Improving Inclusion: How Mandy Bynum is Driving Diversity
Mandy Bynum, CEO and Co-Founder of Race Equ(al)ity Project, is working to improve diversity, equity, and inclusivity in the tech industry.
The Race Equ(al)ity Project was started to make inclusion a transparent process. The organization partners with leadership teams who are committed to creating equitable experiences and embedding inclusivity and accountability into their company’s core. In addition to running the Race Equ(al)ity Project, Mandy is also the founder and principal of her self-named DEI strategy consulting firm.
We asked Mandy about the inspiration behind starting her company, her experiences as an entrepreneur, and the most important lessons she’s learned since embarking on her journey.
Q: Tell us the story behind your company’s founding. How and why did you start working on the Race Equ(al)ity Project?
A: As COVID-19 became a pandemic, Dion McKenzie, my co-founder, and I saw a need for innovation and a different approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion within the tech industry. Through both of our lived experiences and conversations with our professional communities, we knew that the data companies use and/or track to attempt a solution for systemic racism and bias was not working. This was primarily for three reasons.
First, most of the company pay-to-participate surveys were measuring sentiment and were dependent on the company’s employees to participate, which often resulted in requests for positive feedback. Next, the internal data being tracked covers very little around what a company actually does and needs to do in order to retain, develop, and provide equal access to underrepresented people of color. Finally, with a lack of representation in boardrooms and leadership teams, the questions being asked of the data were coming from a majority white and cis perspective. We can only take a quick look at recent history to understand why that is extremely problematic.
We knew that with our backgrounds and connections, we would be able to design an index that was both specific to policies, practices, and representation numbers, and would center people of color to provide actionable insights.
Q: What problem does your business solve?
A: We work to answer the question: “What can we do to improve our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts?” for companies who are in a pivotal growth stage or shift. Whether they already have an equity and inclusion team, or things are just getting started, the Race Equ(al)ity Index benchmarks companies to highlight the biggest areas for opportunity.
Q: What are some of the most meaningful impacts your business has had so far?
A: The most meaningful impacts were unexpected. We knew that the Race Equ(al)ity Index would provide companies with specific and actionable data, but we did not know that it would spark the kinds of conversations it has with leadership groups who were involved with the Index participation.
When reviewing results with our founding companies (New Relic, Uber, GitLab, SurveyMonkey), we found that the conversations this data started were more pointed, direct, and open. The feeling of defensiveness and blame and shame that typically comes from uncovering low performance by any measure were removed. Teams were also extremely grateful for an opportunity to be benchmarked specifically around race, serving as needed validation for the importance of otherwise uncomfortable conversations.
Q: What makes the Race Equ(al)ity Project different from other companies?
A: We are the first tech and racial identity focused index. Many companies will engage with surveys each year around “Best Places to Work” or “Women in the Workplace,” most of which depend on the employee base to complete the survey in order for the company to receive a high score. This does two things. First, it puts pressure on employees to provide favorable scores. Second, underrepresented employees may feel targeted and unwilling to share negative feedback knowing how easily they can be found out, and potentially retaliated against.
Furthermore, while these surveys can serve as an amazing starting point, they lack specifics around policies, practices, and accountability measures that serve to increase access and belonging for non-white racial groups.
Q: In what ways has your upbringing or past experiences contributed to how you operate as an entrepreneur?
A: I identify as Black. My mom is white. I played Division 1 varsity water polo in college at a very white, liberal arts school in central Pennsylvania. Whether it was my family, school, sports team, or friend group, I became used to being the only, or one of three (I have two brothers) biracial people in most of my social groups.
The microaggressions as a Black woman have been a’ plenty. I was called “articulate” in professional spaces by people who had less education than me. Leaders told me that they “didn’t see color” and they “didn’t see me as Black.” I became used to hearing these comments, and believed that it was normal.
I acutely know the emotional and physical toll such experiences take on anyone. That understanding, however, does not absolve me from inflicting that same type of harm onto someone else. I work to make time to listen and hold space for others' experiences and expression of such, and to go beyond the often transactional relationships our business entails, and what our social conditioning prioritizes.
Q: Have you ever felt like you are “different”? If yes, in what ways has this contributed to your journey as an entrepreneur?
A: I always at least looked different than most of my colleagues, which was consistently palpable to me. I also saw white women in the leadership positions that my career path would lead me to, and it just didn’t seem appealing to me. I knew that my chances of actually getting to that position in a white, cis-male dominated industry were slim. As both unappealing and seemingly inaccessible, I moved through my career as an opportunist, and took roles or projects that no one else wanted, or that would increase my exposure outside of sales and go-to-market. Being that vice president of sales or chief revenue officer wasn’t what I was aiming for, I had to figure out what was through trial and error. After many trials and important learnings, the next option was to start my own company.
Before I decided to leave my corporate job, I did more than a year of soul searching to unpack my aversion to this independence, including how we are so conditioned to remain in toxic environments because of the golden handcuffs that many corporations have on employees.
I simply felt like the structures I was part of were limiting and suffocating, but didn’t yet have the language or clear enough vision to know that this could be true at any company I worked for.
