Tell me a bit about your early years and where you come from.
Sure. I’m originally from Oakland, California. It’s going through an interesting renaissance and interesting change right now, which is quite interesting to witness. I should also say, I come from a pretty famous lineage in history. My great-grandmother is Mary McLeod Bethune. It’s something that means a lot to me. It means a lot to the legacy to live for. She did a lot for bringing opportunity for black people, at a really important time in history, to allow them to have access to education, to be a role model, to really push down doors. It’s inspiring. It’s inspiring every time I see her face, every time I hear someone say my name or recognize my name. It makes me want to strive for something more for myself, and try to fill the shoes as best as I can.
It’s something that my parents also always instilled in me, to believe in myself the value of education and value opportunity and try to also give back. It’s a running theme throughout my whole family to really lift others, and to also respect those that come before you, and to lead by example. And to have integrity for yourself. And to always know that your actions and the things that you do are being viewed. And that you need to represent yourself – have respect for yourself and have respect for your family in a way that other people can see that and respect that. So that’s really big.
As far as just growing up in Oakland – it’s been awesome. It’s interesting, I think– I have a lot of pride for my city and I’ve seen its pain. I might not totally understand everyone’s perspective or what they are going through in Oakland. I think there are struggles that I can never, ever understand. But the most that I can do is to respect them and not judge them for whatever someone’s experience is growing up in Oakland. Traditionally, there has been a lot of violence that has created a dark cloud over Oakland, and it’s always been in San Francisco’s shadow. And it’s interesting to see the change in people’s perspective of the city. Before people would say, “Oh, you’re from Oakland? What’s that like?” And now you hear people brag about the city and being excited about the opportunity to move there and what’s to come. I can walk around on the weekend and spot people who have just moved to Oakland because of that. It’s frustrating in talking about gentrification because some days I feel certain ways about it and some days I don’t know really how to feel about it. I think it’s good to see money flowing into the city and I think it’s good to see businesses booming and people out enjoying themselves. I do worry a little bit about how new businesses will shape communities and shape people.
I think big businesses that are looking to move their headquarters to Oakland have a responsibility to reignite the communities and really draw them in, inspire them and bring them up. At the same time, there are people who haven’t been through Oakland’s bad times to respect the good things that are happening, and I think that is what is frustrating at times for me.
For example, they weren’t here when the murder rate was crazy. They weren’t here when we had the Festival at the Lake that got shut down due to violence. They weren’t here when Downtown Oakland was a barren wasteland and one of the only things we had for entertainment was the Jack London theatre. So it is frustrating for me when people are quick to toss around a lot of recommendations for Oakland, when they don’t have the full context. I feel like it’s my duty to stand up to make sure that people who’ve been here for a long time, give Oakland an authentic voice to what’s happening. That’s exciting to be a part of, and I know there are a lot of people in my community that are doing a really cool work.
I didn’t even think that I would end up work in Silicon Valley, because when I was growing up it was always in the South Bay. It was close, but it was far in that, it wasn’t part of my community. Unlike today, there was no close connection that smartphone apps bring to one’s experience. I remember America Online, I remember dial-up, I remember chat rooms, and that was pretty much the extent of how internet controlled my life. I remember going to friend’s house and saying, “Hey, let’s get in chat rooms.” The internet was not an integral component in our daily interactions but rather was something you could use for fun at the end of the day, sort of like how video games are now. I never thought that I would work in it or be this invested in wanting to see things happen in tech now that I am older.
Now that you’re in it. What are the most exciting things about it for you? What about your work really activates you?
I’m really fortunate and blessed to be able to do the work that I do because it’s so impactful and on the cutting edge of changing the diversity narrative in the valley. I remember before I actually got into diversity work, I had a lot of apprehension about getting involved. Prior to my current role, I had been working in business development and sales roles. Diversity was something that I fell into. When I first got to Dropbox, I noticed a significant lack of diversity. I remember thinking “There aren’t that many faces that look like me. What can I do to just improve that?” Because working on diversity initiatives was not my full time job, it was not my main priority. I just thought, maybe I can do something on the side to contribute. I remember when I was considering working in Diversity I talked to a good friend of mine and she said, “Why would you do that?” Like, “Why would you go into diversity?” She was like, “There are already enough Black people working in diversity in Tech,” I thought about that, she further explained “We need people like you inside the room, not outside the room.”
