A Catalyst at Google: Annie Argues for Real Conversations – Annie Jean-Baptiste ’06

Posted on Oct 13, 2016

A Catalyst at Google: Annie Argues for Real Conversations  –  Annie Jean-Baptiste ’06

Silicon Valley, arguably the most innovative corner of the planet, is also famously—and perhaps resolutely—homogeneous. The Valley’s mostly male and mostly white and Asian tech workforce unremittingly turns out life-changing tools. Can the mix of minds and hearts that created today’s constantly evolving reality come up with inventions that will work for the next billion users, and solve the problems of our battered planet as well?

“Tech companies, regardless of their size, are focused on these ‘next billion users,’” says Annie Jean-Baptiste, a diversity programs manager for Google’s Global Diversity and Inclusion Team, “and those people don’t look or live anything like we do. So uniformity of background isn’t a great characteristic on teams looking at inventions for the future.”

Like so many of her peers in Silicon Valley, Annie has parlayed a facile, creative mind and an eye for opportunity with a willingness to work hard. Tall, vivacious and fashion-savvy, Annie turns out to be unflaggingly optimistic, even exuberant about the future—and “passionate” by her own definition. Would her parents have predicted this career? “Well, maybe not in diversity programs at Google,” Annie shares her broad, warm smile, “but I was known as very sensitive: to others’ feelings or struggles, and on my own. My mom is a public school teacher, and my dad a policeman, so they instilled that focus on others. I get validation from helping people, and that was apparent early on.”

In 2012, Google disclosed its own uninspiring workforce data, naming a low point of departure as it kicked off an intensive, public drive to change the playing field. Looking outward, Google began programs aimed at diversifying the next generation of technology professionals, such as its Made with Code initiative, generating momentum among girls for careers in coding. The company also set out to “bridge the digital divide,” according to Annie, “offering ‘boot camps’ for smaller and diverse businesses to connect with the power of the web and become digitally savvy.”

Looking inward, Google mobilized integrated efforts around hiring—“We want our company’s representation to be more reflective of the external market,” as Annie says—and also a layered program to build an inclusive work environment. “Amazing ideas come from everywhere,” Brian Welle, of Google’s People Analytics teams points out on Google’s website, making the case for a workplace that fires on all cylinders because each employee owns a sense of personal value. “We don’t want any single ‘Googler’ to feel that ‘this is not the best place for me to express those ideas,’” he says. The company wants to make sure that“when you come to work, that part of you that’s unique is able to express itself.”

Annie says that Google is “leading the charge” in Silicon Valley—enabling people who work within the company to thrive in a workplace that capitalizes on different backgrounds. Google wants its employees to have “real conversations and take concrete actions that will ultimately create change,” according to Annie. Google calls its internal work “unbiasing the company.”

“It’s long-term work,” says Annie. “It’s the organic and often messy process of changing a culture.” Annie claims that it was at Milton where she and her classmates started to talk about race candidly. “I wrote my college essay about it.” On an email thread through a student online conference, assertions and opinions about slavery, affirmative action, the role of blacks in the United States spiraled, leaving students and adults confused, angry and hurt. “I realized that it was time to stand up and be vocal, and challenge people to be accountable—to make sure that people’s voices were actually heard. Milton was a great place for me, because it’s open to everyone’s own opinion, it’s open to questioning, but you learn that you actually need to listen, not just wait until you can reassert your point of view. You could challenge leadership, you could dare to be true, but you needed to be respectful as well. Milton helped me find my own authentic way of questioning the status quo.”

The trigger start for everyone at Google is a voluntary workshop that explains the concept of unconscious bias and its impact. According to the website, “to date, more than 30,000 Googlers (over half of the company) have participated in the 60- to 90-minute workshop, making it the largest voluntary learning program at Google.”

The workshop positions employees in their comfort zone: surrounded by data—in this case, brain science about bias. Called “a journey with unconscious bias,” the workshop explains that our conscious minds can’t process all the data that inundates us each day. The majority of our decisions, moment by moment, day by day, are processes we’re involved in unconsciously, from getting dressed and navigating toward work, to greeting people we know, to deciding which project to pick up.

