SAP’s Black Employee Network seeks to foster a best-run culture that cultivates awareness and inclusion for employees of African descent by prioritizing recruitment, bolstering retention, providing mentorship, and empowering upward mobility.
A diverse and inclusive workforce has the power to drive business success and fuel innovation outcomes. In study after study, companies that have a diversity and inclusion strategy in place have demonstrated stronger financial performance. Despite the growing awareness of the benefits of diversity, there is still much work to be in done to bring about a diverse and inclusive culture in the workplace.
The technology sector has become a powerful contributor to economic growth, creating valuable knowledge-based jobs that typically offer higher pay and better benefits than average private sector jobs, as well as a solid perspective for future growth. According to findings from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) report Diversity in High Tech, the tech sector employs half as many African Americans compared to overall private industry (7.4 percent versus 14.4 percent). EEOC data supports a multi-faceted view on under-representation of African Americans in tech, even when accounting for education and talent pipeline.
What can be done to improve the numbers of African American workers in tech? To attract, retain, and promote diverse talent requires companies take a multi-level approach, according to a study by the Harvard Business Review, which concludes, “The secret of making diversity work appears to be to apply the concept at multiple levels — to address diverse dimensions of diversity, and to be open to diverse routes to achieving success.”
The Black Employee Network is an SAP employee-driven network group that is committed to supporting initiatives to address various stages of the talent pipeline for people of African descent at SAP – including recruitment, retention, mentorship, and upward mobility in career development. As part of SAP’s Diversity and Inclusion initiatives, it is one of more than 80 employee-driven network groups, where individuals with common backgrounds, interests, causes, or concerns can connect and directly influence the culture and success of SAP.
With seven chapters at various SAP locations in the U.S., the Black Employee Network provides community and programming to SAP employees of African descent and fellow colleagues. Activities include networking and career development, events, and outreach initiatives to students. In addition, members collaborate with other affinity groups across SAP to ensure a one SAP approach to conversations on diversity and inclusion.
“Each of these chapters is creating a sense of community and programming within their own offices,” says Kuran Williams, SAP HANA Enterprise Cloud launch advisor, SAP. One of the global leaders of the Black Employee Network, Williams was recently named among the Top 50 Ethnic Role Models for 2019. “The chapters are making sure that the mission and goals of are being explained and highlighted in everything they do. Also, showing how members contribute directly to the strategic goals of SAP by letting others know that we are here and we are doing things that align to the success of the organization – in addition to having those candid conversations around diversity and inclusion.”
One of the biggest challenges when engaging young people in exploring any new topic is to make it tangible and interesting to them, so that they carry that experience with them into future opportunities and build on it further.
Having worked with ethnic minority youth talent as a STEM advocate, Williams has some ideas about how to get students engaged and learning. “I think the best way to get young people excited about technology is to make it fun and innovative for them,” he says.
As an example, he suggests having the students present their ideas around technology or to learn about a technology solution, and then use the solution to solve a real-life business problem. “Give them the opportunity to present their solution to a group of technology executives. All the while, making it a friendly competition among peers but also delighting the sentiment of that particular population by allowing them to pull from their cultural, social, and holistic experiences.”
The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) is a nationwide network of college preparatory schools across the U.S. in low-income communities. In Atlanta, SAP employees in the Black Employee Network have worked with KIPP students, hosting them at the SAP Atlanta office for a friendly one-day competition, in which the students divided up into teams and used SAP Jam to solve a business problem within their school. At the end of the day, the teams came together to present their pitches to their peers, teachers, and SAP senior executives.
“It’s a healthy competition,” says Williams. “It demonstrates their technological and innovation skills, and it helps them with their public speaking skills, problem-solving skills, and analytical skills – which are all important skills to be a successful student in school and college, but it’s also very important to have those transferable skills for the business world.”
For minority students finishing their studies, one of the biggest challenges is making the transition into the workplace by getting a foot in the door at a good company. Even at reputable companies, hiring practices are not always very transparent, raising concerns about bias. Williams says, “For minorities, it is very difficult and very challenging because of both the conscious and unconscious bias of employees. A lot of times, people pick who they know and what they know.”
Project Propel is a partnership between SAP and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that was created to address the lack of employees that identify with the African diaspora in the U.S. The first HBCU to enter the program was Delaware State University, located near the SAP offices in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, and now a Project Propel Center of Excellence. The program builds a relationship between SAP and HBCUs to teach SAP software in the classroom to undergraduate business and MBA students. The students benefit from gaining marketable digital skills that can potentially help them to gain employment with SAP or within the SAP ecosystem. Students are provided opportunities for internships with a perspective for employment opportunities.
“The purpose of this program is to bridge the gap between minorities and SAP, typically those that identify with the African diaspora,” says Williams. “There have been Project Propel students who have joined the SAP family and the ecosystem.”
Julian Vanderhost is a former Project Propel student who is now employed as an instructional designer at SAP in Palo Alto. He is very positive about his Project Propel experience and how it facilitated his transition into a career in technology at the end of his studies.
“Where would I be today if there was no such thing as Project Propel? It was that beneficial to my career growth and development. It was the springboard to my current successes,” says Vanderhost. “Project Propel gave me and many others the foundation to come into the corporate environment with an understanding of how to approach problems, the power of diversity, and the role technology plays in our lives. I am forever grateful for the program, and I hope it continues to assist others in their future endeavors.”
The No. 1 reason people leave tech jobs is unfair treatment in the workplace (37 percent), according to a 2017 Tech Leavers study by Kapor Center for Social Impact and Harris Poll – more so than leaving for a better opportunity (35 percent) or being recruited away (22 percent). The study concluded, “Workplace culture drives turnover, significantly affecting the retention of underrepresented groups, and costing the industry more than $16 billion each year.”
How can tech companies encourage retention of underrepresented groups? Experts advocate for being fair, equal, and consistent in presenting employees with the same opportunities, the same process, and the same compensation. Whether overt or subtle, fellow employees do share information about their backgrounds, experiences, and compensation. Employees who perceive that they have not been treated fairly will become discouraged and may consider new opportunities elsewhere.
“I think SAP is doing a good job of having the conversations,” says Williams. “There are some really good managers who are making sure that their teams are a truly inclusive workforce because it is a business imperative.”
As Williams notes, sometimes it’s up to the individual employee to steer uncomfortable conversations to a respectful end. “Sometimes people are not prone to embrace differences,” he says. “In order to combat that it is important to consistently have conversations, to make sure that your inner circle is diverse. It is important to make sure that, yet those conversations may be uncomfortable, they are still respectful, and they are being had to help grow your network and to help educate someone else.”
Another area where tech companies can make a big impact is to create more visibility for underrepresented groups in management, especially at the board level. EEOC data cites that at the executive level in tech companies “57 percent of employees were white, 36 percent were Asian American, 1.6 percent were Hispanic, and less than 1 percent were African American.”
Reaching the top levels of management takes tremendous work and dedication. Over the years, Williams has mentored countless ethnic minority employees and women at SAP as they have ascended the career ladder. For those aspiring to managerial positions, William’s advises growing your network and developing yourself through new assignments.
“If you want to go into a managerial position, it’s important to do a fellowship and do stretch assignments to learn different things outside of your organization,” he says “Number one: It grows your network. Number two: You are allowed to demonstrate your skills, challenge yourself, and think outside of the box on a different team. It stretches your capabilities. As a leader, your capabilities will always be stretched because you’ll be faced with different challenges.”