[We need a movement for] racial equity across every sphere of life — housing, healthcare, wealth distribution, education, opportunity. Our country and world has wounds and historical, intergenerational trauma that needs to heal for people to be truly free.
As a part of our series about people making an important social impact, I had the pleasure to interview Sydney Coleman. Sydney leads Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Programs at Google. She began her diversity, equity, and inclusion advocacy when she studied social identity, inequality, and intergroup relations. She designed and conducted research on the relationship between internalized racism and colorism with undergraduate Women of Color. Sydney’s passion for social justice activism led to creating and driving more diverse and inclusive programming and policies in tech startups. She took on leadership roles in both corporate Employee Resource Groups and Diversity Steering Committees. Sydney also designed employee inclusion surveys and held intergroup dialogues on social justice issues and microaggressions in the workplace. She facilitated workshops for Women 2.0, a diversity and inclusion consulting company with a focus on closing the gap for female-founded early-stage companies in the tech space. Today Sydney works on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at Google in San Francisco. She also serves as the Vice President on the Board of the US National Committee for UN Women San Francisco. Sydney is incredibly passionate about making the workplace, and the tech industry in particular, more accessible, inclusive, and equitable for underrepresented populations.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Sydney! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Before joining the tech industry, I was passionate about social justice activism and dissecting power, privilege, and oppression. When I started my career in Silicon Valley, I expected that as a progressive, innovative industry, it would be different, more equitable, but it was immediately clear to me that was not the case. There were next to no white women in leadership roles and even fewer people of color with voices in key business decisions. It was like a big elephant in the room that no-one seemed to address head on, so I knew I needed to work on this.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Since transitioning into a diversity, equity, and inclusion role, I’ve learned so much about myself — how my identities impact the work, how my biases show up, how I can manage my own impostor syndrome, and most importantly, how I can empower others to grow in their careers.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The biggest mistake that I made early in my career was asking for permission, rather than forgiveness. When your role is to create systemic change and challenge the status quo, it makes people uncomfortable. We’re fighting systems that have been in place for decades, if not forever. Often you need to take risks, try something out, and let people know how it went later.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Google is doing a lot. From sponsorship programs to advance underrepresented people’s careers, to partnering with the United Nations on women’s empowerment, to hosting an annual summit on the state of Black+ women with our CEO, to partnering with organizations to hire veterans, and empower LTBTQ+ business owners. I’m particularly excited about how we’re working to make our products more inclusive, accessible, and useful for users globally.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
In general, when thinking about diversity and inclusion, I’d like folks to think about the most marginalized person’s needs and center those in the conversation. Instead of considering a person of color only, let’s think about a trans person of color with a disability, for instance. We need to actually ask people, rather than making assumptions about them, and understand that they have lived experiences that are valuable to us, even if they don’t have the corporate language to describe it.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is comprised of humility and being able to know and name what you don’t know. It requires empowering your team to have the biggest impact possible and removing obstacles for them. Being a leader is creating opportunities for others to succeed.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Don’t wait for opportunities, create them for yourself. Jobs are not posted online and by the time they are, it is often too late. Get out there and build a network.
- Fake it until you make it. If you want to be an expert at something, start talking with experts, reading books on the subject, listening to podcasts, absorb it until it is second nature to you and then people will start to value your perspective. Do the work.
- Nobody is going to tell you to ask for more money. Advocate for yourself and know your worth. Ask straight, able-bodied, white men in your same position what range they’re making and don’t settle for anything less.
- Never stop learning. Whether it is a new skill or an entirely new field, keep it moving and stay learning. Objects in motion stay in motion.
- Don’t ask anyone to be your mentor. Provide value, ask smart questions, learn your stuff, and share ideas. People will want to mentor and lift you up. It makes them feel good.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Racial equity across every sphere of life — housing, healthcare, wealth distribution, education, opportunity. Our country and world has wounds and historical, intergenerational trauma that needs to heal for people to be truly free.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My dad always says “easy on the people and hard on the problem.” It is a helpful reminder for me almost every day.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Maya Angelous, RIP. Living I would say Rachel Cargle — she’s an incredible activist that I’m following closely right now.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
LinkedIn, Twitter — Sydney Coleman