How I Made It: GitHub’s Nicole Sanchez leads the charge for diversity
The gig: Nicole Sanchez, 43, is vice president of social impact for software building platform GitHub. She joined the San Francisco start-up, which has a $2-billion valuation and nearly 500 employees, in 2015 to help the company evolve into an inclusive workplace that also has a positive effect on the communities in which it operates. Her day-to-day duties include meeting and training every person at GitHub on what diversity and inclusion mean.
Early activist: Sanchez was accepted to Stanford University and soon realized that attending a prestigious college didn’t lead her to a “magical kingdom of opportunity.” In fact, looking at her father’s experience — the youngest of 11 children of Mexican immigrants who grew up poor in East Los Angeles — she saw that people of underrepresented groups could do “all the right things” and still not catch a break. Her father started at UC Berkeley in the 1960s but faced racial discrimination from other students and struggled to afford food and housing. In the end, he had to drop out. “Even though I got into Stanford, I realized there were still so many closed doors, and I still didn’t understand how to make the system work for me,” she said.
City Year: After graduating from Stanford with a degree in American studies, Sanchez moved to Boston to join the AmeriCorps City Year program. Over the next four years, she worked at bilingual schools as a teacher’s aide, and for the first time she felt her background was seen as an asset. “Coming from a low-income background and being Latina and being able to relate to lots of different people, I’d never been treated in a way that I could actually bring that to bear, as opposed to stuffing it down and hiding it,” she said. “It was very clear from that moment I wanted to work on making the case for diversity as an asset in business.”
A bumpy road: Her next few gigs helped her understand how hard it would be to make that case. At a Boston tech company in the 1990s, she saw diversity initiatives be the first to go when money was tight. As a consultant, she saw companies treat diversity as window dressing. Even as companies were able to attract workers from underrepresented groups, few could keep them. It was during this time that Sanchez learned that “if you do not connect diversity to the core business proposition of whatever you’re working on, it is so easy to push it to the periphery,” she said. “If you don’t talk about diversity and inclusion as a means to an end, and instead of as the end in and of itself – like, ‘Oh, yay. We look like Sesame Street. We’re done’ — it doesn’t stick.”
GitHub: Sanchez formed Vaya Consulting in mid-2014. Her goal was to work closely with a handful of companies to help make them inclusive places that could attract and retain diverse talent. As vice president of social impact at GitHub, she digs deep into how the company is hiring, how it’s creating professional development and the kinds of policies and procedures it has in place to retain talent. She’s involved in wide-ranging facets, including giving feedback on performance reviews and helping with the office redesign to ensure it’s welcoming to people of all backgrounds.
Educator: One of Sanchez’s goals is to help others understand why diversity matters. “I hear a lot of cop-outs around diversity,” she said. “When somebody says they don’t want to ‘lower the bar’ in order to hire a diverse team, often what it takes is to just reflect that question back on the person and say, ‘What do you mean by lowering the bar? Because to me that sounds like you think anybody who comes through these doors who doesn’t look a certain way or hasn’t gone to a certain short list of schools is automatically not as good as you.’”
Connect Home: Sanchez is leading the charge on GitHub’s involvement in Connect Home, a partnership with the federal government and nonprofits to give 250,000 households living below the poverty line broadband Internet access. GitHub has contributed $500,000 to the program, as well as 2,000 hours of employee time and $3 million of product. The pilot program is live in 28 communities, including Los Angeles, Fresno, Baltimore and New Orleans.
Advice: For anyone who wants to do what Sanchez does, her advice is to find and connect with the community of people already doing it. “I guarantee that if you’re in finance, tech, Hollywood or the auto industry, there’s a group of people who have been trying to figure this out,” she said. “Find them. Be active on a social network with them. You’re not alone, and knowing you’re not alone has to be the first part of what you’re doing.”
Personal: Sanchez lives in Berkeley with husband Patrick Noonan, 42, and children Alex, 16, and Grace, 13.