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Equity & Belonging Life at Clever

Year in review: Diversity, equity, and inclusion in 2023

December 18, 2023 Amie Ninh

Explore how we evolved our diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in 2023 and learn more about our journey.

In 2023, Clever amplified its focus on systemic change by addressing deeply entrenched patterns. We launched pilots to evaluate performance more fairly, improved our core hiring practices, and emphasized the need to create psychological safety. Clever launched a supplier diversity program and continued its commitment to product equity. We recognized the importance of applying a DE&I lens to various aspects of the organization and celebrated our community’s role in driving DE&I initiatives. This blog post is a summary of what we’ve learned and achieved this year.

New directions for DE&I at Clever 2023

We’ve shared previously that in 2021 and 2022, our DE&I work was more focused on building the right internal infrastructure for our efforts, educating all Cleverites about the role they play in contributing to DE&I and an optimal work environment, and beginning to take a more critical eye toward our people processes and systems. This has been important work. However, one profound belief that we have is that DE&I is not a list of programs or activities. Rather, we must hold strong clarity and conviction that this work is about changing what’s been systemic, patterns deeply entrenched in organizations that may not serve all employees. It’s about examining one’s culture thoroughly, taking a hard look at systems, and shifting everyday practices and behaviors that don’t lead to the outcomes we want.

At Clever, we always try to be honest and transparent that we have a long way to go to reach our aspirations to be an equitable and anti-racist organization. And the work is not easy – In fact, we at Clever must continually persist through our mistakes and failures around DE&I and the competing priorities that inevitably arise. And DE&I work that brings to light the systemic, deep-seated, sometimes hidden dynamics is the type of DE&I work that tests organizations the most, including ours.

To move in this direction, we have to experiment even more than what we’re used to. Thus, 2023 took our DE&I efforts to new levels of experimentation, and we tried new ways of doing, being, and thinking across the organization.

“At Clever, our commitment to DE&I goes beyond just words; it’s a lived reality. Our efforts build an environment for individuals from different departments and backgrounds to come together, freely share our thoughts, experiences, and discoveries. It’s what I’m most proud of.”

-Abby Almontaser, Customer Support

Focus on psychological safety and examining our culture

We introduced the concept of psychological safety more formally to the organization through an all company workshop in 2022 and discussed its strong relationship to DE&I. However, we know that having comprehensive psychological safety across an entire organization – within different teams, cross-functionally, and in broader forums – does not magically happen. And to drive this work a bit deeper, we focused on core facets that lead to more psychological safety, such as the ability to fail and make mistakes, share tough problems and issues, and feel like your unique skills and talents are valued.

As with all organizations, there are important elements that make a culture great and other aspects that may unintentionally exclude. Clever has historically been a highly collaborative and optimistic organization, which is still true and is exemplified by our culture tenets! At the same time, this aspect of our culture can also mean that we lean toward talking about what’s going well, experience more hesitation to bring up concerns, tend to avoid conflict, and have a hard time sharing important critical feedback. A big question we’re asking ourselves is: How might we talk more openly about failures and reframe our view of failure/conflict as productive and part of learning? 

Additionally, psychological safety is not experienced the same by everyone and is completely impacted by one’s social identities. The cost of speaking up and making mistakes are different for those in historically marginalized groups, particularly for women and people of color, than those in more systematically advantaged groups. This understanding must be baked into any psychological safety work an organization pursues.

Through our company offsites, we introduced new tools to have difficult conversations, understand the spectrum of failure, contextualize psychological safety in light of historically marginalized and advantaged social identities, and uncover what can impede our desires for change. That said, one-size-fits all solutions only can take us so far. And, of course, adopting new tools into our everyday behaviors and practices takes time. The challenges that impede psychological safety may vary across immediate teams and cross-functional teams.

Through a workstream focused on a more inclusive and equitable culture, we are leaning into this idea and testing more tailored solutions to diagnose psychological safety challenges and build customized plans for teams. We are also exploring more ways to increase recognition opportunities, so all Cleverites feel they are valued and have contributed to the company in meaningful ways.

We will continue these efforts into 2024.

Rethink and redesign: People processes and systems

Equitable performance management

In 2022, we engaged in a yearlong process to evaluate our performance and promotion processes through a lens of equity – and we learned a lot about what employees appreciated, their critiques of the process, and approaches that other companies are using. We immediately got to work on more low hanging fruit such as ensuring more consistency in each part of the process and being more transparent about the process. We made significant headway on more “medium”-sized improvements such as redesigning and clarifying what’s expected to progress in our job levels. And then there are more foundational changes that require additional time to decide if it’s the right direction and more education and change management to make happen. So for this year, we built upon the research and insights to launch a series of pilots aimed at the underlying changes around how to more fairly evaluate performance

We also practiced with tools that describe common DE&I dynamics and curated more intentional moments to normalize a culture of interrupting bias. Managers attended training in 2022 around managing equitably and this year, engaged in a series of labs to put key concepts around managing equitably into action in their day to day. We also incorporated key moments for managers to identify, name, and disrupt bias that may emerge in our performance process. Through our learning and development program, we created a bespoke offering for all employees to uplevel one’s DE&I analysis and ability to interrupt bias in various settings.

