The House that Diversity Built: How Ulysses Smith Is Bringing Equity to the Table at Blend
Photo Credit: AfroTech

The House that Diversity Built: How Ulysses Smith Is Bringing Equity to the Table at Blend

Blend has been busy. The digital consumer banking platform has found its stride making the financial process easier to understand for consumers by simply being transparent about its mortgages and other financial offerings. 

Beyond its services, Blend has become a force in the FinTech industry by leading the way in diversity and inclusion through investing in community programs and partnerships to remove the kinds of financial roadblocks that have historically back held Black and other marginalized groups. 

Blend has kept that same energy internally, working diligently to recruit and empower a growing pool of Black talent — an ambitious initiative currently helmed by Ulysses Smith, Head of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging. No stranger to hard work, Smith has rolled up his sleeves and allows his results to speak for itself. A leader in diversity, equity and inclusion, the Cornell University graduate has built organization-wide DEI functions that drive social impact through products. 

Marching to a Different Beat: A Journey to Blend

With roots in city planning, government and policy, Ulysses Smith almost took a completely different path. “Once upon a time, I thought I was going to be an architect, but thankfully I saw the light,” he says with a laugh before getting serious about a topic he’s since grown a passion for: inequality.

After working in higher education as a leader in DEI strategy, Smith says he was fortunate to co-create and teach a course with a friend who’s also a Chief Diversity Officer in tech now. “Blend is my third tech company doing DEI work, and it’s always personal to me. I move through the world as an unapologetically gay Black man who has had to navigate some of the tensions between those two identities. Feelings of exclusion are not new to me,” says Smith. 

“What Blend offered was a chance to not only build a practice that addresses exclusion in the workplace at the root but also a chance to apply this work to our product and an ecosystem that has historically been exclusive. It took exactly half of one conversation for me to be sold on Blend.”

Challenging the Status Quo: Diversity and Inclusion in FinTech

Like most other fields across America, the financial and tech industries have notoriously struggled in terms of diversity — especially with bringing Black professionals into the fold. Those trying to transition into the field, particularly without existing ties to the industry, can also face an uphill battle. 

This is an inconvenient truth and ongoing struggle. As Smith says, “The tea is hot, but it’s also not surprising. There are a lot of well-intentioned people and organizations in this industry. Unfortunately, tech tends to be pretty insular and has only recently begun to understand the value of having people who come from other industries join the ranks of their companies.”

As the world has adjusted to life still impacted by a lingering global pandemic, Smith sees this new norm as a prime time to drive change in a new direction. “I think the big focus for tech has to be how to leverage products and services to drive equity in respective markets and ecosystems. Let’s be real and acknowledge that this is going to be really hard for a lot of companies. There are some really candid and difficult conversations that have to be had around changing the way many companies do business.”

Such efforts, Smith adds, require more than just surface work and reactionary, canned Black Lives Matter posts. “These aren’t just going to be about signing partnership deals with various affinity organizations to signal your commitment to diversity. You must really challenge leaders to rethink their missions and their approaches to the market. We’re seeing a lot of momentum, but it’s going to take some time.”

For now, Blend has focused on improving its own offerings and the way it interacts within the community. “Our mortgage platform is our flagship product. Our technology can allow financial institutions to more easily connect with and serve underserved or low-to-moderate income borrowers, including those who can’t visit a bank during regular business hours or who don’t have access to a computer. So this helps fill a knowledge and access gap. Incredibly, it’s still very much legal in some jurisdictions to discriminate in housing against LGBTQ people — so when we talk about addressing root causes, these are the things we also have to consider.” 

Beyond Recruitment: Creating a Space for Black Professionals in Tech

Creating a diverse and talented team requires more than just checking boxes and planting warm bodies into seats. It also necessitates taking care of those same people throughout their entire tenure. According to Smith, “While recruitment is certainly important, it’s equally important that FinTech focuses on the root causes of inequality throughout financial services. The very uncomfortable reality in the context of the United States is that many of our existing institutions were designed with the express purpose of excluding certain populations.”

