Albrey Brown hopes we never have to have this conversation again

Airtable's head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is ready for tech culture to change

When Albrey Brown finished high school in the Bay Area he decided not to go to college.  Instead, starting a business seemed more likely to help him achieve his goals.

“It failed, spectacularly,” he told Free Radicals, “But what I did learn was that I really love technology. I decided that without a college degree, and wanting to start a technology business, the next step would be to learn how to code.” 

Through a friend, he found his way to the coding bootcamp Hack Reactor, and then became a full-time software engineer, where he got a taste of tech world culture. “I didn't see any Black people in my entire time on that team,” he said. “I was experiencing the macro trends of tech in my day-to-day—1.8 percent Black, 1.6 percent Latinx, 18 to 20 percent representation of women.”

This was not long after Google first released its annual diversity report in 2014, which led the tech world to make many promises about diversifying the workforce, and changing workplace culture. 

Brown’s experience reignited his interest in being an entrepreneur. “I decided to start a coding boot school for women and people of color, and that was called Telegraph Academy,” he said. He raised nearly half a million dollars from the founders of Hack Reactor, based on the strength of his vision, and the reality that he had been living the problem he was setting out to solve.  

Telegraph Academy launched in June of 2015. “It was the best working experience that I've ever had,” Brown said. “It really was working at the intersection between your passion, what you're good at, your experience, and what you can get paid to do.” Over the course of 18 months the school taught more than 450 people how to code enough to get into more advanced boot camp programs, and an additional 120 people learned to code professionally and left with jobs in the industry. 

When another coding bootcamp purchased Telegraph Academy, Brown wasn’t sure what to do, so he made another big pivot. “I decided to say, Hey, how about you all make me your head of diversity, equity, and inclusion?” he said. “They didn't know what that meant. I didn't know what that meant. I don't know whether I would have chosen this work if I knew what that meant. But becoming a head of D, E, and I seemed to be a very, very natural fit.”

Since then, Brown has been doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work for companies like Pivotal Labs and DocuSign, and is now head of DEI at Airtable. His unconventional career path and his work trying to humanize an industry has given him unusually deep insight into the tech world and corporate culture; his reflections on diversity and the workplace are bracingly direct, and crystal clear. 

Sherrell Dorsey talked to Brown about representation, the college industrial complex, and building Black wealth. 

When we talk about the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion, I think there's a misconception that a lot of it is very fluffy. It's not the core of the business. How are you thinking about the role of this work in the context of the future of business overall?

I think that the simple measure of whether your company is diverse is how many Black women you have. Black women are the least represented in technology. And if you aren't doing the work to make sure that Black women are being attracted and retained, that's the canary in the coal mine for the rest of the folks who are considered marginalized. While folks may have different challenges or experiences, Black women experience the brunt of the biases that we have in tech. So I want to say that representation is really important. 

The problem with only looking at representation as your key metric is that it's a lagging metric—you won't know representation until someone decides to leave. And there's several different data points that tell you whether someone wants to leave, especially if they want to leave because they don't feel like they belong. And I think that those are the things that we have neglected to measure in diversity, equity, and inclusion. And that's what I call leading metrics

So how many people is this person referring on a quarterly basis? A referral tells you whether people like your company, because if people like your company, they're going to refer people back to your company. That's a leading metric that can tell you whether underrepresented people actually like being at your company no matter what they actually tell you. If our underrepresented people, if our Black people, our brown people, our queer people aren't referring folks into the company, especially folks that look like them or experience that workplace in the same way, then that's a clear signal that there's a problem, it's a clear signal that they're not as excited about the workplace as their white counterparts. 

My background is not D, E, and I, nor HR. My background is in software engineering, and my background is in entrepreneurship. I'm a very analytical thinker. The space of D, E, and I is being taken over by folks that come from non-traditional backgrounds who are trying to do it a lot differently. And that is taking an evidence- and metrics-driven approach. 

