Credit: Courtesy of Thoughtexchange

White people need to unpack their own privilege, says Dave MacLeod

Thoughtexchange co-founder Dave MacLeod has seen business grow during the pandemic as more organizations turn to its crowdsourcing software, which helps groups make better decisions and reduce bias

Dave MacLeod starts our Zoom chat with some alarming statistics. Just three African-American CEOs lead Fortune 500 companies—a number that will soon dwindle to two. And over several years, studies of that powerful group of corporations have turned up more chief executives named Dave than female CEOs.

“Not only that,” adds the co-founder of online crowdsourcing platform Thoughtexchange, “I read somewhere that the aggregate height of CEOs is averaged at 6’1”, and I’m a white CEO named Dave, and I’m 6’1”.”

For a technology entrepreneur whose business aims to help organizations reduce gender, ethnicity and other biases by giving everyone a voice, that’s an uncomfortable truth. As demand for its services grows thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Thoughtexchange is making an effort to confront systemic racism and encourage workplace diversity and inclusion.

“This is what I think all white people need to do right now, is unpack our own privilege,” MacLeod says. “I just want to start a conversation with organizations, especially tech organizations in Canada, around how do we get over this standing on the sidelines and saying, Our diversity’s not bad compared to the standard of tech? Because the standard of tech is actually so low.”

Launched a decade ago by MacLeod, president and COO Jim Firstbrook and chair Amos Michelson, Rossland-based Thoughtexchange makes software that lets leaders quickly and inclusively consult groups of all sizes about decisions. “The company is based on this pretty simple idea of adding structure to a conversation to harness the wisdom of crowds,” says MacLeod, whose clients in Canada and the U.S. range from school districts to financial institutions.

During the typical staff meeting, a few extroverts chime in while most people stay quiet, he explains. And in an email or Slack thread, the first comment that someone makes usually gets the most likes, even if it isn’t the most brilliant idea. “What you get is a big bunch of first thought, best thought,” MacLeod says. “You don’t actually get what matters to the group after thoughts are being considered.”

By contrast, groups using Thoughtexchange can share and rate ideas anonymously. “We actually figured out that there is a way to scale the conversation,” MacLeod says. “Everyone needs to have a safe place to share their thoughts, without fear of retribution.”

For example, the company recently did an exchange where the participants spoke 23 languages. Although most were English speakers, the 10 highest-rated thoughts all came from the rest of the group. “Internationalism as it relates to scaling conversations is fascinating,” MacLeod says. “You can get people sharing thoughts and rating them in real time in their own language, and finding common ground, even when they’re not fluent in each other’s language.”

Credit: Courtesy of Thoughtexchange

A Thoughtexchange dashboard on the topic of diversity in hiring

Unearned advantages

Speaking of conversations, last year’s Black Lives Matters protest prompted many people to start talking about systemic racism. To boost its expertise in combating that problem and promoting workplace diversity and inclusion, Thoughtexchange recently made two high-profile hires. The company named Dennis Carpenter, a consultant and former U.S. school district superintendent, its director of K-12 anti-racism and equity; and veteran adviser Karen Craggs-Milne its head of anti-racism and diversity, equity and inclusion.

Asked what drove those appointments, MacLeod replies that many white males have told him they resent it when he calls them privileged. “And then I’ll say, OK, thank you for saying that. Do you realize your white male privilege has nothing to do with your history, your background? Your white male privilege is the fact you are white. The fact you are a male means you are giving unearned advantages. People don’t walk across the street from you. If you put something on Airbnb, you’re not going to have a lower hit rate because of the colour of your skin.”

Also, after the death of George Floyd, MacLeod realized that he wasn’t being deliberately anti-racist. “I was not actively against having a more diverse organization,” he recalls. “We just didn’t actively go forward and talk about the value and educate our staff and spend the time talking to people about how our own efficacy and our own success is wrapped up in our ability to gather diverse perspectives.”

For businesses, there’s good evidence to back up that argument. In a 2019 study by consulting firm McKinsey & Co., top-quartile companies for ethnic diversity on their executive teams were 36 percent more likely to see above-average profitability than those in the bottom quartile. When it came to gender diversity, businesses in the top quartile were 25 percent more likely to financially outperform the bottom group.

MacLeod believes Thoughtexchange will grow more powerful and competitive by dramatically upping its diversity. But as a “white company,” it started from a low bar: until fairly recently, just 6 percent of employees were from other groups. By aiming to look much more like the population of one of Canada’s most diverse cities as quickly as possible—but not setting a quota—it’s almost tripled that number.

“In our 47 most recent hires, 24 of them were diverse; that’s 51 percent. Fifty-five percent of them are female, and there hasn’t been a quota on that,” MacLeod says. “We’ve gone from 6 percent, which is terrible, to 17 percent in not very much time, only by educating our organization around this and getting over the getting-started problem.”

A solution looking for a problem

When we talk in December, Thoughtexchange has a headcount of about 170, on the way to expanding from 150 to 200 people. As organizations adjust to the pandemic, more of them are turning to its services. Investors have taken note: in November, Thoughtexchange closed the final portion of a Series B equity financing round totalling $34 million.

The company’s client base looks much different than in the early days. Before he launched Thoughtexchange, MacLeod, a former business and leadership consultant who describes himself as an old-school facilitator, was doing things like getting people to write ideas down on recipe cards. Then he met co-founder Firstbrook, a physicist, who was trying to use technology to crack the wisdom of crowds. “We were approaching a problem from the exact other end of the spectrum,” MacLeod says.

After creating Thoughtexchange and taking it to market, they faced rejection, especially from the corporate world. “We made the fundamental mistake, which was create a solution and then go looking for a problem,” MacLeod says. “And the very first reaction, honestly, was, No! We don’t actually want to hear everybody’s voice.”

But the company found an unexpected clientele in public education, where superintendents need to win support for decisions like building schools and securing funding, and must deal with labour unions and parent groups. “Now we’re in hundreds of school districts, solving the problem of how do you hear back from people,” MacLeod says.

Having built out its platform, adding artificial intelligence and other technology, Thoughtexchange went back to the corporate sector several years ago. “The tune had changed,” MacLeod says. “People were like, Oh, God, we need this. It’s desperate. It’s really important.” Today, Thoughtexchange’s customers include U.S. insurance giant Allstate Corp., American Airlines, Cineplex and Royal Bank of Canada.

The first few days of COVID were terrifying as the world ground to a halt, but then usage started doubling, again and again. “What happened, of course, is the regular method for hearing from people, what challenges they’re facing, you can’t go ask them anymore,” MacLeod says. “So our message and value started taking off pretty quickly.”

MacLeod’s message to others is to educate people about the benefits of diversity and anti-racism. “I think one of the most important things that we’re doing is actually calling racism what it is, which is working to remove systemic racism, not to be more diverse,” he says. “And that’s one of the problems, is that we need to create organizations that look more diverse when we have to get over systemically racist constructs in order to do such a thing.”

The Thoughtexchange CEO is now part of the discussion, but he knows that casting himself as a leader wouldn’t be a good look. “I don’t want to come off like a pompous asshole that thinks I’ve got this right,” MacLeod says. “Who the hell am I to talk about anti-racism as a white male named Dave? I’d better be understanding my unearned privilege as I lean into the conversation.”