Emphasis on diversity and inclusion helps Avalara scale globally

Automated sales tax software firm Avalara relies on diversity to ensure growth and engagement.

Emphasis on diversity and inclusion helps Avalara scale globally
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When Danny Fields joined Avalara as CTO in early 2018, his mandate was to make sure the automated sales tax software firm was part of every transaction on the planet. A lofty goal, but to grow the organization globally, Fields knew his engineering teams needed to be as diverse and inclusive as possible. That meant proactively attacking the lack of diversity within the company, starting with IT and engineering.

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“To make a product and deliver services that fills the needs of every single person is incredibly tough. But I’m the CTO; we’re engineers and we want to solve problems. We like to fix things — we look at this problem and we know we can fix that within Avalara,” Fields says. “If we don’t, then we’re going to miss the next big solution.”

Fields and Scott McFarlane, Avalara’s co-founder and CEO, recruited Amelia Ransom, a 26-year retail veteran, to be the company’s senior director of engagement and diversity. Ransom and Fields quickly developed a rapport and got to work.

“This was the first time they were looking for such a leader, and it was driven by [McFarlane],” Ransome says. “There wasn’t a lawsuit, or a big ‘scandal’; HR wasn’t pulling the company along saying, ‘We need to do this’ — no disrespect; sometimes that’s the impetus for making a change like this. But Scott [McFarlane] was really on board for the right reasons. First, because it’s the right thing to do, and second because the world is diverse, and we have to understand how to do business all over the world.”

Putting in the work

When Danny Fields joined Avalara as CTO in early 2018, his mandate was to make sure the automated sales tax software firm was part of every transaction on the planet. A lofty goal, but to grow the organization globally, Fields knew his engineering teams needed to be as diverse and inclusive as possible. That meant proactively attacking the lack of diversity within the company, starting with IT and engineering.

“To make a product and deliver services that fills the needs of every single person is incredibly tough. But I’m the CTO; we’re engineers and we want to solve problems. We like to fix things — we look at this problem and we know we can fix that within Avalara,” Fields says. “If we don’t, then we’re going to miss the next big solution.”

Fields and Scott McFarlane, Avalara’s co-founder and CEO, tapped Amelia Ransom, a recently hired 26-year retail veteran, to be the company’s senior director of engagement and diversity. Ransom and Fields quickly developed a rapport and got to work.

“This was the first time they were looking for such a leader, and it was driven by [McFarlane],” Ransom says. “There wasn’t a lawsuit, or a big ‘scandal’; HR wasn’t pulling the company along saying, ‘We need to do this’ — no disrespect; sometimes that’s the impetus for making a change like this. But Scott [McFarlane] was really on board for the right reasons. First, because it’s the right thing to do, and second because the world is diverse, and we have to understand how to do business all over the world.”

Putting in the work

Ransom and Fields began by initiating foundational conversations with other Avalara executives about the basics: language, unconscious bias, anti-harassment training and education, and managing inclusion, Ransom says. The results were incredibly positive, she says.

“We’ve had really good conversations and a lot of learning experiences where people have set aside what they used to think was ‘right’ in favor of the new things they’ve learned,” she says. “The most important thing is, as rough as this can be, no one is backing away from it. One person said, ‘I don’t want to be the guy who makes this hard in the company … am I “that guy”?’ And I had to say to him, ‘You were.’ But he was willing to own that; to put that away in favor of thinking, learning and growing. To set aside all the things he was socialized with and raised with, and that’s hard. It’s not like learning a new financial model; this is deep, difficult stuff.”

Ransom isn’t just advising the executive team, Fields points out; she’s an integral part of every decision made within the C-suite. Her insight and input helps to drive the necessity of diversity and inclusion home to every part of the business, he says.

“There are some very frank conversations that happen, sometimes in real time – and it’s rough,” he says. “But I am a firm believer that, while grassroots efforts are great, the imperative for diversity and inclusion has to come from the top, and so we make sure that it does.”

Avalara has created several employee resource groups (ERGs) under Ransom’s direction, each of which is sponsored by organizational leadership, Ransom says. There are ERGs for Black, veteran, women and LGBTQ+ Avalarians, Ransom says. Avalara’s CFO, Bill Ingram, volunteered to sponsor the company’s ERG for Black employees.

“Our executive team knows that this is a key to our success, and that if we want to accomplish everything we’re setting out to do in engineering, in sales, in expanding globally, that we have to embrace this at all levels,” Ransom says. “Yes, it’s tough, but it’s like going to the gym. There are only two ways to make it stop hurting: stop doing it, or keep doing it. The goal can’t be to stop; it only gets easier if you get better at it.”

Visibility and recruiting

Currently, Avalara is focusing on two areas: women’s leadership and Black leadership, Ransom says. These areas of emphasis came about as a result of conversations within the C-suite and identifying areas where the organization could make progress.

“One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned is that it’s okay to target specific groups of employees like this,” Ransom says. “That’s all coming from Danny [Fields]; he’s signaling by these focus areas and in every meeting that this is going to be a key level of our success.”

One of the ways Fields is addressing these underrepresented groups is through hiring practices that include, among other initiatives, attending conferences such as the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Tech and AfroTech, a conference by, for and about Black technologists, entrepreneurs, inventors and engineers. At such events, Avalara both enhances its visibility and scouts for talent. Fields and Ransom make it a point to attend these conferences themselves as well as to send employees from their teams, Fields says.

“It’s easier to just pull out the checkbook and tell other people to go, sure, but our primary objective is to engage and develop our teams, and that means they need to see me at these events, too, so they know it’s important,” Fields says.

Fields has also developed relationships with multiple Seattle-area technology bootcamps, and is putting together a global internship program to develop relationships with college students who might want to work for Avalara after graduation.

“We’re recruiting and hiring directly from these initiatives in all of our different locations, and also going to these conferences — GHC, AfroTech, All Things Open — to expand our talent pool,” Fields says. “Our executives and hiring reams don’t have prescribed ‘quotas,’ but our work infusing the thoughts, concepts and ideas around diversity and inclusion means they’re bringing in people who they wouldn’t have before.”

Avalara also works directly with bootcamps that serve women, Black, Hispanic/Latinx and other underrepresented minorities in tech, such as YearUP, a year-long intensive job training program that helps disadvantaged young adults gain skills and find employment. All students and interns who’ve come to Avalara through these programs have since been converted to full-time hires, Fields says.

“We know that diversity is tied to the outcomes of our business — of course it’s the right thing to do, but it’s diversity not just for diversity’s sake but it’s enabling other things like growth and engagement,” Fields says. “So many people in technology talk about ‘disruption,’ but we’re actually doing it — because this is key to our success. That great disruptive idea you’re looking for — what if it comes from someone who’s Latinx? What if it’s in a woman who’s wearing a hijab? What if it’s in the brain of someone who’s Black and uses a wheelchair — and you’re missing that?”