Why a Tech CEO Toured the South With the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus
In 2009, when my co-founders and I moved our company to San Francisco from Copenhagen, Denmark, it was challenging to uproot our lives and leave home. But despite uncertainty, we were happy to find we quickly felt at home in San Francisco's innovative and forward-thinking culture.
Part of what makes San Francisco and Silicon Valley an innovation hub and a technology powerhouse is the array of inspired people from all walks of life. It has been an incredible home for our company, and we have been successful beyond what we could have imagined because of this.
For the last several years, it's become a tradition that my three daughters and I attend the annual San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus holiday concert at the Castro Theatre. We love these concerts; they're festive, fun and absolutely fabulous. They also give unique insight into the history of San Francisco.
The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus recently did something pretty remarkable in response to the current political climate and perceived deepening divides in our country: They decided to go on a tour of the South. They performed in cities like Jackson, Miss., and Birmingham, Ala., to promote acceptance and love through song and music, allowing typically marginalized people to share their stories. I joined them and learned a thing or two along the way.
The example starts with you.
When I heard of this Lavender Pen Tour, named after the pen that Harvey Milk gave to George Moscone when he signed a landmark gay civil rights bill into action 40 years ago, I wanted to get my company involved and get myself involved -- beyond writing a check.
Beyond cash, finding unique and impactful ways to give back to the communities that you care about makes a more meaningful impact. That's Zendesk's philosophy. In every city we land, my employees and I commit to being good neighbors and embracing the community with empathy and compassion. We commit to connection. We commit to becoming a part of the fabric of the places we are a part of.
Paying lip service to diversity and inclusion initiatives perpetuates a cycle of discrimination. To develop a truly inclusive and compassionate company culture, change has to happen from the top down, with the C-suite leading the charge.
When executive leaders champion initiatives like these, being more thoughtful about inclusion morphs from a nice-to-have passion project into a strategic priority that the entire company feels tied to. Just showing up and lending visibility to a cause you believe in may not feel like much, but it sets a precedent for my employees and reaffirms the company values that may have attracted them to work here in the first place.
Let your values guide you.
The Lavender Pen Tour was such a beautiful mission to support. And it's a mission that reflects my own journey with Zendesk and what we try to do with our products. Creating understanding between people. Building better relationships. Promoting empathy and understanding between businesses and their customers. Practicing that empathy muscle is important in all aspects of life. Especially in our industry, where it gets increasingly hard to empathize with your customers, as they're mostly just a number in your app or a user behind the screen.
I've learned it's important to clearly define your values and let them be at the heart of everything you do. It's what has allowed me to be successful, and I believe it's why the brave men in the chorus, who basically fund the tour out of their own pocket and stand up for themselves in some of the least inclusive neighborhoods in the country, have seen such an outpouring of support.
As the CEO and a founder of a company with more than 2,000 employees, it's important for me to show what I believe in and what kind of company I know we must build.
Be open to what you can learn outside your bubble.
Living in Silicon Valley as a white heterosexual man, it can be easy to diminish how much intolerance and hate exists outside my bubble. It's hard to acknowledge that the Bay Area is far from free of hateful discord. I can name many times when my employees have had terrible experiences with discrimination right here in progressive San Francisco, and it breaks my heart. But hearing their stories helps me realize how much power there is in my discomfort -- and in experiencing the world through an unfamiliar lens.
So I, my three girls and some of our employees who are instrumental in our diversity and inclusion initiatives joined the Chorus on this tour. We did not sing. We joined in solidarity as allies and as spectators to the show. And it was a pretty humbling experience joining the Chorus in a walk across the Selma bridge where, 52 years earlier, hundreds of people marched for civil rights in the U.S.
During my short time on the road with the Chorus, I got an intensive, real-world crash course in acceptance, empathy, pride and bravery. Showing up for people who stand up for such fine values has been incredibly rewarding, and a good reminder that I need to continue to show up. For my employees, for my customers, for my daughters.
And, in the case of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, for a glamorous show.