Diversifying Silicon Valley

A conversation with Facebook’s director of corporate media relations, Anthony Harrison (COM’81)

October 15, 2018
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They are determined to use their experience, influence, and positions to help make their business, organization, and world a more inclusive place. They are breaking barriers—and then reaching back to help those behind them overcome the same hurdles. They are mentoring students or younger colleagues, hiring diverse candidates, offering opportunities, and ensuring that employees succeed and are promoted so that their workplace and their communities reflect the richness and talents of the country’s increasingly diverse population.

They are BU alumni, faculty, and staff—of every race, ethnicity, age, and gender—and they are “Opening Doors” for the next generation.

Anthony Harrison describes himself as “a living, breathing PR Swiss Army knife.” In a career spanning three and a half decades, he’s held senior communications and public relations positions with some of the world’s most prominent companies, including LexisNexis, Starbucks, and Microsoft, as well as his own communications consultancy firm.

Today, Harrison (COM’81) leads corporate media relations at Facebook, where he heads a team of public relations professionals who support human resources, culture, diversity and inclusion, and community relations for the company, which has more than 25,000 full-time employees.

As an African American gay man, Harrison stands out in Silicon Valley’s high-tech world, which has long lagged other industries in hiring diverse staff. He is trying to change that—not just at Facebook, but throughout the industry.

Bostonia spoke with Harrison about coming out as a gay man while a student at BU, the subtle forms of racism he’s encountered in his career, the work he’s doing at Facebook to promote diversity and inclusion, and why a diverse workplace is good for corporate America. Below are excerpts of our interview.

  1. Bostonia: You came out during your sophomore year. What was that experience like?

    Harrison: My experience was amazing. I found my tribe, a great group of African American students from all over the country, who lived in my dorm, Danielsen Hall, and we became this close-knit group. Living in Danielsen, which was a smaller dorm, sort of away from the heart of campus, the whole dorm was very tightly knit. So I felt like I had a community amongst my dorm mates as well as the group of friends that I had.

  2. How did you wind up in public relations?

    I came to BU as an undeclared liberal arts major. I did that for three semesters and I was like, I’m halfway through. This is gonna fly by, I’ve got to figure something out. I sat down and asked, “What am I good at? What do I like?” I’d always been told by teachers that I was a good writer, and I enjoyed writing. I ended up at COM. I started out as a journalism major and didn’t like that. Then I went into advertising/copywriting and did an internship and didn’t like that. And then I took PR101, taught by Professor Gerry Powers, who was iconic at the school, and I fell in love with PR. He ended up becoming a mentor and friend. At the time, COM had a good alumni network and I got an internship at Alcoa in Pittsburgh through an alum. And when I graduated, my first significant job was with NYNEX, New England Telephone, which ultimately became Verizon. I always joke that I think I’m the only person I know who’s doing what they studied in college.

  3. Who opened doors for you as you were starting out?

    I was very fortunate to have people who were a little more senior than I was in my first couple of jobs who really took me under their wing and guided me and helped me mature as a professional. And the only thing they ever said to me was: “When you’re in a position to do so, do the same thing for other people.” Pay it forward. And I took that to heart. I always make time to talk to students and to help them and anybody who’s trying to make a move or anything related to their career.

“I felt—and still feel—I have to be better than everybody else. I have to be 150 percent where everyone else could get by with 100 percent.”

  1. As an African American and gay man, were there subtle forms of intolerance or racism that you encountered as you were advancing through your career?

    Absolutely, absolutely. Much more initially as a black man, because I couldn’t hide that, obviously. Boston in the early ’80s was not the most tolerant place. I was fortunate in that I started out in technology and I think that technology was a little less uptight, with fewer issues. To be honest, I was kind of naive. I would just put my head down and work harder in terms of trying to get ahead. You will hear this from many people of color. I felt—and still feel—I have to be better than everybody else. I have to be 150 percent where everyone else could get by with 100 percent. And because I was young and naive, there were probably a lot of subtle things I didn’t pick up on.

    There were things at the time that I would laugh off, like comments from people saying, “Oh, you’re not like other black people,” or “You don’t talk like a black person.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with someone on a project and most of the interaction has been over the phone and then the time would come to meet in person and there was always a split second when we’d meet and you could see the surprise in their eyes that I was black, but then they would quickly sort of mask it. To be honest with you, it still happens. People still say things not meaning them in a bad way, but they show their unconscious bias.

