Leaders from Lyft, Fitbit on How Diversity Drives Innovation

By Kaitlin Milliken |  December 1, 2020

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Kaitlin Milliken: Hey, you’re listening to a bonus episode of Innovation Answered, the podcast for corporate innovators. I’m Kaitlin Milliken from InnoLead.

2020 has been a year of racial reckoning. In the US, protesters took to the streets throughout the summer as a part of the Black Lives Matter movement. Books like “So You Want To Talk About Race” and “How To Be An Antiracist” made their way back to the top of the New York Times‘ Best Seller List. Discussions about police brutality and systematic racism stretched from the streets to the dinner table to the virtual conference room.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion have also become a major focus within businesses of all sizes. In fact, InnoLead’s “CxOs and Innovation”report released in August of this year found that one of the top new priorities for innovators in large companies was fostering diversity and inclusion. In a follow up survey fielded in October, we asked respondents to share additional details. Innovators mentioned investing in diverse startups, providing onsite daycare, and creating more representation at the leadership level, among other initiatives.

To take a deeper dive, we reconvened a group of speakers from our Charting the Future online conference. Our panelists include: returning podcast guest Irina Kozlovskaya, a Director of Industrial Design at Fitbit; Alfred Jones, Head of Mechanical Engineering at Lyft Level Five, which focuses on self driving vehicles; Jessica Hansen, Executive Director of the nonprofit Alliance for Smiles; and Simone Hadley Wilson, a marketing strategist and a Senior Manager of Partnerships in Silicon Valley, formerly of Lyft.

During their session at our virtual gathering, they discussed how teams can fuel diversity and drive innovation. In this episode, they’ll revisit their thoughts about making DEI initiatives at big companies more effective.

We’ll be right back with more from our panel after this break.


It’s almost the new year, meaning it’s time to start setting those resolutions. Maybe you’ll be looking to improve your network and connect with other professionals. Maybe you want to develop your brand as a thought leader or innovation expert. Or maybe, you’re looking to workshop challenges at your company collaboratively with your peers. If that sounds like you, InnoLead may be able to help.

Our events team is already planning its slate of virtual events — and post-vaccine hybrid events — for 2021. We’re looking for speakers to host breakout rooms, give virtual site tours, and appear on our mainstage. These speaking opportunities are only open to corporate innovators. Our first first event on January 28th and 29th focuses on success stories. If you have a story to share, we hope that you reach out and lead a session. To learn more about speaking at our events visit Now back to the show.


Kaitlin Milliken: And we’re back with Irina, Alfred, Jessica, and Simone. During this conversation we’ll be discussing how to hire in a way that increases diversity, how to create an equitable environment for employees, and how to test products with diverse groups of customers.

Thank you all for being here today. Let’s get started.

Simone Hadley Wilson: Thanks for having us.

Kaitlin Milliken: I want to start with some definitions. What’s the difference between diversity and equity, especially in a workplace context? And Jessica, if you want to kick us off, that’d be great.

Jessica Hansen: The way that I like to think about diversity is really about the backgrounds that people bring to the table. So that can be socioeconomic background. That can be race, nationality, sexual orientation, the abilities, physical abilities that you have, and things like that, where equity is the recognizing that all people are coming to the table with a different set of those characteristics, and accounting for that, and the way that you operate, the way that you help build safety and build a healthy productive team.

Alfred Jones: Diversity, a lot of times is retrospective, and equity is proactive, right? Where, you know, retrospectively, we want to make sure that we are adding different minds and different ways of thinking, viewpoints, and walks of life to a conversation. Where equity is like, how do we create those systems and put those in place so we can continue to excel and grow from all of those things.

Simone Hadley Wilson: When you say that Alfred, it makes me think of a picture that I know, it’s a meme or an image online that’s floated around of three people looking over a fence, and they’re all different heights. And so they eventually give the shorter person a little bit taller of a stool, and the next taller person another stool, but it’s a little bit shorter so that they can also see over and then the tallest person has like thing maybe like a very miniature stool, but then now they can all see over the fence.

