Structures are more powerful than one time interventions because they provide continuity and continuity is essential for any of this to work.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Andrea Sommer.
Andrea is the Founder & Business Lead at UvvaLabs, a women-founded technology company that uses AI to help companies make decisions to create more diverse and accessible workplaces. She is passionate about dismantling barriers to equity and increasing representation across organizations, from entry-level to board-level. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Reed College and an MBA from London Business School. Andrea is based in Portland, Oregon, USA.
Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in an extremely multi-cultural environment with a German father and Brazilian mother, which is a bit like growing up in a paradox! The good side of this is that I’m both very precise and very creative; the bad side is that I have a very weird sense of humor! My parents were avid travelers and we saw the world while I was still fairly young. They instilled in me a deep curiosity about other cultures and mindsets, so I’m at my most comfortable somewhere new and unfamiliar, with people from different walks of life.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
One of my favorite books is ‘Stories of Your Life and Others’ by Ted Chiang, which explores the nature of time and also how language shapes the way you think. As someone who grew up speaking various languages, this concept really resonates with me. I have certainly had the experience of being shaped by different contexts. This has taught me that culture and structures are not a given. They can be radically different from one context to another — there is no right way, just a different way. Different ways lead to different results.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Martin Luther King Jr once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. I love this quote because it embodies the sense of community that should exist across the world. Too many people only care about themselves and their immediate sphere of influence. They forget that we are one race — the human race. We share this planet, the air we breathe, the water we drink. We should see ourselves in this unified way, but we don’t. We should fight to ensure all of our human brothers and sisters have enough to eat, a safe place to sleep, the opportunity to learn and grow, free from fear or suffering. That is what justice is all about to me, and that is why we started UvvaLabs.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
For me, leadership is about authentically using your position of power to improve the world as a whole, while giving as many people as possible more opportunities for growth and self improvement. At a fundamental level, this also means seeking out opportunities for white people to transfer power to people of color since this is one of the keys to dismantling systemic racism.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Managing stress for me is all about prioritizing self-care. I have been practicing yoga for over 15 years which has helped me stay balanced and focused. The life of an entrepreneur can be an emotional rollercoaster of constant decisions, problem solving and stress so I always need to be as centered as possible. Taking time to exercise and reflect daily is the only way I can achieve that. The same is true for my team and employees — we all need to be able to have time and space for our own kind of balance if we want to perform at our best.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
Activists and social scientists have been calling for us to rethink our criminal justice system for decades. Although we have a spark currently, this is not new at all. This movement has roots in work led by women of color such as Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and others. They have been drawing attention to the fact that the United States as a society has been systematically diverting resources from social services to increasingly militarized and broad policing. We now use the police to solve every problem we have, whether it is noise complaints, a neighbor having a mental health crisis, or addiction. When we lose the tools we need to properly prevent and address these problems, we are left overusing the one tool we have available to us. Unfortunately that tool carries a gun and is not trained in de-escalation. People of color in this country have been systematically murdered and abused, and as Michelle Alexander has noted, the criminal justice system is the latest historical configuration in the series of white supremacist institutions, starting with slavery. As white people, we are all complicit in the unchecked expansion of a racist and violent system that targets people of color, especially Black and Indigenous people. We must stand together and demand that no more killings happen in our name. Without our participation the system will never change and Black people are demanding that we support their calls for justice. We must join them.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
Our mission at UvvaLabs is to help organizations build more diverse and accessible workplaces. The existing D&I model across most organizations is broken. For decades, the approach has been about to change the way people think about race, gender, etc through bias training and similar behavioral initiatives. But racism, sexism and all the other isms are structural problems that need structural solutions. The right technology can provide organizations with visibility of which structures are creating inequalities, but more importantly, with recommendations of what steps to take to correct these issues.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Representation in leadership is extremely important since these are the ultimate positions of privilege. White men are in the most privileged position and therefore struggle to consider the needs of anyone but themselves. This results in exclusionary practices and products that leave out whole groups of people. Facial recognition technology is one example. This software has a notoriously difficult time recognizing Black faces. The problem here isn’t the technology — it’s the teams. All white male teams produce products that cater to their needs alone. But societies are changing. The United States, for example, will be majority minority by 2044. This means customer groups are shifting. Smart organizations will get ahead of these shifts to create products and experiences that attract the most diverse amount of customers as possible. Only by having a diverse leadership team will a company build products that reflect that diversity.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each
Step 1: Understand privilege and use it as a tool
The first step in creating a more just society is understanding privilege. Privilege creates and perpetuates the structures and norms that govern a society. At best, it makes barriers for underrepresented groups invisible to those in the most privileged positions. One example of this is when white people say ‘I don’t see race’. Not ‘seeing race’ is a luxury only privileged people have. People of color cannot ignore race because it dictates every aspect of their lives — from their interactions with colleagues at work, sales people in shops, or the police when out in the world (and sometimes in private spaces too), to everything in between. At its worst, privilege can be used as a weapon, as in the case of Amy Cooper threatening to call the police on Christian Cooper in Central Park because he asked her to leash her dog. Amy knew perfectly well her words could have had the power of life or death when she chose to say them. Her position as a white woman allowed her to weaponize her words. That is privilege.
