Where Does Building an Equitable Product Begin?

Blend’s commitment to building an equitable ecosystem, Pt. 3

By Erik Wrobel, Head of Product at Blend

Color photo of Eric Wrobel, a White man with blue eyes and plaid shirt, Head of Product at Blend.

Over the past twelve months, we’ve seen a renewed urgency in how companies tackle their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Amidst the challenging backdrop presented by COVID-19, two out of five companies globally are expanding their investments in DEI programs. That’s despite them making budget cuts elsewhere.

At Blend, we recognize that we have a golden opportunity to build a more equitable and inclusive workplace. As a result, we can build more equitable products, too. We’ve outlined our commitment in this series. In part one, Ulysses Smith, head of diversity, inclusion, and belonging, outlines our commitment to building an equitable ecosystem. In part two, Crystal Sumner, head of legal and compliance and corporate secretary, describes how we’re removing the barriers to lending and democratizing access to capital for all Americans.

Here in the final piece in this series, I will describe how we at Blend go about building an equitable product.

My role as head of product at Blend is about developing new solutions, and ensuring we reach people most effectively. Equity is a big part of this.

To me, an equitable product is fair, accessible, and without bias. And building it requires two key things: the right people and the right strategy.

Equitable products start with the people you hire

Let’s start with the people part of the equation. What’s crystal clear is that products tend to be reflective of the people who design them. For example, if our product team was made up solely of mortgage experts, our solution wouldn’t effectively meet the needs of end users on our consumer banking platform. Mortgages are incredibly complex products, but they need to be accessible to a vast spectrum of people.

If you want to build a solution that meets the needs of diverse communities, you need to have a diverse product team. The more diversity in the room, the better the ideas. You will have a wider variety of perspectives, experiences, and contributions. These can make products stronger and ultimately serve customers better.

The evidence supports this too. BCG research finds that diverse teams are better able to radically innovate and anticipate shifts in consumer needs and consumption patterns. Companies that reported above-average diversity also reported innovation revenue that was 19 percent higher than that of companies with below-average diversity — 45 percent of total revenue versus just 26 percent.

Becoming an equitable employer, then, is critical. It’s not enough to attract and hire the brightest minds. You have to bring together people of different identities, backgrounds, and experiences. After that, you make sure that all employees feel welcome and encouraged to participate and contribute.

To support this philosophy, we are bolstering recruitment efforts in underrepresented communities. Take our University Recruiting Team’s partnership with Onramp.io, for example. We launched an engineering apprenticeship program aimed at individuals who have developed fundamental computer science skills but need the hands-on technical experience required to pass tech industry processes. We have also continued our efforts to build lasting relationships and credibility with marginalized communities by forming strategic partnerships with organizations like Change Catalyst and Tech Inclusion, BreakLine Education, Women in Product, National Association of Women Sales Professionals, Black is Tech, Diversability, and the TechEquity Collaborative.

We’ve also set targets to ensure that our applicant pool is representative of the available workforce. And we have worked hard to remove arbitrary barriers to workforce participation and fervently challenge bias in our processes. As a result of all of these efforts, we are creating more opportunities for people from historically marginalized communities to join our team.

In fact, the number of underrepresented minorities, women, and non-binary people we employ has increased since 2019, and our hiring of Black employees has doubled.

A diverse team can shape an inclusive strategy

Only with a diverse team of people that reflects, and is empathetic to, the target population can you shape an inclusive company mission. The second key ingredient necessary for building an equitable product is a formal strategy or mission statement that reflects a company’s commitment to higher social good for the community it serves. It also provides real accountability for delivery as well as authenticity and transparency.

We’ve taken this on board at Blend, as represented in our mission statement: “Our mission is to bring simplicity and transparency to consumer banking. We form partnerships with banks and lenders to ensure consumers have access to a less stressful, more accessible lending experience. We’re not disrupting lending. We’re making lending better for everyone involved.”

I believe that placing equity at the core of our mission in this way will help us on the next steps of our journey where we focus on building a more equitable product and drive the lending ecosystem towards this long-term goal. With equity at the very foundation of our business, it will serve as an essential navigation tool as we look to the future.

We’ve also expanded on our mission with our Equitable Ecosystem Initiative

(EEI). We created this last year to make a difference in reducing racial inequity in the consumer banking ecosystem. This initiative underpins our commitments in three key areas:

  • Community partnerships: We will join forces with underbanked communities to create new or to bolster existing programming related to financial literacy and homeownership preparedness. We will also invest in economic growth and employment opportunities.
  • Technology and systems investments: We have pledged to increase our investment in building product features that reduce bias and enable customers to more accurately assess borrower profiles. We will also provide our technology to financial institutions serving underbanked communities.
  • Policy changes and regulatory engagement: We will leverage our memberships in industry associations and increase regulatory engagement to drive structural changes in policies governing access to financial services and homeownership.

Only now can you build an equitable product

It’s this type of clear mission, along with the backing of a diverse and valued workforce, that can give you the grounding necessary to build a truly equitable product.

And this is just the start. To drive continuous improvement equitably, you’ll want to look at the key areas that will extend your reach and inclusivity even further.

As a part of our localization efforts, our team at Blend is investigating how adding new languages can increase accessibility. The 2018 Census Survey found that over 67 million U.S. residents, including those born in the U.S. and those who immigrated here, spoke a non-English language at home. Within that, 41.5 million speak Spanish.

By presenting documents to borrowers in the language they’re most comfortable with, we can give even more people access to mortgages. We are also in a better position to work alongside the Minority Depository Institutions (MDIs) serving these communities. While these changes can often take many companies years to roll out, they’re worth pursuing.

Adding new languages will require many strategic decisions and significant resources to set up a local presence and establish multiple workforces in multiple locations. I firmly believe that taking this approach will help us realize our end goal of creating an open and accessible global consumer lending ecosystem.

As we move further into 2021 and beyond, I have little doubt that companies that invest in the creation of equitable and inclusive products — and whose diverse workforces inform and influence their strategies — will be the ones that succeed.

Ultimately, this demonstrates that a business that focuses on diversity and inclusion is more likely to build more effective, equitable products backed by happier, more productive employees. This all adds up to an attractive proposition for potential customers. Here at Blend, our focus on diversity, inclusion, and belonging is both a business and moral imperative.

Find out more about Blend’s journey to building an equitable ecosystem in its annual 2020 Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Report.

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