Amazon’s Tonie Odeniyi, Head of VMware Cloud on AWS: Public Sector – EMEA, and Head of Amazon’s Black Employee Network (BEN), spoke to DiversityQ on the initiatives he is working on to help young Black people engage with the tech industry.
How did you become head of Amazon’s Black Employee Network (BEN)? Why was it important to you?
Amazon’s Black Employee Network (BEN) has existed since it was founded in the US in 2005, but it was myself and a former colleague Aisha Suleiman who founded the UK chapter back in 2017, a year after I joined the company.
I’m incredibly proud of our progress over the years and now co-chair BEN with my colleague CJ Joseph-Browne. I love amplifying the presence of Amazon’s Black employees and supporting them, and BEN has been a fantastic vehicle for that. We’ve built global conversations with other chapters and created a wonderful network for our employees. We want to help get great people into Amazon, and once there, to ensure that they feel welcome and comfortable to be their authentic selves.
The work we do to support the Black community outside of Amazon is also particularly close to my heart, such as our events for young Black students. A few years ago, I went to a student talk and realised that many young Black people weren’t aware of the breadth of careers you can have in tech companies like Amazon. It’s been my mission ever since to highlight the variety of roles and career paths into Amazon and help young Black people see careers in tech as a viable opportunity.
In what ways do employee networks benefit underrepresented groups in the workplace?
Employee networks can be incredibly valuable to employees. At Amazon, we strive to build a welcoming and inclusive culture, as we know that’s when people do their best work, and affinity groups are a big part of that. Affinity groups like BEN help bring people together from shared backgrounds and give them support networks in spaces where they haven’t always felt recognised or included. It’s all about helping our colleagues feel comfortable, engaged and represented, no matter their background.
How can leadership advocate their support for employee networks even if they aren’t part of the group it supports?
Leadership can play significant roles in supporting networks even if they’re not members of the community they represent. BEN is open to any ethnicity, so we have a very diverse membership, but we have various leaders who go to great lengths supporting us from outside our network. Finding time to listen to ideas, finding budget, encouraging change at a management level; I can think of various leaders who’ve gone above and beyond for us and shown themselves to be allies.
Allies help amplify our voices in areas where they weren’t heard previously, so they’re real assets. For example, during Black History Month, we were invited to talk to various business areas and, even on some client calls, to showcase BEN.
What are the main barriers standing between Black talent and fulfilling careers in the tech sector?
I think there are two elements here. The first is how tech recruitment has traditionally happened, which wasn’t designed to look at diverse perspectives. For example, only having programmes or job fairs to attract students from traditionally prestigious universities automatically excludes a lot of potential applicants. A reset is needed to encourage Black talent, including reviewing recruitment processes to consider reaching more diverse candidates and ensuring you inclusively design the application and recruitment process.
A second factor is companies like Amazon spreading the word themselves and showcasing themselves to potential talent. Black students might not realise the opportunities for them if we don’t help show them that people like them have jobs in these spaces. This isn’t just tick box activities, we need to reach out and engage with young Black people to help grow the pipeline of underrepresented talent, and affinity groups like BEN are important for that.
Increasing gender representation in tech has become a mainstream discussion point, is racial diversity in the sector given enough attention?
Gender representation is becoming more mainstream in tech, and if we look at the representation across businesses at a senior level, we can see that improvements have been made. For example, we’re seeing more women in tech and STEM fields thanks to gender diversity-focused initiatives, but there’s still more to be done. Black women are still very much underrepresented in tech. Although ethnicity is still behind, we’re starting to see more attention being put on racial diversity. This momentum will help build a more diverse workforce in the years to come.
From your experience building the Black Employee Network (BEN), can you give three tips on what others should do first when starting their employee network?
Anyone can do it. If you have the idea, engage with it early, and begin building. Planning is important, but you can’t wait for perfection. There is never a perfect time to start; you have to get the ball rolling and see what you can build with those that join you.
Get an executive sponsor– ensuring you have an ally at the leadership level in your organisation will help amplify the work you’re doing and ensure your voices are heard.
Collaborate with other teams. Do not underestimate using every part of your organisation to help. For example, we’re all volunteers at BEN, and our time is limited. Partnering with other affinity groups and business units has been so beneficial to them and us; we work together more efficiently than if we were attempting to build a more diverse pool of talent separately.
BEN now has over 500 members across the UK. How do you effectively manage and support them?
The work we do at BEN wouldn’t be possible without a remarkable range of volunteers who give up their time to help and are all so passionate about what they do, as do our board members Rebecca Wijeyesinghe, Nat Brooks, Weyinmi Guate, and Ramat Tejani.
Georgia Aduwudike leads BEN for our Operations Network and is doing some fantastic work in our local communities and supporting our Black associates in fulfilment centres and other operational sites across the UK. In addition, we are also supported by our BEN EU Leaders, Corry Yokley and Audrey Gah.
As a team, we focus on four pillars: community engagement, professional development, personal engagement, and marketing and comms, and having these always in our minds has been great for keeping us on track.
What is the Network doing to actively encourage young Black talent to consider tech careers?
We design and facilitate programmes to encourage the next generation. We’ve just been involved in Black Tech Fest, where we hosted a panel discussing a variety of career paths and giving tips and advice for anyone interested in applying at Amazon or in the wider tech world. Events like these are so important; young Black people must see themselves represented and have aspirational figures that they can learn from.
Another project I’m proud of is our annual BEN Student Event. We work with the student programme and diversity and inclusion teams at Amazon and community organisations, such as Everything D&I, to host two days of talks, workshops, and panel discussions. The days focus on helping young Black students from all backgrounds to find their feet in the corporate world. We had over 100 students sign-up this year and offered them months of mentorship after the event, aligning them with Amazonians to help them with career planning, writing CVs and interview preparation.
Is there an ideal time to target Black talent for tech careers? Is it at the school stage?
I don’t think there’s a specific time; any time is good! But we’d love to get young Black people to recognise the opportunities available to them as early as possible. With university and college students, you can see an immediate impact as they’re at that point in their lives when they’re making life choices. However, we’d like to create aspirations for black people at any age. At Amazon, we have initiatives such as Amazon Future Engineers, AWS re: Start, and AWS GetIT that aim to inspire and enable young people from underrepresented groups to pursue careers in tech.
How does BEN collaborate with other affinity groups at Amazon? What sort of events/projects have you worked on together?
For Black History Month, this year, we partnered with Glamazon, the LGBTQIA+ network at Amazon, as well as the Women at Amazon network, to deliver some insightful panel discussions, focusing on the perspectives of Black people of intersectional identity. We’re always trying to encourage diversity, and BEN is not just an affinity group for Black people; all races and backgrounds are welcome.
It’s counter-productive to build a group that’s encouraging organisation-wide diversity that’s not diverse itself! We have regular community leader meetings, where we share ideas and highlights with the other groups, and this really helps us foster inter-sectional relationships.
You were involved in Amazon’s Black History Month events. From your experience, how can firms respectfully acknowledge the month in a way that goes beyond tokenism and creates a lasting impact?
The work you do as an organisation should go beyond being marketing gimmicks and be about showcasing a culture both internally and externally.
The most important thing is ensuring that October isn’t the only month where Black voices are heard. Black History Month events are great for building attention and spotlighting Black culture, but DEI should be a focus all year.
At Amazon, we hosted several events internally to celebrate and educate about Black culture. Externally teams across Amazon Music, Prime Video, books and Alexa had campaigns to spotlight Black artists, entrepreneurs and innovators, which was great to see.