Written by Cait Sarazin
Bärí A. Williams
Driving the forces of innovation are people that are able to look at things in new ways, and understand needs and problems with a unique perspective that contrasts the predominant viewpoint of an organization. Bärí A. Williams is an African American woman from Oakland, who possesses that superpower. As the VP of Legal, Business, and Policy Affairs at All Turtles, a startup advisor in the tech industry, and a published author in the New York Times, WIRED, Fortune, and Fast Company she has used her perspective to inform solutions in order to better represent the needs and wants of groups that are often overlooked.
You worked at Facebook supporting internet.org connectivity efforts, building drones and satellites, and supporting the company with their supply chain. Can you talk about what your experience was like there?
Facebook was my first tech proper job. It was still very formal and I was learning almost a different language working at Facebook. I remember the first email memo I sent, and somebody wrote back, “TLDR” and I was like, “I don’t even know what that means.” So I asked a colleague who said it means “Too long, didn’t read,” and I was like, “Oh wow, okay, got it.” So, that changed how I lawyered which I think is for the better. It pushed me to my limits in terms of, how do you work smarter and not harder? How do you put process and procedure in place when people have been running with scissors? That is still probably the hardest thing I have to do. You have to convince people that sometimes you need to slow down to go fast.
Being on the legal side of things, you have a different perspective on the tech industry. Can you talk more about that experience?
What I did was strategically collect different experiences in order to get the experience that qualified me for the next role. So the pivot from Facebook as a Lead Senior Counsel to StubHub as the Head of Business Operations gave me a chance to see what the other side looked like. To be completely candid, I didn’t love it. But that experience made me realize I was solving business problems with legal solutions. Having that knowledge has made me a better attorney because I can better understand what it is that my clients want and what I need to be solving.
Being in tech and being a lawyer as well as being black, a woman, and from Oakland — it’s like I’m a special rare unicorn that doesn’t exist. I look at issues around product ideation, implementation, and shipping as ethical issues. If you don’t have marginalized populations at the table when you are throwing around ideas for product or use cases, it’s a loss and you will create and ship faulty products. You haven’t thought about how a woman would use this differently or how to market to certain populations. The lack of diversity in tech isn’t just a feel-good mission, but it is an ethical issue. You are creating faulty products and generating less revenue than if you included minorities in your process because they would tell you how to build a better product that speaks to more people, that’s easily marketable, and that more people would use.
In the article you wrote for Essence “Black Cool And Weaponized Technology” you stated that it is time for the tech industry to adopt the Hippocratic Oath of “First, do no harm.” Can you talk more about that?
There are certain things that are seen as universal and Common is one of them. Whether you like him as an actor, rapper, spokesperson, or all three, he’s universally cool and that’s perfectly fine. But Microsoft is using him to do spoken word to promote Microsoft’s AI. Microsoft has had internal employee issues around their use of AI — how the employees want the AI technology to be built and deployed, particularly for government surveillance. But you slap this really cool face on it and it’s great.
And that’s one of the concerns — you use certain communities to spread a message or make it seen but those people are not actually involved in the creation and monetization of that product and in fact, it actually can be harmful to their communities. Part of what I was saying in that essay is, “Did Common even do his own due diligence to understand who is and isn’t responsible for making that technology and how Microsoft is using it?”
Have you seen any organizations or companies that have gotten closer to getting it right?
I don’t know that I have seen anyone who’s really doing it right. A large part of that is the way that I view diversity and inclusion holistically as a four-legged stool. You should be thinking about your suppliers, your employees, your customers, and your board members. The board member and supplier pieces are something that people typically don’t think about. For companies that do not have large, diverse populations within their employee ranks, suppliers are a huge driver because that’s the difference between understanding if you’re marketing a product the right way or not.
In your article for Fast Company, “Black women are the key to victory in 2020. Stop ignoring them,” you stated how there’s a correlation in the way politicians are overlooking black women voters and the way tech companies are overlooking black women as tastemakers, early adopters, and loyal consumers. Can you talk more about that?
I say this generally about all women, that we are judged on results. So, whether you get the job is based on what you can prove that you’ve done before, versus men who for the most part are judged on potential. So a man could be half as qualified as you are for this role, but he tells a good story so he makes it to the next interview round and you get cut after the phone screen, and that’s just how it goes. It’s unfortunate and it’s unfair, but it is really about the whole notion of electability. It’s the tech version of culture fit.
What culture fit really means is that you want me to adapt to your culture. So I have to know quotes from The Breakfast Club and whatever the new Jonas Brothers song is, but you don’t have to know anything about Tupac lyrics and Coming to America quotes. It means for women you have to adopt certain stereotypically masculine traits, but not too many because then you’re kind of scary and you’re not as feminine, so then you’re not as likable. There are so many fine lines that you have to straddle where it’s okay to like something to a point.
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Bärí has an important understanding of the tech industry and the vital role that diversity has to play in creating innovation that speaks to the widest possible audiences. Through her work, she is helping to shape the future of tech in a way that will meet the needs of more people, and appeal to larger populations. At the same time, she is an advocate for ethical progress, and cognizance not just of the product, but of what it is being used for. In this way, she is helping to improve the future of the industry, both functionally and ethically.