How Blend uses diversity, equity and inclusion to impact consumer banking

In this episode, we talk with Ulysses Smith, Head of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging, with Blend and explore how they are using DE&I to create an inclusive consumer ecosystem while building a diverse workforce. We discuss how their Community Investment and DE&I strategies are tied together and how these programs will look like the next several years. We also chat about challenges to Blend's DE&I journey and advice for companies just starting theirs. 

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Karl Yeh:

My first guest, no stranger to the show, my co-host today, Janelle St. Omer who's the Regional Vice President with Benevity and our second guest is Ulysses Smith, the Head of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and belonging with Blend.

Janelle St. Omer: So good afternoon Ulysses and thank you so much for being here with us.

Ulysses Smith: Thanks for having me really [00:01:00] excited for this conversation.

Janelle St. Omer:

I am too. I think you guys at Blend have been doing some amazing work in the community over the last little while so we're really excited to hear more about you and about Blend and all of the wonderful DE&I work that you're doing.

So to kick us off why don't you tell us about yourself and tell us about Blend?

Ulysses Smith:

That's always a fun question because I always tell people when I first started working at, I was going to conferences trying [00:01:30] to tell people about Blend and we would have branded cookies on the table and things like that and people would come over and just swear we were a cannabis company and I have to, no, that's not what we do.

I promise it even more fun, it's mortgage.

All right. That's way more exciting said no person ever but we make it way more exciting. So-

Janelle St. Omer: Hey, mortgages are fun when you get a good rate.

Ulysses Smith:

Exactly, until you start going through the process. [00:02:00]

As a company, we're a white label software platform whose core mission is really to make that entire process as simple and transparent and a lot faster.

So contrary to many other organizations, our model is really based on partnerships.

So we work very closely in partnership with banks and other financial institutions to help them deliver those services, a broad suite of services in a much easier fashion for the end user ultimately.

So it's both [00:02:30] for loan officers, realtors as well as of course you as a borrower but we again are a white label software so you never know you were using Blend unless you were really looking at the bottom of the screen to see that entire digital experience is powered by us.

So, it's a great place for us to be not to necessarily be at the forefront of your entire experience but really to help banks, be that digital arm for those institutions.

So that's really what we do and we've been fortunate [00:03:00] enough to have over 250 lending partners now as our customers and powering over $2 billion in loan volume every day which is really exciting. So that's something that we're really proud of at this point.

Janelle St. Omer:

That's excellent.

I think one of the things that I love about your model when I looked into is that you really have a social mission baked right into your model.

So, can you tell us about how Blend is really creating an inclusive consumer lending ecosystem? [00:03:30] It seems like that was at the forefront of your founder's thoughts when you guys started.

How is Blend creating an inclusive consumer ecosystem?

Ulysses Smith:

Yeah, it's not something I can take credit for by any means, I was absolutely baked into the mission when I got here, it was actually what attracted me to Blend and got me to say, "Absolutely, I will join this team."

It was really that it's rare you come across an organization who does have principles of equity really built into the actual foundation of the organization [00:04:00] and mission.

And so when we really say that we were looking to create this open and accessible and equitable consumer banking ecosystem, that is exactly what we mean when we're talking about applying these principles of diversity inclusion and belonging and equity to our core product.

So yes, it means ensuring that we're removing any arbitrary barriers to workforce participation to recruit a diverse workforce but really more importantly, it means that we're thinking about the outcomes of our products on the market. [00:04:30]

So when you as a borrower or you as somebody that's looking to actually build generational wealth and overcome some of the longstanding systemic and structural barriers to achieving that goal, we see Blend as a partner in making that happen, as part of the solution to really getting to a point where we see that this entire banking ecosystem is open to everyone and so that's really what [00:05:00] this comes down to at the end of the day.

Janelle St. Omer:

I love that because I think too often when we're having the conversation around diversity and inclusion we mention some of the systemic barriers but there are not a lot of companies that are solely founded on addressing some of those systemic barriers so to actually have as an organization, as a company those institutional barriers and eliminated in your user experience, I think is really quite powerful.

Ulysses Smith:

Yeah, [00:05:30] absolutely.

I mean, when you think about it while we can't necessarily say that right now Blend itself, is the reason why we see fewer instances of bias and discrimination.

