Founder Focus is a “Humans of New York” style spotlight on the human stories behind diverse startup founders, their life experiences and perspectives, the origin stories of their startups, and the path they took to where they are today.
As acting CEO for Code2040, Mimi Fox Melton has been instrumental in expanding Code2040 from serving as a bridge into high-tech industries for Black and Latinx people to organizing and supporting the overall changes necessary to dismantle racialized systems and ensure racial equity in the innovation economy. Her work is focused on all aspects of tech companies, from their operations and products to their corporate cultures, and how those aspects impact Black and Latinx workers and their communities. Her areas of expertise include coaching external staff, tech industry executives, and managers while overseeing the operations of Code2040, including designing curriculum and facilitating learning experiences.
This episode features Mimi Fox Melton, General Manager, CEO, Code2040
Hello, everyone. Welcome to another episode of Founder Focus. I'm your host, Jade Wang, and I run Cloudflare's startup program.
Today, our guest is Mimi Fox Melton, the CEO of Code2040.
Welcome to the show, Mimi. Thanks, Jade. It's great to be here.
Thanks for joining us. So very briefly, for people who aren't familiar with what Code2040 is, can you explain to them Code2040 and its mission?
Yeah. So Code2040 is a nonprofit that's based in the Bay Area, but operates programs nationally.
And we are on a mission to activate, connect, and mobilize the largest racial equity community in tech.
Our focus is really about identifying and dismantling the structural barriers to success for Black and Latinx people, both getting into and staying in the tech industry.
Can you tell us the story of how Code2040 began and the meaning behind the name?
Yeah. So back in 2012, our co -founder, Tristan Walker, had been in tech as a Black man and was super struck by how white it was, how homogenous the industry really was.
And so he had gone to business school with our other co-founder, Laura Weidman Powers, and he approached her and pitched her on starting an organization that focused on helping Black and Latinx people get into tech, particularly to get into engineering.
And their theory of change was that engineering is the power center of tech companies.
And so if we can diversify engineering with Black and Latinx folks, then it will be sort of like the rising tide lifts all boats, and it will be easier to not only help diversify tech companies at large, but to impact the products that engineering departments typically have control over.
And so they started off with a summer internship for Black and Latinx computer science majors, so college students who were studying computer science.
And they approached five tech companies and said, if we can source a super talented Black or Latinx CS major, would you hire them for the summer?
And so that's how Code2040 started with five summer interns.
And really at the time, the prevailing argument was that tech was a meritocracy, essentially that it was colorblind.
And so if it was lacking diversity, then it was because Black and Latinx people either weren't skilled enough to get into tech, i.e.
didn't have the merit, or weren't graduating with computer science degrees.
And of course, we know now that those are fundamentally racist and victim-blaming arguments as to why tech lacks diversity, but it was really like the standard analysis at the time.
And when Laura and Tristan looked towards the future of the U.S., it was known at the time that around the year 2040, there was going to be a demographic shift where the U.S.
was going to become majority people of color.
And at the same time, tech was approaching 2020 last year, where it was anticipated that 70% of tech jobs were going to be unfilled.
And so we have this growth increase in Black and Brown people.
Tech is struggling to hire folks, but there are a significant percentage of Black and Latinx people graduating with computer science degrees every year go on hired by the tech industry.
And so we wanted to help bridge the gap between and help our economy really get ready for this demographic shift that's coming.
So for our viewers who are working at all different tech industry jobs, is it HR departments who work with Code 2040 to do the placements?
Is it hiring managers directly? How do you work with companies?
Yeah, so we do direct service programs like the Fellows Program that we still run, the summer internship program for Black and Latinx CS majors.
But we also do anti-racist manager trainings.
We do programs that build community for Black and Latinx engineers who are in full-time roles and really helping connect them to each other around the industry.
And so our work is really through those different initiatives, we learn what are the challenges to recruitment, retention, and advancement for Black and Latinx people in the tech industry.
And we create programs and partnerships in order to address those barriers as we see them.
And those barriers are often systemic, right? Which means that we almost don't need racist people or bad actors anymore to uphold the systems that keep us out because they're built into the way things work.
And an example of this is when it came out recently that Google had a ranking system for universities where certain universities were top ranked and universities that serve Black or Latinx folks were ranked lowest.
So HBCUs didn't actually even make it onto the ranking system.
And so that is a system that has majority White universities at the top and majority Black and Brown universities at the bottom.
