In Episode 58, Ulysses Smith, Head of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging at Blend, joins Melinda in a conversation that focuses on the approach to rebuilding structures that are equitable across different organizations. Ulysses shares his take on collaborating with various business entities to develop the DEI vision, using the lens of DEI in product design and development to impact consumers, and how business leaders can contribute to creating structural change in the workplace.
- Learn more about Blend’s dedication to DEI
- Watch the Tech Inclusion fireside chat with Ulysses and Nima Ghamsari
- Find out How Blend Is Fostering a More Equitable and Accessible Consumer Banking Ecosystem
- Connect with Ulysses on LinkedIn
- Follow Ulysses on Twitter
- Watch or listen to Ep 15: “Creating Structural Change In The Workplace with Rachel Williams”
This videocast is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now. Learn more about our show sponsor Interpreter-Now at www.interpreter-now.com
- “It’s a mistake to come into organizations and start to put into place the things that you see all the other organizations are doing in the industry because those things might not be right for this organization, or the structure of the org might not be able to support x,y,z initiative.”
- “The assessment had to be done first before we could get to a point of then starting to really articulate and understand— with the division of leadership— where do we want to be? What type of organization did we want to be? How did this align with our mission? Then what were the actual things we were going to do to make sure that our behaviors aligned with the things that we espoused as a company?”
- “It’s not just showing up when it comes to externally or even to employees internally. It’s what you are doing to build that culture of accountability within your executive team because our work— the success of DEI work— hinges on accountability, having the right accountability mechanisms in an organization.”
Head of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging at Blend
As a leader in diversity, equity, and inclusion, Ulysses builds organization-wide DEI functions that drive social impact through products. Much of his work has been centered around participatory governance structures and creating access to institutions and decision-making processes for under-served and underrepresented groups. In his role as the Head of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging at Blend, he drives leaders to think critically about the impact of diversity in their business functions, and develops strategies to create a more equitable consumer banking ecosystem. He is a graduate of Cornell University earning concurrent degrees in Urban and Regional Studies and Government.
MELINDA: Well, hello everyone. I’m your host Melinda Briana Epler, the founder and CEO of Change Catalyst with Ulysses J. Smith, head of Diversity, Inclusion, & Belonging at Blend. We’re going to be talking about rebuilding equitable structures in the workplace, how we work across different business structures to build diverse, equitable, and inclusive companies.
You’ll notice something new in this episode. After a year and a half of doing weekly live shows and podcasts and videocast, we’ve decided as a team that it wasn’t sustainable, so there’s no live audience Q&A in this episode. It’s just Ulysses and me and our ASL interpreters if you’re watching the video.
If you have any questions or suggestions for future episodes, please email us through our website at ally.cc, or you can find us on social media at various Change Catalyst channels.
All right. Ulysses, hello. How are you?
ULYSSES: I’m doing well. How are you?
MELINDA: I’m doing all right. I’m doing all right. It’s been a year. It’s been two years. It’s been a lot but doing okay.
MELINDA: Okay. So, let’s get started. Can you talk about your story, where you grew up, how you came to do the work that you do today, and why did you end up where you are now?
ULYSSES: Yeah. Oh, the story is long, so I’ll keep it brief. I just had a birthday, so it’s been some years now, I think, that we can talk about. I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida. So, Duval County, for people who know. We’re always in the news for all the wrong reasons. No, I’m just kidding. Half kidding.
MELINDA: That’s why you’re here. [Laughs]
ULYSSES: Exactly. Right? [Laughs] So, I moved far, far away. My parents were divorced when I was very young, so I grew up with my mother and my two sisters. I’m the middle child. So, sure, that explains a lot of things.
Of course, some psychologists would agree somewhere. And then, ended up moving to New York to go to school for college and then to work. And really, my goal was just to go anywhere far away because I had never really been away from home. I had never flown. I had never experienced a lot.
In high school, I just kind of realized, as I was coming into myself, I really wanted to be free. I didn’t want to go to school with all the same people all over again in Florida. I really just wanted to go elsewhere. And so, that’s what I did.
I applied to 13 schools. They were all far, far away. And really, what I ended up studying was very dependent on where I went to school because I applied to different programs at different schools. And so, I ended up going to Cornell. They called me first. So, that’s who got me.
I was very eager. I showed up to Ithaca, New York, with six suitcases and a prayer. Having never visited the campus, little did I know that it was going to be snowy and grey for eight months out of the year. I did not know that. That’s not what I thought New York was. So, it’s very different than what I saw on Law & Order on TV. [Laughs] That is not Ithaca, New York.
That threw me off, but I ended up spending eight years there. I ended up going to school there but then working there afterward. I had a brief stint when I lived in Italy for a while. I lived in DC as well and really got to really experience what it was like really feel included, to really feel like I was valued as a gay Black man fully.
