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How MSPs can get started with DEI initiatives

Many small IT firms have yet to launch diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives within their organizations. Here's how to get started.

Dave Sobel is host of the podcast The Business of Tech and co-host of the podcast Killing IT. In addition, he wrote Virtualization: Defined. Sobel is regarded as a leading expert in the delivery of technology services, with broad experience in both technology and business.

In this video, Sobel speaks with Tarin Laine, a consultant at Black Belonging Matters, a New York-based job board and employment services provider that focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Sobel and Laine discuss the benefits of DEI efforts and how small businesses like MSPs can launch programs internally.

Transcript follows below.

Dave Sobel: Tarin, thanks for joining me. I really appreciate it. This is one of those areas of interest for me, because when I want to think about doing the right thing for people and their businesses, growing in this area of diversity, equity and inclusion is important. It's a nice thing when doing the right thing and doing the profitable thing actually do align.

So, tell me about your background and what you're doing now.

Tarin Laine: Thanks for having me, Dave. As you said, this is such an important topic, and I'm happy to be here to discuss it with you and your listeners.

A little bit about me. I started off in human resources years ago. I found myself in the diversity, equity and inclusion space. I was working to advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities within the workplace. I eventually moved on, went to law school and became an attorney. I've been practicing law for the past six years. Then, over the spring of 2020, like for so many other people, this work called me back.

So, along with others, I founded Black Belonging Matters. What we do is we address diversity in the workplace in a different aspect than is the norm. What we do is we teach employers how to embrace diverse talent, as opposed to teaching employers how to teach diverse talent to conform or change themselves to fit in the workspace, if that makes sense to you.

Sobel: Yeah, it does. I ask the question a lot, 'Why? Why do we care?' Why should small business owners -- those companies that are just either a handful of people or even small teams of 10 or 15 -- why should small business owners care about this space?

Laine: Why shouldn't they, right? You're going to grow because of it. If you don't care about this, then you're going to be stagnant. There are lots of numbers out there. There's been research throughout the years that point to diversity as being a prime factor in your growth. Companies that are racially diverse outperform nondiverse companies by 35%. There's 15% more sales revenue for companies that are more diverse. Diversity is also a better determinant of sales revenue than it is for company size or your company age.

There are so many factors. Millennials. If you're trying to hire people, 83% of millennials put diversity at the top of their list as to whether or not they would want to join a company. Seventy percent of employees -- perhaps a little bit more -- say they would leave a company if the company isn't focused on diversity.

So, it's all about growth, really, and ensuring that you are staying competitive in the marketplace.

Sobel: It's funny. Why shouldn't they? I go to that same [place], but I didn't want to lead on this one. I wanted to hear it right from you. Hey, what you lead with, what you say and what I'm thinking of are the same thing. The reason that we focus on this is all those business reasons that you just outlined: You outperform, you outclass [and] it's what the new generation of workers are looking for. That's what I was hoping you were going to say, but I wanted listeners to hear that's where you went right away, was right to the, 'Hey, these are competitive advantages. These are areas where I can outperform by investing in it.'

How to get started

One of the things that I hear a lot from listeners is they think, 'Well, we're really small. We're struggling with this.' What's the recommendation that you give them for the best ways to start thinking about it and addressing diversity as a systematic thing?

Laine: I think the best thing that I would say, and I'm obviously a little bit biased, but if this isn't your field, hire a consultant. If you're not a plumber, you wouldn't try to install plumbing in your home. I think a lot of business owners may think it might be too costly or impossible to implement or it doesn't matter. But for all those reasons I outlined, it clearly does matter. If you hire a consultant, it doesn't have to be on a [long-term], ongoing basis. The consultant can come in, look at your organization and help you create a roadmap. It's not something that you do in a hodgepodge fashion.

Clearly, there are things that you can do on your own. When I consult with businesses, some of the things that I say to them are, 'Look at your website. Is it inclusive? Does it show diverse faces?' Because if you're trying to bring in people that are diverse, the first thing they do is go to your website, and if they don't see diverse faces, it's not creating a welcoming atmosphere and you're not going to attract that talent. Especially in tech, that's obviously important to be able to attract talent. So, that's one of the things that you can do on your own.

