Last week, we launched a new digital dialogue series called #OpportunityRedefined, which seeks to lift up amazing leaders and ideas, provoke conversation, and incite boldness in addressing the toughest challenges we face in America.
We're excited today to publish our first interview in the #OpportunityRedefined series featuring Allen Blue, a co-founder of LinkedIn who is helping lead the company's work on inclusion and diversity. Allen appeared at the Gathering of Leaders in March and spoke eloquently and provocatively about the potential and limits of technology in addressing issues of economic opportunity. In this interview, he covers that and more.
How do you believe technology plays a role in expanding economic opportunity in America today?
Allen Blue (AB): I think that technology has a major role to play in expanding economic opportunity. I would point out two things. The first one is that technology allows us to see and understand things that we’ve never been able to see and understand before. At LinkedIn, we created the Economic Graph, which we use to talk about the network we’re building. It’s a network not just of people, but also of companies, schools, skills, information, jobs, and basically all of the things that make up the world of the economy and the world of economic opportunity. We have been able to pull together 360 million professionals worldwide and information about millions of companies and tens of thousands of schools and millions of jobs. When you step back from the Economic Graph, you can see a tremendous amount of information that had previously been hidden: about the way that hiring works, the way that talent flows, the opportunities that people have, or the way that schools – even specific schools – contribute to the overall success of the economy and most specifically to the success of individuals. This gives all of us a new set of tools that we can use not only to understand, but also to act in order to advance economic opportunity.
The second one is that technology has always, throughout all of human history, enabled people to do more. But technology had never been evenly distributed. Technology tended to be in the hands of only a few. So the Internet boom, which began in the mid-90s, basically has gone from a world where only those who have massive resources had access to massive information to the point where nearly everyone in the world has access to those things. John Seely Brown, a scholar and a famous critic and thinker in the world of the Internet, calls it “agency” for human beings to be able to act on their own behalf. So when we think about LinkedIn, Facebook, Google, and Wikipedia, we think about taking all the world’s information and networks and making them accessible for every single human being on the planet. That’s actually something only technology can do.
What are you starting to see from the Economic Graph and how are you applying it to the business model and the social impact work that LinkedIn is doing?
AB: We are on our way to being able to understand the economy around each individual person in the world. That means we can put powerful tools in the hands of individuals. Just last week, we announced an effort that we are undertaking with the Markle Foundation called Rework America Connected. That project is a partnership between the Markle Foundation, Arizona State University, edX (a group of Ivy League universities that are sharing a large amount of their coursework online), and LinkedIn. This group is going to be collaborating in Denver and Phoenix to better understand the relationship between education, work, and individuals, and on building a tool for each that will allow them to achieve their goal. Today, if you are a high school graduate and you are interested in finding a career that will allow you to support a family, you could look out there and find some very interesting opportunities. Some of these opportunities are in advanced manufacturing, energy, nursing, or information technology, and you quickly realize that you don’t really have the skills you need in order to do that. Through the Economic Graph, we can begin to say things about which courses and programs will actually connect you to specific jobs. Matching that to Rework America Connected, a job seeker will be able to walk in and say, “that’s the job or career I want to start”, and be able see the pathways that will actually get them there. We will be able to create totally unique outcomes for individuals who are attempting to leap the gap into a powerful career future.
How are communities and networks – both real and virtual – important for people who are trying to access opportunity in America?
AB: Everything we do is improved when we have the help and collaboration of other people. When we founded LinkedIn, we had in mind this idea that we’d create a system which would allow me to call literally hour by hour on the people around me who have knowledge, experience, and connections to help me get done what I want to get done. If I’m trying to find an answer to a question – for instance, if I’m trying to find out about prototyping software – I can reach out in my network and just ask and tap the knowledge of people who are around me. If I want to find out about whether a particular job opportunity would be a good match for me, it would be great to be able to reach out to someone who already works at that company and have breakfast with them and find out what it’s actually like to work with them. If I’m trying to found a new business, and if I’m interested in building my first customers or in finding funding, I can reach out through my network in order to do that.
I come across students in meetings and through our intern program who are so smart, energetic, and eager, but they have no idea how the world of work actually works. They need people around them who will actually be able to provide the support and the set of expectations that they can do great things in order for them to be able to find something they love and be great at doing it. It’s a matter of mentorship, of having great role models, of being able to call on someone when I’m trying to get something done. If you don’t have somebody who cares about you in your community, then it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to be successful, because you don’t have the support and you don’t have that expectation that you will be great.
