When we published the first annual People of Color in Tech Report in September 2020, we knew our readers would get a ton of value from hearing the stories of tech leaders straight from the source.
Today the People of Color in Tech Conversations series continues with Nick Mehta, Founder and CEO of Gainsight—the Customer Success company that’s driving the future of the industry with a breakthrough CS software platform that achieved 361% YoY growth in 2019.
In this exclusive interview with TrustRadius CEO Vinay Bhagat, Nick shares how he learned to appreciate his Indian-American heritage, how he owned up to his company’s D&I challenges, and how he saw a lack of POC in Customer Success and took unprecedented action to change that.
Key Takeaways From This Conversation:
- POC in positions of privilege have tremendous power to help underrepresented groups.
- Even successful leaders sometimes struggle with their identity as people of color.
- If you have an idea that can help, partner with an existing nonprofit to make it happen.
Click here to view a transcript of this Conversation.
The Context Surrounding Nick’s Story
Big thanks to Nick for sharing his story and insights for the People of Color in Tech Conversations series.
One of Gainsight’s major D&I focal points today is representation. The company has taken innovative action to help increase the number of people of color in the Customer Success field not just in their company, but in the entire industry.
Across tech as a whole, many respondents to the TrustRadius People of Color in Tech Report agree that they’ve seen more POC in tech now than they did 10 years ago. Specifically, the biggest increases are seen in Atlanta, DFW, and Chicago. Gainsight’s headquarters are in San Francisco—a city with one of the lowest rates of increase.
This reality makes Nick’s efforts even more important, and even more admirable. The more companies in Silicon Valley take action to solve diversity and inclusion issues, the quicker we will achieve equity as an industry.
In fact, this is one major area that survey respondents agree on. 67% of respondents think companies should do more to fix inequality. Respondents of color specifically want companies to improve diversity recruitment—which means that Nick and Gainsight are actively doing their part to address the biggest need in the eyes of people of color in tech.
We need more companies like Gainsight who are willing to own their results, acknowledge inequalities, and take action on a game-changing scale. We need leaders who are willing to ask their POC employees how they’re really feeling, and respond to their feedback. As for the rest of us? We’re committed to honoring their stories and supporting their efforts in whatever ways we can.
To learn more about these issues, read the full TrustRadius 2020 People of Color in Tech Report. Then take action and start having conversations with your colleagues, employees, and friends. Together we can make a difference.
The Journey to Founding Gainsight
Vinay: Nick, tell us a little about yourself, your journey to this point as a CEO, and as an entrepreneur.
Nick: Sure. I’ll give you a quick background. So I’m currently the CEO of Gainsight. I’ve been running Gainsight for the last eight years. We’re helping businesses become more customer-centric by having more proactive ways to engage with their customers. People call that “Customer Success.” And by building products that are more easily adoptable and with great experiences.
My journey to Gainsight started in my childhood. I got into technology as a kid and programmed and played video games growing up. And I was around technology a lot as a child. I was very privileged that my dad worked in tech. I had computers in my house from when I was a little kid. A lot of people didn’t have that fortune. But because I had that, I saw that I loved technology.
I went to school, briefly flirted with the idea of being a doctor just to please my mom who wanted that. Being an Indian-American, nothing makes parents happier than to be a doctor. So I majored in biochemistry, but I actually did a Master’s in parallel in computer science which is what I loved. Then I graduated in the late ’90s, started a company in college, an early dot-com company, which was very exciting for a time. It didn’t end up being successful but raised venture capital and actually was on a really good path for a bit.
Then I worked in a big company in Symantec as a product manager, then eventually a head of the division at Symantec. And then I ran my first SaaS company, company called LiveOffice, which I then sold back to Symantec, which was the company I worked at in 2011. And in running that company, LiveOffice, I saw the importance in a subscription business of not just getting new customers, but focusing on existing ones. That’s why I do Gainsight. That’s a quick version.
Vinay: What a great journey to this point, and congrats on all the success you’ve achieved at both Gainsight and building the Customer Success industry. I think, to many of us, your company is synonymous with the industry.
Sticking Out Like a Sore Thumb
Vinay: You mentioned in our email exchange before this interview that you are a person of color in the tech industry, but you hadn’t really felt major issues on your side. You said that there were some minor issues along the way. What were some of the obstacles that you had to overcome?
