Tech companies are known for relying on ecosystems to innovate. What these vast ecosystems are less known for is their implications around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). This imperative has only grown as societal and technological inequities spotlight the urgency for companies to assess their role in inclusion. While companies have historically relegated such efforts to HR and hiring, our research finds Tech’s ecosystem reliance is a distinct opportunity for inclusion at scale.
Ecosystems are partner programs or networks that offer resources, scale, or other value to the Tech company. Many tout Tech’s influence in shifting towards “ecosystem-based business models,” in which companies’ products/services serve as platforms for others to build or engage on, rather than a one-and-done transaction. But ecosystems are strategic for many reasons beyond monetization; To accelerate innovation, Big Tech companies partner with start-ups, accelerators, universities, and consortia. They develop corporate VC arms dedicated to finding start-ups to advance their business goals. They court entire communities of developers with free tools, in exchange for ideation and crowdsourced improvements. They also “open-source” all manner of data, frameworks, and products to extend their reach (and influence), as platforms on which others can innovate.
In our research on DEI in Tech, we analyzed several types of Tech ecosystem interactions for DEI implications:
- Recruiting and internships
- Customer relationships (across segments)
- Environmental Social Governance (ESG) / Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and community outreach programs
- Innovation networks (e.g. start-up hubs, geo-targeted programs, university programs)
- Developer and open source networks
- Supply chain networks
- Industry/ international consortia
We found these ecosystems are increasingly becoming part of companies’ DEI efforts on several fronts. Here are just a few examples uncovered in the research:
- Supply chain networks. Companies like Apple, Facebook, IBM, and Salesforce are all incorporating DEI metrics into their supplier selection strategies, including quantifying and sharing supplier diversity data in reporting.
Salesforce’s Supplier Diversity program partners with several organizations to further its DEI initiatives, support standards and certification, and drive growth among diverse suppliers and small businesses.
- External recruiting and internships to diversify representation in Tech workforces. Under pressure to widen representation and meet diversity quota, tech companies often lack the internal pipelines to do so. We found companies tapping into veteran communities for reskilling programs, local school districts for internships, research programs for product accessibility development, and more.
- Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is expanding beyond supply chain and environmental sustainability to incorporate DEI objectives and reporting, across community outreach programs, accessibility renovations, reskilling investments, responsible data stewardship, public health and employee wellbeing. Often these efforts leverage companies’ own technologies, such as Amazon AWS’ We Power Tech program which provides free AWS credits and learning modules to underrepresented communities across 70 organizations around the world.
Our analysis across DEI programs also surfaced numerous gaps, especially as companies are only beginning to realize the importance of extending DEI efforts beyond HR and hiring. Factors driving DEI span the entire organization, including multiple business functions, upstream investments, and downstream processes– which ecosystems help scale. For example, broader Tech ecosystems can foster (or thwart) inclusion based on…
- Representation in leadership
- Data used and shared
- Metrics and prioritization criteria used
- Design parameters
- Investing in allyship
- Just to name a few…
Ecosystems help companies align their inclusion and business objectives, by expanding access, awareness, and opportunities for underrepresented groups, while simultaneously extending reach and reliance on their products and services. They help Tech companies “see beyond their own walls,” and tap into knowledge, resources, cultures, and markets to which they are otherwise blind. The risk, however, is that they also afford companies brand benefits and CSR equity, without necessarily driving internal change.