Alfred Jones: In your scenario, and I’ve seen this picture and I have it in my head right now, the diversity is the different heights of the people and equity are those stools, right?

Kaitlin Milliken: 2020 has been a year that’s been called, you know, a year of racial reckoning. And we hear that a lot when it comes to conversations around police violence against Black people in America, the Black Lives Matter movement, who is affected by COVID-19, and how it’s typically people of color. Have the events of this year, change the way that the companies that you’ve worked at, think about diversity and equity? 

Alfred Jones: An emotional reckoning, I’d like to start with because I think one of the things that’s been great about what’s happened is, it spun the ability to have conversations that nobody was having before. One of the things that we’ve done at Lyft is we we have these things called inclusion circles, where we get a maximum of 25 people together, not necessarily but at least a few people together, where we talk about times that we didn’t feel included, what is your experience, and really create an open vulnerable space for people to share their experiences. And what that has done for me, it’s been very empowering, especially as a Black man in a professional setting, to be able to vocalize and feel included. So, aside from all of the initiatives, and there’s a lot and there’s a couple that your managers have also sponsored, I think the impact, at least for me, has just been very overwhelming and exciting and empowering.

Kaitlin Milliken: Jesssica and Simone, in your professional experiences if you have anything to add?

Jessica Hansen: I think this year has been a really beautiful reckoning of where the organization I am at. So the organization is a medical nonprofit. The board is older. It’s white, predominantly. And I think everything that has happened this year has helped to open the door for discussions that I was pushing, even before COVID kicked in and all of that like, we need to be thinking about diversifying our board, our team, our volunteers, all of that. So it’s helped to open conversations much in the way Alfred was discussing.

In tech, specifically, women make up less than half of the jobs, but they lost 2 million more jobs than men did, from COVID. So I think we have data now to show that the vulnerable groups continue to be more impacted by issues like we’re experiencing this year. But on the other side, as Alfred was saying, it’s opening these doors, it’s opening these conversations, it’s really putting it in the spotlight, as well as showing that some things that groups that are not as advantaged, have pushed for — some more flexible work hours and work from home — that those things are possible in a very productive way.

Alfred Jones: Jessica, I want to double click on that. Because inclusion for parents is something that has really taken off. For instance, we all remember the funny [BBC] broadcast where there was a gentleman, talking and his kids, walk in the door, and he’s frantic, trying to hide it, whereas now we embrace it. “Yes, I have kids. And yes, I’m a parent, and life is hard, and it’s okay.” And I think one of the positive sides of COVID is it put us all on an equal playing field. You know, we’re like, “Yes, it’s hard. It’s not easy. And it’s okay.” So I think that’s a great aspect of it. And that’s something that, you know, a lot of these diversity initiatives are piggybacking on and taking advantage of so it’s really awesome.

Simone Hadley Wilson: For me as someone in a vulnerable population as a Black woman in tech, who did get laid off because of COVID — I’ve just become more conscious of the companies that I’m working for, and their diversity initiatives. And so even more than before, and so now, it really, it’s come down to my pocketbooks and my peace of mind, to know that the companies I’m working for and working with are allies and supportive of what’s happening to vulnerable populations around the world.

Kaitlin Milliken: Yeah, it’s really interesting that you mentioned the hiring piece, Simone. I definitely want to cover in this conversation, how to hire diverse teams, and then building an experience that feels like it’s welcoming to people from diverse backgrounds. What are the benefits of hiring diverse teams, especially when it comes to innovation, since our show focuses on that? And if anyone has had any hand in hiring, how do you actually do that?

Jessica Hansen: It sort of crosses the board of things that you can do from thinking about where you’re actually posting for jobs. Are you looking at job boards that reach indigenous populations or people of color, women specifically? Are you recruiting only from Ivy League schools? Are you recruiting from places — there are night schools and community colleges and all of that? And are you training your managers that are in hiring positions to recognize their own internal biases and account for those in the hiring process, in everything from just how traditionally white names I often get callbacks and interviews more often all the way through to, are you just looking at the fact that they went to MIT or Stanford? Or are you looking at the fact that they held down two jobs while they were raising a kid while they were also taking classes? How do those things speak to you?

