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How Can You Build for Me If You Do Not See Me?


modern day article from ronke

In order to build products and solutions that serve diverse communities successfully, we need leaders, product managers, and cross-functional team members to represent them. These individuals are diverse in age, gender, race, ethnicity, thought and come from varied backgrounds and experiences.


Being a product leader is a profoundly humbling and privileged opportunity. We are placed in a defining moment where we can employ intellectual bravery and fortitude to build products, solutions, and services that can improve people’s lives. We have the ability to add to the footprint of other products that have changed the way we live and interact with one another for the good of humanity. We can make the impossible possible. This must be our sanctified cause; we must see everyone. 


Occasionally, I evaluate products and solutions I use in my daily life. Sometimes, I wonder if there is someone who looks like me on the teams that built them. I find myself asking a series of questions each time. Was there an African American product leader, engineer, researcher, content designer, or UI/UX designer on the team? Was there someone who truly understood my context, and was that considered during ideation and testing? 


I ask these questions because most of the time I don’t think my community or someone like myself was considered in the building process. The following case studies are from my personal experiences; they represent why we must see and build for everyone.


CASE STUDY #1: ABSENCE OF DIVERSITY AT THE LEADERSHIP LEVEL

A couple of years ago, I told someone on the leadership team that I did not feel like I belonged in our company and didn’t see a future there. Of course, they wanted to know why I felt that way. I asked that leader if he had seen anyone in our establishment who looked like me, and he said yes, there were many people of color in our establishment. 


I then asked, out of all those people of color, how many were African American. He thought about it and acknowledged there was only me; I was the only black person and woman in that part of the company.  I was also curious if he knew of any black women in leadership roles, and he confirmed my suspicions that there were none. He was taken aback and noted that he had never thought about it. At that moment, he understood why I felt I did not belong because I was not seen or heard. None of my colleagues and leaders looked like me. The conversation did not go any further, no considerations were made I think because he felt the challenge was not one he could solve. 


CASE STUDY #2: ABSENCE OF DIVERSITY AT THE TEAM LEVEL

I had a colleague who continuously hired direct reports who looked like her and came from the same country and culture. It was not until it was brought to her attention that her team was not diversified that she realized it and sought assistance to interview diverse candidates. While her actions were not malicious or intentional, I always wondered how and why my colleagues and leadership did not realize the lack of diversity. Especially because they were building products for a global market segment that is very disparate in demography. I always wondered how building products and solutions for myself and my community was possible when no team member looked like me or had my lived experiences. 


CASE STUDY #3: ABSENCE OF DIVERSITY AT THE COMMUNITY LEVEL

Most recently, I saw an announcement for a webinar on diversity and inclusion in product management. The panel consisted of three people from the same country and culture. While I was disappointed that in 2024, I have to point out that the panel was not diverse nor representative, I was not surprised. Once again, I wondered why and how the event’s creators could assume the stories of the panel, lived experiences, and perspectives would be the same as mine or other product managers from other communities. 


CASE STUDY #4: ABSENCE OF DIVERSITY

I attended a product management conference last year and one of the speakers presented on advancing your product management career. One of the audience members asked this presenter what career growth or advancement advice he would have for African American women in product management. 


The presenter was stumped. He was silent for a few minutes. He could not relate nor offer advice for black women.  Something that stood out to me was that an audience member confirmed his presentation was biased and only focused on the population and culture he knew. He lacked empathy and was not aware of or could relate to the struggles that other underserved ethnic groups face when it comes to being seen, validated, and promoted.


CASE STUDY #5: ABSENCE OF DIVERSITY AT THE ORGANIZATION LEVEL

My product management career spans over 10 years. During that time, I did not report to a Director of Product, Vice President of Product, or Chief Product Officer who looked like me or came from my community. I have not had direct reports who looked like me, and in all the organizations I have worked at, only one had an additional African American product manager colleague.


The organizations I had worked for all served domestic and international market segments. Most often, I was the only person of color on the product teams. Their various multiethnic customer segments were not represented within the company, especially in the product management and cross-functional teams, which are teams actively building products and solutions for them. 


REPRESENTATION MATTERS 

Our product management organizations should reflect our society. They should construct an environment that brings diverse employees together where they feel safe, seen, heard, and like they belong. Those differences in perceptions, background, and circumstances are what we need to build advanced, pioneering products for all segments of society. 


Diverse representation in leadership, product, and multi-functional teams unlocks the variability of new ideas and experiences, which helps companies flourish by increasing innovation and, therefore, earnings. A more diverse and inclusive product and teams can even establish an organization’s character, culture, and what it reflects (such as equality, diversity, and inclusion) to the public. These things go a long way to attracting and retaining talent, making a diverse organization appealing to inclusion-focused customers.


WE NEED DIVERSE TEAMS IN OUR ORGANIZATIONS

We need more multicultural leaders, product managers, and multifunctional team members in tech organizations globally.  Diverse teams drive disruptive innovation, and the outcomes are products, solutions, and services that advance all communities, changing lives for the better and society. This is extremely important to uplift every community globally. As advanced as we are in 2024, some communities will not benefit from AI solutions because their unmet needs are not seen. No one is advocating for them.  Studies have demonstrated that individuals of color and women are among the minority groups that are marginalized by generative AI models. The predisposition in AI can be remedied if organizations and institutions developing AI solutions augment the diversity of information used and foster, hire, and retain diverse teams. 


As demographics change, diversity becomes necessary to grow into new markets. This means recruiting new candidates, retaining, and promoting them is crucial to the success of organizations. High-performing candidates and emerging leaders want to see themselves reflected at every level of their organization, which is inclusive, and they want to feel like they belong.


Thoughtful recruiting, retention, and promotion of diverse team members

For companies to shift toward this idea, their leaders must first understand and agree that we have left  certain communities behind in the conceptualization of products that they will inevitably use. 


These organizations must also understand that if this problem isn’t solved, it will only worsen. For example, Gen Alpha (those born between 2010 and 2024) is expected to be the largest generation in history and is more diverse than previous generations. How do we start to build for them when we never build for their parents? When we have no representation of them in our businesses?  


The key is to increase and boost representation in the hiring, retention, and promotion processes. Some companies have realized this issue and started to develop objectives and goals while committing to increasing the proportion of women, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and multiracial employees. Some have made tremendous gains in hiring, retaining, and promoting underrepresented groups by linking their leadership and senior leaders’ bonus structure to their recruitment, which has seen success.


Another challenge is the retention and promotion of diverse candidates. A substantial hardship is the scarcity of well-thought-out replacement strategies. These organizations need to nourish a pool of diverse candidates who can go into leadership, senior leadership, and C-level positions, which requires a commitment to creating a solid, multicultural funnel both within and outside the organization. 


FINAL THOUGHTS 

As product leaders, we understand that there is no perfect solution to all the daily challenges and difficulties we face in our efforts to deliver for our customers. However, we are filled with aspirations, ideas, and ideals without preeminence. While placed in this privileged-defining moment, we will build and design the best products, solutions, and services for all our customers, including individuals from underrepresented groups. We are going to make every effort to see and validate them. 


To meet current challenges, we must leverage our leadership to ensure the inclusion of marginalized communities in hiring, retention, and promotion. This strategy strengthens customer loyalty and leads to the creation of inclusive products, opening new market segments, and expanding our global reach. By acknowledging diverse backgrounds and experiences, we offer value to a wide range of customers, truly serving a global community. To finally see them.


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