I think for me, that really got me to really lean into a lot of the D&I space. By background, I was really focused on architecture and city planning work. I got out of architecture very quickly because I was not good at it and wasn’t interested in it. But really starting to think about asking and answering this totally different set of questions. And really thinking about what it meant to make sure people had access to these venues where decisions were being made about how they were going to navigate the world, especially it was so important to me.
And so, I really spend a lot of my time focused on participatory governance models and what is it like for a community to be able to be the determinants of their own destinies, to be able to utilize their agency to get from point A to point B, or to see certain outcomes. And then also, to really think about the intersection of law and society and what that means, right? When we think about the laws and institutions and how society is so very shaped by the dynamism of the law. It is something that is so dynamic and enduring at the same time.
And so, from there, I end up leaving Cornell. I worked for a few years before really kind of getting poached into tech. It was not a space I really thought I was going to be in. I don’t know if any of us really set ourselves in this space in the tech sector, but it was not a space, I really saw myself, and I had never really given it thought. I thought I was going to be happy in higher ed. I won’t say happy, but in higher ed and not in the cold, I guess.
But when opportunities really presented themselves, I kind of took that on to come out here and really experienced that. And so, I got the opportunity to first consult with a few companies through my own private firm and really get a taste of what it was like to be out here and end up getting an offer from a startup I couldn’t really refuse at the time. That was really good before kind of getting poached into Blend and being able to apply that here.
Honestly, it’s been an interesting kind of ride to go from standing on the outside kind of doing DNI work, but in very different industries. Between government and higher ed, it’s very different. We’ve been doing it a lot longer. Mostly from clients, but to be able to see what success looks like and to see the level of just the sheer number of inputs that really goes into making those Instructure successful. And then to come into tech in an atmosphere where tech really likes to believe it invented the AI as a practice. [Laughs]
MELINDA: That’s a good point. [Laughs]
ULYSSES: I was like, “Huh! Did they really think that they just came up with this?”
MELINDA: Well, there’s a lot of reinventing the wheels, I think, as a result of that, right? Yeah.
MELINDA: What we saw when we first came with the tech and really worked to change it so much. People kind of coming in new to this and thinking that they were the first ones to it. As a result, kind of not seeing the legacy of the work that has already been done, the foundations that have already been done, and build upon them. Yeah.
ULYSSES: Yeah, I mean, you’re right on to it. I think for me, it’s just like, why continue to replicate the same things that we know have not yielded results? Honestly, I think that’s been the crux of my time at Blend is just, I’ve been so hell-bent on building something that doesn’t look like anywhere else in tech. And really applying these principles in a way that really applies this to every core function of the business itself. Right? And move people from kind of the theoretical to the practical side of this.
What does the practical application of DEI look like in HR? What does it look like in sales? What does that look like in engineering products and design beyond the typical product inclusion or thinking about recruiting and ERGs? All those things are great and very valuable. We should be doing them. They should be the norm by now. What else are we doing? I think that’s really been kind of what my time has been.
It’s been a long journey. It’s not over yet, but I’m certainly ready for a nap. I can tell you that.
MELINDA: [Laughs] I want to dive into each of those business aspects that you talked about. So many people when they first get to a company, there’s so much to do, there are so many places to start. Where did you start? How did you get to that point of realizing that’s what you needed to do first?
ULYSSES: Assessment is always where I start. I think it’s a mistake to come in to orgs and start to put in place the things that you see all the other orgs doing in the industry, just because you see all the other orgs in the industry doing them. Because those things might not be right for this organization, or the structure of the organization might not be able to support XYZ thing or XYZ initiative.
And also, I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t know anybody coming into this organization, so it really behooves me to take some time and listen first. Both to understanding kind of the qualitative experiences that people were having and where the organization was at that time, but also doing a lot of the kind of hard assessments around data to understand what are our historic talent pipelines look like, what were performance management processes. What had they yielded? What had practices yielded broadly at the organization? Who was our current workforce? Because I didn’t know. Like, who was here? Did we even have a mechanism for understanding that and understanding who was here? Had anybody done that before?
And so, that was a little different. There actually had been somebody in a similar role before I got to Blend who was there for about six months doing some of this work. I believe they had built out a couple of employee resource groups and had done typical stuff, had done an unconscious bias workshop or one or two or the other.
There wasn’t much in the way of strategy. There wasn’t much in the way of an articulated vision or a set of values or really defining what this work meant to the organization, not just on the programmatic side as a program but as a function, and defining it as a business function. What were the desired outcomes? For tech inclusion at Blend, we talked about being a generational organization and what those aspirational beliefs were, and why we articulated those items.
So, none of that was in place. And so, it’s really important that the assessment had to be done first before we could get to the point of things starting to really articulate and understand with the vision of leadership, where do we want to be, and what type of organization do we want to be? How did this align with our mission? And then, what were the actual things we were going to do to make sure that our behaviors align with the things that we espoused as a company?