A lot of tech companies are fantastically stepping up to put money towards programs like Black Girls Code, or Girls Who Code and things like that. But are they mentoring? Are they offering internships and scholarships? Are they actually hiring from the educational programs and institutions that they are putting that money towards? And then, are they building a culture that supports them, promotes them, recognizes and values them throughout the process?

Alfred Jones: As somebody who hires a lot, in tech, in hardware, in Silicon Valley, it is hard. It is hard to find diversity. And it’s hard to find diversity of gender, of color, of background. Why? Because the sample sizes, the pool, is not as diverse as it should be. And a lot of the things that you’re just talking about from a mentoring, from a coaching, development programs for younger engineers, or young professionals, are the things that we need in order to change this. So I’m a huge advocate of it. But it’s very difficult. And it takes a lot of persistence.

One of the things that I like to use when I’m educating managers and working with HR on how to hire, how do you find diverse talent, is you have to look for different things, right? You don’t want to have the “me too” syndrome or “like me” syndrome, where you’re looking for people that are like you, you want to look for other attributes I like to use four Cs, when I when I look for this: Creativity, one, you want to make sure that people are bringing new ideas. They’re questioning things, and that’s really what you want out of diversity. You want consistency. You want to hire somebody that you’re going to give them a task, and you’re gonna give them a job, and they’re gonna deliver it each time, which speaks to their accountability. Communication is key. Somebody might not have the right technical achromat. But can they communicate? Can they work well with people? And then collaboration, which also speaks to that is how well do they work with somebody. So if you look for these attributes in an individual, it really sets up a broader pool for you to staff your team with. And once you start your team with individuals that have these different attributes, then you really have an awesome team, you have a very awesome diverse team that can really make a lot of magic happen.

Irina Kozlovskaya: The piece that I’ve found really, really important, and I’ve been applying in my hiring practices is hiring for potential, rather than for past experience, like just across the board on all attributes. Down to even how I asked questions in the interview process. I think, traditionally, we’ve been taught to ask, “Well, can you tell me about a situation in which you’ve done X?” I don’t ask that anymore. Instead, I say, “In the future, if you find yourself in the situation, what are some of the things you think you would do?” Just because someone’s not had an opportunity to go to a factory and problem solve there, doesn’t mean they can’t be excellent at it. So I think it’s giving these opportunities, looking for that energy for the desire to learn, and then providing the mentorship on the job.

Kaitlin Milliken: Great. I’d like to move into the experience once you have someone hired, how do you make sure that the office environment is equitable, and encourages retention from Black, indigenous, people of color who choose to work at a certain workplace?

Alfred Jones: One as a leader, there’s two different aspects of this. There’s the inclusion, diversity and HR team, which is their job to make sure that these systems are in place. But as a leader, as a team member, you want to be very supportive of those systems, right. So if you’re onboarding somebody, you want to pair them up or with a mentor, right? It doesn’t have to be a mentor, that is from the same background as them, but somebody that can kind of help them — be their advocate in the onboarding process. It’s about getting them to kind of be comfortable with who they are on the team and knowing that they belong. And once you’re able to build that confidence in the team member, then all the magic of the diversity just kind of happens Because now we’re just one cohesive team.

And then also, you know, keeping it top of mind, revisiting the conversation. Like I said, we have inclusion circles, I like to have an inclusion circle once a month, and just let people know that, “Hey, we’re trying to be inclusive. We may not be perfect, but we want to have the conversation.”

Simone Hadley Wilson: During my time at Lyft, the person who hired me, he looks the complete opposite for me. So he is a man, he was white. But he was very self aware, and as soon as I was hired, he sat me down. And he gave me a list of all the Black women who are at the company, and who I needed to get coffee with and who I should speak with and who would be supportive of me and who may have a similar perspective to me. And so throughout my time working with him, any issues or questions that would come up, he would get right back to this moment of “Okay, well, do you feel supported? Is there something you’re not telling me that you just don’t feel comfortable telling me? Do you want to tell someone else?”

