The state of diversity in tech cannot be fixed by a few extra guidelines and a training seminar. The founder of Black Tech Pipeline insists on more from leadership in tech.
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Social media has helped birth many social revolutions in the 2010s era. In 2018, the BlackTechTwitter hashtag was a revolution that proved there was no such thing as a “pipeline problem” in the industry. The hashtag's originator, Pariss Chandler, or Pariss Athena, as her following knows her by, says, “the pipeline problem never existed; it was always a personal networking problem.”
As Black people across the country flocked to engage with the powerful hashtag, companies flocked to Athena’s DMs, creating the inspiration to launch Black Tech Pipeline (BTP). “Honestly, Black Tech Pipeline just fell into my lap. I had no idea what it would become,” Athena remembered of that hectic time.
Now, at the beginning of 2021, her platform has seen significant growth. There are more than 1,500 people registered in its talent database, with a range of skill sets. Athena is adamant that, “Tech is for everyone. You can bring your outside skills and be just as successful as an engineer.” There’s a combined 50,000 people engaged with the newsletter and online presence on Slack, Discord, LinkedIn, and Twitter communities. And there are close to 50 employer partnerships, including Moz, Hubspot, and TrialSpark.
“My DMs are full,” Athena jokes, “I feel a bit bad about not being able to get back to people.” When BTP evolved last year, Athena was managing the workload by herself. Answering inquiries, fielding contracts, vetting potential employers, and checking in with candidates she helped match up. Pariss wanted to create a funnel of trust, but as the COVID-19 pandemic brought on severe job loss in the community, the increase in traffic meant it was time to get help. She hired her sister to take over social media duties and unofficially hired her fiancé as the CTO. Her mom, a pillar in the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) space, also coaches and mentors her on best practices for implementing success at different companies. It was becoming a real grassroots, family affair.
In the beginning, there was no official vetting process to ensure the companies she plugged Black employees into had good intentions around diversity, equity, and inclusion. That presented challenges early on- candidates would come back to let her know that they had left a company because they felt like nothing more than a culture-add. They were diversity hires that weren’t given meaningful work; their onboarding process wasn’t smooth; they had no mentorship opportunities available; they had to lead diversity efforts on top of their job responsibilities. “This was starting to reflect poorly on me and my intentions,” Athena lamented.
So she changed the BTP business model to be more candidate-centric. Athena split the business into three parts: a job board that guaranteed a series of check-ins during the first 90 days, speaker engagements, and recruitment. The job board is completely free for candidates, while companies must pay to book speakers or recruit talent. When candidates sign up for the job board, there is a sense of inclusion built right into the form. Candidates can dictate their pronouns; choose whether they need help securing a Visa; whether they’re self-taught, have a formal education from a university, or completed a boot camp; and express the values they look for in a company.
The 90-day check-ins were vital to hold companies accountable for the policies they plastered on their websites and social media channels. This accountability would only happen if Pariss checked in with the new hires. “This was their time to be completely transparent with me. I’d take that feedback and relay it to management.” And from there, Athena would help employers (that were open to change) navigate the steps it took to positively impact Black employees. In those meetings, she would also map out what success looks like for candidates and consult with the company's DEI department.
While retaliation can be a consequence of speaking up against unsavory management practices, no one that BTP has connected with has dealt with that. But, Athena said she did have a few unfortunate experiences when relaying negative feedback back to employers. “Nothing can get done unless you have permission from leadership and executives. That’s where I see pushback.” So instead of arguing, she severs ties until new leadership takes the helm. And if it doesn’t, she won't rekindle the relationship. “I let the candidate know what isn’t changing and I give them the choice of whether to stay or not.” Athena has walked away from a few companies, but she knows the ones she’s partnered with have good intentions. Working with companies that prioritize DEI efforts means that less time and effort gets wasted.
Equity in DEI is one of the most critical components for Athena. She recognizes that a lot of companies vet candidates by the institutions that educated them. Some Black people have to find different routes to education besides a four-year college or university. So she pushes for the inclusion of self-taught candidates and those who completed tech boot camps. This method of learning displays a go-getter spirit, dedication, and the ability to juggle multiple responsibilities. “It’s already been proven you don’t need a four-year degree to be a programmer, to build a website, or know how to code.” This is why equity is essential - it increases access.
As access in tech increases and Black Tech Pipeline continues to funnel more talent, the vision grows. Athena hopes to become the CEO or board member and hand over daily operations to a capable person, or even an acquisition. But, only for the right company. “I’d have to make sure it’s going to continue to be equitable.”