Zach speaks with Lionel Lee, Zillow Group‘s Head of Diversity Engagement, and they discuss his unique personal career journey up to this point. Lionel details what influence and coalition-building look like in his position, and he also shares some of the things that he’s been able to do at Zillow that he believes have helped to improve the sense of belonging and inclusiveness for black and brown folks in the workplace.
Connect with Lionel on LinkedIn!
Sheneisha: Hey, y’all. Sheneisha here with Living Corporate. As you know, we’re about having real talk in a corporate world. With that in mind, before we get into this amazing discussion with Lionel Lee, we want to let you know this content makes mention of violence, which may be upsetting, so if you’re listening with some little ones, discretion is advised.
Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with the Living Corporate podcast, and of course you know what we do. We have interviews, conversations, right, that serve to amplify the voices of black and brown folks at work. And what do I mean by that? I mean we typically have black and brown folks, leaders, executives, creatives, entrepreneurs, you name it, on the show, having real conversations about real topics, and today is no different. We actually have with us today a very special guest. I’m very excited to speak with this person. I’ve been in contact with him for a little while, and I’m excited just to, like, get him on the show, ’cause, like, we’ve been texting, and then we talk on LinkedIn, and then, you know, we’ve been trying to coordinate. Even today we were coordinating back and forth. Lionel Lee. Lionel Lee is the head of diversity engagement at Zillow Group. He provides career development support to underrepresented employees and works with executives to develop equity and belonging policies to improve employee experiences. He also serves as a connecter between employees and community organizations. Prior to joining Zillow Group, he worked in talent acquisition, sourcing candidates across technology and banking industries. Okay, so really quick y’all, all of that to say he’s by the people, for the people, you see what I’m saying? Okay. Helping communities has always been a constant throughout his life. Lionel has created and developed community groups that promote health and wellness. He’s worked with HIV/AIDS education groups, substance abuse/addiction organizations, as well as health groups for youth. Lionel immigrated to the United States from Korea at age 5. His experiences growing up in south-central Los Angeles and later in the projects of Honolulu, Hawaii–I’m gonna ask a question about that in a little bit–helped nurture his passion for community building. With all that being said, Lionel, welcome to the show. How are you doing?
Lionel: I’m doing well, man. Thank you. Appreciate it.
Zach: Now, look, you know, of course I’ve got all of these questions for you and everything, but the first thing I gotta ask – you talked about the projects of Honolulu. Hawaii has projects?
Lionel: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah, Honolulu has projects, and growing up there in the ’70s and partial ’80s, yeah, it was kind of rough, ’cause most people don’t know about that, ’cause what they see about Honolulu and hear about Honolulu is it’s just a paradise, but it’s not really a paradise for all. You know, the level of poverty there, still to this day, is [amazing?], but back then it was like–where I grew up, in Kalihi–Kalihi is a town right outside of Waikiki, and it’s–the projects are called Kuhio Park Terrace. We call it KPT, or Killer Park Terrace. Kill People Today. That’s what it was, and I lived on the 16th floor, and I had to actually walk up the stairs to get to my apartment because there was a young lady that got her head cut off in the elevator, so the parents and kids, you know, catch the elevator. And then, you know, you have the same stuff that you have in a lot of different projects. You know, you have a lot of drug abuse, and, you know, you have people defecating in the stairwells. So that was the smell you walked into every single day. The crazy thing is that the dude that cut off the woman’s head lived two doors down from me. And he kept it. Kept the head.
Lionel: He kept the head. But, um…
Zach: Whoa, whoa, whoa. I’m sorry. Wait, wait, wait. You said he kept the head?
Lionel: He kept the head. He was–he was a Cambodian dude, and he was just mentally disturbed, you know? He just had some serious stuff going on, and he kept the head, and we found out, like, you know, two weeks after it had happened, you know? That was–it was a very different kind of place. Very violent. You can still look up–actually, you can go on YouTube and look up videos from Kuhio Park Terrace, and they’ll show you videos of what it’s like at KPT to this day.
Zach: To this day. That is–that is–wow, that is shocking. I’ma tell you, you know, Lionel, in your short 3 minutes of being on the Living Corporate podcast, you have given us the most gangsta introduction we’ve ever had. And I’m not making light of anything. I’m just taken–I’m very taken aback by this. Wow.
Lionel: Yeah, I don’t have the typical–you know, I don’t have the pedigree of someone that’s in my position, definitely. I’m not–you know, I just wasn’t raised like that. I wasn’t–you know, I didn’t think I was gonna go to college. I didn’t go to college. I didn’t get a degree. You know, I had to work and do all of that kind of stuff. It’s just I was given certain opportunities and took advantage of every single one, you know? Made the very best that I could, and I’ve always had a tremendous work ethic, you know? Just, you know, been out of my house since I was 17 years old. I’ve lived in my car for, like, three days, just so I can be out here, you know, just doing my thing. You know, just doing my thing and just trying to keep it moving.