That took some time. That definitely took some time but not too long. I didn’t have that much time to do that. If you know folks, people are very anxious to get started on things very quickly and to move and make an impact very quickly. So, there was not a lot of time for napping, as I would have liked. I think we articulated a vision that I think really resonated with folks internally and many folks externally as well.
MELINDA: So, assessment really looking at the data in multiple ways. And then working with a leadership team to develop that vision. And then, socializing that vision, I assume is next across the company and kind of getting feedback on that?
ULYSSES: Yeah, for sure.
MELINDA: And then, where was the starting point that Blend decided to really move toward first?
ULYSSES: Well, if people know me well, I’m an academic. I love a good hypothesis and experiment. I also have to prove a point to prove myself. [Laughs] I was hearing the typical things over and over again from both my time consulting with tech companies and even many other orgs who are not tech organizations.
And beyond that, everybody’s always like, “It’s just so hard to find talent. It’s so hard to find x population, particularly communities of color. It’s so hard to find women in technical roles and all that stuff.” I’m just like, “That’s nonsense. The data says very differently.”
How about we take you at your word, and let’s see what we can do to change that. And so, I actually spent, probably my first six months or so, really working with our recruiting team. I value them so much because I’ve never worked or partnered with a recruiting team that has been so eager to learn, who’s been so willing to change processes, unlearn behaviors, relearn new things so we can implement new structures, which I thought was so helpful to just come in and just understand how they source talent, to understand what things they needed to feel supported in this and to feel like they were the champions of this work.
And so, I really spent that first six months really focused on the talent acquisition side. So, just redoing the process. Like, really thinking about what would intentional sourcing strategies look like? How could we better set up the recruiting team to do that? Also, so then we’d have data behind us to be able to say, “Well, just over the last six months, these are the things that we’ve put in place. Here’s how that has shaken out when it comes to looking at our talent pools.”
And now that you see that it’s not the recruiters because the talent is clearly there and they’ve definitely found the talent, they’re not making it through and/or there are unrealistic things in your job descriptions, or you really don’t know what you’re looking for, which is a whole another thing, where XYZ thing is a factor. We were able to point at those things now just to get away from this myth that talent just didn’t exist.
And so, I think once we were able to prove that point, once I was able to kind of get that over, I think people were a lot more receptive to the other things I wanted to build. Because it happened in such a quick amount of time, it was just like, “I don’t know what you’ve been listening to. I don’t know what you have or have not been reading.”
I’m not interested in all the other stuff everyone else in tech is doing. I’m not interested in hearing the same myths or lies or refrains around difficulties in doing XYZ things. We’re going to be intentional about the work we do, and we’re going to get there. It’s not going to take us ten years to do that because that’s ridiculous at this point. And, look at us now.
MELINDA: Yeah. Look at you now. Yeah. You said you implement new structures in there. I will say that we’ve known each other for about two and a half of those three years that you’ve been working at Blend. I think it’s about three.
One of the things that I love about the work that you do is that you have touched so many different aspects of the business that you really do see this reaching an important lens of equity, especially across all of those business entities.
And so, moving into structures a bit. In Episode #15, our dear friend Rachel Williams and I talked about creating structural change in the workplace. She said, “You can’t just change behavior. That’s a part of it, but you also have to change the environment, and people working within that causes and reinforces those behaviors. And then, you need to change the structures at play within that.”
First off, what are the structures? You mentioned a few, but what are the structures that you think about when you look at the workplace?
ULYSSES: Well, let’s always know we can count on Rachel to come through with a word and a sermon to really get people to think a bit more critically about this work. I think she’s spot on, right?
I’ll tackle structures in two ways here. One structure, I think, in the way we’re talking about now, but then also kind of when we think about org structure, right? Practical application at different sets. And so, when I think about some of the structures, I think good examples that readily come to mind for people normally in this space, right? They immediately talk about talent acquisition and recruiting and the structures that support those.
So, when we think about, do we have structured interview processes that support the fact that we say we want to evaluate candidates fairly? Have we actually educated people around the implications of said structure so that they’re able to make decisions well? When we talk about performance management, do we have in place structures that actually reward or discourage certain types of behaviors in the organization, whether that is supporting a competency like building and leading a diverse team or a global team for that matter, whether it’s a focus on the climate that you create for your team and the culture that you create on that team, and how you exhibit that throughout and demonstrate that throughout the rest of the organization?
And so, seemingly little things that folks relegate to HR type practice and process, and probably only put them in place once there’s a problem, but things like that actually go a long way in overall shaping and informing what the culture of the organization is going to be.