I think ultimately that is what we would like to see in the entire ecosystem so people don't have to be fearful about going into bank branches or going into certain places and experiencing that discrimination, which has absolutely been chronicled over the last few years.

And we certainly see [00:06:00] how administrations now are focusing on equity as part of that overall and so we're doing our part to pay really close attention to what's going on in this ecosystem and the rest of the world for that matter.

So we're seeing that people don't have to take off multiple days of work to be able to get access to certain financial services or to learn what types of mortgage options are available to them or even to fax documentation, track down documentation and fax it [00:06:30] here there and yonder, you can do that from a mobile device by extension I should say.

Just being able to access a broad suite of financial services from your preferred financial institution via your mobile device is overcoming a huge barrier in and of itself because most folks particularly in rural communities or in many under-banked communities are places where we see that there is that digital divide.

Many folks don't have access to a desktop computer or a laptop [00:07:00] for that matter but they definitely are accessing a lot of their financial services and making many of their banking transactions on their phones.

And so using Blend allows banks to help those users overcome very specific barriers that have long been a limitation of people being able to access those financial services.

And I've definitely talked about this many times at this point but we know from a lot of research that we see over time, [00:07:30] there's the placement of more liquor stores and check cashing places and other predatory kind of places in black and brown communities in particular than there actually are physical bank branches.

I think we've seen over the last year just how important digital banking experiences can be, not only in times of a global pandemic and because people need to be able to still access their money during this time but also just generally. [00:08:00]

I think that's generally a good business and it doesn't mean we're going to get rid of human interactions and those really human experiences where we know particularly thin file borrowers and many underserved populations actually really do benefit from high touch human interaction throughout this process, especially when somebody is explaining some of these things too.

But at the same time, we do want to make sure that if people are looking to make very quick transactions or being able to just access information, they're able to do so readily and so [00:08:30] being here at this point in time.

It's just really exciting because we are able to focus on so many things in partnership with many of our customers and other industry partners at the same time.

Janelle St. Omer:

That's so important and I think so powerful because even to your point about liquor stores and such or check cashing places often we see in black and brown communities, even food deserts so there's not access to healthy food in terms groceries.

So I think when you are thinking about how to completely revitalize [00:09:00] the experience of individuals from that equity seeking perspective, you have to take a holistic look at what that means, so even to have that level of service or to have money within the community and the digital experiences that you're providing, enabling that I think is really powerful as well.

So tell me what it means to be an equitable employer for Blend as well and how have you demonstrated that in your work?

When you talk about transparency in your hiring practices, [00:09:30] what does that look like for you because I know that that's not an easy thing?

What does it mean for Blend to be an equitable employer?

Ulysses Smith:

It's definitely not an easy thing.

I will say it has been exponentially easier because I have such great partners in our talent acquisition team. I think they have been incredible partners to me.

They've been a group has been very willing to learn and to rethink their own processes, to really work in tandem with my team and others to really think through how do we make sure that our workforce is as representative of the world [00:10:00] as possible, right?

And ultimately that we have assembled a workforce who understands the context of the problems that many of our customers and ultimately Blend users and borrowers actually want to solve and that's incredibly important.

Our head of product, Eric Wrobel actually wrote a piece in Tech Inclusion that really does talk about, how do you build an equitable product and it starts with building a diverse workforce and when we talk about this aspiration [00:10:30] of becoming the equitable employer of the future, it comes down to a few things.

The first is that we, as an organization have done everything in our power to remove any arbitrary barriers to workforce participation.

And so it's beyond just the blind resume screening as people like to say and everybody does one or two workshops on unconscious bias and they think they have earned their stripes and they've done all the things.

That's not really what it is, it's really thinking about, how do [00:11:00] we really take a hard look at what some of the root causes of inequity are when it comes to recruiting and talent acquisition?

How do we make sure that we're working with our hiring managers, that they are right there with us while we're doing these targeted sourcing jams, while we are making sure we're building balanced candidate pools, while we're really thinking through what are the core competencies required for somebody to be successful in a role and by and large.

Are there things that people can actually learn on the job are there things that we can invest in for folks and so we've [00:11:30] done everything from building out various apprenticeship programs to our internship programs and then of course, just being very intentional when we're going out in hiring at every level of the organization.

But it also means that we are taking time to invest in our talent at every stage of that employee life cycle and so it means even coming in from the beginning, how well do we equip people to make sure that they are [00:12:00] able to do their best work right here?