To lead our lives, we rely on unconscious biases, positive and negative evaluations that occur outside of our conscious awareness and control. Those biases translate to a series of brain shortcuts, so we can reserve our cognitive effort resources for priority items: more challenging decisions and actions. The shortcuts—convenient as they may be—lead to implicit attitudes and stereotypes, for instance, the belief that women are nurturing, or that police officers like doughnuts. And using shortcuts affects certain thinking processes. Hiring, promoting and funding decisions can easily be shortchanged by the implicit attitudes we might not know we have. Unconscious biases can narrow our view or skew our expectations; we can exclude a perfect solution to a problem, or simply reject an unconventional approach.

Google workshoppers also take the Implicit Association Test, a simple and scientific way of measuring unconscious biases across a variety of categories—race, weight, disability, age, sexuality, gender, and more. Brian Welle and his colleagues have found that once people take the test, their reactions often follow a predictable pathway: “You’re really talking about other people because I’m not biased,” turns into “Well, okay, I have biases, but I don’t always make biased decisions. It’s only the corner cases where bias applies.” But the relentlessly collected Google data show that even the smallest expression of bias is amplified by similar biases in the room, and that tiny bias can filter up an organization, compromising discussion and decision making.

Once you’re aware of bias, you see it all the time, Annie says, “and our next phase is helping people learn concrete actions to take when that happens. It’s called bias busting at work. It’s awkward and uncomfortable when you see someone acting out a bias, and although we’re not expecting that you’ll be able to step up every time, putting yourself on the hook is important. Committing even to one action is a huge first step. You can start small—like sharing an article that relates to what you saw or heard, and that will start a conversation. Or you can ask someone, ‘What did you mean by that?’ which starts a conversation and puts the onus back on the speaker to explain what he or she meant. We want to help you find a way of responding that’s authentic to who you are.”

People throughout Google who go through this training, more of them all the time, may effectively change what they observe, the way that they think, or how they approach their work in a team. But even a stellar professional development effort isn’t sufficient to change a business culture. To make that systemic kind of change, Google works department by department. On that level, “there are several technical groups that I support,” says Annie, “Android, for example. I work with the head of that organization, a number of their staff and some HR people to craft an inclusion strategy for that product area.” She helps them think through data collection and determine areas where they can make progress. Annie works with Streams, Photos and Sharing as well. Customizing each department’s plan is key to “understanding what they value in their work, what’s important to them, and embedding diversity and inclusion into the culture and makeup of their organization, rather than adding an appendage afterward.” To achieve that, Annie is typically part of a team that involves the vice presidents, becoming part of “the thinking stream,” because knowing the business well is critical to crafting a successful plan. “What the plan looks like relates directly to what they’re doing and how they get their work done,” she explains.

After several formative years in sales at Google, Annie’s sales skills are assets now: listening well, valuing the customer, developing trust. “Going in with more questions than answers is how things work best,” Annie says, “understanding what’s challenging, what’s exciting for this product area, and just appreciating being a partner.”

More and more, throughout Silicon Valley, according to Annie, corporations and their leadership are seeing concrete evidence of the critical importance of diversity in their business process and outcomes, and the detriment when it’s missing. “Google’s all about accessibility,” Annie points out. “To develop products, we need to know the users. How will we build things for visually impaired people, for example, if we don’t include them on our teams? We’re thinking about building for everyone, and we’re excited to do that. It makes business sense, and it’s simply the right thing to do.”

Working in the engine room of organizational change must be exhausting. “When people simply aren’t ready to have the candid conversations, so they gloss over things, that’s frustrating,” Annie says. “Along with many others, I’m ready to have those awkward conversations and we’re hoping to galvanize people. We’re not aiming to be punitive, or to blame. But in spite of people’s fear, or their unwillingness to be seen as ‘un-PC,’ we have to talk about things that may ultimately be emotional, and painful. Your perspective truly changes when you stand in someone else’s shoes. If you’ve been privileged enough to spend your life never having experienced any overt bias against you, it’s easy enough to say, ‘I’m not part of the problem.’ But if you’re part of any minority, you live it, you get it, you necessarily talk about it every day. If you’re part of a majority, you almost have a greater responsibility to take an active role, to have these conversations. Why would it not be in everyone’s best interest to work toward an environment where everyone can thrive, one that’s more secure and resilient?

“Wouldn’t it be great,” Annie says, “if in the future I’m out of a job, and every company looks like our country? My moonshot is that someday people say, ‘That’s so funny, that they had to think about that—that this was such an effort.’”

by Cathleen Everett