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A note to employers: Black talent can tell if 'diversity' is just a buzzword

Morgan DeBaun, the CEO of Blavity, a media company for Black culture and millennials, shares what she learned over years of recruiting.
Morgan DeBaun is the founder & CEO of Blavity Inc., the leading digital media company for Black culture and millennials.
Morgan DeBaun is the founder & CEO of Blavity Inc., the leading digital media company for Black culture and millennials.Bethany Reed

As the founder and CEO of Blavity, the leading digital media company for Black culture, we’ve recognized and celebrated Black talent for years. Now, diversity and inclusion are finally a part of the mainstream conversation when it comes to hiring and retention.

But whether you’re new to that conversation or have been part of it for years, no one gets it right every time — including me. Here’s what I’ve learned over my years of recruiting, and my four top tips for hiring and retaining Black talent in the current market:

Know that Black talent can tell if diversity is just a buzzword.

Right from the start of the hiring process, the right mindset is key. The most crucial aspect is that you understand diversity and inclusion as a business strategy. It’s been proven time and time again that when DE&I is a true company value, it leads to better outcomes.

DE&I is not simply a way to meet legal requirements or to check a box. If that’s your attitude, it won’t work – because Black talent can read through the performative process . What’s more, we are in demand and we have choices when seeking new employers.

People want a workplace that prioritizes good values, from mental well-being to inclusivity, and that’s not a Black thing. The younger generations of talent expect an inclusive and equitable culture, and company leaders should want that as well. It’s a business imperative, not just the right thing to do.

Show experienced Black talent that they can be comfortable bringing their whole selves to work

In hiring over the years, the Black talent we see often fall into one of two broad categories. The first is experienced talent, who have almost certainly worked at other companies where they didn’t feel like they could bring their whole selves to work. They want to be able to come in, lead their teams and not have to think about being the only Black person in the room.

I know what that’s like, and it’s part of the reason I started Blavity at age 24. I left Corporate America because I didn’t feel comfortable or safe in my trajectory within the company as one of very few Black women.

It’s tough to explain to someone who hasn’t lived it, but you can’t just be when you’re the only Black person in the room. Everything you do is noticeable — not just your work, but even personal details like your appearance. If I wore a funky outfit or did my hair differently one day, it was a thing. I know everyone who said, “Oh, you changed your hair!” meant well, but after the 17th comment, you’re just kind of exhausted. There’s no just existing and doing your job in that environment.

By contrast, when people come to Blavity to interview, they see a diverse set of leaders including a majority of Black women in leadership who bring their perspective, personality and life experience to each and every conversation completely authentically. It shows candidates they can come to work and bring not just their skill sets, but their entire selves here. They want to see that at your company, too, and to know that they can have a future there.

Give creatives, especially those earlier in their careers, the room to be creative.

The second category of talent we often see is people who are earlier in their careers, who may have never worked full-time at a company. They’re often the creatives, such as video producers, content creators and art directors, who tend to be solopreneurs looking for something more stable.

Because of the nature of our business, we have a large cohort of people in this category. And I’ll be the first to admit retaining Black creative talent is hard — because, by nature, they want to be creative, and they worry about the ability to do that in a company environment. I’ve found that the key is to set up guardrails like budget and goals, and let them lead creatively.

I know it can be hard as an executive to trust and let go, as I’ve learned that the hard way a few times. For example, scaling a YouTube channel is not an area we’ve always executed well. Throughout the company’s history we’ve had a few versions of the video team, but at one point we had a studio right in our office with full-time videographers and producers. They developed great content, with senators, future presidents and celebrities.

However, it wasn’t clicking with our audience. We spent $1.5 million over three years on investments in video and when the return on investment wasn’t there, I had to make a tough decision about whether we were going to continue to invest. Ultimately, I pulled the plug on more original content series. Now, in retrospect, I can see the problem wasn’t our ideas or execution, but that we weren’t distributing this content correctly on the various platforms.

We’ve since re-invested in our original shows again with new content — like our YouTube show “Asking for a Friend” and our podcast the Black Tech Green Money — but we could have been further along if I had trusted in the great creative content and figured out another path forward. Certainly, you have to align with your creative talent , set goals and change what’s truly not working — but you also have to give them room to execute on the goals with pivots along the way.

Set clear metrics of success, and celebrate publicly when your people achieve them.

In my view, a huge reason people leave their jobs is because they don’t see a clear path to move ahead with either more responsibility or new skills. As a result, if you set those metrics of success transparently right from the beginning, that’s very attractive to diverse talent.

They want to know that promotions don’t happen because a group of people met in a room and made potentially arbitrary decisions about how and if they can advance. Black talent wants to understand the goals to achieve success, and more importantly, they want to know you care about their whole career path and want to see them grow at your company.

At Blavity we have consistently celebrated very publicly when people get promoted, move from contractor to full-time, or are hired from an internship. We’re very clear that this is a moment of success for not just this individual, but for the team at large. Because when you’re a truly inclusive company, a win for one person really is a win for us all.

Morgan DeBaun is a serial entrepreneur and corporate advisor. As the Founder & CEO of Blavity Inc., the leading digital media company for Black culture and millennials, Morgan has grown the company into a market leader for Black media, reaching over 100 million readers per month through a growing brand portfolio which includes: Blavity News, 21Ninety, AfroTech, Travel Noire and Shadow & Act. Under DeBaun’s leadership, Blavity has launched several leading consumer summits, including Summit 21 for Black women creators, and AfroTech, the largest tech conference for Black innovators and founders.