this important? Like how can I use this? And many times, even in undergrad, I was like this, I can’t see a direct line for why or where I would use this or why this matters.
So, you know, through many existential crises, I, you know, found web development as like a cool application of computer science, but also of a way to get direct feedback. And I was like, you know, web developers can create these, these experiences that anyone can use around the world. Like you can see it, you can feel it. There’s a visceral response you get from being on the web. And that’s what I wanted to pour myself into. So, um, for a while, Uh, it was me web developing and just honing those skills, through that I found designers and started working with designers, through that I found design and, you know, kind of the rest was history.
Nigel: This idea of identity comes to mind. And so I’m curious about that with you. What has been the thing that you have used to identify yourself the most often and has it changed over time?
Lawrence: I think that certain demographics are more in tune with it than others, just through, you know, code switching, right? You know, the idea of going, playing up or playing down specific identities, but, you know, for a while growing up, you know, race was one of those things that, because I was surrounded by Black folk, I didn’t have to think about it as much. It was, you know, on idol. Went to high school and definitely felt othered. And, a part of that was because I went… the feeder school was a different school, so there were already cliques, all that stuff. And, um, you know, racially and, you know, from a background perspective, people just didn’t talk how I talk, and people didn’t listen to the music I listened to, watch the movies. I mean, it was culture shock in the truest sense, you know?
So then I started, you know, playing up my race or, I mean, I guess playing down, but race was top of mind, right? I wanted to assimilate in a sense, and just like make friends and stuff like that. I didn’t want to be othered, I just felt othered. Um, but you know, I think nowadays, and I, I’ve written about it before, but my racial awakening, if you will, didn’t really hit until it was January 4th, or January 6th, 2016.
It was the day Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, when both, when I found out both of them got murdered, um, and that was the day it really clicked to me that like, you know, my race, for better or for worse, can dictate life or death. So I’m not gonna, I’m not going out quietly. I’m gonna talk about the ways that, which my, my skin color can be a target on my back, yada, yada.
But, you know, I bring that with me, like everywhere now. So, but you know, there are other identities that I just, I probably take for granted, you know, like my identity as an American—as troubled as that’s becoming, like the COVID and the racial, all the racial tension that that is. And, you know, there’s just a shame that I have by being an American and also privilege. Um, being relatively young, being like able-bodied, grateful for that in COVID. Um, you know, there are a lot of different identities. But, I guess another throughline is that I haven’t… um, there are very few identities that I feel truly loyal to, you know. Like, I don’t super care about my Alma mater, like that means very little for me. Um, I appreciate what it enabled me to do, but I don’t just have like a blind loyalty for it.
Um, my identity is the one thing that I feel like tethers it all, you know. I feel like, you know, more existentially, um, I can live the life that I live because of the sacrifices for people who look like me or sacrifices from people that look like me, and whether or not I want to be a part of this generational struggle, I am. And, I am, um, I am responsible for carrying the generational, um, this baton forward, and making this burden a little lighter.
Nigel: I think it was actually in July 6th, 2016 when Philando was killed while complying with police orders in his car with his girlfriend and was shot anyway. Um, didn’t, didn’t resist and didn’t run.
What was it about that day that struck you? As you mentioned, it was kind of a milestone or at least a stand out moment in your racial awakening.
Lawrence: Seeing your brothers, you know, brothers and sisters get killed on the streets. It’s not, it’s not our first rodeo, you know. And, even back then it wasn’t, but I was kind of waken up, wakening up to the, the intent. I guess it was just too much for one day. It was like, really, I got exposed to two videos and it’s like, Oh, that straight up could have been me, could have been anyone that I know. Cause I know people who, you know, by, from the media sake would just conflate, you know, any one of those people with any one of those people that are in my family or like family friends, or friends themselves, you know, and the thought of… I think it was just too much, like it was those two names in one day and, um, it just got, it got too heavy to bear. And it’s really hard to, even in hindsight, um, say what made those stand out in my mind, other than it was two in one day. And I had just been following it closely and maybe I was in denial for awhile and that was the day it just clicked. But it’s really hard to say.