They're being challenged as much as they are feeling fulfilled in the work that they're doing and that they have a clear line of sight from the work that they're doing every day all the way up through the mission of the organization and we tell people all the time when we embrace this principle of equity.

I mean, it's like, yeah, we'll offer this broad suite of benefits and perks and learning opportunities and many of them you might not take advantage of, but the reason that they're there is because there are so many different people here [00:12:30] and we want to give people the individual resources that they need to be their most successful selves at Blend.

And most importantly that they retain those skills and they retain a positive experience if and when they leave.

I think we have to as an industry and just broadly really rethink retention, this notion of retention.

We talk about retention only about people staying at the organization and we all know that there are many many great [00:13:00] reasons why we want people to stay at the organization particularly on the business side if we want to be Frank and talk about just the sheer cost of hiring-

Janelle St. Omer: And rehiring and training.


Ulysses Smith:


It feels terrible that there's something in our org that we poured this much money into all this talent and people have left well, one that means you should probably think about what's going on the side of your culture if you're seeing that really high turnover, absolutely but more importantly, we should be creating a place where people [00:13:30] can really say that they're from, and that they're proud to be from.

I would much rather somebody say that I left Blend because I felt like I was so much better prepared for this next step in my career, taking on this more senior role with this broader scope of responsibilities because Blend opened my eyes to other possibilities and I felt like I have a competence to take that on and I would still recommend anybody to start their career at Blend or they'll work [00:14:00] at Blend.

It that's very different than somebody leaving because they said, "I had to get out of there.

I had to get out of there." That's not what we want people to retain, we want people to retain that experience.

So while I hope people say, I have no expectations that we're going to see a huge swath of people retire from Blend any time soon.

So we have to rethink that as we're thinking about equity and as we're thinking about people being able to maintain stable employment and build that generational wealth over time and Blend is a huge indicator [00:14:30] of that. So that's how we think about becoming this equitable employer of the future. It's very different than many other organizations.

Janelle St. Omer:

Very, very, it really is but I actually really appreciate that because you're completely turning, to your point, you're turning the concept of retention on its head and it's kind of like what we do at Benevity in working with all of our different client partners.

The way that we see it, when we're helping a company to empower their people to find their personal passions and get connected with community, that shouldn't necessarily [00:15:00] be tied to your company. 

You should be giving them the education and the awareness to help them become familiar with the social issues that are at play and help them to see themselves as an individual who can impact those issues regardless of where they work.

So the perks that perhaps your company offers around social impact and CSR, shouldn't be the reason why someone's a volunteer or a donor, they should be a volunteer and a donor because they understand the issues and they want to get behind it in a very meaningful way.

So that's kind of how [00:15:30] we think about it at Benevity as well and I love how you're thinking about retention.

Ulysses Smith: Yeah absolutely. Spot on. I should just tell you keep preaching.

Janelle St. Omer:

I love it. So tell me for you guys,

How does your community investment strategy tie into your diversity equity and inclusion strategy?

Ulysses Smith:

It's something that you just touched on.

I think it's so critical that we shape ourselves and I should say at [00:16:00] the start, a huge part of our diversity inclusion and belonging strategy in our broader kind of impact strategy has always been to demonstrate community investment and social impact in community investment for that matter.

It's critical to me in my own background, as a city planner, reformed, as a city planner that we never tell communities what's best for them without ever asking and without ever [00:16:30] engaging and it's critical that we are very inclusive of the communities in which we're present and we're making a positive impact there, our impact can't be in that we only displaced people when we entered into a community, that can't be what are our reputation is as an organization.

Not just as an employer but really just as an organization, as a company, that's not who I want us to be and thankfully the people at Blend are so behind a very [00:17:00] clear set of values and I think we do a really good job in hiring for values alignment that keeps us on track there.

So when it comes to how we actually are living that out, we launched recently Blend Impact which is our overall kind of environmental, social and governance function as part of my work.

So it's definitely inclusive of our diversity inclusion and belonging work that it expands that to a degree that I think [00:17:30] we're all really excited to really take on at this point.

So like I mentioned earlier, it has a lot to do with the product itself and how we're actually reaching various communities.

