Editor’s note: Joan Yabani is the executive administrator and outreach support manager at Smashing Boxes, an app development startup in Durham. Born in Ghana and raised in North Carolina, she graduated from UNC-Charlotte with bachelor’s degrees in political science and international relations. During a design tour with AIGA Raleigh (American Institute of Graphic Arts), Yabani was introduced to tech and it’s possibilities after running into some of the Smashing Boxes team. Three years later, she’s leading the company’s  diversity and inclusion initiatives while expanding her personal horizons and brand through opportunities with Black Wall Street, the annual AfroTech Conference and more. This article is part of a Diversity and Inclusion series that she wrote for Smashing Boxes’ blog.

DURHAM — In part one of our Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) series, I spoke about how Smashing Boxes is taking actionable steps to be more inclusive in the way we hire. Alongside our hiring efforts, we are also doing the real work beneath the surface, i.e culture shifts. We want to be inclusive in our hiring while maintaining a culture that encourages talent from all backgrounds to stay. As we tackle culture, here are some steps we have taken or are about to take.

Invest in and provide opportunities for growth

Recently, I was lucky enough to attend the third annual AFROTECH conference in San Francisco. For those of you who haven’t heard of, or aren’t quite sure what AfroTech is, it’s the convergence of black techies and entrepreneurs from around the world.

Day one, I was ambushed by the energy of 4,000 people of color, and my first thought was “what pipeline problem?” – Well, second thought. My actual first thought was a feeling.  An overwhelming breath of fresh air to be surrounded by fellow techies who looked like me.

It only got better from there. The programming was brilliant. Q&A’s with founders of world-class accelerators and VC’s, panel discussions, and mixers with leading companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, and more.

What I appreciated the most about AfroTech were the conversations about how tech can positively impact social justice, recidivism, and the environment. It wasn’t just a place where being black in tech was celebrated; it was a space that provided information and resources that allowed us to go back to our companies and communities and really impact change using our field.

I bring this up because I had several friends ask me how I “convinced” my company to send me. For starters, Smashing Boxes has a professional development perk. Employees are encouraged and provided paid time off to attend classes, conferences, workshops, etc. that will contribute to their personal/professional development. Throughout our D & I conversations, Smashing Boxes understood the need for employees of color to tap into a network and space that celebrates and supports them.

Take action

Ask yourself:

  • Are you/your organization investing in your employees’ growth? No one wants to stay stagnant in their learning.
  • Are you/your organization providing opportunities and resources for your team to continue learning?
  • How are you/your organization making it easier for your team to gain access to these resources? Your employees shouldn’t have to fight an uphill battle to gain access.
  • Do the women and people of color in your organization see the potential to get a leadership role? Are there people who look like them currently in those roles? Your employees want to climb up in their careers. The number one reason why companies lose diverse talent is that they feel like they are constantly fighting for growth opportunities.

Major key → invest in your employees’ growth

Training doesn’t stop on an individual level. Company-wide training is also important. For example, sometimes we don’t realize how our actions and thoughts impact our decision making or how we deal with others. Training that helps people in your organization identify and confront their unconscious biases is a great starting point. Personality Profiles are also a great team building training that helps the team learn how to better interact with each other.

Make the physical environment inclusive

Physical space and layout of the office is also a branch of the culture. A workplace that fails to adapt to the needs of different age groups, personalities, individual qualities, and work styles will likely see efficiency and performance dip.

If your company features an open plan environment, make sure you offer access to private workspaces, too. Consider how lighting and noisy distractions could impact individuals with autism or hyper-sensitive personalities. Encourage a company culture that values subtle collaborative practices. If you see an employee who likes to spend a majority of their day in a closed-off space or with their headphones on, stop assuming they aren’t interactive or a team player. It very well may be the workplace environment is not productive for them, and they are trying to create a space that is conducive to their work style.

Get the team involved

We hired everyone on our team because they are smart and innovative. They each bring unique perspectives that can be leveraged beyond client projects. One thing we did at Smashing Boxes to highlight the entrepreneurial minds on our team was establishing Task Forces. Task Forces are time-limited groups dedicated to completing a policy and procedure based goal.  Anyone can start and participate in one. The idea is to get us all more involved in shaping how we work.

By no means do you have to implement task forces-but allow employees to get involved in shaping how they work. By creating a culture that engages it’s people to help solve problems, we’re able to create a culture where people feel like they are a part of growth. Change and decision making aren’t happening TO them, but WITH them.

Feedback, Feedback, Feedback

Taking it back to Part one– Talk! Communication is key to growth. Ask current, former employees, and leadership to give you feedback on the state of the culture. What can we do better? How can we make you feel safe and accepted? We can’t move forward if we don’t know where to start.

Creating a diverse and Inclusive workplace culture is an ongoing process. We don’t want to just LOOK equitable, we want it to be something that is ingrained in our culture. What are you doing as a company to transform your culture? What has worked or not worked for you in the past? The fastest path to change is often to learn from the successes, and mistakes, of others. Let’s keep this critical conversation going.

From pledge to process: Smashing Boxes’ exec talks hiring diverse talent