Many tech companies recognize the value of diversity but struggle with achieving results.
Barriers to diversity in technology organizations include access to investors and building more diverse professional networks and talent rosters. It’s a topic worth thinking about all year. But it’s especially timely in April, which is Celebrate Diversity Month.
Deon Nicholas feels a sense of personal responsibility to advance diversity. He’s the founder and CEO of Forethought, a company that uses AI to solve customer service issues for companies in retail, e-commerce, education, and travel.
Forethought’s customers include Instacart, Marriott, and work management platform Asana.
“We were founded, and then launched in 2018, on a mission to use AI to — we like to say — unlock human potential starting with transforming the customer service experience. We’ve grown pretty rapidly over the last few years,” Nicholas said.
Late last year, Forethought announced it had raised $65 million in Series C funding. Nicholas said the company has raised more than $90 million in venture capital through the first part of this year.
In a recent conversation with Deon, we talked about his background, how he got interested in technology, the importance of diversity in the tech industry, and why it’s important to him to expand diversity, equity, and inclusion. Below is our interview, which has been condensed and edited.
How technology “became a passion”
Nate: How did you first get interested in technology?
Deon Nicholas: Two people were pretty influential for me in my young days. My dad is a mechanic, so he’s always tinkering and building things, and I think I get that from him.
He ended up putting together — I think it was a Windows 95 PC — thing that we had in our house. There weren’t a lot of people in our neighborhood that were interested in technology. We grew up in probably one of the worst neighborhoods in Toronto and in Canada. So there weren’t a lot of folks to look at who were interested in tech.
But luckily, one of my older brother’s friends was a hacker — a get-into-your-computer-style hacker. And he was over one day, just like fiddling around on the computer, and I was like “All right, what are you doing?”
One of the things he showed me was a video game maker, and I was super into video games. … That was such a cool experience for me, being able to take stories I had heard or that I’d been thinking about and then translate them into actual video games.
It wasn’t coding at the time, it was drag-and-drop, pretty simplistic stuff. But that was how I got my start in technology.
And that became a passion for many, many years. I started taking apart things, figuratively and literally. How do video games work? How does technology work? And eventually, I started realizing that to make more complex stuff, you’d actually have to learn how to code.
Connecting your passion with a career
Nate: How’d you go from creating video games to being a tech company founder?
Deon Nicholas: My first-ever job in high school was actually in customer service. I was stocking shelves at Shoppers Drug Mart, which is the Canadian CVS or Walgreens. I started to realize that I don’t always have all the answers, and my customers don’t always have all the information they need to get stuff done.
(Also) in high school, being a math and computers guy, I was also very bad at subjects like history. I had this idea: how could technology help? In this case, help me learn better for school.
What if I could have technology that would read my notes and generate cue cards to study? That was when I started learning about natural language processing, AI, and things like that.
I did actually pass that class, so I was super excited. I think that was an interesting thread for me throughout my life — how can technology be used to get people the information they need?
A reckoning, and an opportunity
Nate: Why use your influence to advance diversity in the tech industry?
Deon Nicholas: I remember the day we got our first term sheet was the day I heard about George Floyd. There was this really interesting juxtaposition where I’m supposed to be super excited but there’s this really doom and gloom, bad thing happening in the world, and I was just learning about that. So it was definitely a really tough time for me.
Here I am as one of the few — probably too few — Black entrepreneurs who are able to raise this much funding, have an enterprise technology company, and make an impact on the world. What am I doing to use that platform, use that voice to better the Black community?
A question of access and opportunity
Nate: What are some barriers to diversity in tech?
Deon Nicholas: I like to say talent is distributed equally, whereas access and opportunity are not. A lot of fundraising, a lot of (the tech world), even though in some ways, it’s a meritocracy, in many ways, it’s insular. You see that in the numbers (and diversity).
What that tells you is that the majority of the people getting funded are — call it your cisgendered white male. That’s the group that is going to get funded. (Without access to investors and funding), it’s going to be very, very hard to get your business off the ground, even if you have the talent.
I think that’s driven a lot by the fact a lot of these systems, funding, hiring, talent — people tend to lean on their natural biases a lot more than we think.
You end up hiring people who look like you, or you end up hiring people who went to the same school as you, and so on, rather than thinking about, “Where can I find the best talent in the world for what I need to do?”
I think the industry has a long way to go in creating that diversity, but it’s not even a diversity problem. How do we make sure the most talented people in the world are getting the access we need?
Nate: What do companies stand to lose if they don’t pursue diversity?
Deon Nicholas: It’s talent. We’re in this business, we’re in this world where especially in the post-pandemic world, talent is now literally everywhere. You can hire from anywhere. There’s a lot of companies that are remote. There’s this new world where the thing that is going to make or break your business is the talent that you hire.
Recognize your superpowers
Nate: What advice do you have for young or aspiring tech leaders?
Deon Nicholas: It’s kind of cliché, but I would say trust yourself. For me, one of the hardest things was not kind of knowing that this was possible, because I didn’t see examples of myself in other entrepreneurs.
(Before starting Forethought), the idea of becoming a tech CEO was not something that was in my brain. It was like “Those guys, or those gals, that’s somebody else.”
But it turns out I had been doing entrepreneurship my entire life. I’d been building things, solving problems. And it wasn’t until a few friends were like, “Hey why don’t you think about starting a company?”
I think there are a lot of people who might not know their own skills, their own power, so to speak, because they haven’t seen themselves in people who have done it before. Anyone who has their own superpowers — whether that’s building and writing code or marketing, or storytelling, or whatever it is — you can be an entrepreneur.
Start with just having that inner confidence and it’s hard — it’s easier said than done — but just knowing that it’s even possible is a good place to start.
Don’t hesitate to reach out. Start building your network and try to make a connection. Have confidence and remember the world is smaller than you think. Take a risk and reach out to people.