Product Inclusion Leadership: Meet Salima Bhimani, Chief Equity and Inclusion Strategist, The Other Bets at Alphabet

By Reena Jana, Head of Product & Business Inclusion Strategy, Google | Product Inclusion

Dr. Salima Bhimani is the Chief Equity and Inclusion Strategist for the Bets at Alphabet, Google’s parent company. She advises our innovative early-stage companies, a.k.a. the Other Bets – our moonshots in areas other than search and advertising – on how to build diverse teams to create inclusive technologies and products. The goal: people from a wide spectrum of backgrounds will have equitable user experiences.

The Bets include a wide portfolio of products, ranging from Waymo (self-driving technologies) to Loon (balloon-powered internet services) to Verily (health-data tools and devices). Salima also acts as a thought partner to many of our teams at Google on these very same goals.

While Salima’s 22 years of professional experience and Ph.D in education (with a focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) from the University of Toronto are key credentials for her role, it’s her personal story that has profoundly informed her journey. Born into a South Asian family living in Uganda, her parents became refugees in the 1970s when Idi Amin, then president of Uganda, expelled all Asians from the country. They landed in the UK, where she was born.

The Bhimanis moved to Canada in 1975. It was in the first 7 years of her life there that Salima started to learn about how women, people of color, and others can be disadvantaged in the world’s systems. Salima’s professional path reflects “a devotion to empowering organizations and individuals to be capable in equity and social transformation,” as she explains it. Whether informing government approaches to racial fairness, or influencing educational institutions on their equity, inclusion, and diversity (EID) policies and programs, or founding Relational, a consulting firm, she has wholly committed her life to EID.

I met up with Salima recently to discuss not only her path to Alphabet, but also actionable advice for others.

Salima, thanks for making the time to chat! Can you explain what you do in detail?

I came to Alphabet with a vision to design organizations whose bodies, minds and souls are equitable, inclusive and reflective of people who are historically underrepresented.

We are at a pivotal moment in understanding that when we build technologies and companies that reflect the knowledge, skills and needs of those who are often outside the center of design, power and impact – such as women, people of color, people with disabilities and others – we see exponential benefits. Benefits to what our businesses can achieve, innovatively, and benefits in shaping generational experiences and realities – and great monetary benefits.

The 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey, for example, shows that 74% of Millennials believe their organization is more innovative when it has a culture of inclusion. And a Boston Consulting Group study found that companies with more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenues due to innovation.

So my role is to partner, lead, teach and guide the Other Bets at Alphabet to create these types of teams, cultures and business outcomes.

What made you pursue equity, inclusion, and diversity as a career?

I’ve always worked on complex human and societal problems. It's what gets me curious, creative and animated. And those complex problems are often ones that we are not asking multi-faceted questions about, or pushing the boundaries of understanding in.

It’s felt organic to me to pursue those things that are difficult, while teeming with possibility.

I’ve had to define and create space for the perusal of equity and inclusion in organizations, attempting to change things at the very foundations, when that is often not desired or the perspective.

So, it has always been the case that when I don’t see something happening for social transformation, I get curious, and then go and do something. That’s an inner drive I’ve carried since an early age. When I was about 20 years old, I co-created an educational development and educational rights program that was implemented in the global south with remote mountain communities. It was an international collaboration between young people of color in the global north and these communities. I had never organized or developed 17 people to be educational advocates, I had never designed and directed an international project. But I just did it because there was a need for educational equity and empowerment.

This has led me to a career leading, directing, designing and educating for systemic change. Some days I do think of myself as somewhat of an EID ninja. This probably harkens to the fact that I love movement arts and in particular Hunyuan Chen Taiji and sword, which I’ve studied for over 9 years!

Why is inclusion important, in the context of product innovation and business development?

In the space of equity, inclusion and diversity work, there are fundamental questions we have to ask ourselves – in business and in life:

- What is the problem that we are really trying to solve? 

- What is our hypothesis of why we don’t have equity, inclusion and diversity currently? 

I don’t know that we all have aligned on the answers to these questions and whether they are are well thought out and systematically pursued.

If you ask one business leader, they may say, well, we need more women software engineers because we’re trying to solve the lack of diversity in engineering. If you ask another person, they may say we  need to create community for underrepresented groups because they should feel like they belong. If we ask someone else, they may say we need to get rid of bias in AI algorithms because our products should be accessible and reach global users. But those objectives are not the starting points to addressing a problem at the level of an organization or business.

