Cracking tech's diversity code

This has been a disappointing year for advancing diversity in Silicon Valley. From the Ellen Pao case to Uber's questionable women's initiative and — most recently — former Twitter employee Leslie Miley's stance on the social giant's racial diversity issues, it is apparent that the tech industry has a long way to go to make meaningful change.

Miley notes that the dialogue around diversity — both within Twitter and beyond — is already in place, and I have to agree. In board meetings, industry conferences, and dinners with fellow executives, I can confidently say that the desire to create change and the willingness to talk about our challenges is more present than ever before.

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My concern, however, is that our talk hasn't been backed by much definitive action. And let me be clear: Unless each business leader takes real steps to initiate change, the loss of great talent will continue and the ability to maximize organizational potential will be hindered.

While I won't pretend that I've cracked the code on diversity, I can share the actions I've taken to tackle it head-on at Marketo, especially on the topic of gender diversity. Our current global workforce is nearly 35 percent racially diverse and 35 percent female, a percentage that I'm aggressively looking to increase in the coming years.

1. Set a goal, and hold your entire organization accountable

There's a fear among tech leaders of quantifying diversity goals, which is ironic given that we exist in an industry driven by metrics. Every company needs a measurable goal, which should be made public so that we can each be held accountable.

I have set a goal that by the time Marketo reaches $500 million in revenue, we will achieve a 50 percent female workforce (our revenue will be above $200 million by the close of this year). We're on a solid trajectory to make that happen, and on our way there we will own the process and realign accordingly to hit our mark.

2. Your roadmap for diversity needs to be as detailed as your business plan

Imagine if, after your company's 2016 planning meetings, the end result was a road map that simply said "We will be more profitable by the end of 2016." Great thought, but how will you get there? In reality, your business plan will inevitably include overall company initiatives, department-specific goals, and budgets and action plans for each team and manager.

This is how your plan for diversity should be designed. Setting a goal to add female executives or managers of color is not enough. You need to actually lay out how to get there. When I created the plan to improve diversity at Marketo, I took several distinct actions, establishing an internal task force to help us identify areas for improvement and then holding these leaders accountable for achieving these goals. The task force was not just our head of human resources – it included leaders from our sales organization, my chief marketing officer, and regional managers of our offices around the world. I built diversity into the planning so that there would be diversity in the solution.

3. Start small to go big

We decided to use a new regional office as a test case for hiring more women in sales, which is a strategically important function at Marketo. Hiring a woman to be the new leader in our Atlanta office was a game changer for the company. In fact, the Atlanta team is now comprised of nearly 40 percent female executives. The bigger picture significance was the incredibly positive impact a woman serving as a role model and mentor has on other women in that office, and across the company.

This is something that can be replicated on a specific team or in an office to inform greater change around diversity in gender, race, age, background, sexual orientation, or otherwise. Each of these areas is incredibly nuanced, with different strategies and tactics to address. And your plan shouldn't be solely about increasing the presence of a particular group. It should also be about inclusion. As much as it can be a battle about numbers, it must also be about sentiment. At Marketo, I founded Momentum, a quarterly series that invites leading women in business to speak to male and female Marketo employees alike. And I expanded benefits to same-sex partners and for paternity leave. These are essential steps to make sure that all employees feel included.

4. Tap the appropriate resources

Last year I decided that we needed to get serious about bringing more women onto our board. We already had one female board member so this was not about "checking a box." I truly believe that having a diverse board makes us better as a board, and as a company. To initiate the search process, I looked first at the major board search firms. Frankly, it was gross. They wined and dined me and sat down at the table preaching diversity, but when they actually dove into their database, the options were paltry.

I ultimately chose a firm that specialized in placing women on corporate boards. In the course of nine months, Trewstar and CEO Beth Stewart yielded a group of eight stellar female candidates, each of whom would have brought incredible expertise and insights. The key takeaway for me in this process was the importance of looking outside of the regular channels (typically male-dominated) to find qualified female candidates. No matter what your diversity challenge, there are channels to help you achieve your goal. You just have to make them a priority.

5. Consider the short and the long game

I am a firm believer that the lack of diversity in my industry – and business in general – is both a demand AND a supply problem, meaning that it requires a two-pronged solution. The above – setting benchmarks, a business plan, etc. – should alleviate the demand issue, but then we're left with the issue of supply. Supply is diversity's "long game" issue.

While investing in recruitment, retention and inclusion, there must also be a commitment to grooming the diverse workforce of tomorrow. At Marketo, this means partnerships with disadvantaged youth in the local schools, both in donating time and supplies, but also in hiring interns who wouldn't normally be exposed to a corporate environment. We've also partnered with organizations like Grace Hopper and Bay Area Girl Geek to make sure that we are visible and accessible to the groups we're trying to reach.

These steps are only the beginning. I believe that a transformation needs to take place in the entirety of our work culture in order to dismantle the entrenched biases created by a 1950s-era structure. Only then will we make Corporate America truly conducive to all facets of diversity.

I have faith that the technology industry can lead this charge once we commit to it.

Commentary by Phil Fernandez, chairman and CEO of Marketo, a marketing-automation company based in Silicon Valley. Phil co-founded Marketo in 2006 and has more than 30 years of experience building and leading breakout technology companies. Follow him on Twitter @philf1217.