Nigel: As, as a minority in the United States, we, we can’t hide, right? It’s obvious when we are around. There’s only 3%, and I bet University of Illinois is similar. At UT, there was only 3% of us Black folks, at least on, on campus. Were the numbers similar at Illinois?
Lawrence: Oh yea, sounds super familiar. It couldn’t be more. I mean, it definitely wasn’t parody. It was probably a fraction, if I were to guess, half of, you know, what is parody. So that’d probably put us around the same.
Nigel: Yeah, exactly. And there are, depending on the year, 13 and 14% Black folks in the United States by population. Um, and, and so it’s less, I mean, it’s way less than half. I mean, we’re talking about a quarter, you know, or less than a quarter.
Lawrence: Yeah. I’m being generous just cause I don’t have the numbers in front of us. I don’t want to put UIUC on record, on blast, but, you know, for perspective, I think that I was one of like, if not the only Black CS major in my, or Black, male CS major in my year. I feel comfortable saying that.
Nigel: The thing is, there’s just not a lot of us to go around to be honest. Right? I mean, don’t you feel that sometimes? That there’s only one of me. And, I show up in a classroom and there’s only one of me. I show up in a meeting, there’s only one of me. I show up in a non-profit or in a happy hour or in a whatever. And it’s, you know, it’s so common that it’s not even remarkable for us. Does that, do you ever have that feeling?
Lawrence: You know, I trust myself more to make a positive or, you know, uh, let’s say, just like a good impression on what it means to, like, expose your own biases and how your views might be problematic. If someone’s going to figure out or talk their way out of some like racial awakening with someone, I’d prefer it be me than someone else. So I feel this weight to… and, I know there’s this big stereotype, like expecting Black folks or marginalized folks to do the work for you is problematic, but I know it’s going to be done like, like people aren’t going to do the work. Like, no one wants to do work. It’s work. So, if they want to talk to me about it, I’ll take on that burden. It, it doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers other people. I mean, it’s still work, but, um, I’d rather they do it with me. And, it’s just like, man, if I had someone to share the load with, or if I could like, you know, in facilitation, train the trainers or something like that, like that would be awesome. But even still it’s like, dang, I have to train the trainer, you know? So, um, It is pretty unfortunate.
When I was young, when I used to think about like, I might be the first Black X or the first Black Y, and that used to be a sign of pride for me. It just gets more and more sad the older I get, the fact that we’re still not there yet.
Nigel: Yeah, but certainly things happen that are super great and things are moving forward and progress is happening. And then, there’s another headline, and it happened again, and there’s somebody else, or there’s another racist police chief, you know, or another racist mayor or somebody like that, who, you know is… they’re posting in the Facebook group that they think is private or something, and they say something really ridiculous, um, and then it comes out that they’re the chief of police or the mayor or, or some other power position or…
Lawrence: Some DA, or somthing.
Nigel: Yeah exactly, and you’re just like, you know, they were making policy decisions and just…
Lawrence: Yeah, and think about all the silent ones. That’s just the one that’s just like, yappin off at the mouth. You know, the people that are just like, oh yeah, that’s crazy and then they’re just doing their work, you know.
Nigel: And they’re just as bad as the vocal ones and the silent ones are problematic. And that speaks to this idea of institutionalized racism. Um, before we get to this idea of institutional racism, first though, I wanted to talk a little bit about how you dealt with things in that year of 2016 and 17.
Um, I just picked those years cause it’s around that, that Philando Castille time, I mean, there’s been a drum beat of, of images and videos that we just have trouble reconciling with the American dream, right? Of innocent Black folks killed, you know, Breonna Taylor, just not even in the street, in her home. Um, Tatiana, right, she was playing video games with her nephew and shot while doing that. Like there’s just, certainly there’s room for mistakes, I mean, no…
Lawrence: Without justice, at least to date, you know. It’s, it’s not necessarily the fact that it’s just happening it’s without any sort of recours,
Nigel: So… how do you deal with moments like that. We, we, we have… I heard a psychologist, um, recently talk about stages of grief in the context of dealing with these national horrors. And it was interesting, cause I hadn’t thought about it that way. That I, Nigel, I might be grieving, Lawrence, you might be grieving for a death that we see on TV or in, in social media, because that’s how the videos are shared initially. And then it’s a, it’s a person on the street being killed by a police officer. And then we grieve and, you know, there’s stages to that. And there’s a very visceral, emotional stages that we can’t ignore. Does that, does that resonate at all? What are some of the things that you go through, or I’m just curious to know how it affects you when you see some of those images on television.
