This month at New Relic we celebrated Black History Month by holding a series of talks in both our San Francisco and Portland, Ore., offices. We invited eight speakers—individuals from within our own organization as well as from the tech industry at large—to sit down with us and talk about what it means to be black in America today, as well as what it means to be black in the technology industry specifically.
The series was put on by Relics of Color, our company affinity group, and it was a huge success. Relics from many different backgrounds attended, and I’ve heard from a lot of people just how moving and inspiring it was to listen to the personal stories of such a diverse group of black people—their struggles and challenges but also their successes and triumphs. Despite the shared struggles of many in our community, each person’s story was unique, as were the life lessons they imparted to their rapt audiences. As our last guest Maira Benjamin, director of engineering at Pandora, told the crowd: “No one black person speaks for all black people.”
One profound realization many of us came away with after listening to all of these fascinating personal histories is this: Black History Month is not just about the history of blacks in America, but the history of America itself.There were so many great moments from the different talks that it would be impossible to list them all here. But I wanted to share 10 memorable quotes from our speakers that stuck with me:
“Ultimately, what we want everyone to leave with is to learn something about Black History Month other than what you may already know. Specifically, black history is American history. We want you leave thinking about what it could have meant to those in the past and also how that’s relevant to everyone today. And, lastly, we want everyone to leave with a sense of what black people do to reflect on those times as well as to engage with others.” —Joshua Dawson, New Relic Account Executive, on the importance of honoring Black History Month.
“I didn’t appreciate why my mom would never go to sleep until I got home, no matter what time it was. She was always waiting for me, and worried about me. I remember one time I got a leather jacket, she said, ‘I’m not sure you should wear that jacket because you could be a target.’ I didn’t quite get it. Now that I’m a parent, I kinda get it.” —David Nixon, New Relic Director of Competitive Intelligence
“When you talk about someone like a Jackie Robinson, it’s very important to understand the struggle and the challenge he had to be the first African American to play baseball [in the major leagues]. Not only that, he was a college graduate, he played multiple sports, he was a very learned man. You learn things about other folks and see that there’s a deeper side to them. Nowadays, I try to pass that on to my kids to help them understand. I hated history as a kid, but going back and learning the profiles of these individuals is fantastic.” —William Kate, New Relic Senior Manager of Sales Engineering
“My parents didn’t really have ‘The Talk’ per se; they more so let us know everyday that we had to be twice as good. At everything” —Wayne Phillips, New Relic Manager, Commercial Sales
“As a person of color, you may have to work a little harder but you can get there…. You have no control over what people say or do to you, but you do have control over the manner in which you respond, and that’s very important.” —Roosevelt Bynum, Jr., former IBM engineer, discussing perseverance and career success.
In 1968 James Brown released the song Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud! “That was very powerful for the time because, prior to that, there was nothing for black people to grab on to and be proud of … we didn’t have shows on TV that showed black people. This [new movie] Black Panther is a very powerful transition because it’s the first time that you have superheroes that are black, they’re intelligent and have technology … it’s a total black cast. That may seem trivial to some people, but to black people it’s really huge. In the ’60s, ‘Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud’ had the same impact on us.” —Roosevelt Bynum, Jr.
When asked what improvements he has seen for people of color in the technology industry: “There’s been so much in the news around the problem of race in tech, and the lack of diversity in tech in general. But there’s also a renewed conversation … and people are OK with feeling uncomfortable around having those conversations—that’s something I haven’t seen before. Those are the things that give me hope.” —Aaron Bento, New Relic Lead Software Engineer
“If you make the courageous choice, Mikey, you’re gonna feel like a drop of ink in a bowl of milk.” —Mikey Butler, New Relic’s SVP of Engineering, recounting what his father told him to expect as a young black man trying to compete in an industry dominated by white people.
“I felt that if I dropped out, I would be letting an entire group of people down. A lot of us have this thought that we represent our culture and our people.” —Maira Benjamin, Director of Engineering at Pandora, explaining the pressure she felt to not fail while working full time, raising a child, and going back to school for a master’s degree.
As a mixed race woman with a bi-cultural background, Maira struggled with Spanish-speaking people telling her that her Spanish wasn’t good enough, while other black people didn’t see her as black enough: “I decide to fit in between, and represent both.” —Maira BenjaminWe have come a long way since 1968, the year that saw the birth of the Civil Rights Movement and one of the most pivotal years in American history. While there is certainly a lot more progress to be made, both in our industry and in the country as a whole, we here at New Relic feel fortunate to work at a company that places such a huge emphasis on diversity and inclusion, including supporting events such as our February speaker series.
New Relic is a company that prides itself as a place where employees can bring their “authentic selves” to work. By inviting our guest speakers to open up about the struggles they’ve had as a person of color in their respective communities, we’ve also been able to open up a “safe space” for our employees to share their own personal stories with one another.
These talks have started important and positive dialogues internally, and encouraged us to get to know our fellow Relics as a person rather than as a people. We are all stronger and better for it.
Check out these organizations dedicated to helping people of color and young people succeed in the tech industry: