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Candice Morgan on navigating inclusive strategy in tech

In order for organizations to fully benefit from increased racial and gender diversity, they must adopt a learning orientation and be willing to change the corporate culture and power structure. The venture space faces a particular challenge in this endeavor with often very insular networks and funding models that are less accountable to efforts for diversity. Over the last decade, only 1% of venture capital dollars went toward Black founders and less than 2% toward LatinX founders. So, how can the venture space better practice antiracism across the industry? 

In this episode, our hosts Colleen Ammerman and David Homa speak with Candice Morgan about how to navigate inclusive strategies in organizations; how the “summer of protest” has moved the dial of accountability; and how the venture space can better practice antiracism. Candice is the equity, diversity & inclusion partner at GV (formerly known as Google Ventures), where she leads inclusive strategies for GV and its portfolio companies, and helps the firm expand diversity across the entrepreneurs it funds.

Watch the episode with Candice Morgan

Read the transcript, which is lightly edited for clarity.

Colleen Ammerman (Gender Initiative director): So, today we’re talking with Candice Morgan. Candice is the equity, diversity & inclusion partner at GV, formerly known as Google Ventures. In that role, she leads inclusive strategies for GV and its portfolio companies and helps the firm expand diversity across the entrepreneurs that it funds.  

Dave Homa (Digital Initiative director): Thanks for joining us, Candice.  

Candice Morgan: Yeah, happy to be here.  

CA: Thank you so much for joining us, Candice.  

DH: We always start big picture. And I’d like to start with a question about young companies in the venture space. Obviously, there’s a ton of discussion about diversity on teams. Are there things that are sort of top of mind in the venture space right now, when it comes to diversity of teams?  

CM: Yes, I think it depends on the size of the company, and at GV we are stage agnostic, we are sector agnostic. We focus across life sciences, enterprise, consumer tech, frontier tech. So, we have a really broad range of companies that we’re looking at. And particularly for high-growth small organizations, they’re thinking about putting their team together. They’re still in rapid growth. They’re dealing with, of course, 2020 and all the things that that brings. And then they’re still deciding whether to even bring in an individual to address diversity. I typically advise that when a company is really small, when we’re sub two hundred people or so, it’s probably too soon to bring in a person in that role.  

Now there are exceptions, but what you don’t want is to essentially outsource the work of DEI, especially when you’re that small. So they’re often thinking about how to build the right council structure, the accountability structure, which is always something to think about, even as the company grows. One thing I will say, though — in the venture space or outside of it — companies are dealing with on this topic is both being now distributed and remote if they weren’t before — certainly dealing with that — and then the events of May and June.  

So, yeah, certainly regardless of where you are or what sector you’re in, everyone is reckoning with coming out of Memorial Day weekend, coming out of that weekend of protests and seeing this still or video of this police officer with his knee upon this man’s neck. And that has completely changed a lot of the dynamics of conversations, the things that you talk about explicitly at work — talking about systemic racism, talking about the law enforcement system. So that’s something that companies are grappling with, as well. Where do we start? If we’ve started, what do we do next?  

CA: I wanted to follow up a bit on that portion of your answer about, obviously, the murder of George Floyd being this real flashpoint in 2020. And then the summer of all these protests, the way that that sort of changed the national conversation and certainly [the conversation] in companies. Also in higher ed — we started having a very different conversation at Harvard Business School. 

And, you talked about this a bit already, but I would love to hear you talk a little bit more about the nature of that change. I am really interested, also, in your view about what the long-term impact might be. I know you can’t predict the future, but what’s your sense of where we might go from here?  

CM: Yes, okay. So, first what changed immediately was the conversation. I’ll give GV as an example. We have a monthly conversation where we talk about inclusion, belonging, culture. And, we had a meeting planned later that week, just on the calendar, and then that weekend happened, George Floyd’s murder. And people were negotiating individually how they were responding to that news. And, depending on where you sit, there was everyone from, “Hey, there’s a lot of looting going on,” and, you know, focusing on property, to people like, “Okay, this is my first ever protest, how do I organize?” So, these very personal conversations people are having at home over the weekend.  