The niche that I've tried to carve out for myself, it comes down to using metrics as impact. The most important parts of doing D, E, and I work are things that folks who have come before me have allowed me to talk about. So being able to use visual identification, which is a practice that is totally legal but wasn't okay to do until the Rooney Rule, made it easy for me to go into Airtable and say, Hey, if we don't have data for what our candidates look like, we actually can't make any decisions at all. So recruiters, it's your job to, as best as you can, identify candidates by race and gender, that are in our pipeline. Now, that's a really uncomfortable thing for a recruiter to do. Super uncomfortable.

That's countercultural to this idea around blind hiring. You remember that era of companies coming out and saying, We're removing your name, we're removing identifiers. Which I thought was just weird. Why would I want to enter into a place in an anonymous fashion? You should fully know who it is that I am. 

That's a really astute observation. The first thought for most D, E, and I strategies is, Let's take race out of it. Let's take expressed identity out of it. Let's separate that from the conversation. When really, that's impossible, especially for underrepresented folks. So when you blind someone's resume, their name, their profile picture, you're not really helping them, because there's several other indicators on a resume that separate people by race and class. 

I've taken the exact opposite approach of saying, Hey, we should know exactly who's coming through our pipeline, we should know how they identify or at least, whatever their perceived identity is. Applicants don't really tell us how they identify—we ask them when they apply, but only 30 percent of the applicants and candidates are actually giving us that information. So we have to be aggressive about better understanding our audience. And maybe we get it wrong 10 percent of the time. 

It's very helpful for me to go to a hiring manager and say, Hey, our recruiter has been recording your pipeline over the past six months, and you've only interviewed one Hispanic or Latina woman, what's going on? And that's a much more powerful conversation, than, We need to increase diversity in your pipeline. 

I can point to very specific metrics and numbers that are recent and are specific to you. There's no hiding the fact that you hired three of your boys that you worked with three years ago, even though we provided you a huge pipeline of underrepresented talent. That's the thing that I'd like to continue to beat my drum on in the industry.

Sometimes we say that D, E, and I should just be the right thing to do. Great. I 100 percent  understand that. And I feel that same way. But that's not how things get done. You have to do it from a quantitative and qualitative feedback and data-driven approach, if you want to see long, sustained change. And that data can't just focus on representation, it has to focus on a short, focused list of things that actually impact diversity in the pipeline, or you're going to keep having the same problems.

How are tech companies doing, in terms of D, E, and I?

Are they actually doing what they need to do? I don't think so. Last year hit tech companies with what they hate to feel, which is exposed. Companies in general hate to feel like they didn't know what they didn't know. And last year, everyone was put on notice to say, Y'all still don't know. That same moment is going to happen five years from now, and I think it'll continue to happen every three to five years. 

We all end up putting on our rose-colored glasses when we start to see progress. We start to only see progress until we backslide into a world where Black people are getting killed in the streets. It's all about what's being talked about now, and it's our jobs as Black folks, and my job as a D, E, and I person, to make sure that we are continuing to keep it top of mind internally so that companies can keep it top of mind externally.

I remember the first time I read Toni Morrison’s quote about how the very nature of racism is distraction from our work. [“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” —Toni Morrison speaking at Portland State University in 1975]

What part of these conversations do you feel are just distraction? What are the things that are exhausting to continue to have to talk about when you want to do your work, you want to be brilliant, you want to be able to bring creative ideas into the world without having to navigate the political spectrum of the otherness?

That's a really, really big question. When people center programs that are networking programs for underrepresented folks, things that are like, Hey, the way to solve this is to start building an employee resource group that's focused on bringing women together. I love employee resource groups, I think they're the backbone of any great diversity and inclusion strategy. But if you're going to tell me that the first thing that we should do is bring women together in a structured way to talk about anything outside of how we're going to give them promotions, or pay them more—that is a distraction. 

Women are already meeting, you just don't know about it. And they're talking and you just don't know about it. We don't need to send $35 to everyone, bring them together on a Zoom and continue to talk about why they're not getting opportunities at the same rate as other folks in the company who aren't women. 

There's this clear—whether it's malicious or not—focus on saying, Let's start solving the problem by talking about it, by bringing people together to have a conversation about it. And that tactic, I say, is pernicious, because we're done with talk. My greatest hope is that we stop talking about the problem and we start just doing the work. As Tiffani Bell tweeted, “Make the hire, send the wire!” 

Other journalists only want to talk to me about being a Black woman building a publication. I'm like, How about you talk to me about how I reduce subscriber churn? How about we talk about what my customer journey looks like? Those are things I can also speak about.

The core problem is that no one who is not Black or brown knows any Black or brown people in their regular life. And if they did, then they would rely on those folks to ask these questions, rather than having to rely on you, and rely on me. There's this one thing that I talk about at Airtable a lot, this exercise where people write down the 10 people in their network who they trust the most. They write down the names, and then I have them write down what is their race and gender? What age are they? Are they parents or not? What people come to find out is that 90 percent of the people who they trust, who they call friends, who they call mentors, are exactly like them. 

The downstream effect means that you end up focusing on people that you don't know, to ask these really tough questions, because now you're questioning whether you're racist or not. And that's not my job. My job is to do my job, which right now is diversity and inclusion, but next, it might be running a company. 

I was listening to this podcast with Henri [Pierre-Jacques] from Harlem Capital and Jason Calacanis. I like Jason, I like Henri. Henri has probably one of the most innovative investment strategies out right now. And guess what? All they talked about was being Black in America. 

I was saddened by that interview, because I wanted to hear about Henri’s investment thesis. I wanted to hear about what they tell founders when they're not leading a seed round, and the best pitch deck that they've ever got. But they didn't even get to that part of the conversation because Jason was so fascinated with trying to understand what it's like to be Black and a VC. That was very much a parallel to what you just said, and I'm sorry that you have to go through it. And I wish and I hope that in two to five years, we never have to have this conversation again.

I don't have the conversations anymore. I decline the invitations. Particularly tech journalists, because these are people who I consider my colleagues and my peers. The questions they want to ask suggest that the only thing I can speak to is the trauma of experiences that have been forced upon us, based on race, economic status, and this 400-year history of systemic oppression. 

I just think it's intellectual laziness, that we're not asking bigger questions of the people that stand before us, who come from a variety of different backgrounds, regardless of race. We're all not monolithic. What's the more creative and deeper story that gets to be told? 

I love that you used the word peers—there is still this notion that Black people, underrepresented people, underserved people, overlooked people, you know, whatever we're being called today, are not peers. And I tweeted this back when George Floyd happened, I was like, Hey, let's stop seeing Black folks as charity cases

Every industry that we have ever been allowed to get into, we've dominated immediately.  Immediately. To ignore history, to ignore sports, media, entertainment, law and government, science, medicine, and even industrial labor. Right? The reason why we were taken as slaves is because we were the biggest and the strongest in an era where that was actually the thing that you needed to be, was because we were the best. If you don't see that as an investment class, if you don't see that as an opportunity to make impact and make money, then not only are you ignorant and racist, you're stupid. 

I like to shake people. I'm like, Hey, executive. I'm not asking you to give a handout. I'm asking you to invest in literally the best. The best bets that America has ever placed on anyone. And watch them succeed through it. If you don't do that now, someone else will. And it'll be over. 

So these very, very uncomfortable conversations when we're talking about economic mobility, how do they play out? I can imagine that some people feel like it's an attack on them, or that there are quotas, and now they have to have these conversations about why they didn’t interview two more Latinx people when maybe they just weren't available. How do you navigate those kinds of conversations in detail?

There is a genuine problem in the sense that when people hire, they're generally hiring at a deficit. They're hiring because they needed to hire that person three weeks ago, and they have the pressure of having too much work and being stressed, and wanting to bet on a known commodity—someone that will be able to come in and on-board, and fit in, quickly. And that's typically people that they know. And that’s the crux of the problem. 

