Brand, Lenke: DEI at Twitter

15 minutes, 12 links


Updated February 11, 2023
Better Venture

Dalana Brand (formerly Twitter)

Peter Lenke (Twitter)

Big tech companies are not usually renowned for their DEI perspectives, and are even less known for driving radical change in this or any other space that could backfire and harm advertising revenues. Twitter has been trying to do things differently not just when it comes to their AI team but also to their DEI efforts, including by directly funding VCs led by overlooked GPs. We spoke in 2021 with two of the people responsible for pushing these efforts at the tech giant, Twitter’s Chief People and Diversity Officer Dalana Brand and Peter Lenke, director of corporate development and strategy, responsible for Twitter’s investments in VCs.

important Back in 2021, when Twitter was on a different path, we were impressed by the action the tech corporation had taken to increase diversity in the industry. Shortly after the Elon Musk acquisition in late 2022, Dalana Brand resigned from her position. We can’t say for sure what the takeover and changes in staffing mean for Twitter’s future, including its DEI efforts. Despite that, this interview is a record of the work that was being done at the time.

Interviewed July 2021

Transparency and Accountability at Twitter

Erika Brodnock (EB): At Twitter, you openly communicate about your strong commitments to DEI. What are the core pillars of this commitment?

Dalana Brand (DB): Transparency and accountability. We are adamant about making sure that we go on our inclusion and diversity journey in the public eye. Twitter’s mission is to serve the public conversation; our work around inclusion and diversity is no different. We release quarterly blogs stating our progress. We always have these conversations internally, on a quarterly basis at a minimum. I share this information with the board of directors. We are constantly having conversations about what we are doing, what progress we need to make, what the opportunities are, and the challenges.

Transparency does not just mean when things are good. It is also when we have things that we need to work on. By having that conversation with our Tweeps [Twitter employees], and with our broader communities that support us, we can bring people along in the journey and help make progress faster.

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The other is accountability. It is not just talking about it. We are also putting several mechanisms in place to make sure that we are meeting the objectives that we stated, and that we are holding managers, leaders, everyone at Twitter accountable for inclusion and diversity to those goals and objectives as much as possible.

Twitter’s DEI Best Practices

EB: Which three best practices are working well to drive DEI internally? What are practices other organizations may have avoided in the past, but should be adopting?

DB: We were one of the first, if not the first, companies to compensate our Business Resource Group leaders—employees who connect with people around the globe and are championing all the inclusion and diversity efforts that we have as a company. Business Resource Groups or employee resource groups are the foundation and the backbone of the work that we do with inclusion and diversity, and they have been doing this on a volunteer basis up until last year.* We listened and took feedback, and one of the biggest barriers we found was that those individuals who we count on and rely on so much were doing this as a side hustle. They were not able to fully commit in the way they wanted to. We decided to compensate them by recognizing that they are doing two jobs at the company. We wanted to place a value on the work that they were doing, because it makes a difference.

We have highlighted and profiled the work that they are doing, including through our quarterly Inclusion and Diversity blogs and journalistic pieces. We have raised this work in terms of awareness with their managers, so that it gets included in their performance management conversation or talent planning discussion. The work that the Inclusion and Diversity folks are doing, as well as the Business Resource Groups, are company-building activities. Those activities essentially make the company better, and it now gets recognized by the managers.

We also train managers on how to lead those individuals in a very inclusive fashion, such that people are getting the recognition and credit that they deserve. When you think about the people in the organization that you place tremendous trust and responsibility in, in terms of driving your goals and initiatives, you must make sure that you set up the infrastructure, and the support system to allow them to do their best work. The third thing we have done is try to meet people where they are—managers, in particular. This inclusive journey in the organization cannot be done just at the top of the house, or with a diversity and inclusion team off to the side. We must embed it in all the People practices and all practices across the organization.

To facilitate that process, we have inclusion and diversity business partners [dedicated members of HR/I&D assigned to specific teams to support hiring and other processes with a diversity-focused lens] that are embedded within the business, that support managers and leaders go along this journey. Training* can be the standard toolkit or a team building activity or something else. We want to meet people where they are at because we are trying to change the hearts and minds of individuals. You cannot do that with a standard program, you have to tailor and customize your offerings and solutions based on the needs of those you are trying to serve.

Leading the Way in Backing New Venture Funds

EB: Peter, you just supported the writing of three checks to Black-led VCs.* Why did you get involved in the VC funding space?

Peter Lenke (PL): I’m part of the Corporate Development and Strategy team. We do all the mergers and acquisitions, a lot of strategy work, partnering with our Product and Engineering and business teams, to drive forward roadmap strategy and pressure test how it relates to Twitter’s overall vision. We also have the ability to do investments directly into private companies and VC funds.

