Ashleigh Ainsley is the co-founder of Colorintech, the UK's leading non-profit focused on Diversity and Inclusion in technology backed by Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Atomico, and eBay. Throughout his career, Ashley has held many senior roles within the tech industry and has been continuously recognised for his industry influence.
More recently, Ashley has successfully been named on the UK’s top 100 BAME technology leaders list by the Financial Times, has been featured in Forbes 30 under 30, and voted as one of BBC 1Xtra's future figures for the history in honour of Black History Month 2022.
We spoke with him in an interview to learn more about the value of racial diversity in technology and to find out why he created his organisation after observing a lack of diversity in the tech firms he had previously worked for. We also discuss how he is promoting diversity in the UK tech sector, how you can help reduce the digital skills gap, and what businesses can do to foster an inclusive workplace culture and hire and retain a more varied pool of talent from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.
Could start with you telling me about who you are and your background.
My name's Ashleigh Ainsley, I'm the Co-Founder of Colorintech, which is a not-for-profit based here in London. I set it up about five years ago, with my co-founder called Deon Mackenzie, with the objective to try and get more people from underrepresented backgrounds into tech. We do that by running programs, bringing out lots of content and several different types of events to bring our community of over 20,000 people together, to achieve that objective. I've previously worked for Google, and KPMG alongside some advisory work. I studied Geography at Oxford University and grew up in London.
You've held many senior roles within the tech industry. Was there a point which inspired you to enter the tech industry and was there a break that allowed you to enter?
To be honest, I've only ever really worked in the tech industry. If I go back to my background, I grew up in a diverse part of London and I didn't really see the world because I wasn't financially able to, when I was younger, I effectively just assumed the rest of the world was as diverse as where I lived. When I went to Oxford University and discovered it wasn't diverse, I was like, whoa, okay, this is, the microcosm of an element of society, but surely like the real world wasn't really like that. Then I went to Google, having got a role because I went to Oxford, frankly. I love the company, it's a great organization, but you know, it’s the same across the whole industry, I could have gone to Microsoft, I could have gone to Facebook, and it will have all been the same. It wasn't as diverse as the broad number of employees that they have. Whether that’s gender, whether that's ethnicity, whether it's a disability. That's in all companies, they needed to do a lot more than what was being done at the time. I then went to a startup after that and everywhere I've been, it's been the same, frankly. So, there wasn't one moment, I'd argue that there's never not been the moment if that makes sense.
You are the co-founder of ColourinTech, which is an organisation orientated around increasing access, awareness, and opportunities in underrepresented groups in the technology industry, tell us about how this came about and why it was important for you to do?
Fundamentally, if we don't improve the diversity of the tech industry, we're probably going to build products, services, and tools and use them in a way that excludes people, for moral and social reasons, and probably isn't the best thing, but also, has real-world ramifications for productivity, equity and frankly just the function of the economy. If we build tech that can't be used or understood by a wide variety of people, then they're probably not able to take advantage of the benefits of that and that's just got an economic consequence to it, let alone a moral one. Essentially, if we build bad products, bad services, bad tools, that's not really a good thing to be doing. You know, I, I don't think any business would go be happy with this, however, this ultimately is what will happen if we don’t have representation of the entire community.
From that perspective, it is obvious that more work needs to be done, as evidenced, for instance, by the fact that, according to technical data, the percentage of racial and ethnic minorities in the UK workforce is just 20% overall and only 15% in the technology sector. Although it's not as bad as it once was, there is still work to be done.
There is a lot going on and a lot of companies are trying to move forward and are taking diversity and inclusion a lot more seriously. But do you think that the tech industry is moving in the right direction in terms of making it more accessible?
To be fair I think that the tech industry is in a way, probably one of the more pioneering companies in this fundamentally. It reports quite widely and has been doing that for some years in the USA, however, we don't see that necessarily in Europe in the same vigor. They spent a lot of time and energy hiring people and trying to create more inclusive and welcoming work environments because ultimately that's what talent wants and if they don’t do it then they don't get the best people. From that perspective yes, I do think it is progressive in making it more accessible and making better changes than some industries that we see.
That being said, there's clearly there's more to be done; there's a heterogeneous picture across the tech industry. As I mentioned, I used to work at Google or work with them, so I know that they do a lot of work and spend a lot of time and energy on this, whereas there are a lot of companies that do far less and that's not right. Give people credit where it's due, but for instance, I read the UN report which states that the gender gap has gone backward across society and female representation in terms of the pay gap and in positions in business it’s going to take another 132 years for the gender gap to totally close. Realistically my children and probably their children won't see that, and I think; how are we in this situation? And the broader point is therefore if we people just continue to do what they're doing now, it won't make enough of a difference.