And it also really encourages folks, our employees to really start to be more intentional about the role that they have in making a difference in areas that are really important to them and so we've signed onto Pledge 1% where we have dedicated 1% of our employee time to [00:18:00] volunteer in something that they can use throughout the year a volunteer time off and that's really important and we're doing our best to start to align around very specific causes particularly those in the homeownership and vertical or in the financial services area.

So we successfully had our first Blend Gives Back day of service in June-

Janelle St. Omer:  Congratulations.

Ulysses Smith:

Which is really exciting for us.

Thank you. Thank you.

It was really exciting for us to be able [00:18:30] to do that and really focus on those experiencing homelessness in particular.

We're based in the San Francisco Bay Area, we also have a presence in New York City and we know both of those jurisdictions have really high rates of folks experiencing homelessness and when we again talk about equity. 

We really have to think through what are the root causes of this, of people not being able to obtain home ownership as [00:19:00] opposed to continuing to treat symptoms.

And so we encourage employees, we want you to volunteer but we also really want to be very deliberate and intentional about some of the legislation we might be able to get behind about helping to be part of the targeted solutions that will help alleviate some of these social ills that we're seeing because that's really important to think about.

So I'm excited about what's to come as we continue to build out a variety of programming in this area [00:19:30] and I know our employees are ready to take on a ton of things.

I get a ton of inquiries all the time about various campaigns and things like that people want to get involved in and the only downside is it just isn't enough time in the day to do this as much as I think we all want to do.

Janelle St. Omer:

Well, that's fantastic and I think a couple of things that you said really struck me the first being even how you would have approached some of your city planning work, that you don't go into the community and say, "This is what you need."

I think that [00:20:00] that's such an important piece and an approach that the companies who are really doing community investment well, they have that lens to their work.

They understand that working with the nonprofits who are part of that community and really collaborating to actually come together as a partnership that is based in equity as well.

So you don't have that imbalance of kind of funder-fundee relationship but to really understand what are the needs and how we can as a company get behind your needs as a nonprofit [00:20:30] to really support you.

So I'm all for that and I think the second piece that really struck me is really just thinking about as you're building out your programming, how that can be incorporated more broadly so it's not specific or unique to Blend or even your community but what you do as a business and how that aligns into your social impact and then how that's aligning to your diversity equity and inclusion, it's all perfectly aligned.

[00:21:00] Because sometimes what happens with companies is that your CSR might be silent over here and how you focus on DE&I might be silent over here but I think that you guys have woven a very beautiful thread throughout everything that you're doing, where this is just becoming a part of your brand positioning.

Ulysses Smith:

You said that so well and that's one of the reasons why I constantly tell, I feel like I get asked this question all the time both by candidates and external folks and just folks who are just generally interested in Blend or working with us and it's always, " [00:21:30]

Your role seems very weird. It seems to be positioned in a very weird place in the org. You're not in HR?" I'm like, "No, I'm not in HR."

To be clear, it has nothing to do with the HR profession or nothing to do with HR practitioners.

In fact, they don't get enough investment in startups, many startups don't put enough value on their people organizations particularly at the beginning, they typically wait until something really goes wrong, and they go, "We probably need HR."

That's not [00:22:00] how I think HR should function in my mind what I think is really important for DEI functions and as a practice is that we get out of HR because of just like you said,

it's really important that we're positioned in a way that very clearly threads that needle from everything that we do in the DEI space all the way back up to the mission and that should apply to every function of the business and including with our external audiences and that is something that takes a lot of time and attention to do really well.

[00:22:30] We're working on building out a function that just looks incredibly different and this team has been incredibly patient with me, I'm very much an acquired taste in case you haven't heard, so this team has definitely been very patient with me because I'm so almost hellbent on we have to build a practice and a function that doesn't look like anywhere else entirely.

We can't do this [00:23:00] anymore and I think we've seen enough of what that looks like so why do we keep replicating the same structures that we know don't work, that we know don't yield a one diverse workforce and don't yield outcomes in the market that we're looking for.

So I'm very proud to say in the two years I've been at Blend, we went from a population of a workforce that had roughly 9% underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities inclusive of Black African-American folks, Hispanic Latinx folks, [00:23:30] indigenous peoples native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders from barely 9% to a quarter of our workforce identifying as such.