As Dalana has explained, our D&I efforts span the whole company, so also implicates us at Corp Dev. We have been acquisitive over the last couple years, onboarding hundreds of “acquired” employees. These acquisitions tend to onboard very senior technical people, often product and engineering team members who come in and lead core initiatives and are elevated in the organization. Corp Dev took a step back and wanted to make sure that we are accretive and not dilutive to Twitter’s stated 2025 D&I goals in terms of both the makeup of the team, but also the geographic makeup of where people are located. We looked at our processes as well as the pipeline in terms of where our deals and activity come from. We realized that if we are spending time with the same funds up on Sand Hill Road, the companies we are spending time with are going to look the same. We are proactive about our pipeline, and have worked with, especially in the first half of [2021], funds that are funding Black, Latinx, women entrepreneurs, and diverse founders and teams. We have both an explicit mandate on funding those types of founders and an implicit mandate, given who the GPs [VC partners] themselves are. We have met a huge pool of these emerging funds to really align with Twitter’s company-wide goals of being proactive around our Corp Dev pipeline. As a result, we have taken the step of backing a select number of those funds with dollars, and we have used that as both a tool to provide visibility as well as partnership with those funds. That’s how the LP commitments came about.

Johannes Lenhard (JL): What do you envision the changes you are currently making will look like in 12 months? How can others replicate the efforts that you have started?

DB: From a cultural perspective, one of our main objectives is to write the playbooks that other companies are going to follow. We are very intentional about wanting to make sure that we are not just creating radical change for our company, but for the industry as a whole.

PL: We have seen a select few organizations on the venture investing side using dollars to back diverse founders and teams as well. The Apples, Paypals, and Bank of Americas of the world have come in alongside of us or have been active in public in backing other venture funds. People look at large brands, because they provide a real proof point and a stamp of approval. That signaling gives excitement and motivation for others to step up and make tangible commitments—writing checks, supporting through partnership, and a whole host of other ways.

M&A and investment are important mechanisms here because they both drive real dollars and opportunity. Investment provides dollars of support, to hire team members, build technology, and scale business; while M&A provides dollars in returns, to founders, teams, and investors, which provides proceeds for valuable hard work and potentially wealth creation. M&A can also open new opportunities and roles inside the buyer’s organization for people to thrive. Both can be high-leverage opportunities.

PL: We have all seen the metrics out there in terms of the types of teams that are being backed by venture investors. This goes full circle to the teams being acquired via Corp Dev mechanism at large corporations. If you are not proactive, thoughtful, and intentional around the types of teams in the Corp pipeline, then the problems will be perpetuated. This is the beginning of the process. We are excited about writing checks and will continue spending time with those funds that are just starting to chip away at the problem.

Buying and Investing in Diverse Companies

EB: People who are running funds at firms need three Cs in order to succeed: capital, connections, and contracts. Nine times out of ten, if you have contracts and connections, the other does follow. Does Twitter have any policies in place that awards procurement-based contracts to diverse companies as well?

DB: Yes. We look across the entire company and look for ways to embed inclusive and diverse practices within the organization. Procurement is no different. We have a wonderful team that partners with finance and our inclusion and diversity team to make sure that managers, leaders, and others are contracting and giving opportunities to the communities that we represent, and that use our platform and service in those contracts. We will continue to evolve and grow, but we are incredibly proud of that.*

JL: You are making a case for diversity for the VCs and the LPs, from the perspective of the exit. You are saying that you want to ultimately buy and invest in diverse startups at Twitter, but instead of waiting for the VC industry itself to move forward, you are directly going in there pushing them.

DB: We recognize our responsibility as an organization that has a strong voice, is represented in tech, and has an incredible following, to be at the forefront of driving that change.

PL: Corp Dev work is just one pillar of Dalana’s full company-wide initiatives. Every team has a part to play. Historically, you would not be talking to a Corp Dev team member on a D&I topic. We all must make sure our pipeline is robust when we are vetting opportunities, making investments, and thinking about how they are additive to Twitter as a whole, not only from a narrow technology and product standpoint, but from the full person.

JL: Can you talk a little bit about both the challenges and immediate other opportunities that you are thinking about to make the VC and tech ecosystem more diverse and inclusive, to create radical change over the coming years?

DB: Tech changes when it is required to do so, and when information becomes more widely accessible. Pay equity—making sure that employees in equivalent roles are compensated equally—has been a conversation for a long time. You are starting to see more transparency laws come out and more conversations about equity and parity happening within organizations. Increased pressure for more transparency, whether that is through laws or regulations or by public sentiment, drives a lot of the efforts around inclusion and diversity broadly. Our goal is to make sure that we are not doing it because we must, but because those are our core values and principles. We hope others will follow from that perspective.

PL: So much of what fuels the venture ecosystem is around connection, relationships, and founders that have previously exited. With some of these funds that we have backed, as well as others, you see founders that are then having successful exits, and they will be the angel check writers or repeat founders that can continue this path. Getting this flywheel going is tremendously important and takes time. These venture-backed companies take a long time to build, scale, and exit, but we are hopeful that the needle is moving in the right direction.

Ackerman: Data Activism

Maya Ackerman (WaveAI, Santa Clara University)

Maya Ackerman is at first sight an unlikely activist in the space of DEI in startups; AI professor at Santa Clara and founder of a music-generating AI startup herself, she turned to investigate how bad the lack of diversity really was some years ago based on her own experience as a founder trying to fundraise. Very quickly, she started poking well-researched holes in the bad data we keep citing, and has maintained a steady production of powerful weapons with more precise data and insights ever since.

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