Zach: Wow. Well, kind of to start there, let’s talk a little bit about that. So you’ve started on that path, but kind of talk to us about your journey from Hawaii to the head of diversity and engagement at Zillow. What did that look like?
Lionel: I was a gogo dancer at one time. That was pretty weird. I’ve done everything, man. Like, I can do stuff around my house–like, right now I’m remodeling my house, and my kids will be like, “Where’d you learn how to do that?” And I’m like, “Man, it wasn’t nothing about learning. I just had to survive.”
Zach: Wait, wait, wait. So let’s take a step back. You said you were–you were a what dancer?
Lionel: I was a gogo dancer for a little bit. [Zach laughs] Yeah, when I was, like, young, you know, and that kind of stuff. So I was raised extremely religious. My grandfather is a Baptist minister, and I was raised in the church, so we didn’t go out and do that kind of stuff a lot, you know? And I went to, like, school dances every once in a while, and I always liked to dance, so as soon as I got out of my house and, you know, I didn’t have nobody telling me what I could and could not do, you know, I got caught up in the dance club scene for a while, and I was going there a lot, and the dude that owned the club, you know, he asked me one day if, you know, I’d want to just come in and, you know, get paid for it, right? But it was like–I don’t know if you remember. I don’t know how old you are, but–
Lionel: There was this one dance that I was really good at. It was The Prep. I don’t know if you remember what The Prep is.
Zach: Nah, what’s The Prep?
Lionel: It’s just a dance that, you know, like, a lot of black folks did, you know, back then. You know, I’d have to show it to you in order for you to know what it was, but people around my age group, they know what that dance is, and I was really good at it. You can be extremely creative with it, you know? So the dude just kind of, you know–and I didn’t paid, like, a lot. It was–like, that was my part-time gig. My full-time gig was, you know, managing the Church’s Fried Chicken, which was down the street from the club, right? So after work at Church’s Fried Chicken I would shoot over there, and back then they would throw some, you know, neon sweater or some shit on me, and then I’d get on there and, you know, do my thing. [both laugh] So yeah, that’s a snippet of my background, but the way that I got into where I’m at now is–the funny thing is I met a dude on a basketball court, right, like, when I was in my late twenties, and it was one of those stereotypical things, you know? I got into a fight with this dude on the basketball court, you know? Like, you know, you get into a fight on the basketball court, they find out you can fight, and then all of a sudden everybody wants to be your friend, right? So dude wanted to be my friend. He was a white dude, and I had never had too much interaction with white people honestly, and definitely not on a personal, you know, like, friendship level. That just wasn’t the way I was raised. So I was kind of cautious, and at that time I worked for an organization called Street Outreach Services, and it was an HIV/AIDS prevention organization. It was led by this amazing sister from Brooklyn. Her name was Amani Wood. She recently passed, like, a couple years ago, and I consider her one of the strongest individuals I’ve ever met and was lucky enough to have her as a mentor for a very large portion of my life. But anyway, she and I were working together, and then I came up with this crazy idea that what we should be doing is we should be documenting, you know, crack addicts and crack dealers under the age of 18, ’cause that’s a group that we were not capturing. So the city of Seattle liked the idea. My organization liked the idea. So I ended up doing that for about 2.5 years. So I was going into crack houses and stuff, like, you know, at 3:00 a.m., you know, 4:00 a.m., and dealing with a whole bunch of kids, and I dealt with the kids–I mean, I had one sister, her name was Beautiful, literally, and she was 13 years old, you know? She was 13 years old with a baby and she was a crack addict, and she was a crack dealer. So, you know, I had to deal with that, and that kind of stuff is emotionally extremely taxing, and the–I just couldn’t do it as–I couldn’t put as much of myself into it as I was, so I was starting to get burnt out, and dude–you know, he was a recruiter, this white dude that I had met, right? He was like, “Hey, you ever thought about, like, recruiting?” And I was like, “I don’t even know what that is, man.” And he brought me up to his office to show me what he did, and, like, a lot of young black men and young black women and kids that come from, you know, lesser economic areas, you know, when I saw a computer I thought, “Nah, I can’t do that,” you know? ‘Cause, you know, “Computers are magic, right?” They’re not meant for me. They’re meant for, like, geniuses, right? You know, “Black kids can’t do math.” You know, “Black kids can’t do this kind of stuff,” and I bought into a lot of that. I bought into a lot of that kind of stuff. But I had a two-year-old child, so I had to do something, you know? ‘Cause I wasn’t making enough money, and I wanted him to have a better lifestyle than I did growing up. So I took him up on it, and, you know, I shot across the bridge over into Bellevue from Seattle, and then–I don’t know if you know Seattle, but in Seattle you have east side and west side, and when you go across that bridge, man, it’s completely different. Extremely affluent. Very, very white. You know, as a brother back in the, you know, ’90s, you couldn’t be on that side if you weren’t an athlete, right, or somebody else, you know, that they recognized, because if you were a black person that they didn’t recognize, the cops would give you a hard time. Like, literally. They would follow you around and stuff, right? But I went over there and I interviewed, and I interviewed with, like, nine blonde-haired, blue-eyed women, man, sitting around the table. I was like, “Man, I don’t know if I want to do this,” and they offered me the job, you know? And I was like, “Whoa, what do I do now?” And at that same time I was actually interviewing with the fire department, and walking out of that office–I drove, like, this beat up 1984 Volvo, you know? And when I say it was beat up, I mean it was *beat up*. There was 100 and something thousand miles on it. The paint was peeling, you know? That kind of stuff, you know? I put on the best clothes that I had at that time.