Lawrence: Pre 2016. You could, if you want a hand wave over it, I’ve probably fluctuated between denial and acceptance, which sounds crazy. Cause it’s like, it’s just going to happen. You know, it is what it is. And it’s like, no we’re better than that, you know? And um, probably after 2016 is when it started becoming more nuanced. So, um, but if I had to say like, I think that I spend a bulk of my time, just like being really mad, you know? Um, and I think that I used to, again, it was, I guess, kind of a dark joke that most of my work is born out of just pretty soothing anger, um, that I have to package up and make constructive, otherwise it just tears me apart.
Um, so I think a lot of it comes through that, obviously there’s this. I mean, it’s grief. You know, one of those is depression. It’s just like, you know, I’d be lying if I said that, it, it doesn’t take a lot out of me when it, when publicly I can see how little my life is worth, that someone could just come spray up my house. Um, you know, my life is over and the world keeps turning, you know, there’s no justice for me. It’s like, how much can you life really be worth? And I mean, there’s all of this flowery talk of like, oh yeah, you still matter, you still matter, but that’s not how the world sees you. That’s not how the United States, the home of the free and the brave— land of the free, home of the brave, sees me, you know?
So, um, it, it’s tough, you know, so how I, how I’ve grown to deal with it is, you know, I decided pretty early on that if someone’s going to, if someone can take my life just at any given time or someone I know, I’m not going out quietly, you know, I, I think there’s a quote, man. It’s like, ’if you’re silent, when your, uh, your abusers are abusing, you they’ll tell you that you liked it.’ So, um, and I, I butchered it, but that’s the essence of it. And that’s, that’s my thought that I found is like, You know, if whatever happens to me or happens to someone else, you’ll never be able to say that I didn’t say anything or I didn’t do anything. Like they’re, you know, anyone who’s silent is complicit in that and that blood’s not going to be on my hands. So, I need to be able to sleep with myself at night. So, um, I think that I get a lot of meaning out of my action. And I get a lot of solace out of my action, knowing that I did what needs to be done or did as much as I could.
Nigel: And I think it’s that movement towards action, which has defined, um, you here recently.
Um, and so let’s, let’s get into your work around Tech Can Do Better. Um, very inspirational. I think it’s a model for a lot of folks to pay attention to, um, not specifically and only design, but certainly aimed at tech and not just IBM. This is an industry-wide statement. So, um, take a few minutes and walk us through the thinking of, uh, Tech Can Do Better.
Lawrence: Yeah. So the origin story, to segue from my last point, you know, I, after George Floyd and, you know, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. I was thinking that this is going to be like any other police killing. There’s going to be some outrage on social media, some, you know, uh, some cries for police reform. Um, I’m gonna grieve silently and it’s just going to keep them moving.
But, uh, for whatever reason, there was like, a great sobering up of everyone. And like, they’re like, this is still happening? And, you know, people hit me up and, you know, try to like pay for my coffees and asking me like how I’m feeling. And it’s like, y’all, didn’t think that this was happening to me the whole time? Are you kidding me? Like, and then, you know, that extends over to every tech company. Like, oh, we stand in solidarity, like so-and-so company, we’re never, we would never do anything racist. Like we love Black folks, you know. And, I just got so furious. And so, you know, I mean, to be very candid, very frustrated behind all of these empty words, by some of the biggest perpetrators of the racial injustice that I see.