You can join Facebook groups. There's lots of Facebook groups out there that promote diversity. There are groups on LinkedIn. There are lots of things that you can do. But I think, when it comes down to it, if you're serious, the investment in a consultant -- and the proper consultant, too -- is going to reap dividends that outweigh whatever it is that you spend on the consultant.

Sobel: Right. Again, I'd be remiss if I didn't tell my audience, these MSPs, this exact answer is the same answer we give as technology experts to other small businesses, saying, 'If you're not an expert in this, you go get one.' This should sound incredibly familiar to those who are thinking about it.

What's the big misconception that you're always looking at? When people are talking about DEI efforts when it comes to small companies, what's the biggest misconception out there?

Laine: I think if I were going to say the biggest one, it would be, 'It doesn't matter within the small space.' It does matter, and I think it's even more effective and it's quicker to implement in a small space. When you have a global corporation, you're dealing with lots of spinning wheels. It's much harder to implement. It's much harder to track progress and track results. But when you're in a small space, it's you and your team, and it can really just blossom and grow, and you see that much more quickly than in a larger space.

Sobel: Are there things that organizations should be thinking about in terms of starting places? So, you start working with a consultant and you start approaching it. Is culture where you generally start? Do you start on hiring practices? What are the areas? How do you prioritize the work?

Laine: That's hard to say because it's dependent on the organization. Really, though, what we would say is, 'Pick one.' You can't start with everything. You pick one, you start there, and you move on from that. But it really depends on the organization. When you speak with a consultant, that person will listen and find out what your needs are. Is it in your hiring? Maybe your hiring's OK. Maybe it's when you get to the interview phase that you have a problem. Or maybe it's when you get to the person being employed, that they get there and they're like, 'No, I'm leaving,' and you're at the retention phase.

So, it's really organization-dependent. It's not something that a one-size-fits-all answer would suffice. But I think one of the greatest things that I would recommend to any organization is to pay attention to what we term belonging. Belonging is the sense of being and being appreciated in an organization and being authentic within that organization. More than anything else, that's really what we need to build on, is not only attracting people and bringing them in, but ensuring that once they get there, they experience that sense that they can be their authentic selves and that they can thrive in this workplace.

Measuring your DEI efforts

Sobel: That's a really difficult thing to work on: that sense of belonging, that community culture, creating a workforce that's supportive. That's hard. How do you measure efforts like that? How do you understand the impact that changes are making in that context? How do you measure it?

Laine: I think one of the biggest ways to measure it is [to ask], 'Are your people staying?' Retention is the main measurement of belonging, because if people don't feel like they belong, they're going to leave. I think 50% of people say if they don't feel like they belong, they're out the door.

I think, also, engagement, which is hard like you said. These things, conceptually, are kind of all over the place. It's hard to measure. But productivity is somewhat a measurement of engagement. So, those are things that you can look at. How productive is this employee? Are my people staying when I do get them in place? Are they staying or are they leaving? Is the rate at which they're leaving outside the industry norm? If it's outside the industry norm, then you may have a problem. Although, a caveat: With your particular niche, MSPs, there does seem to be some work to be done in retaining diverse talent. So, it's kind of hard to measure.

Sobel: You're being nice about it. There's data that says that in technology we have retention problems and we have culture-building problems around keeping diverse talent. I have my own studies, [particularly] around [diversity in IT] leadership, that show this is a vastly majority male and white industry. The reason I've been looking at this space as much as I have is because of the exact data points that you started with. Those companies that outperform are investing in diversity; yet, I have leadership teams of IT companies that are not diverse. That tells me we are literally leaving money on the table. If we were better at this, we would outperform. I like strategies that do that.

The reason I asked about measurement is because one of the skills that MSPs are really great at is measurement and process. One of the things to encourage people to work on this is that it sounds like -- and I wanted your validation -- that if you have a skill set in measurement and process implementation, you can match that skill set to this problem. Is that a fair view of the world?

