Allyship and advocacy: working together to drive change

In this episode of in:tech, we talk to an important ally and advocate in the diversity and inclusion space. Russ Shaw CBE is the founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates, founding partner of London Tech Week, and long-time supporter of the Tech Talent Charter.

Russ shares his journey to become a strong ally and advocate and offers practical steps that you can take to contribute to the push for diversity and inclusion. As the founder of a global organisation, he also shares how the UK is doing relative to other countries and who we can learn from.

If you would like to learn more about Russ’ work, visit and

Listen to the podcast episode here or on Global Player


The transcript of this episode

Note: in:tech transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors.

Rebecca Donnelly:
You're listening to in:tech, the diversity and inclusion podcast from the Tech Talent Charter with me your host, Rebecca Donnelly. This podcast is for business leaders, people leaders, and diversity leaders who want to make their organisations more inclusive, more diverse, and more equitable, but need some help, advice, or inspiration wherever they are on that journey.

In each episode, we speak to leading names from across the technology sector who share their practical insights on how organisations can deliver on their D&I commitments.

One of our guiding principles at the Tech Talent Charter is to focus on action. It often feels like we've been discussing diversity in the tech sector forever with still so much more to do. So our goal in everything we do, including this podcast, is to focus on practical steps towards collective action and not just words.

With this in mind, I'm extremely excited to introduce our guest for this podcast, a man who has personally driven more collective action on this issue than most of us can have a hope to achieve. And the founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates, founding partner of London Tech Week, and longtime supporter of us here at the Tech Talent Charter, Russ Shaw CBE. Russ, a huge welcome to in:tech.

Russ Shaw CBE:
Thank you. Great to be here with you, Rebecca.

Rebecca Donnelly:
Russ, I'd love to start by asking you just tell us a bit more about your own journey to where you are now. So you are a pioneering advocate for diversity and inclusion in tech. How did you find yourself in this space?

Russ Shaw CBE:
It's a great question. I guess maybe a little bit by accident, but I've been running Tech London Advocates for nearly 10 years now. Set up Global Tech Advocates eight years ago and early on in the communities, it became very clear that diversity and inclusion was a big issue, and a lot of that was driven by some of the working groups that we have.

Credit to the Tech London Advocates’ Women in Tech group who really put this on my radar in a big, bold way doing events many years ago. We've done tech for diversity events over several years, and I think the intensity of what we're trying to do here is only increasing. You alluded to this in your introduction, which is there's a lot of focus and attention on this, but I think there's also a growing frustration that the metrics are not moving the way we would like them to move, in terms of bringing more women, more black women, more people from different backgrounds into the tech sector. So here we are today, you know, 2022, and I think a lot of folks are saying this has now become the biggest challenge that we face in tech.Not just in London, not just in the UK, but in many tech hubs around the world.

Rebecca Donnelly:
Tell me a bit more about Tech London Advocates. What is it? What was it set up to achieve and how does it work?

Russ Shaw CBE:
It was an idea that I had just over 10 years ago where I could see some very interesting startups emerging on the London tech scene, and I wanted to create an open, inclusive, diverse community of leaders to really do two things. One, to promote the startups and scale up in the London tech ecosystem and to be an independent grassroots voice when speaking to media, to government, from leaders in the community who could tell it like it really is, what are the issues, what are the challenges.

Everybody in the community is a volunteer. I am too. I do all of this probono, it's my give back to tech. I had no idea that this community would grow and expand as rapidly as it has over the past 10 years. And it's really riding on the backs of, you know, people's better angels. In their spare time, they're running working groups, they're speaking out, they're mentoring startups, they're promoting scale-ups, whatever it might be. And so, that's what I've been doing with this group. The other thing that surprised me is that this model, this open, inclusive, volunteer-driven community of leaders coming together, that we could replicate it around the world.

So we now have 27, 28 groups in our global network across the UK, across Europe, across Asia Pacific, and the Americas. Wherever you go in the world, there's an advocate somewhere who would happily work with you. 