This resonated with me because I knew what she meant. Currently, there are a lot of people talking about diversity and inclusion offering suggestions as to what needs to happen. I believe there are great organizations and programs that are pushing diversity conversations and igniting youth to see the importance of studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. For someone who works in Diversity on the company side, I face very different issues than those being talked about on the outside. I have very real conversations around changing the mindsets of my fellow employees. How do you help shape the minds of an engineering team that only has one woman on it? How do you get people to understand the importance of recruiting from different schools? These conversations are more personal and intense. Personally, I was really apprehensive about switching roles and getting into diversity because it seemed like something many black people were already advocating for. I figured I should stay in a business role because many black people already hold diversity positions in tech companies. To me it seemed there were enough people talking about it and I needed to stay on the side where I can maybe have a narrative from inside the room as opposed to outside.
In addition I was fearful that people would think that I’m not qualified as a business professional anymore. I feared people thinking that because I was in diversity I could no longer be a good salesperson or a good account manager. I ultimately came to the conclusion that since I started in those roles I would just bring that skill set toward influencing and changing people while pushing a diversity agenda inside my company. It was definitely something I wrestled with for awhile in deciding if I should do it.
That’s so interesting. You’re the first person to bring up the idea that there might be a stigma around diversity positions.
I want to make sure we are having healthy conversations and perspectives from inside of tech companies along with conversations outside. I think the diversity issues that people talk about who don’t work for tech companies is much different than an inside perspective. We need to make sure we see more press around the internal diversity work because it’s very, very difficult work, that a lot of people don’t get credit for pushing agenda for change.
Have you learned things that were not even on your radar in terms of diversities since you started this position?
Yeah. I’ve learned about ways to suggest things, and how you need to approach certain problems with suggestions. When you want to recommend something, or you want to recommend a change, at most places there’s a system in place to do so. I have learned the importance of having internal allies. I have also learned the importance of making sure that you have clear objectives on what it is that you want to see change, and what it is you want to see impacted. It’s important to try to get people on your side before taking a strategic plan to a higher-level executive that has influence. Our head of Diversity, my boss, Judith Williams, has done a really good job of helping me to prioritize my thoughts and suggestions, and how I need to be strategic about recommending certain ideas. Most importantly there are ideas and suggestions that need to be introduced with strategic timing for optimal impact.
It’s amazing how much it all boils on the politics and timing.
We don’t have a lot of politics at Dropbox. I believe there’s much more politics at larger tech companies as oppose to Dropbox, but it’s definitely everywhere. We’re a data focused company, so we like to see decisions made on data. Sometimes effective decisions can be made based on data. I would argue that there are some decisions that need to be made based on the foundation of being the “right thing” to do. You cannot always see the moral “right thing to do” derived from data. It’s challenging when you’re working with people who might see data in a very black and white way, it’s important to help them see past the data and consider the bigger picture.
What has it been like straddling the worlds of being a techie and being a local?
That’s a good question. Being a techie and being a local. I think a lot of times it’s when I introduce myself maybe out at a restaurant or at a bar somewhere, and someone asks, “hey, what do you do?” and I say, “I work for Dropbox”. Often the first response I hear people say is, “oh, so you’re the one driving up the rent price. Oh, you’re the ones that are gentrifying neighborhoods. Oh, you’re the one—is a very common response I hear from people. — The blame is always put on people that work in tech companies and people are always pointing the finger like you’re the problem, you’re doing this. Luckily I am from Oakland. That’s when I really like to start talking about what things were like before all of this change. I definitely fight back with saying, “Hey, you know, tech companies do a lot of positive things as well, and they do have impact on people’s lives in a way that I think is positive. And they definitely have impacted the city positively in certain ways.” I remind people that all of this change comes with big responsibility that I think everyone needs to get better at. It is hard. It’s definitely hard to talk about it, but I’m pretty stern with how I feel about the area changing being a local and defending the responsibility of tech companies, but also defending how far the city has come. It’s important to make sure people understand–what Oakland was like in the past. Understand that there was not a lot thriving business like you see now. Painting this picture of what Oakland was like in the past helps to give context for people who are new to the city. Hopefully we can just work on bringing balance together so that people do feel empowered from all avenues. I can speak mostly about Oakland just because I’m always there and I speak to a lot of people who live there and I see a lot of the changes. I’m more concerned with figuring out how tech companies can help to empower the community. How can we bridge communities and tech companies? What can tech companies do? How can we help out? I think there is a lot more communication that needs to happen.
