Q&A with Sara Sperling, Facebook’s Head of Diversity

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As Head of Diversity with Facebook, Sara Sperling plays a major role in the shaping of the company. She’s in charge of Facebook’s efforts to become a more demographically diverse company and refers to herself more as a Dean of Students than a Facebook executive.

Sperling, who has been with Facebook for four years, recently spoke at the first Lesbians Who Tech summit, an event that helps build awareness of queer women in the tech industry and the opportunities that are available for them.

She took some time to sit down with Inside Facebook to examine how having such a diverse workforce has helped Facebook not only in the tech world, but as an internationally-renowned company.

Inside Facebook: Tell me a little bit about what Facebook was like, in terms of diversity, when you signed on here.

Sara Sperling: When I came on board, we were a little over 1,000 employees and we’re now over 6,000 — quite a big jump. For me, when I chose to come to Facebook, I was such an out lesbian. There was no hiding it with me. I needed to go work somewhere where I could be completely me. That was already there at Facebook. They were like, “We love you! We love that you have tattoos. We love that you’re a mom. We love all of that!” So diversity was already important to Facebook. It was just because we were a small company that we weren’t necessarily focusing on it.

All of that base bone was always there, so it was nice to be able to build on that. I started not as diversity, but as learning & development. I had a passion for diversity. I helped revive one of the employee resource groups. From that, the company kept going to me and asking me questions about diversity and I’d answer it. At some point, one of the leaders, the head of HR, saw something in me. … I think that’s really freaking cool that executives of the company would say, “We see something in you,” and trust you enough to build it.

IF: Before you came to Facebook, what were you doing?

SS: I was doing learning & development at Yahoo. Right before that, I was in academia. I was teaching at Berkeley and Santa Clara and I was doing student affairs. Funny enough, I always wanted to be the Dean of Students at a university. So now, I have literally met my goal. I was totally academic, and made that transition from academic to corporate. It was hard, though.

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IF: One of the things that has always impressed me about Facebook is the company is very, very dedicated to diversity. They’re finding new employees from groups who are underrepresented in the tech world. Can you tell me how Facebook goes about finding talent from other underrepresented groups?

SS: We’re very similar to most of the tech companies. We want diverse teams. The research shows that diverse teams are going to build better products. We don’t have a simple product — we have a complex product. Because of that, we need diverse perspectives and diverse journeys and what that equals is people of different ethnicities and different paths. That’s what we like.

Our consumer base, the people who use Facebook, is the world. So we need to look as close to that as we possibly can. We still have all the challenges that all the other tech companies have, finding people who are from diverse perspectives and diverse paths. But we’re very committed to that and we have a team that’s committed to that. Our employees are committed to this — it’s not just executives or recruiting, our employees are too.

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IF: What was the reception or the feedback from the Lesbians Who Tech conference?

SS: People really enjoyed it. I didn’t want to focus me and Facebook. I wanted to focus on what I learned and how I got from being a math major to building diversity at a company like Facebook. It was definitely a path I never would’ve ever anticipated taking. It’s a job that doesn’t feel like a job. When I reflected on how I got there — I’m very much into improv — and there’s principles of improv that I used to help me go. (The response) was really positive. There were some principles that everybody could relate to.

I talked about saying “Yes,” to things that you’d normally say “No,” to. I talked about being fully present, which I think also in this world of Facebook and Twitter is a challenge. When you are fully present to people, paths will open up. I talked about failing gloriously. We all fail and we don’t know success until we’ve failed, but do fail gloriously and be like, “Yup, that was my failure.” The final one was telling people to tell their own unique stories to people. So I think that one of those four things resonated with people.

I loved it. It was the first year they had this summit and we were all kind of hoping for maybe 300 people. Almost 800 people showed up and the speakers who were there … I wanted to stay! It was just phenomenal women. … Leann Pittsford was the one who ran this, her and her fiancée Leah. It was a top-notch job.

IF: What are some of your goals for Facebook?

SS: At Facebook, we always like to say we’re 1 percent finished and I really feel that way with diversity. We definitely have the foundation and we’re set up for huge success. I really want us to be the company that others look at when they look at who is doing the most amazing, trailblazing things in diversity. I want to be that company.

What I really want to focus on, at least for this year, is my culture and really focusing on the inclusion. Our employee resource groups are made up of 20 to 30 percent not-that-group. 20 percent of the black group doesn’t identify with being a part of that community, but because they’re part of this group, they’re learning and exploring. I actually think our pride group is 30 to 40 percent just allies.

What’s been so phenomenal — when you look at our Pride Parade presence, we’ve only been there three years. I will put it down that we will hit over 1,000 people and that’s just unheard of. People feel a part of the community — not just certain communities, but the whole community.

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IF: Can you tell me a little more about the outreach that Facebook does to attract employees from different backgrounds?

SS: We definitely do a lot of the conferences that all the companies do. We have a very strong presence at Grace Hopper, and we like to do things with them outside of the conference. There are quite a bit of partnerships that we do. We have a really strong partnership with Year Up. We’ve had some people who have gotten positions here from that organization. We have a strong partnership with MLT — Management Leadership for Tomorrow. We have a partnership with the Hackbright Academy. So there’s things that we’re doing that will not only get us employees — and that’s important — but we also want to be there to help inspire and be there as mentors for people, if they need that. Yes, we’re focused on getting more employees, but it’s more than that for us. We want the give-and-take.

IF: Thinking about the tech industry in general, what are some things you’d like to see more of?

SS: I want to see more women. I was a math major back when I was in college. Back then, there was not support for me. I get it that there’s not many of us that are in our 40s that are in the sciences. But I want to see more women in the sciences. But I also want to see more women being leaders, stepping up and talking more. Sheryl (Sandberg) does a great job, but we need more Sheryls.

In Silicon Valley, we need that from other groups — we need more Latinos talking and speaking, somebody from the black community, the differently-abled community, the veteran community. We need to see more of them and speaking what it’s like to be mentors, so that people who might be differently-abled can see someone who looks like them and has the same background and experience as them would want to come and work in technology.

Tech is where it’s at, so we need more diverse perspectives.

IF: Have you seen more women go into the field because of what Sheryl has done and because of Marissa Mayer, and because there are more women leaders in tech then there were 3 or 4 or 5 years ago?

SS: I think it’s not only that, but I think there’s more inspirational teachers out there. I think we see a lot more female teachers who are teaching science. When I was a math major, it was a male professor who told me there wouldn’t be any support for women in this field. Now, we’re seeing more male professors and teachers who are very supportive of women going into these fields. I think it’s actually changing on a more granular level in the school systems. It helps to have people who are speaking out here in tech, but it’s our school systems. Women and people who are from diverse backgrounds see that if they want to do engineering and they love it, then they should do it no matter what background they’re from.

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Images courtesy of Facebook.

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