June 26, 2020

Black Lives Matter: Where We Stand and How We Can Help

Nick Culbertson, CEO and Co-founder, Protenus

Protenus unequivocally supports racial, economic, and social justice, including an end to violence against Black Americans.  We know that every Black life matters.  We support the peaceful protests that have already led to local changes in some cities and states, with a specific focus on supporting racial equity and justice in Baltimore, where we founded our company in 2014.  I’ve heard many reasons why companies should embrace diversity in the workforce, most of the reasons pointed toward better results.  The best reason to embrace diversity, however, is that it's the right thing to do.

I have always loved living in Baltimore, a city whose strengths and weaknesses present unique opportunities to set the bar for racial equality in the United States.  It won’t happen overnight and it will take strong partnerships and coordinated efforts between the business community, local leaders, and city residents to create meaningful, sustainable change.  As a leader of an incredible group of bright and talented people, I want to be part of that change and do everything I can to help.

One of my primary responsibilities at Protenus is to hold the company and our culture to a higher standard than seen elsewhere in the tech industry.  This means that I am committed to continually assessing our performance on how well we are putting our values into action.  

One of those values is humility, recognizing what we don’t know and being honest about where we can improve.  We will be humble as we strive to make Protenus a more diverse workplace, one that works to end the insidious ways racism affects our industry.  

While I served in the U.S.  Army, I learned two important lessons, both also grounded in humility.  One, getting the basics right is the best way for everything else to work.  And two, it’s important to focus our energy and efforts on the areas within areas that we can control, our sphere of influence, and hope that it has a positive effect in the world.  

The Basics: What we have done and what we can do within Protenus

In our case, getting the basics right means taking an honest look at the fundamental operations of our company and assessing where we could be better.  By soliciting feedback from our team, and looking at our policies, benefits, compensation, and internal systems, we’re committing to transparent changes to our company operations that create a more equitable work environment.  

Based on our team’s voluntary self-reporting, we know that 48% of our team identifies as female and 15% identifies as an underrepresented minority.  The tech industry is notorious for being an all-white, all-male, cis world.  We are proud to have a higher percentage of women on our team compared to the industry average, but we recognize that our team does not reflect the diversity of our city or our country.  We need to do more, especially when it comes to racial diversity.  

Like any sustainable initiative that matters, this dialogue must happen at the highest level.  Earlier this year, our Board of Directors dedicated our quarterly meeting to discuss the diversity of our team and board.  This discussion, along with our reporting of diversity metrics and initiatives, was geared to specifically address the notable lack of black or female directors.  Currently, our Board of Directors is 25% underrepresented minorities and 0% female--well below where it should be. We need to do better and we are committed to doing so.  

One step we’ve taken to bolster our team’s racial diversity is by partnering with programs with specific goals to increase diversity in tech.  To date, we have hired tech talent, as staff or interns, from local programs such as npower, which provides tuition-free training and assistance in STEM-fields for youth in East and West Baltimore, and Catalyte, which offers technical skills training in underserved communities throughout Baltimore.  We have also supported and matched with top talent through other programs that train and promote underrepresented groups in tech, such as Girls Who Code and Women in Tech.  

Championing and sustaining an inclusive culture is a responsibility that every individual at Protenus shares.  So it’s up to each of us to encourage positive contributions to our culture and to create an environment where everyone can thrive, and where each person is authentically welcome and respected.  Our most recent employee survey shows that 86% of our team believes Protenus holds an authentic commitment to diversity.  To put more behind our commitment, we have formed a culture team that helps us foster diversity and engagement at all levels.  

Is this enough?  No, not even close.  We need to do so much more.  We’re committed to working with other Baltimore-area start-ups to develop talent pipelines that are better able to add perspectives and experience from talented people of color from within our own community.  In particular, I’m very excited about a project that our Chief of Staff, Sherrod Davis, and I are working on to support workforce development collaboration between Baltimore’s startup scene and academic institutions.  We have to do more than what we are doing now and in the weeks and months to come, I will update you on our progress after our next board meeting in August.  

Our sphere of influence: One team in our community 

Beyond the influence we can have within Protenus, our sphere of influence extends to our neighborhoods and community.  

Our culture encourages proactive, team-led contributions.  The smart, creative, generous teammates at Protenus are devoted to volunteering to help others in vulnerable communities.  Each one of them is, in their own way, trying to create positive change.  I will continue to vocally encourage all employees to give their time and talents toward meaningful efforts and community contributions.  We’ll offer Protenus as an amplifier of these efforts and provide resources, training, education, and time to help our employees fight for what matters most.

And in the meantime, we’ve begun the thoughtful, retrospective process of understanding where we’ve missed the mark in the past, and look for input from our team and community for where we can offer our resources to positively impact the causes that make the most difference within our sphere of influence.

Focusing on improving our operations and practices while amplifying the efforts of individuals doesn’t mean we ignore or tolerate the systemic injustice around us.  Not just at this moment, but as a part of our ongoing business operations, we must always be ruthless in identifying inequity in our own company and committed to a methodical, transparent process to change.  We reject apathy and stand as allies and advocates--to our friends, family, neighbors, and team.  The systemic inequality in our country, community, and industry cannot persist and we aren’t waiting for someone else to change it.

The brutal murder of George Floyd--and the deaths before and since his, as well as peaceful demonstrations in cities and towns nationwide--have turned a moment into a movement.  As millions of people realize that Black Lives Matter is not a slogan, but a call to action, I’ve called upon my colleagues to ask what Protenus can continue to do to be an ally and an advocate now.  Based on their input and ideas, our leadership team will do everything we can to become more diverse in hiring and promotion practices, and in community outreach, as quickly and as thoughtfully as we can.  I am incredibly grateful to have a chance to lead at this time, and I couldn’t be more proud of the people on our team who have helped identify ways we can change as a company and in doing so, change our world.