“Having a growth mindset and being adaptable are like really important tools and skills to have. You can’t really do this work. It’s forever changing. Not only have we had to learn a lot to do this, but to continue to do this work as culture changes, as society changes, as we learn more about how in-depth the oppression in our societies are. We are forever changing, forever learning and forever growing as individuals as well.”   Erica Ellis

Show Summary

In this episode of “Stories from the Field,” we sit down with Tafarii and Erica to unravel the intricacies of the equity in design process. Throughout the episode we get to explore topics, diving into the differences of terms like inclusive, accessible, and universal design. We also discuss equity and how it’s portrayed as not just a specific need but an overarching requirement for everyone. Tafarii and Erica close the episode by discussing inclusive design culture and how we as organizations can overcome the obstacles that might arise.

Learning Highlights from this Episode:

  • Understanding the differences between terms like inclusive, accessible, and universal design
  • What it means to create more equitable access & solutions in the design/testing process
  • Obstacles & challenges for organizations building inclusive design culture

Hear the Full Episode On:

About Erica Ellis

Erica is a Product Equity Research + Design leader—currently the Head of Product Equity Design at Uber. Her work is grounded in humanity-centered design and continuously aims to create equitable experiences for everyone. She use Research + Design to address issues like safety, oppression, exclusion, and bias. Whether the solution is a product, service, or process, it will be driven by ethics, compassion, human behavior, and the prioritization of systemically excluded communities’ perspectives.

About Tafarii McKenzie

Meet Tafarii, a proud New Yorker based in the vibrant heart of NYC. At Uber for about two years, Tafarii leads the charge on product equity, drawing from a background in software development and a deep respect for the craft.

Throughout her career, Tafarii has witnessed firsthand the impact of lacking diversity in decision-making. She knows that true innovation comes when all perspectives are valued. Joining Uber’s nascent product equity team, she saw a rare opportunity to shape crucial conversations and ensure everyone’s voice is heard. Collaborating with Erica and the team, Tafarii takes immense pride in the transformative work they do.

Resources & Links

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ericaellisco/

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/tafarii-mckenzie/

Full Transcript

Jason Rebello:

Welcome everyone. So excited to be here today for another great episode of Stories from the Field. Filled with gratitude and appreciation to have two wonderful human beings joining us today. Tafarii Mackenzie, did I pronounce that right?

Tafarii McKenzie:

You did. Perfect.

Jason Rebello:

Awesome. And Erica Ellis, both joining us from Uber. And I wanted to give the space over to you both to introduce yourselves to everyone listening.

Erica Ellis:

Sure. Thanks for having us. We’re very, very excited to be here. Obviously, love talking about this stuff, so yay. Hey everyone, I’m Erica. I work at Uber. I lead our Product Equity Design Team. I’ve been there for a little over two years, probably two and a half now. Time flies. It’s wild.

So I have a background in UX design as well as UX research, and have over my career really started to wiggle myself into the niche of equity, inclusion and accessibility, working with many amazing people in those fields and really lucky to end up here at Uber working with Tafarii as well as the rest of our team, which is just full of amazing individuals. Can’t say that enough.

Outside of those things, I live in Boulder, Colorado. I am absolutely addicted to the outdoors. I can just step outside my door, doesn’t have to be anywhere fancy outside and I just feel lighter and better. And so anytime I can get to the mountains, which are not far from me here, just makes my world such a better place. And I’ll hand it over to Tafarii.

Tafarii McKenzie:

Hi, I’m Tafarii. I’m based in New York City. I’m a native New Yorker, someone who doubled down on New York and bought a place in COVID when everyone said New York is over. I lead our product side of product equity and I’ve been here at Uber about two years and started in software development, which was very short-lived. I hate coding, but I have a lot of respect for it, as a computer science major.

But my career has basically just exposed me to lots of different times when you realize what happens when diversity is not in the room and what ends up getting made and being built without the perspectives of everyone—who the product is actually for. So when I saw this product equity team was being created at Uber, I felt like this was really rare and a time to actually be a part of those conversations, and since it was a new team, shape who got to be on the team and who got to be in the room. So I’m so, so thankful to get to work with Erica and the rest of our team, and I’m very proud of what we make. So I’m excited to be here and get to talk about it because like Erica, we can talk about it all day.

