By Ayusha Ayalur
One of the best lessons I’ve learned came soon after graduating high school when I took part in a summer filmmaking program aimed at increasing gender and racial diversity in the film industry. The mantra that we used for inspiration throughout the program was one that Reese Witherspoon, the actress and producer who created the program, relayed to us. It was, “In order to change the stories, we have to change the storytellers.”
As I started college at UIUC, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by some of the most intelligent, insightful, and innovative individuals I had ever met, who were working hard to create products that would increase the quality of life for individuals around the world. However, it stuck out to me that some of the most impactful products were not necessarily those that had the largest amount of funding or resources, but rather those who were built by a team of diverse people.
I quickly realized that this quote I had learned at the filmmaking program was as applicable to the fields of engineering and business as it was to the film industry – in order to ensure the products we build now and in the future can be used by all types of people, we have to ensure the individuals creating those products are just as diverse.
Diverse teams are stronger teams. They are composed of people from different ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds, and are better equipped to identify issues earlier on in the production process as they bring a key variety of experiences and points-of-view to the table.
This past summer, I was extremely lucky to have the opportunity to work for fINEQUITY – a social good non-profit that is working to help those impacted by long-term incarceration build their financial power through access to non-predatory financial resources. The team that created the company included people who were personally affected by this very problem of long-term incarceration; as a result, the products they developed were exceedingly better equipped to solve the issue. For example, rather than offer resources after the individuals returned home, they created a program to send educational modules to them while serving time, to make their eventual re-entry journey smoother.
A more recent experience I had that opened my eyes to the importance of inclusivity in the workplace happened while recruiting for internships this upcoming summer. During one of my interviews, my interviewer and I got on the topic of the necessity of diversity, equity, and inclusion in tech. Near the end of the interview, he mentioned to me that he was actually completely deaf, and was reading my lips throughout. He went on to explain that because the company he was employed at was inclusive and accommodating, he in turn was able to ensure the products he worked to develop were able to be used by the entire deaf and hard of hearing community. I was incredibly moved and inspired by his story, and it really underscored the profound impact an inclusive and accepting industry culture can have.
So, what can we do today to put our best foot forward in the goal of a more diverse and ethical workplace? There are a variety of actions that can help, from actively working to modify the existing workplace infrastructure, to simply being mindful of the unconscious biases we all hold. While there is still much work to be done, I am proud to be a part of a kind, open-minded, and inclusive community at UIUC and within the T&M Program, and am excited to see the work my classmates and I do to not just change the storytellers, but also change the stories.
Ayusha is a junior studying computer science and a member of T&M Class XXVI. She recently finished her internship at Policygenius, where she worked as a Software Engineering Intern.