I mean, we’d be remiss if we didn’t, we thought of the tech industry is one of the biggest Titans in the world right now. It’s like, it’s like big oil back in the day. You know, tech is life itself almost. I mean, aside from, like, government. So, the fact that a big company wanted to, you know, wanted to ignore the writing on the walls and the blood on their hands. I was like, all right, like I’m not going to let these companies get away with some, you know, three month, six month endeavor to, you know, uh, to gloss over addressing systemic racism. Like this is going to be, this is a systemic problem. It’s going to have a sustained systemic solution.
I’m giving 0% of my time to anything that, to anything that doesn’t acknowledge this as a systemic problem, I’m not gonna, you know... and I guess some, some backstory I’ve, I’ve done my work within the system of trying to, you know, trying to create, you know, racial pipelines trying to create diversity inclusion efforts and obviously didn’t get compensated for it.
I mean, I’m, I’m doing extra work for the company that adds business value didn’t get compensated. So I’m like, all right. Ya’ll have reached the ends of my Goodwill. So I’m going to do this outside and for myself. Um, and that was kind of the origin and the genesis of it. And I floated out the idea with some, some folks within the company and some folks outside of it, and it just kept growing and growing.
I think it’s a message that resonates with people that we’re tired of seeing our companies promise all these things and, you know, say that we’re going to do better, but not set any goals. Not, we’re not going to put any money behind it. We’re not going to set, you know, measurable goals like we do for every other goal within our company. It’s not going to be one of these issues where, um, where we say we’re doing better, but we hide our data of how we’re doing that. Like, we’re, we’re done with that. Like if you’re going to commit to change publicly in front of your competitors, in front of your users, in front of your employees, I want to see you follow up on it.
And it’s not a finger-pointing competition. Again, we’re doing the work to help jumpstart that. We’ve already released a guide to show companies and to show the industry that this is what good looks like. This is what success looks like. Now let’s figure out how to get there. And we can send people to the moon. We can have this conversation miles apart, streamed in real time. I think we can figure it out how to not be assholes to one another, you know, pardon my language.
And if you have some empathy for the users, which, I mean, I’m a designer, you know? So if you think about like some executive somewhere or just some middle manager, somewhere, some let’s for the sake of demonstration, they’re a white person, you know, a white, a white guy, we can call him Joe. He, he has been, and he’s long felt like he could be doing more, but doesn’t feel like he has the authority to do more. Doesn’t feel like, you know, I don’t want to be that audacious white savior, uh, that, you know, tries to do this thing and creates more trouble like. We want to forego all of that. And we want to skip like all, everyone has a job and you know, not everyone’s done the research, not everyone’s as savvy in the vocabulary.
We want to shortcut all of that. I mean, at the end of the day, most of the team, if not, if they’re not designers, they’re very design savvy. So we want to, to say that, alright, this is the problem in very granular, qualitative and quantitative detail. And beyond that. And I think anyone can diagnose a problem. Anyone can say what a problem is, but it takes, um, it takes a little bit of being audacious, a little bit of creativity. It takes more work to, instead of opposing something proposed a new way and a better way of doing it. So we hope to, you know, expedite all of the, the mudslinging and a lot of the tough conversations by saying, look we’re not, we’re not indicting you. We work in tech. We work in tech because we were attracted by some bigger promise that anything is possible. You know, like we, we, we love that. We love these big daunting problems, these systemic problems. And we know that you know where there’s a will, there’s a way, we’ve seen it.
So, let’s all align. We all agree that there’s a problem here. Let’s begin taking bold steps of how to solve this problem, and that begins by, you know, proposing a way of doing it. And obviously in Enterprise Design Thinking, we know that like a fundamental ethos is this rapid prototyping. So expecting it not to be perfect the first time through, but any step in that direction, any step period, you know, as a learning experience and is a step closer to what the right solution should be.
So the worst thing we can do is not do anything, you know? So, um, it’s with that ethos in mind that we created this guide and made it as actionable as, um, as it is.
Nigel: Very good, very good. Um, with this ethos in mind, I love that. And just so that folks can follow along the conversation, um, just to make it easy for them to get to it. Um, Lawrence, Tech CanDo Better, what is the, your preferred way for people to connect with you online?