How is LinkedIn’s leadership addressing issues of race and inequality right now?
AB: At LinkedIn, a major focus is on inclusion and diversity and deeply understanding the kind of company we’re building. Our first step towards this is to truly understand what’s going on and where we really stand. We’re committed as an organization to regularly and publicly publish information about the diversity of the LinkedIn workforce. We have about 8,000 people right now. We just published our first follow-up quarterly report where we talk about the diversity, and our goals for diversity within LinkedIn.
We have specific groups within the company who are not only training on questions of diversity but also looking deeply at the data and trying to really understand what we can do to get to a place where we can have a fully inclusive and diverse workforce that also nurtures people’s authenticity. One of the topics we’ve been talking about a lot internally is the difference between representation and inclusion. Representation is, for example, “50% of your workforce is female”. Inclusion is the notion that 50% has the same ability to be influential, to be included, and to lead within the organization as the other half. We have to concentrate on both of those things as we improve our representation. We as a company believe that we will be most successful with the most diverse workforce. I can guarantee that’s true because people come to Silicon Valley all the time asking, “how do you drive innovation?” The short answer is diversity - diversity of opinion, diversity of experience, diversity of background. People coming in and thinking about things in different ways is how you maintain flexibility, how you truly understand what’s happening in the world, how you build the right product for it, and how you build the right strategy for it.
We take our role, not just in Silicon Valley, but also around the world, very seriously. We understand that we have an impact on the way that companies worldwide hire, train, and build their internal corporate cultures because of the types of products and services we offer. So it’s important that we hold ourselves to the highest standard on inclusion and diversity.
Have you seen employees embrace this focus on inclusion and diversity? Have you been surprised by the level or openness of engagement that you’ve seen?
AB: The process of working on diversity has held a few surprises for me. In Silicon Valley, we long for data to help us make decisions. I have seen a tremendous openness and willingness to change and do whatever it takes, given good data about what’s actually happening. We seek to deeply understand what’s going on to change the opinions and the work process of the people who actually work at LinkedIn. We think it’s a powerful tool that basically any company can take advantage of.
Silicon Valley has a feeling internally that we are a very meritocratic part of the world. I think, truly, we are; however, we also let that blind us a little bit and that’s almost like an excuse we use not to really understand what’s happening. When you think you’re meritocratic and that everybody is going to be able to come in and rise to a certain level, you think that the people who are going to be rewarded are the ones who will produce the best results. This is great, but it has in the past blinded us to asking questions about diversity and things like it because in some ways, we’re like “hey, we’re meritocratic, we don’t have to ask these things.” It’s been eye opening how extensive the issue is. We know, for instance, that the number of women who are graduating with STEM degrees as a percentage is actually going down, which is a little surprising considering that we assumed in Silicon Valley that everyone was moving in this tech direction. It’s a little hard to put a finger on it exactly, but we frankly are accidentally blind to this issue and we’re working up to it.
Are you seeing companies trying to engage more talent by discussing issues of social impact, volunteering, or any other approach that is about providing both economic value and community value?
AB: Companies are definitely doing more now to think about the impact that they have and that their employees have in the world around them. The reasons range everywhere from self-serving to altruistic, but in a world where individuals are more and more empowered, where people have more choices and ability to gain the skills they need in order to get the job they want, basically it becomes more and more a seller’s market. People can choose to work at a company that genuinely cares about the world around it and work with people who make time for volunteering, for giving back, for donating, for helping. We feel this acutely in Silicon Valley because the competition for technical talent is so strong. We can’t win a war of trying to hire a particular candidate by offering better food in the cafeteria or a better foosball table or even a higher compensation package because those were already very competitive. The place where we are able to attract a great candidate to come work at LinkedIn are all around the kind of culture we have as a company, the mission we have as a company, the people who you’re going to work with, and the fact that they share and believe in that mission. More and more companies realize that the generation that is entering the workforce now cares much more deeply and has much for flexibility and willingness to jump to another opportunity if they’re not finding a good cultural match.
Stay tuned for new #OpportunityRedefined interviews in coming days and weeks!