Diverse Insights: A conversation with Ulysses J Smith

Published by:
Dan Gates
September 24, 2020
min read

#DiverseInsights - a series of conversations with the trailblazers turning diversity, inclusion and belonging ambition into action. In October, we sat down for our fifth conversation, this time with Ulysses J Smith. 

Ulysses is the Head of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging at Blend, the startup’s second D&I specialist in a relatively small 400 person organisation. Under his leadership and with a particular focus on equity, Blend has forged partnerships with organisations “leading the charge around equity and access”; implemented public reporting on diversity; and ensures diversity, inclusion and equity permeates every decision and department within the business. He brings over 5 years of experience working to create workplaces where people are “able to live unapologetically and navigate their world freely” at organisations including Cornell University and other tech companies. Alongside his work at Blend, Ulysses is also a Board Member for a number of organisations, including Colorintech, Cornell University LGBTQ Alumni Association (CUGALA), and CompTIA’s Advancing Tech Talent & Diversity community. 

Blend has a 100 year vision which includes its impact on the world and what kind of organisation it wishes to be. To what extent do you think this has helped shape the D&I agenda and the level of commitment to D&I at Blend?

Our 100 year vision was created for the sake of aspirational planning so if we looked back in 100 years and asked “which areas have we been successful in?” we’d be confident that we’ve at least achieved the three goals we set out early on. Firstly, in 100 years we want to be the equitable employer of the future, meaning we actively removed arbitrary barriers for people’s participation in a workforce that reflects the populations we serve. This will ultimately improve our brand and our product but we really want our workforce to become evangelists for Blend and that’s what this vision sets out.

Secondly, we want banks and financial institutions to be able to say “as a result of adopting Blend and using their platform, we have seen a transformation across the industry and ecosystem.” This will mean that various groups who have typically been underbanked, left out of many of the greater conversations around wealth, or otherwise been subjected to structural discrimination are now fully participating and as a consquence we’re seeing different populations thrive - all as a result of Blend’s work. For example, if we can we look back in 100 years and say that we’ve seen bias and discrimination reduce in consumer lending, that would be a great narative and something Blend will look upon proudly.

Finally, the third part of the vision is that we want people to know Blend was the organisation that actually invested in all the communities we interact with and had meaningful social impact. We don’t shy away from taking a stance on some issues that may not benefit us financially in the short term but go a long way in making sure that we maintain trusted relationships with our community, customers and partners. This shouldn’t be your typical corporate social responsibility, it’s really about corporate citizenship and what it looks like for us to be a good steward to the rest of the world.

Your product clearly reflects the parts of the mission that are improving issues around disadvantaged or underrepresented groups, how do you also build that into your employee lifecycle?

When I arrived at Blend, I did a pretty far reaching assessment that looked at the data for demographics outside the organisation, the projected population changes particularly in the United States as that’s where we’re hiring the most. From there I scoped the composition of the workforce that we’re going to have to build, how we’ll remain competitive in the talent market and at the same time addressing some of the barriers to participation in the workforce. That allowed me to come back with some pretty robust data not just for the overall organisation but by department and use it to focus everyone on the goal of building more balanced teams.

From a hiring perspective, we’re getting out of the habit of just sitting behind screens to do sourcing and actually going to people - meeting them where they are, learning the things that are of interest to them and then being able to really articulate the impact of our product and what people would actually be doing when they come here. Even partners we engage during the hiring or sourcing process are organisations that are really leading the charge around equity and access. Any time we’re able to partner with an organisation that actively removes barriers, that allows us to provide opportunities to people to come and take part in the workforce and build themselves up, we’re very keen to forge those partnerships. When we do our weekly review of candidates that have applied to open positions - our sourcing jam - we’re able to highlight any role, department or area that isn’t close to reaching our goals for diversity. Frankly we organically get very robust candidate pools in general but when we don’t, it’s important to highlight it and do some extra sourcing. 

How does this approach, whereby you’re getting a real understanding of different groups and communities in order to attract them into Blend’s hiring pipeline, translate when people actually join the organisation?

We can recruit until the cows come home. But if our culture is terrible or if our processes are flawed and not working for a group of people, then nobody’s going to want to sign an offer let alone actually stay here. We, as every company should, need to do some work on the culture side to make sure that we’re still promoting the culture we want to see - a culture of belonging. Also we look at when we’re meeting candidates within the hiring process, at the interview stage to check that we’re actively assessing candidates fairly based on the technical skills and behavioural competencies that are required for the role. You shouldn’t advertise a role requiring candidates to have great collaboration skills and then never put them in a situation to test that.

You mentioned that part of your vision is to build a workforce that reflects the population it serves, can you expand on what this means and some of the challenges you are currently facing to achieve this?

This is an area where people can sometimes get uncomfortable, especially when quotas and such are mentioned, which are illegal here in the US and obviously we don’t implement them. What we talk about doing here at Blend is recognising that some people have been legislated out of participating in the workforce, in education, in economic areas and now we have to take proactive, or affirmative, actions to actually get them engaged in these activities. 