Zach: That was a bucket.
Lionel: It was a bucket. Man, it was a buck-et. And I’m walking out, and every car in the parking lot was like Mercedes, Audis, BMWs, you know, that kind of stuff, and I was like, “I don’t know, maybe I can do this.” And so I accepted and started there, and struggled, man–I struggled a lot. I mean, I struggled so bad the first three months. There’s a very large organization. It’s called EDP Contract Services. Now I think they’re called TAC Worldwide, and it’s one of the largest recruiting organizations in the world. At that time, I forget exactly how many people they had, but I know that at one time I was ranked, like, something like 2000th or something out of the company of recruiters, and by the time–I had to make a decision at one point because–you know, because I was basically told that I could be pretty successful in this if I got the street out of my voice, right? So I started [?]–you know, I went home and was, like, frustrated over it, you know? And my girl at that time, she was pretty hood too, so she was like, “[BLEEP] them. You know, we can sue them. Blah, blah, blah, blah,” you know? But I went to bed with my two-year-old son, you know, and I was like, “Man, I’ve got to do something.” So I made up my mind. You know, I made up my mind that okay, well, this is what I’m gonna do, and I walked into the office the next day–I got there at 6:00 in the morning. Nobody was there. And I didn’t leave until, like, 8:00 at night, and then I did that for, like, a whole year, and I became #2 in the company, and my income went up something like 300% in a year.
Zach: Goodness gracious.
Lionel: Mm-hmm. And so I figured out that yeah, I can do this. And then I went to–excuse me, sorry. I went to San Francisco right after that. I got recruited by a staffing firm there. I didn’t like them too much, so I started my own staffing firm. We did $2.5 million in our second year of business, and that was just, like, you know, three of us, right? And then we added some people on and that kind of stuff. Then I came back to Seattle and, again, you know, got recruited by another company and became the manager for recruiting for a startup during the dot-com era. I was killing it there, then the dot-com bubble burst, and then I went to Washington Mutual as their diverse executive recruiter, and that was probably one of the worst work experiences I’ve ever had, ’cause what happened–what happened was they wanted this person, but one of the head people in this department didn’t want this person. They didn’t feel the need for a diversity executive recruiter. So they waited for her to go on maternity leave and then, behind her back, hired me, right? So my first day of work I’m walking down the hall and this woman walks up to me and she goes, “Who are you?” And I said, “Oh, I’m Lionel Lee.” And she goes, “Well, what do you do?” And I said, “Well, you know, I run diversity executive recruitment here,” and she just looked at me, and I got this, like–it was chilling. Like, this look was crazy, and then the next thing I know, man, like, seven months later or eight months later, you know, maybe close to a year later, you know, the whole group was disbanded and we all had to leave and, you know, go do our own thing. And it was kind of crazy too. The way that they told you was, you know, they asked you to come in for an early morning meeting. I went in for an early morning meeting and they had HR there, and they said it’s disbanded.
Zach: So where does Zillow come into play?
Lionel: 2007 hit, man. 2007, 2008, 2009, you know, and I went through all of my money, and I had to get back to work, you know? So I joined a really small recruiting firm that was, you know, bullshit. They didn’t know what they were doing. [both laugh] But then there was this other recruiting firm that I really wanted and I went and joined them, and they were amazing, and–that’s one of the crazy things too, the dude that hired me–he’s, like, this really young–comparatively. I think he’s, like, you know, close to 40 now–Republican white dude, right? And he hired me on to the company, and I go in there and I’m on the phone the first day, and he said “Hey, Lionel, can I [?] you for a second?” And I was like, “Yeah, what’s up?” And he goes, “Man, who the hell is that on the phone?” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” He goes, “Do you know you sound white?” And I was like, “What?” He goes, “Yeah. When you talk to me normally, you know, we’re fine, but whenever you get on the phone you sound white,” and it’s because of what I learned in the earlier part of my career.
