The Woman Who Is Trying To Fix Techs Diversity Problem

Author

Lydia Dishman

February 19, 2015

What’s Andrea Hoffman, a self-professed “nice Jewish girl from Queens” who spent the early part of her career working in advertising know about diversity in tech?

It all began around 1999, when Hoffman was working on the agency side for the Mercedes-Benz account. She remembers sitting in a meeting that was centered around research about a demographic shift in consumers. Mercedes-Benz, an established icon in the luxury automotive space, was trying to reach a younger, more diverse audience.

It would be up to the agency to deploy a series of diversity initiatives, but for Hoffman, who was involved in day-to-day strategy and implementation, it was a pivotal moment that she says was both “provocative and transformative.” The move towards inclusiveness took off from there, says Hoffman, and she developed an auditing process that could help companies identify missed opportunities like this. “I wouldn’t say I found my career, but it found me.”

Glimpsing the possibilities of her life’s work didn’t immediately prompt a radical change. Over the next handful of years, Hoffman worked for a few other agencies, eventually landing at one representing the BMW account. At the outset, she says, “They gave me their business plan, which was like ‘War and Peace’,” she quips. Wading through it and comparing it to their marketing plan, Hoffman made a major discovery. “Right at the beginning of the meeting, I told them, ‘You are planning to grow your business by X and that is not going to work’,” she recalls saying. “The execution of your vision isn’t going to achieve that,” she went on, “Let me tell you what will.”

Hoffman’s expertise and characteristic straight-shooting style led her to do strategy and development for BMW, but she admits her heart wasn’t in it. She remembers asking herself why should she spend so many hours devoted to something that wasn’t lighting her inner fire.

Changing The Narrative

After doing so many diversity assessments for so many brands and being the keeper of so much information on African-American consumers, Hoffman decided she’d start her own research and consultancy firm, which she called Diversity Affluence. She immediately reached out to Ivan Burwell, an African-American executive who was the Coors Brewing Company’s first director of ethnic marketing.

“He is an incredibly conservative business person,” Hoffman prefaces when she recalls only intending to ask him to be a senior adviser of her new firm. “He said, ‘No, I’d like to give you money’,” she explains. Though this happened in 2006, Hoffman’s voice still rings with validation. “When someone so conservative is so moved, you know you are on to something.” Burwell is still a supporter of the firm.

Though she didn’t expect to break even for at least three years, Diversity Affluence was only two months old when Hoffman landed one of her biggest accounts. It was a partnership for a massive research report with Len Burnett, co-CEO and group publisher of Uptown Media (better known as the guy who helped Quincy Jones get Vibe Magazine off the ground, says Hoffman).

Not long after, Hoffman and Burnett teamed up again to write the book Black is the New Green. It wasn’t long before Diversity Affluence and its Multicultural Wealth Report was absorbing Hoffman’s every waking moment. “I was driven by a single mission,” she says, “to show a more accurate picture of the size and scope of the social and economic clout of African-Americans.” It’s a market that Hoffman says is estimated to be worth $840 billion.

Though Hoffman’s experience was rooted in advertising and storytelling, she has a great respect for hard data. “Every time I saw a stat that was incorrect, it would drive me nuts,” she says. What she knew from her research was very different from what wealthy African-Americans knew of themselves or their peers. And the media wasn’t helping the perceptions of the rest of the world. “They knew the one-dimensional reference to hip-hop,” she observes, or the four celebrities that get frequent news coverage.

Scrubbing Stereotypes With Numbers And New Stories

Her mission was to change the game, and use the numbers to tell a different story. To this end, she hired an economist to study affluent African-Americans and in the process redefine what affluence meant for the industry. Hoffman likens the work to what McKinsey or Booz Allen does for its clients.

With clients ranging from Microsoft to Moët Hennessy, Cadillac to Carnegie Hall, Reggie Van Lee, an EVP with Booz Allen, calls her a “revered confidante of the African-American community, adding, “Andrea’s ability to spearhead cultural change in tandem with revenue growth and market innovation has made her one of the most valuable players in the business of diversity forefront.”

Hoffman wasn’t content to rest on that. About two years ago, she started noticing that some clients were particularly interested in technology and innovation, but didn’t know how to shift their business to seize those opportunities. Hoffman had an answer: diversify your teams and boards.

In November, Hoffman launched Culture Shift Labs to help businesses to not only assess and design a plan to take their growth to the next level, but to also act on those plans by connecting them with off-the-radar influencers and innovators of color.

Instead of scrambling to meet diversity hiring quotas, Hoffman contends Culture Shift Labs is a way for businesses to bring outside experts in as innovators-in-residence, or for seats on their boards. “The numbers,” she argues in this case, “are only a small part of the equation that makes everyone run scared like it’s some pending legal issue.” When diversity is an all-or-nothing proposition driven by a numerical goal, she says it doesn’t encourage the telling of any positive outcomes that don’t have any relation to the numbers.

Though she’s gotten some early traction with Culture Shift Labs, a recent call made her realize how far there is to go. A client with an awards show wanted to honor tech entrepreneurs of color, and he offered Hoffman three names to vet. When asked what the rest of his list included or who else he identified, the client admitted that was all he had.

The Diversity Whisperer

Hoffman immediately countered with the fact that in her database of thousands of innovators, influencers, and inventors, she could identify at least 200 people who fit his criteria to honor. “There are men and women out there who are highly accomplished, that will blow people’s socks off if they understood the number to engage and include,” she maintains.

Hoffman figured there had to be a way to make it easier for businesses to connect with people of color. So she’s in the process of developing an online platform to automate it. Called Catapult, it is set to launch at the end of March. Hoffman says it will combine all the facets of diversity and inclusion into one online assessment tool that will score a company based on its business resource team, sponsorship and branding spends, leadership initiatives, and the like. It will then provide a score and an action plan along with suggestions generated by a resource and recommendation engine.

Van Jones, cofounder of #YesWeCode, has called Hoffman “the diversity whisperer.” He tells Fast Company, “As my organization works to help Silicon Valley and beyond tap more diverse pools of brilliant talent and connect with influencers, Andrea has become our most important strategic adviser and guide.”

“I could spend a week telling you about it,” Hoffman enthuses. As a white woman, Hoffman doesn’t profess to be an expert on black culture, but says simply that she recognizes the potential for real meaningful engagement between businesses and the African-American community. “I’m led by something bigger than me,” she says.

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This article was written by Lydia Dishman from Fast Company and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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