Totally. We’ve touched on this a bit but feel free to expand: what are the biggest motivators? What drives you?
What drives me is one day to see a startup founder that is black that goes on to create a unicorn tech company that changes the world where everyone respects that person enough to have a voice of influence in the industry and the world. I believe that day is coming. Do I think that all the problems within diversity in technology will be solved when that happens? No. But I do think that– The moment this person can get the respect, and people sit back and say, “Wow, I can’t believe a black person started this tech company and has thousands of people working for them, with people rallied behind a culture.” I’ve seen what this looks like first hand. I’ve seen start up founders create a company like Dropbox, and this massive adoption and respect for a common vision. They have done such a good job of bringing in great people who help build their product up, and understand what it means to be a part of Dropbox and to live that culture. I would love to see the same thing replicated by someone who is ethnically diverse.
Yeah. For those who just may not know, tell me about how having diverse perspectives at your company are beneficial in building a global product.
It’s huge, right? It’s huge because so many people use Dropbox in so many different ways. You could have the kid in the basement of their mom’s house producing music and saving their files in Dropbox. On the flip side you could have the design team for Vera Wang designing the next spring collection saving files to Dropbox. The parallels are crazy, diversity in a sense tells a story of the Dropbox product because so many different people who speak so many different languages in so many different parts of the world use it. It almost goes without saying – the importance of having a diverse workforce to represent the diverse use is quite apparent.
It’s really impactful and empowering to hear stories of people who use Dropbox in so many different ways. If we’re going to do anything about making their lives better which is our main goal, then we have to have a diverse workforce to represent these different people and how they interact with technology
I’m curious just how your experience has been personally as a black man in tech?
At Dropbox, we value intellect very much. And it’s a real core value of Dropbox. We seek out the best. I knew when I got hired at Dropbox that I belonged there because I knew they respected my intellect. I knew they respected my experience, and where I came from, and what I could bring to the table. I knew that’s how I was accurately judged and I never felt anything different than that. I’m passionate and I’m proud to say that because that’s just what makes our culture so unique. I think every black person working still has certain stereotypes that they hold on to just based on how they were raised. For example, the perception someone might have about me coming in late to work. Do they think I’m not working hard enough? If I take too long of a lunch break, do they think I’m not working hard enough? This is not about anything someone has done to me. These are subconscious feelings I have in myself and I’m sure other black people might have in a working environment. That general feeling — I don’t want them to think that I’m not working hard enough. That’s pressure I’ve put on myself, but I try to combat that by being as transparent as possible all the time. And that just might be something that I feel I need to do in order to make myself feel comfortable, but I definitely don’t connect it to my company. It’s more of just the pressures of stereotypes you might have heard over the years. These are jokes comedians make and things you see in the movies, off the cuff remarks. Years and years of these perceptions weigh on you. I just hope that nobody perceives me that way, so it’s always in the back of my mind, but it’s not ever really from somebody making me feel that way. It’s just more of perception of myself, but it’s something you have to live with, just understanding this is the world we live in. I’m fortunate to always have had great managers who have supported me, respected me, empower me, and made me feel good about myself. That’s one thing that I’m fortunate and blessed to have had gained over the years. Quite frankly, to be able to do that I’m doing right now, is a proven testament to Dropbox wanting to empower me. I wanted to work full time in diversity and I was asked to be on this team. I was asked by our Head of HR Arden Hoffman, “Hey, you know Justin, you’ve done some amazing things here, and we love what you do, and we want you to work really closely with our new Head of Diversity, and want you to be on our team.” I couldn’t have asked for more support and opportunity then that.
Yeah. for sure. Where do you find your support networks?
