Long-Term Sustainability Needs Diversity & Inclusion: Q&A with Nithya Das, AppNexus

Nithya Das (pictured below) is chief people and legal officer at AppNexus. In this Q&A with ExchangeWire, she talks about the importance of a culture of diversity and inclusion in corporations, and how companies can create a more inclusive atmosphere that will benefit not just the underrepresented groups, but the company as a whole.

ExchangeWire: You recently moved into a new role at AppNexus. Why do you think more companies are employing chief people and legal officers?

Nithya Das: As thorny conversations in the tech industry increasingly span both 'legal' and 'people' functions, a chief people and legal officer is well positioned to proactively – rather than reactively – steward an inclusive and meaningful culture within their company. Lawyers are equipped to understand policy, law, and risk mitigation, and can apply this knowledge to shape a company’s culture and talent brand. It’s akin to how lawyers often transition to other legal-heavy areas like corporate and business development. A solid understanding of the underlying legal and policy issues allows you to more easily make smart business decisions.

From a legal perspective, why and how should companies be addressing diversity and inclusion?

Nithya Das, Chief People & Legal officer, AppNexus

From a business perspective, if companies are interested in long-term sustainability, then a diverse workforce and an inclusive company culture that attracts, retains and promotes that workforce is essential. The data shows that diverse teams perform better and that when employees feel included, they report feeling more team-oriented and innovative. Conversely, if you don’t consider diversity and inclusion, it can increase legal and business risk to a company in the form of investigations, lawsuits, and complaints.

How can they create a framework for success in their D&I efforts?

Setting specific goals is key. In 2017, AppNexus doubled down on our commitment to diversity and inclusion, creating company-wide diversity and inclusion objectives and incorporating those goals into the annual bonus compensation of our leaders. We believe improving our demographics with a focus on increasing diversity in our leadership ranks will have a network effect in increasing diversity and inclusion across our employee base. We then wrote a blogpost sharing the current and desired statistics transparently and publicly, in order to create accountability for ourselves and within the tech community, to commit to disrupting and improving our industry’s composition.

What further steps can companies take to produce a more inclusive, welcoming culture for all people?

In order for companies to enact meaningful change, in regards to diversity and inclusion, they have to be highly intentional. So, while we set specific goals that we wanted to reach for the demographics of our employee base, we also knew we had to create the right conditions internally so that women and other underrepresented groups feel included and set up for success. We call this 'D&I by Default', meaning that these conditions just become our way of being.

It starts with structured training for your employees, so that everyone across the company is invested in and accountable for an environment in which every single employee feels supported. AppNexus engaged a consulting firm to train our employees on 'Ally Skills', focused on acknowledging systemic oppression and discussing simple, everyday ways for allies to support people who are targets of it in their workplaces and communities.

We also had our business teams create D&I goals within their own teams, so that it’s not just the HR team who are accountable for creating change – rather it’s spread across the organisation. Often, it’s the women and other underrepresented groups who have to bear the burden of pushing for an inclusive environment, but that’s not fair – they have day jobs as well!

What role do organisations like Girls Who Code and tech education programmes have for bringing gender equality into the industry?

Increasing diversity and inclusion is a long play. We have to sponsor the women who are beside us, but also the women coming up behind us – and that is where organisations like Girls Who Code come in. As Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, says: “You cannot be what you cannot see." So the tech industry must invest not only in equipping girls to participate in the digital economy, but must also open our doors to them. Girls need to see women in engineering, data science, and other tech and leadership roles. If we don’t attract and retain a diverse workforce, we – as a company, as an industry – will fail to achieve our full potential.

How can companies go further to bring social-impact initiatives into their employees’ work life?

One of the most important steps you can take as a company is the creation of a formal structure for volunteerism, by forming a philanthropy committee and instituting a volunteer time-off policy, to weave volunteer initiatives and opportunities into the workday. In 2016, AppNexus held its first Global Impact Week, so that our employees around the world could take a full workday to engage in social issues local to their cities. While our individual offices had organised standalone volunteer events in the past, creating a formal volunteer structure for our international workforce allowed employees to apply their skills in service of philanthropic causes, without feeling like they were giving up any work or personal time.