The good news is that the same power that allows privilege to be a weapon can be focused into turning it into a tool to halt white supremacy in its tracks. White people can use their voices and even their bodies as shields to protect people of color. I mean this quite literally. White people can physically stand in between Black people and the police during protests. They can speak up and take action when they see unfair comments and practices at work. And if they are in positions of power in addition to having privilege, they can use this power to change the structures that allow racism to persist.
Step 2: Take every opportunity to raise people of color’s visibility
Have you ever been in a situation where you went somewhere new, maybe you’re starting a new job, or visiting a new town or maybe you took a wrong turn and ended up in an unfamiliar neighborhood full of people that are unlike you? That feeling of complete aloneness, of not fitting in, of fearing for your safety, is the feeling every person of color has when there is no adequate representation. Except that this feeling is constant; it never fades.
Building representation ensures that every person sees people like them in positions of power, everywhere they go. More importantly, representation changes structures by ensuring decision-making takes into account more than one type of person’s perspective.
The way to achieve representation is to hire people of color. Not just one token person, but many. And not just for junior positions, for the positions that really have influence — to sit on boards, to run companies and countries.
Many companies talk a great talk about diversity and inclusion but when you look at their leaders they are all white men. Representation cannot be lip service; it must be followed by action.
Step 3: Find opportunities to transfer your privilege
When you hire more people of color you are also transferring power and resources, not just building representation. People of color have been systematically denied access to the positions of power that allow families to build wealth and privilege intergenerationally.
This can mean making sure people from underrepresented groups are picked for stretch assignments, promotions and other opportunities for professional growth. It also means promoting minority authors, academics, scientists and celebrities to ensure their voices are heard. It can also mean buying from black and other minority businesses. This must be active and continuous.
Step 4: Dismantle structures that perpetuate racism
Structures govern our world. They dictate who gets hired through recruitment practices. They shape how funds get allocated through budgetary policies. They control election results by limiting who has access to polling stations. Many structures in American society are racist, in some cases by accident but most often by design.
Take recruitment practices for example. Many organizations believe that to build the right kind of culture they need to hire for ‘fit’. Usually ‘fit’ means people who are similar to the people who are already there. The end result is a team that looks all the same — usually white men. When this team in turn makes decisions, their thinking is limited by their privileged experience while excluding everyone else.
‘Fit’ is a false premise. It’s not important for everyone to be the same in an organization if you know how to support individuality. Smart organizations and leaders understand this.
The good news is that it is possible to dismantle these oppressive structures and replace them with ones that promote fairness, justice and equality. It can be painful work because it requires facing our own privilege and the role that privilege has had in shaping groups, companies, countries. But facing this discomfort is a price worth paying to build a more just and equitable society. People in positions of privilege and power can use both of these to achieve just that. And they should.
Step 5: Be relentless in your pursuit of oppression
As MLK famously said ‘Go everywhere where injustice goes’. Oppression can hide anywhere. To fight it, we must be relentless. We must vigorously understand privilege, we must dismantle structures, we must build representation and we must raise the profile of underrepresented groups and we must do this tirelessly and with conviction.
We must create structures that support this work for the long term. Structures are more powerful than one time interventions because they provide continuity and continuity is essential for any of this to work.
Most importantly, we must get comfortable with discomfort. This work will be painful. It might feel unfair or embarrassing. But this discomfort is nothing compared to the oppressively constant discomfort that people of color face in navigating a world with rules designed to exclude them at every turn. We must embrace the discomfort and jump right in.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
This is an unprecedented time in our world and this is a huge opportunity. We can make the choice to use this opportunity to create a more just and equitable society. But in order for this to happen, we need to choose to take off our blinders and really see. Those in positions of privilege must be willing to give away some of their power.
And once we see what’s in front of us, we have to be willing to do the hard work to actually dismantle those structures of oppression. That kind of shift requires consistent and persistent effort. The good news is that that’s the power of structure — once a structured intention to make change is translated into structured actions (through structuring the time and activities into the cadence of your everyday life), you’re on the right path.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to sit down with Serena Williams. Not only is she one of the most amazing and under recognized athletes in the world, but she continuously fights against racism and systemic oppression in her personal and professional life. I love her strength, her leadership, her wisdom and I would find a conversation with her truly inspiring.
How can our readers follow you online?
Twitter: @andreasommer / @uvvalabs
Instagram: andreasommer / uvvalabs