Laine: Definitely. If your skill is in measurement and statistics, then, yes, there are points that you can measure. Perhaps it's not within the MSP industry. Perhaps you use a similar industry. When you take a measurement, if your industry is not performing in the manner in which you would like it to, then you measure it against an industry -- a similar industry -- that is performing in the manner in which you would like your company or industry to perform.

So, I think definitely using measurements from a similar industry and using these skills as MSP professionals, you're definitely able to -- perhaps better than many other companies -- measure how well your diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging strategies are working.

Diversity in professional networks

Sobel: I'm the first one to admit that some of my thinking around this comes from some of the events that happened last summer. So, each time, I always like to say, when you're presented with new data, you interpret that data, and then you make decisions and changes based on that data. For many of us that looked at what happened last summer, it was in an incredibly obvious way that you couldn't help but notice in many cases. So, we've spent a lot of time thinking about that.

I've talked a lot about this in a very broad sense so far: what can be done in an organizational level, what can be done at a business level. But let's look at this at an individual level. In order to get more diverse perspectives [and] be more inclusive, oftentimes, the responsibility should fall on the individual to own that problem. I'll use myself as the example. If I'm saying, 'Hey, I'm a white man in this industry who is looking to make sure that my own network isn't failing me,' from a connectivity perspective, from a voices perspective, what kind of advice do you give to people that are saying, 'I need to make sure that my network is properly diverse, that I am hearing perspective and voices'? How do you break out of your existing network to get a broader sense?

Laine: I mentioned social media earlier, and that's so accessible. There are lots of groups on social media that are dedicated to bringing people together so that they can have these difficult conversations. I'm in one of those groups. I don't know if I'm allowed to say the name.

Sobel: Yeah, you absolutely are.

Laine: I think it's called White People Doing Something. It's on Facebook. You have really great conversations in a very nonjudgmental fashion, because that I think is very important in learning and growing, is to understand that we all have biases, we don't know the answers, we mess up, but it's the willingness to grow that matters. So, in that particular group, we have people who ask questions all the time. 'What do I do in this instance? What do I do in that instance?' And that helps. The more you engage in those conversations, the more you obviously internalize and the better you become at vocalizing it yourself, or even helping your family members, and it just blossoms. That's really what we want.

So, you're right. It starts with you. So, I would say [joining] groups on Facebook, joining civic organizations. Perhaps you never thought of joining the Black Bar Association. I'm an attorney, so that's my default. Maybe you're a white person. You can join the Black Bar Association and integrate with people and have conversations like that. LinkedIn, again, is another great way. Reach out to others that are outside. You can connect with other people outside your network and really listen to what they say. Some people get upset when you post on LinkedIn that doesn't have to do strictly with professional matters, but what we are seeing now, and what I push for, is to bring the social issues to LinkedIn because it has to do with people so it belongs in LinkedIn.

You have all these avenues that you can [use]. You have to seek it out, though, really, is what it is. Seek out those avenues and don't be afraid to engage, because I don't think there's anybody who would fault someone who says something the wrong way. We all understand that everyone is trying to work and build and grow. That is the most important thing, is that you're willing to.

Sobel: Yes, you've got to do the work, but let's tie it back to that first point. By doing the work, you can open up new markets, new opportunities and new possibilities for your organization. That's the benefit.

Well, Tarin, thank you for joining me. How do people get in touch with you if they want to learn more?

Laine: Thank you for having me. This was a great conversation. To get in touch with me, [visit] my website, blackbelongingmatters.com, or you can email me at [email protected]

About the author
Dave Sobel is host of the podcast
The Business of Tech, co-host of the podcast Killing IT and authored the book Virtualization: Defined. Sobel is regarded as a leading expert in the delivery of technology services, with broad experience in both technology and business. He owned and operated an IT solution provider and MSP for more than a decade, and he has worked for vendors such as Level Platforms, GFI, LogicNow and SolarWinds, leading community, event, marketing and product strategies, as well as M&A activities. Sobel has received multiple industry recognitions, including CRN Channel Chief, CRN UK A-List, Channel Futures Circle of Excellence winner, Channel Pro's 20/20 Visionaries and MSPmentor 250.

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