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DEI: A Call To Action For The Channel

Mark Haranas, C.J. Fairfield, Gina Narcisi

Diversity and representation among employees and leadership are increasing among businesses that want to ensure they’re providing an inclusive environment for all, but there’s still work to be done. Here’s what businesses across the channel can do—and are doing—to effect change.

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Network Solutions Provider CEO Phillip Walker arrived at his hotel during a business trip several years ago and was checking in with his team. After a long day of travel, the leader of the Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based MSP just wanted to get to his room as quickly as possible.

But Walker soon realized that the hotel receptionist had made an assumption and a mistake: She had given his suite to one of his white employees.

“She was being really nice to him, which made him uncomfortable,” Walker recalled. “The rooms were booked in my name. I’m the guy.”

Walker, who is Black, stepped away to make a phone call. When he returned to the front desk, the receptionist dismissed him and said she was helping “a very important guest.”

“And my whole group’s hearts stopped,” he said, adding that there was a collective gasp among the team. “They were like, ‘There it is.’ She had no idea what she just did, and she was firm about it.”

One of Walker’s sales representatives then corrected the receptionist, pointed to the CEO and said, “He’s Mr. Walker.”

“Face change,” Walker said, describing the receptionist’s reaction. “A super deep gasp and then, ‘Oh, Mr. Walker, I am so sorry.’ But that bias was so far out there—you can’t walk it back.”

Unconscious bias is natural, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be tempered. The human brain is faced with 11 million bits of information at any given time but can only process about 40, so the brain creates shortcuts to help make decisions faster and conserve energy, according to Dr. Rebecca Baumgartner, vice president of human resources for the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, who spoke at the Women of the Channel West Leadership Summit, hosted by CRN parent The Channel Company, in May on the topic of unconscious bias.

The good news? More companies are taking steps to make sure that biases are acknowledged and checked. Diversity and representation among employees and leadership are increasing among businesses that want to ensure they’re providing an inclusive environment for all. But there’s still plenty of work to be done.

“It’s like [the movie] ‘Pretty Woman,’” Walker said. “She walks in the store, and they treat her differently based on her appearance. That’s bias. But everybody feels her pain because she was socially and economically judged. Here she is, she has the money, but because she’s not a part of their elite club they don’t help her.”

Awareness Of The Issue Is The First Step

Many business leaders now recognize that diversifying the workforce needs to be high on the list of priorities when building a financially sound organization. It’s the mark of a business that is in touch with the desires of its current and prospective employees and end customers. And it’s not just about checking boxes for the sake of compliance, according to a 2022 study conducted by The Channel Company on the state of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the channel.

The Channel Company’s 2022 survey included 382 respondents, the majority of whom—about 76 percent— were C-level executives. The survey found that although there’s high interest from solution providers in developing or formalizing a DEI program, those efforts are still primarily led by vendor organizations, which are only beginning to carve out leadership roles for DEI.

On the other hand, the majority of channel organizations in 2021 didn’t have formal DEI programs in place, but many indicated they were starting to put plans into motion. In 2022, while many of these companies still don’t have established programs, about 70 percent of the channel organizations surveyed said they had efforts in place that went further than meeting compliance requirements.

Beyond compliance, many channel organizations want to prioritize DEI because it helps boost employee retention and attract new talent, especially in light of current trends such as the Great Resignation and the talent gap.

“These equity and inclusion programs do so much for organizations really looking to retain their workforce so that they can have that work-life rhythm that so many of us desire. It just bodes well for us as an ecosystem to continue on that trajectory,” said Cass McMann, MHR, The Channel Company’s DEI community leader.

Stacey Gordon, CEO and chief diversity strategist of Rework Work, a company that specializes in helping businesses develop clear DEI initiatives, said that the first step is awareness. Skipping that step to move on to action will doom companies, which will have to start their DEI strategies all over when they don’t work, she said.

“We really have to get the awareness piece down because we can’t address things that we don’t see happening,” she said. “This step is important because if we keep skipping over the beginning part, we’re going to keep repeating the middle part.”

And that process can lead to “diversity fatigue,” which in turn can be repeated a year, five years or 10 years down the road, she warned.

Representation At The Leadership Level Is Key

Susan O’Sullivan has been with Irvine, Calif.- based distributor Ingram Micro since 1990. She started her current role in June as vice president of DEI, a new position for the company.

“DEI has always been in the fabric of Ingram, and we’ve always had these basic principles,” she said. “I think [the distributor] realized that now more than ever we need to make this a serious commitment. We have to take action. We have to show sustainable and ongoing action, and I think we [need] to have someone own it.”

Ingram Micro has always had an “amazing platform” for ensuring hiring managers are seeing diverse candidates, she said. When it comes to reaching a diverse pool of candidates, O’Sullivan said Ingram Micro has been on the journey for quite a while.