Structures live on for a long time, especially if they’re done well. But they’ve become so deeply ingrained into the way an organization functions, which is why it’s very difficult as D&I practitioners more often than not to come into really established organizations with really established structures because oftentimes, you’re put in a position where you are challenging these long-standing structures that you had no part in building. Trying to get people to focus on not only the outcomes of their existing structures but also to think about what could be if they did change the inputs of the structure or just totally redid the structure overall and get rid of it. Sometimes it’s desirable. Actually, more desirable. [Laughs]
MELINDA: Dismantling that structure. Rebuilding that structure.
ULYSSES: Yes. Yeah. Sometimes it’s brick by brick. Sometimes it’s like it just busts down the whole wall. Right? But it just depends on your agency and your organization, which actually takes me to the organizational structure.
There’s implicit communication about what an organization values based on where it places some of that in an organization. Right? I know lots of startups with flat hierarchies, all that good stuff, they don’t want to really say, “Oh, we should focus on that. There’s no emphasis on that. Or don’t read too deeply into that.”
I said this for years. That’s the thing that’s very different about how folks treat a sales organization versus how they treat a D&I organization or D&I practitioner. You would never tell your head of sales, “Here’s my very ambitious ARR target or client acquisition target. We want to reach it in this extra short amount of time. It’s going to be a billion dollars or whatever.” Something really arbitrary.
“We didn’t put a ton of thought around it, but that’s what we want to do. We’re going to bring you sales leader in. We’re going to give you no team. We’re not going to resource you very well. We’re going to put you in this corner. You’re actually not going to report to me as your CEO. You’re actually going to report, maybe three levels down to somebody else that probably doesn’t make sense. As a matter of fact, let me just have you report it to a head because that seems to make sense. And then, yeah, let me know when you get there. Let me know when you get that goal.”
“And if you don’t, then we’re going to come down and say, ‘Well, we tried. We hired the head of sales. I don’t know why we didn’t get that goal or that target.'” You would never do that to your sales organization, but we do that to D&I practitioners all the time. And that’s why I’ve been so adamant, especially over the last few years about, ‘I will not be in HR.’ It has nothing to do with HR as a practice.
I think tech organizations do a terrible job at investing in their people practices and their people functions early on. They treat HR as if it’s this thing that anybody can do, as opposed to really valuing the folks who are HR practitioners for the subject matter expertise that they bring.
And so, hear me when I say this is no shade to HR practitioners at all. It’s just that it becomes that much more challenging for folks to take us as D&I practitioners seriously if the only lens through which people can see us is through HR work. And that’s their only interaction. And so, it’s really important to me, it was and still is, heavy position in the organization where the structure within which I operate supports the work that I’m actually doing and supports the outcomes that we’re looking to achieve.
And so, being on a team who’s responsible for setting goals at the organization and for assessing the organization’s progress against those goals is very different in a team who has its hands at literally every project across the organization and major strategic initiative. It’s very different than sitting in HR. It’s very different than sitting on a people operations team.
And so, being able to have some visibility into what the product development process looks like, and what the roadmap looks like, and why we might be taking on things really says a lot. It also communicates to the rest of the organization how we are prioritizing DEI work and makes it easier when it comes time for Ulysses to have to make certain decisions or to push certain things. Because what people forget is that more often than not in DEI work, especially if you’re in a position where you don’t have a team, or you’re seated differently, you often are not the one making a lot of the final decisions. It’s a lot of leading with influence.
If the organizational support structure is not such that you’re able to be positioned to have influence, whether it’s some positional influence or authority versus necessarily the actual power to do something right, that makes a difference. That can make or break a lot of your success. So, yeah. I agree that it would be great to challenge and dismantle many structures and to change them. The org structures in place have to support that in order to get to those outcomes.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. We talked about structures. We don’t talk about leadership structures, very often power structures. I think that is a really important piece of all of this. Who has the power in the organization? Do people have the power to create change? How do you empower them to bring a change? Our leadership structure is created in a way that leadership is held accountable for change too and holds each other accountable for that change. Yeah.
ULYSSES: I think that that’s the piece that we often miss – what is the right accountability structure, which is why assessment is so important in the beginning because you’ve got to understand what’s there?
I come from much larger, well-established institutions and organizations. I learned very quickly how to how to navigate complex organizations. But everything that works in well-established orgs does not work in a kind of startup environment type of thing that is always changing and moving so quickly while still preserving some of the same problematic structures, which should be a talent in and of itself.
You change everything else so quickly, but you don’t change a lot of these structures that we know are problematic. We know. We see the yields. We see the outcomes, and we choose to preserve them. We choose to preserve referral systems and all those things. There are so many things that we could change if we actually chose to.
MELINDA: I think in tech, especially, one of the big issues is we look to the Google’s, the Facebook’s, the big companies, and hire so many people into startups from those companies as well. That becomes the kind of tech norm that people bring into startups, too, and it doesn’t always work in the startup space and usually doesn’t work in a startup space. There isn’t that questioning of what should work here is the assumption that it does work because Google is Google or Facebook is Facebook. Yeah.
