Customer Obsession Helps Drive Diversity At Amazon
"I don't consider myself a diversity and inclusion person. I consider myself a business person and the problem I am trying to solve is that of diversity," says Latasha Gillespie, Amazon Studios & Prime Video Global Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. "No disrespect to the many amazing people who do this work, she adds, but I think there's a danger sometimes that if diversity and inclusion professionals are doing this work for the sake of diversity and inclusion, then we fail."
I first came across Gillespie during the Represent The Future Summit hosted by Amazon on October 20 and 21, 2020. This was Amazon's first-ever virtual career enrichment experience to uplift Black, Latinx, and Native American professionals of all backgrounds and experience levels. During the panel Gillespie moderated, I started to think about whether striving for a diverse workplace has the same hurdles in content as it does in tech. I appreciated how passionate and real she was during the panel and I hoped she would be interested in connecting with me and discuss diversity a little further. Luckily for me, she was!
One trait I have come to find pervasive across diversity leaders, whether they think of themselves as such or not, is that they arrived at diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) via another discipline. Whether it is law, engineering, or finance, as in Gillespie's case, diversity leaders share an analytical approach and a love for problem-solving.
Gillespie sees diversity as a business pillar and, as such, one that requires constant attention. At Amazon, she has been taking part in quarterly business reviews since 2018 the same way you would to cover finance or marketing. "We sit down and look at the content creators we are working with," Gillespie explains. "Who are the people we have overall deals with, who are the folks who are starring as leads in our content, who are the season regulars the supporting cast? We look at who the episodic directors on the TV side are, who are the directors on the film side, who are in the writers' room… We look at all of our numbers, above the line and below the line in front of the camera and behind the camera, and every department within Amazon Studios then draft goals for every department."
When you think about DEI as a never-ending job that is always evolving, it is easy to grasp why it should be treated as any other business bottom line. "No matter how good your balance sheet looks, you will never decide to go without a Chief Financial Officer, so why would you think that achieving diversity means no longer needing a Chief Diversity Office?" asks Gillespie. Diversity changes over time. Just looking back over the past ten years, she explains, the meaning of diversity has changed as the importance of intersectionality grew with people identifying themselves with two or more races. There has also been a growth in focus on trans' rights and people with disabilities rights, and COVID-19 will undoubtedly deepen some marginalized communities' struggle and even create new ones.
The "People Like Me" Theory
I was curious to hear if, in the content business, the word pipeline comes up and the panacea of diversity, in the same way, it does in tech. Gillespie does not mince her words when she shares with me that she wants to scream every time she hears about the pipeline! Not so much because the pipeline does not matter, but because it is only one element that can help drive diversity. The other side, equally, if not more, important is to look at all the people in the job and how many of them are underemployed. Gillespie argues that everyone entering an organization looks around to see if people like them can be successful. The "people like me" theory applies to a straight person, a gay person, some with braids, someone bald, it does not matter what. At her previous employer, all of the senior leaders were married. Gillespie used to wonder, "what kind of message would that give to a single person who had no desire to get married, or to a gay person who at the time, could not legally be married. What signal does that send to them about whether or not they could ever sit in that seat?" For many, the conclusion is only one: if I don't see it, it is hard to believe that it can be achieved. If I do not see people like me at the top, I don't see an opportunity for me to get there. This is why representation matters. There is no question that having a diverse leadership fosters more diversity within an organization. Reflecting further on leadership, Gillespie makes the point that women are used to be the "only and lonely – the onlyest." Because of that, women have a lot of experience working across differences, making them better leaders. I can't say I disagree with her on this point or pretty much everything she discussed with me!
This is why the leadership at Amazon Studios is very intentional about making it a home for talent. A safe space for content creators where they feel free to be seen the way they want to be seen, where they want to be validated and where their voice matters. This is how creators like Little Marvin are empowered to create and run a show that becomes a showrunner. Content must reach the audience and it must feel authentic rather than perpetuating some negative stereotype. This, coupled with its customer's obsession, is why Amazon Studios has content review processes in place. Throughout history, there has been content centered on marginalized communities, without being told by people from marginalized communities. This is not how Amazon wants to get the job done.
Humanity and Structural Change
2020 was a challenging year for many people, but nothing quite like what Black people throughout America have had to endure. I have watched brands across tech, content, fashion, food and more, engage in politically correct marketing, embracing hashtags and even donating to the cause, but not everything felt purposeful and genuine. I remind Gillespie that during her panel, she had said that she wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else than at Amazon while going through this moment and I was interested in understanding why she felt that way. Her answer came fast and saw: "Because of the humanity and the structural change that has been put in place." The leadership decided it was time not just to do those things that make white people feel good about themselves, like focus on mentoring or reading to kindergarteners. This is not the kind of response that the situation required, explained Gillespie, adding: "You could do all of that, but not as a response to this, this required structural change and I was so grateful for that. Because Lord knows, I was over the performative." Examples of what Gillespie refers to when she talked about structural change is the target of doubling the representation of Black Vice presidents and Directors in 2020 and again in 2021; increased investment and programming designed to grow Black leaders from within. In August 2020, Amazon named Alicia Boler Davis to Bezos's Ruling Council, making her the first Black Executive appointee. In the same month Amazon Music named Raymond Leon Roker Global Head or Editorial and in September, Ukonwa Ojo became Prime Video and Amazon Studios' Chief Marketing Officer.
As our conversation comes to an end, I ask Gillespie what piece of advice she would give her younger self. "As women, we often play it safe because we know the importance of not having the door shut behind us", says Gillespie. "There is a difference between playing to win and playing not to lose. I would tell my younger self to take more risks, to play to win."
As I reflect on my conversation, I think of my twelve-year-old daughter and I am grateful for Latasha Gillespie, who is working so that the next generation will have far fewer "onlyest," and as scary as it is for a mother to see their kids take risks, I will tell them always to play to win.
This article first appeared on Forbes
Disclosure: The Heart of Tech is a research and consultancy firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this column. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this column