Having him give me those tools right off right out the gate, was one of the most impactful things that he could have done as a minority person, you know, walking into a new job, for the first time, all of the ERG’s were in place, the diversity inclusion team is doing their thing, running their thing, all those systems were in place, and I did engage in those later. But on a one-on-one perspective, with my new supervisor, it was so impactful for him to sit me down and say, “Here’s how I can make sure that you are truly supported.”

Jessican Hansen: ERGs, as Simone just mentioned, is such a great way of doing that. And that there are lots of opportunities for feedback. That you’re constantly seeking feedback — that it’s not just, again, on the people who experience something, that instead you’re reaching out. You have metrics that you are trying to hold yourself accountable to as an organization, and that you have a team that’s evaluating the org against those metrics, and really having some data to drive home whether you’re making progress or not.

Kaitlin Milliken: And Jessica, when it comes to metrics, I’d love if you could mention some that are good for teams to look at.

Jessica Hansen: Yeah, I mean, the very basic, base ones would really be around compensation. It would also be around promotions. I remember being at a very tech-forward NGO, and we would just constantly see this list of congrats at the certain time of year to the people that got promoted. And it was always the list of white guys, and we’re sort of like, “They’re great. We love them and we’re sure they deserve this promotion, but are you really looking across the board at everyone that you should be offering promotions to at this time?” So those are really base ones, but I have seen companies do everything from how many women are experiencing sexism in the workplace, how many people of color are experiencing racism. Really serious issues with I was blown away in tech that over 50 percent of women have either experienced sexism and discrimination because of their gender or are working closely with a woman who has.

Irina Kozlovskaya: If I could add to that opportunity on advancement, there’s one piece we haven’t talked about, and that’s sponsorship. And I think that one is also really, really critical. Folks do amazing work. But if it’s not seen, if it doesn’t gain enough visibility, it can go overlooked and then passed for promotions, because perhaps not enough people were fighting for you. So I think mentorship is super critical, but sponsorship is also really, really important. So knowing who those people are, as Simone was, pointing out, you can go and talk to, and also having those people in the room who can speak on your behalf. And it’s really helpful if they’re at the leadership level. And so, I’ve been fortunate enough to be introduced to a few leaders. And I’ve encouraged and created sort of avenues for folks who work under me as well to establish relationships with other leaders, so that when they are giving a presentation, or you know, they have an opportunity to speak, somebody can also back them and say, “Hey, that was an incredible idea. Did everybody pay attention? Please pay attention to this.”

Kaitlin Milliken: A lot of people in management positions, this is their first time really thinking about racism in the workplace as something that’s actively happening, or may affect the people that they manage. How should teams navigate that or involve management in conversations that could make it easier for them to connect with the people that they’re managing?

Alfred Jones: So managers, is your front line of supporting diversity inclusion? Why? Because the managers first job, their primary purpose is to support you as an individual, their people. So it’s important to make sure that the managers are equipped with, how do I have this conversation? What do I do when I’m in an uncomfortable conversation? I don’t know what to say, where can I point somebody? Where can I direct them? What are the resources at my disposal, that I could point somebody in the right direction to?

Another really good thing is having managers have their own inclusive circle, where we talk about, “Well, how did you handle that situation? Or what should I talk about? Or somebody came to me with this thing? It’s very awkward. I don’t know what to do, what should I do?” So just making sure managers have that support and education.

Kaitlin Milliken: So much of our conversation so far is really talked about internal, so within the company, and I do want to take some time to talk about the role diversity and inclusion plays externally. So we’ve been talking to folks where maybe if you’re in venture investing, you’re investing with startups that are led by women, or people who are Black or from a minority group. Or it could be testing with a diverse demographic of users, which is something that I know you and I touched on Irina, last time I had you on the show, but I’d love to kind of get a sense of what role bringing a diverse group of demographics in from outside plays for Fitbit.

Irina Kozlovskaya: In our field, when we’re building new things, and we’re building for a diverse audience, it’s extremely important that both the teams internally in the testing and the research all reflects that audience. Otherwise, you know, there might be blind spots that are missed and I think Fitbit has done a great job at both bringing in diverse folks to help us do research. And I know both of our user research team and our marketing insights team have made that a big priority for them.