    I was totally in the closet for probably 10 years at the beginning of my career. It was a very different time. I really came out when I decided to take a job with an AIDS organization. Several people told me it would be the end of my career because I would never get hired again in corporate America if I went to work for this gay AIDS organization. I clearly have proven that to be wrong. After that point, I never went back in. And for me, I never made a big deal out of it, but I never kept it hidden, either. It’s not too long into a conversation or an interview when it comes up. I have always felt it was a barometer of the people I want to work with: if someone has an issue with it, I don’t want to work with them. So it served me well, and it’s easier to do that when you’re further along in your career and more confident in yourself.

    In my role right now, I try to be very open and out so that younger people who are on the team who are LGBTQ feel comfortable being themselves because I’m a director who’s being himself. Creating that inclusive atmosphere is super-important.

  2. Was there a point in your career where you felt a door wasn’t open to you either because of your race or your sexual orientation?

    There probably was, but I also probably didn’t want to walk through that door. I have no desire to be part of a party that doesn’t want me there. I have chosen the places I have worked thoughtfully in the sense of really feeling like I can contribute, my work can be appreciated, acknowledged. Any door that was closed to me, I would just turn and find a door that was open and made sure that everyone else knew about that closed door.

“The more diverse you can make your organization, the better it is on any level, by any metric.”

  1. Talk about the work you’re doing at Facebook to make the company more inclusive.

    The areas that my team and I support are around diversity and inclusion, so talking about not only the things we do to attract diverse employees to the company, but how we retain and grow them at the company. We’re doing work in various communities to expose children in underrepresented communities to STEM and the sciences and math and show them a path they may not be aware of. We also support the company’s efforts around community engagement, particularly around the cities where we have our largest offices. Connecting to the local community, being responsive to the needs of the local community. And the other piece that really dovetails with our diversity work is around HR and culture. What makes the culture at Facebook so unique, what makes it such a great place to work.

  2. How do you feel that your own presence at Facebook is helping the company to be more inclusive?

    I think being a senior-level person of color, being a senior-level person of a certain age, being an openly gay person, I think it’s the ability to role model for other employees. It’s the ability to have some influence over business decisions and direction, which I think is super-important, just being in the room when discussions are happening and being part of the discussion, I think, is amazing. It’s an honor. I feel really privileged to be able to do this work, for this company at this point in time.

  3. What progress have you seen regarding diversity since you entered the workforce?

    The biggest thing is that it’s being discussed more openly. That’s a huge step forward. And the discussions about the underlying causes and problems, discussions about the complexity of the issue and all the factors that contribute to it and all the things any organization needs to do in order to fix the issue and make an environment more attractive, more welcoming. I feel any time I was involved in discussions about diversity earlier in my career, it was more about just getting diverse people in the door, but there really wasn’t much thought about how do we make people feel more welcome, how do we build an environment where they can thrive and succeed, how do we retain them. Today, that is a big part of the discussion. It’s not just: “How do you recruit and hire them?” It’s: “How do you retain and grow them?”

  4. How do policies that promote diversity and inclusion make an organization better?

    Diverse points of view, diverse experiences, for us at Facebook particularly, are so important because we’re serving two billion people all over the world and as much as we can, we want to represent diversity within this company. Different points of view can come together and help make better decisions, build better products. There is study after study that shows that is critical to success. And the more diverse you can make your organization, the better it is on any level, by any metric.

  5. Can you talk about the current political climate and the impact that’s having on efforts to promote diversity and inclusion?

    This is my absolute personal opinion: I feel like our current president has given a lot of people license to be mean-spirited and hateful, and that is not conducive to being open to diverse points of view, diverse experiences, and diverse backgrounds. When you demonize people for any reason, that’s not a good thing and the fact that the leader of our country regularly does that, it’s just bad. What I attempt to do in my own world to try and counteract that is to have conversations with people who aren’t like me, to understand their point of view and try to help them understand my point of view. We may not come to a point of agreeing, but we can get to a point where we can understand our differences and where they come from and hopefully understand more about what we have in common, and that there’s more we have in common than what makes us different.

Do you know BU alumni, faculty, and staff who are opening doors or breaking barriers themselves? Email Cindy Buccini at cbuccini@bu.edu and recommend them for our series “Opening Doors.”

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Diversifying Silicon Valley

  • John O’Rourke

    Editor, BU Today

    John O'Rourke

    John O’Rourke began his career as a reporter at The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. He has worked as a producer at World Monitor, a coproduction of the Christian Science Monitor and the Discovery Channel, and NBC News, where he was a producer for several shows, including Now with Tom Brokaw and Katie CouricNBC Nightly News, and The Today Show. John has won many awards, including four Emmys, a George Foster Peabody Award, and five Edward R. Murrow Awards. Profile

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