Zach: Code switching, man. Yeah.
Lionel: I was code switching. And I told him, “Well, you know, that’s how–” And he goes, “Nah, man. I don’t think that’s why you’re successful. I would really love to see you be you. I got enough white dudes in my office. That’s why I hired you.” [Zach laughs] And I was like, “Oh, okay,” and then I started really, like, trying to understand what just happened, and the reason I ended up here at Zillow Group–I stayed there for, like, five years, six years, right? And I ended up killing it there. I was always either #1 or #2. And the reason I ended up here is that the person who had hired me on at Washington Mutual, she became the vice president of talent acquisition here at Zillow, and she–I started my own company after a while, again, right, and she was one of my clients, and she asked me to come in, and she said, “Lionel,” you know–this was, like, 2016. “Lionel, we’re really trying to do this diversity thing, man, but we don’t know what we’re doing.” You know, “Would you want to help us?” And I said, “Well, I can put something together.” You know, I talked about it with them a little bit. They wanted me to do it. I couldn’t dedicate time to it ’cause I had my own staffing firm at that time and my staffing firm was doing extremely well, but what happened was that it kind of grabbed a part of me that I didn’t know really existed. My experience in tech as a black man was horrible. I mean, it was horrible, so I decided that, you know, by doing this I would be given an opportunity to better the experiences of other people that are underrepresented in the tech space, right? ‘Cause when I was starting out, you know, there was no other. You know, there was me. There was me, and I was probably the only one that I knew with the exception of, like, one or two that worked in other agencies. But it was me, right? And it was horrible. I hated it. I mean, I couldn’t–there was no way that I could tell somebody that “Yeah, this is a good day.” I woke up every single day begrudging going to work, and eventually I was able to push down to the point where I didn’t realize that, you know, there was a part of me that was always anxious, right? And that’s when I got a chance to change, you know, within this organization, and then what I’m hoping for is that this organization will be–you know, will be, like, a beacon for others to take a look at, right? Like, “What did they do to make a difference?” Right? ‘Cause we did. We changed how we are as a company. We’ve changed the way that we’re perceived. You know, people want to come to work here, you know? That kind of thing, and, you know, the brown and black folks here are much happier now than they were. We know that because I’m very data-driven, and we took some surveys and things like that that let us know that the things we’re doing are working. But that’s how I ended up in this position. And I was a consultant at first, and they–you know, we talked about 20 hours a week. 20 became 40. It became 60. It became an obsession, you know? Because I–you know, I was like, “Ooh, I get a chance to–“
Zach: Really move the needle in some way, yeah.
Lionel: Yeah. Not just move the needle, but, you know, just–you know, we talk a lot in those kind of terms, right? Like, “move the needle,” you know, that kind of stuff, and the way that I looked at it was never really like that, you know? The way that I was looking at it was, you know, “Improve the day-to-day experience of the underrepresented worker going into the tech space.” That was my–that’s my driver, right? The way that I describe what I do is that my job is to make sure that everybody that comes to work is happy and feels like they belong. That’s my job. That is my job, and I–I don’t like to say I love my job, because I don’t think in that way, but I’m extremely proud of what we’ve done here at Zillow Group. I’m extremely proud, and I’m hoping to continue on this path and, you know, continue to make us an employer of choice.
Zach: [applause sfx] I mean, what can I say? I mean, I hear you. This is incredible. Look, I have another question, but I want to get into this really quick though. You talked about some of the things that y’all are doing here and, like, they’ve been serving well. What are some of those things that you’ve been able to do at Zillow that you believe have helped to improve the sense of belonging and inclusiveness for black and brown folks?
Lionel: Well, that was the thing, right? ‘Cause one of the things that they had asked me to do was go out and find best practices, and the crazy thing is that there were no best practices ’cause nobody was really killing it. Nobody’s numbers said that they were killing it, right? So I had to come up with my own stuff, but what that gave me was green fields. So I could do a couple things. So one of the first things that I did is I was walking through the office one day–and we had this wall of speakers, right? And the speakers–I looked at that wall, and it’s a pretty big wall of all of these, you know, headshots of all of these speakers that we’ve had come into the office, and I was like, “Damn, every single person on there is white.” Like, literally. Like, every single person on there is white except for one brother that we had, and of course he was a football player, right?
Zach: Of course. Of course.