We went from having 29% of our workforce identifying as women and non binary folks to now 45% of our workforce identifying as such and people are always saying it's so hard to find that talent and it's like, no it's not, actually you just weren't looking.

You just have to be intentional.

[00:24:00] We've been out here for ages, you just have to be intentional and the same should be said for any of our strategies since they pertain to our external audiences and our partners, how we engage with communities, how we engage with our customers and other folks in this ecosystem is just as important.

And so we are very clear that we have this value of confident humility where we definitely set these ambitious goals and we definitely know that they're going to be challenging to get to.

We know that there's a team of brilliant people that we get to work with but [00:24:30] we don't have all the answers, we don't have all the answers and we definitely will make mistakes and we are but a very small part of an entire ecosystem.

Blend itself is not going to undo multiple centuries, several centuries worth of inequity and exclusion.

But what we can do is help to be a driver and a catalyst for our industry partners as well as our banks, our banking customers and financial institutions to actually get on board with us to our [00:25:00] equitable ecosystem initiative and help to drive a lot of this change and impact and that's going to take some time but I definitely think it's possible for us to do, if I have anything to do with it.

Janelle St. Omer:

I definitely think so too. I think you guys have the right idea.

You have the right hearts, directionally, you're certainly heading in the right direction.

So you touched on something that I want to really expand on, you talked about it will have its challenges.

So tell me about some of those challenges and how have you overcome them and then for a company that's on there [00:25:30] at the beginning of their journey, what advice do you have?

What are some challenges Blend had to overcome for their DE&I journey?

Ulysses Smith:

Challenges can be bucketed and in so many respects, I think personally it comes to the challenges of just the DEI practice and I go back to that org structure and support.

The best things about Blend is that I never had to explain the business case for my work or what I did or the reasons behind it because it was so embedded in the mission as we discussed a little earlier, that doesn't mean that it's been extremely easy [00:26:00] to get everything done.

I think there are always challenges, there's always a little resistance when it comes to this work and that's just to be expected, you're doing a lot of change management and in some cases you're really challenging some of the ways that a business is fundamentally operating, in some respects and sometimes you have lead with a lot of influence, with authority sometimes.

Go meet people where they are, take them by the hand and walk them to where you need them to be.

[00:26:30] I'm not someone who's going to drag anybody, I really think I can give people the tools that they need to make the change but they ultimately have to sit down and do that introspection and make the changes themselves.

But we've given all of our leadership team, all of our executives a lot of flexibility when it comes to choosing the initiatives that they undertake under our DEI model and that framework.

And so yes, we set broad aspirational goals [00:27:00] for us as an organization that are definitely more long-term but each of these leaders, they're still required to select those three initiatives that they are things that get to be specific to their organization.

And so if the sales team isn't hiring 200 people but engineering is, then they probably shouldn't have the same goal at all, they probably shouldn't have that same goal but this also give sales the opportunity to really talk about what's our strategy, right?

Our engagement strategy, when it comes to actually reaching minority depository institutions or community development [00:27:30] financial institutions or for the product team to really talk about some of the features that they can build that will enable more equitable outcomes.

That's a big shift for a lot of people because it's really difficult for people to start to think through what the practical application of DEI is outside of HR, outside of just the workforce piece and it's been a challenge to try to get people to that point of practical application.

But we've made such significant progress in that area [00:28:00] and that's what I hope, I have my own shortcomings.

I'm pretty direct as a communicator so that can sometimes be a bit rough with people so there's that, but I also, I'm not incredibly well versed on every product development process or every sales process and every kind of market strategy and so there's a lot of learning that I haven't gotten the chance to do and still have the opportunity to do both as a practitioner and just [00:28:30] as a lifelong student.

So that's exciting.

Advice for companies starting their DE&I journey

To your second point what to tell companies starting out, just start.

I think, I've seen all the time in my feed on LinkedIn and otherwise where people are saying, well X folks engaged me as a consultant and they weren't ready for XYZ things and I'm like, we should really unpack this notion of ready.

It's like, at what [00:29:00] point is somebody ready to have a really difficult conversation and do that introspection, it's really hard to say but if you never take the time to just work with people and say, it's probably time we start thinking about this just a little differently, it's probably time that we start to just evaluate this piece or really just do a survey, figure out who's here?

What's our workforce?

What are we looking to achieve?

I think that's a place to start and so where companies should start is [00:29:30] really thinking through what their mission is, what their values are, and where they want to be?

