Female Tech Leaders: Interview with Abadesi Osunsade

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Hear from Abadesi Osunsade, founder and CEO of Hustle Crew

In the newest instalment of her interview series with female tech leaders, Ten10 Client Partner Leah Yohans spoke with is speaking with Abadesi Osunsade.

Abadesi is the founder and CEO of Hustle Crew, which has a diversity in tech community that provides inclusion education to employers. She’s also the author of ‘Dream Big, Hustle Hard: The Millennial Woman’s Guide to Success in Tech’. She’s won numerous accolades including Computer Weekly’s Most Influential Women in Tech, Financial Times’ List of Top 100 Influential Leaders in Tech, and Tech Nation’s 50 Most Prominent and Influential Voices in Tech.

We hope you enjoy hearing from Abadesi and you find her diversity and inclusion advice useful, no matter where you are in your own career journey.

Hey, Abedasi. Thank you so much for joining me.

Pleasure, happy to be here.

Amazing. I wanted to just get stuck in and talk about this article that you did recently with Financial Times. There’s this really cool theme of vulnerability and it’s interesting because I was listening to Brené Brown’s ‘Dare to Lead’ podcast, which I know you love as well. She interviews different people and talks about what it means to be a leader in different ways and one thing that she advocates for is vulnerability. So I think one piece that you spoke about in the article is how important it is to show your staff that you know the complexity of navigating a world that’s defined by institutional prejudice. So I guess what I want to know is how important is it to be a vulnerable leader?

I think it’s extremely important. I think there’s an old traditional style of leadership that’s probably tied into patriarchy and the traditional gender roles that come with that. And that leader is an infallible leader, someone who knows everything. He’s probably a man who’s probably straight. He’s probably white, rich, well-educated, well-connected, and he has the answer to every question. But the thing about identity and issues related to how we experience the workplace because of our identity, whatever that might be, is that that’s really complex and that’s always changing. So it’s impossible for you to have all the answers. It’s impossible for you to know exactly what I need in this moment right now because of my long-term health condition, because of what’s going on with my dependants at home, because of what cultural event is now coming up for me based on my religious affinity or whatever.

I think vulnerability is so important because we’re living in a workplace that’s full of so many different kinds of people who all need to thrive in order for them to be happy, in order for us to have happy customers, and in order for us to have a work culture. And that can’t happen unless you’re willing to admit you don’t know what everyone needs, but rather you’re willing to go to them to get the answer.

You offer diversity and inclusion training to technology employers in your business. Can you share something where you’ve modelled that kind of behaviour that you want to see from your clients but within your own team?

One of the things that we’ve realised can be the most transformative in helping a team meet any of their inclusion related goals – whether that’s increasing representation of a certain group, women, people of colour, whether that’s increasing the employee sentiment around feeling like they belong, and psychological safety – through our training program, we’ve seen organisations like Resident Advisor and DWI, report double digit increase on these indicators of success and indicators of inclusion. That’s because what we’re doing with our training is creating shared language and shared meaning about what inclusion is, what privilege is, what bias is.

If you ask a team of ten people to define intersectionality, they’re all going to have a different definition. Or if you ask ten people from different backgrounds and different identities to say what is the most inclusive way to run a meeting, what is the inclusive way to decide who gets promoted, what’s the most inclusive way to decide who should get pay rise? Everyone’s going to have a different idea of that. So what we’re trying to do with our training is create space for people to create these new norms together. Create these inclusive habits together. And yeah, we’ve also been able to work with the NHS throughout the COVID pandemic, a two-year long training program, working with all sorts of individuals who are really at the frontline and struggling with their own individual biases. There’s a lot of data that was coming out around ‘is the black pain threshold higher than the white pain threshold?’ (No!) But because of these narratives that aren’t founded on evidence where black people are dying from COVID.

That’s a really good point. I think even moving away from the NHS, those biases around black employees still come into the tech workplace. Just looking at all the articles that have come out recently in 2023 about layoffs and how the black community are more affected by them – 2.5% of Google’s entire workforce are black and 4% for Facebook and Microsoft. CIO.com published an article [covering that] a lot of black women were passed over for promotion and struggled to fit into the workplace culture, and black women in technology have seen really little progress in an industry that’s fixated on diversity optics rather than inclusion.

That’s a really big challenge for someone like you and your business, right? It’s not just about diversity because now that layoffs are coming in, but people are the most affected by them. So how do you face that challenge?

I think one of the things that’s going to be quite difficult for leaders right now is to engage and retain workers that care about inclusion issues. And that’s not just people who are marginalised or affected by these issues, whether you’re disabled, neurodivergent, or LGBTQA+. It’s also a younger generation of workers, people who are in their twenties now, people who cannot separate environmental justice, social justice, climate justice, from their reality, from the person that they work for, and they don’t want to work for companies that don’t care about those things.

I feel like that’s the biggest challenge, like how do we make sure that companies still have a talent pool to recruit from if they’re not investing in these initiatives anymore? And you’re absolutely right, some of the first people to be cut when layoffs started happening, especially in tech, where people who were seen as not directly generating revenue. And if you’re someone that creates the culture of the company, enforces the policies, or works on AI ethics, you’re not directly making money, you’re not selling the product, but you are protecting your employees, protecting your customers, and ensuring that your product doesn’t have as many negative effects or negative impacts as it could have.

I think there’s lots of different layers to this problem. The first layer is the people who have been laid off and what happens to their communities? The next layer is what happens in the absence of their voices? And then the third layer is what happens to society when all these products and services continue to be developed, made and integrated into our daily lives, shaped through a very homogenous viewpoint and lacking the input of all these incredible people?