Rebecca Donnelly:
I'd love to talk a bit more about advocacy and allyship, but if I can, can I ask a bit more about your earlier career and your, your journey? Why did you feel it was so important for you to take a stand in this space and what, what led you to that? 

Russ Shaw CBE:
Yes. Well, I've worked in many different organisations. I've worked for some big corporates in my career. Companies like American Express and Telephonica of Spain, [I] was at O2 when we were acquired by Telephonica. I worked for startups. I worked for companies like Skype, and so I could see the landscape in all different companies. That experience now promoting and supporting startups and scale-ups has been very relevant because talent is critical for success. 

Yes, the numbers are important and building the right products and having the right IT platforms, I get all of that. But I think for me, over the years, sometimes the focus on talent and diversity of talent has been an afterthought. Now more than ever, when we look at a technology sector that is basically 80% white men, you look at that and just say, that's not right. Both from a moral point of view, but also it's not good business sense either.

I mean, as you know, Rebecca, there have been so many studies out there that demonstrate that diverse organisations, diverse leadership teams, diverse boards just do much better from a profitability point of view. I think for me, how we work with these startups to instill that thinking in them right from the get-go has just been so critically important. It's been a growing issue and now it's a substantial issue that I'm hugely passionate about. 

Rebecca Donnelly:
I'd love to talk a bit more about allyship and advocacy and what that means. I think you've, you know, you quoted that 80% white men in the tech sector. That puts an awful lot of pressure, doesn't it, on that remaining 20% to champion for change.

What should that 80% be doing and what does being good ally look like? 

Russ Shaw CBE:
I think that 80% has an equal, if not greater stake in this. A lot of the times when I'm speaking about advocacy and allyship, it's not necessarily to women directly or other diverse communities, it's to the white men in the room saying, you've got to do something about this.

Many, many men that I come across want to do something, or they realise that it's an issue, but they don't know how to start or they don't feel comfortable taking those steps. Part of what I try and do is share some of my experiences and my stories, or relate back what I'm hearing from the community to say, look, It's not that difficult. Just take a couple of small steps and get comfortable with those and then take a few more steps, but also be mindful that the clock is ticking here. There's a sense of urgency here. There's a growing frustration that the remaining 20% is becoming increasingly frustrated in terms of their career advancement opportunities, in terms of their salary and pay differentials, in terms of really changing the culture of many organisations. It's also not just the token women or the token black women in the room, it's really reflective of what's going on in society. So that is where I really try and share my voice. 

The other thing I try and do, in an example I'll give you, is Black Women in Tech group, several months ago started doing in-person events again after the pandemic. I joined one of their events and there were about 50 people in the room. Of those 50 people, 47 were black women, two were white women, and I was the only male and the only white male in the room. It was just incredible to hear the stories and to feel like they were in a safe space where they could share some of their frustrations and challenges.

I went up to the woman who runs the group brilliantly, Flavilla Fongang, and said to her, excellent event, so great, I wouldn't want to change this safe space where people could talk about their experiences, but how do we get another five or 10 white men into this room to hear what I've just heard and how do we shift the needle there?

Those are some of the things I try and do at a practical level to figure out how do we bring these folks together.

Rebecca Donnelly:
Why is that so hard? 

Russ Shaw CBE:
It, it's a really good question. I think sometimes the will and the intention is there, but is the priority really where people want it to be? I think one of the biggest issues in how we change this landscape is the CEOs, the board chairman, they're the ones who have to really lead from the top and not just talk about this, but really walk the talk.

My challenge when I speak to people about this is to say come to this event. But I think my challenge and challenge s for others is to say to them, no, don't just come to the event, let me come pick you up and bring you to the event with me. 

Rebecca Donnelly:
[Chuckles] Don't give them a choice. 

Russ Shaw CBE:
No. Maybe it sounds pretty basic. But it's like, come with me, I'll help you and be there and be present and ask questions. And no question is a difficult question. That's the practicalities of this, where white men will say, yeah, I need to do this, I need to learn more but maybe it's number 27 on their list of priorities. My feedback to them is how do we get it into the top three so that as you're thinking about your day and your week, this is always there and omnipresent for you.

