The Change We Seek

By Melinda King, 23andMe’s Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion 

Black History Month is meant to celebrate our contributions and acknowledge how far we’ve come, but for me, all that has happened in the last two years only reminds me how far we still have to go. 

I will never be able to think of this time without being reminded of the murder of George Floyd.   

As a Black woman, a mother of two sons, his brutal murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer shook me. It led me to move across the country for a new job and double down on my commitment to change the world where a Black man could have the life choked out of him under the color of law. 

 

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Logo
Addressing Inequality and Injustice

I thought perhaps it also would be a moment that genuinely shook our country from its indifference to structural racism. But, a year and a half on, I’m not so sure. I fear the momentum to change is wafting away. I feel that is especially true here in Silicon Valley where so many companies make public commitments to take action to address racial inequality and injustice.

My job, the thing I get paid to do, is in part to remind, cajole and argue for inclusion in the workplace. I’m doing this work in Silicon Valley, which has its own diversity problem. There is a lot to be encouraged by but even with espoused commitments to change, it can be a lonely job. Even as I walk the streets of San Jose, I am constantly reminded of who I am and who I’m not. I’m reminded when I walk outside of my overpriced new apartment building only to be asked by the white woman crossing the street with me if it’s a low-income building. That’s because there is sometimes a disconnect between people who see and are shocked by the deaths of George Floyd, or Ahmaud Arbery, or Breonna Taylor, but can’t see what’s right in front of them. They can’t see how what caused those deaths connects to the structural racism that has excluded people like George or Ahmaud or Breonna, from the broader opportunities of our society. They struggle to connect all the dots that lead to Black people being in life or death situations regularly. 

The Potential for Positive Change

That’s why I came here. It’s because Silicon Valley is at the hub of innovation and opportunity.  Failing to embrace diversity here has both a moral and a business cost. We’ve witnessed the power of tech companies to profoundly transform society, both for the good and the bad. Fixing the diversity problem here could have an outsized and positive impact on the rest of the world. However, that requires real commitment. It requires making room for more diversity at the table and listening to those new voices. 

I am not naive to the complexity and history of race problems. I know what it means to be Black in America. I still remember sitting in a segregated doctor’s office as a little girl in rural Alabama. I remember having a hard conversation with my young son after someone called him the “n-word” in his grade school classroom.

It’s Everyone’s Job

But we don’t have to accept the way things are.

To quote President Barack Obama, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Diversity, equity, and inclusion is my job, but it’s also your job. It’s everyone’s job. It requires each of us to be “the change we seek.”

It means more than words. It means actions. I say that even though it was words that brought me here. I heard the CEO and Co-Founder of 23andMe, Anne Wojcicki, call out her own company for its failings on inclusion. She was willing to say her company, in the heart of Silicon Valley, was part of the problem. I reached out to her and asked if I could assist in making a change. That’s how I came to work at 23andMe.

Although it was Anne’s words that first drew me here, it’s my commitment to this community, the 23andMe employees, and this work that keeps me going. Since coming here we have brought diversity to our board, added new leaders, and continue to commit to adding more diversity to our organization. We continue to improve our product to make it more inclusive and have created employee groups to support people with different affinities, abilities, and ethnicities. 

Let’s Do More

But it’s not enough. There is so much more for us and other companies to do. We all have to do better. Leaders need to step outside their current network and develop relationships with people of different backgrounds. If you think that can’t happen, know that Black people have had to do that for generations in order to survive in corporate America. Challenge others when you see them sharing a narrative of “we are all the same.” While it’s a lovely sentiment, it’s not true. 

That brings me back to George Floyd, and my moment of clarity. It wasn’t that it reminded me of what I already know, it simply prompted me to focus on doing more to change the world that allows for something like that to happen. Tapping that resolve is what will help us keep our commitment, to do more than just talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Let’s move away from all the things we say we will do and focus on actually doing the work that has an impact for the communities who have been left behind in the past.