I also had to get over my ego telling me that I wasn’t good enough, or that I was really just too lazy to do my own thing. The other voice telling me that my success will simply look different became louder and louder. I grew to understand that my own version of success was much more worth my time, sweat, tears and sleepless nights. I knew I wasn’t going to find my version of success by continuing to try climbing the corporate ladder that definitely wasn’t built for me in the first place.
Q: What were the most difficult and most impactful lessons you’ve learned starting and running a company?
A: The most rewarding part of being an entrepreneur is seeing the revenue I’ve brought in, and knowing that it was because of my own hard work and determination. Those long hours and sleepless nights were worth it, and all the important lessons I’ve learned about myself and the changes I’ve been willing to make have afforded me these positive outcomes.
The hardest part is taking care of myself, physically and mentally. This entrepreneur thing doesn’t know time or sympathy, and makes you feel like you don’t actually have any of the independence you sought. I had to learn that I am the boss, and I could give myself a break when I needed it. Much easier said than done, but pouring from an empty cup never really worked for me.
I am a partner, a mom, and a homeowner, all of which need a lot of attention, and time, and make me a better entrepreneur when I can strike a balance. When I don’t make time for myself, everyone and everything else is a domino waiting to be knocked. This meant that inevitably, my insistence on taking care of myself was a result of needing to be able to show up for everyone else, which I wasn’t equipped for with three hours of sleep and no exercise.
Q: What’s the biggest misconception that others have around entrepreneurship?
A: The biggest misconception I’ve seen is in people's assumption that they are better off in their corporate position because it is more secure and less scary. Last time I checked, being at a corporate company with a consistent paycheck today does not protect you from layoffs, reorganization, change in management and comp structure, stock price plummets, mergers and acquisitions, etc. Working for a larger company holds so many things completely outside of your control that I have trouble finding any legitimacy in that argument, especially for underrepresented genders, abilities, and racial identities.
Q: Have you struggled with self doubt as an entrepreneur? How do you navigate this?
A: All. The. Time.
Am I doing the right thing? Is this really how I should be focusing my time? Where is the next project or contract going to come from? Will it ever close? What if they say no? Do I really want to work with this client or am I just doing it for the money? Will I even make money from this project? Should I just look for a full-time job? WTF do I think I’m doing?
These doubting questions are running through my mind all day, every day, but ultimately the answer is always within a pause and reflection. With as little as a walk outside or phone call to a friend, I can usually find the perspective I need to remember my gratitude for what I’ve built, and how I would not be able to do this if I had continued on my previous path, and to continue listening to my instinct.
What specifically determines these moments of doubt is how I talk to myself. We can be so very unrelentingly to ourselves and say things we would never say to someone we cared about. So, if I care about my business, the people who work for me, my family and partner, it is my responsibility to treat myself with the same level of respect.
Two specific loyalties allow me to persist. First, the responsibility I feel to everyone around me who I don’t want to let down. All those people who are cheering me on, and those for whom I’m setting an example. Second, the loyalty I feel to my ancestors; those who were enslaved and who survived the Jim Crow era. My day-to-day problems are nothing compared to what was endured before me, to the extent that their wildest imagination couldn’t envision the freedoms and privileges I have today. I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to that legacy of strength, determination, and unwillingness to give up. Without their fight, I wouldn’t be where I am today, and I refuse to let them down by not working as hard as I can to make them proud.
Q: We dare you to brag: What achievements are you most proud of?
A: I was the first Black people manager at a startup that went public in 2012, where I was the third Black employee hired. I was the first and only Black people manager at another Silicon Valley startup that also went public. I was the first Black female sales leader at a third company, one of only two Black directors, with whom I was mistaken for constantly even though we look nothing alike.
While these can seem like achievements, I didn’t realize how important these firsts and onlys were for the first 10 years of my career. It was until then I didn’t speak up when something offensive was said or happened. I simply kept my head down in order to keep my job, prove success, and not let anyone pin me as the ‘Angry Black Woman.’
I didn’t realize that people were watching and rooting for me, that some people were emulating and aspiring, and others were feeling like they now too had a place because they could see themselves reflected in leadership. It was a decade of walking into rooms as one person, ignoring the fact that I represented 10,000 other underrepresented identities who didn’t have a seat at the table.
When I decided to finally lean into my privilege of power and title, I realized how much of an impact I could have on the access to promotion for other women and people of color who worked for me. More than any bonus, IPO, or milestone, seeing my people promoted and or getting the job they want are the highlights of my career.
Q: What’s next for you and your company?
A: For the Race Equ(al)ity Project, we are kicking off our second Race Equ(al)ity Index and are inviting at least 20 companies to use our index to benchmark their practices. With this second round, we’ll begin to even better understand the gaps and opportunities for our industry to become more inclusive.
Mandy is a member of Dreamers & Doers, a private collective that amplifies the entrepreneurial pursuits of extraordinary women through thought leadership opportunities, authentic connection, and access. Learn more about Dreamers & Doers and subscribe to their monthly The Digest for top entrepreneurial and career resources.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.