It's not just, oh, tick a box and do something later in the week. It has to be integral to how you think about your company in an organisation. 

Rebecca Donnelly:
Have you seen any really great success stories of that? You know, some people that you've managed to really turn around or what has been that tipping point for somebody to go, yes, I get this, I'm gonna take action now?

Russ Shaw CBE:
I have seen some good examples of people who've done this. The story that I really enjoy playing back is about the company Slack. I met their CTO several years ago. He spoke at an event and I went up to him afterwards and had a good chat with him. But he said, and one of the things that struck me was he said, we built D&I in right from the start when we had 3, 4, 5 employees.

And he said, I couldn't imagine doing that or re-steering the tanker, if you will, when we're at a hundred or 200 or 500 employees in terms of how you then bring in diversity and inclusion. That really stuck with me. They've been incredibly successful. They had a very good significant IPO, but they demonstrated that you can build a diverse organisation right from the start.

I actually think if you can take that on board, that's far easier. [Rather] than building up your organisation, building up your culture, and then saying, okay, now we need to drive a diversity inclusion agenda when people saying, okay, but what does that mean? How do we do it? We've operated in a certain way. What does changing force mean? That still needs to be done. 

Rebecca Donnelly:
I think that's a really interesting question because a lot of the advice that's given or the resources that are out there can be either applicable to very large organisations or very small organisations, and it seems that the challenges are quite different, do you think, or are they ultimately the same thing but in a different way?

Russ Shaw CBE:
I actually think smaller organisations have an advantage, and that's why I really encourage them to move on this as they're getting established and as they're setting up. For many of the startups and scale-ups I meet, the number one issue that they face is they just don't have enough talent to support the growth.

My feedback to them is, okay, there is a lot of good diverse talent out there. What extra steps are you taking to really recruit from those diverse recruitment pools? And then not only just think about recruiting that diverse talent, but how do you then build a culture within them that really reflects their backgrounds, their needs, and integrate that into the culture?

Some of those folks might want career development. Some of them will think about what is their future in this organisation and how do you do that in the early stages? I think it is far easier than when you are a thousand or 50,000, and those cultural norms have already been well established for years or for decades.

That in turn requires, I think, a leadership team if you're in a much larger organisation that is really living and breathing this every day. There are, I think, companies out there who are really trying to do that in a very sincere way, and there are others who are not.

Rebecca Donnelly:
And that's where allyship really comes in.

Russ Shaw CBE:
I think so. I think for those white men running these companies, running these boards, what are they doing to really demonstrate that they are allies for women in tech and demonstrating that they really want to do something? Not just keeping it to themselves but showcasing it to their organisation that this is the right thing to do.

If those leaders really embrace it and do it effectively, the change will happen in those organisations. I come back to the point, not enough leaders are really embracing this the way they need to because the numbers haven't changed. 

Rebecca Donnelly:
Well, I'd love to ask you a bit about Global Tech Advocates as well, because at the Tech Talent Charter, we do work with a lot of international businesses, but mainly through a UK lens.

So what differences are you seeing between where the UK's at and what's going on in the rest of the world? 

Russ Shaw CBE:
The good news for the UK is, I actually think, we're at the forefront of driving this diversity and inclusion agenda. I see great examples across the UK of people really trying to work hard at this.

I do see this happening a lot in the Nordics. Our Tech Nordic Advocates group is led by a fabulous woman called Jeanette Carlsson. She's been rolling out an extensive Women in Tech mentoring program across Denmark, across Finland. Our Netherlands group, led by Esther O’Callaghan, has a diverse founders accelerator.

So some of our groups are embracing this agenda because it's really relevant in their communities, our Bay Area group in California. We've got practical examples of how to do this. But I think if you were to speak to some of those leaders of those groups, they would look at the UK and say, there's so much focus and attention here, which is fantastic. Big tick in the box. 

Collectively we're all trying to work towards the practical action steps for implementation, and again, I think the UK feels like it's ahead of the group. Maybe not by much, but there's a real sense of, wow, this is very much in the Kool-Aid that we're all drinking, that we have to make this work.