Jason Rebello:

Thank you so much. Tafarii, my 16-year-old shares your disdain of coding as well. We got him in a class and he is like, “This is not me. This is not my thing. Like-“

Tafarii McKenzie:

It’s hard.

That’s the other thing. If you’re taking like an English class or a history class that’s advanced, you know how to speak English. Like you already know the language, you can read it, you can support yourself. But in computer science, you have to both learn the language and then learn the rules before you can even do anything. So it just is… There’s a lot of barriers that make it tricky.

Jason Rebello:

It’s a humbling experience, right?

Tafarii McKenzie:

Humbling. Very humbling.

Erica Ellis:

I totally agree. I was like just starting my career when the conversation of like should designers code was like an absolute yes for the answer. And I was like, “Oh, okay, I also need to learn how to code.” And I did it for like a couple of years at a job and I was like, “This is awful.” It was really fun to begin with, but as soon as it got just like over the slight end of complicated, it was like, “I’m going to just find my exit.”

Jason Rebello:

It gets real real quick, I hear, right?

Erica Ellis:

Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Jason Rebello:

No, oh gosh. Wow. All right, so for the topic at hand, we can all share our horror stories of coding. Erica, you mentioned something in your intro. You talked about being in the niche of equity, inclusive and accessible design, right? And we hear these terms tossed around a lot, and I would love even like universal design and human-centered design, right? And I feel like oftentimes, I hear them and they’re being used interchangeably, they shouldn’t necessarily be. What’s a simple way for our listeners to really understand the difference? And where there are overlaps, please shed some light on it for us all. Thank you.

Erica Ellis:

Totally. I’m not probably going to do what you want me to with that because language is a very complex beast, and honestly it’s always going to depend on who you talk to and their definition on how they understand it and how you’re going to understand it and there’s not going to be overlap there.

A few things that I think we can generally all get on the same page on is when we talk about accessibility or things being accessible, there is a specific element of disability in that. So making sure that people with disabilities have access to what they need to achieve those goals just as everybody else does.

But accessibility doesn’t end with people with disabilities. It’s about access holistically for everyone. So it can be expanded and it can be narrowed, dependent again on who you’re talking to or what context it’s in. I think the most important thing to remember is that I said earlier, like language is immense, and language is the way that we view the world, right? It’s how we process information, it’s how we communicate how we’re feeling, what we’re thinking, how we communicate our perspectives.

So establishing a shared language, particularly when you work on things like this within a company or you’re having a specific conversation within a group, really like leveling on what language you’re using and what those terms mean prior to trying to make progress. Because otherwise, y’all would be going in like totally different direction, right? So there needs to be alignment there and then that will really help shape where you’re going and how you’re going. So yeah, it’s much less of like everyone needs to have the same definition of inclusion or universal design. It’s very much that like what you’re doing and where you’re progressing, those people need to have that so that you’re on the same page and speaking the same language literally and figuratively.

Jason Rebello:

So when you’re in that bucket, I mean again, you mentioned do you tell people you do all three, do you do different aspects or support different aspects of all three depending on which group or team you’re working with? Is that how you view it?

Erica Ellis:

Yeah. A lot of it is… Accessibility specifically, like that’s a very tangible term, particularly when it comes to technology, right? There’s the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. There are things tied to compliance and legality there. So when we’re talking about it in a professional setting, a lot of times, we do limit accessibility to some of that even though we know that it means so much more.

But yeah, I mean I use inclusion, I use equity, I use all of the words dependent on what it is I am trying to say, and I always try to define what I mean when I say those words, if it’s like a new set of people. Yeah. Tafarii, your turn.

Tafarii McKenzie:

And it also is a question we get a lot, especially since we were creating this team from scratch, and we don’t have a lot of teams to look to as examples for how to structure how we approach everything. When I joined the team, I think Erica and Zach Singleton who had also created our team, they had a pretty strong vision for thinking about what like gap our team was trying to fill in terms of being a product team and not just being a DEI team or a team focused on accessibility specifically.