Lionel: Right? And I was like, “Come on, man.” You know? So I changed that immediately. That was one of my goals, to change that, and I did that. You know, we brought in people like Van Jones. We brought in people that were from the Islamic community. We brought in people from the Latinx community. Totally changed that whole landscape, right? And then we started talking about, like, just simple things like events, you know? Because that’s one of the things that tech companies are known for, right? We have these crazy-ass parties where everybody has a good time, but not everybody gets down like that, you know what I mean? Like, I didn’t grow up that way, you know? I don’t go out and–you know, I’m not one of those people that like to [imbibe?] in that way and that’s how I party. That’s not how I do. I like the music. I like to dance. I like that kind of stuff, you know? And I’m not saying that we’re all the same, but there are certain foundational pieces that make us a little bit the same. [?], right? And so we started throwing, like, parties, but I would tell the dudes that came in–I started going out and creating relationships with external organizations that were representative of underrepresented groups within our company. So we had professional organizations that I went and made agreements with, and then they would come in and they would throw the parties. And they asked me, they said, “Well, how black do you want this to be?” [both laugh] And I was like, “I want it to be as black as you want to make it.”
Zach: Right. It needs to be black black, with a Q.
Lionel: It needs to be, ’cause you have people here from, you know, predominantly black areas, right? You’ve got a kid that grew up in a predominantly black area. He goes to an HBCU, you know, does really well there, and then all of a sudden he’s thrown into this, right, where he’s one of–I think we’re at, like, 9% or something like that, right? We’re still improving in that area, right? And then he’s just got to, like, hang out and do what these guys do? You know, why don’t we give him some of what he had back home? You know, why don’t we create a sense of community for him, you know what I mean? And we did that, and then we started taking a look at some of the things–and it’s all from my own experience, right? One of the things that really bothered me is, like, when all of the brothers was getting shot, you know, I felt completely alone in the office, and I had nobody to talk to about it, right? And what we did is we started–we created a forum here where people can–when things like that happen, for example when the El Paso shooting happened recently, you know, we had a forum here inside the office where people from the Latinx community could get together, along with people that were not from that community but allies that were in positions of power and strength here at the company, we all got together and we had a conversation, and we, you know, basically video-taped everybody in from all the other offices, and we had this, you know, straight up conversation about what this feels like, and that made a difference in people’s experience, right? And then we talked about “How do we do our recruiting?” We started taking a look at–I started taking a look at how we do the recruiting in the first place, right? Many of our people that come on board come on from internships, so how do we effect that? Well, we start creating more relationships with organizations that are representative of us. So we started a relationship with NSBE, the National Society of Black Engineers. We started a relationship with SHPE, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, right? And then we put into practice talking to the CTO, the chief technology officer, who is just–you know, he’s cool, he’s just really cool, and I gave him an a-ha moment when I took him to AfroTech, like, two years ago.
Zach: Oh, yeah. Shout-out AfroTech. Shout-out Blavity. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Lionel: Yeah, by Blavity, right? And I took him–he was one of the only white dudes there, and I was like, “Look, you know, I’m gonna introduce you to some people. You’re gonna have some good conversations, and then we’re gonna talk about it afterwards,” and he was like, “Cool,” but he walks in and there’s THOUSANDS of black people, man. Where people were telling him, “Oh,” we can’t be found, which is bullshit.
Zach: It is, man. No, it is. It is so annoying, Lionel. Well, it’s annoying and it’s insulting and it’s racist, right? So you said, “Well, we can’t find this talent”–like, we’re all over, and, like, look, AfroTech is an obvious one, but man, there are also, like, a lot of, like, local, like, groups, right? Like, there’s all–if you go to any major city, there’s some grassroots coding group that is black and brown, right? And honestly, even if you just take the time and look in the PWIs that you’re recruiting, if you just look one more time, they’re there too. Like, we’re here.
Lionel: Right, right. So what we did–he saw that, and we came back and he was like, “What do we do?” And I said, “Well, let’s figure out some strategies,” and what we started doing is we started making–’cause Boeing has doing been this forever, but Boeing’s been going to NSBE and making offers on the spot, right? And so it was like, “Okay, well, let’s do that,” and we started doing that, and we started increasing our numbers because of that, right? And then those kids that were coming in as interns, we started converting them to full-time, and then on top of it their experience as workers here is real cool because, like, I’ll walk by, you know, and I’ll talk to ’em and be like, “Hey, what’s happening, brother?” You know? “How you doing?” And they’ll look at me like–
Zach: Even that alone, which is small, right? It’s huge to them.
Lionel: It’s small. It’s really, really small, but it’s so important, right? People gotta feel like they feel belong. People gotta feel like they’re appreciated, right? That’s what has to happen, and that’s what we started doing. That’s one of the things. I could go on and on, man. We’ve done–when I say I’m proud of the work that we’ve done here, I’m extremely proud of the work that we’ve done here.
