Fighting Inertia in Diversity & Inclusion
By Rashaad Bajwa | Oct 7, 2020
First, I have something that I need to confess…
A couple of years ago I was asked to participate in my first Diversity & Inclusion panel. I knew the diversity part, but I ‘ll admit, I wasn’t sure about the “I”. Just like everyone else who doesn’t want to seem stupid, I googled it.
That started me on the journey of thinking more intentionally about inclusion. I realized that it was actually one of the most meaningful parts of not only who I am, but also my business as well. A lot of who I was and how I decided to run my life as well as my business came back to moments I felt excluded. It has been a dominant theme for me, identifying those moments and the impact that they had not only on myself, but also my ability to empathize with others and how that resonated with everyone else.
My origin story begins in Lahore, Pakistan.
When Pakistan and India split from the British empire, my grandfather as a military general played a major role in the founding of Pakistan. We even have a picture of him shaking hands with Eisenhower. Later on a general came to power named Zia-ul-Haq. He made everything way more fundamentalist, way more hardcore Muslim and extremist. One of the edicts that he threw out there was not only that we are a Muslim country, but we are a pure Muslim country. That meant you have to meet a certain criteria in order to get government jobs and progress beyond a certain rank in the military. My family came from a minority sect. So even though they were Muslims, they weren’t the right type of Muslim. My father was a major in the military at that time. He was essentially told, “This isn’t going to work for you,” because he didn’t tick off these boxes that they needed in order to get to the seats of power. From the very beginning, my origin story was deeply affected by exclusion because of my parents’ religion.
So we moved to the US. We were on the West Coast for a while in Seattle, but Ewing, New Jersey is actually the first town that I called home. At the time it was approximately 60% white Americans, and 40% African Americans. There was two Asians in the school. Me, and my one friend who lived a couple of doors down. But it wasn’t until I started junior high school that I really felt being Pakistani. In a school where I was one of two Asians, I felt very much left out of the group. I remember at that time a very, very strong feeling that I desperately wanted to be white. But my second option actually was I desperately wanted to be black.
Because both had very large communities. There were cool crowds in both. It was about feeling left out – excluded. How much of that was in my head? Who knows? But the point here is I did not see people like myself. Because I was different than everyone around me, it really impacted who I wanted to be. I remember at the time feeling incredibly sad that of all the places in the world somebody could be born, why did I have to be born in Pakistan? Because when you’re in Ewing, New Jersey, it is the most remote place in the world.
Another part of my inclusion journey I want to share with you actually came way later. With time, I got comfortable in West Windsor. I got comfortable in my own skin. I got comfortable being a Pakistani. I actually started really liking it. Now, for the first time, I liked that I like spicy food.
Michelle and I started a business while at Rutgers, which is another very, very diverse environment. I got caught up in college and my career. And because I got so comfortable, I stopped thinking about race. I stopped thinking about race when it started not impacting me. When I stopped feeling like it was holding me back. As I got comfortable, I started ignoring it.
So we started Domain Technology Partners as an IT services firm. As we all know, the technology industry is not very inclusive, especially when it comes to gender. Flash forward a few years, we are passed just surviving and are learning how to thrive. We have time to slow down and be a little bit more intentional and reflect on who we are and what we are doing.
I would always voice frustration about the lack of women in IT. I would deflect with, “Well, it’s just the way that it is. Less than 1% of our resumes are from women, so what else do you expect?” We were not intentionally excluding them, but we were not intentionally seeking them out either.
And then along comes Dr. Jianping Wang, president of Mercer County Community College.
She approached me at a chamber event, asking why we are not hiring her students. My answer at the time was that we require a 4-year degree. She, of course, asked why and my response was simply that we need a baseline even though we train all of our employees on our technologies and processes. She proceeded to convince me that her students and faculty were just as qualified and that I needed to meet them.
After that conversation, I felt like it was the only right thing to do. It is literally in my backyard. I had to at least see what they have going on there. We found out the professors have a great curriculum and that some of the students in their IT program would be a great fit for us. So we started InternIT, now known as ApprenticeIT.
The resumes were of two women that he had in his class. He said, “Rashaad. I know you’re looking for folks. But these two, I can tell you right now, are my two best students. They don’t think they’re good enough, and they don’t think they have the experience to do your program. But I’m telling you, these are the best students.”
The guys that applied had no problems thinking they were good enough for this, but these two ladies were not even going to apply. They thought they needed more experience or some more accreditations. We thought we had made it clear in the presentation that we need kind of hunger to learn, not experience. Apparently, that wasn’t the case.
So we started evaluating how we talk about things. Even wording in job ads. We had to evaluate some of the undertones of masculinity. Ultimately we realized if you get past the point where you allow them to self-select, you’ll find a more diverse talent pool. Our second cohort of ApprenticeIT was 50% female. This was definitely not the plan, but I think we may have tripped across one thing.
That is, from a skill and capabilities point of view, there is no gender disparity. Frankly, if anything, it’s the reverse. Women, if you look at the stats, are better at science and math until a certain age. Then, at some point, when it gets into careers in tech, we start losing some of them. So, we found if we dipped that ladder of opportunity a little bit further down earlier in the education cycle, we found qualified women before they had an opportunity to self-select themselves out. And I have a feeling it has to do with inclusion.
At some point, women who were the best in the class, looked around and didn’t see too many other women there. Even though they were better at technology. How could you not feel out of place? At some point, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
On my part, it requires us to be intentional. Inertia stands in the way and creates more separations of gender and career stereotypes. Like that first 10 to 15 years of Domain, where I was just focused on the business and I wasn’t thinking about race. I wasn’t thinking about gender. There was no chance I was going to fix anything. There was no chance that Domain was going to be a comfortable or healthy place for women who were technical. Just because I wasn’t focused on it. My biggest guidance, I would say, is you can’t be neutral.
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