And so when we landed on our team’s mission, which is to foster a culture of building inclusive experiences by enabling teams to prioritize the perspectives of historically and systemically excluded communities, we break that up into kind of two ways of thinking. Like we’re both building an example of how to build inclusively, but we’re also spending a lot of time thinking about how do we scale inclusive design as a concept across Uber so that we can enable other teams to work towards that mission as well.

Because it really isn’t something that a single team can tackle and be responsible for. And we’ve been very aware of the fact that some people got really excited that there’s now an equity team and they were like, “Oh, we can dump all of our work on them.” Like, “Oh, we broke something? Perfect. They can retroactively fix it for us. Like the equity team will do it.” And that’s not what we want. That’s not how you scale inclusive design. That’s not how you bring about change by just having a small group of people do it. So we do spend a considerable amount of time thinking about how can we create systems or processes or learnings and education that make it easier for other teams to take on the work as well.

Oana Amaria:

I kind of think of like the simplest example is when YouTube first came out and left-handed people were uploading videos and they were upside down because of the way that it was built, right? And so that is accessible, right, as like a problem, as a purpose, but it’s also equitable. Like even if it’s 10 or 12% of the population, they were sitting around wondering like why all their videos were upside down, right?

So I think it’s like a really simple way how when we think of the overlap or how that purpose of what you’re solving for is going to be your guiding star, right? And I love the idea of scaling because you can’t rely on people that are enthusiasts or champions to go rally the troops and get it done, right? Like we have to build it into systems.

Fun fact. So Erica was just sharing how she found herself quoted in one of our sessions, but when she was hired two and a half years ago, I was like, “Wow, that is so incredible.” And one of the quotes that she… I think it was on LinkedIn that you had this, but it was something along the lines of “The most challenging problems are the ones most worthy of solving.”

And I think that’s such a powerful thing to use as your motivation or kind of the credo, right, of your team, right, because it is something new that a lot of organizations are not investing time and resources and headcount in.

So a question for you, when you think about equity and design for Uber… And it doesn’t have to be Uber, right? I think at this point, it’s really just in general for organizations, how do you come up with true need? Because even with us as consultants, when we think about helping an organization create a strategy or content or program, right, we really have to figure out what don’t we know we don’t know? And what is really happening versus what you’re telling us is happening, right? And I could only imagine that, and this is for both of you, whoever wants to jump in. So one, how do you come up with true need? Because it’s not always what you think it is, right? And then I’m assuming you’ve gone through a few rodeos at this point or fill in the blank with a new analogy. What have you learned from that process, you know?

And I’ll put the rest, I can remind you what the third one is, and then what made you decide, right? Because I could only assume there’s so many problems, so many needs to solve for not just when Tafarii is getting dumped by all the people that are breaking code, right? But how do you decide how to prioritize or rank those needs?

Erica Ellis:

Well, I think every day, it’s a rodeo. We are learning something almost at every moment, right, Tafarii? We don’t have a lot of models to follow. And kind of as you were saying, right, accessibility is equity, and I think Uber’s a little unique in the sense that our accessibility work sits within our product equity team, where in other companies, accessibility is a… it’s a much more established practice, but it’s built it separately from equity even though they are obviously not mutually exclusive in any way.

But thinking about the need for equity, I think a lot of it comes down to our awareness and education, but the thing is it’s just there, right? It’s not like Uber is creating all of these equity problems. It’s sitting on top of them, right? Uber, heck, holistically, literally any industry, anything that you can think of is built upon all of these systems of oppression that are entangled with our society and our culture and our government and our politics.

So it’s not a unique need for product equity, it’s that everybody needs product equity, every industry education across the board. So that’s kind of how I try to look at it. And if you want to take a very specific example that is very Uber-related, right, you have like transportation, transportation apartheid for a more accurate term, which is the result of redlining and racist and oppressive policies that were built.

So we’re sitting on top of these regulations. We have to figure out ways to navigate them and start to break them down in the way that we can, right? We are not going to change the world, but we can start pushing back on these systems that people have just been building on top of or building within, and start to restructure them and start to push them out.

Even when you think about Uber like when it was initially made, right, it was only available in San Francisco. So there was a very tiny piece of that puzzle that was being followed. Then as Uber had grown, we’ve looked at larger problems, we’ve moved globally, we’re looking at equity globally. So I think learning in that process is, you often do start small and you really do have to build that awareness of all of the other people and all of the other situations that might be impacted.