Zach: Rightfully so.
Lionel: Yeah. The executives have been fully on board. You know, we also do this other thing where we understand the C-level, the C-Suite, has to be on board. So we do a thing called the MB Learning Series, which is twice a month. You know, we get together, myself, the senior VP of community and culture, and some other key individuals that are well-versed in this space. We’ll get together with a bunch of people from the C-Suite, and we’ll sit down and we’ll talk for about an hour, an hour and a half, about whatever it is, right? It could be a current event that has impacted an underrepresented group, or it could be about something that they’ve encountered themselves, right, that they want to know more about, right? So we work with them, and they get to learn, they get to learn what’s happening, and it changes their perspective and it changes the way that they go out and approach things and make decisions, right? We have our CEO–our CEO is, like, one of the only CEOs where, you know, in his signature file, you know, he has his pronouns, right? Because that’s important, you know, to understand that not everybody identifies in that way. Understanding that people identify differently is extremely important, ’cause it puts you in a different place in your learning, in your journey, and that’s how we got here. I mean, there’s–you know, I could go on and on, but that would take up your whole segment.
Zach: No, no, no. This is great, and look, Lionel, we’ll just have you back. It’s not a problem, man. We’ll just have you–[both laugh] You’ll just come on back. But it’s interesting, really quickly, about the pronoun point, right? So, you know, some research that Living Corporate has been doing, you know what I’m saying, on our whitepaper–if you check us out on the website, you know, you’ll see us on there, and we talk about the fact that, you know, 14% of millennials identify as trans or non-binary, right? So it’s a real statistic.
Lionel: Oh, it’s a real statistic. It’s real. And, you know, there’s so many different groups of other people that do not feel like they belong. You know, they just–you know, especially with the current climate in our country today. That kind of stuff, the divisiveness of our country today, and, you know, we just–we want to make sure, in our company–and we’ve been voted, like, one of the best places to work forever, right? [“ow” sfx] Forever. But what was not being considered was that not everybody felt that way. It was not the best place to work for everyone. We found that out through our data, you know? We pulled some data that showed us that. So our goal is to make this the best place to work for everyone, and we don’t–I mean, we look at everyone and make sure that they’re taken care of. And we started our ERGs here two years ago. We dedicated a lot of resources to it. It has its own program manager that manages everything. That’s his full-time gig. That’s what he does to make sure that, you know, they’re good. You know, we have all of the infrastructure in place for that. They’re fully capitalized. Yeah. We do–you know, we do a lot of stuff here that a lot of companies don’t do, and I think a lot of it just has to do with the fact that we’ve been following best practices. ‘Cause, like I said, we didn’t find any, so we had to create our own.
Zach: No, that’s incredible, and you’re absolutely–this is the thing. It’s so interesting because as commercialized and, I’m gonna say it, colonized as diversity and inclusion has become, right, like, as a space, when it comes to actually delivering and doing the work, we’re still very much so in our infancy, right? Like, there’s not a blueprint for anything.
Lionel: No. No, there isn’t, and that’s–yeah, I would agree with you that there is a lot of stuff in our space that, you know, I kind of, like, look at three or four times too, you know? Like, “Really? That’s what we’re gonna do now?” [Zach laughs] But that’s the thing, you know? Let’s be creative, you know? Let’s figure it out, and for me it was very personal, you know? That’s why, you know, a lot of the stuff that we did here was me imagining me, you know, sitting there at work. You know, what would I want? You know, when I first started in this stuff, what would I want? I’d want to be able to come into work and feel like I can be the best me possible, right? But I don’t have to, like, play by nobody else’s rules about how I talk, how I walk, and all of those kinds of things. I don’t believe that people should or can bring their whole selves to work. I don’t believe in that. I think that, you know, there’s some shit you need to leave at home, right? [both laugh] I don’t believe–you know, like, my grandmother used to tell me, you know, “Tell some. Keep a lot.” You know what I mean? You don’t need people knowing everything, right?
Zach: Yeah, keep going.
Lionel: You should be able to be comfortable when you go to work. You shouldn’t have to code switch as much. You shouldn’t, you know, have to wonder about your place there as much, you know what I mean?
Zach: I do. You’re 100% right, yeah.
Lionel: Yeah, that’s what we did.
Zach: You said, “Share a little bit. Keep a lot.” But you’re right though, and some of that, Lionel, is cultural, right? So, like, I would say black and brown folks–and I’ll just speak for my experience. Like, I was raised, you know, you keep your business to yourself, right? Like, there’s certain things, where as then, you know, there’s stereotypes that white folks love to just tell everything they got going on. They’ll talk about the medication they’re taking, if they’re depressed, you know? They’ll share everything. But you’re right, like, I’m not tripping on–I don’t necessarily–my quote-unquote “whole self,” like, I don’t have to do that, but I should feel comfortable–right, I should not feel uncomfortable and dread going to work or feel like, man, just so otherized to the point where I can’t even function.