ULYSSES: And, you know, well, I won’t say that. [Laughs]
MELINDA: I think there are a few more structures that our business entities think are important to address a little bit here. One is the marketing and sales because that is their storytelling, and that is kind of how you tell your story of the company and to acquire more talent and so on. It makes a difference internally and externally. What do you think about when you think about marketing and sales?
ULYSSES: I think the marketing for sure is around how we are telling stories and what materials do we create to actually reach certain audiences. I think that’s something that’s pretty critical.
I’ve watched over the last year and a half or so. I don’t know if everybody else is paying attention. Just the sheer number of Black posts who all of a sudden have now started appearing in the advertisements for major brands. Or we’ve seen major name changes of certain brands that have been problematic for years. But it’s just like, you have such potential to alienate entire customer segments and markets because of how you communicate certain things about your organization. That’s so critical, right? We know, particularly you know.
I’ll use Blend as an example here because we do a lot of work with banks. We know banks, especially post 2008, but well before that, really had a deficit of trust in communities of color, right? And still do in many respects. To see a lot of the intentional work they’ve been doing now around a lot of how they’re marketing certain loan products. Next, folks are going to get FHA loans, and that’s the only loan product you’ll get.
You’ll never be ready for a typical conventional 30-year mortgage or anything like that, and being able to now show people that those products are available to them, and they don’t have to just go to the check-cashing place or seek other predatory practices. When people see themselves represented in your product, when they see that it’s possible that people like them can actually be successful there, that goes a long way. So, marketing plays a big role.
On the sales side, as much as tech loves data, it’s so odd to me that we don’t actually really like to ask this question of who are our customers? Like, really? Right? Not just what do they like type of things, and how are we scraping the internet and their traffic to finding what Blend does not do because that’s not the type of company we are.
In our case, we have to realize that there were literally exactly zero minority depository institutions in our customer portfolio. It’s like, “You’re going to tell me that even if we look at a mid-market range and look at this kind of assets under management threshold, 150 financial institutions that account for $250 billion in assets under management, not one of them were worthy enough to be a customer of Blend? Not one of them was worth our time in doing outreach and engagement?” Or do we just never asked the question about who our customers were?
We were so laser-focused on the big banks, the big brands. That’s great, right? That certainly helps. We’re still reaching people. But ultimately, if we’re thinking about not only our direct customer but also ultimately the end-user and a borrower, we know In The Eyes and community development, financial institutions have an outsized impact on communities of color, right? Because that’s where they’re located. That’s where we should be focusing.
MELINDA: Yeah. Let me just take a moment. We didn’t really talk about what Blend does, so I think that it would be good for everybody to just have a basic understanding of what Blend does and, In The Eyes, too, so, if you could do that real quick.
ULYSSES: Yeah, that’s always helpful. Again, it’s good to make sure everybody knows we are not a smoothie or cannabis company. There were college students a lot earlier this morning. [Laughs] Sorry. I know that there are people out.
We are a white label software platform that specializes in digitizing the mortgage process. That’s our core product. But we’ve also branched out into other parts of not only the homeownership journey but looking into consumer banking overall. So, if you apply for a loan online, through one of your big banks like Wells Fargo, or US bank or Navy Federal, who happened to be our biggest customers, you’re using Blend software to do that.
We are not a lender. We don’t do that at all. We simply help financial institutions deliver their services in a more accessible, simple, and transparent way for a borrower to be able to navigate that process. Our entire mission is to create this open and accessible consumer banking ecosystem.
It doesn’t matter if you’re applying for a home or mortgage or a credit card or personal loan, or something like that. You’ll be able to use Blend to get through that experience a lot easier. The whole premise is you don’t have to take multiple days off of work to fax things here, there, and yonder. You don’t have to. As we know, as we’ve seen, as the data has shown, be subject to sometimes the overt acts of discrimination for folks who go into physical brick and mortar bank branches. We’ve seen that in history.
You can also access these services from your mobile device, right? Many folks, especially many low to moderate-income households, actually don’t possess a desktop computer, so many of their transactions are done via a mobile device. And so, being able to access this here this way with your bank creates a way more accessible means of delivering financial services to folks who typically are unbanked or underbanked or typically don’t have the same access to that. That’s what Blend does in a longer nutshell than I probably should have given you.
MELINDA: No, that’s good. That leads me to my next question around product and how you really use the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion in product design and development. For anybody who’s listening that doesn’t know, I mean, you kind of touched on it, but the housing industry has been very discriminatory, I would say, politely, over the years. There was a process of redlining, where people from different parts of cities were not able to access housing in other parts of cities and were not able to access mortgages. Whether or not they had the money, they were not able to make a change because of who they were, where they were. So, this is really important stuff.
Let’s talk about products. How are you thinking about impacting consumers and then use your products with the DEI lens?