Going forward, Ingram Micro will continue to build upon its DEI-first culture by boosting its employee-led resource groups in areas such as pride, modern family, multicultural and women’s resource groups, she said.

“One of the things I want to do is to continue to elevate them,” she said. “I want to make sure that our voices are heard from a recruiting standpoint all the way through on-boarding. It’s that inclusion piece and making sure that that message is getting across to our entire organization.”

In support of its growing efforts, Ingram Micro has developed a global DEI curriculum, with its executive leadership team leading the first of many listening sessions, according to Scott Sherman, executive vice president of human resources for the distributor.

“Without question over the last few years DEI has become more important globally and to our colleagues,” Sherman said. “We’ve seen this increased importance and activism as a reason for us to do more as an organization globally. DEI for Ingram Micro means an environment where each of us can bring our true and authentic selves to work each and every day and be appreciated for who we are and what we contribute,” he added. “That is Ingram Micro’s true north for DEI.”

As the female CEO of her company, Dawn Sizer aims to lead with empathy. She heads 3rd Element Consulting, a Camp Hill, Pa.-based MSP.

“Women leaders tend to do that a little bit more, and we see things a little differently,” she said. “That’s both a strength and a detriment at times. Sharing some of the leadership [roles] with some of the guys, they see things that I don’t, but I think there’s a good balance.”

Sizer also has changed the descriptions in her job postings. Now, in each post, she lays out what the company does “tactically, and what we do for accountability.”

“We know that we have to look in different places,” she said. “We know that our job descriptions need to change a little bit, and we started to make those changes already.”

Sizer sends her female teammates to hiring fairs as well. “We sent women, and we got women,” she said. “When you have the ability to say, ‘There are people like you here,’ it makes a difference.”

She also looks differently at those applying for a job with 3rd Element. “I don’t look at names anymore when I’m looking at a resume,” she said. “I’m looking at what they can do.”

And it’s not just an internal effort—it’s external, too. Sizer said many MSPs collaborate to share ideas on DEI practices and resources. But more importantly, they create an “allyship.” “It’s about how can we best support women, how can we best support brown, Black and LGBTQ+ [people],” she said. “We all speak the same geek at the end of the day.”

Emily Glass, CEO of MSP platform vendor Syncro, said DEI is a main focal point for the Seattle-based company.

“We have a really diverse leadership team, which is important to me,” Glass said. “[DEI] is one thing that you can lose focus on or it’s easy to put to the side. But I truly believe that if people in the company can look up to leadership and see themselves, that is a hugely powerful symbol.”

Glass, who came on as CEO in October 2021, said she’s focusing on diversity to enhance workplace culture.

“It’s always been a focus at Syncro to have a community of belonging,” she said. “It’s also a motivator to help everyone feel like they belong and feel like they can achieve their goals.”

Syncro requires all its new hires to participate in a racial healing and leadership development course so that everyone has a “baseline of acceptance and a common language.”

“We spend a lot of time establishing those norms together,” she said. “We believe that it’s about the whole person, and we want people to bring their ideas to the table, and they have to feel safe in doing that.”

Glass said the racial healing course covers the history of white supremacy and racism in America, common language to use and how to talk to people about those terms and the history of racism.

“There’s a lot of journaling and self-reflection of where you’re at in that journey,” she said. “Everybody goes through a monthlong training on that. It’s these tangible changes that you can implement that really have the cascading effect on generations. In this course, our employees are in it, but then they talk to their [partners] or their kids or grandparents, and it just propagates from there.”

Investments Are Tangible Efforts

Microsoft in 2020 made a five-year commitment to address racial injustice and inequity, starting with a $150 million investment to double the number of U.S. Black, Hispanic and Latinx managers, senior individual contributors and senior leaders by 2025. In June, the company also launched the Microsoft Black Partner Growth Initiative (BPGI), which will provide resources, programs and tools to help partners capture opportunities throughout its ecosystem and across the globe with a goal of elevating Black-owned technology companies.

The program provides Black-owned businesses that become Microsoft partners with access to information, resources and capital to fuel business growth.

Since June 2020, Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft said it has increased the number of self-identified Black and African American-owned partners in BPGI by more than 150 percent.

Michael Slater, head of sales for channel marketplace at Sherweb, a Quebec, Canada-based cloud distributor, is an executive sponsor for the program. Sherweb is just one of many of the Microsoft partners helping deliver these programs to Black-owned businesses.

“It’s a new program, so we’re kind of building the infrastructure as we go,” Slater said. “We’re just trying to get it launched and effective to start helping people sooner rather than later. The idea here is that if we wait until everything’s perfect, then you’ll never launch anything.”

Black partners can access a $50 million partner fund developed to provide working capital to all the partners in the ecosystem, he said.

