In March 2023 at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, Indeed CEO Chris Hyams joined Fortune Senior Editor Ellen McGirt to discuss what today’s disruption can teach us about the future of work and why equity is the new frontier. Here are some highlights from their conversation.
Q: What is it going to take for [providers] to begin to think about the unintended consequences of not only their technology but people who aren't even part of the equation?
A: I think there's two sides to it. There's the “What is the obligation?” and then “What is the opportunity?”
We have an obligation as an industry to educate people who are capable of making the type of decisions that will impact [tech]. So, talking about bias in AI — if you don't have people who are designing these [AI] systems and thinking about them from the start, then you take the problems that exist in society and you encode them and then magnify them, and then they're really hard to get at and figure out later. So that's the obligation side. I don't have a solution other than it has to start when we're training people.
Then the opportunity. There's a ton of opportunity in helping to serve underserved audiences of any kind. The business school speak around this is, there's blue ocean and red ocean strategies. So the red ocean is, you go into an existing market and it's well understood, and it's red because everyone's fighting each other and there's blood in the water. The blue ocean is a market that no one is looking at.
One example I love that's just in terms of underserved markets is Rihanna. She recognized as a Black woman that the 200-year-old beauty industry made a set of products that were designed for a very narrow [range] of skin tones. And so she came out with the first product from (her company) Fenty Beauty, which was 40 Shades of Foundation. And they did $100 million in revenue in the first five weeks and $570 million in the first 15 months of business. And now every major cosmetics company has multiple different shades and does the same thing.
Where are people looking at the opportunities for communities and customers that are underserved and ignored? Rihanna…has this lived experience. She was not a marketer sitting in a room looking at focus groups.
Q: Tell us a little bit about Indeed and just how dialled in you are to how the world actually works, because I think that's an important part of this.
A: We started out as a search engine. We were sending clicks to all these other sites, which was great because it was helping job seekers. But then when we really looked at it, if the mission is to help people get jobs, it's not to help people click on jobs. There's a lot that happens between clicking on a job and actually getting hired.
So what we're focused on now is a two-sided marketplace where we have millions of employers who live on Indeed, and they're managing the connections and the interactions with the candidates we're bringing. The goal is to bring human connection to something that feels impersonal. The big thing that happened with COVID-19 was after years and years of trying to get people to actually use video interviews on Indeed, the request for video interviews on the platform from employers went up by 1600% pretty much overnight. And so we built a new video interview platform, and now because of that, we can very quickly and easily get someone from…telling (Indeed) what they're looking for to talking to a (recruiter or hiring manager), on average, within a few days as opposed to several weeks.
Q: How have you learned to build an organization that thinks together?
I've spent a lot of time at Indeed just using the phrase “I don't know.” So, I say out loud that one of our core values is around innovation, but the sort of subtitle to it is that the greatest enemy to innovation is certainty. And that I have caused far more trouble in my personal and business life by being sure that I knew the answer to something and being wrong about it than being curious.
I think it's really important for everyone and for the whole leadership team to say “I don't know” pretty frequently. And also to say “I was wrong” pretty frequently. People say it's a lot easier to say “I'm sorry” than “I was wrong,” but I try to say “I was wrong” as often as possible.
Q: If we’re moving toward a larger distance between jobs available versus people needing jobs, considering AI evolution and other technology, how do we think about the future? And what is our role in thinking through that future?
This is a super tricky topic because AI is certainly a different level of power than other technologies that have come before it. I tend to believe it is like any other technological advance. I think it's going to be more disruptive because it's just happening so quickly. My closest friend is an English professor, and we spent the last 25 years talking about the arms race between kids cheating and English professors trying to catch them cheating. And he’s now the department chair for English at Utah State. And every single department…meeting is about ChatGPT right now. They're not talking about hiring; they're not talking about anything else.
I think we're headed for big periods of massive disruption. We have to plan ahead for it. But I don't think that we're going to be at structural unemployment, which means that basically there's such a massive change that a whole host of people will just be out of work and be out of work forever. But I think the cycles get faster and faster and the disruption itself gets bigger and bigger. So we're going to be dealing with societal upheaval as millions of people find themselves out of work for a short period of time. At Indeed, we take this very seriously and we want to figure out how do we as quickly as possible get people placed, and hopefully other people are thinking about that too.
Q: How do we start thinking more intentionally about how to manage the risks associated with living in our communities, the ones that we can't see?
In the physical world, we talk about making buildings accessible. In the software world, how do you make your products accessible to people who have sight or hearing impairment?
My friend Susan Smith is a disability rights activist. And she shared this cartoon that I had never seen before, but it's sort of now become the framework that we think about, which is a bunch of kids in front of a school. And everything is covered in snow and there's a staircase, and then there's a ramp off to the side. And there's a guy shoveling the staircase and there's a kid who's sitting in a wheelchair who says, “Can you please shovel the ramp so I can get up into the school?”
And the guy shoveling says, “Well, I'm gonna shovel the staircase first, and then when I'm done with that, I'll come and shovel the ramp.” And the kid says, “If you shovel the ramp, we can all get up through the ramp.” So the phrase that we use is “shovel the ramp.” And that comes from Susan and from these other people.
If you think about designing software that is more accessible, it actually just means that it's easier to use, it's easier to see things, it's easier to navigate. That's definitely better for everyone, designing products and buildings that are more accessible.
Q: We can't have system redesign if the designers aren't prepared to see the system as it actually is. So what have you learned about how to open your eyes to make yourself a work in progress?
About five and a half years ago, I looked at the stack of books on my bedside table and realized at the time that I was reading only [authors that were] men. And then I realized, oh, I'm only reading white authors. Since then, I decided for a short period of time — it's now five and a half years in — that I was just going to read books written by people of color. And it's been as intense a study as any other thing that I've ever been transformed by. And part of it is because it is so hard as a straight, white, cis, able-bodied, otherwise privileged and powerful kind of person by birth to do anything other than sort of touristically understanding. So, you can watch a movie, you can have a conversation that really gets you thinking and then you go back to your life right afterwards.
But I've spent a period of time with a new lens, changing the way that I look at things and then changing who I spend time listening to. I started a practice at Indeed last year where I’d meet a random group of people for lunch once a week at whatever office that I was in, and then I started doing that over Zoom, and now twice a month I meet with a small group of Black women at Indeed, just three to five people at a time.
I've now met approximately 120 people and we're 28, 29 sessions in, and anecdotes sort of turn into actual data when you have conversations over and over again. I'm seeing patterns over and over again that even with all the work that we're doing, it's very clear the types of experiences that someone who is marginalized has walking into the same space that I walk into. I have no reference point for it, unless I really dig in. I don't know how to do that in a casual way. So for me it has been a new lens. And again, that sort of “shovel the ramp” philosophy has become more embedded from that experience.
Interested in listening to the full talk? Access the recording here.