I used to work with an executive who brought like six people from their old company, and none of those people were women or people of color. So I went to them and I was like, Hey, this is what your team looks like, you literally have zero Black or Latinx folks on your team right now. And it happened because all you did was bring people over from your last company. And their answer was, I totally get what you're saying. And these numbers suck. But I have like 50 things that I need to do in the next two weeks. And if I didn't get that done, we wouldn't have a company. And that has to take precedence over diversity right now

As a D, E, and I professional, how can I argue with that? The way that I equip myself and defend myself from being totally appalled by the result of that type of action is by going in with a key understanding that business leaders are thinking about business, and it's my job to pitch D, E, and I as something that will help their business. 

So the next part of that conversation is, Okay, well, let's focus on the future. Let's focus on how you're going to stop making that mistake as you grow your team because now that you have your six people, maybe we should balance that out by hiring six more people who are underrepresented, and why wouldn't you create that opportunity? 

Now, here's the thing, if that executive doesn't actually hire any people of color, or women, or underrepresented folks, after I gave him that first pass, I know two things: Either they don't give a fuck. Or I can go to them and say, Hey, over the last six weeks we have not interviewed one woman or person of color. And we just talked six weeks ago and said that this is what your team looks like. And we decided on these tactics, what's going on? And the only answer can either be, and Aubrey Blanche coined this, pride or panic. One of those two things is going to be the response.

As a D, E, and I professional, my job day-to-day is to inspire pride or panic. Are you doing well? Are you not? As well as tying that to the business. Knowing how consumers and recruiters and candidates are choosing companies right now—they're choosing them based off of whether they're sustainable, or whether they're diverse. Or both of those things. And that's going to continue. 

So this executive knows that there is a business case that will make diversity more and more important in the future. And if they don't fix it now, then we might be losing out on a market opportunity. It's about leading with a sense of trying to understand this person, trying to understand what their pressures are and the things that keep them up at night. And then positioning D, E, and I as something that can help solve a problem for them. I think that's how everyone operates: What's in it for me, and then how do I get there? 

Let’s talk about how you got here. You took a non-traditional career path, can you explain your thinking on college?

It’s a pretty atypical story. I'm from the Bay Area. I grew up in Berkeley, California, went to Berkeley High. And after I graduated, I decided not to go to college. 

I was pretty disillusioned with the college industrial complex, which has now come to pass based on what I'm seeing with folks talking about the student loans crisis. I don't want to say that I predicted that, but I definitely had this inkling that college may be tough for folks who don't really know what they want to do next. You're spending a lot of money to study for things that might not be able to help you pay off that investment moving forward. 

My thinking on college has changed a bit since getting into the workforce and seeing what the network effects of going to college actually do for you. I was thinking about it purely from an academic lens.

When I graduated high school, I was like, Okay, look, I want to be a billionaire. So I said to myself, I'm going to start a company. I saw a bunch of tech companies being started, they were making a billion dollars, I immediately said to myself, That's what I'm gonna do

A consistent thread in my career has been about patching together what I had, versus leveraging institutions to get me where I want to go, and I'll tell you that's not the best path. It's actually the hardest path. I don't know if I would recommend my mindset and how I do things to everyone. Because it does take a kind of insane view of the world.

Tell me about how you're seeing Airtable in the wild. It seems as though people are leveraging tools like Airtable to be much more data-driven in their decision making or using these like open-source platforms to build community.

I came to Airtable because I clearly saw the mission to democratize software creation—I am kind of banging the drum on the tech—but I think that's the key to accessibility. The whole no-code environment is allowing folks, even if they're technical, to really quickly and easily create better things, like open, public databases that people can immediately add to. One way that manifested itself recently was with layoffs lists. When the pandemic started, companies were recording layoffs that were happening across the industry, and we use those lists to find great candidates. And that was done specifically with Airtable, not only because it's beautiful, which it is, it's a gorgeous product. They also used it because it was really easy for folks to interact with that database. 

