Chief People Officer in Tech Shares Tips to Retain Diverse Talent

Estimated read time 8 min read

This article is part of “Talent Insider,” a series containing expert advice to help business owners tackle a variety of hiring challenges.

Sharawn Tipton is the chief people and culture officer at LiveRamp, an advertising-technology company in San Francisco. Previously, she was the chief diversity officer at Micron Technology. She sits on the board of the nonprofit Fair Pay Workplace and is an advisor for College Track, where she mentors first-generation and underrepresented college students. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What efforts are most effective when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives?

I love to say charity starts at home. So before you can infuse DEI, you need to look internally. What policies, procedures, and processes do you have in place today? Who are they helping, and who are they hurting? You need to start with an internal assessment of where you are on the DEI maturity model. Are your practices fair? Are they equitable?

A lot of times in DEI, you have a leader who wants to go out and be external-facing. But let’s start with the foundation, the house, your HR processes. If you look at every process you have within HR — from hire to fire — and you look at it through a DEI lens and reengineer it, that’s going to create equality within your company. That’s the best place to start. Because when you are treating your employees right, you can then go out and treat others right.

Another way to ensure that your initiative is impactful is making it a business imperative. So when you have your quarterly business reviews, are you talking about diversity and inclusion? When you look at your executives’ compensation and their KPIs for the year, are there initiatives that are tied to DEI? Are workers held accountable? When you look at your employees’ total rewards, are those tied to diversity and inclusion initiatives? If you start there, you’re able to move the needle.

One thing I’ve seen that works well is if you have, say, three to six DEI initiatives and you assign each one to a different business leader. We know that business leaders are action-oriented and want to accomplish goals. And so if you give them a goal to be held accountable to, that’s going to help accelerate the progress and get that executive buy-in.

Tech is an industry that hasn’t always felt welcoming to different groups, or at least hasn’t been as diverse as some would like when it comes to women and people of color. What considerations are there for tech regarding DEI?

I think a lot of times, companies start by immediately bringing in diverse talent. But for tech, we have to make sure that the environment is right to keep that talent. So that’s where I would start — internally and by understanding whether people have a sense of belonging. How do we treat people who are diverse? When they wake up on Monday morning, do they want to come to LiveRamp? I would start the work there before I try to bring people in masses in the door. I wouldn’t start on the hiring and, “Let’s bring in a bunch of diverse people.” Because what you’re going to find is they’re just going to turn around and leave because they’re going to say, “I don’t feel welcomed here. I don’t feel like I belong. I don’t feel like I have impact.”

I would encourage companies our size to look at their engagement data. Hopefully, you’re running an engagement survey. Slice it by diversity dimension and say, “Is our Hispanic population having the same experience as everybody else? What about our people with disabilities? What about our people over 50?” Really start to understand where you have an opportunity to create a culture that embraces everyone. Then, when you get that culture right, you can bring in the talent, and they will stay. We say you can’t out-hire bad retention. You just can’t. So you’ve got to get your environment right, and everyone has to feel that they truly belong.

How has your work changed, if at all, given there has been political pushback on DEI?

It’s changed. The work now has to really show the ROI. In the past, especially during the George Floyd movement and his murder, leaders were much more open to taking on DEI initiatives. But now there is more of a pushback — and so you have to show not only why this is the right thing to do but why it’s good for business. In some cases, that’s always been the case. But now I really feel that across the board. “Why would we do this?” There needs to be a compelling answer.

Let’s go back to your engagement data again. We know that employees who are in employee resource groups have higher engagement and lower attrition. So you can point to those numbers and build the business case as to why this is a strategic investment instead of being anchored in, “It’s just the right thing to do.” That’s not good enough.

You still have investors asking, “Are you diverse as an organization? When you think about the future of work, do you have the talent you need?” To be able to fill all these future roles — even with AI — you’re going to have to tap into diverse talent. That’s a great motivator for business leaders and CEOs to embrace DEI.

When you think about companies your size, what do people overlook or get wrong about DEI?

A false narrative that I hear all the time is that the talent just isn’t there. The talent is there. But where are you sourcing? Who are you attracting? What partnerships do you have — whether with universities or organizations such as the National Society of Black Engineers or the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers — and are you building relationships with that talent?

They say you need to touch talent five times before you ever go to recruit them. So that means somebody needs to have heard about LiveRamp five times before I could truly be successful in going out to recruit them. I can’t just show up at Georgia Tech and expect all the diverse talent to want to come to my organization. I have to build that relationship. I have to build my brand. A false narrative is the talent just isn’t there, or you’re too small to attract the talent. No, that’s not it. You have to put in the work. The talent is there.

That’s similar to what you said about getting your house in order before you focus on recruitment, right?

Yes, absolutely. The goal may not be to recruit in year one or year two. The goal may be to build a relationship, and build your brand, and to pour into those communities. The recruitment comes later.

As you look ahead, what do you hope happens as DEI evolves? Do you have anything you want to see?

I know for a fact that like attracts like. So I think the more diversity we can get in leadership roles and on boards of directors will drive more diversity throughout corporations. That’s one thing that I would love to see happen. With the George Floyd movement, we saw many more women step into board seats, and we saw more people of color. I hope to see that momentum continue because I think that matters and it can really move the dial.

I know personally that the questions that we get from diverse board members are phenomenal. When you have that diversity on a board, it really helps you to make sure your human-capital metrics are where they should be. And so I hope to see more of that.

I also hope at some point we can stop explaining why diversity is good for business. I hope that everyone will understand that diversity of thought is great if you’re thinking about your customers and trying to anticipate their needs — if you’re trying to ideate and come up with new ideas and innovation. Diversity matters, and I hope we will stop having to explain that.

Anything else I should ask that we didn’t get to?

I would just say that if you’re in a diversity and inclusion role, I just want those leaders to stay inspired because I know it’s a very challenging time. So stay the course.

I would encourage them to really understand the love language of their companies and how you are able to spread influence — whether that’s through data, whether that’s through relationships, whether that’s through storytelling. Whatever the love language is for your company, grasp that and utilize that to push DEI forward. Because we need it.