More Than a Rounding Error

Two decades ago I entered the tech sector, and I can still say it’s the best decision I ever made.

The year was 1999, and I was working at a consulting firm. Just a few years out of college, and little did I know I was on a path that would propel me toward what’s now been 14 fantastic years and counting at SAP. Never could that 20-something-year-old have pictured herself heading up Sales for SAP’s Human Capital Management line of business in North America.

During Black History Month, as I’ve reflected on the dynamic career that I’ve loved and the technological and cultural disruptions that have taken place, it’s a bit puzzling that African American representation in the tech industry hasn’t changed much in the last several years. According to figures made publicly available by prominent tech firms, the percentage of the tech workforce that is African American might as well be a rounding error — often two or three percent.

SAP Roundtable: Black History Month
Participating in a Black History Month roundtable with some esteemed colleagues.

Meanwhile, as the population continues to diversify, companies recognize diversity as a business imperative. One McKinsey study shows companies with the most ethnically diverse executive teams are 33 percent more likely to outperform their peers in profitability. The researchers hypothesize that more diverse companies can attract top talent while improving decision-making, employee satisfaction, and their customer orientation. In fact, I’m repeatedly seeing more of our clients demand that their suppliers and partners concretely prove their commitment to a diverse and inclusive workforce.

I’ve experienced firsthand how diversity and inclusion are competitive differentiators. After introductory meetings, clients have earnestly, with complete goodwill and positivity, provided feedback that it’s refreshing to see an African American woman in a senior role at a tech company like SAP. It’s not something many people expect to see, as the sector’s diversity statistics show. While I’m always glad to hear positive client feedback after meetings, I believe we can take steps so that clients can expect better and more. How do we evolve so that underrepresented groups are more than a rounding error? Through actionable insights and committed leadership.

In my line of business, the sales function is truly about adding value and solving business problems for our clients. Today, we have technology to address the very real problem of under-representation. SAP SuccessFactors, for example, is opening the doors for companies to invest in the most effective initiatives to deliver on the goals of diversity and inclusion, with software that can help reveal unconscious bias and help firms recruit from the largest and best available talent available.

And there is actual data that shows which diversity and inclusion efforts actually create the best outcomes. Interestingly enough, some research shows that voluntary diversity initiatives, like mentorship by leaders, may be among the most effective to boost numbers of a range of underrepresented groups. Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to learn from some amazing mentors and sponsors who recognized my potential. I’ve essentially won the lottery by working alongside truly gifted leaders and amazing human beings. At several critical career junctures, there have been people who have believed in me. Most recently, one of these people even approached me to consider my current leadership role.

Those like me in the tech sector with a leadership position often don’t realize the impact we may have on others who don’t see role models with similar backgrounds and experiences. Every day, I wake up and just do the best I can at my job. But once in a while, people who have met me six or seven years ago tell me they remember hearing me speak publicly about my journey. And I’m humbled when they share about how that made an impact on them. I’ve learned that just by looking different and being different in leadership and being willing to talk about the challenge of under-representation can make a difference.

So I am very dedicated to making sure I continue to discuss these issues front and center. And while I’m in a leadership role, I am committed to building the best team and going out of our way to consider candidates with diverse backgrounds. I never want us to limit ourselves by losing out on top talent.

I was reminded of this last week when I participated in a Black History Month executive roundtable. A panel of accomplished African American leaders shared about their personal responsibility for creating an inclusive culture, especially in light of emerging technologies that can mitigate bias and improve peoples’ lives. We could easily be discouraged over diversity statistics that haven’t budged through the years. Instead, I have real hope. I hope that in the future we can proudly marvel at an industry that reflects the people we serve.


Vanessa Smith is senior vice president and head of Human Capital Management Line of Business in North America at SAP.

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.