Even the Americans who come over here for London Tech Week and see and experience what's going on here say "you guys are really trying to embrace this" and they sometimes think that they're ahead of the curve, and a couple of them said to me, "you guys are doing much better than we are". 

Rebecca Donnelly:
That's really positive to hear.

One of the really inspiring things I found about what you just said is you named specific people who you think are doing incredible things in other countries, and it really just brings me back to this point of allyship of how one person can make a real difference and bring a lot of other people along with them.

Because I'm guessing for a lot of our listeners, and I know from a lot of the people we talk to at Tech Talent Charter, it can feel like, what can I do? How can I make a difference? How can I change things even within my own organisation? But what I love about what you are saying is that there's this person doing this amazing thing, this person leading and convening this group of people. One person really can make a huge difference.

Russ Shaw CBE:
It does happen that way. You know, I'm now a Community Manager and I've been doing it for 10 years. I guess [it’s] never too late to become an entrepreneur and build a community. One of the things I learned in the early days of setting up this community is that individual action, the individual attention, finding those right change makers, if you will, who are out there doing this. But also giving it the personal attention that's required. Here we are today, Tech London Advocates is coming up to 15,000 and everybody gets a personal welcome email from me. Some days are a bit of a challenge when I get 10 introductions to new advocates. 

Rebecca Donnelly:
Do you send them all birthday greeting? [Chuckles]

Russ Shaw CBE:
No. That I, that I can't do.

I used to, in the earlier days, I used to try and meet every new advocate, but we bring on about 200 every month, so they get a personal welcome email from me. We connect on LinkedIn and if they reach out to me, I try and respond to them same day with here's how I can answer your question, whatever, but it's that personal attention to these interactions that are key.

The other leaders that I've mentioned, Jeanette, Esther, Flavilla, Suki Fuller, Lannie Medina in California, they also have that one-on-one, here's how you make a difference, because when you then start to add it all up collectively, it can make a big difference. That is, I think the power that's behind this.

It's not just hyperbole, it's not just fluff. It's leaders on the ground who are really driving specific ways in which to make this change happen. 

Rebecca Donnelly:
Well, let's talk action then. In every episode of in:tech, we ask our guests to share some really tangible advice that our listeners can put into practice in three minutes, three weeks and three months. 

First of all, it's something that you can do right now within three minutes of listening to this podcast. Then it's practical action that you can take within the next three weeks. And finally, how in three months you can transform this into something that has longer term impact.

What should people do within the first three minutes of listening to this podcast to really start moving on this journey? 

Russ Shaw CBE:
The first thing that I would do in three minutes is to challenge your way of thinking and to come up with a different way of thinking. In this area, one of the things that we talk about is company leaders audit their financials. They're looking at their profit margins. If they miss a number, they're under heat and pressure from their management team, from their board of directors, et cetera. Why don't we change the way of thinking here and do some type of audit around the diversity issues that you have in your organisation?

That doesn't take a lot. You can come up and do that in three minutes and say, okay, here's how we look at our financials and manage our financial performance and how we audit the numbers. Let's apply that same thinking to diversity and inclusion. How do we evaluate what we're doing? How do we audit the impact of what we're trying to do here?

What are some of the metrics and targets that we want to achieve as an organisation? Most organisations that I've ever worked in had strong financial targets. You need to hit your revenue number. You need to hit your profit number. Why don't we apply that thinking here? But in three minutes, I think it's pretty easy to shift and say, we not only should be doing that with our financials, we should be doing that with our diversity agenda.

Rebecca Donnelly:
Can you elaborate on that a little bit in terms of how do you measure a successful diversity and inclusion strategy or approach? What should they be looking to measure? 

Russ Shaw CBE:
Yeah, I think, the key component are the two R's, the recruitment and the retention piece of this.

What are you doing from your recruitment side of things? There's a whole host of advice and specific examples out there about how you recruit talent, what talent pools you go to, et cetera. Then I think more critically, there's the retention piece of this. It's great to recruit diverse talent, to bring more women into your organisation, but what do you do with that talent? 

