The horrific killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis shook the world. He died within sight of a crowd of horrified bystanders, who pleaded with the police officer kneeling on his neck to relent. He did not.
Within hours of the killing, the latest in a long line of brutal deaths of BAME people at the hands of police forces, disturbing footage of a man taking his last desperate breaths had shot around the world. The world could not unsee the scene. It could not forget.
As the shockwaves spread around the globe, it fell to us all to reflect. To re-examine our own attitudes to the many injustices in society, of which the killing of George Floyd was just one unsettling example.
Like most people who run businesses and employ staff members, I felt something extra as well. An extra degree of responsibility both to absorb the message of the killing, to think carefully about how it would affect my staff, and what we as a team running a major global tech platform could do in response.
There have been many notable and praiseworthy initiatives to come out of the tragedy, many from the world of tech.
Global tech giant AirBnb has since established “Project Lighthouse”, a drive to stamp out incidents of racial hate and prejudice on its platform, backed up by a dedicated team within its HQ. Google has set itself a target of increasing the reputation of underrepresented groups at executive level by 30% before 2025. Netflix has pledged major levels of financial support for organisations that “directly support Black communities in the U.S.”.
Reflecting on what the events of May had meant to the company, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said: “My own search for answers started within our own walls.” The question for us was, what can we do within our walls, and how should we respond as a team?
I spent a lot of time thinking about this. More importantly, I spent a lot of time thinking about what UNiDAYS could do that would best reflect our company, our team, and our culture.
Looking at what other businesses have done, it’s clear that there is no one generic solution; no cookie-cutter approach. Anybody who thinks there is, or that they can just throw money at a problem as complex and deep-rooted as this, is overlooking its seriousness.
As with so much in business, it’s about being true to what you are, and true to your customers. The million students who access our platform a day are our most important connections in the world. They are the UNiDAYS community.
And the largely Gen Z population of students who benefit from our services are themselves a part of a unique generation, with its own causes and concerns, its own means of expression, and its own demands from life.
The youth of every generation have had their struggles. From the love generation of the late ‘60s, to the activists fighting injustice on Wall Street and in the City after the big crash of 2008, there are common threads and common causes, and injustices come round again. As left wing hero Tony Benn once said, “Every generation must fight the same battles again and again and again. There’s no final victory and there’s no final defeat.”
But there are things about this generation that separates it out from any other. Not least, its innate grasp of the extraordinary power of communication technology; the power of social media to disseminate information around the world in seconds.
As a result Gen Z has engaged with social issues in a way no other generation has. The children of the late 90s and early noughties have been witness from an early age to the turmoil of the past decade, through the rise of extremist politics around the world, the age of untruth and Trumpism, and the intensifying of debate as a result of social media.
It has been a tumultuous period, with much pain and angst, but it has also been a formative one. The result is a generation which, with the right guidance, could bring about real long-term change, and offer an enduring sense of hope for a better future course.
To take one example, Gen Z is arguably more conscious, and conscientious, of ethical standards in the brands it chooses to engage with than any previous generation. Time after time research shows that from sustainability, to diversity of employment to representation of minority groups in advertising, a lack of ethical credentials in a brand can be a major bar to affinity among Gen Z shoppers.
Research from Deloitte shows that this is both the case when it comes to shopping, and also in terms of where Gen Z wants to work. The ‘Welcome to Gen Z’ report lays this out clearly:
“Not only must companies have strong ethics,” the report says, “they have to demonstrate they take action consistent with their ethics and values, and this action must be front and center of their brand for prospective Gen Z buyers and employees to see.”
Our customer base has a high bar when it comes to ethical standards. And it can’t be fooled. Social media is a phenomenal vehicle for information, and also of disinformation. Younger users have grown wary of the latter, and sceptical of brands who offer only lip service and token gestures when it comes to issues such as Black Lives Matter.
Woe betide a company who claims to be on the right side of the argument but is later exposed in this way. Social media users will scrutinise politicians, right up to the White House; they will do it to retail brands as well.
In searching for answers to these complex questions at UNiDAYS we looked to ourselves. I (we) immediately set up a group within the team dedicated to exploring the issues raised by the BLM movement, and to explore how even the most unconscious of bias could have crept in to the way we do business, both internally as an employer, and externally as a platform in the global marketplace.
We have already agreed upon a number of important initiatives, both within the team and in the way we interact externally. Firstly, we are redoubling our efforts internally to educate ourselves, and provide staff with the space to learn, about the issues raised by the BLM movement. Because I feel before you can make any tangible change, education and awareness are essential starting points.
To that end we have also sought expert advice from outside, and will be bringing in external speakers to share their insights, and run educational and awareness training sessions for all staff members.
Another important area of our internal dialogues is recruitment, and in turn the bars to social and income mobility facing BAME people. The BLM movement has highlighted the prejudices and outdated attitudes towards BAME applicants that so many employers are still holding on to, even while wider social progress goes on around them. We also know that the ways in which these injustices manifest are often subtle, and insidious; only the victims of discrimination can ever fully know what it means. We need to be fully sensitive to this, and adjust our attitude to recruitment accordingly.
Lastly, we have a duty as a business with hundreds of partners and members around the world, to ensure that we are a force for good and a positive influencer of other businesses and our own users. This is about listening to the real issues raised by the BLM movement, committing to real action and change, and moving forward together, with our partners, with the self-awareness to know that this has to be a long journey of self-examination and learning.
We’re seeking to engage with our own members and business partners to help share that positive voice, and contribute to the narrative for change.
Of course, these internal and external shifts can’t change a whole culture in themselves. I’m not setting deadlines or time-frames onto what our internal group produces, and I’m not asking for box-ticking. Far from that, this is going to be an ongoing process from which we can all learn over time.
We’re going to keep listening to our customers, keep evaluating our brand engagements, keep taking lessons from what our partners are learning. As our understanding grows we must ensure that as our company policies, plans and products reflect these crucial lessons in everything we do as we move forward.