Nick: Yeah, sure. And as you mentioned, I would say I’m extremely on the privileged side for sure. You know, I think it’s actually complex to talk about where do Indian-Americans fall in this spectrum, right? Because we certainly are not white and don’t present as white. But at the same time, we’re very much normalized, I think, in technology. And so I think I spend a lot more of my time saying, “How do we help underrepresented minorities?” But I’ll give you my personal story just to share and mostly it’s just privilege like I said.
Growing up, my parents were around and they were very loving. My dad worked in tech, my mom briefly worked in tech as well. We weren’t rich by any means, but upper-middle class. My parents could pay for college, which is a huge thing a lot of people can’t do so. So I had a lot of privileges.
On the minor side, I would say, I grew up in a heavily white suburban neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Great area. I love Pittsburgh. But I definitely was one of like two Indian-Americans in a high school of probably 1,200 or 1,300 people. There were maybe 20 total non-white people, something like that. I very much stuck out like a sore thumb.
Of course, a lot of people made jokes about “you’re gonna be a doctor.” Some of the jokes were true, by the way. My parents wanted me to be a doctor. But they made jokes about all the stereotypes of Indian people. A lot of them are positive, but still, they kind of put you in a box.
Some people made more ethnic slurs and things like that. I remember some of those growing up. But it wasn’t super common. It happened. Sometimes it was confusing. Like, I don’t think they even knew what I was. So they made a slur that was not actually intended for somebody like me, but they just didn’t know what box to put me in.
I definitely felt very alone. And I actually didn’t really have any friends growing up. I don’t think that was just because of my ethnicity or race or anything, I think that’s more about me. But when you see an environment where nobody looks like you, naturally you don’t feel like you fit in. I empathize with Black people in technology where they feel like they don’t see people like them. So I had a lot of that. I ate lunch alone in school every day from kindergarten through 12th grade. I just never really felt like I fit in.
Feeling Confused About His Identity
Nick: Trying to empathize with people who are underrepresented, I did and probably still to this day feel kind of ugly because I didn’t look like the handsome white guys that were on TV. And those role models are changing a lot now on TV and movies.
When people talk about representation, that resonates with me. Because as a kid, and probably to this day, I still felt like, “I’m fine, but I’d be better if I was white.” That’s not what I believe, but that’s what you pick up subconsciously. Not because anyone was intending it, but just because that’s the norm.
Especially growing up in a very homogeneous population, I was embarrassed whenever my parents would get dressed up in traditional clothes or things like that. I’d be embarrassed about that, very embarrassed. And I didn’t want to be associated with terms like “ABC,” American-born confused desi. And it means, somebody who sort of looks like Indian, born in America, and doesn’t really know what they are.
I didn’t want to go to Sunday School, which is an Indian thing, to learn Hindi, which is a language in India. I didn’t want to do Indian traditions. I fought all of that. I wish I hadn’t fought that now. And that creates lots of confusion even to this day.
My parents would refer to people as either being American, which meant white. For example, “Oh, that boy, he married an American,” and that means a white person. Even though we’re American. I was born in America, right? But American means white person. So, this isn’t just white people enforcing stereotypes. We did, too. We all did. I think there’s just this feeling that we’re “other,” but I didn’t feel like I was Indian either. I still don’t.
I mean, honestly, am I American? Sort of, I think I am. I was born in America, I love America. But do I think of myself as a stereotype of American? No, because the stereotype of American is a white person in my mind.
And even though I don’t believe that mentally, if you looked in my brain, that’s probably what would come up. And am I Indian? No, not at all. I love India. We have a big team in India, and when I go to India, I feel like an outsider. What am I? Honestly, I don’t know.
The place where I feel more at home, frankly, is California. Because you look around and you don’t see everyone looking the same. I feel like a lot of people feel like they don’t neatly fit into a box.
And just as a fun anecdote, anytime I get in a taxi, if there’s an Indian person driving the taxi, they start talking to me. First they say, “Where are you from?” And I say, “I’m from Pittsburgh,” and they’re like, “No, where are you from?” And I’m like, “Oh, suburban Pittsburgh.” They’re like, “No, no.” And I’m like, “Oh, yeah, my parents are Gujarati, and then they start talking to me in Gujarati Hindi. I’m like, “Sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
The reason I share these stories is that nobody’s trying to do anything bad. These are sometimes people of color doing these things. It’s just the fact that systemic stuff exists. And obviously, the opportunity for us now, being in a privileged position, is to try to help other people that feel that way.
Addressing Equity Issues in His Own Company
Vinay: So, let’s talk about the tech industry today. What are the issues you see that we, as leaders in the tech industry, need to grapple with and take home when it comes to equity and race?