“that’s something that companies are grappling with, as well. Where do we start? If we’ve started, what do we do next?”

Second, then what? How do you actually conduct the conversation? And so, at GV, we had a conversation where we defined systemic racism and we talked about centering that conversation and how it’s connected to many other forms of social or systemic oppression. But we wanted to talk specifically about systemic racism and the many different institutions in which it shows up. 

I think most people realized that this isn’t a conversation we completely leave at the door when you come to work on Monday. This is something that is shaping how people got up that morning. This is a global conversation and we should do something. So, there was that realization that a lot of companies had that we should do something; we should have some sort of dialogue. Whatever tool we have, wherever we are, we should use some time to focus on this. And I think that that’s different. That’s different from a lot of issues that are considered political and, you know, that some people feel that you can just kind of check at the door. 

Another thing companies had to deal with besides these internal conversations was, “What do we say to the world?” We started to see the statements on Twitter, and Facebook, and LinkedIn, and the black squares, and the donations — and honestly, I’ve never seen leaders so confused over how to proceed. But certainly if we looked at the masses of individuals and companies and leaders making these statements, there was a pressure such that even if people were going to say, “We’re going to keep this conversation internal,” they came to me and they talked about it. There were [different] ways that that was done. There was, “Here’s our statement, we’re going to put it out there and then we’ve done it.” There were statements with donations to organizations doing some of this work; doing social justice work. And then there were people who were putting out their plans, their anti-racism plans, et cetera. We saw this whole range of reactions and some hand-wringing behind the scenes over how to handle that. And then finally, you know, people hit this kind of fork where they were like, “All right, are we going to carry this forward? Is this going to be a cameo by our leadership team or are we going to lean in and do some work? And, if we do lean in and do some work, what does that look like?”  

And that’s ultimately where I essentially did a series of conversations with a number of our portfolio companies around what you do now. I wrote an article about this, posted about it. I’ve talked about it. How do you create that long-term accountability structure from the executive level across the company to create strategic pillars for a multi-year diversity strategy?  

DH: Long term is something that businesses haven’t dealt with in this space. Long-term focus on equity is not something — I mean, long-term focus on a lot of things is difficult for businesses. But it’s a very different experience based on who you are. And obviously, in the US at least, leadership at companies is not very representative of the country as a whole. So, this in some ways is kind of new for leadership to decide what does long term look like, what does investing long term look like. And, I mean, it’s a lot of work.  

CM: It is a lot of work. I think, you know, in some cases leadership teams and particularly CEOs, co-founders, et cetera, had to make this decision. Are we going to lean in directly, or are we going to give more time than we had been prior to this? Are we going to tell our HR leader or our diversity leader, “Listen, you better come up with a plan.” Are you going to bring this to the board? Is it going to go to the board level? Is it going to stay local?” And, we’ve seen across the spectrum how people have handled that. I will be honest, because there was another part, Colleen, to your question, around “What do we think the long-term impact of this is?” I don’t know. I think it provided a lot of momentum. But there seems to be, if we were to follow the media coverage, for example, that started to die down even before a lot of the global protests stopped or slowed down significantly. And knowing the very divisive political situation in the US and also in other parts of the world, that started to take precedence in the media — as if these conversations aren’t connected. They very, very much are. And, so I personally felt a sense of, look, I felt this almost as a countdown clock. Where I was like, “Okay, all of these initiatives, all of these plans — not only at GV, but I was asked to consult externally quite a bit with different institutions across different sectors. And I felt this sense of responsibility. I felt I had more support than ever. But I wasn’t sure how long that was going to last. And I’m still not sure how long that bump is going to sustain itself.

CA: That’s a really good point. What I hear from my own network, there is the sense that it’s like, “Well, we have this window. We don’t really know how long it’s going to last.” And so that is an interesting space to be in. So we can’t predict the future. We don’t know really what the long-term impact, the more systemic impact, will be of these conversations and of this new urgency and renewed attention. But I would love to hear you talk a little bit about, say, the long-term process to create change and to actually genuinely establish a greater degree of equity and inclusion in the workplace, particularly in tech. Can you talk a little bit about what that would look like or what does that mean?  