Lawrence: Yeah, so everything is on our link tree, which you can get through our Instagram @techcandobetter, um, on Instagram. Um, our link tree, which is linktr.ee/TCDB. Um, our guide’s on there our features are on there, our Instagram, Twitter, um, everything that we’ve done is on there. We have a site that is currently in development, but until that day you can find us on there.
Nigel: Sounds good, sounds good. And that’s how I experience your stuff is mostly through Instagram. And just again, the Instagram handle is exactly, as it sounds @techcandobetter.
Um, very good. So what are the, um, what are the aspirations? So you’ve laid out the provocations to deal with this existential threat. You decided and narrowed the scope of the who, and it’s tech. You’re not necessarily trying to solve everything in the world. You’re trying to, you’re trying to take the industry of which you’re part of, which has a large leverage over the reality in which we’re in. The biggest companies in the world now, like, like Apple, like Amazon, et cetera, by market cap and by market share and mind share.
However you want to measure it. So Tech Can Do Better. What is the edge as you look back, say, 12 months from today, you know, five years from today, what are the things that you’ll be able to point to and say, you know what we were successful because that thing happened?
Lawrence: Yeah. So, you know, there are some very discreet, uh, we have three discrete focus areas that. We want to see change in and we want to see equity and basically all of the internal, you know, how companies, uh, manage their employees. So, like hiring, pay, um, uh, promotions, et cetera. And that’s probably the easiest to see a company doing, you know, hiring on parody and posting their numbers so that we can see and track that pay transparency. And like basically if two people have the same job, pay them the same, it’s that easy.
So, um, uh, those sorts of things, then there is the second, uh, stream. So there is, you know, what we call investing in social equity, but you can think of this just in terms of the work the company does and where the companies decide to invest. So you can think of that as like, are you buying from Black owned businesses, um, are, is the technology that you’re creating disparaging one community while benefiting another, you know, there are some companies that, um, they discontinued facial recognition. And I consider that under that second area. So social equity, what is the social footprint of your, of your tech company?
And then lastly, there’s a legislative piece, which, you know, I feel like by and large happens in the shadows, but a lot of these tech companies have, uh, PACS and political action committees that they do a lot of, um, a lot of work through and they pass a lot of legislation that is for the benefit of the company, but not for the users or employees. So, you know, all sorts of surveillance, software and surveillance loopholes, they get bypassed or get passed through legislation. Um, that’s an example and we see a tightening of it with GDPR, but ultimately it’s, you know, there’s only one way to, um, reel that in, and I think it’s through legislation. There has to be some carrot and stick approach to keeping tech companies, to just taking, you know, taking, taking, taking.
I’m definitely a believer that people will take as much as you allow them to take. So there needs to be more safe guards around, you know, what companies can get away with lobbying for. And then getting rid of some of those loopholes. So I think that to answer your question, you know, the easy one for that first work stream is let’s get companies that look like our demographics, let’s pay them the same, let’s begin. And I think one of the biggest metrics where if we’re doing something right as the racial wealth gap and just wealth gaps more broadly, um, closing that, and you know, one of the things that we mentioned, and I don’t know if you’ve mentioned is that these changes should positively affect, you know, future, uh, Black employees and future employees, but also current ones.
So, um, you know, obviously creating more pipelines in the tech, but also doing right by the Black folks who, and, you know, everyone more broadly who have been giving themselves to the cause, you know, pouring, giving their blood, blood, sweat, and tears to this. And then discontinuing tech that has been known to show or to show bias against people of color, and exhibit bias against, uh, marginalized communities. And then by and large, it’s getting money out of politics in general, but, um, that’s obviously a pretty uphill battle. Yeah.
Nigel: So it’s been five months or so since you’ve been working on this for five months, um, what, what would you say were some early highlights yo have had in the work?
Lawrence: I think the biggest one is we’ve already had, uh, we’ve had, you know, what’s called the Tech Can Do Better Community. I think the one that I’m most proud of is how that’s been growing. I mean, over a hundred folks from, you know, I think 50 to 60 companies have shown up in total to these. So, I mean the big goal is cross industry. Across industry this is a systemic problem. This is a systemic solution. So these community meetings where we’re talking about… the last one, for instance, we mentioned, um, that it’s been a couple months since George Floyd, what has your company done that you’re proud of? What are some blockers? And you know, what are just some early findings? And that cross industry collaboration, just frankly, I mean, it wouldn’t have happened if not for someone, in this case, it was us to facilitate that conversation.