At one of the Black Women in Tech events recently, I met a young black woman who said the company worked really, really hard to recruit me. They wanted to bring a black woman into the organisation. I think there was something like 25 employees, but she said when she walked in the door and sat down, they didn't quite know what to do next.

How do you build the culture around that? How do you make sure that for a young black woman, you're thinking about her career development the way you're thinking about a white technical engineer, whatever the role might be. So there's the recruitment side and there's the retention cultural piece, and how do you bring that diverse talent in to help think about mentoring, to think about career development and growth, and to get their input into shaping it.

So for me, those are the two things that if you're auditing your organisation, it's looking at what are you doing from a recruitment point of view, and then what are you doing from a retention and culture point of view to make it successful. 

Rebecca Donnelly:
In three minutes, you've got some ideas down on paper for people to think about. What can they do in three weeks to start transitioning that into action?

Russ Shaw CBE:
The next stage of that is if you're committed to doing it, if you're the founder or the CEO of the company, start to have the internal discussions. Say to your staff, your people, your leadership team, I want to make this change. Here's my thinking. What are your thoughts? Go on that listening tour.

Get that diverse talent in your organisation to sit down with you and say, what would really make a difference is X, or, here's how I'd love to be supported as a black woman in your organisation from the overall organisation and to spend three weeks doing that. Then from that, hopefully having an informed decision.

Don't just go off and do this in isolation. I think some of these leaders, whilst they're committed to doing it, they're just going off in their own direction and they're not validating or verifying their ideas with people in the organisation. I think it's a classic mistake that can happen.

Spend the time. I always also say to people, remember when you started that new job in your company, you had that honeymoon period? I remember when I walked into a new company, I always spent three to four weeks thinking, that's probably my honeymoon period. How do I go about meeting as many people as I can? Just asking questions, not feeding back anything, but just absorbing what people are saying. What are the issues? 

That's such a great time to do that. There's no reason why the CEO of a company couldn't say, I'm going to go out and do this. I've made the commitment because I did my three minute exercise and now I' going to spend three weeks doing it. 

Rebecca Donnelly:
Which is literally the definition of inclusion. Go out and include your team. Then let's talk about turning that into long term action. So three months, what can they hope to achieve in that time? 

Russ Shaw CBE:
Well, I would hope from the end of that three week period to say at the three month mark, that leader has been well informed and is working with other leaders in the organisation, whether it's the board, to say how do we turn this focus into a proper initiative or campaign or whatever it is that we want to do with our organisation, to say this is where we're going, this is how we're working together. And to go out and speak to as many people in the organisation as possible. 

So you've had your chance during the three weeks to listen to everybody. At that three month mark, come back to everybody and say, here's where we're going. Here's where I want to take us. Here's the input that I heard from all of you, and here's how we've taken that to say, here are the initiatives that we want to drive from a diversity and inclusion agenda.

Here are the people in the organisation that can help you if you have questions. Here are the leaders who are going to really walk the talk so that I, as the CEO, this is an integral part of what I'm doing on a daily basis. Here's the board of directors, you know, this is part of their agenda too. They're gonna hold me to account and audit my diversity metrics, the way they look at the numbers that I'm delivering for the business.

But I think turning it into something more formal from a communications point of view. I've seen companies probably go a bit too far, but I think it's important to say we want to kick off something and we want everybody to be involved with it. And that leader needs to really move around the organisation and say, I'm really serious about this and part of that is my commitment to spending time with all of you and the employee base to say, this is what we're all about.

Rebecca Donnelly:
Can you give any advice about pitfalls to watch out for? What are some of the mistakes that you've seen in your time working in this space? 

Russ Shaw CBE:
I would say first and foremost, don't be afraid to make mistakes. I think some of the barriers to get the white men we've been talking about to make that leap is to say, look, you're going to make mistakes.

People will hold you to account and then put your hand up and say, I messed up, or "that didn't come out right", or "I wish I would've done something differently". That acknowledgement, I think will go a really far way to get people to be endeared to what you're trying to do, give you that forgiveness and say, here's how we think we can help you on this.