CM: Yes. So, I’m going to say three things. The first is going to be something you just alluded to, which is the composition of leadership. Throughout my career, when I was at Catalyst as a consultant, working with dozens of Fortune 1000 companies, through to working at Pinterest, through to working at GV, now working both internally for GV and across our portfolio companies. Pretty much wherever you look, you see this underrepresentation in leadership. And you can define what that underrepresentation means by industry, by the company, by the talent pool. But there is underrepresentation. And, I think that even companies that have done well on diversity have still struggled when it comes to, you know, senior leadership representation and board representation. Even having these conversations at the board level. Part of the reason for that, I’ve found in my own experience, has been a combination of things. There’s “Well, what does that conversation look like at the board level?” Because the accountability wasn’t necessarily coming from the board. So the leadership team was like, “How do we shape that?” When you’re doing these very specialized senior hires, even if you have some sort of diversity slate rule, a Rooney rule, or some modification of it, you see the exceptions start coming in at these very senior roles. “You know what, this is super mission-critical.” People start to get nervous. They pattern-match more. And even if they say they’ve got to meet this diversity slate, somehow with that senior layer, exceptions happen. And you [only] have a few shots, because you only have a few openings. So those exceptions reverberate.  

“How do you create that long-term accountability structure from the executive level across the company to create strategic pillars for a multi-year diversity strategy?”

Another thing that I would say I see happening is not enough of the diversity investment happening on the product side, the client side, the services side, B2B side. It’s a lot of internal talent discussions, but it’s not necessarily [connected]. Every conversation you’re having about the business is kind of rooted in, “We want to make the world better” or “We want to make this process easier for our customers,” but then you have this diversity conversation and it’s just about hiring and talent. Or most places are also talking about inclusion and belonging, which is excellent. Some organizations are talking about equity, right? So, how do you create these experiences where anyone can succeed? You see this continuum but if you can’t link that and carry that through to your product, then the conversation won’t — people won’t connect the dots. And they will relegate it to, “This is a people thing.” So that’s another area.  

And, then kind of another variable we’ve talked about is, “How much senior leadership involvement? How much is everyone’s responsibility? How much is this built into reward systems?” Versus like, “We’ll do a manager meeting every couple of months or once a year on this,” but otherwise, again, it’s an HR, people thing. So, I think what this would look like, to answer the question, is that we would see that diverse representation in leadership, and we would see leadership that looks something like the customers or the end-users of their products. We would see innovation around inclusive AI, inclusive products. I’ve even consulted on consumer products and, you know, skin tone and thinking about the vocabulary, the marketing, all of that, the creators that you use. Holistically, we would see all that prioritized across the leadership team globally for companies.  

CA: Yeah, that’s really well put. I mean, I think what you’re saying, right, is it just becomes core to the business. Instead of, as you said, over there as this HR thing. It’s about changing people’s approach. Like you said, you can have these processes like a Rooney Rule or whatever. That’s great. But then if those can easily be sort of overridden or not adhered to by the people in power, how effective are they going to be? So I think those are really, really great points.  

DH: Yes, this is really important that the work be core, but I’m starting to wonder — and you have a lot of experience in business and working with businesses — is that something that American businesses struggle with, making things core? I mean, there’s this history of, these segments and groups in HR and marketing. And, it strikes me that even with technology, making technology core is difficult. Companies are like, “Oh, there’s an IT department. I don’t have to think about tech because I’m in marketing.” Is there something more systemic even about companies or US business that has struggled with making things core unless it’s part of the built-in values, and as you said, of the leadership and how they contribute?  

CM: That’s a good question. I think it’s less specific to American businesses or companies. I’m kind of obsessed and fascinated by cross-cultural conversations on management and inclusion. My master’s work was in cross-cultural psychology and management. I just think that, in general, humans are kind of slow to adapt and change. And there is pain involved, right, to making these changes. So, we kind of fall back on our patterns when things get hard until we’re forced to do things differently.  

