Subjects of great success stories often credit their success to passion, and while it likely wasn’t Confucious who said it, the notion of finding a career you’re passionate about so that your days don’t actually feel like work has long persisted. I myself was fortunate enough to find my passion early in life and can attest to the value in loving what you do (and blazing your own trail to do it). However, I would be remiss if I said following your passion is easy. Work is still, well, work. And succeeding at anything requires a whole lot of it, especially when laying down new paths. There will always be challenges to overcome and roadblocks along the way, and this is even more true for marginalized communities facing systemic bias and barriers to advancement (when the modern American workplace came into existence, it was designed for a very specific kind of worker).
While many companies are taking steps to implement diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in their recruitment practices, a more holistic approach to DEI—one that weaves inclusion into product development and design—isn’t quite as widespread. Indeed, companies only began adopting these strategies in the last decade, often as intrapreneurs carved out and formally defined the field themselves. Annie Jean-Baptiste did just that at Google, where she became the company’s first Director of Product Inclusion and Equity. I sat down with Jean-Baptiste to discuss how she followed her passion to create not only her own position, but her own department within Google, as well as the growing field she helped define.
Liz Elting: Hi Annie, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. Can you please tell readers a little bit about yourself—you joined Google in 2010 as an account manager, how did that lead you to joining the diversity and inclusion team just a few years later?
Annie Jean-Baptiste: I have always been passionate about DEI, but I didn’t know how the work I was doing when I first started at Google or what I studied in college (international relations and political science) would lead to a role in that space. One of my mentors, Chris Genteel, was working on supplier diversity and actually gave me what is called a 20% project, where I could spend a portion of my time helping small businesses get online and get found. That role was my first foray into the intersections of DEI in business. After learning more about the team and seeing the impact of the work, I knew I wanted to be working on it full time. So, when there was an open role for a diversity business partner, I jumped on it and was so excited to be a part of the team.
Elting: Can you talk about how you came to realize diversity and inclusion weren’t just talent and recruiting concerns, but had a place in product development as well? Was there a specific incident that made you realize this was a gap that needed bridging?
Jean-Baptiste: When I was on the DEI team, I was able to liaise with a lot of senior leaders and cross-functional partners. What I realized was that we were creating products for billions of people all over the world who came from a wide variety of backgrounds, and it was important for us to make sure these products were truly helpful for them in the moments that mattered most. But, in order to do that, we needed to make sure we had a wide array of perspectives during critical points in the product development process. I realized that there were many Googlers who may not have technical roles, but who had lived experiences that would actually make our products better. That’s how product inclusion and equity got started.
Elting: You are Google’s first Director of Product Inclusion and Equity, can you talk about how you created your own field, department, and role and how you got Google to buy in? What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them? What advice would you give to others who want to pursue a field that doesn’t yet exist and are looking to similarly carve out their own path within a large company?
Jean-Baptiste: When I thread the needle backwards over my career, it makes perfect sense that I landed here. But I definitely didn’t set out to create a new role and a field for Google and for the tech industry and beyond. What I knew was that all users deserve to feel seen, and that historically marginalized users had typically been at the margins of development and design in the industry. I also knew that incorporating diverse perspectives led to a better end product overall. I wanted to bring all of that together in product inclusion and equity.
In terms of pursuing a field that doesn’t yet exist, know that it will sometimes be ambiguous, but if you have passion around it, if you see a gap that needs to be fixed, and if you can start to create a framework that is repeatable, then you should go for it.
There is a mixture and balance of my own lived experience as a Black woman who is the child of immigrants, seeing other historically marginalized groups and the richness of their experience and how that could benefit others, and also seeing the business case for creating products that worked for the world were all key indicators that this was a path I wanted to pursue. I feel excited every day to lead this work and to reimagine what it looks like to develop and design products, services and experiences. I didn’t have a product management or design background, but I knew what it felt like to be excluded, and I also knew what it felt like to be included. And I wanted to be able to help Google continue to lean into its mission of making information universally accessible and useful. That means no matter who you love, how much money you make, what color your skin is, or whatever makes you you, you should feel seen and validated when you use our products.