Um, our proposal has gotten a lot of love and hundreds of signatures so far. Um, and, um, from, you know, again, across industry team, uh, we’ve had a couple of panels that, which have turned out really well. So we had one with general assembly. Uh, we had a print mag piece that, uh, it got a ton of love online. I don’t know the traffic, but, uh, Debbie Millman, who is a design powerhouse, retweeted that, or retweeted it out, which was awesome to see. You know, Titans in the industry, show it love, but you know, I, I think what I’m most proud of is just the growing, you know, the, the program team, the nucleus, the Tech Can Do Better nucleus has been growing by the day.
We just onboardeed two more people and then the community, but making this an industry-wide conversation. And I close a lot of these community calls, expressing gratitude that, you know, fighting for social equity is often a thankless job. And I, I mean, I’ve done it, I’m still doing it. And sometimes it feels like you’re a lone voice shouting into the void and bringing people together that have been doing this and have been feeling the same way, and the qualitative side of it that, you know, this has been one of those, some people’s sources of hope and, you know, finding kindred spirits and their community and pushing for this change. I think that beyond all of the, you know, and I’m a numbers guy, but beyond all of that, that qualitative side of it, of what we’re doing for people and inspiring this hope, that’s what I reflect most on when I think about Tech Can Do Better. And it’s just that everyone’s so excited about what it is and what it represents and continue to give their time to support it. Like, especially as my, this is, um, this is my first rodeo leading something this big and it’s people’s trust and excitement is the most validating part of all of this, so.
Nigel: You know, in this post George Ford moment with some, what some people have called a racial reckoning that’s happening, and we’re certainly pushing in, in many respects towards this idea of racial equity. With the work in Tech Can Do Better what’s the thing that’s in your proposal. That again, magic wand that if you can make the entire industry adopt one thing out of your proposal, what would you say that would be?
Lawrence: And waving a magic wand, I’m suspending a lot of practical realities, but I think that workplace parody, and like workplace just straight up equality, um, getting our workforces to look like the real world and then paying people similarly, promoting people. Um, so getting it to look like the real world, and I think that culture will lag behind, um, what the actual… I think the culture will be shaped by the people that are there.
And I think that there’s this big chicken and egg situation about like making your culture accommodating for Black folks versus just making the space for Black folks to come in and just do their work. So, um, and then culture will lag behind that. So I think workplace parody, and I mean, that applies to demographics beyond just Black folks.
So hire, you know, Latinx people at the same rate and, you know, promote women in the upper C-suite ranks, um, you know, more, uh, people with different abilities, you know, like physical. And I think that, um, that might be my, my young and naive worldview, but I think that a lot will… and obviously, you know, I don’t think that… there’s like this big dog whistle, uh, dog whistle argument that, oh, they have to be quality candidates.
And I’m of the belief that the quality candidates exist, I’ve seen the upper ranks and I’ve seen folks at different ranks and, you know, by and large, you know, they’re smart people, but, um, I think we can find people can be replaced, you know? So, um, I don’t think there has to be a drop in quality like everyone assumes.
Nigel: Yeah. And I think like, to your point around equity in the workplace and this idea of having the population at work match the population of the country itself, um, I think, I mean, it feels like that opens the door for a meritocracy to actually exist. You know, we talk about it as if it, as if you can start five steps behind, or let’s be clear 400 years, 400 years behind the mainstream.
And then we say, okay, we’ve got an equal playing field today. And, and so go compete on merit today, and…
Lawrence: I mean, even if racism wasn’t an issue now there’s still that much of a headstart. I mean, and that, that’s a big, capital A, assumption that racism doesn’t exist today.
Nigel: Of course. And because so many of our institutions exist explicitly as a result of racist ideologies that founded our country it’s difficult to then disconnect the meritocracy from the current state of affairs, the as-is, if you will.
