Eaaron Smith knew he needed to do something impactful at SambaSafety in the days that followed George Floyd’s death. The senior customer success manager was the lead member of the company’s diversity and inclusion team, which provided input on hiring practices and sent surveys across SambaSafety to gain insight on its D&I landscape.
The team’s purpose hadn’t been to discuss real-world events — until now. Floyd’s death had sparked a global desire for racial justice, evident through protests in major cities around the world, and Smith and the rest of the D&I team saw how much the moment was affecting themselves and their co-workers.
“We saw a need,” Smith, who joined the company in fall 2019, said. “We saw people hurting. So, we decided to challenge ourselves and really step up to the plate to bring something bigger than us to the table.”
The result was the formation of SambaUnited, a rebranding of the company’s diversity and inclusion team. Its purpose would be to create awareness, educate others and illuminate different voices across the company. It would start with a simple, voluntary Zoom conference during lunchtime one day for anyone to share how they’d been impacted by what was happening in the world.
Since that call, SambaUnited has become a fixture at the Denver data company, Smith said, hosting multiple coffee talks that highlight race and culture.
“It’s really captured our attention,” Kevin Lawlor, VP of human resources, said. “There is now an open dialogue.”
Though employees from across the business are now playing an active role in improving D&I, that wasn’t always the case at SambaSafety. Recent events like the death of George Floyd and the growing Black Lives Matter movement have generated heightened engagement surrounding a company-wide initiative that launched a few years ago.
“In the last several years, we’ve made a concerted effort to really demonstrate a true focus on D&I,” Lawlor said. “And now, it is very much part of our culture.”
‘We were kind of rudderless’
Four years ago, when Marian Aavang joined SambaSafety, a company that provides cloud-based mobility risk management software solutions for commercial and non-commercial drivers, she noticed something. The VP of product management said there seemed to be a lack of focus on D&I across the organization.
“It was unconscious in the sense that, I’d walk into an office, look around and notice that I was the only member of a minority group, or the only female in the room,” Aavang said.
At the time, SambaSafety’s 150-person workforce was roughly 40 percent women, only slightly higher than its percentage of employees that belong to minority groups. On the occasions where Aavang was the only woman in a client-facing meeting, she noticed the clients would often only speak with the other executive men in the room, even when they’d most benefit from her expertise.
“In that environment, you kind of feel like you have to prove yourself to be listened to,” she said.
Aavang said she wasn’t the only one who noticed slights like this. But the problem was, there weren’t any concrete efforts to find a solution.
“There was certainly interest in D&I,” Lawlor said. “But it was more conversational, highlighting the importance of diversity and inclusion. There wasn’t a lot of focus on actually instituting anything.”
“We were kind of rudderless,” Aavang added. “I think everyone had the best intentions, but major initiatives really need to come from the very top of the organization to be able to infiltrate the company culture.”
There was certainly interest in D&I. But it was more conversational.’’
Eventually, Aavang’s wish came true. SambaSafety’s CEO Allison Guidette teamed up with employees like Lawlor and the company’s talent acquisition manager to formulate a plan that would boost D&I across the company.
The starting point? Hiring practices.
Searching For Diverse Talent
Ever read a job description that asks for someone who is “demanding” or a “hustler?”
Inadvertently, that job application could be geared toward a certain gender. That’s what SambaSafety learned a few years ago.
“There are certain words that tend to attract more of a male energy and certain words that tend to attract more of a female energy,” Lawlor said. “So if there’s a job description like, ‘We need an aggressive go-getter,’ it’s highlighting a trait we typically associate with the male gender. A woman looking at that may be turned off.”
To fix this issue, SambaSafety started using a third-party site to review and flag any gender-geared words in its job descriptions, and would sub those out for gender-neutral language. Then, the company focused on where it was posting its jobs.
“Are we doing something like a Monster.com, or are we doing something like Trabajos.com, something that’s a little bit more focused toward diversity,” Lawlor said. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘Where is the talent that we’re trying to capture, and where are they looking when they’re searching for positions?’”
SambaSafety also made sure it had a diverse interview panel for applicants, implemented unconscious bias workshops, and perhaps most importantly, held itself accountable by keeping track of its target goals.
Today, a few years since the initiative began, the company has nearly doubled in size to just under 300 employees, with a staff that’s 52 percent women and 52 percent members of minority groups.
Where is the talent that we’re trying to capture, and where are they searching when they’re looking for positions?’’
“Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, the last in-person meeting with clients that I met with, I looked around and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is just a meeting full of Samba women,’” Aavang said. “It was a really pivotal moment not only in my career, but also in my time here at Samba, to be able to look around and be like, ‘This is happening.’”
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United on Equality
The word is getting out.
In the last year, Aavang said she’s heard from candidates who explicitly mentioned that they applied because of the emphasis on D&I within the organization. But those efforts are still underway. According to Lawlor, D&I is something that SambaSafety will always focus on, and currently, there’s still a gap they’d like to fix.
Samba’s people managers are currently 46% women and 42% people from minority groups, Lawlor said. While these statistics are “good” for the tech industry — which is roughly on par with the rest of the economy where women hold 26.5% of executive, senior-level and management positions — Lawlor acknowledged they could be better.
“Where’s the disconnect?” Lawlor said. “That’s what our focus is going to be moving forward. How can we see more members of minority groups and employees that are women at all levels within the organization?”
That change won’t happen overnight, however, Aavang explained.
“If I could offer any advice to other companies who want to change their D&I: just focus on one thing at a time. You’re not going to have the perfect diverse organization in one month. We started off with hiring, then moved on to education,” Aavang said.
She added: “You really need to create an initiative that has a vision that is spearheaded from the very top. And it needs to have great stewards like Eaaron, who really brought energy to it. I’ve learned a lot from SambaUnited and the coffee talks.”
You’re not going to have the perfect diverse organization in one month. ’’
Smith’s favorite coffee talk hosted by SambaUnited so far highlighted Juneteenth, which is the traditional commemoration date of the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. To his surprise, many of his co-workers had little understanding of what that day meant. Smith prepared plenty of articles and videos to educate the team. Unexpectedly, the discussion evolved into an open dialogue where employees shared personal stories about how they’ve been impacted by racism.
“And when folks began to share, it was from the heart,” Smith said. “There were tears, there was laughter. It just really allowed everyone to understand what people were going through.”
Next up on the coffee talk list: National Hispanic Heritage Month, where SambaUnited will highlight Hispanic culture and employees will be encouraged to educate each other and share their experiences with their heritage.
“It’s our mission to unite Samba as a whole on one goal and one aim,” Smith said. “To drive equality.”