Stepping up to define privilege in tech

“Tell me how you feel about where you’re standing? Are you surprised?”

A group of 15 people looked around at where they were located, comparing themselves to the others around them, as a larger group quietly observed. The group was made up of my colleagues from Blend, along with about 30 other attendees of The Atlantic’s Inclusion in Silicon Valley event last December.

The privilege walk

10 minutes earlier I’d asked the group of volunteers to stand in a straight line, shoulder to shoulder, and close their eyes. “Put your arm around the person next to you, and try your best to stay connected as long as you can.” I then asked the group to step forward or backwards based on a variety of questions: take three steps forward if you work in tech; take one step back if you rely, primarily, on public transportation. Little by little, the group started to separate and spread and turn from a straight line into a squiggle. I could feel the bystanders calculating where they might fall on this grid of privilege. After 15 questions, I asked our volunteers to open their eyes.

The Atlantic's Inclusion in Tech event

This activity is called a Privilege Walk, and serves to create awareness about the situationally specific or broad privilege that we all possess.  What do I mean? I mean, we set out to inspire you to think about the different privilege you might have because of your current work or living situation, and the privilege you might have naturally because of your upbringing. Once our activity was done, we opened the conversation up to a group-wide discussion.

We talked about how it felt to move back and forth. How it felt to physically feel yourself separate from others based on the privilege you have. We talked through expectations and stereotypes, continuing to return to what brought us all together, our continuous commitment to inclusion, and the tools we need in order to bring these commitments to life.

Activities like this aren’t new, though I often find they’re new to people in tech. We brought this workshop to the Atlantic Inclusion event to help give people something actionable to walk away with, but also to foster open discussions about our individual privilege and power. In return, we asked that people continue to consider their privilege in evaluating the experiences of others against their own.

Building on an inclusive mindset

At Blend, we focus on making consumer lending more accessible. This inherently means we’re building a product that enables banks and non-bank lenders to constantly consider and evaluate people’s privilege. At Blend we aim to be inclusive, respectful and thoughtful of all voices at the table. That said, we rely on empathy to ensure that when a family is applying for their very first mortgage they can do so without fear and guilt of judgement. We work to ensure they can do so on their own time, outside of “normal” bank hours. This thinking sets us apart, and makes Blend a fantastic place to work. We aren’t perfect, and we haven’t solved for every possible scenario, but activities like this bring us closer to understanding what we have and don’t have.

Blend employees at Atlantic Inclusion in Tech event
From left: Blend employees Laney Erokan, Andy Neuschatz, and Ciara Trinidad.

We were honored to be in such great company with brands like Google, PayPal, and AARP at this event. We were the smallest company who underwrote the event, but at no point did we feel anything but equally as important. In my opinion, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle next to brand names. It’s easy to feel muffled or less valued, but that’s one of the most incredible parts of Diversity, Inclusion, & Belonging to me – everyone has an equal stake in the game, and everyone is working as hard as they can to get it right.

It was wonderful to share with the broader tech community how Blend is thinking about privilege, diversity, and inclusion. While many companies  exclusively address gender and race, it felt refreshing to shed light on other aspects of inclusion that don’t get as much attention in the media, but are equally real in the workforce.