We do a lot of testing with diverse users as well. And also, we have internal tools that help us mimic things like for example, limited ability or different ability helps us test things like buttons on our devices. So you know, a ton of work on that. And I think that’s just just super, super critical. And I think it’s important to constantly check what you have and what you’ve been doing and see if there’s more you can do, I think there’s always an opportunity to continue to grow as well.

Kaitlin Milliken: Do you have an example of when bringing in folks and having users who have different ability or mobility impairments or abilities has improved a product, just some type of concrete story from doing that type of testing?

Irina Kozlovskaya: I don’t know if I have a specific one around that, but I do have an example from our color material and finish team (CMF). One thing that they’ve been doing, which I think is really awesome, is making sure that all the colors they develop for our devices work for a variety of skin tones, which I just thought was kind of a cool initiative. And they do that both through hands on testing and in different environments with different skin tones, different light, but also actually Pantone — which I don’t know if everyone here is familiar with it’s a company that does different color chips that are used a lot in the industry — they have actually come out with a skin tone tool that allows us to test with a variety of different skin tones for every color choice that we make. So I thought that was a pretty cool initiative that Jennifer Burch on our CMF team has been leading. And I thought that was awesome.

Simone Hadley Wilson: Alfred will have a lot to also add on to this, and being the head of hardware for Lyft’s Self Driving Division, but I did just want to say, during my time at Lyft, working with the self driving team, we would partner with the National Federation of the Blind. For us to get further, we have to make sure everyone can actually get there. These innovative ideas, they’re not going to go anywhere, if the person who actually needs to use them doesn’t want to use them or doesn’t even know they’re available.

One of my favorite things that we would touch on in the Black Employee Resource Group at Level Five, so Lyft self driving division was that a handful of Black engineers who are in the self driving arena, but when they go home and talk to their families, and they talk to their cousins about this technology that they’re working on, this is the first time that those cousins or those family members are like getting a taste of this innovative product that is supposed to help change how transportation is done in their communities. And so that’s just another important reason, diversity in hiring, especially in innovative companies is so important. Your employees, they’re going to be evangelists for this new technology that’s coming forth. And so I want to pass it over to Alfred to talk about maybe some of the things that he’s doing on the hardware side.

Alfred Jones: I will add if you look at Lyft, in general, Lyft is a company that is built on diversity. The success of the company is the success of their diversity, from their passengers and their riders. When you when you think about transportation, and micro mobility, and autonomous driving, it sees no race, gender, or color, because a vehicle has to drive in the suburbs. It has to drive in the city. It has to drive in the hood. It has to drive in San Diego in the summer. It has to drive in Alaska. So when you’re creating that, and you have different types of customers that you want to be able to make sure that they’re able to engage and use your product, you really have to think about it. So for instance, the Lyft app has multiple languages that the driver and the passenger can use in order to talk with one another.

When we look at autonomous vehicles, we want to create an autonomous vehicle that is not just conceived for one class of people in one area, but it’s really holistic. How do you make it so it works everywhere in the United States, and people feel comfortable and safe. If you look at our micro mobility, we are creating bikes and scooters that we really want not only the 95th percentile of the population to be able to use but we want men and women and people of all sizes to be able to use it. And we’re and we’re also looking at micro mobility for the handicap and micro mobility for families. So the diversity outside is extremely important to us. And we’re constantly striving to improve every day.

Jessica Hansen: Something that I was really inspired by, during my time at Lyft was some of the early research just in tech where things had been developed by groups that lacked that diversity. I don’t know if you all have heard the whole people trying to use the automated soap dispensers and restaurant bathrooms and they can’t use it. They can’t use it. But they stick a white paper towel under and they can. So that technology is only as smart as the people who program it. And so you really do need to have a diverse background. It was not taught initially to recognize darker skin tones.