For Black professionals interested in driving DEI initiatives in their own workplaces, Smith advises, “Please don’t take on these initiatives because you feel that you have to or because nobody else in the organization is doing it; the onus is not on you here. Really examine the values of the organization and whether or not they align with yours.”

This type of soul-searching exercise, he says, requires you to consider organizations’ behaviors and decision making to determine the truth of their investment into DEI. “This work is more complex than people may think, and you can actually do a lot of irreparable harm to organizations and communities if you haven’t taken the time to really understand the nuances of the DEI practice. It’s not HR. It’s not a small program. It’s an incredible undertaking. Done well, it can lead to amazing results; on the flip side, you can easily find yourself frustrated and burnt out.” 

At Blend, Smith describes his role as both challenging and rewarding, largely due to the company’s own commitment to driving DEI. “We talk a lot about our principle of ‘confident humility.’ This is an acknowledgement that there are tons of smart people at Blend who set ambitious goals, but none of us have all the answers. Leading a team at Blend is a testament to that humility. I’ve had the chance to bring on some amazing people to our Belonging team, who have skills that far exceed my own in so many respects. The ideas they bring and the questions they ask constantly push me to learn more and to be a better leader that nurtures their talents. Being here has also given me more exposure to parts of the business many DEI practitioners don’t get to see — from learning the inner workings of our product development process to seeing how we set our sales strategy. The learning is nonstop, and that’s where I thrive.”

Making an Impact at Blend

During his time at Blend, Smith has created an impact by being willing to embrace change and innovation, including a recent project he’s especially proud of. “By far, I’m most proud of our Equitable Ecosystem Initiative (EEI), our strategic plan to address inequity (racial and otherwise) in the financial services ecosystem. You would be hard pressed to find another organization in this space that has focused on this as intentionally as we have, embedding this into all that we do, including our actual product and growth strategies.”

It was an experience that impacted Smith in a personal way, thanks to a series of tough conversions he helped facilitate. It’s a process he says “required us to have a lot of difficult conversations and, as a company, frank conversations about race and our place in the ecosystem. We had to talk about the often historically contentious relationships between communities of color and financial institutions, who happen to be our customers — all of this while experiencing 2020. People were on board with DEI work, but this was a real test that took a lot of people over their limits of comfort with talking about race.”

Through this process, Blend empowered him to face these challenges head on, pushing through to real understanding on the other side and fostering growth inside and outside of the company.

Smith says, “There was a lot of identity exploration, inevitable conflict and confrontation in our own role in the current system. Then we had the nerve to try and apply this process and our learnings to this same ecosystem as a fairly small player. Combine all of that with the typical challenges of being a DEI practitioner in tech, and you can fill in the blanks. In the end, we got a plan that seems to grow in scope every time I turn around because people are able to recognize the extent of inequity and they have so many ideas of how to address it.”

With more hills to climb than hours in a day, Smith has transformed a challenging role into one where he’s truly thriving. Now, he’s focused on working with others to create change. “The partnerships we’ve built with the National Bankers Association, the National Association of Real Estate Brokers and HomeFree-USA are among the most important to me. Together, they truly represent the size and scope of the EEI,” he says.

Passion-driven work enables his group to “get at the heart of community engagement and enablement, [expand] the possibilities of technology and innovation and [underscore] the necessity of policy changes. When we finished the initial draft of the EEI, it really felt — and to some extent still does — like a David and Goliath story. It’s easy to start examining the extent to which inequality has been built into so many systems and feel like it is absolutely insurmountable. But when you start engaging with partners like we have, who are so dedicated to this work and know their craft and communities, you can’t help but get excited about what’s to come. Change is on the horizon and I truly believe that.” 

Learn more about Blend and how it’s helping change the face of tech here