A lot of what we talk about on our team actually, and as you can see on Tafarii’s background, and maybe even mine, identity informs our perspective. It’s one of our principles for our team. It’s like you have to be hyper aware of who you are, of your privileges, of your perspective, and know how those actually unfold in the product and in your decision making and making sure that you’re counterbalancing that with other perspective and other communities and other expertises.

Oana Amaria:

It’s so interesting, though. So I wonder when you think about… And again, you could do either general or Uber-specific. I feel like similar to in our content, we have the Fear To Growth Continuum, right, when it comes to identity and awareness and like our proximity to our lived experience. I wonder, there’s a continuum from the equity and design folks as well where it’s like from absent to reactive to proactive to transformative design, right? Would you be able to plot kind of where you think you are as an organization or where you want Uber to be? And then maybe like in the industry, like where are most brands, right? I think that would be such an interesting double click on what you just shared.

Erica Ellis:

I really say most people are… Well, I feel like there’s another bucket, there’s a performative bucket there as well. Like there’s absent. People aren’t doing it. They’re not thinking about it. There’s the performative bucket. Then there’s reactive where they’re like, “Oh, we’re not just going to like pretend we’re doing things. We’re going to actually try to start doing that.” And then continuing along with that spectrum.

I would say as Uber, we’re definitely still mainly in the reactive stage. We are working more towards the proactive stage. So we are starting to mix in proactive work with a lot of the reactive work.

Tafarii McKenzie:

Well, I would say I think it’s also, it depends on the relationship a company or brand has with their customer. Because a lot of like what we’re arguing for when it comes to changing how we build products has to do with how much are you listening to what is actually needed by someone, and how much is like what you’re guessing they need or assuming that they need like based on a certain set of like beliefs or opinions or prejudices that you have about who you’re building for.

And so some companies like maybe think that they’re super ahead of the game and have moved out of being reactive, but they maybe don’t even have a line of communication with a certain group of people that are heavily reliant on their product, and they’re not listening to them. They don’t know what those details are that they need to change.

And so I do think wherever Uber lands on that scale between like reactive or is it being able to predict what people need, I do think it has a pretty direct line of communication with our users. And so we’re working pretty hard to listen to them. And like while that probably still feels like reactive, I think it also helps us predict what’s coming and have a better understanding of like where our gaps are and what we can do ahead of time to resolve, so.

Oana Amaria:

I think that it almost sounds like it’s a reactive, but intentional, right? Like there’s intentionality there, where it’s not just like this thing happened.

Tafarii McKenzie:

Yeah, exactly.

Oana Amaria:

Like it’s had a run, right? Like there’s already like a pathway to do the listening, right? A pathway to do the looking around corners that we often talk about. So that’s great, thank you.

Jason Rebello:

My goodness. There’s so much I want to circle back to and double click on, even this example of this challenge of what’s been performative. And you have that challenge within inclusive design. We have that challenge within diversity, equity and inclusion, right? There’s so much overlap between even the reactive versus proactive. All these dynamics are kind of tied together. And you also mentioned this importance that the challenge of, and I think it’s really important, it’s a great way for people to visualize the challenge, like pushing back on systems and then having to restructure and push out of like these old frameworks.

I think that’s a challenge that a lot of people don’t take into account, whether it’s inclusive design specifically or even building diversity, equity, inclusive kind of structure programs and policies that oftentimes you really have to take a sense of what are you even trying to build on top of, right? Because there’s some things that might really have to be unwind in order for things to be able to really progress forward, right? Like what can you build? How sturdy is that structure to really build up strongly?

And then, Tafarii, you mentioned this kind of dual challenge that you’re all undertaking with this building an inclusive design team while also having to create the roadmap for scaling an inclusive design team across an entire organization, essentially trying to like unsilo it. Again, very much so they’re in the same vein, like how do we make it just a part of all your processes and not just kind of, “Oh, go talk to Erica. Go talk to Oana. Go talk to Tafarii. They’re the ones that…” Versus, “How do we embed this? How do we create growth and learning opportunities?”

