INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS CAPOSSELA
by Valentina Dolciotti
Demonstrating the fact that inclusion policies and practices do not only have to do with those in a Company, who deal with D&I, today I meet Chris Capossela, EVP & Chief Marketing Officer at Microsoft.
When and how was your passion for Diversity and Inclusion themes born?
I think certainly Microsoft has helped a lot because when the Company makes it a priority, then it becomes interesting to you. Our mission is to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more, so: those twelve words are important but ‘every person’ implies everybody, and when we created this new mission 9 years ago, our CEO Satya Nadella was very clear that ‘every person’ meant that we were going to have to change our products and our culture.
I think that I give Microsoft a lot of credit for making it fundamental to the way we build our products, we do marketing, we try to recruit people. The culture we try to create, and that put it very front and centre, it put it at the top of everybody’s list nine years ago.
Clear. And for you personally?
For me personally it wasn’t front and centre like that. Even if in college I volunteered at a suicide hotline for 3 years at Boston…
Wow. It is a very personal and singular example.
To me – as a 19-year-old, it exposed me to people I had never engaged with. It’s all based on the phone, so you don’t see them, but you’re hearing their story and you’re understanding the pain that they’re having.
It was opening up your understanding of how different someone’s daily life could be from your daily life… a sort of primal D&I. And now, how do these D&I themes find fulfilment in your job role?
We’re a much more purpose-driven Company than we were 10 years ago. And if you really take this notion of empowering every person and you try to live that, you see that connection and I love looking at what are the things that I can do inside my Organisation, but also how can I change the broader Company, literally the whole Company to embrace those ideas. We’ve launched many products in these 31 years and we’ve made a lot of revenue, but more of the thrill is the people you work with. Seeing them grow, helping them develop and making the Company a more interesting place. We build more remarkable products and do more fascinating storytelling and, as a marketer, it’s very satisfying to find stories that showcase our customers and do things that challenge stereotypes.
For example, we’ve done a lot of storytelling around Black athletes in the US who play professional football but they also have a cupcake shop. They literally bake cupcakes!
D: It destroys the stereotype.
Yes, and they happen to use “Surface” (the laptop, ndr) to run their business and so we put them in the AD. So telling those stories is very fulfilling; to use our platform to sell our products but also to challenge stereotypes about what people are supposed to do. The first female coach in the NFL, she uses Surface to coach her team and they made it all the way to the Superbowl, so we did an AD that tells her story. She was also the first openly gay coach in the NFL. You can imagine when that AD runs, what happened on Twitter and Instagram! Cher (the famous singer, ndr) tweeted “Microsoft has won the Superbowl”
You also get some hatred?
Yes, you get a lot of people not liking, but that’s ok if it’s what you stand for, if it’s consistent with your values. We see people saying “I never thought of Microsoft in this way”. And it opens up recruiting from audiences that more connect with our Company. We have taken an approach where we let employees tell their story. What it’s like to be a Black trans woman at Microsoft?, for example. And so just opening up our platform for employees to tell their stories throughout the year at different cultural moments.
So they found belonging in this possibility, and representation too.
Yes the do. Another example: about accessibility, we just announced a bunch of new features for Windows 11 and one of them is live captioning. Any audio that’s coming out of the PC you can essentially turn on live captions (live music, a YouTube video, a TED talk… no matter): if there’s sound coming out of the PC we will live caption it for you… so it’s not like “here’s our accessibility day”, once, but it’s the new version of Windows.
In D&I are institutional or symbolic statements or concrete actions that matter more? This question isn’t as stupid as it seems because I really believe in symbolic representation and in statements.
I do think it’s a smart question. And I do think the symbolic actions or gestures can only be done if you have real actions that you’re going to commit to over multiple years. So, for example: Black Lives Matter happened in the US, many Companies rushed to change their Twitter symbol to BLM and it is a symbolically interesting things to do. And yet, if you don’t have anything else that you’re doing to support the Black community, it feels empty. We’ve learned that we actually have to be thoughtful about what’s the multi-year commitment we’re going to make to that community and then we earn the permission to change the profile picture. But we don’t think we can do it until we have earned the right to do it. And so, making a commitment to spend 500 million dollars more with Black-owned businesses in the next 3 years – that’s a commitment.
Have you ever noticed differences between the US approach to D&I and Europe - or Italy?
I think the community focus is different region to region. So, in the US there’s a very strong focus on the African American/Black community, the Hispanic/Latino community, and the Native American Pacific Islander community. There’s of course gender, LGBTQI+ and people with disabilities, but the 3 that I think are a little bit unique in addition, are those. And the US has to do a better job acknowledging and overcoming. In Europe, race and ethnicity are different constructs than they are in the US. In the US we get a lot of our race data from government-run census systems, and this is done differently in different regions around the world. That being said, as a global company we’re listening and learning about all the ways race and ethnicity exist in communities around the world and we’re committed to continuing to lean in with a growth mindset so we can better understand what supporting and empowering those communities really looks like.
Do you think that only, for instance, Black people can talk about Black issue, or only women can talk about women issue…?
Well, if you’re someone in my position (a white man, cisgender, able-bodied…) you have a responsibility: to create spaces for people to have important discussions about D&I and I would say I have to do more listening than talking when it comes to learning about issues that affect the Black community, but I need to talk to white people about those issues too and I need to share the things that I’ve learned with the community that I’m a member of.
But I’m not going to pretend that I know what that’s like, to have been a Black person in America.
I think it’s very inspiring when people realise that literally everybody can be an ally, so I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that question, but I do think that I need to create the safe spaces.
It’s also important to ask “them”. If you don’t know, ask; to a Black man, to a gay women… ask them what they would like to be called, e.g. For me this is a simple rule to keep in mind!
We have no time left, but… tell me about the “Italian restaurant”.
Yes! Both my parents are Italian. So my dad and my mom opened a small Italian restaurant in Boston, Massachusetts, when they were 19. And we grew up living in the apartment on the top floor of the building, my grandparents right below us, and the restaurant was on the ground floor. My first job was drying the silverware when it came out of the dishwasher in a big rack of silverware and putting the knives in the knife part and the spoons in the spoon part. That was literally my first job! My parents moved all of us all around the restaurant: dishwasher, busboy, waiter, bookkeeper, inventory, line cook, prep cook, ordering the food, they made us do all the different jobs and it’s the only job I had besides… Microsoft. Another story, another “family”.