Who do you want to be as an organization and where do you want to be?

And everything after that should really flow into this and start to think about who are the audiences you'll be reaching.

Are you going to be reaching everybody the same way or do those different audiences have unique needs?

And that's both from a customer or consumer perspective as much as it is from a talent acquisition perspective and that's where I think [00:30:00] people have to start before they just jump into, "We want to change everything."

Because doing DEI work isn't just all of the stuff you get to see in the news or that's in our public discourses. A lot that happens behind the scenes to get people to that point and if you're only looking at those big lofty things that are always in the public discourse.

And these very high goals everybody wants to have around pay equity and gender parity and all these other things which are absolutely important, [00:30:30] don't get me wrong, you all better get there but you're always going to feel defeated, you're always going to feel like those goals are insurmountable.

You'd have to start where your company is and if you really take the time to be intentional about baking that into your core mission and value system.

you'll have a lot easier chance of getting there because people actually will be way more attracted to either working for you a company and as an organization and being part of that journey to get you there than they would otherwise.

Especially if they feel like you're at a place [00:31:00] or you're a company who's just actively trying to repair these relationships with communities because you've broken that trust as we've seen people have started waking up to over the last year and a half or so.

Janelle St. Omer: Very true.

Ulysses Smith: But you didn't hear that from me.

Janelle St. Omer:

I think the point that you talked about is where a lot of folks get stuck, it's the practical application of it.

Theoretically and conceptually we can all agree I think to certain principles but when it actually comes down to the practices, what does that actually look [00:31:30] like?

What does that mean for what we do every single day, how we think every single day, how we design every single day, that's where the rubber hits the road, as they say and it can really get difficult.

So some really really great tidbits I think that you shared and also for companies who are starting out. So thank you.


Janelle St. Omer:

As you think to sort of the next two to three years, what does your commitment to DEI and B at Blend look like for you? What are you excited about and what has you a little bit anxious?

What does Blend's commitment to DE&I look like over the next

2-3 years?

Ulysses Smith:

The thing that actually has me both excited and anxious, like I mentioned, recently we launched Blend Impact which is pretty new for us.

I shouldn't say it's new, the programmatic framing is new but it's a lot of work that we typically have already [00:32:30] been doing.

This just gives us a big carve out in terms of our resourcing and really a much clearer focus on how we get that work done.

So the thing that's really exciting is that now we've gotten so much interest from our customers and so many other industry partners to really be part of this, this aspect of working together with partners and banks, regulatory bodies and agencies [00:33:00] to really start to think through what are the things we can build that will enable much more equitable outcomes for borrowers.

As we all look across the ecosystem to reduce the black-white homeownership gap in particular but I should say the homeownership gap in general just as well as that wealth gap.

And we've been citing the 2020 study by Citigroup that showed if Black folks in particular had actually been fully included [00:33:30] in all aspects of society particularly financial services, we're seeing $5 trillion in additional GDP added to the United States.

And so that's a pretty big number that we've let go as a nation, as a society, and we have to think through what does full participation from everybody really look like?

And so that's really exciting when you get to work with so many interested people and organizations who really want to be part of [00:34:00] affecting that change, that's exactly what has me anxious about it.

Things like now the pressure is on to really make sure we're delivering, to really make sure we're delivering and like I said we're a very small actor in this entire ecosystem.

And so I don't want people to walk away from this thinking Blend, we're the only ones who are going to be changing the world, no this requires a lot of active and consistent involvement from everybody [00:34:30] to really effect this change.

What makes me anxious is are we going to see interest wane over time because society has moved on to the next thing or because some other issue has taken precedence in the world.

Will we then forget about the long-standing inequities or will we turn around and say, it turns out that was actually too hard and we don't want to do that.

So that actually [00:35:00] has me very nervous as I've told the people and started writing things.

The scariest unintended consequence of 2020 for me was corporate diversity work in 2021, that was one of the scariest things to me was to see how companies who've made these lofty commitments would then turn around and it become a big marketing ploy in the next year and nobody will [00:35:30] sustain that commitment.

And we always have to remember that there are people on the other side of these transactions.

There are people on the other side of this DEI work who often are the ones who are always being the poster children for whatever ill is going on and then we want to show all these success stories, but then it's only when it comes time to market.