Nick: First of all, there’s obviously a big equity discussion around gender. And that’s not the topic of this conversation, but I think that’s extremely important. We have a long way to go. But I think we started from an easier starting point. When I reflect on Gainsight, we put a big focus on women in leadership at Gainsight and women in general at Gainsight. And we have more work to do, but we’ve come a long way. But we didn’t start from near zero. It’s actually really hard to start from near zero, right? And that’s one of the things I’ve reflected on.
In the tech industry, when you think about the representation of Black people and Latinx people, you’re starting with any company, including Gainsight, from near zero. And the hard part about that is that those first few people, as research has shown, don’t feel great. Because they are the one, they’re the few, and there aren’t other people like them.
And so, you end up with retention issues. Because you bring people on, and they don’t see people like them, and then they move on. We have a long way to go. The starting point isn’t what it was with women in tech. It’s way harder, and we have to work even harder to get there. But the objective stats are just super clear, across all parts of tech. The representation of Black and Latinx people is way, way lower than the representation in society.
Vinay: I’d love to hear what you’re trying to do inside your own company to change things. What’s worked, and what’s the struggle?
Nick: I’ll tell you, there are a lot of struggles that we have to get over, more than things that have worked. I think we’re early in our journey. One important thing is to say upfront about why we care about it. Because I think it’s important for companies any time you’re doing anything to say, “Why do we care about this?”
In my personal view, I think that representation of Black and Latinx people and underrepresented minorities in tech is very important because technology is an unbelievably lucrative profession. If you exclude people of certain backgrounds from technology, you’re reinforcing this massive wealth and income disparity that disproportionately affects underrepresented minorities. And without that wealth, you don’t get power and politics.
You have to crack this in technology. It’s so important. I talked to an entrepreneur who started a venture fund to focus on Black-founded businesses. And he said that until you solve the money issue, all the other social issues are much harder to solve. So, that’s a personal “why.”
As a company, we believe in the concept of human first business. This idea that business can’t just be about the transactions and the deals. It’s got to be about the human beings: your customers, and your employees, and their families, and your community. And so when we think about being human first, having diversity, equity, and inclusion is so critical to that concept.
All of our values require us to care about it. But despite that, we’ve done a very poor job of representing black and Latinx people at Gainsight. And we have to own that upfront. We have a small handful of people, and just like every company, that wasn’t intentional. We’re trying to be fair, but the results are the results and you have to own them, you know? So that’s the first thing we have to do is own it.
Obviously, the murder of George Floyd sparked this national conversation, even though those things were happening for a long time. Because of the uniqueness of 2020, it sparked a unique conversation and that created an opportunity for us at Gainsight to talk openly about this topic with everyone as well as with our employees of underrepresented minority status.
So we did a few different things. Of course, I’m sure similar to your company, Vinay, when things happened we had a roundtable with the whole company. We had some outside speakers come in. We’ve hired some consultants to help, and that’s been great. And then we did small roundtables with a small group of people from those underrepresented groups just talking about how they feel. And we learned so much.
Learning from People of Color at Gainsight
Nick: Just as an example, we learned that it’s not always things people are doing. It’s just that they don’t see people like them in management, in the company in general. And so they don’t feel as included. Even though they might feel more included at Gainsight than other companies, it still doesn’t feel as inclusive as the communities that are outside of work. That means we’re not living up to our human first purpose. We just genuinely are not with these folks.
We also need to make sure that when we have these brief moments where society’s waking up, we don’t lose the momentum later on. There’s some level of rightful cynicism that things are not gonna change.
This conversation has started and stopped in America for a long time, for my whole life. There’s something that happens, there’s a lot of news about it, it’s on Twitter, and then it just goes back to regular life. So you have to keep that dialogue going.
In my case we’re setting up a monthly roundtable, so we have that on the calendar. We’re gonna keep talking about it. That’s an important dialogue, I think. And we review every few months, by the way, not monthly, but every few months. And so, having some level of persistence to it.
The third thing is, when we think about hiring…Obviously, a lot of companies will think about the panels, who’s on that hiring panel, as well as the people that we’re bringing in. Both sides of it. And we do a lot of things to try to have a balanced slate. But I think we can do more to make sure that we have some of the folks that are underrepresented in the company in the interview processes. To really have them be able to help guide the process, help make the candidates feel comfortable. They see people that look like they come from the same background.
But the short answer is, I think we’re just in the early days of it. We’re in the listening phase, and trying to define it. We came up with a more concrete way to do things externally. One of the other realities with 2020 is that we’re not hiring a lot this year for reasons that are obvious, given the economy. But what we saw was that it’s kind of a good bridge to the external CS industry as a whole.