And so that’s why the work that you’re doing, that’s the work that Racial Equity in design is doing, the work that so many people are doing is important right now, and needs to last beyond the headlines. The headlines will change, you know, we’re in an election year, we’re coming up on November. The news cycle is going to drive our attention in all sorts of crazy directions.
And so that is what to me is so important about this season in our lives is that we use this time. You’re working extra. You know, and, and I am as well. And so many people are we’re, we’re doing this work because we know that we need, and we have a moment to make a difference, and a sustainable difference is what matters.
And I like what you said early on this systemic problems require systemic solutions. And, um, I always have a bias towards action and that’s, that’s one of the themes that came out to me with you today is that your bias towards action is, is strong.
And in fact it’s, which is why I picked this idea of resilience to talk to you about. And your, the way that you cope with the world underscores your resilience, the way that your writing shows your resilience, the way that you dealt with culture shock at the high school and the college level underscored your resilience. And now that you’re in a position of power, you know, that you’re in a position where you have a voice and a platform and an employer that supports you and colleagues that do, now you’re building bridges. Right? And so you’re building bridges to cross across the rest of the tech industry, um, other ethnicities to help, um, other professions to help in tech.
And so I think those are the themes that resonate so deeply with me about you. And why. Um, um, I’m still happy to talk to you today to get to know this digital side of you. Ours has been, has been, um, has been awesome. And so let me ask this final question, um, for you. And it’s also kind of a, a, a stretch of brain, a brain teaser, but certainly suspend reality for a bit, this idea of, you know, if you were, um, IBM CEO.
And so, um, this is not a. Knock against our current CEO has nothing to do with that. This is a mental exercise of brain, you know, uh, you know, uh, it’s just an exercise around playing with the idea of where I can make anything. And Lauren says for you, if you can make any policy change, any investment that you wanted to, because you are. The CEO of IBM, um, knowing what you know now and knowing what outcomes you’d like to see here in this moment of dealing with racial equity, what, what change would you make at the IBM company?
Lawrence: Yeah. Um, you know, it’s, I’ll, I’ll provide basically a non answer to your question. And I mean, it is kind of like, I think that this is where their heads are, but we brought on Jim Whitehurst because I mean, obviously Red Hat, strategic reason. But, just culture. Like I think that IBM has a culture problem, and I think that, you know, that stems in just, like, our ways of working or our outputs. And I mean, it manifests in a ton of different ways, but even just COVID and the racial inequities, like it, it underscores a cultural problem that I don’t know if we’re grappling with appropriately from the top down.
So, um, I think that I would, I mean, obviously you have to be strategic about how to focus on culture because it’s unsexy, it doesn’t directly feed the bottom line. You kind of have to do that through a project. But, um, I, I think I would create some and it’s weird cause I’m sitting in the transformation org, but I would double down on, you know, transforming our culture, our ways of working and stuff like that.
Nigel: I like it. I like it. Yep. I like it a lot. And in fact, um, a colleague of mine used to always say that no change ever happens in an organization without cultural change and it doesn’t matter. And I think that applies to everything. It doesn’t matter the domain, whether it’s a software rollout or a new management system or you know, changing teams, you know, no change successfully happens, I guess, should I say, unless culture changes with it. And, um, it’s clear to me is that’s what you are here to do.
I don’t know if you believe in having a calling in life. And I don’t know if you believe in destiny, but certainly the path you’ve chosen is the path of creating culture for yourself, for your family, clearly, we’re always part of our own family units, but also for your colleagues. And that is powerful. It’s impactful. And from the outside, looking in, since you guys first launched Tech Can Do Better, I’ve been taking notes and I see the impact you all are having.
So, professionally, keep up the good work. Um, social justice wise, keep your energy strong, my friend, and, um, from one human being to another, um, I’m grateful to be with you and grateful to be in this journey with you together. Thank you for being on this podcast with, with me today. And I look forward to continuing to grow this together and working on the things that we’re working on together so far.
Lawrence: It is truly my honor. Thank you for gassing me up.