Let’s take the example of a distributed workforce or working remotely. A lot of organizations still, right up till March 10th or 15th, or whatever date it was that you became remote, just simply didn’t believe in having a very distributed workforce and assumed that that would lead to a profound loss in productivity. And, yes, there are definitely trade-offs with us not being in the office. Don’t get me wrong. But the fact is that there has been business continuity and, you know, it really depends on who you’re talking to and where they sit. But we haven’t seen the complete collapse of the global economy. Actually, doing things different[ly] requires all these pattern changes, but sometimes it can be done, right?  

DH: What advice do you have for getting unstuck, especially around the product or your service?  

CM: Yeah, I’ll give a concrete example. I was at Pinterest and I was a Pinterest user. Like many users, I go through cycles — my on-ramp was a friend’s wedding and I got obsessed and then, you know, kind of put it on the back burner for a bit until changed jobs, got a new wardrobe. I had the cycle times when I got really, really into it. And it brought me joy.  

However, as a black woman, as a woman of color, when I was searching for beauty tips, particularly hair care tips — one of my biggest [Pinterest] boards is called Don’t Touch the Hair. I had learned how to search and make the product work for me, but there were some extra steps that I had to take to find things that were relevant to me. And even I took that for granted in some ways. If anything, it was inconvenient, but I learned how to just make it work. There I was, status quo.  

What changed for me personally were a few things. Starting to get feedback from users, other women of color, who had the same experience, were frustrated by it. Realizing that with folks spending more time online, that was shaping their self-image and worldview. I mean, whether you’re online or not, you are getting these messages from marketing, and from beauty magazines, et cetera. But [with Pinterest] you’re trying to create this idea of what your life is going to look like. You’re constructing that in these boards.  

“humans are slow to adapt and change. And there is pain involved in making changes. So, we fall back on our patterns until we’re forced to do things differently.”

So, I remember going to the product team and approaching someone on the computation side and someone on the product side with some specific user queries that just didn’t work as well for users of color, users with deeper skin tones. And, the way it was initially approached was a little like, “Okay, we need to solve that query,” versus, “We need to revamp this ecosystem.”

I officially created a full-on product team — several engineers, several designers — and began an initiative around creators. Now, when you go on the platform, not only is there more representation in search and ads, but this feature that we created, where you could customize search by skin tone — the recall on it is better than I’ve ever seen it. But that was a slow, like three-and-a-half, four-year process of kind of dipping a toe; crystallizing how it intersects with a core business need that the founder had envisioned; realizing customers wanted this; doing all kinds of research experiments; and then realizing that the rewards exceeded the pain of making a change.  

DH: I especially find it interesting how you said, even you, who’s aware of the space, sort of put up with it. What does that cost? What’s the cost to you personally? What’s the cost to people to have to interface with technologies where they actually have to put in that effort?  

CM: You know, wow, it’s one of these costs that is often subconscious. And, we learn a lot about it from the amazing strides that have been made in accessibility work, right? Which, still, anyone who’s doing accessibility work continues to advocate and struggle to mainstream technology that is inclusive if you have low vision, if you are hard of hearing, et cetera. So, there’s still this very slow crawl towards creating technology that benefits everyone because it takes the user issue and makes it more obsolete. But I don’t think I realized it consciously until I experienced it and heard it from people. And, it wasn’t a lot of people. I mean, most people had just kind of figured out and navigated their way. But when they talked about how their self-image and the vision for what they wanted to create were intertwined, I think realizing that power and the potential damage of not doing this became really strong. And so, when we were in that role, when we were going through different iterations of what this feature could look like and the fact that we even create a feature, then we started all asking these questions. Like, wait a minute, so what have people been doing? You show this example of how people were trying to get around these algorithms and their assumptions and you realize, wow, once it becomes conscious, I think that is when it feels the most costly. But it’s the idea that something wasn’t made for you, right? It’s awful.  

DH: This is a good point, right? Once you can get the people with the capabilities focused on the right topics, it’s not difficult. But they need the motivation to do it.  