So my question is like, my goodness, there’s got to be a endless amount of obstacles and challenges, or even both on those things. And I imagine that they’re similar across the board, not just uniquely at Uber. What are those? Like if you had to come up with like three greatest obstacles to like every organization leading the way or working towards truly building inclusive design culture across the org, what does that look like? What are those challenges that people need to be keeping an eye out for?

Tafarii McKenzie:

Yeah, there’s endless challenge. When it comes to working in the equity space, it’s basically a job of challenge. There’s never a day where we’re like, “Oh, that was so easy. It worked exactly as we want.” But I think for us, we assumed, and we probably went into it feeling like our biggest challenge was going to be accessing the diverse voices and perspectives that we wanted to create for, but that actually has not been our biggest challenge.

Like we have prioritized that so heavily that it’s not been easy to get those perspectives and learn from them, but it’s already on our radar. It’s already something that we have practiced and are good at and prioritized that that has actually not been a challenge for us. It’s actually been learning more about our peers and understanding what their perspectives are. We can’t deliver change without these people and we have to bring these people along and we need their support, whether it’s legal, policy, comms, like marketing, all of those contrarians, but really core aspects of the company, we need to make sure that they’re on the same page as us and are aligned with what we want to create and see the value in it because otherwise, they will block us from creating these changes and launching these things.

And so it’s been a really big challenge to put ourselves in their shoes and be like, “Okay, sure, maybe legal has a point that we can’t do X, Y, Z. How do we think of something from their perspective? How do we feel like that point is just as valid, it’s our point, and come to a middle ground or figure out how do we reframe something so that we can end up with the end goal that we want?”

That’s just been really challenging because there are so many different people we need to work with and they all are levelheaded, rational people, but they just very much have different priorities than we do. And so figuring out how to get our priorities aligned has been really like the biggest learning step for us.

Jason Rebello:

I love that, contrarians as they call themselves, right? I love that sentiment though, that understanding that, as much as some people would like to just kind of like, “Can we just kind of get rid of anybody that’s not right at the same point of their growth journey as we are or their understanding as we are?” It’s not going to be successful or sustainable that way. We have to create an opportunity or a pathway for everybody to continue along their journey wherever their starting point is, right?

Tafarii McKenzie:

Yeah. And like we had been talking with our comms team about this, and she reminded us that one of Uber’s values is that great minds don’t think alike. And like we know that. Our team is all about that. We feel really strongly about that, but it is a reminder that our team is our own echo chamber. And so when we land on a decision, we’re also making a decision that’s not considering our peers.

And that’s when you see problems is when homogenous groups think that everyone is right, because they all have the same opinion, but really you need to loop in all of these other perspectives. And that really has just been learning for us, but it’s enabled us to create some really cool projects that we’re proud to have launched.

Jason Rebello:

Love that. And referencing the scaling part, Erica, I remember listening to your South by Southwest panel pitch, and one of the things you talked about was the importance of really creating tools, like resources. So that again, like how do we scale it so that we don’t have to be in every meeting? What does that look like? What are the things you recommend for other organizations that are sincerely and proactively trying to take this on?

Erica Ellis:

Yeah, I think we can’t do it by ourselves, right? I think Tafarii said that earlier too. It’s just something we talk about probably daily, maybe weekly, but let’s go with daily is our team in, wow, how many people do we have? 16 people on our team in a company of over 10,000 people, like what are we going to do? Like what real impact can we have at that size against that kind of ship, right? It’s a lot.

And so we do focus some of our energy, not all of it, on building tools, resources. But even when we’re not focusing on these tools and resources that are going to be accessible to the rest of the organization, we’re working on problems that can provide case studies and examples. So in a sense, you can see all of our work as pushing that systemic change of making sure people understand how this work works.

Now people can understand how to do this work themselves. People can understand what a good example of equitable design and product looks like, as well as actually building in things like accessibility testing and “Here’s how a screen reader works, and here’s how to think about racial justice in the realm of a product specifically.” So kind of giving a lot of different angles to the same problem of getting people to take on this work themselves.

Another thing, I think individually, like having a growth mindset and being adaptable are like really important tools and skills to have. You can’t really do this work. It’s forever changing. Not only have we had to learn a lot to do this, but to continue to do this work as culture changes, as society changes, as we learn more about how in-depth the oppression in our societies are, like we are forever changing, forever learning and forever growing as individuals as well.