Why? And how can organizations improve how they address issues of inequity or exclusion?

At the very elementary level, what companies have possibly missed in this work is really a deep analysis of our organizational environments and ecosystems. EID, equity-inclusion-diversity, is fundamentally an ecosystem challenge.

So it’s necessary to have a holistic view of our organizational ecosystems, which include  structures, processes, people, relationships, culture, products and outcomes. Does our approach to EID  support the entry, growth, advancement, contributions and retention of those historically on the margins? And how is the ecosystem optimized or not optimized for this?  And these are prefaced by certain things.

One is a sophisticated understanding of how our societies, local and national, are organized in a way where some folks have advantages, while others don’t, where we have social differences that shape our experiences with each other, where historically people of color, women, and other social minorities have faced barriers to opportunities, are denied resources to succeed or are undermined in their professional pursuits. And the experiences of social minorities themselves are not homogenous.

If we don’t fundamentally understand social context, and don’t understand the complexity of that social context and how this plays out in our organizational design, then right from the start we may not be asking the right questions. For those who don’t understand the shape of power and social history, it is much much harder to see what we need to address because so much becomes normalized and part and parcel of the everyday.

So our business environments have to be optimized for EID. This requires a systemic approach where we are solving for multiple root-level and interdependent impediments to our ability to increase representation, ensure social minorities are not underutilized, undervalued or excluded once they enter in organizations, and that they are able to thrive and make the contributions that benefit them and what our businesses aim to achieve.

Arguably, if we are designing from the margins, we will always include those who are currently at the center. EID will expand everyone.

Would you say then that being equitable and inclusive is simply good for all people?

I would argue this is a business objective, as when our teams are not optimized for inclusive collaboration or some folks receive performance evaluations that lead to unfair outcomes, all of those things ultimately affect if we are able to arrive at an inclusive product. Product inclusion is a downstream effect of other things within a business ecosystem.

People often tell me that they don’t always see an inequity happening in their work environments. Now folks who are underrepresented question whether something is happening to them because inequities can become normalized and sometimes we are just focused on making it or feel shame or feel like we can make things better, without anyone else having to change because we hold ourselves responsible.

Some over-represented people tell me that they are unable to see it because they are in an environment that they generally understand, relate to, and can navigate. The standards are designed for their needs and their mental models affirm this. So, in order for EID to be good for all people, we can start by understanding our relationship to these concepts and realities.

Do you offer the same guidance to diversity and inclusion practitioners as you do for product teams or business people?

Equity, inclusion and diversity practitioners need to ask these questions:

- What are the skills, capacities and capabilities we need from others within our organizations to own EID and systemic change, as ours to create?

- Who can and should be taking the lead within our organization for EID?  

- Who should be playing supporting roles?  

- Who are the influencers that can really drive things for us?  Who needs to sit back?  

- What is the timing of everyone's involvement and capability building? Who needs to come in today? Who needs to come in tomorrow?  Who needs to come in 5 months from now?  

That kind of strategic inquiry is significantly important in environments where we’re working very quickly and in a race against time. In tech this is a reality.

There is a challenge to really step back and ask all the hard questions or even make space in our intense, deadline-driven days. I think we currently have more work to do to ask such critical, deep and broad questions that will lead us to strategic, actionable decision making that we can quickly iterate on and pivot from if needed. That will allow us to set central foundations in our organizations and integrate EID as part and parcel of our businesses, as opposed to something that is an add on, reactively pursued.

So some questions to ask when  building inclusive products or striving for broader equity and inclusion are:

- In order to arrive at an inclusive product, what do the system, culture, and people, need to enable?

- What foundational practices, policies, thinking, and decisions will inform who is present, how people are thinking, what they are designing, how different people are experiencing their work environment? 

Who were the mentors and other inspirational figures that helped you along your path to being a champion of inclusion in the business and tech Alphabet?

When I was 23 I worked on women’s human rights with an organization in the global south.

I co-directed the first conference on women in the mountain areas. Women travelled across valleys and mountains for days on foot to come to this conference. It was the first event for women and by women of this kind. We didn’t think anyone would show up, but 500 Indigenous women came.

The day before the conference there were men ready to burn down the event venue because they were afraid to see women come together in this way. The women, along with some male advocates stood side by side, looking straight into their opponents eyes and said, “You may burn this building, but you will not burn our power.”  Those women taught me another form of courage and audacity!

Photograph by Ferenaz Lalji

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