It's not when it comes time to actually do the hard work and stay there and actually work [00:36:00] with people to affect that change.

And I hope and I challenge every company who made such lofty commitments to stay the course because it's not going to be easy.

It's definitely going to be hard and it will be disheartening at many turns it will be disheartening and there will be many roadblocks and hurdles but we've got to stay the course in order to really effect the change that we want to see and for all of our organizations to really ultimately see the returns on the investments that I'm sure [00:36:30] we'd all love to see longterm.

So it makes me nervous.

Janelle St. Omer:

You know what I think, I think it's been top of mind for so many not just DE&I professionals around what will 2022 look like?

I mean we kind of had this collective awakening in 2020 and 2021 has been this let's actually kind of figure out where we're going to be now because we made some bold action, we did different things last year so is this going to be a part of [00:37:00] what we keep?

Do we need to toss some elements of it?

And then I feel like 2022 is going to be this time where people are starting to get back into kind of maintenance mode.

So it'll be very interesting to see and I think it's one of the things that gives me pause as well because this is not something that should only be thought about for the minute that is popular in the media this is, to your point, there are very very real impacts and there are people at the end of these stories.

So ensuring that [00:37:30] collective awakening and what that then means in terms of translating that into collective action, long-term collective action, I think is so so important.

So hopefully you and I can have this conversation in 2023 and still be happy with the progress that we've seen from others.

I think the other thing that you said is that it's not Blend alone, it's going to take numerous organizations and people coming together so from your perspective, who else out there is really doing [00:38:00] this right? I'm curious.

What other companies have great DE&I initiatives?

Ulysses Smith: I don't know if I want to name drop.

Janelle St. Omer:

You can have high levels sort of actions that you've seen or observed or perhaps read about if you don't actually want to name drop but I feel like for practitioners out there.

Tt's often important for them to think about if I'm presenting this or building the business case internally to be able to have some proof points this company or these are the things that companies out there are [00:38:30] doing and they're successful because of these reasons, we often hear that at Benevity folks just really wanting to figure out what can I say?

What should I say?

Who should I reference?

So we'd love to hear from a practitioner like yourself, your thoughts on that.

Ulysses Smith:

Let's be clear, I don't think there's any one way to do any of this work and I will never profess to say that the way that I do it or the way we've done it at Blend is necessarily always going to be the right way or right approach [00:39:00] for every organization.

I also really fully appreciate that every org has its own unique challenges and every ecosystem in which you operate has its own unique challenges and circumstances.

I will say, I think there are multiple companies who do certain things very well. I think there are some companies that we've seen for a long time, particularly I'd say in a lot of legacy tech companies, a lot of legacy kind of banking or consulting organizations that have done things around [00:39:30] talent acquisition very well.

From giving us blueprints for really successful apprenticeship programs or internship programs to actually help invest in that skill building and development of a broad array of people from veterans, all the way to other marginalized populations which I think is invaluable and has certainly been a great blueprint for tech even though tech would love to make you believe that we invented this whole practice.

I think [00:40:00] institutions of higher education have also done a really good job in many respects of showing people how to do this work for so many different audiences especially when you have to really implement this for undergraduate students.

And that's very different from grad and professional students, staff, faculty, alumni, donors, all those folks how they've shown you just how you can apply all these principles at the same time and address unique needs of communities, I think that's valuable.

But you also have companies [00:40:30] who've done really well at thinking through product inclusion itself which is a little different than some of the work we're doing at Blend.

When we think about product inclusion, it's really thinking about accessibility, it's thinking about design it's thinking about how people are going to be able to use our product in a way that ultimately helps them get to where they need to be or find things easier, find things that work for them.

And we've seen some companies implement a number of features and changes over the last few years especially in the tech sector that I think have been really impactful. [00:41:00]

Everything from being able to match skin tones with certain things to find the right makeup shades, nobody's still fixed these bags under my eyes but we'll address that another day so many other things, seeing things like that I think seeing those investments.

Many companies have done different things very well, I don't think anybody's gotten everything right yet, I know we're certainly still working our way up to building out a really effective practice overall.

But I hope we can continue to use many of these companies as models and then [00:41:30] of course present our findings and share our findings and our learnings and our mistakes with everybody else so that nobody continues to replicate the the same structures or bad things.

And there are definitely some things that I think we can look back and say, we tried that, we should probably never do it again.