And then I think it doesn’t necessarily fall into a total skill or a resource, but for an equitable practice to be successful within a company, I think you really need to have this sandwich effect. A lot of times, it’s really just bottom up, it’s grassroots, right? We see that in a lot of companies. We see that in community organizing, but you really have to have that top as well. Like your executive leadership team, your C-suite need to be invested. Now, we have to start developing success criteria for teams and for individuals that align with creating equitable products. Until we’re tying the success of an individual or a team to equity, it’s going to be really, really hard to make really substantial and systemic progress that has longevity.

Jason Rebello:

You said so much there that I think we’ll be able to continue to chew on, and really, again, share far and wide. It is the message that we share all the time, right? As much as it’s about making sure that you’re listening to as many different people as possible, you need the people that are in the position to actually create real change and policy, to be in values alignment and really understand the greater why and the purpose. Otherwise, again, even in that moment, if you have it, it’s not sustainable unless we really build it in and tie individuals’ kind of growth and success to this very critical, crucial part of the work that needs to be done or equity.

Oana Amaria:

I just find it so interesting that it’s just so similar to what we do in DEI, I mean in every possible… Like the way you talk about strategy, the way you talk about putting more of thems or really figuring out and mapping your stakeholders. For us, a lot of the contrarians, we just get them in at the start and we use them as a gift, a gift for all the booby traps that are waiting for us or bear traps because it really is, it’ll hit you at one point or another. So how incredible to make these individuals partners with you and collaborators, because I genuinely believe people want to get there and to do this work. And to your point, and I think the biggest barrier for us, as Jason was asking you, I was thinking is enterprise priorities, right? Like how many P zero goals are there? Some people were like, “I have 38.” And so it really is about coming from a place of compassion for that human being that only has X amount of hours in their day and you have no idea what’s going on in their lives, right?

And this is not just about COVID or post-COVID. I mean, all of the- We’re in people’s homes now, right? When you think about the way that we are connecting and the way we’re problem solving. For me, a long time ago in a different life, I learned a lot about accessibility because I worked on a platform and so the 503 like compliance and all this stuff and the color ratio, and that was 20 years ago. And I just think about how much has changed from laws, as you mentioned, right, and to the systems that we’re trying to build through if not on, because sometimes you have to build on and sometimes you just have to pull those through those systems. And I think Uber is the right voice sometimes for that, because that is the spirit of how Uber was created, right?

My question really is about the burning platform. When you think about other organizations, as we know this world is very small, what would you say to other brands that are in this fight with you, whether directly or indirectly, collectively, let’s say? What’s the burning platform to invest time in this work, to get those 16 people that you all have fought so hard to get?

Some of them, it’s just them, right? So think of that as your listener, or maybe there’s just the two of them, like the two of you right now, right? What is a burning platform for this work? And then I’ll ask a few other follow-up questions.

Erica Ellis:

Okay. I’ll provide a really short answer for this question, and I know Tafarii has more thoughts to add on, but I mean at its face, it’s very simple, although we make it very complicated, right? So when we talk about the minority or the underrepresented communities, those aren’t like accurate words. These communities aren’t a minority, they’re not underrepresented on a global scale. These communities are the global majority. They’re underrepresented potentially in some specific arena, but holistically. And as Uber, we look at a global market because we operate globally. They’re the majority and we need to start thinking about them that way.

And it’s kind of come full circle back to language and how we use language. So you’ve probably heard Tafarii and I both say systemically excluded communities or systemically oppressed communities. The language that you use matters because it frames the way someone should be perceiving everything that you’re talking about. So when we’re thinking about these communities being the global majority… And their spending power is growing exponentially compared to we’ll call “the majority” in air quotes or western or white individuals.

So it’s not only the right thing to do, which it is absolutely the right thing to do, to fight against these systems. So it’s really, really smart business. It’s the majority of people. It’s the spending power that is growing the most. It’s just super, super smart business. And there are huge consequences for not doing it, right, especially when we look at younger generations, particularly Gen Z. They are buying based on morals. They are buying based on brands that speak to them. Like these things are going to continue to matter more and more. And the farther back you fall, the harder it’s going to be to make up that progress and continue to grow your business with the communities that are also growing in spending power and in population.

