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Driving Innovation in Times of Uncertainty With Silicon Valley Bank’s Courtney Karnes

Q: The events of the past year have been so hard for so many, and they also have underscored the power of innovation. How are you harnessing innovation?

I am proud to lead a unique initiative called Access to Innovation at a unique bank, Silicon Valley Bank, whose clients are among the world’s most innovative companies. We see firsthand how innovation in medicine and healthcare, communications, frontier tech and so many other sectors are creating solutions to our greatest challenges. At the same time, we recognize that the innovation economy is critical for job creation, economic recovery and rebuilding our communities.

What’s clear is that we can’t stick to the status quo. I joined SVB in 2017 to start this initiative up with a goal of expanding employment and investment opportunities to individuals who are underrepresented in the innovation economy. As 2020 unfolded, SVB accelerated the trajectory; we have significantly increased our investment of time, network, resources, and expertise to ensure the innovation ecosystem becomes more diverse and accessible. Access to Innovation operates on the idea that we are not trying to build a parallel economy, we are creating an integrated economy to give more people access to opportunity right now. This is an all-hands-on-deck effort and we are serious about making impact.

Q: What are you doing differently, and what advice do you have for those who want to put more focus on diversity and inclusion at their work?

We are engaging everyone from our CEO to young professionals to help develop programs and partnerships that are measurable and make a difference. In 2021, Access to Innovation has an ambitious goal to double the number of people whose lives we impact, from entry-level job training programs to helping women, Black, Latinx and other underrepresented individuals fund their companies, access venture capital, start a venture capital firm or gain a seat on a corporate board. Internally, SVB is making changes to our interview and recruitment processes, tying executive compensation to reaching diversity goals and encouraging our investor clients to add a “diversity rider” to include co-investors from underrepresented groups to boost their participation in the deal making process. We are making substantial investments in talent recruitment platforms including Valence, a community for Black professionals, tap new hiring networks.

But if your company’s resources are limited, you can start small. It’s just important to start somewhere and set a good example. First ask yourself, ‘What do I do well, where do I hold power and expertise to make change, and how do I leverage these strengths to increase diversity, equality and inclusion?’ Youmay discover that instead of launching a new “official” corporate plan or initiative, intentionally focusing on ways to integrate these principles into your existing work will get you a long way toward the goal. Check in with your colleagues and corporate peers and ask who is already doing effective work and consider how to partner to amplify efforts.

Q: You say it’s key to set a good example. How do I get started?

Consider it a two-part journey. There’s the personal journey: look at how you live your life, how your past and current experiences shape your points of view. Challenge yourself: Ask why do I believe this, or where do I hold privilege where others may not? Seek out new sources of information and find ways to meet people with different perspectives. It could be something as simple as changing your social media habits and following new people on Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn to see what’s important to them. I think you will find the more committed you are to expanding your world view, the sooner you will “see” the diversity your life may lack, I certainly found that in mine and it was humbling. Refining and changing your points of view is all part of the journey and it will evolve over time.

Part two, at work, adopt new networking techniques and find allies in employee resource groups. Look around, if diverse voices are missing in key meetings, include them. This work is so much about taking notice and then taking action. And when you find success, call it out. Here are a few ways to harness momentum: Share your success throughout the organization. Ask your executives to talk about them with clients and peers, create a slide presentation for employees that can also be shared with clients, partners and the media. Direct the spotlight on progress, and people will want to join you.

Q: Should I expect to find resistance at work, and are there things to avoid?

Meaningful change is hard for everyone. Consider resistance an opportunity to change minds and to strengthen your commitment. What’s most effective is when people of all gender identities and ethnic and racial backgrounds, and people with different ideas, talents and different life experiences collaborate.

What’s not effective is when executives simply try to check the diversity and inclusion box by creating a “bubble” for diversity programs, not tying programs to company goals, not adding diversity and inclusion to corporate values, not talking about these complex issues with employees and board members. Suggest your executives hold employee town halls and help them prepare for tough questions. Yes, these conversations are uncomfortable, but they are supposed to be. It’s ok to not have all or only some of the answers but many people will come along if they are invited to authentic discussions.

Q: What has worked for you as you build Access to Innovation?

I can’t say this enough. Change is not comfortable so get used to being uncomfortable. But it’s that friction, that tension that most often leads to progress. Don’t default to partners who think just like you, look for ones who are able to challenge you and your assumptions. When we launched Access to Innovation in 2017, we started by focusing on non-degreed young professionals because of the high correlation to diversity and the ability to have great impact on their lives by creating onramps to new careers, opportunities and earning potential. Year Up is a great partner and continues to be. In fact, SVB and our clients have hired many Year Up participants into full-time jobs.

In the past couple of years, we have expanded our mission to engage SVB’s powerful network, adding initiatives aimed at hiring, promoting and investing in women, Black and Latinx professionals along the entire career path and make these opportunities available to our clients. We are committed to fully integrating these programs across SVB, including in our startup and venture capital businesses and I’m proud to share that we have the engagement of executives across the bank to do so. These efforts will always be a work in progress, because there is so much work to do. Innovation is about identifying a problem, hatching solutions and taking risks, learning from experience and then refining. That’s the attitude we apply to drive innovation in this time of enormous societal change. Don’t miss out, join us.

Courtney Karnes is Director of Access to Innovation at Silicon Valley Bank

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