The tech industry has a long way to go when it comes to building gender and racial diversity. Companies like Facebook, Uber, and Google release annual reports tracking their diversity progress, while smaller firms figure things out along the way. Plus, diversity and inclusion executives have become more common as companies try to navigate building effective workplaces for a variety of people. 

Lionel Lee, the head of diversity engagement at Zillow, says that feeling isolated in previous recruiter positions helped influence his work today. Since 2016, Lee has assisted in creating initiatives, programs, and network centers around inclusion.

“There were very few people who looked like me. Most of the time, I was the only one,” Lee said. “I found it difficult at times to even go into work eventually. I had to make money, and I had a child that I was trying to support, so I would suppress all of those feelings and just do the job.”

However, going through the motions began to take a toll on Lee. Media coverage surrounding the shootings of unarmed Black men and boys started to ramp up nationwide, and he could not escape the news in the office. One day as frustrations and heartache built up, Lee began crying at his desk about another shooting. 

“At that time, I was the only Black person in my office, and this white woman that I worked with walked over to me and saw that I wasn’t doing well,” Lee said. 

“Did you know him?” Lee recalls the woman asking. The four words added shock to his mix of emotions forcing him to come to terms with the isolation he’d grown accustomed to in the workplace.

“It affected me more because I had no one else to talk to about it. They weren’t affected, and they didn’t feel anything,” Lee said. 

Without the emotional support from his coworkers, Lee knew it was time to pursue other opportunities. He later found a home at Zillow where he is now in charge of building  an inclusive workplace.

Since being at Zillow, Lee has helped improve mentorship programs for current workers from underrepresented groups, bolstered up the company’s employee resource groups, and implemented an internship partnership with historically Black colleges and universities. 

Improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace is not always as simple as drafting a report or having town hall meetings. Most of the work is in convincing the top dogs at the company that the initiatives are worth the effort. 

“You have to make sure that they internalize why it is important for them,” Lee said. “People have to see the need for change, not just understand the business case for it.”

Lee said that his team is also working on some experimental ways to build a more inclusive environment within Zillow and that he’s using his time with the company to give back. 

“I feel like I’m making some kind of impact. I’m here to make sure that others don’t have to go through what I went through,” Lee said. “I want to make sure that others have the opportunity to actually enjoy their work.”

On a broader scale, Lee hopes that his projects will inspire other companies to make underrepresented groups feel more welcomed in the office. 

“It is important for me that as a company, we are giving people room to express and acknowledge things are happening and affecting them in a certain way,” Lee said. “My hope is that we do things here at Zillow that others will want to replicate.”