ULYSSES: That history of housing is so important to understand as a foundation of what we’re doing and how we apply these principles to the actual product itself because it’s not just redlining. There have been many, even in recent years, in the news a lot, kind of seeing the trend of certain real estate agents that are still kind of gently nudging communities of color or borrowers of color to certain neighborhoods, where they think they might fit in a bit more.
We’ve seen disparities because of what we’ve long known as appraisal bias, where we’ve seen even the appraisal value of homes to be consistently less for Black and Brown folks than for their White counterparts.
And so, there are so many other aspects of the homeownership journey where Blend has an opportunity to really plug in and standardize and create a means that is, again, simple, very transparent, and accessible to people. And so, I like to make a distinction when I talk about the engineering product and design kind of between product inclusion, and then what we might think of at Blend or how we define at Blend of kind of product equity and enablement.
Many companies are now starting to really focus on product inclusion a bit more. Product inclusion is really when we start thinking about the actual design of the product itself, right? When we start thinking about or diving into, you have a lot of folks who really specialize in accessibility for people with disabilities, right? That’s something that’s very specific and targeted. That’s a specialized area. It also might have to do with inclusive design principles versus universal design principles.
Our design team actually very recently did an entire exercise with Antonia where they were able to really kind of talk through and come up with very new principles on how they approach design, both in terms of illustration and photography. So, who they were representing, why they were representing them that way, how identity really factored into that?
That’s where we like to think about what products inclusion actually is. Really thinking about how somebody’s going to interact with the product, how are they going to use it in this way? How can we make sure that we delivered a product that people can interact with in a way that works best for them? And that’s on the product inclusion side.
Now, when we think about product equity and enablement, that’s where I’m really thinking. Beyond Blend, beyond just our customers, who are we actually reaching, and what’s the impact that we’re having there?
And so, we know as kind of this long term Northstar guideposts goals that the homeownership gap, the Black-White homeownership gap, in particular, is larger than it was when the Fair Housing Act passed six years ago. We know that we’re not in a good place. We also know the financial wealth gap is a lot larger than it used to be between Black and White households as well.
MELINDA: When we look at history?
ULYSSES: Exactly. We also know that in the United States, still, homeownership and property ownership is the single biggest means of wealth accumulation and accumulating transferable and generational wealth, like building.
And so, if those are our goals, we should be thinking about how we help get people to that. That should be the impact that we’re thinking of. So, when we’re talking about this, it is really focused on (A) how do we enable our customers to better deliver their services to reach these populations.
First, because if folks don’t have access to financial services and only know the payday loans and the check cashing places on the corner next to the hair store or next to the gas station, if that’s all people know, then there is nothing to worry. If people are still stashing money under the mattress or in a can somewhere, instead of using a bank and being able to invest and to know what opportunities are available to you, you’re already stymied a bit. Right?
And so, how do we help deliver that? How do we help think about what features we can build into the product that will drive more equitable outcomes for borrowers? And so, that’s a very different set of questions to ask than just thinking about, “How do we make the product? How do we build a product that people can interact with?” Very different things.
So, when you think about that product equity piece, it’s starting to think about, “Okay. For Blend, how do we think about small business funding and enabling that, and supporting that to the platform if we know that minority depository institutions are the single biggest kind of funders of Black and Brown entrepreneurs because they’re often denied these opportunities from bigger banks? Right. So, how can we make sure?
MELINDA: Venture capital. Yeah.
ULYSSES: Exactly, yeah. Let’s unpack that. How do we get here?
MELINDA: Less than 2% of venture capital goes to Black founders. Just setting that out there. Yeah.
ULYSSES: I hope people really hold on to that because that’s something that should be alarming for all of us. Absolutely alarming. And again, all these fintech have come out of the woodwork with a new plan for everybody to help build wealth or to acquire wealth or to get connected to some sort of capital, whether it be venture capital or just kind of their own personal lending products.
There’s, something to be said about not really understanding the dynamics there. There’s something to be said about thinking about what are the data sources we build into our product and to the products that we build that could be alternatives to things like the FICO score, which we know has a history of being pretty structurally discriminatory.
Structural discrimination distinction here meaning the intention is not to be discriminatory. The intention is neutral. The intention is to create some set of standards that can be applied to everybody so that we can evaluate people fairly, but when the end result is still the same because remember that homeownership gap I talked about, it’s still the same, right? Then, something is not right.
MELINDA: Intention is not aligning with impact.
MELINDA: That sounds familiar across diversity and inclusion. From microaggressions, little things, to the macroaggressions that you were talking about today. Yeah.
ULYSSES: Absolutely. That’s how we think about just applying that to the product we actually build. It could be homebuyer education built into the product because that leads to different outcomes. It could be building any kind of rental payments. I mean, there’s so many localizing language support. This big thing, right?