CM: Yes. They can get creative. It was just, it’s just amazing what they can do.  

CA: I wanted to ask, Candice, you mentioned a little bit about your career journey. You were at Catalyst for a number of years. Catalyst’s been around for decades; it’s kind of the premier think tank and consulting firm around gender equality in the workplace. They work, I understand, with a lot of large companies, right? Fortune 500 companies that have been around for a long time, publicly listed companies. You went from there to Pinterest, to this high-growth startup in tech. And now you have moved on to a venture firm working again with a range of companies, but probably in a different space in a lot of ways, and a lot of different types of companies. So, I’m just curious to hear, as you think about your own journey, if there are things that you found are very consistent about how to push forward for diversity and inclusion and equity across all of those different kinds of organizations. What are your reflections about that?  

CM: Yes, absolutely. All such very different environments. I would say at Catalyst, just the dynamic nature of working with so many different companies, but a lot of them being very large, multinational Fortune 500 companies, the cultures were definitely different. Definitely more traditional, a traditional corporate culture, especially when I was working in a professional services firm environment. However, going over to tech in 2015, 2016 — the diversity conversation was so new. And I found that so baffling, knowing that IBM had its first ERG in the late ‘70s and suddenly tech was like, “There’s this diversity thing.” Twenty-fourteen was kind of that big moment, especially when a lot of the data started to come out and the conversation became more central in tech. And also, the tendency for high-growth tech not to want to look backwards, but to very much want to innovate forward, was just super interesting to me because there was so much to be learned from companies that have been working on this, in some cases, for a couple of decades already.  

“there’s still this very slow crawl towards creating technology that benefits everyone.”

I think, though, that a similarity across both — and I see this in venture somewhat as well — is the point at which companies got stuck. There was more governance; there tended to be more people in longer-tenured diversity roles, people who came from different sectors, in Fortune 500 companies. As opposed to tech, where you had people who were pretty short-tenured. You had probably 30 percent of people in diversity leadership roles who had been in other roles at companies, but were very passionate and had moved into diversity as the primary role, and were just amazing at it in all kinds of different respects. But [there was] a formula of “inclusion equals ERGs and employee survey results and some diagnostic workforce data, and then hiring, hiring, hiring, hiring.” Versus moving into equity and moving this conversation into the core of the business and more broadly looking for responsibility in the business, right? That point tended to be a jam no matter where you sit.  

And in venture, I’m going to be honest, I would say overall just less accountability for diversity. I will say certainly [more] so than before, as we’ve talked about George Floyd’s murder, and as we’ve talked about this reckoning and this uprising that we’ve seen from people and from employees internally saying, “It isn’t good enough that you put out that statement, it never got followed up.” But I would say [before] spring of 2020, the accountability that we started to see in tech in 2014–2015 did not extend to venture.

Now, we are seeing in venture, particularly the funding model, and the fact that the funding model and how you make connections to get funded are so network-driven, and that the networks are just very insular. That has become a point of conversation now. I hope that leads to more than just conversation. We are seeing a lot of coalitions. We’re seeing groups get together and have several conversations with other firms or with cross-sector organizations, indexes, metrics, accountability, et cetera. I’m seeing something that could be promising, but I still just don’t see the same level of accountability yet. And I don’t know if that traction will stick. 

CA: It’s interesting to hear what you’re saying about how the conversation does seem to be evolving in venture. I am just so curious to see where that goes. The other way to ask this question is less about your [past] journey and what you’ve learned over the years. This is a relatively new role for you, right, at GV? You started maybe a year ago or something like that?  

CM: Yeah.  

CA: I just would love to hear you talk a little bit about what motivated you to move into this space. What are your goals? What do you hope to accomplish in this particular space as opposed to the past work that you’ve done? What’s different about it? What are you excited about?  

CM: Yes. So leading equity, diversity, and inclusion in venture is super unusual. The firm didn’t really have a model on which to build this role. There is no counterpart that I could go pick their brain and download and then say, what do I do now?  