I found my support networks in other people in tech. I think you have to go find them. I’m a serial networker and always make contacts outside of my company. I actually co-founded the Black Dropboxers Employee Resource Group at Dropbox. This helped with creating internal support networks for other black employees. On the outside, I try to go to as many events as I can, and participate whenever possible. Any networking event, I try to go to. I think it’s pretty easy to connect that way with people that way.
How do your friends and family that you grew up with feel about the work that you’ve done?
I think my parents are really proud of me. They’re happy to see me in a position where I can have influence within the industry. They have seen the development from when pressure started from Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition about tech companies disclosing diversity numbers. They then started to have like I was saying earlier longer term story type connotation to it. In that, because tech is so influential and is such a dominant force in the way that people communicate this days. If I can have an impact on the youth, and I have an impact on people changing the way things can happen. My parents, my friends are super supportive and I always feel that they appreciate the work they– it’s always good because they want me to remind them to always keep it real. Also, sometimes have hard conversation with people when I need to have them with people about what I feel about certain things. Just in life generally whenever those teachable moments come around that you’re never to good to tell somebody that something might be offensive, or this hurt somebody’s feelings, or stand up for somebody. I think that’s the biggest thing that I feel empowered to be able to know where I come from, and know what I represent in order to do that effectively when the time comes. My parents are super proud of me and the work. I’m fortunate enough to be a part of– at Dropbox I created something called the– so we have this hack week. So every year for a week you can work on anything you want. And I created this thing called the Dream Code Tour and I go and I speak to different students around the Bay Area about why they should even think about technology, the impact that technology has on their lives, some of the work that I do. And my company got behind me there and supported me. And so I’m just fortunate to be in a place where I can really impact and have a voice. And I know I try to give back to my community and the people around me all the time.
Yeah. We’ve touched on this a little bit, but how do you think your background and life experiences – like where you’re from, your family history, your previous work – how do you think all of that impacts the way that you work now?
Tremendously. In that I think growing up between Oakland and Berkeley I had a very very diverse group of friends growing up. I had black friends. I had white friends. I had Filipino friends. I had Mexican friends. I had Japanese friends. I’m just fortunate to be able to grow up in an area where my communities represent that. That means a lot because I think I was introduced to a lot of culture earlier in my life about the way people live, whether it be going over to my Korean friend house, and having dinner with his family in the 7th grade, or going over to my white friend’s family. I think it shaped a lot about understanding how to respect culture, how to respect where people come from, other values, and I’m blessed to be able to do that. I think the way that that’s impactful to my work, is because I feel like I can come from a pretty cultured background to be able to talk about why things are important and relate. Sometimes, I think in telling stories and getting people to understand how people are feeling, they need to have a relatable story in their own culture that they can relate to. Sometimes I try to bridge that gap and sometimes I try to share, hey, this is how their feeling, this is how you might be able to understand it, also. I think it’s tremendous in how it shaped me in being able to talk to people, to understand people, to relate to people. It’s just growing up in Oakland, growing up and going to diverse schools, and having diverse friends. It’s just tremendous because it has really shaped I think a lot about what I understand.
Let’s go macro for a second. How do you feel about the state of tech in 2016? What’s really exciting to you about it and what’s really frustrating to you about it? What would you like to see change?
Oh man! Jeez, what a question. What would I like to see change? Let me answer what I would like to see change first. I would like to see a lot more people of color in executive leadership roles in tech companies is what I would really like to see. This is a thing where there’s really kind of no excuse because you can look at a lot of – outside of tech – very successful black people who are doing a lot of successful things. Legitimately corporate America, whether that be in law and medicine and just business in general, there’s representation at the top. Not as great as I’d like to see, but there’s a lot more representation at the top outside of tech than there is inside of tech. I think when we’re talking about technology and you have the engineering side and you have the business side, I definitely think there needs to be a lot more of an aggressive push to get those leaders on the business side into technology that come from the industry outside of it – to really influence that. Because I think when you’re talking about this diversity issue, everything really comes down from the top. As long as you have people who are planning in that seat and people who care at those levels, it will trickle down. That’s what I would really like to see happen a lot more, and I really don’t think that there’s much excuse for it just because– people poach talent and pull talent from all over the place, so every tech company should be really aggressive about getting that senior leadership on business sites and business roles for sure. I think it will be a little harder on the inside just because there’s not as many people of color that have been doing engineer for a long time, but for the first part, for sure on the business site.