So, borrowers can actually access their loan documents in a language they can understand. It’s already a complicated enough process, but we have not only partnered with our bank customers to do that, but it has to be our industry partners, as well as regulatory agencies, who more or less really get to dictate and provide guidance around what we can build and what can be used. We can build what we want to all day, but whether or not somebody can use it is a different question. Right? So, those are the questions we think about.
MELINDA: Yeah. Obviously, a lot of our listeners are not in the banking world. They’re not in the financial world or not in the housing world. I hope you are kind of seeing all the different opportunities for really looking at a product from multiple different lenses and really figuring out how you can help rebuild structures that might be inequitable outside of yourself and also within your company as well. I think there’s a beauty in the work that you’re doing that accomplishes both.
You and Nima, the Blend CEO, seem to have a pretty close working relationship. The two of you have appeared multiple times at Tech Inclusion or other conferences and events. You’ve clearly had an influence on him. How important is it to work directly with the CEO? Do you work directly for him as well? Do you report to him?
ULYSSES: I do not. I do not report directly with Nima. There’s still somebody in between. It’s just not the head of HR.
MELINDA: How important is it to work, and how do you work directly with the CEO on this?
ULYSSES: Nima is somebody I don’t see a lot. I don’t want anybody to get the impression that we talk every week or every day or things like that. That’s not the case. It’s not necessarily a bad thing either, especially over the past season. He’s been very focused on acquisition and taking Blend public.
MELINDA: Yes! A lot is happening. A lot is happening.
ULYSSES: He’s very busy, very focused. He was really a big reason why I joined the organisation. You don’t really get, in an interview process, a lot of direct communication from a CEO who really is interested in focusing on the impact that the product can have.
For him, and I know he’s talked about his story on the Tech Inclusion stage a couple times, but the experience is personal to him. It’s one thing for people to have a somewhat negative experience when they go through a certain process and want to fix it and make it easier. But it’s a very different thing when that problem is personal because your parents were involved. Right? And it’s because you’re really talking about somebody’s long-term livelihood, right? That hits different. That hits very differently.
And so, I think he’s a leader. He’s just so principled to me. I’ve enjoyed watching his personal growth. I’ve enjoyed kind of watching him, especially over the last year and a half, I think, when some of the data started coming out around when people really started caring about quantifying inequity in housing and financial services and banking overall. He really started looking at that and paying attention. I think that swayed him.
I don’t think I’ve had the biggest influence on him. I think the data has certainly had that influence. I can cite that data. I think that data hits right. To see that this is also part of his own story. I think that hits, but I do think regardless in any organization, the tone that is set by leadership about what the commitment is, makes an incredible difference in him even showing up to participate in those talks and to really give a lot of time and meaning to it and to hold folks accountable for it is how that investment is communicated.
I do think it’s valuable and important for folks to have open lines of communication with their leadership at all times to be able to talk about this. It’s not just in times of crisis. I’ve been clear with folks. They don’t engage me only in times of crisis. It’s my intention to always be a strategic partner to this leadership team in whatever capacity they need me to be but not to show up just when things go wrong when you want to call on me. That’s not the type of relationship that we have, and that’s not the type of relationship I want ever with anybody. That’s not fun.
As much as I know, I can pull off my Olivia Pope miracles and fix all the things. At the end of the day, that’s not everything that we can be doing. To be able to inform and say, “No, this should probably be on the roadmap, or we should really think about this a bit more intentionally.” Also, not just on the private side, but also even on the side of culture. He’s somebody who I’ve definitely observed is very particular about the types of behaviors he’d like to see in an organization to support that, but transparency, especially, is very important. And so, being able to make sure to be able to demonstrate that and to check that.
It’s funny. A few months ago, we were engaging on Slack in a thread, and he’s like, “Let’s just have a call and talk about this.” It’s being able to get on a call with somebody, especially your leader, and disagree. Substantively disagree and talk through it. “This is problematic for me. This is why I’m not liking it. This is how employees are going to feel it and experience it.”
To hear his perspective and understand what was so important to him. Always being able to think through and listen to the concern behind the concern, and hear that of your leadership to be able to translate that in a way that makes sense for everybody else. For us to still get to that shared state, that same shared objective, that’s an amazing dynamic. Now, I don’t think we do that enough, but we do it. Especially we have been doing it. I think, especially over the last year and a half or so.
MELINDA: Along the lines of leadership, when we’re creating change or we’re rebuilding structures, what do you need leaders to do? What do we need leaders to do? How do we need leaders to show up and really be there actively?
ULYSSES: One, show up!
MELINDA: I guess I’ve answered the first part of that. Be there. Show up. Do it.
ULYSSES: Yeah. One is showing up. Showing up is not just you giving your time. I mean, yes, give your time. Yes, say what needs to be said. Kallol, I know you have interacted with him, and Wayne has done some work with him with the Icon Project as well. Kallol shows up.