Tafarii McKenzie:

Yeah. And I think you had another question like related to what Erica is talking about is how does this relate to a team and how does this relate to what a team is thinking about growing? For us, it’s huge for retention. If we want to be a team that is diverse and is representative of the people we’re trying to build for, then we can’t keep those people who are excited about that and care about that on a team if we are not actually working on those things and making those changes.

And so building for these communities and putting them first is completely good for business, but it’s also good for business in the sense that it keeps the people who are motivated and excited to do this work there. Then it keeps that diversity, it keeps that like sense of perspective in the room, which just makes a better product.

Like it’s proven over and over and over again that if you have different perspectives building a product, you’ll end up with a better product. But you can’t keep those perspectives if you’re not actually going to listen to them and build things for these users. So that’s huge for us. It’s huge for thinking about the longevity of our team and making sure that we can keep doing this work.

I think we also pay a lot of attention to what’s happening in the physical world versus the digital world because the physical world is, in some senses, far more advanced in terms of thinking about diverse needs and what people look for in a community. There’s obviously always the example everyone points to like curb cuts where have been around forever and are used by lots of people, but some hides whoever the intended person was. It gets used for people with strollers, people with luggage, people with a delivery cart. It’s so representative of all the diverse needs.

Recently, I saw something about Chinatown and how there was just taking a closer look at how many of the street signs are actually like written in Chinese, how like Chase Bank, McDonald’s, everything is in Chinese because it’s in Chinatown and this is what the people in the community want. And if you look at apps and look at how tech companies or products are supporting communities in the same way, they’re still pretty behind in thinking about what does my community need that’s representative of what the community is asking for and getting there. So we just spend a lot of time trying to close that gap and thinking about how can we use our team to build inclusively in a way that directly addresses what people have already vocalized, asking for, and then like we spoke about earlier, things that we predict they might ask for as well.

Erica Ellis:

I think talking about it like from the lens of innovation, it’s really cool. And really it’s like being on tech, we’re disruptors and innovators and like all of those buzzwords, the way… Think about accessibility and then even equity, like that is innovation. Like text messaging, Siri, Alexa, audiobooks, right, all of these things came out of accessible tech. So when you’re thinking about like our mission, which is to really include and prioritize the perspectives, the systemically excluded communities, those are the communities that have been innovating longer than anybody else because no one else has been solving their problems and they’ve had to do it themselves. So they have the innovation already in there. They’ve already solved the problem, right? So bring them into your team, bring them into your research session. Like the innovation is there, you just have to bring them in.

Jason Rebello:

And if you don’t bring them in, they’ll end up just building it themselves. And then entities, orgs, companies end up becoming obsolete as more and more of this next generation is entering into the founder space with this idea of “It’s okay, we’re not begging every large entity to understand us or come talk to us to understand our needs. The barriers to entry have been lowered. We’re going to build our own solutions,” which is I think again, it creates the impetus for organizations to, A, not just want to build for those communities, but to create the type of workplace culture energy that actually people actually do want to continue to come work at some of these institutions. So it’s definitely, again, there’s so much alignment between our two worlds. It’s wild.

Oana Amaria:

It also touches on this piece that you have in your motto, right, this shifting unequal power dynamics. I also think the dominant culture is not aware of how that we’re at the tipping point, right? And so either you really… Like again, making it good for business, good for retention, good for teams, but also like we all are better human beings if we adapt, right? And it’s not just about the potato peeler or about the curb cuts or whatnot, right? It’s we will all benefit from the outcome of this, right?

I’d love to hear from you all, and you can jump in whichever order you’d like, what are you working on right now that you’re really excited about? And maybe you can share, maybe you can’t. Maybe tell us generically if you can’t tell, but we want to really be excited with you. We’re ready to benefit from that growth.

Tafarii McKenzie:

We can definitely talk about the things that are live and that we’re excited about. We spent a lot of time focusing on the trans community, particularly our trans earners. And we use the term earners like anyone who is earning on our platform, so like drivers, couriers.