Within the tech sector what are the primary reasons for companies stopping them from attracting diverse talent and what can they actually do to start attracting more ethnic minorities?
In some instances, companies have never actually made an effort to do anything in this space. Look at it just as a business challenge. You've got a consumer segment and if your potential market and customers aren't buying your product, what would you do to them? You'd probably make sure your product works for them and is marketed to them. It’s very similar for talent, and there's a range of companies out there that have never done anything to that extent. Why would they expect anything different, they’ve not created an environment where people evangelize about them in the workplace. They say it's a great place to work and they have representation of individuals who are diverse in their companies however, we generally see retention rate, especially for black colleagues is particularly low.
This is probably because they don't like where they are, not because they are less qualified to execute the positions. There are still issues, and I believe that there have been instances of sexism, homophobia, racism, and discrimination in the workplace. I believe generally that the workplace represents society as well, and our society has these problems. Again, I believe that businesses that wish to portray themselves as existing in a bubble or safe haven free from the influences of these problems must confront and resolve these problems to ensure that they have processes in place, that they communicate effectively, that they have values, and that you are aware of what tolerance is.
Organisations haven't done that. Organisations haven't spent a lot of time, energy, or effort really engaging with the communities or people outside of their own networks. It’s been years of benefiting people who refer people like the.
Take a simple reward scheme, you refer somebody into a role, that by itself, could be a good or a bad thing, but does the same effort or reward come into encouraging or incentivizing employees to interact or meet new people that they don't already know? If they find somebody or find an organization that might enable them to, reach new people, whether that's talent or consumers is that reward? In a lot of organisations, it's not, so then you think, why would we do it if no incentives are there? Do leaders have diversity targets linked to their promotion, their pay, and their rewards? In the most progressive organisations you do see that, in those who aren't, you don't. So, you know, it's always nice to have, never essential, if it is good for business, then it should be treated, that way.
We talk a lot in the industry about the attraction of ethnic minorities into the tech industry and companies, However, when we look at the statistics, they are significantly lower based on retention and progression of this talent. Do you think that sometimes it can be seen as a diversity tick box exercise for companies, for example, if you hit hiring four diverse people into your team, you will then get a promotion?
I think there are a couple of things to that. The system needs to be cohesive. For context on that, you can't just reward and incentivize hiring without thinking about how that relates to retention and enabling people within the organization to thrive.
You can't just have a tap, turn it on and not put the plug in the sink. From that perspective, you need to think about it a bit more cohesively. You also need to not incentivise the tick box. We've seen instances in the USA where, you know, loads of people had targets to present a diverse shortlist or something similar so therefore you incentivise those recruiters to frankly, waste people's time by ringing them up for roles that they were never able to get or seriously considered for. Just so that they tick the box and say we've spoken to 50% women, or we've spoken to 20% ethnic minorities just so they can say they've done it when what’s the result of the decision.
While that's helpful, because at least these people are getting the opportunity to potentially get the information or even to be involved in the conversations, if that's just optical and just a tick-box, and is that real genuine progress? I don't want someone to waste my time interviewing me for a role that I've got no prospect of getting and saying that that's an opportunity for me when it's not. We need to make sure we're rewarding and incentivising the right types of behaviour. Not just behaviour.
So, in terms of addressing the issue digital skills gap, if we look to the beginning of the pipeline in terms of creating pathways into tech. Are there enough people from minorities coming through from choosing STEM subjects at school, and choosing technology-focused degrees at university?
There are three stages, in my opinion. What are we doing with the talent we already have? Accordingly, 40% of my friends and those who are like me are unemployed today, just as I was around 10 years ago when I was a young black man in London. That has now spanned the entire spectrum. You are therefore still more likely to be unemployed even after taking into account economic outcomes, degree class, and other factors. Making ensuring part of the available working capital in terms of human capital is used efficiently could be a simple equitable solution—I say simple, but it's not as simple as me saying it. Some people were able to get employment, work their occupations, and do them very effectively. Before we even think about how do we address the pipeline? We need to know if we can stop the pipeline from leaking.
Some of the people who are still seeking employment or who are working in positions they are not necessarily qualified for may need more training or skill development. I'm not arguing that everyone is the finished product, but when you're paying someone less than the average income, it might be simpler, more affordable, and more effective to invest in that for an additional three or six months. Ten years later, you hire highly expensive recruiters since your board is concerned as to why you can't locate enough diverse people. There is long-term thinking regarding that.
The second point, in my opinion, is that while there are more opportunities than there are people who are fully qualified to fill them, we are aware that there is a talent shortage. We are not preparing our youth, particularly those attending universities. I have a good understanding of the industry because I serve on several advisory boards, and I can see that many new graduates lack the necessary training, instruction, assistance, coaching, mentoring, and support to help them secure the roles or some of the hard skills that may need to, to, to be fit.