I also think what’s exciting is having people like you do this type of a project personally. I think there’s a lot of dialogue right now, and I think that’s great. I think the dialogue is really opening people’s eyes to what needs to happen, and it needs to continue and it needs to grow even more. I remember I was watching the Crunchies this year, and I saw what Slack did – when they were presented the ‘Startup of the Year’ award – they had like three black woman engineers go up and accept the award. That’s big. They actually had the first diversity category this year in the award ceremony. That’s big too. Slowly more and more, I feel like the message is getting out there. I’m good friends with Brandon Nicholson the Executive Director at the Hidden Genius Project. For them to win the Google Foundation grant was very big for them. At Dropbox, we were also able to donate some money for their cause. Programs like that are starting to get recognition, which is also very important. I think we need stronger voices in the entertainment business. That is a very strong platform for influential voices to discuss diversity. I’m friends with Ryan Coogler, we went to high school together. He is doing a phenomenal job using his platform to really promote amazing change and dialogue. I think the connection between entertainment and tech is very big, and it’s starting to fuse together which is great. Also, being from Oakland and having a lot of civic pride, I’m very proud of Marshawn Lynch for giving back so much to his community and the overall community of Oakland. I respect him for being true to what he believes in. I think he embodies what it means to be from Oakland, and he embodies what it means to give back. He cares so much about the community, and he cares so much about the youth. We need people like him who have been successful. I think there are a lot of different messages that students and youth need to hear. Understanding the dedication that is required to play sports, to understand what it means to have different avenues in things you can do. How come you can’t be a football player and be a good coder? All of these things are great narratives for the conversation around the excitement of what’s happening. Art is another intersection with Tech where a lot of exciting things are happening and I’m happy to see that.
Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years?
Wow, it’s a good question [laughter] I’m also a pilot. I started flying when I was about 17. Aviation is a big part of my life. [laughter] it’s funny when I have hard days I think to myself, maybe I should just go be a commercial pilot. At the same time I really like learning and inspiring. I’m learning a lot, and I have an opportunity that many people don’t have and I’m fortunate. We’re doing some great work on my team at Dropbox. When it’s all said and done, I think I’m going to have a lot to share and a lot to give back and a lot to influence. I’d love to be in a position where I can consult people. I’ve been thinking of actually starting up a podcast around diversity. I have a lot of things to say. I would love to be recognized as someone who has a valuable perspective. I’d like to speak more openly about my perspective because I get frustrated with outside narratives at times. If it all goes south, I guess flying planes wouldn’t be the worse thing. I also want to teach young black kids how to fly.
My last question for you would be, what advice would you have people of color, who are really interested in tech and hoping they get into it, but don’t know what to do.
That’s a good question. There are some amazing programs that target students of color looking to get into tech. Programs like: The Hidden Genius Project, Black Girls Code and Hack the Hood are great. I definitely think the support is there and it’s growing. There are a lot of online resources to learn more about programming, but at the same time if you don’t have resources it becomes hard. That’s the reason why it’s so important for me and others that work in tech to talk to students. Many students are not aware of what to do, and how to approach things. People need a network. They need a strong network of people that work in the industry. I’m working with a close friend in San Diego, and we are speaking to high school students about careers in general. He and I both agree that the best way that students can be prepared is to have a network of experienced mentors that they can rely on, and ask questions. If someone is interested in a profession where do they start? If you are interested in architecture, or art, or want to be a pilot, or a nurse, or a doctor, how do you even map out what road to take? What should you study in school? What should you think about studying? How can the work you’re doing right now relate? There’s a need for a program to link this questions many young students have. It’s frustrating that … I wish I could tell a very, “This is what they could do.” I really don’t … It’s a much bigger issue than, “Okay, just do this.” Everyone comes from different backgrounds, too, so that might sound quite easy to one person, but another person might be like, “Hey, I don’t even have a computer, so how am I supposed to do that?”