Small acts drive big change: A Black History Month conversation

Microsoft executives Lauren Gardner and Bill Borden

Editor’s note: In recognition and celebration of Black History Month, Lauren Gardner and Bill Borden, executive co-sponsors of Blacks at Microsoft (BAM) employee resource group, got together (virtually) for a personal conversation about history, action, inclusion and the powerful impact of the Black and African American community inside and beyond Microsoft. This is an edited version of their chat. Learn more about Black History Month here.

LG: Bill, as you know, this year’s theme for Black History Month at Microsoft is “every act makes history.” What does that mean to you?

BB: It’s a simple statement, but it’s powerful if we reflect on it. We can all think of countless acts of sharing, sacrifice and taking a stand that have had long-lasting impact on the advancement of social justice and equality in our country. Even the small act that (African American historian) Carter Woodson, who established the recognition that led to Black History Month, made in 1915 by saying — let’s think about celebrating the rich contributions that Black and African American people have made.

We have to be focused on and conscious of the impact that we can have as individuals, on our families, and in our companies and our communities.

This means the celebration of Black culture and what it means to our country, not just for the month of February but year-round.

LG: I agree. You know, history is a culmination of our stories and our experiences. As I think back to our ancestors, meaningful acts made a huge difference, which spurs us to think about what things we can do on behalf of others and our community. Not everyone will be as eloquent as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and write the “I Have a Dream” speech, but everyone has the capability to do what Rosa Parks did. A meaningful act that raises awareness and sparks action.

BB: Very powerful. Switching gears — you’ve been at Microsoft for quite a bit; I’m newer but I’ve certainly experienced the impact of Blacks at Microsoft, or BAM, our employee resource group for Black and African American employees. How do you think about the role BAM plays, and how do we think about continuing to foster, support and fuel the community?

LG: When I think about BAM I think not only of its energy, but that it is the oldest employee resource group at Microsoft. I am proud of the opportunity that we have to continue to play a significant role in informing and influencing Microsoft’s diversity and inclusion journey. What’s perhaps changed the most since I started is that we have a stronger voice, sense of community, depth of commitment and leadership. We also focus on the work with deliberation and purpose. I think of the BAM community as a family, as connection, as culture. As a source of safety and understanding. Our community is broad and includes people of African descent, African Americans, West Indians and many intersectionalities. We aren’t one thing. We are a huge and significant representation of history.

Bill, as we talk about community, we’re also talking about action. Action and opportunity determine what the next chapter of our history will be. How do you think about what action means?

BB: It remains critical to understand inclusiveness. An accountable environment where all of us can bring our full selves to work creates value for us individually to be able to grow and expand and learn. And it creates value to support our business and serve our customers. It brings idea generation and innovation.

We have to continue to push our points of view around what inclusiveness means. How do we bring the value of our culture to the advancement of our society? How do we continue to drive inclusion and recognition of the value of diverse ideas in today’s current technology environment where it’s becoming easier and easier to just find ways to listen to what we each want to hear?

When we think about the contributions that we as Black and African Americans bring to society, business and culture, it’s important to understand our history and the journey of struggle and resiliency we’ve gone on to get to these unique experiences we’ve created. We have to be passionate about how we bring our journey and resulting culture to the forefront. That’s not always easy. But it’s important for everyone to understand it as we think about how to move forward.

We have to remain focused on the idea of openness and inclusion to be able to have a dialogue. There’s a lot of outward discussion, but is there inward listening, patience and compassion? We all need to share what’s on our minds and feel comfortable doing that. But we have to be able to listen as well.

LG: Yes! When we think of many of the challenging events and actions that have occurred in the last couple of years, much of this has happened for years and centuries to marginalized groups. Unlike many of the historical events, in recent history what has been inspiring is they sparked real and needed conversation about our experiences and how we can address these systemic inequities and improve together.

It’s the opportunity for us to think about our actions and how we can galvanize and influence change — and not just for members of the Black and African American community. The reality is we want justice, equality and equal opportunity for everybody.

BB: Your comment is really important. As we work on creating equal opportunities with a focus on the Black and African American community, it’s going to set examples for how to do that for all. And as we continue to learn from other cultures, it gives us new strategies to go forward.

This brings me to the notion of focusing on action versus performance when we talk about inclusion in the workplace. What’s your view?

LG: It’s the difference between compliance, meaning measuring the performance of how we did, versus our commitments, beliefs and behaviors needed to drive sustainable change. Numbers tell a static story — here’s where we are, here’s what we’ve done. Equally or even more important is to address our processes and behaviors. All of us grew up with ways of thinking that we need to revisit, redefine and, in some cases, unlearn, in order to learn new perspectives. If we only look at numbers without considering our own processes and behaviors, we won’t be able to drive sustainable change.

I think about this in terms of careers at Microsoft for example. We want to be the company that is world class in terms of not only the amazing talent that we attract, including many members of the Black and African American community, but also the company that creates opportunities to build careers, to move people to and through opportunities in support of ongoing growth and impact.

Bill, how do you think about this in terms of our ecosystem and really creating opportunity for clients and our customers?

BB: Just one example is our work with partners to create technology and build functionality so that community development and minority development investment banks that make the majority of loans to Black and African American businesses in the U.S. can be more productive. In doing that, it’s strengthening a central means for the lending of capital in this country to small- and medium-sized businesses in the Black and African American community. By getting that technology implemented, capital can flow.

LG: What inspires you as a leader?

BB: Wow, how do you simplify that down? At the core it is the ability to have meaningful impact, which we’ve been talking so much about. Specifically, to impact the growth and development of my community, my son and daughter and wife, and my peers and team at Microsoft, which is why I was excited to join Microsoft’s platform to build my career. When I think about our mission to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more, it’s directly connected to my passion to support initiatives we are investing in and driving to advance social justice and the development of Black and African Americans at Microsoft and in society.

And now I have to ask you the same, Lauren.

LG: What inspires me is our opportunity to bring people into the company, and my hope and dream is that they meet their aspirational work and life goals. My goal is fairly simple. Someday we’ll all have the aspiration and commitment to diversify and further build a Microsoft that truly reflects the world’s population. Our ancestors have created the path for us, and now we have the opportunity to not only support and advance our families and communities, but to make sure the next generation have the same opportunities or even more opportunities.

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