A Big Move to Increase Industry-Wide Representation
Nick: Customer success, in some ways, is actually quite diverse. There’s relatively about 50/50 men and women in CS, so that’s great, that’s better than tech. But from a Black and Latinx perspective, there’s a very, very small number of people. It’s hard to know for sure, because there are no good stats on this. But anywhere between maybe 1% and 8% of CSMs on the high end are Black and Latinx versus the population. Which is obviously much, much more than that.
Customer success is a super fast-growing job. According to LinkedIn, in 2019, it was the sixth most promising job in the world. But even in CS, there’s not great representation. We know there’s an opportunity here. And we said, “how do we have an impact not just at Gainsight, but across all of our customers?”
We have a big community of Customer Success folks. So we decided just a couple days after the George Floyd murder to launch a program to help underrepresented minorities get into tech through Customer Success. Because it’s a job that is growing fast. It’s also a job that doesn’t require tons of preexisting experience in tech. You just have to have really good customer skills, good empathy, good communication. People have that from all backgrounds. You don’t have to have worked at Google or Facebook before. You don’t need a Computer Science degree. It’s actually a good level playing field for getting into tech if you do it right.
We partnered with an organization called SV Academy, and their whole mission is training underrepresented people to get into tech. We said, “Let’s work with them to create a program for training people in entry-level CS positions. Then let’s partner with our customers and get them to sign up to help sponsor a scholarship into these programs, and then actually offer them an internship in their companies.”
It’s been incredible to see the response. One of our investors, Insight Venture Partners, agreed to do this for a huge chunk of their companies. They wrote a big check to fund this. And then a lot of individual companies agreed to sign up and be part of this program.
So it’s been phenomenal in the early days. We just announced it a few days ago, but with that announcement, more and more companies reached out and said they want to be part of the program too. Companies are looking for ways to help, and this is a small way I think we can help.
Customer success, like a lot of parts of tech, can be a lucrative job. You can make six figures eventually in this job. So the way we measure the success of this program is that our goal is to create $100 million of increased wages over time for the people in this program. Meaning they were in a situation where maybe they were making an hourly wage, and now they’re going into a world where they can make six figures. You add that up across lots of people, and that can be a lot of increased wages for people.
Vinay: Awesome! And what about the interest with applicants and candidates into the program? I know it’s early days, but what has that response been like so far?
Nick: Yeah, it’s been great. I mean, I think it’s too early to have any numbers. But SV Academy, luckily, that’s their thing. So, they work with historically Black colleges and universities to basically create on-ramps into tech. And they help not just recruit people, but actually train them on some of the soft skills of working in tech. Because there’s a lot of things that we take for granted that might be new to somebody who hasn’t worked in tech before. So, this is the early days, but I think that part is gonna be pretty straightforward. There’s a ton of people out there, it’s just connecting them with the right opportunity.
Vinay: Yeah, I think the notion of getting to the root cause is critical. And I think your observation that it starts with creating an economic future for people is also a really good observation as well. I also think there’s a systemic issue around just high school education, and even early education that has to get tackled as well if this is really going to change. But I love the proactive stance you’re taking in your industry where you’re a leader and you can have impacts as well.
Nick: Totally agree.
Continuing With Self-Education
Nick: One other comment I’ll make, by the way… I think the biggest thing that I’m trying to do, in addition to this program, is just to learn more. Because I feel like part of the problem is that we live in our own little bubbles, you know? I live in the bubble of a privileged tech executive. I grew up with enough money that I didn’t have to worry about lots of things.
So I’ve been reading a lot. I love reading in general, but as an example, I’m sure many people read “White Fragility” or “How to be an Antiracist.” These are popular books about how to think about these problems. That it’s not a binary, that you’re either a racist or you’re a great person. The reality is that we all make room for systemic racism every day, by the things we do or don’t do.
And then I’ve been reading some first-person stories as well. There’s a really good book by Wes Moore called “Five Days” and it’s about the five days after the killing of Freddie Gray by police officers in Baltimore. About what happened and how the whole society of Baltimore had to react to that. They look at all the perspectives, you know, the police, the judges, the activist, the family. And I think for me just getting more first-person stories, learning more, is important.
And that’s what’s been amazing is the number of people opening up. You see on LinkedIn, Black tech executives who talk about being pulled over by police. And you wouldn’t think of them. They’re like a big tech executive and you wouldn’t think of it that way but they experienced that. So, it’s everywhere. We just haven’t really opened our eyes to it.