This interview was originally published in EdTech Magazine.
Stepping into GoGuardian’s newly created chief diversity officer position, Dionna Smith plans to tackle diversity, equity, and inclusion both inside the company and externally. Conscious of the ways technology has, in the past, provided barriers to equity, Smith aims to turn the tables. She shared with EdTech her vision for educational technology that opens doors for historically marginalized groups.
Previously holding roles in talent and DEI for companies such as LexisNexis and Cisco Systems, Smith also led diverse talent strategies at Delta Airlines. Having received multiple accolades for her work, her experiences have culminated in this new role with GoGuardian, allowing her to bring her inclusion and equity expertise to education.
EdTech: How will your past roles and accomplishments support your work with GoGuardian as the company’s chief diversity officer?
Smith: I think using my past experience building DEI functions from the ground up is going to be super helpful here, in addition to my own personal experiences in education.
For me, education was a great equalizer in my life. I grew up in New Orleans and very inner city. My parents were very focused on education, so going to high school and then college opened the world to me.
Following the murder of George Floyd, there have been a lot of opportunities for DEI folks to be more creative, in the forefront and at the table helping to make decisions. We’re having conversations now that we didn’t have before. We have roles like mine that didn’t exist before. These are all great indications that we’re going in the right direction.
When students are given the opportunity to see the world outside of their surrounding four or five blocks, it makes a world of difference. Our ZIP code should not dictate the education we receive in a country as wonderful as America, where there are so many resources. Technology is one of the ways that will absolutely make that possible for students.
EdTech: What are your plans to ensure GoGuardian’s products support all students?
Smith: Product inclusion is an interesting focus. Often, during your product development stage, a lot of the folks creating products are not super diverse. When we look at the population of our country in general, it’s obvious we are of very diverse backgrounds, thoughts, and beliefs.
Our mission is about improving outcomes for students. So, for us, it’s super important we are able to reach all students. In particular, we have a responsibility to ensure that, when it comes to students who are from traditionally marginalized groups, we are aware they are there, and we are ensuring our products are inclusive of them.
What we’re doing at GoGuardian is looking at our processes and intentionally building in a product inclusion lens to ensure we are considering and hearing the voices of other people during the development process. A lot of companies end up missing out on so many different perspectives, but there are ways to build our processes to ensure that doesn’t happen. So, the more we can focus on building diverse teams internally, the more we will have of those diverse voices.
EdTech: Do you anticipate building a diverse team will be challenging given the historic lack of diversity in the tech industry?
Smith: It is a challenge, but it is absolutely not impossible. We are being intentional and having accountability as part of our processes. When we think about diversity, we’re ensuring our interviewers are tackling unconscious biases and being really open and transparent. We’re ensuring we are in places that maybe a lot of tech companies aren’t tapping into: historically Black colleges and universities, women’s colleges, and Hispanic-serving institutions and organizations. We will do our part to be as proactive as possible.
We’re going to be tackling this from two angles, definitely on the recruiting side, but also ensuring that when employees are here, they get development opportunities and opportunities to grow in their roles.
One of the reasons I was really interested in this role with GoGuardian as chief diversity officer is the fact we are looking at diversity, equity, and inclusion internally and externally. This role will focus on ensuring our employees are included and feel like they belong. My theory about that is, when we have a more diverse and inclusive workforce, they will create more inclusive products.
EdTech: Many GoGuardian products rely on artificial intelligence. Do you have a plan to ensure AI’s bias doesn’t translate into your products, and that the tech supports marginalized groups instead?
Smith: We are absolutely aware, recognize, and acknowledge that bias can exist in AI, and I think that’s the first step.
We are constantly working to develop products and features that meet the needs of all learners, and so we are constantly keeping an eye on testing and thinking about how to do things better. As I’m building out my team, one of the areas I’m really focusing on is what we’re calling equitable impacts. That will allow us to actually build in ways to ensure our products are reaching everyone in the way we want them to.
So often in DEI, people are concerned about doing the wrong things that we don’t feel comfortable measuring the impact we’re making. If we don’t know what we’re not doing well, we can’t fix it. As I’m building my team, and our product inclusion and equitable impact strategies, it’s really going to be about ensuring we are measuring the work we’re doing specifically for the lower 25% of testers and being very open about any shortcomings.
We are building processes and products with that in mind. We’re also super excited about being at the forefront of helping to figure out how to best use AI and how we can mitigate bias in any of the products we’re using.
EdTech: What is one goal you have as GoGuardian’s chief diversity officer?
Smith: Ultimately, our goal is to be able to create products and programs that can benefit all students. For me, when I say all students, I’m super excited about being explicitly focused on students who are traditionally excluded. We are uniquely positioned to make a huge difference in how we can use technology to add equity to education.
Equity in education is on the forefront of so many people’s minds, but people are not sure what to do. They’re not sure how to address it or how to measure whether they’re doing it. Oftentimes, DEI is seen as an add on, or it’s something running separately in the background, or it’s seen as part of HR. At GoGuardian, our mission specifically is about all students. The success of our company is very much dependent on us being able to have an impact on students who are from historically marginalized groups.
All my life, education has been this great equalizer. Technology is a central avenue to be able to do that. So, to be working in ed tech, and to be able to have an impact because we are touching so many students, it’s just amazing.