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Tech industry diversity and inclusion begins with rooting out BS

Being black, a woman and bisexual gives long-time diversity and inclusion consultant Risha Grant a clear perspective on issues many high-tech companies have in creating racial harmony.

When Risha Grant says you're full of B.S., she's not necessarily calling you out for spewing nonsense. In her line of work as a trainer and consultant on diversity and inclusion issues, B.S. stands for bias synapse, a way to explain the brain's involvement in the processing and validation of bias. BS is at the root of what can disrupt attempts to create racial harmony in the workplace, she says.

Grant has a wide variety of corporate clients, including many high-tech firms such as Samsung. She said  high-tech firms, like those in many other industries, have a long road to travel to successfully establish diverse corporate cultures.

Grant, who has run her own business for more than 20 years, has ample experience with bias synapse being black, a women and bisexual. And being based in Tulsa, Okla., one of the reddest and conservative of states doesn't make her mission any easier.

"But [Oklahoma] was a good place to cut my teeth in that a lot of companies here are run by white men. It's been very helpful to me for learning how to disarm people and make them feel comfortable about a topic that is very uncomfortable,” she says.

Grant sat down with TechTarget to discuss a range of diversity issues facing corporate America, solutions to resolving those issues, and how she has overcome her own mistrust of white people.

Risha Grant, founder and CEO, Risha Grant LLCRisha Grant

You are not in the business of solving diversity and inclusion problems but instead solving people problems. What sort of problems do people typically create relative to diversity?

Risha Grant: People tend to see diversity itself as the problem. But the way people treat others is where problems show up. The problem isn't diversity in and of itself.

So individuals taking the initiative to change themselves is more effective than instituting corporate diversity policies?

Grant: Exactly.

What is the best way people can change how they deal with people from different racial backgrounds?

Grant: I see it being a multi-step process. The first step is to identify what your bias is, ask yourself what makes you uncomfortable being around a particular person. The next step is to own it. Own the fact you have a bias against people of color or short people or tall people or Republicans. Doing that means you are committed to moving past those feelings by breaking down those barriers and building an authentic relationship with someone different from you. You can do that by just inviting someone out for a cup of coffee to better understand who they are.

Are there any unique issues facing high-tech companies trying to establish a more diverse employee population?

Grant: I don't think there's anything different. I do know that high-tech has a long way to go when it comes to diversity, especially in hiring diverse people. I have a lot of high-tech clients, and that's their No. 1 issue now.

High-tech has a long way to go when it comes to diversity, especially in hiring diverse people. I have a lot of high-tech clients, and that's their No. 1 issue now.
Risha GrantFounder and CEO, Risha Grant LLC

What advice do you have for high-tech firms looking to recruit and hire people of color?

Grant: You have to look at what your recruitment practices are. A lot of companies recruit from major universities in their respective areas. But when you're doing that, you have to look at the diverse groups within those universities. There's always a group for women, there's always an organization for black students or Latino students, or gay students. And there are always groups that are formed at universities that have ties to professional organizations geared toward different races or ethnicities. And there are historically black colleges and universities as well, that you could partner and recruit from. So, it involves thinking outside the box.

You have talked about how black people help their white colleagues  create a corporate culture of diversity and inclusion. What sort of things are you talking about there?

Grant: Yes, allyship is helpful for marginalized people at companies to have someone speak out when they see there's an issue. These [white] people can help amplify the voices of black employees or any people of color. It helps give them a voice that many feel they don't have. It could be something as simple as being in a meeting where there are [white] people that typically don't speak up. And maybe they don't speak up because there's something in that culture that makes them feel as if their voice doesn't matter. Allyship is about making sure you are speaking out against things that are discriminatory or exclusionary.

How important is the role black-owned venture capitalists can play in the high-tech world for black-owned startups? Some white-owned venture capital firms are criticized for not asking enough questions about the long-term vision of black-owned startups.

Grant: Any startup tech firm is risky, but you've got to be willing to give people a chance. They should have, of course, a solid business plan and a solid idea of where their business is going. If all of those things are in place and they still aren't giving them a chance, then you have to ask what else is holding them back.

What advice do you give to help minorities with their mistrust of white people? You yourself have professed to have some level of mistrust.

Grant: I have dealt with a mistrust of white people, but I also have a lot of white people in my life that I do trust. I can't make a blanket statement about all white people because that would not be true in my life.

I have taken the time to get to know people so I know they don't fit into the box with other white people who have hurt me. I know enough to treat people for the individuals they are and not because they look like everybody else that fit into a single group.

You have to get over yourself and realize that people are going to make mistakes and it doesn't mean you need to be done with them for life. We have to be gracious enough to give each other the space to make those big those mistakes. It also gives ourselves permission to be to be imperfect and know that others are going to be imperfect also.

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It sounds like Ms. Grant would greatly benefit from diversity training to shed her own racial biases.
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