- DEI work should focus first and foremost on creating an equitable culture and environment. The D and I will follow.
- Remote work brings challenges, but it has been hugely beneficial for certain marginalized groups like those with disabilities or BIPOC employees.
- The best technology for people leaders help people see trends that an individual can’t and also nudge people to be the best version of themselves.
- For founders selling to people leaders: don’t target a head of DEI as a buyer. Focus on the COO, CEO or another functional leader’s budget line and make clear the business case.
- Even with layoffs during a downturn, keeping high performers remains a priority. Good managers keep talent they otherwise couldn’t afford by giving them what matters to them and their personal motivation (and it’s not just higher pay).
For our latest People Matters interview, we chatted with Aubrey Blanche, Senior Director of People Operations & Strategic Programs at Culture Amp. Before Culture Amp, Blanche was the Global Head of Diversity & Belonging at Atlassian.
In this interview, Aubrey shares where the tech industry has made the most and the least amount of progress when it comes to DEI, how she helped grow Culture Amp’s proportion of Black employees from 3% to 11.3% of their US workforce, and what types of technology solutions for people leaders will be recession-proof.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Tell us about your journey into people-related work.
I got into this work by accident. I dropped out of grad school and landed at probably the most Silicon Valley-type of tech startups. I joke that I couldn’t watch the HBO show “Silicon Valley” at first because it was too close to real life.
But really I left grad school because I felt like as a queer, disabled, Latina woman I couldn’t be successful. And nobody told me that tech wasn’t that different. I was at the startup and I started pointing out the gaps in representation and the lack of equitable experience. And I had somebody ask: “Well, is that a problem you’re interested in solving?”
So I ended up just digging into those problems and found them really engaging and really meaningful. I relate to marginalized identities, but I’ve also been super privileged in a lot of ways, and so it feels right to spend my time to use the privilege, training and access that I’ve had to do something meaningful for other people.
What started as DEI has turned into broader people, culture, and talent work. And I love it.
When it comes to DEI, where do you think the tech industry has seen the most progress? Where do you feel like it still has a lot of progress to make?
That’s really easy. White women is the answer to the first question. The data would support this, but also qualitatively tech really started with a focus on gender. What we know from social justice theory is that when you start with gender, you build structures and systems that support cis, straight, white, and mostly economically privileged women to succeed. But you also leave behind a lot of other people, even among women.
I don’t look down on progress, but the tech industry hasn’t done a very good job of addressing racism issues, especially as they relate to Black and Latine people and people who live at both those intersections. I would also say tech does not think about disability.
Anti-racism is at the core of equity work. For the first year and a half that I was at Culture Amp, we focused on anti-racism education and auditing. Over time, we went from 1.2% Black employees to 11.3% in our U.S. workforce. And the cool thing about that was we also saw gender equity gains. So I think tech got the order of operations wrong.
It seems like there were huge gains on the “D” of DEI. What about the E and I?
The spicy thing I would say is I do not care about the D and the I. I only want to talk about equity. The conversation really started with the D, which is “let’s get more people from X background in the room.” And that’s actually the opposite of how you want to start. Because if you don’t ensure that someone is treated well, it’s a huge waste of effort and it is also harmful to that individual to put them in the environment.
If you think about the metaphor of canary in the coal mine — to focus on diversity before you’ve built an equitable environment is like throwing 50 more canaries in the mine as opposed to getting out of the mine.
So for me, I believe that when you start with equity, the D and the I take care of themselves. It is expensive in terms of time and resources. It also means your numbers will shift more slowly, but they’re going to shift more sustainably and you’re going to do less harm during it.
Now that you’ve done equity-related work at two large companies, what were things you’re most proud of?
I joined Culture Amp in February 2020. Very quickly after I started the video of George Floyd’s murder went viral. There was a lot of pressure for companies to be making anti-racism commitments and, well, as a culture company we couldn’t not say something. That said, I pushed really hard and said I’m not going to help you make this statement unless you approve the plan I put together to actually help us achieve the commitments we’re making.
I’m really grateful that the whole C-Suite was onboard to do the work. The first thing we did was prioritize a six-month coaching and learning program with them. It focused on how you actually build your own anti-racism practices and your ability to do a racial power analysis of business decisions. The whole C-suite showed up for six months of learning.
We still have some gaps in terms of leadership representation, but the fact that that’s a conversation I have with leadership on a monthly basis is reflective of the progress we’ve made. We’ve also been able to get to parity in our mid-level staff by investing in the folks we’ve brought on. We have sustained our commitment for multiple years — it wasn’t just a tweet for us.
At Atlassian, we focused on improving women’s representation in engineering. Both Atlassian and Culture Amp are based in Australia, where only about 6% of software engineering degrees go to women. When Atlassian was scaling aggressively, we were able to increase the representation of women in engineering, from 5% to 15% in a few years. At CultureAmp, we’ve actually been able to get to 34% women; the most badass part is that in engineering leadership we’re actually at 47% women. To be clear, I helped design the strategy but it worked because our engineering leadership in both cases decided it was a priority.
What advice would you give new DEI leaders?
Be gentle with yourselves. More often than not, someone focused on DEI is hired as a figurehead and they’re not given the resources to achieve their goals. At one point in my career I put the weight of the world on myself and I burned out. I thought if something non-inclusive or inequitable happened in the company, it was my fault and I failed. Now I know that’s not reasonable. You cannot do that to yourself.