Lionel: Exactly, and being othered is real, and it’s difficult for people to see that, you know? Like, “Oh, we’re paying you,” you know? “I don’t know why you don’t feel appreciated,” you know? It’s that kind of stuff, and it’s like, “Man.” You know, if I’m coming into work and I can’t wait to get home–not because, you know, I just don’t want to be at work for whatever reason, but just because I don’t feel comfortable and when I get home is when I feel comfortable? Or I’m dreading going to a company event because I don’t feel comfortable? You know, that’s a problem. That’s a problem. That’s why there’s more brothers and sisters that are consultants than full-time employees in the tech space.
Zach: Man… listen. Oh, my goodness. So look, Lionel, you gonna have to come back, because I’ve got, like, four more topics we can talk about, [laughs] but you’re 100% right, right? Like, you think about, like, it’s these temporary, transient roles, right, that give you space, but then also, like–they give you space to kind of move around and not get too uncomfortable in these environments. Man, not to mention the pattern where I’m seeing a lot of black and brown folks are in these, like, non-client-facing positions. Like, they’ll typically in, like, the security tech roles, but let me not even–let me not step on too many toes today. Let’s keep going though. I want to respect your time. Let’s get into how you and I connected. So of course, you know, I’m on LinkedIn. I’m active active on there, but I seen you on there, and you sent me a link about a project you’re working on, which really got my attention, and I’d love to–I’d love for you to talk a little bit about that as well as–and just kind of your passion and interest as to why you’re doing the work that you’re doing on it.
Lionel: Yeah. I think you’re referring to the microaggressions survey that we sent out.
Zach: That’s right.
Lionel: So Rebekah Bastian is the VP of Community and Culture here. She’s my boss, right? I have a direct line to her and then a [?] line to the chief people officer. She and I sit right next to each other. It’s an open kind of space. And she’s a contributing writer for Forbes. So she was writing this thing on microaggressions, and I was like, “Let me read that,” and I read it, and it talked about microaggressions towards women, right, and more microaggressions towards women, and I was like, “Man, that’s crazy,” you know? Because we suffer from microaggressions. And she was like, “You do, I know that.” And I was like, “Yeah, I know you know that, but, you know, there’s no data around it. Why don’t we do our own survey?” You know, ’cause we couldn’t find no data, right? We did the research and whatever, and she was like, “Yeah, I would love to write something on that, but, you know, I can’t find any data,” and I said, “Well, let’s create our own data, you know?” So she put a survey together, and I sent it out to my network, which is pretty broad, and then many of my–that’s one thing I want to thank everybody for, including yourself, you know? Many of them sent them out to their networks too. Like, “Hey, you know, this is happening. Let’s talk about this.” Right? And yeah, I came back and–I think we’re gonna try and do this, like, yearly, and try to go even deeper, ’cause I think that it was a great introduction, but I think that we could have covered a couple areas that, you know, people really don’t want to cover. But it’s important, right? ‘Cause I know that I suffer for them still today on a daily basis. I have to check somebody in a meeting or, you know, I also have to be mindful about certain things, right, you know, that they don’t have to, you know? When I say them, I mean, like, white folks that are in my same position or at the same level that I’m at, right? And yeah, we still go through it, and it’s difficult. You know, it’s difficult, and we had to put that information together ourselves ’cause we couldn’t find any.
Zach: Well, to that point though, why do you think that I&D programs–so I have a bevy of my own theories, right, but why do you think, when we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, we don’t zoom in on black male or brown male experiences specifically?
Lionel: I don’t think people really want that wake-up call yet, you know what I mean? I think that people want to imagine that “Hey,” you know, they got to this particular spot in their career, you know, they’re making this particular amount of money, you know, they should be happy, right? But they don’t know that for a lot of us–I mean a lot of us, man, a lot of us–you know, we have to deal with [BLEEP] on a daily basis that they never have to deal with, they never have to deal with. But nobody really wants to put light on that, you know? ‘Cause then that would mean that we have to do some more work, and I think people don’t want to do that, you know? I think that, you know, people try and find the easiest and fastest way to get to a certain point, right? But when we’re talking about something that’s this complicated and this nuanced, it’s gonna take some work. It’s gonna take some serious work, and–what is it–the implicit bias trainings and all of those kinds of things, you know, that’s, like, the tip of the iceberg. Nobody wants to.