Let's try something else.

That's okay, let's acknowledge it, let's learn from it, let's move on.

I hope other folks will heed this call to action and take a look at what other folks are doing and [00:42:00] I hope other practitioners will continue to lean on one another.

I don't do business competition or anything like that.

I don't think we're all competing for the same talent, I don't know why people keep saying that.

I think we're all looking to overcome a lot of ills in this society and beyond and so we should be working together to make sure that that change is effected and that we never have to continue to see the same barriers [00:42:30] persist over as long a period as they have up until this point.

Janelle St. Omer:

You heard it here first, the challenge has been put out by Ulysses to everybody.

So Blend has just IPO'd congratulations again to all of you on that.

To what extent do you think that your ESG, CSR, DE and I and B, a lot of acronyms in that but basically your strategy contributed to the [00:43:00] success and that milestone for you?

Ulysses Smith:

I wish I could take credit for the IPO but it really wasn't me at all.

What a great team that we've built here and honestly, I think that's the result of extremely principled leadership from Nima and so many others who really kept that foundation as a constant throughout this work and really leaned on this idea and this notion that [00:43:30] the biggest impact we'll be able to have is through our product.

And with that mission and that vision that we have in mind and focusing our efforts on delivering this product and being an incredible partner to our customers, I think that's really what got us to this point and so I'm just happy to be part of a team that is so focused on that.

Like I said, part of Blend Impact, a lot of it's repackaging a lot of the existing work that we've been doing and really giving it way more dedicated [00:44:00] resources.

And the IPO is really in my mind just an opportunity to build that out a bit more.

So now that we've done that we announced Blend Impact a couple of weeks ago shortly after the IPO to let people know that now this is something that we can build out even further.

The opportunity is there for us to do this and because of the IPO there's so [00:44:30] much more that's available to us from the perspective of our customers.

Additional partners we now have access to new markets that we're now part of and able to reach because of this public status and then I hope that the added layer of accountability, the social accountability actually continues to help drive a lot of this and keep us true to the vision that we've laid out here.

So I only see this growing, I always see our impact and [00:45:00] investment in this space and growing over time. It's been growing over the last year, and we've been able to build out a team.

So as we launch our product equity and enablement function, as we really could think through more intentionally around Blend Gives Back as well as really bringing more folks on boards to our equitable ecosystem initiative, I think we're going to see a lot more come from these investments.

So [00:45:30] you stay tuned and just hope that every now and again I take a nap and a vacation and we'll probably both be very happy people.

Janelle St. Omer:

Well, vacations are important so I strongly advocate for that but I do think there are no signs of you guys stopping now at all.

So I for one, I'm certainly excited to see what you're going to continue to do and I do feel like your mission just really baked right into your company.

I feel like that as your [00:46:00] sort of North Star guiding principle, I think just from what I've seen thus far, it will continue to guide you in the right direction so excited to see what comes from it.

Ulysses Smith: Absolutely.

Janelle St. Omer:

So our very last question and thank you so much for your time today, I think our audience can certainly agree this was a fantastic conversation and so many fantastic nuggets from Ulysses on what to do, how to do it, even how to shape your thinking around your DEI and B strategy within your company, regardless of the size [00:46:30] of your organization.

So last but not least, how can folks get in touch with you if they want to ask you questions, if they want to treat you to a coffee to learn from you, how can they get in touch?

Ulysses Smith:

I'm trying to be better at social media but I won't plug Twitter because you'll probably never hear a response from me on there to be fair but LinkedIn is always a great way to reach me and I do my best to get through my messages and to respond to people.

So you just find Ulysses [00:47:00] Smith, there's not too many of us, there are a few but not too many of us, you'll see a great retouched picture somewhere so that it doesn't have these bags but that will be me and I'm always happy to have a conversation to help out where I can if I can be helpful.

We all have things to do but we make time for what we want and at the end of the day, I want to make sure that I'm always sowing good seeds and making a positive impact wherever I can.

So if I can be helpful please just feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn and I'll get back to you [00:47:30] as soon as I can. Like I said, I'm working through the messages and being better at social but we'll get there, it's a journey.

Question of the Day

How have you promoted your diversity equity inclusion programs throughout [00:32:00] your business? What are some of your challenges? 

Connect with Ulysses Smith