In terms of getting buy-in, there are a few things you have to think about. One of the most important is recognizing that relationships are the basis for any type of work moving forward. It’s important to know your audience and tailor the work that you’re doing to that audience. How does it affect what they care about? How can it be a valuable addition? How do you make it easier for them to pursue the actions that you want them to? How can you empower them to be stakeholders versus being passive and waiting for others to take the lead?
Elting: What does building more inclusive products look like—can you talk a bit about that process? What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced when working to build more inclusive products? How have you handled meeting resistance to change and are there any insights you can share on how to best navigate through it?
Jean-Baptiste: Building more inclusive products means taking a holistic approach to your product development and design. We did some research a few years ago and found that the four points in the process where you can disproportionately have a positive impact on the level of inclusion in your products are the ideation, user experience and design (UX), user testing, and marketing. And so we’ve worked to build out resources and infrastructure at each of those key points. For example, in the inclusive testing space, in addition to connecting teams with external resources, we also created a group called inclusion champions to help us test the products and provide feedback. These are historically marginalized Google employees who opt in to help us test our products. In the marketing area, my friend Raphael Diallo and I, along with a few others, created the inclusive marketing consultants to help ensure there was an internal group of Google employees with lived experiences who could review marketing collateral before it launched.
For example, as GLAAD puts it, using the correct pronouns for another person is a sign of respect, like pronouncing a name the right way or using the appropriate salutation (e.g., Dr. instead of Mrs.). We’ve heard from our employees and customers of all sizes that sharing and using personal pronouns correctly with colleagues can be critical and extremely helpful in building an inclusive work environment. That’s actually why we recently announced the ability for business and enterprise customers to enable pronouns in Google Workspace for their employees. We’ve also partnered with our internal Trans@ employee resource group, our product inclusion and equity champions and GLAAD to ensure that all Googlers can identify across Workspace in the ways that feel authentic to them.
Elting: How has your role and work changed Google over the course of your tenure? Have you noticed your work having an impact on the workplace culture and, if so, what has that transformation looked like on the inside?
Jean-Baptiste: It’s been extremely inspiring to see the journey Google has been on and that we’re committed to this work for the long-term. But, thinking about when we first started several years ago and looking to now—where we have commitment at all levels of the organization, a practice that spans the entire design and development process, and hearing from users and society about our progress (e.g., the Pixel being voted the most inclusive camera)—it’s been a wonderful journey to be on.
Elting: Your book Building for Everyone has become the template used across industries for developing inclusive products. What was your thought process behind writing the book? What do you hope readers take away from it? What does “building for everyone” mean to you?
Jean-Baptiste: I think many people bought into the what but didn’t know about the how. I hope that Building for Everyone is a first step for people who may want to take action but don’t know where to begin. I wanted to make it easy enough for people to be able to take action. I want them to learn, grow, build muscle and change things—take accountability in their own way. I also think it is important to note that even though someone may not be in the tech industry, they can still create products that allow all users to feel seen. It’s not just in tech that people should think about this, it’s really anyone who’s creating something. I always say if you’re building something for someone else, you should ask who else? Who else needs to be in the room, whose voices are not included that we need to bring in, and so it’s really about saying that we need to start with a human centered approach and balance that with the business case to create products where everyone feels like they are the default.
Elting: Can you talk about whether businesses, with the power they have to effect change, have a responsibility to make a positive impact on the world?
Jean-Baptiste: I think you can do well and do good. When you look at research, especially with younger generations, we see they align with brands they can both identify and share values with. When you allow someone to show up and feel seen and thought of and validated, they’re going to take the actions that you want them to take as a consumer and that will ultimately be good for your business.
Elting: Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
Jean-Baptiste: Your lived experience is a strength. There’s so many ways to make a difference and so many ways to be a leader. What is authentic to you is what you should lean into versus trying to fit into a mold others have created.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.