And so that's where we see systemic racism. And so companies will approach us and will start just with a conversation to say, what are your racial equity goals?
What are your diversity goals? What have you been working on? What are folks excited about?
And then we try to tailor our partnership to the things that are really important to them.
And so sometimes that's recruiting entry-level talent.
Sometimes that's recruiting mid -level or senior talent. Sometimes that's just making relationships with the community and being of service.
And so many companies we work with for years at a time and we try different things and they have programs they love and stick with or sort of explore.
And sometimes companies will just come and work with us for a short amount of time.
But there are a lot of opportunities to partner with us or with other organizations like that are in our coalition.
And so we try to really customize the relationship. That's fantastic.
So if a company, if someone who is watching right now is a hiring manager and they have a diversity and they're working at a company that has some diversity goals, can they give a job posting to you to distribute in the alumni network?
What is their next action item? Yeah, it's a really good question. So their next action item would be to either email us at info at code2040.org or fill out the partnerships form on our website, which is code2040.org.
And then we set up time to chat and to talk about what they're interested in.
We don't sort of take job descriptions and share them out because it's really important to us that we are not serving as like a recruitment firm.
We're not a recruitment firm for Black and Latinx people.
Our work, our focus, what we believe is actually going to change systemic racism within tech companies is to have deep partnerships where we're creating a relationship with companies.
And so through participation in our fellows program, for example, we collect thousands of data points throughout the summer and we aggregate those data and pattern spot and we share them back with a company that we're partnering with.
And so we, and then we offer coaching to talk through this is what we see in the data.
These are the places where you may really have retention challenges based on what our fellows have spotted and shared.
And then we can connect them with resources to address those barriers if they want.
But it's sort of a more long-term and in-depth partnership because change is slow, right?
Change takes a while for companies, especially of this magnitude.
And so we are really looking to invest, have a mutual investment in each other rather than like a transactional relationship.
So let's talk a little bit, let's dig a little deeper into retention and career advancement.
It sounds like, so if, I'm going to paraphrase you a little bit, that it sounds like you're helping companies find the blind spots where they are having retention issues.
Do you find that many different companies share similar blind spots to each other?
And can you tell us a little bit about what some of those are? Sure.
That's a great question. There was a survey put out a couple of years ago by the Kapor Center.
It's called the Tech Leavers Survey. And they interviewed, I think it's a couple of thousand folks in the industry.
And what they found is that something like 70% of people of color are leaving tech within three years, not leaving their company, leaving tech.
And that amounts to a $16 billion a year problem for tech companies.
So retention is a huge, huge issue that companies are facing.
A lot of companies are putting time and energy into recruiting and hiring in Black and Latinx, indigenous people, even white women.
But they're not doing a corresponding work on culture change and changes to what management looks like and what's expected of folks who work there.
And so it's really a revolving door. What are some of the action items that companies can do to sort of examine how they can improve their retention?
I mean, if someone is leaving an entire industry and not just a company, it seems like maybe some of their experiences aren't just with their coworkers, but also with other people in the industries, whether it's like at networking events or other kinds of interactions with clients or customers or other folks.
Can you tell us a little bit more about that? Yeah, I think it's pretty tricky because the best way to understand what's happening for the folks that work at your organization is to ask them.
However, there's a financial disincentive sometimes for folks to being honest about what they're experiencing at work, because oftentimes companies don't have enough of a Black or Latinx population for surveys to be truly anonymous.
And so there's always this risk assessment of if I'm honest and share the way I'm treated on my team or the challenges I'm having with my manager, am I in danger of being pushed out because I've been identified?
And so it's almost a paradox, right? Like a paradoxical. However, I have seen, we have seen companies offer incentives for folks to share their experiences in an anonymous way.
And I always recommend to companies that if you are collecting information on the employee experience, that you segment it by race and gender.
So companies that are 95% men, white men might say, people love working here.
It's great. But then if you segment the data out to Black people only, suddenly the experience at work may decline, right?
And a lot of folks in the last year have heard the term, listen to Black women, listen to Black people.
And I truly, truly believe that if companies, if we really look at what folks are asking for, what is going to contribute to a really positive work experience, they're often attainable and affordable and really worth the effort.
So I encourage companies to take a hard look and really try to do what's being asked.
It sounds like when you say, you know, employee experience and breaking it down by demographics, it sounds like, you know, something like manager feedback might also make sense in that regard because someone could be a, you know, an otherwise reasonable manager to lots of, to many of their employees who aren't minorities and still, and, you know, completely overlook the points of view of some of the others.