We had just gotten so much feedback from them consistently that we weren’t validating their identity. So our team really wanted to prioritize that and think about how can we create some change there. And one of the things we’ve launched was letting users change their display name, particularly because we had been relying on legal name for so long. And for our users who are trans, their legal name is not representative of their identity and was perhaps outing them or putting them in situations that made them feel really unsafe. So making sure we could create that change was really important to improving their safety and validating their identity.

We’ve also recently launched user pronouns, and it’s an ongoing launch. There’s a lot more to come there, but the biggest thing has been allowing people to designate what their pronouns are, and we’re figuring out how can we slowly embed this into our experience so that people are aware of what someone’s identity is.

Because again, we are putting strangers together in these situations, and we want to make sure that we’re putting them together in a way where everyone feels comfortable and safe and validated. So that’s been huge for us. And for some, it feels like a small launch, but for us it was huge, at a company like Uber where there are just a lot of checks and balances in place and things take time to really think through and get out there, but we’re really proud of that. And we launched them during US Pride, which was also really great.

Jason Rebello:

Love that. Love that. Truly. Our last kind of ask or question is, really, what is your imparting request or ask for leaders, enthusiasts and inclusion champions of the world, right, that are our allies in this space? What can we be doing better? What could we be doing more of? What’s your parting request?

Tafarii McKenzie:

I’ll start. I think we constantly talk about how there’s always this false sense of urgency and push to move really fast when this work shouldn’t be fast, and requires a lot of revision and intention and collaboration. And we always push back on thinking about is success really something like how fast can we get this out the door? Or is there another metric that might be better to really measure the impact there?

And especially in tech where things are really KPI-focused and you want to measure everything, you want to prove that everything has created some sort of change, it’s really hard to use that framework in something like DEI where sentiment is really hard to measure, but it’s just so, so, so important. So we push back on the sense of urgency and we try to push back on the sense of everything that is measured are only the things that count, because that’s really not true. And we try really hard to make a case for things that can’t be measured, but that have huge impact for our users, and figuring out how can we be really creative to get that validation there.

Oana Amaria:

Sorry, I jumped on to like… And my kid’s screaming in the background, but I hope that in that session, Erica, where we were quoting you to yourself, you were like, “Look at these characteristics that you’re doubling on,” right? Like, it’s not about buts in seats or rides or… It’s all the immeasurable thought and check-ins and the EQ, human component that gets us to the creativity, to the beta waves of the way we think and the way we collaborate and the way we check in with people to make sure that everyone’s on the same page, right? So I love that. Thank you.

Erica Ellis:

Yeah. It’s really the human side for me for this question. Like what I want people to take away is that we are all human, right? Like I try very much not to expect anything else from my team, except for them to be human. I think a lot of times in tech, I mean in any profession really, you’re expected to be super human. You’re expected to be a robot. You’re super expected to take whatever is thrown at you and continue to be productive regardless of what’s going on.

And one of the things that like speaks to me the most about equity work because I’m a white woman… People in podcast don’t know that probably. Well, I guess there’ll be a picture on the cover… is that like no one is free until we are all free. And that’s kind of what I live my life by, is knowing that I might have a lot of privilege and I might not experience oppression in the same way that other people do, but I’m still impacted from it and I still can’t live my full life.

I cannot thrive until everybody can thrive. And that’s what I’m fighting for, right, is everyone and myself. And particularly when we’re doing this work day in and day out, where we’re fighting battles that seem endless, that seem like we can’t win, like have to take care of yourself. If you can’t fight any longer, then you can’t push these boundaries, right? You can’t tear down these systems.

So we’re all prone to burnout, DEIs more specifically, you’re not okay. You can’t do this work, and we really, really, really, really need as many people as we can doing this work. So if anybody takes anything away from this conversation, like just being… Please, treat yourself with compassion, treat other people with compassion and take care of you and your community.


With that, we have to just say again, gratitude and appreciation for both of you, for sharing your time, your incredible energy, and for really being leaders in a space that I think we’re all pushing in the same direction at different levels in different ways. So it’s really encouraging to kind of hear both of your journeys in this work. And again, incredible appreciation for all that you do.

Oana Amaria:

Thank you so much for being so generous with your time. I know that there are impossible days and hours, and we are so grateful that you spent this time with us. So thank you.

Tafarii McKenzie:

Thank you so much for having us. Always really good to chat.


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