MELINDA: What is his role?
ULYSSES: Kallol is the head of engineering. Yeah, he’s our head of engineering – Kallol Das. He’s our head of engineering. He’s somebody who’s been a fantastic partner to me and my team to be able to show up and say, “I want to build a diverse engineering team. I don’t want us to keep harping on experience because I don’t think that’s necessary for people to be successful engineers.”
Let’s create an apprenticeship program and say, “Here, six heads. Let’s make it happen.” That doesn’t happen often. You don’t find a lot of partners in an organization who are willing to seed their headcount to make sure that they’re actively creating opportunities that otherwise might not be there for folks. It’s also showing up in their own meetings, right? I’m not on the executive team. People get that confused all the time. I am not on the executive. It’s also not a meeting I want, to be fair.
I think you all have to be able to have those conversations without me in the room. I’ve given you every tool possible and imaginable. You all have to start applying that in those settings and start talking using that lens to talk through some of the challenges that come up right there and to be able to do that.
So, it’s not just showing up when it counts externally or even to employees internally. It’s, “What are you doing to build that culture of accountability within your executive team?” Because our work, the success of D&I work, hinges on having the right accountability mechanisms in an organization. If those things are not there, if that mechanism is not there, our work is not going to be successful. Full stop.
It doesn’t matter how wonderful Ulysses is, or everybody thinks Ulysses is, or how much I want to hang out with it. That’s not going to get us anywhere. Right? What matters is whether or not somebody is being held accountable for the results that we actually produce. Ulysses is actually not the one hiring anybody. Right? I’m not the one hiring anybody. It’s you. It’s you as the head of the agency. You’re the ones who are building the team. That’s you at the customer success rates. It’s you as head of sales, right? It’s not Ulysses. So, you’ve got to do that.
Are you holding your managers or the folks on your team accountable for the behaviors that they exhibit in that organization going back to Rachel’s point around the structures? Have you put in performance practices and mechanisms that tell people if you are not creating a culture where people feel like they belong and feel like they can show up and do their best work without reservation, then you probably should not be in this people manager role. Right? We need to figure out something else for you. Right? That’s how I need leaders to show up. That’s what I need from an executive team. Not just wearing the shirt and showing up to an event every night. That’s not very helpful.
MELINDA: Yeah. We only have a couple more minutes. I have two questions asked at once. Almost three years, you’ve been at Blend. The first question is, what do you feel you’ve accomplished in that time? And the second piece of it is, what structures are really on your mind that you want to tackle moving forward?
ULYSSES: I proved my point that DNI, DEI functions can (A) be actual business functions, and they don’t have to be in HR. They can be successful outside of there. They can be revenue-building partners. They can have an outsized influence on engineering, product, and design, and ultimately, in the outcomes within a respective ecosystem.
I feel like, if nothing else, I am very proud of what I’ve built, the team that I’ve built here, and what we’ve been able to accomplish as a result of that way of thinking. I think when I think about the future, Blend is at an interesting juncture where we acquired a company that was twice our size, and overnight, we went from 800 people to just under 2000. And then, the next week went public. I know. No small things.
It’s been a long year, so I want this nap. But this takes us to a place where there’s a lot more at stake. There’s a lot of maturation that has to happen for us as an organization. Now, with more stakeholders on the public side who are really taking a look at who Blend is and what we’re doing, but also thinking about how we think about the outcomes we want to see in the ecosystem and what long-term planning looks like. And to that end, it’s really the accountability mechanism.
Our current accountability mechanisms and how I’ve conceptualized our strategy are probably not going to be the most appropriate for this next chapter for Blend. And so, it’s this question of what is the right structure moving forward? How do we maintain that commitment and still demonstrate it in a way that’s authentic and sincere and that still yields results and outcomes? How do we keep all of our executive leadership involved, and even mid-managers and the folks that are in that realm as engaged in this as we scale and grow and welcome an entirely separate organization? That’s a big challenge, right?
And so, I think that’s the thing that keeps me up at night. It’s bothered me the most over the last couple of months as I really had to sit down and reflect on what’s next. What does next look like, especially in this period, where I think every company is really thinking through redefining what DNI looks like. It’s a practice to them and beyond. Now you know what keeps me up late. Now you know what I cry about every now and again. I don’t feel like I have an answer.
MELINDA: Well, Ulysses, thank you. Thank you for this; I think really deep and rich discussion. I hope you take your nap. Take time for a nap. Take your rest. Thank you.
ULYSSES: Thank you for welcoming me here, and congratulations again on the book.
MELINDA: Yeah. For everybody listening, my question to you is what structures will you work to change in your workplace? What will you do today? What will you do tomorrow to really move that change forward?
Thanks everybody for listening.
Host: Melinda Briana Epler
Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.
As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.
Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.
Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.
Watch Melinda’s TED Talk
Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.
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