Same thing with autonomous vehicles early on. They were not taught to recognize different skin tones. And you think about the difference now having people like Alfred and Simone working on those projects as opposed to the old school of people who would be focused on it. You know that the product and the service are going to be lightyears ahead of where they would have been otherwise. There’s a lot of data behind that. Companies that score lower on diversity and their leadership and innovation teams bring in significantly less revenue from their innovation. So it’s not just anecdotal about the soap dispensers. There’s data there.

Alfred Jones: I wasn’t gonna bring up the self driving, seeing skin tones thing, but that’s actually something that’s very important, because it actually speaks to what happens when your diversity is not top of mind, versus when you add it, bring it to the table. The reason why that phenomenon happens is because camera technology, which is extremely old. Now I’m not going to be correct on all the dates, but like early 1900s camera technology, the scale at which we evaluate camera technology was based off of white skin back in 1910, 1920, or something like that. And that scale has never changed, by the way, until recently.

In some ways, it didn’t need to change because a camera was a camera. Yes, you need a different filters and exposure, especially when you have the contrast of different colors against one another. But you weren’t using cameras for safety critical things such as driving a car so you don’t hit somebody. Jabari, who was our VP of Marketing, used to work at Google. And he told the story about how at Google when they were trying to develop this great camera, it would take all these great pictures for one class of people, but it wouldn’t take great pictures for all different classes. So they had to develop a different scale for how do you actually evaluate that camera to make sure your camera is diverse, right? So your camera can see all different gradients. And even within that, it’s not perfect.

So we have to think about that, especially when we’re talking about a safety critical thing because we have people’s lives at stake. You don’t want a self-driving car to impale somebody just because it says, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were Black.”

Kaitlin Milliken: This has been a really great conversation and our time together is coming to a close. But I did want to see if there were any pieces of advice or closing notes that we haven’t gotten a chance to discuss, that you want to hit on before we close out this episode?

Simone Hadley Wilson: I think we’re at an interesting time, not only in the US, but the rest of the world.We’re almost getting a reset. Through a lot of pain, there’s beauty that comes from it. Take advantage of the fact that there’s been a reckoning, things have come to the surface. We’re now having difficult conversations. There’s finally been room for it even as uncomfortable and hard as it was to get to this place. But now we’re here and now all of we’re all airing out our dirty laundry. And so, you know, be honest, be transparent. Be gentle with people. Let’s do this together.

Jessica Hansen: For me, no one action done once is going to get you there. This is an ongoing process. Yeah, maybe you made a donation to Black Girls Code. That’s not the end of your work. Maybe you hired a diversity and inclusion VP, that’s not the end of your work.

Also, I’m just thinking about internships and apprenticeships and things like that. Only a certain group of people right now can afford to come to the Bay Area, and be a low paid or unpaid intern at these organizations and get them on their resumes. But I think this time has shown us that we can work really well remotely. So you could bring in people who can’t afford an apartment in the Bay Area, and you could have them working with you right now and help them get set up for success and a great career. So this is a great time to start using these platforms to open up your base and really bring in a diverse group of candidates.

Irina Kozlovskaya: I’d love to just emphasize the internship point that Jessica made, because that one is huge. So offering opportunities throughout the education process for folks. Helping them get into schools, helping them staying in schools, and then offering those bridges from school to workplace is tremendously important.

Alfred Jones: The last thing I’ll leave this with is, this is of movement, not a moment. We need to, you know, keep fighting the good fight, and be the change that we want to see. Without that, we’ll forget about this in 2021, and it will be status quo. We don’t want that. We want to change it. We want to keep fighting the good fight. And I want all of those listeners of the podcast to know that you do belong and there are like minded people out there that you know, are just as passionate and as you. So reach out. And good luck, persevere.

Kaitlin Milliken: Thank you again for joining for this conversion. We appreciate having you all on the show.


You’ve been listening to Innovation Answered. This episode was written and edited by me, Kaitlin Milliken. Special thanks to Alfred Jones, Irina Kosolvskaya, Jessica Hansen, and Simone Hadley Wilson for being on our show. For more updates, be sure to subscribe to Innovation Answered wherever you get your podcasts. You can also get bonus content on our website: Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you soon.