Making an Impact as a Black Leader in Tech

Written by Zach Johnson

January 9, 2023

When many kids get to college, they get drunk on freedom. For the first time, there’s no one telling them what to do. They go crazy! Then there’s the “oh shit!” moment midway through their first semester when they realize they’re going to flunk out if they don’t start studying and cut back on partying.

I didn’t go through that. I learned early on that freedom comes with responsibility. My brother and I grew up as latchkey kids. As teens, we’d spend evenings home alone while our mom worked… and our mom worked hard! Not only did she maintain a job that provided us with everything we ever needed, she somehow found the energy to pursue a Ph.D.!

She currently is working to improve equity and inclusion at Skyline College in California. Seeing her strive, succeed, and give back inspired me to do the same. Since she worked while she was in college, I worked while I was in college. Since she volunteered, I volunteered. Since she was a great leader, I wanted to be a great leader too.

“As a Black man in America, you’re going to have to work twice as hard, but that doesn’t mean you have to step over anyone,” she told me. That stuck with me. Great leaders aren’t hyper-competitive corporate ladder-climbers, they’re hardworking, empathetic listeners.

Inspiring the Next Generation of Black Leaders

After I graduated college, I was encouraged by my mom to give back and volunteer more, so I looked for causes I could get behind. That’s how I got involved with BUILD.

BUILD is a youth entrepreneurial program aimed at helping kids from underserved communities get into college. Higher education is such a huge advantage, and not just for what you learn in class. It teaches you all sorts of life skills, like responsibility, time management, teamwork, and critical thinking.

Because of their backgrounds, some of the kids in the program are the first people in their families to even dream about going to college. And that’s the situation for a lot of underprivileged Black families.

As a young Black graduate, I wanted to show them that if I could make it through, they could too. I got to mentor four bright, determined, hard-working kids from their freshman year in high school until they left for college.

It was amazing to see how their goals changed as they matured. At the beginning of the program, one kid couldn’t see any future for himself other than playing basketball. But by the time he graduated, he found out he had a passion for forensic criminology.

Working with BUILD was a great experience. It made me want to continue to have an impact in my community, which led me to check out Employee Resource Groups (ERGs).

Making an Impact with ERGs

For me, ERGs have been great for connecting with people with similar backgrounds to my own. The first ERG I was a part of was more “let’s grab a beer,” and less “let’s enact social change,” but I still enjoyed it.

The second ERG I was a part of was much more impactful. I joined in 2017 when there was a lot of civil unrest and the Black Lives Matter Movement was getting a lot of attention.

Like a lot of businesses, my past company suffered from a lack of diversity. There were few Black employees, even fewer Black leaders, and discrimination was an issue.

For instance, our facilities manager, a Black woman, was wrongly accused of stealing (by a third-party vendor). The only reason they could give was that she was in the office when everyone else was working remotely, even though it was her job to be in the office.

In response, the ERG wrote a joint letter to the executive team demanding change in the company. We insisted on better recruiting efforts for Black people, more Black leadership, and a place where we could be heard.

It worked. The company made significant progress. They started recruiting initiatives to hire people from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and they hired more Black executives. They even employed a Chief Diversity Officer to promote diversity and handle discrimination complaints.

What It’s Like to Be a Black Executive

Now that I’m an executive at Cribl, I can say that they’ve been good about pursuing diversity initiatives. I’m honored to be where I am, but, as a Black man, being an executive can be lonely. There are not a lot of executives that look like me at the conference table. And sometimes, people automatically assume I’m a subordinate.

But things are changing. Huge companies like Meta, Google, and Amazon are making strides towards inclusiveness. Nevertheless, most businesses still have a long way to go.

The problem is that many companies just aren’t aware barriers to equity exist. There has to be someone from a community in the boardroom to speak up for that group. For example, most men aren’t going to think about issues like maternity leave. Diversity helps a company cover its blind spots.

Change always seems to happen too slowly, but if we keep pressuring businesses to take incremental steps toward diversity, the situation for Black employees and leaders in tech will continue to improve.

I think Cribl is on the right path. As the company grows, I see the constant effort Cribl makes to represent minority groups.

One of my favorite inclusion events was our Juneteenth celebration. I gave a speech to share what the holiday meant for my family growing up and how we would celebrate. Events like this go a long way towards inclusion.

Sometimes a champion has to stand up for what’s right, so others can follow. One of my civil rights heroes is the late, great Bill Russel. In the 60s, he put his career and safety on the line when he, along with several other players, refused to play after some of his teammates were turned away from a hotel coffee shop because they were Black.

In the future, I’d like to see Cribl be that kind of hero, by setting an example of diversity so other startups can follow in our footsteps!  If you’d like to come work at a company that leads by example, check out our open roles.

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