And I believe that a more extensive discussion about who and what our educational system is for, as well as how to best make it effective for the goals we have for it, is necessary. Great if the goal is to prepare people for academic careers. But if students don't wind up in academics, should we be promoting and allowing them to pursue those kinds of careers? I think they then have an issue about how you improve the quality of the pipeline.
The third thing I'd suggest is probably to go back to the beginning and ask: What are we teaching the pipeline? Less than a quarter of computer science graduates are women, as you may be aware. From where does that begin? There is probably not much of a gender disparity when you ask people in primary school whether they like math in English or physics or chemistry, but by the time you reach the end of GCSEs, the figures are pitiful in comparison to the men.
Therefore, I believe that as a society, we must address this issue while also improving the educational value of our curriculum. Teachers' abilities need to be improved. We need to encourage young people to recognise that, well, whatever it is, there are enormous chances open for entrepreneurs should they perhaps study any of these things. We need to improve the subjects taught and the applicants for such courses. And it begins very early on. But again, we don't really have any of those discussions about that.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to get involved in the tech industry?
Before learning anything about them, they should ask themselves, "Where do they feel they can add value?" Tech offers a wide range of opportunities. You might say, "I want to study law, but I'm interested in intellectual property. If you work in technology, for example, you can be a software developer who wants to really improve user interfaces for people. You could be a designer or a recent graduate in sales, for example. I think the first thing is don't rule tech out as an industry just because it sounds like tech, you don't have to be, like Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates to be part of the industry and if you are one of them and you like them, that's fine as well.
The next step, in my opinion, is to consider what you can be doing and how you fit into that structure to contribute value. You have the chance to demonstrate that from there. If you're an engineer and you want to be building things, why don't you build some stuff in your spare time, put it on GitHub, get some feedback, and then use what you've learned in your portfolio to talk about what you're doing in your application? The number of students and young people I see who don’t really surprise me because the ones that do are almost always successful. It's important to identify areas where you can provide value and then consider ways to show others that you can do so. If you can do this, others will be more likely to give you a chance since they will see your enthusiasm, initiative, and aptitude. In the end, it all comes down to demonstrating your eagerness to learn. You won't know everything when you first start, but most employers are prepared to take a chance on someone who is eager to learn.
You are also the organizer of Black Tech Fest which is a chance to bring together a variety of leaders, creators, and change-makers to create access to black talent which takes place during Black History Month. Tell me about the inspiration behind the organization of this and why you chose to do it during this period?
In reality, black tech began as a reflection of corporate gaslighting. When we were starting this, we were doing it before its fashionable Diversity and inclusion are topics that people now want to debate, but five years ago, attitudes toward the topic were different.
People were criticising them instead of investigating why there weren't any places in companies for underrepresented groups like minorities, women, disabled people, or, you know, sexuality. The attitude was we are inclusive, and we are welcoming. If these individuals don't exist, it's more likely that they haven't applied, chose to leave, or weren't the proper "fit" for the organization.
We said, "Hold on." We obviously needed to expand that discussion. Part of this was due to people claiming that there aren't many black people working in the field; however, this isn't supported by any data. We were surprised by these assertions because perhaps there aren't that many black people in tech that we could employ.
You probably already know this based on anecdotes, but according to research, 15% of the industry is made up of people from racial or ethnic minorities. If you select a hundred persons, 15 of them will come from an ethnic minority background, proving that it is not at all unusual.
We wondered how we could assemble all these individuals to demonstrate our existence. How do we fundamentally and truly celebrate what is happening? How can we support what they're doing, rather than discussing being a woman or a person of colour in the tech industry, let's just talk about what we all get paid to do and how excellent we are at it and a chance to celebrate it as well.
We want to be able to celebrate being an amazing leader or let's just celebrate being an incredible engineer and normalize. It's the fact that this shouldn't be particularly different to, in the same way, that any other conference would have great exceptional people getting together to celebrate.
It’s taking place during Black History Month. Did you, why did you choose to do it because of the celebration of black history month and wanting to obviously showcase that?
Yes, that's true. It was unquestionably planned because, as we said, at that moment, people's attention is focused mostly on what is happening in the black community. Yeah. We wanted to take advantage of the chance to celebrate, to display, and, well, it just seemed right. Time of year to, really promote, really promote that; who knows; in the future, uh; you know; we might do it at that moment.
A huge thank you to Ashleigh Ainsley for dedicating his time to speak to us for this interview. If you were interested in getting involved with Colorintech or Black Tech Fest be sure to check out their website. If you would like to check out Franklin Fitch's Inclusive Infrastructure click here.
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