Yeah. So another statistic is that about seven, it was 70, but I think it's about 75 now, 75% of white people have all white social networks.
Meaning, and the implication of this is that three quarters of white people in the workplace don't have meaningful relationships with non-white people, which means that the data that they're getting about Black and Latinx culture is likely from TV, movies, music.
And not lived experiences of their workers. Yes. And they're, it's, they're not, it's not nuanced.
It's not holistic, right? These are sort of often stereotypes and tropes.
And so then we have managers who have, don't know a person of color and now are being asked to manage a person from likely a very different culture, but the manager only has a white lens.
So manager training is critical. And we do an anti-racist manager training at Code 2040, which really helps people get started on understanding how, how the default way that the workplace operates is the, what we think of as professional, professionalism is actually by default, a white way of operating.
So companies have almost exclusively a white culture. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Like what does that mean? Yeah. There's a really great article called the tenets of white supremacy by Tema Okun that lists out the ways that white supremacy shows up in the workplace.
And usually, and some of them are either or thinking, sense of urgency, default to the written word.
There are, so there are ways that really have been sort of enshrined in what high performing workplaces are supposed to look like that are actually really toxic.
And we, it's sort of like the fish that doesn't know that it's in water because we've all come up through those workplaces and learned the best practices that actually are harmful to black and brown people.
And so what, a part of our work is helping folks deprogram a little bit and to see, oh my gosh, you know, when I tone police, right?
So if my black colleague comes to give me feedback and I tell them that I can't hear your feedback because you're upset.
So until you're calm, I can't listen.
That is a really common way of silencing, particularly black women, but often people of color.
And what I think that's truly based in is different communication norms and willingness, different relationships to conflict between black community, Latinx community and white community.
But at work, we see that as professional or unprofessional.
And so the way that maybe I communicate with my family, which is really straightforward and willingness to disagree can be seen as unprofessional or aggressive in the workplace.
And because white culture is what is accepted and is considered default, I either have to assimilate or I'm not going to be successful.
It sounds like there are a lot of unwritten rules that people absorb by growing up around it or having parents or people in their networks sort of tell them unwritten rules.
And I know that when my parents came to the U.S., there were a lot of unwritten rules in the workplace that they struggled with just in terms of things that are sort of lost in translation or a cultural mismatch.
Do you find that a lot of it is just this sort of amorphous, nobody told you it wasn't supposed to work that way, so you did things the way that you thought they were supposed to work and somehow that doesn't work correctly?
Yeah, totally. And so that's one suggestion that I have is to make the implicit explicit.
So it could be as simple as do meetings start on time or do meetings start five minutes late at this organization?
Because someone, and this could be for anyone, right, who's new to a company and meetings start on time.
If you're on time, you're late.
But they're coming from a place where people kind of trickle in in the first five minutes.
So in the first couple of days, they're five minutes late to every meeting and suddenly they may be seen as not a culture fit or not a values match or, you know, even worse, like lazy or unprofessional.
And so making, trying to see the places where, oh yeah, we do things this way and we think it's the only way to do things.
Maybe it's not, but in the meantime, let's just try to name what those things are and make sure that everyone who works here has equal access to that data.
Because often what happens is the white folks within an organization are networked.
They have been in community together elsewhere.
And so they're sharing data with each other on, hey, what are you doing?
We got to go to this meeting. Let's go. You're going to be late, you know, but newcomers to the country, the industry, or the company may not have that access to information.
And so how do we sort of democratize information about the culture that folks are getting into and what the expectations are?
So I want to take a little bit of time to shine the spotlight on your own personal story and the journey that you've taken to get to this point.
And before we went live, you had mentioned things about how, you know, in that journey, you learned how to be a better manager and leader.
And I think, you know, that segues really greatly into something that all our viewers can learn from.
Can you tell us about your journey? Yeah. So when I joined Code2040, which was about six years ago now, I had come from government and politics and places that were really steeped in white supremacy.
And the white culture was the status quo in most places.
And we had pretty strict understandings of what was professional and what was acceptable at work.
And Carla, who was my predecessor and the person who hired me at Code2040, she and I really wanted to create something different.
We wanted to create a place where people who were coming to work at Code2040 weren't required to check their experiences as a human at the door.
They weren't required to assimilate, that folks didn't have to code switch in order to be seen as smart and, you know, thoughtful contributing member of the team.
