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Why I joined the board of a company under fire for its culture

A boardroom with table and empty chairs
Reuters/Clodagh Kilcoyne
Taking a seat at the table.
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“What are you guys doing here?”

It was a simple question. But I didn’t quite understand at first. I had just bought a house and was standing in my new community with two friends. A man proceeded to look us up and down. “Oh, you’re working here!” he said, as if the world suddenly made sense.

“No, I’m actually your new neighbor,” I said calmly. He was flustered. I was polite. This exchange happened only nine months ago.

I am Black and so were my friends that were standing next to me that day. It doesn’t matter that I founded and led a tech company or sit on numerous nonprofit and company boards. All that mattered in that moment was the color of my skin.

Many people contend that racism and discrimination no longer exist. They say if you only work hard and accomplish things in life, you’ll get the respect you deserve. Well, in that moment my hard work and accomplishments meant nothing.

I have worked hard at growing my tech company from the ground up, showing traction, cash flow, growth and all of the critical components of business success. Yet there was always more I had to accomplish to tap into investment money. Only 1% of venture capital goes to Black founders. Meanwhile, I’ve seen others access capital with little more than a business plan.

But there have been a few people I’ve encountered in my career, from the powerful majority, who are committed to lifting up businesses of color. And that short list includes the leaders at Digital Trends (DT).

Recently, however, the company—an online publisher that reaches 30 million people worldwide through reviews, news, and how-to articles—came under attack for its allegedly toxic, racist culture. A social-media mob lashed out at DT’s leadership team, spreading misinformation and attacking their reputations and livelihood.

DT has admitted it has shortcomings when it comes to racial diversity and inclusivity. The company publicly committed to spending $3 million to advance its diversity and equity efforts, through steps including the promotion of women and LGBTQ+ writers and content creators, staff-wide diversity training, and advertising grants to BIPOC-, women-, and LGBTQ-owned businesses.

That’s what DT’s leaders are doing publicly. Now let me tell what they have been doing privately for years. Because, as we all know, the true measure of an individual or a company is their actions when no one is watching— the times they don’t receive any credit or personal benefits or public-relations opportunities.

Over the past six years, the DT leaders—CEO Ian Bell, chief technology officer Dan Gaul, chief operating officer Chris Carlson, and Nathan Bell, the senior vice president of data and analytics—have been huge supporters of my company’s growth and business. They’ve worked hard to open doors for me, making introductions and lending me their expertise, when they had nothing to personally gain.

DT has been one of the sponsors of PitchBlack in Portland, Oregon, which gives local Black and Latinx entrepreneurs a platform to connect with the larger startup ecosystem. Over the years I’ve also watched as DT employees have mentored young people of color and devoted dollars and time to a minority school. The company’s commitment to increasing diversity in the predominantly white field of technology was made long before the death of George Floyd and the global protests against systemic racism

Have mistakes, including a much-publicized 2018 controversial “gin and juice” party, been made at DT? Absolutely. But stumbles do not define a person, or a company. And DT is not sweeping its mistakes under the rug—just the opposite. People involved in the problematic behavior have been contrite, and have owned up to the pain they caused other team members. And now they are moving forward with real cultural change at the company.

Is there more work to be done at DT and many other companies across America to combat racism? Of course. And that’s exactly why I decided to join DT as a board member. My experience will allow me to ensure that the board’s discussions continue to include the equity lens. And when issues or questions do arise, I will be able provide the insight and guidance to ensure that DT approaches them from an equity standpoint.

A change is happening in America and around the world. An intolerance to racism is growing and expanding in ways I’ve never seen before. I believe that the true way that change happens in business is when men and women of color are asked to join and contribute in boardrooms. And I couldn’t be more proud to have a seat at the table.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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