Zach: No, they don’t. And it’s aggravating too, because even–so I’ve talked to–so in my current job, and then at previous jobs too, but, like, I have mentors here, and I’ve [?]–you know, what I find frustrating about us always running into implicit bias is that it makes the presumption that all bias is accidental or unconscious, right? And it’s like, “No.” Some of y’all actively don’t want black and brown people here. Like, come on. It is 20–it is the age of our Beyonce, 2019. We know the deal. [both laugh] We know where people align politically. Like, more than ever we have direct insight into political idealogies, beliefs, and points of view on race, gender, sex, religion, sexuality. Like, we know all these things, so, like, let’s not act like everything is “Oh, I stumbled across this racist thing.” Like, come on. That’s not the reality. So let me ask you this as we kind of wrap up. What are some of the challenges that you’ve come across as a black executive leader within an I&D space? ‘Cause you’re the second person. You’re only the second person in one of these positions that I’ve met that is a black man. So you’re in this position, right? Typically I see folks in this position are white women and maybe even white women who identiy as LGBTQ, right? As a black man, what does influence and coalition-building look like in your position?
Lionel: Influence and coalition-building in my position? Well, one is–you know, one, you’ve got to have allies. I don’t believe that we’re in a position right now, that we have the power right now, to be able to make the change that we need to make without powerful allies, right? But at the same time, those powerful allies are working with biases themselves, so you need to make sure that you’re training them up, mentoring up with them, to make sure that when they are supporting you that they’re supporting you effectively and they know where it’s coming from. I agree with you in many ways that, yeah, I don’t necessarily think–well, let me change that. I don’t believe that bias is a strong enough word for one thing. Two, I don’t believe that it is all implicit. I do think that some people are just that way, and they just believe, you know, all of the propaganda and rhetoric that has been going on in the United States forever about us, right? And coalition-building really means getting rid of some of that, you know? Doing the, you know, behavioral change and thought change is important, you know? That kind of thing has to happen before people can really try to support you, because they have to understand that they are being affected, and their actions are being affected, by things that they’ve been taught for most of their lives in the United States, you know? The United States, man, we’re–this is a country built on racism. This is a country that’s, you know, built on the backs of us, you know? Whether you’re Asian, Latino, Native-American, you know, that’s what this country is built on. [to this day sfx]
Zach: Straight up.
Lionel: To this day.
Zach: To this day!
Lionel: To this day, right? To this day, and we have to get to a place where we recognize that. We have to get to a place where we’re not okay with it. It is something that we’re ashamed of, but it’s something that we’re gonna admit, right? That this is what’s going on with us, and we need to move forward from here. That’s coalition-building, you know? Getting people to really understand the mistakes that were made. Fess up to them. Own up to them. Make some changes, right? [?]
Zach: [Flex bomb sfx] Man, I love it. And, you know, this is the thing–you’re the first person who I’ve had a conversation with who talks about the fact that coalition-building is not only bringing things in but also pushing things away, right? It’s both. I love that. I love that. Well, look, let’s do this. If you had three points of advice for any leader seeking to specifically recruit and engage black men, what would they be?
Lionel: Make sure that what you want to invite them to is welcoming of black men. Do that, right? I mean, don’t ask me to come to your house if your house is falling apart. Don’t do that. Like, make sure your outline’s right first, right? Make sure that you work with recruiting to help them to understand that, yes, they are out there, you’re just gonna have to work a little bit harder. Make sure that you work with your executive staff to make sure that they’re on board with whatever programs that you put in place so that you can make sure that you keep people once they get there.
Zach: I love it. Just like that. And listen, y’all, you heard Lionel’s advice, so we looking at you now. So you’re gonna come around trying to invite black and brown men to your organizations, and we’re looking back at you like [haha sfx]. Look, don’t play yourself. Pay attention. This has been great, Lionel. Before we get out of here, any parting words or shout-outs?
Lionel: No, man. Thank you for having me. You know, we’ve got a lot of work to do. You know, we’re nowhere near where we could be, and a lot of this is about the economic divide, the wealth gap, and it’s just gonna get wider and wider and wider. We’ve got to get on, you know, our bikes, man. We’ve got to get to work, you know, ’cause–we’ve got to get to work. We’ve got to get to work.
Zach: Well, they’re projecting that the median wealth of black families from a household perspective will be zero dollars, like, by 2050 or so, so you’re absolutely right. We gotta–man, Lionel, this has been–like, no shade to everybody else, y’all, this has been top two dopest conversations we’ve had on Living Corporate. Thank you so much for being a guest. We very much so want to have you back. We’ll talk about that offline. Until next time, y’all, this has been Zach. You’ve been listening to Lionel Lee at the Zillow Group. Make sure you check out all of his information. Links in the show notes. Catch y’all next time. Peace.