And to what we spoke about earlier: what does it mean for the future of work and culture for Gen-Z? They’re a community of people who do care about these issues. So if we’re being affected by it now, what does it mean for the future of the young people coming into tech?

Yes, definitely. So. I hope that leaders can push back on shareholders who are solely motivated by value. If we look at Meta as an example, Mark Zuckerberg laid off employees earlier in the year and said that he was going to do it once and he was going to do it big. He’s actually laid off over 10,000 workers twice since then. I think the latest announcement just came this week and that sparked a jump in the share price, 5% increase. And he should just keep doing that right until there’s bare minimum staff left to run Instagram and WhatsApp. But I think at some point CEOs need to be brave and start saying to shareholders ‘this isn’t just about value, this isn’t just about the share price, this is about the future and the people who are impacted by the work that we do, the products that we build, and also the people who have got us to where we are today’. There are people who’ve been laid off in quite savage and brutal ways who played a really important part in building these companies legacies.

I completely agreed. I wanted to get your thoughts on the lack of statistics on the LGBTQ+ representation in tech. That’s just not enough representation on the stats and I think that comes down to quite a lot of things, but it just makes it really difficult to get a handle on what improvements are being made and the rate at which they are happening. What are your thoughts on that?

I think it’s really incredible to look at organisations like Lesbians Who Tech and Out in Tech and see the incredible work that’s being done. And DiversityQ. These are just some of the communities whose events I’ve been to as an ally and whose content I’ve read online. They’re putting a lot of amazing resources out there. Stonewall is still encouraging companies to be approved by the Stonewall Index.

But I think legislation needs to catch up because at the moment, the only protection you have as a member of the LGBTQA+ community is the Equalities Act of 2010. And that’s also the only protection that someone has for not being discriminated against because of their race, or their religion, or their age. But we know that that’s still happening. We know that’s why organisations like Out in Tech still exist. That’s why organisations like Pregnant Then Screwed still exist. So I think one of the things that would make a big change is for government to push for companies to publish things like the LGBTQA+ pay gap, because when they pushed for companies to start publishing the gender pay gap, suddenly there was momentum. Suddenly companies were like ‘oh gosh, we’re going to get this data. We’re gonna have to talk about this data and we’re going to have to adapt our policies to close this gap.’

We’re going to have to face that there is an issue to begin with.

Exactly. So people are not going to like willing me talk about LGBTQA+ issues and also how that intersects with other issues like race, like class, unless they’re forced to.

Big food for thought. I wanted to end on this note: what advice do you have to those leaders who want to be a bit more empathetic to their team, whether they are underrepresented themselves or they are an ally, what is the best way that they can make some changes in their teams?

A lot of people say ‘Abedasi, how do I know if I’m doing the right thing? I don’t want to get it wrong.’ I saw this really powerful images on a placard at one of the BLM protests, and it was being held by a young black woman. The placard said ‘what a privilege to be educated about racism instead of experiencing it.’ And I found that quite profound and quite moving. I think my message to people that want to do better is if you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not doing the work, frankly. Because if you’re still choosing to stay silent, instead of risking something and saying the wrong thing, it’s not good enough. It’s not good enough. Silence is violence in some schools of thought because you’re actively perpetuating the status quo.

I’m not trying to be radical. I’m just trying to be real. In 2020 we all agree that there was a problem and that bias was baked into systems. In 2023, we’re pretending that didn’t happen in lots of places and it’s just not good enough. If you want to do the most you can for the people most marginalised in your community – whether they’re black, whether they are disabled, whether they’re working class, LGBTQA+, whatever it might be – then you need to be willing to start uncomfortable conversations and you need to be willing to get it wrong and you need to be willing to make your peers – other leaders – also feel a bit awkward, also feel a bit uncomfortable because if you let them get away with never talking about it, you’re letting them get away with never doing anything about.

What’s some of the work that you’re doing with your clients?

A really popular workshop I’m running is aimed at execs and it’s called ‘Tools for Inclusive Leadership’. What I think is a really powerful tool for inclusive leadership is getting used to talking about your privileges. Because your privileges is where your ignorance or your lack of awareness or naivete is but it’s very difficult for someone to walk into a room as a CEO and be like: “Look, I know I’m a middle-aged white guy and that means I’m not saying things that the ladies are. I’m not saying things that the young folks are” but they have to. You have to be that person. You have to be that person that goes: “Ramadan’s coming up. Don’t have any Muslim friends. Never been to a Muslim country. I think I know a bit about it. Don’t really know enough. But what I do know is some of you are going to be showing up to work on an empty stomach, won’t have eaten since the night before. Can we schedule our meetings earlier in the day, please, folks? Because people are going to be running on low blood sugar later in the day.”

You don’t have to have all the answers, but you have to be the one that can just put their hands up and be like: “This is me. [I] might be getting it wrong, but there’s something I have to say. Let me say it.” And also be willing to step away. You don’t always have to be the person that that has to have that conversation. ‘Amina, Mohammed, come in here. Tell us how we can do better for you guys during this holy month. Please let us know.’ These are the things that I’ve seen leaders like engage in through courses like ‘Tools for Inclusive Leadership’.

We also do lots of tailored talks around how you turn an awareness of privilege into allyship actions. We also do lots of talks around workplace bias, because another really powerful thing that people can do is just get comfortable calling out bias. Like: ‘Hey, is that affinity bias? Do you just keep hiring people from your university because you like people that went to your university? Let’s think bigger here.’ So yes, training has just been a really powerful way for people to gain new vocabulary, new definitions, and most of all, the confidence. The confidence to be bold and be courageous and how they communicate.

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Thanks for listening to our interview. To see how Ten10 tackles bias and challenges in tech, read our commitment to diversity and inclusion.