Although there are several individuals who have specialist roles on culture who have really made inclusion a central part of their purview, and there are some corporate venture capital funds that are starting to create more roles like this — or at least beginning to experiment with a portion of people’s roles dedicated to it.  

But as a full-time role, it’s pretty new. And, that’s both exciting and a bit intimidating. I would say what motivated me to take the role — really there were a couple of things that motivated me. One was, I wanted to continue the work that I was doing. I’m so devoted to this equity work, but I wanted to figure out how to continue to do this work at scale in a meaningful way. And, if we think about one of the biggest challenges in terms of systemic racism and systemic bias, it’s the wealth gap. I remember actually back when I was at Catalyst, one of the researchers, Dr. Kathy Giscombe, led a session about the wealth gap that was amazing, informative, and frankly, terribly depressing. And nobody forgot it.  

“Now, we are seeing in venture — particularly the funding model — that the networks are very insular. that has become a point of conversation now.”

And so, you know, when you think about the amount of capital that flows through venture and private equity, and if you continue to extend and think about how people get funded and raise capital, it is such an important point. As I said to Ben at Pinterest and as I’ve said to others, “How do we build the next great company that happens to have an underrepresented woman at the helm, for example?” And that has this leadership team that is representative and diverse, as we’ve talked about. And so, that was intriguing to me. I had never seen a role like this before. And I should probably mention that the other thing that really — that I found very intriguing was that the role itself is equally distributed across three different functions. So, part of my role is advising the portfolio, which is akin to my Catalyst work. Part of the role is leading equity, diversity, inclusion for GV, which is akin to, to some extent, my Pinterest work. And, then this third portion of the role, which is something I’ve never done before, is around working with the investing team, in particular, on diversifying the founders that they are meeting, the way that they are thinking about funding, their personal networks. Just super, super intriguing, powerful, and has the potential to make great impact.  

CA: So for somebody who’s watching who is interested in these issues and is maybe aspiring to make a difference in the tech sector the way you have, what are things that you recommend that they read or watch or think about? People whose work they should get to know? What kind of advice would you give?  

CM: In terms of the tech sector, it’s understanding some of the data around, basically, what’s up with this pipeline thing? Is it a pipeline problem? Where do you start to see people drop out of the workforce, particularly people from underrepresented backgrounds in tech leadership? And, then the founder population. The Kapor Center has this wonderful site. It’s called the Leaky Pipeline. And you can basically explore across the student to tech pipeline, where you start to see people drop out of the workforce. Everything from retention, what starts to influence people’s success, or in other circumstances, people leaving the tech workforce [altogether]. So, the Leaky Tech Pipeline is another thing that I recommend.  

There are wonderful organizations for technologists of color. One organization that I recommend is called /dev/color. They are particularly an organization for Black software engineers. It was actually founded by a former Pinterest engineer who I had the pleasure of working with on my team for just a few months before he founded the organization. So, those are a few tools that I would give.  

In terms of books, I think there have been so many books that have been recommended that I am almost loathe to add to the list. But a few that we distributed at GV are So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. I just think it’s such an accessible book to understand people’s daily experiences. And Biased by Jennifer Eberhardt. Even if you tend to feel that a lot of these conversations, or a lot of the vocabulary, just kind of escape you, the facts are there in that book — that there are different outcomes based on our immediate subconscious perceptions of individuals.  

DH: Candice, thank you so much for spending time with us today. This has been a really fascinating conversation.  

CM: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you.  

DH: That’s a wrap on the interview, but the conversation continues.  

CA: And we want to hear from you. Send your questions, comments, and ideas to justdigital@hbs.edu.

Featuring

  • Candice Morgan

    Candice creates inclusive strategies for GV (Google Ventures) and its portfolio companies, and helps the firm expand diversity across the entrepreneurs it funds.

  • HBS Gender Initiative

    The HBS Gender Initiative drives change and eradicates gender, race, & other forms of inequality in business and society through research.

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Candice Morgan from GV (formerly Google Ventures) shares how to navigate inclusive strategies in organizations; how the “summer of protest” has moved the dial of accountability; and how the venture space can better practice antiracism.