“Our goal is to create a special on-boarding process,” Slater said. “You can opt into the program, and then you’re going to get a special on-boarding based on the program itself. No matter what program you’re utilizing, it’s difficult sometimes to understand. There’s always a translator, and we have done that part historically.”

Partners in the program team up with Sherweb through a Microsoft referral, he said. Sherweb will make sure they’re getting all of the benefits, including presales support, consultation hours, access to funds allocated for the program as well as money back in their pocket.

“We are going to make sure that as a business, you’re set up and you have access to all the resources possible that every other partner has, plus awareness of what this BPGI program offers,” he said. “We want to educate, enable and offer people the tools that they need to be successful. That’s the goal here.”

Slater said through this program, a community of Black-owned businesses is being built, which leads to allyship and mentorship. Sherweb received about 55 indirect and 13 direct Microsoft accounts to help through the program in its first 12 days.

“This is just one of the first of many programs,” he said. “We’re going to do the same things for other underrepresented groups as well.”

Every Individual’s Career Success Matters

The Channel Company’s research found that one of the biggest roadblocks to DEI for many companies was finding best practices and information to help tailor efforts in a way that is mindful of blind spots that might exist so they can establish a more formalized approach.

For Google Cloud, building products and solutions for every kind of user requires a constant commitment to inclusivity. That’s why the company is doing a lot of work behind the scenes to steadily grow a more representative workforce, to launch programs that support Google Cloud’s communities globally, and build products that will serve all—not just some—of its users, said Latonia Knox, global diversity business partner for Google Cloud.

Google’s 2022 Diversity Annual Report highlighted the Mountain View, Calif.-based company’s progress and identified opportunities. “While there’s more work to be done, I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen—things like the 20 percent increase in Black Googler representation and 8 percent increase in Latinx Googler representation, more than a 30 percent increase in leadership representation of Black, Latinx and Native American Googlers in the U.S.—the data shows we’re on the right track,” Knox said.

Nearly half of the Google Cloud workforce joined during the pandemic. This means most employees have never met each other or their manager in person or have never stepped foot in a Google office. Knox said it’s Google Cloud’s job to create a culture of inclusion and help everyone feel like they belong, regardless of their background.

Formal DEI programs at Google Cloud include its community-driven employee resource groups—Black@ Cloud, Women@Cloud and Hola@Cloud. On the enterprise side, the company is working to advance inclusion with its customers, Knox said.

“We’ve seen strong early results from our program to empower Black entrepreneurs and Black businesses in the financial services industry with cloud technology, helping to build financial inclusion, and we look forward to expanding to new industries,” she said.

Knox is particularly proud of the Autism Career Program that Google Cloud launched last year, the first program at Google designed to grow and strengthen its existing community of people on the autism spectrum by hiring and supporting additional talented individuals, she said. The program has trained more than 350 Google Cloud managers and other people involved in hiring processes to ensure Google’s on-boarding is accessible and equitable for candidates with autism.

For channel partners, Google Cloud has begun rolling out DEI programs, Knox said. Google Cloud’s Partners with a Purpose group has come together to tackle social initiatives and DEI issues. The program is structured into two pillars: a DEI Alliance and social impact projects. “In order for us to grow responsibly as a company—and as an industry—we recognize that we must invest in the career success of everyone—especially future generations,” she said.

At Network Solutions Provider, Walker makes it a point to implement DEI practices and talk about unconscious bias among his team “because it sets the tone that you’re open to making people—regardless of background— successful.”

“It sends the message to not only the people that I’m interviewing but to my employees that there is no bias here,” he said. “Employees need fairness. They need to see it.”

He also very intentionally has representation at the leadership level, which he likens to sending out the company Christmas card.

“I would joke internally and say, ‘What does my company Christmas card say about my company?” he said. “When you see the old-school ones, it’s all the guys in power suits and the two executive assistants in long skirts and heels. And there are no shades of color in there. What you’re telling everybody is that you shouldn’t work there.”

Walker diligently works to make an impact on underserved communities as well as the channel by partnering with different minority groups and peer-topeer incubators as well.

“One of the things as an MSP is you’re not always able to hire the talent that you want,” he said. “So, you have to be good at growing talent. ... You hire the underdogs. You hire the people who have something to prove. You hire somebody who’s hungry.”

Walker also does outreach to underserved communities and educates them about the channel in hopes of attracting them to the IT industry.

“I’m always advocating the channel to minority groups as a way to get them into tech,” he said. “[Many people] have no idea about the different jobs and opportunities that are promoted within the channel. I consider myself an advocate, and I’m pushing this agenda every chance that I get because I never know the impact I can make or the doors that I can open,” he added.

Walker referred to his “Pretty Woman” analogy. When one store accepted the woman’s business, everything changed.

“All of the other stores start opening up, and the whole world becomes your oyster when you’re included,” he said.

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