What you can do before this stage is look at the markets where you’re recruiting and understand who’s there, the availability and what’s projected. Compare that to your current team, what your applicant pools look like and identify any gaps. Availability rates are good benchmarks. We never say that you must have, for example, 10% of your team be black people because that's the number of black people in the market, but we think that we should be getting pretty close to that, as something to aim for. 

One challenge I’ve seen is that people can also be overly cautious about the language they use. It fascinates me when people say things like “diverse candidates” because that has no meaning. Sometimes what they mean to say is that no black candidates have applied so I literally take them through an exercise where they repeat “black candidates” after me - it’s not a cuss word. If you don’t have women in the group, just say it… saying “diverse people” doesn’t help us move forward. 

Most organisations don’t create a 100 year vision as Blend has done. Do you think that companies that have a shorter term vision can still move the needle on D&I?

It’s definitely not terrible for a company to focus on the short term so long as they’re doing the right things, you have to do short term activities sometimes. I do think it’s a bit naive to only focus on the short term as opposed to thinking long term. 100 years out, as we have done, is probably more extreme than most but you should at least be thinking “what might be our 5 year plan?” If you’re starting a business, surely you envision that not only do you have an opportunity to corner some of the market but also that the business should sustain over a longer period of time. Setting both short and long term goals is healthy. You can’t overhaul an entire workforce in one year, it’s just not realistic. You can create, develop and roll out some content overnight that can influence some positive behavioural changes. But some strategic direction is needed to make sure all the activities we as a team undertake, are working towards larger diversity, equity and inclusion objectives.

My advice to organisations that are starting to think about D&I or just have short term goals would be to get a people strategy together. It’s something that many organisations start too late and then have to retrofit practices which is much harder. If you start developing an intentional people strategy, diversity should be a pillar of that strategy without question. Don’t wait until you’re too large and in a panic because you’re having your first scandal because then it becomes disingenuous. Do it up front, get it right.

Most D&I roles within organisations report into HR, but yours doesn’t. How important is this to you and what is the reasoning behind it?

Let me be clear, I’ve held similar D&I roles within HR functions before that have been very successful as I’ve had great exposure and powerful advocates for D&I initiatives within the organisations. The reason I have a particularly strong stance on the D&I function being outside of HR is that in many, many companies where this structure is the case, the message can be muffled, stifled and doesn’t necessarily get to the parties that it needs to reach. It can also relegate the D&I function to only recruiting, which is important but D&I goes far beyond ensuring you have a diverse candidate pipeline. So by separating D&I from the HR function, it elevates the activities we undertake as a strategic priority and gives you access and exposure to leaders from every function across the organisation. 

Organisations need to be willing to invest in the D&I function they create. Imagine you have some very ambitious sales goals. You decide to hire a subject matter expert, the top salesperson you know. You’d like them to come in and run your sales organisation and achieve these goals and do it without a team or investment. You put them in a corner, without a team, budget or resources but you celebrate the fact they’re here. You’ll send them to events, put them on panels, showing the world that yes, we do sales, we sell things. And that’s all. Obviously that’s ridiculous and it would never happen, but sometimes it can happen with D&I people and it just doesn’t make sense.

Blend has dedicated diversity, inclusion and belonging pages on its website and has published diversity statistics on those. There’s a slowly growing number of organisations that publish this type of data, can you take us through your thinking behind publishing it at Blend and what you would recommend to other organisations thinking about doing the same?

The reasons behind it honestly - and the word is used too often but I’ll say it anyway - is transparency. Prospective candidates are overwhelmingly looking much deeper at an organisation. They’re trying to make decisions about how and what it would look like for them to be part of the team here. I think for Blend, it’s really important for us to be forthcoming and honest with prospective talent, with customers, with potential partners, about who we are.

I think the other element of this is actually the biggest thing that helps move organisations: social accountability. It forces companies to consider the impact of the information they publish and concentrate energy and resources into improving these metrics.

What are the current challenges or issues that you believe are hindering or blocking D&I initiatives from progressing?

There are two things that spring to mind here. First, in industries such as consulting, finance, higher education, among others, D&I practices were born out of compliance obligations. When we entangle diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work with compliance overall, it can really hinder the conversation. Making people view DEI through the lens of compliance does it a disservice so I think if that’s where you’re starting, stop immediately and think about the impact you want to have.

The second big challenge is it’s difficult to get the majority of people to see themselves involved in D&I work. Here at Blend we recently sponsored a conference and received 20 tickets as part of the package for members of our team. I struggled to get half of those tickets taken and was receiving emails such as “am I allowed to go?” - the answer is “of course!”. It’s difficult for some people to understand that D&I roles aren’t just talking to black and brown folks, it’s much bigger and needs everyone’s engagement to be a success. It’s easy to create strategies and direction but to get people to live it and execute every day is something we still need to overcome.

We hope that after reading this conversation, you’ll be inspired to take action and make diversity a priority in your organisation. We think that our resource centre is a great start. It’s packed full with guides and studies for the next champions of diversity, inclusion and belonging.