Company case study: Twilio
When Twilio was founded in 2008, the team didn’t set out with a diversity and inclusion strategy. Employees started diversity and inclusion efforts organically, beginning with two small email aliases for group discussions. In 2014, after other companies released their disappointing diversity statistics, Twilio’s diversity efforts snowballed.
In October 2014, CEO and co-founder Jeff Lawson invited Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein to come talk about company culture and hidden bias. There was nearly 100 percent attendance, including Jeff, who introduced the talk and moderated the Q&A from on-site and remote employees.
Jeff describes his own evolving commitment in this way: “Mitch and Freada kept sending me announcements of events or articles about diversity and I kept thinking ‘that’s great for them, but don’t they recognize I have a business to build and run? And then it dawned on me, when will it be a good time to pay attention to diversity? When I have 1,000 white male engineers? Will that be a good time to start?’”
Today, Twilio prides itself on an inclusive culture with broad support across the company. CEO Jeff Lawson, managers, human resources, and employees are involved, engaged, and supportive. Jeff validated the organic efforts, and the rest of the company took it seriously. His focus has been on social impact, and his company has responded. When he sent an internal request for engineers to participate in an event to help drive diversity in tech in Oakland on a Saturday morning at 7 a.m., 20 people showed up, including Jeff. (The second most present tech company had only two employees attend.) Managers, even new ones, support and respect diversity work, even though it takes their employees’ time. New employees are introduced to this value as part of onboarding in a mandatory D&I “101” session.
Twilio’s process was grassroots and organic. Two women engineers wanted to have conversations after a large tech company released its diversity statistics in 2014. A manager supported them and suggested a lunch that the company would pay for out of his budget. Over time, it became a monthly lunch where a group would talk about topics coming out of email alias discussions. Once it became a regular ongoing program, the manager suggested bringing in HR.
HR started funding the lunches and thinking about managing a broader program. It extended the program one step at a time, adding external communication and setting goals. Eventually, Twilio appointed two diversity leads, one for internal efforts focused on improving culture, and one for external initiatives focused on attracting candidates.
In the meantime, people started forming their own Employee Resource Groups. Twilio set up clear guidelines for company funding for ERGs: (1) group fits in an EEOC category (with an exception for its LGBT ERG); (2) includes at least four active members; (3) is open to all; and (4) holds one event (sponsored or internal) per quarter.
Today, Twilio has six ERGs, including ones that cover remote workers and primary caregivers. The groups are open and inclusive themselves, allowing anyone to attend, and people, including white men, speak up about problems.
People sharing their stories has been a core part of the gatherings and lunches. Dominique de Guzman, an engineer who also leads internal diversity efforts, said: “People’s stories teach others about experiences and obstacles, building a better community feeling in company and cross-functional connections.”
Taking many actions across many groups
Two women engineers started conversations on diversity, and over time diversity and inclusion grew into a company-wide commitment and core value as more people, including the CEO, became actively involved.
- Policies: Teams wrote and published Twilio’s first Code of Conduct, attendee harassment guidelines, and staff escalation plan for Signal and had active Safety Advocates making sure attendees were safe at all times.
- Hiring: Twilio audited its job posting language for potentially biased language and made 100+ suggestions.
- Making interviews more objective: This action came from a bottom-up effort that was adopted more broadly over time. It started when a person of color manager created a matrix for scoring interviews. He shared it with Black Twilion and all Black engineering managers, and eventually the matrix spread across the company.
- Internal workshops: The company hosted a Male Allies Workshop and an Unconscious Bias Workshop. They gave a talk on company culture, values and hidden bias, and over 90 percent of Twilio’s employees attended.
- Learning from others: One of the D&I leads came from Salesforce, and worked on scaling the company and inclusion to Twilio’s size. Twilio also worked with an outside group of D&I leads brought together by Kapor Capital to learn from other companies.
- Mentorship program for D&I: Twilio’s program involves voluntary sign up on both sides, a form with information to help with matching, and an onboarding process. Many of the matches help people across different groups, which has helped people learn about other areas of the company and built relationships between teams. In one example, a mentor helped an employee from accounting learn R, which enabled him to move to the data science team.
- Sponsored events: Twilio helped support Maven, a queer youth tech bootcamp based in Oakland; a LPFI weekend Hackathon for low income girls & boys of color; two London Girl Geek Meetups; a Berlin Geekettes event; and an evening event to teach SMASH Scholars how to build LinkedIn profiles.
- Signal: Twilio’s Developers’ Conference: In spring 2015, Twilio held a diversity panel at its developers conference; this unusual step sends a strong message that diversity is important to Twilio’s core business and to the larger community of developers building on top of Twilio’s platform.
- Inclusive bathrooms: For a queer women’s event, an organizer taped a sheet of paper declaring a bathroom “all gender” for the day. People didn’t take it down at the end of the event. A candidate who interviewed shortly afterward joined Twilio because of the sign, and then felt comfortable coming out as transgender and starting to pursue gender transition one week into the job. Because of that experience, Twilio added gender neutral bathrooms in each office.
- Inclusive swag: Twilio added women’s t-shirts to its swag locker for internal and external events, including at Signal, its annual developer conference.
- Surveys: Twilio uses surveys of specific teams to measure feedback on diversity initiatives. They started with more frequent, broad pulse surveys of employees, but found employees got survey fatigue, and moved to more targeted, less frequent surveys.
Advice for other startups
- The CEO’s support and involvement, including leading and attending sponsored events, is key to broad acceptance and adoption of diversity initiatives and inclusion as a core value.
- Top-down and bottom-up can work well together. For example, individuals putting together initiatives from HR and individuals working on diversity outside their core roles can succeed together.
- Small initiatives taken together have contributed to the inclusive culture and make a difference when part of a larger, coordinated effort. Initiatives can be simple, easy and inexpensive.
Diversity can start organically anywhere in the organization. With the CEO’s active support, these small efforts can build into a company-wide value and core part of the culture. Encouraging grassroots efforts can result in employee initiatives that make a difference.
Note: Twilio is a portfolio company of Kapor Capital, where Freada Kapor Klein is a partner.