So don't be afraid to acknowledge those mistakes. Listen to everybody, because some people will warmly embrace this. Some people will be cool to the idea, "why do we need to change? Why is D&I such a part of everything that we're doing? Is this such a woke thing that our company's embracing?", et cetera, and listen to them.

But also make sure that you respond to them and share with them why you're passionate about this, why you believe that you need to do this. It's not just a tick box exercise, or it's not just for the ESG reporting, the Environment Society Governance reporting that needs to be done, but you really believe about it.

Many companies do employee value surveys. I've done my share over the years where you get the results and sometimes those results go in the drawer and other times serious leaders really take that to heart, discuss it with the people who provided the feedback, and then say, here's our action plan to respond to what you said in the value survey.

We can't do everything, but here are the top three or five things that I want to change in acknowledgement for that. Many CEOs that I've met over the years have done a good job doing that.

Well, do something similar with diversity and inclusion. You've had your listening tour over your three week period.

You've heard what's not working. As part of this respond back to them and say, here's what we're going to do based upon your feedback. Again, don't be afraid to make some mistakes and trip ups and don't assume too many things and be open to learning as you go through this and saying, this is what we thought we would do, but oh, I really like this idea, let's give that a go as well. 

Rebecca Donnelly:
What unique opportunities do you think the tech sector has in the next three years to really make some progress and change how things are?

Russ Shaw CBE:
It's an enormous opportunity, Rebecca, because every sector of our economy, every part of our industry is becoming digitally and tech enabled.

Yes, you might be a tech startup or you may be a more traditional retail business, but that traditional retail business is integrating digital and tech into everything that it does. Technology is an enabler and we, in the tech sector, can lead by example here. If we're demonstrating that we're building the technology of the future which is built and developed by people from diverse backgrounds, diverse experiences, that is a really powerful way forward for the tech sector to be proud of. 

I think we're proud of many of the successes that we've seen in tech over the years. The great tech unicorns that have been created here in the UK and in other places around the world.

If we really change the mix of our leadership and truly create a diverse workforce going forward and show how we took it seriously over the next three years or so, I think that's something we can really be proud of. 

We will take steps backwards. There will be frustrating metrics that emerge along the way where we're not moving the needle.

I would say when I look more broadly, we have changed in one respect, at least over the past five years, and that is, there's broader awareness of this and I think a growing acknowledgement that, yeah, we all need to change this. That wasn't as deep as it was five or 10 years ago. We're at a critical point now where that needs to turn into action, which is why I love what the Tech Talent Charter is all about.

It's what are those practical actions that people can take step by step, stage by stage. This isn't rocket science, and even though there are a lot of techies who believe in rocket science, which is wonderful, this is a pretty straightforward thing that we can all do and embrace. 

Rebecca Donnelly:
So where should our listeners go to find out more information about Tech London Advocates or any of the other organisations that you are part of?

Russ Shaw CBE:
Go to our websites. There's There's There is a Women in Tech tab on our Global Tech Advocates website, which will take you to all of the various initiatives that we're doing through our GTA groups around the world. On Women in Tech, Global Tech Advocates, Black Women in Tech group has their own website.

Our Tech London Advocates’ Women in Tech group have their own website. Take a look at the work that they're doing. There's practical examples, there's great case studies, there's examples of corporates that have embraced this. There's a lot of information and knowledge out there. Our Tech for Diversity Report, which we published a few months ago on the back of our Tech for Diversity event is there. We did a comprehensive survey.

There's a lot of specific examples, actions, and places where you can go, like the Tech Talent Charter organisation to get more information.

Rebecca Donnelly:
Well, that brings us to the end of this episode. So there's just time left for me to say a huge thank you to our guest, Russ Shaw CBE, and of course to all of you for listening. If you'd like to find out more about the Tech Talent Charter, or anything we've talked about on this episode, you can find us at or on Twitter at @TechCharterUK.

If you like what you've heard today, you can subscribe to this podcast on Spotify to be the first to hear about new episodes and for more great insights from our incredible guests. 

I'm Rebecca Donnelly. Please join me again on in:tech the diversity and inclusion podcast from the Tech Talent Charter.