And that was a challenge, even at a place that was majority people of color, because all of us had come from workplaces where we were expected to adhere to sort of the standards of professionalism that had been set for all of us.
And for me personally, a big part of my journey was learning about anti-Blackness, learning about how internalized anti-Blackness and internalized white supremacy, which typically, for folks who are unfamiliar with those terms, means because I've been in, grown up in a company, in a culture and a country where there is a hierarchy of skin color with white at the top and Black at the bottom, I have taken in messages my whole life around my worth and what it means to be Black.
And so I internalized those in ways I didn't even know and treated other people with anti-Blackness, right?
So there's a difference between racism and anti-Blackness.
As a Black person, I cannot be racist because I do not have power in society, but I can certainly move in anti-Blackness and white supremacy.
Anyway, so I think that the key for me was it was a lot of learning, a lot of personal learning that didn't necessarily happen at work.
Seeing the places where, you know, if a staff member gives me feedback and I feel defensive, like being curious about why is that defensiveness coming up?
Is it the way that they said it to me?
Is it the, what am I receiving that is causing me to feel these feelings? And rather than externalizing it and saying, well, you should say it differently or, you know, pointing the lens inward.
And in the last year after the murder of George Floyd, a lot of folks, non-Black people started to do the work around seeing where white supremacy was showing up in their families and in their management and took a lot of time and a lot of investment from other people.
But creating a culture at Code2040 where we really give each other feedback, hard feedback, and we're not afraid to be in conflict together has meant that the feedback I get as a manager is so rich and so nuanced.
And along the way, I've developed the tools to be able to receive that feedback and know that it's not reflecting on me as unworthy or not good enough as a manager, right?
But that it's a gift that folks are giving me. And that has made, that has improved my ability to manage others and to really invest in my direct reports in ways that I'm super proud of.
You feel that there are sort of, there's advice for non -majority managers that, you know, applies differently depending on the kinds of team that you have?
Can you phrase that? An underrepresented demographic manager.
Is there, you know, some, a manager who is not a white male?
Like are there, are there, is there, is the advice different for an underrepresented manager versus?
Let's see. I think that there is a, with white folks, there's a responsibility to do this work.
I really don't believe that it's optional.
I think that for folks of color, particularly folks who are severely underrepresented in tech, that it's important that we invite them, offer them agency, you know?
And personally, I believe that unpacking anti-Blackness and internalized white supremacy is a really rewarding practice and is freeing.
And some of us don't have, you know, parents that can pay our rent if we lose our job or we don't have a home that's paid off.
And so I really always encourage managers of color to do an honest, honest risk assessment for themselves.
How much risk are you able to take on at the workplace? How much of a target on your back are you able to stand?
And then act accordingly. But the work of, of the internal work on racism can always be an internal process if that's what you choose, you know?
So I think it's rewarding no matter what. But at the end of the day, we've seen many people of color get pushed out of tech companies for blowing the whistle or speaking truth to power.
And I think that we each have to be personally mindful of whether we can withstand that happening.
So in our last two and a half minutes, so let's say I invited you to a magical Zoom call with yourself from right when you joined Code2040.
Can you tell me about what that conversation would be like?
Wow. Yeah, I think that I would encourage me to keep doing the work and to stay true to what I believe.
To stay true to the belief that there's liberation for all of us and that the liberation of Black and Latinx people and Indigenous folks is tied up in the liberation of everyone else in society.
And that, like, you know, you don't have to sell out.
You don't have to conform in order to make a difference and to be successful.
I think that the six past, you know, past me would think I was crazy for being CEO of Code2040.
And, but that, like, the journey's worth it, you know, just like keep doing the work is what I, and that I think in particular, racial equity work can really show the parts of ourselves that we try to hide from ourselves and from others.
And I would remind that part of myself that there's nothing to hide and there's nothing to fear and growth is beautiful.
And the more that I'm vulnerable about this work on myself and as a community, the more other people gather around to do it alongside me.
That's wonderful. So just to wrap up, do you have any recommendations for our audience?
Usually we have like a book or a movie.
This, when you mentioned you were going to ask me this, it stressed me out.
But what I'll say is that I bought some watercolors in quarantine and I have no art background and things looked very Picasso-esque when I started.
But it's been a really beautiful journey to like see myself as an artist and to be a beginner at something and just have a purely creative outlet that no one needs to judge, including myself.
Well, thank you so much. It's been a great show.