Hiring and recruiting

For many technology companies, 2023 was a tough year given the macroeconomic climate. Similar to many tech companies, we slowed down external hiring efforts this year. This provided a perfect opportunity to audit and revamp important parts of our recruiting and hiring process. We detail these efforts in our 2023 diversity report.

When hiring Cleverites for the past few years, I have applied our new DE&I strategies to ensure we reach out to more people consistently, and encourage more people to apply. We want to make clear that people from all backgrounds and ethnicities are welcome to be considered for these roles.

– Oscar Sanchez, Engineering

Bridging the gap: Product equity principles and operations

In 2022, we published a set of product inclusion principles to help guide our product decision making in service of more equitable edtech. Through a cross-functional team, we spent this year continuing to operationalize them, attempting to close the gaps between our aspirations and current practices in the product lifecycle. When we have more product equity and inclusion, we’re better able to serve our customers and their needs in the long run.

This year, we identified four areas to accelerate our ability to fully enact these principles for greater customer impact: 

  1. Create a more rigorous and defined process for grappling with complex product decisions that have clear equity implications
  2. Build the internal infrastructure to identify and surface equity issues quicker
  3. Empower our product teams with the right tools to conduct inclusive research
  4.  Increase the opportunities for more direct student and teacher input through levers such as school visits

Of course, there are some critical initiatives, such as our accessibility work, that have been well-established for several years and remain a focus.

Lastly, we know that our internal communities, such as employee resource groups (ERGs), can be a key partner in identifying improvements that can lead to better products that serve all. As our ERGs have matured and grown over the last few years, they’ve leveraged their lived experiences to consult and make recommendations on products.

Launching our first supplier diversity program

For the first time ever, Clever launched a supplier diversity program. We believe supplier diversity is important for a number of reasons: the positive competition it can create in a historically homogenous supplier group, generation of economic opportunities, new avenues to create partnerships, and for potential means to innovate. And, supplier diversity is a way to have more intentional behaviors and practices that uphold our commitment to DE&I externally. 

Many large organizations already have well established supplier diversity programs. And while we knew that we could certainly learn from the best practices of larger companies, we also simultaneously adapted practices to fit our smaller company context. Through an evaluation of current suppliers, we made some key findings this year around our patterns of partnering and spending, which will inform the direction of our efforts next year and beyond.

This work is just beginning, and we’re eager to learn from other smaller technology companies about their efforts. 

During the pandemic, I heard teachers urging edtech companies to use their power for a greater good—a sentiment I fully supported. That’s why I jumped in to help launch Clever’s supplier diversity program, aimed at more mindful company spending.

-Erin Browner, Marketing

Reflections from the year

Expand the aperture of what constitutes DE&I work

Building DE&I into the fabric of an organization means that we have to see DE&I work in a different light. When leaders think about DE&I work, the first things that usually come top of mind are employee resource groups and recruitment/hiring work. Even at Clever, early conceptions of DE&I focused on these elements. And don’t get me wrong: These are absolutely critical facets of DE&I work and should continue, be elevated, and supported. 

That said, we’ve learned that we have to talk about and think about our DE&I efforts in a more expansive way. There are pieces of DE&I work that may not feel like the obvious or traditional type of DE&I work but are critical to ensuring more optimal workplace conditions where all, regardless of background, can thrive. In fact, technically, pretty much anything could be considered DE&I work because DE&I is primarily an approach and lens that can be applied to many contexts, situations, and even job functions.

For example, culture change work cannot be done as effectively without a lens around DE&I. Learning and development cannot be done as effectively without a lens around DE&I. To manage or lead a team effectively, one must have a DE&I lens.

Ambiguity is an opportunity

It’s probably apparent by now that at Clever, we don’t shy away from experimentation or venturing to try new things! We think this is something in our culture to be preserved. But, trying new things does not mean taking uninformed guesses.

As in the case of our new supplier diversity efforts, part of experimentation involved learning best practices from others and then adapting to what would work for us. This is also true of our equitable performance management efforts; in our pilots, we melded what research tells us about equitable and fair performance management with what’s worked well in other organizations, and modified for our organizational context.

An important point we’ve been reflecting on is that when wading through the ambiguity and complexity, we need to recognize there are many potential pathways. There’s not “one right way.” We have to make pivots where needed and constantly evaluate the pathway.

Infrastructure and strong community are key

Last, but definitely not least, we could not forge into new DE&I territories without the incredible foundation and strong community of Cleverites who are deeply passionate about DE&I and are heavily involved

Our employee resource groups are a bedrock at Clever and support our internal communities in profound ways. We would not have steady footing to enact other types of change at Clever without them.

We also have Cleverites who have other full-time roles but who make time to support our most critical DE&I efforts through a model where anyone can join a DE&I working group, focused on a specific project, for the year and contribute to DE&I in concrete ways. This has created a community of people who are driving toward the same goals. 

And in fact, our greatest learning over the last few years has been that the most significant and powerful DE&I work happens in community.

We look forward to the impact that we can continue to drive around DE&I in 2024.

To learn more about DE&I at Clever, visit our website.

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