You have to be really clear with organizational leadership about what can and cannot be accomplished with the resources you have. Companies may say “we want to be a leader in DEI!” but that requires an investment. Now, if you want to have a fair workplace, which is a slightly smaller ambition, that will cost something different. Agree with your leadership on the investment and then you can shape the vision based on the resources you have. The professional skill here is boundary management and expectation setting.
What are your thoughts on how remote work impacts employee engagement and satisfaction?
It varies by the group you’re looking at. The first impact is how this has created a ton of economic opportunity for disabled people. I have to call out the hypocrisy that remote work was not seen as a reasonable accommodation until a bunch of non-disabled people had to do it and then we realized, all of a sudden, that these jobs can be done remotely. This includes not just workers with mobility issues, but also those with ADHD or autism where open offices are overstimulating and inhibit them from doing their best work.
The other thing the research shows is that only 3% of Black workers want to go back into the workplace. They don’t want to deal with certain micro-aggressions and racism that can happen in an office setting.
I don’t want to discount that connection is a lot harder. Creating a sense of belonging for people who have never met each other in-person isn’t impossible, but it does require a different set of topics. Like intentionally setting aside time in existing meetings or async rituals that can help people connect.
How does access to education, upskilling, and internal mobility play a role in the work you’re doing around equity?
I think about equity and access like cousins. There is a big overlap, but they’re not quite the same. At Culture Amp we thought about it as two parts of our educational or development strategy when it comes to equity. The first is really focused on people from majority groups, which is basically how do you help them see everything they’re doing that might not be helpful.
For example, I run an anti-racism training for white managers of BIPOC employees. The courses are grounded in theory, reflection, integration, and practical application of skills. I think that’s really important in terms of the pedagogy for adult learners. We teach you the concept, but then we give you the safe container to practice using it.
The other half is making sure the access to learning that is already happening is equitably distributed to marginalized populations. At Culture Amp we set representation goals for our leadership development program. Last year, we introduced a new program called Future Leaders, which is for mid-level folks who we want to accelerate to the director and VP level. We explicitly had a target that 35% of the attendees would be BIPOC and 10% would be Black. 35% is slightly above our representation of the company, but we wanted our development to accelerate the progress of that cohort so that we’re making gains in leadership, which is where our representation gaps are still similar to a lot of companies.
I’m not a huge believer in the primary approach to equity work as educating marginalized populations. Take, for example, a women’s leadership program. Women are already brilliant — give them the same leadership development. Maybe create some safe spaces where they can talk about their own unique challenges. But the biggest thing to do is to make sure that majority group folks are aware.
Where do you think there is space for technology to help address pain points for people leaders?
I’m a believer that technology can be an accelerant to human skill. I don’t think technology replaces human things. I don’t care what the AI revolution says!
Where technology can be most useful in my work is highlighting patterns that individuals can’t see. At Culture Amp, our engagement platform is often where we first go to see if a certain group doesn’t feel like there are fair career opportunities. Whereas an individual manager won’t know that even if they are phenomenal and have great relationships with people on their team. Technology can help uncover trends and identify problems before they become attrition issues.
I also think technology can nudge people to be the best version of themselves. We have a tool for running 1:1s — it’s got an agenda but it also has these five sliders that your direct report can fill out ahead of time where they rate how they’re doing across multiple dimensions. I’m obsessed with this tool, because I can have the best conversations with my direct reports. I can say: “Well I’m excited your work relationships are great, but your wellbeing score is low. What’s going on and what support do you need from me?”
This helps keep me accountable and show up as the manager I want to be. And that is where I think technology is great. But at the end of the day, technology will only enable the behavior you want. If you are a manager who doesn’t care about the person, technology isn’t going to solve your problem.
For founders selling into people leaders, what advice do you have?
Never have the Head of Diversity be your buyer. They have no money. So while your sales strategy should include a Head of People or Head of DEI as a champion, you should target the COO, CEO or another functional leader’s budget line. It’s much more resilient to macroeconomic conditions. Make the business case the primary driver. Explain why solving the people problem accelerates the business solution.
Having worked in HR, I can tell you it’s much harder to push new products or initiatives and get other teams to adopt it. It is much easier if you have HR instead as a thought partner and a business leader who is passionate about it is pushing to get it implemented.
As we head into a potential downturn, what do you think are the top priorities for people leaders?
The number one thing is going to be retention of high performers. Even in a market downturn, those ~20-25% who are high performers are always going to have options. Even if a company is doing layoffs and cutting budgets, they will still find ways to engage and retain that group.
That doesn’t mean just giving raises; they can always find a company that can pay more. What we tend to see is the highest performing people are the ones who are grown and developed and given additional responsibility. Really good managers can keep talent that you otherwise couldn’t afford by giving them what matters to them and speaking to their personal motivation.
The number two thing is just going to be doing more with less. I’m already seeing a ton of tech stack consolidation. For those more niche startups, they should think more about integration or partnerships with other platforms.
When you’re not thinking about DEI and people work, how do you enjoy your time?
Well lately I’ve been planning my wedding! I don’t know if I enjoy it, but it’s a lot of seating charts, picking out menus, and all of that.
I would say the biggest thing is my fiancé and I love exploring new restaurants and shows. Food and the arts are what we get deep in — we’re always excited to try something new!