We live in a world where there's so much technology. It's expansive. And the key to being a great tool that people can actually use is to be easy to use. We think about and plan—what is our ease of use going to be? How do we make it easy for a user to log on to Airtable to do what they need to do? And I think that the no-code and low-code stack that's being built is going to be easy to use, and easy to use for folks who are younger than us, and easier to use for folks who are younger than them. And then sooner rather than later, we won't need coding boot camps, all we'll need is this tool that allows you to build a database that then allows you to tell the entire world which companies are actually paying back their commitments to Black folks that they made a year ago. 

All this culminates into a more accessible tech ecosystem for folks who actually want to do good. We're at the intersection of both of those things. Where there are folks like me, there are folks like you, there are folks like Julia Collins, who is building incredible software at Planet FWD. And the tools that we're building are going to allow folks like that to make an impact in the world. And thankfully, there are more and more folks who want to do good in the world. 

How has your sense of mentorship and obligation toward community and empowerment and getting folks into these spaces evolved?

Last May, I started the Owning Our Future series. I was four months into Airtable, we were two months into a pandemic, and on May 4, I was like, I'm gonna do something on Juneteenth. I don't know what it is. But I want to bring Black people together. I want to bring Black people together because we need to learn about how to make money. I decided to bring Black venture capitalists together to talk about what it's like to be Black in venture capitalism and why Black people should own our future. 

At the time, nobody did anything on Juneteenth. There’s a festival in Oakland that I went to as a kid with hella Black people. But as an adult, I noticed there wasn’t an acknowledgement of Juneteenth nationwide. Fast forward, somehow I got in touch with Jared Tingle at Harlem Capital, Mandela Schumacher-Hodge Dixon at Founder Gym, Arlan Hamilton at Backstage Capital, and Michael Seibel at YC—four accomplished VCs who happen to be Black, and I got them all booked to speak about owning the future of tech. 

Now, George Floyd is starting to make it into the news and national headlines. And at first, I'm like, We should cancel this. But as I see it rising to a crescendo, I was like, We have to do this. And we have to do it right. We have to get as many people into a Zoom session on Juneteenth, both to just be Black together, and to learn from these Black venture capitalists. Around 2,000 people showed up to this thing and 3,000 people signed up. That was one of my proudest accomplishments, just bringing Black folks together to talk money. 

The guiding principle in my life has always been to learn something and then pass it on to someone else, if it helped me. That goes back to the coding bootcamp. I learned how to code, I immediately wanted to pass it on to someone else. That goes for me getting into startups and getting into technology. As much as I hate on tech culture, I do believe that the tech world has an abundance of resources that could exponentially grow both Black folks' wealth and our equity in the future. I don't think it's by any means for everyone. Not everyone should be in tech. But I do think that if you can understand tech, it will help you for the future. 

Timing is everything. And the best time to go for something new is when all of your momentum is pushing you that way. For Telegraph Academy, I had this idea in November of 2015, I started talking about it, Jesse Jackson hit me up and said, Hey, we're doing this thing called Push Tech 2020. We want you to be a part of it. I went to the cofounders of Hack Reactor and said, I think that there's an opportunity to build a school specifically geared toward women and people of color. And all of that momentum got to the point where I could make a really good ask to move me to that next phase in my career. 

The biggest advice I would give to someone trying to navigate these spaces, whether it be tech or just professionally, is always pay attention to momentum. Always pay attention to when two, three, four, five, six, seven different channels are having the same conversation, separate channels, separate groups, separate friend groups—they're all talking about the same thing that you might be an expert in, because that will set you up to take your next step and move in and put yourself out on an exponential track.

I see this very much with Web [Smith] and 2PM. The momentum that he's seeing is the fact that now everybody wants to know about direct-to-consumer, now everyone wants to know about e-commerce and CPG. And he was there and waiting for this momentum to pick up. And now you're gonna see him go up exponentially. So I've just always waited, I'm now just waiting for the momentum to move my direction. It seems that that's DEI right now. And there's some other places that I have my eye on that are also seeing momentum creeping.

This was a conversation between Sherrell Dorsey and  Albrey Brown, edited for length and clarity by Annaliese Griffin and Rachel Jepsen. Reply to this email if there's someone you'd like to see us interview in the future.

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