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Kanye West criticized StockX’s minority-filled centers during a visit to the company in 2018. Now, the resale startup is rethinking its approach to diversity and inclusion.

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  • With over 40% of its workforce and one-quarter of the company’s leaders at the director level and above identifying as BIPOC, StockX, a marketplace for sneakers and streetwear, stands out as more diverse than the companies adjacent to it.
  • But in a visit to the company’s Detroit offices in 2018, Kanye West took issue with the minority-filled authentication centers compared to the white executives, according to former employees.
  • The incident highlighted a lack of advancement opportunities for people of color at the company.
  • StockX’s recently-hired VP of global diversity and inclusion Marlin Williams said the company still has work to do and outlined various steps the company is taking to increase diversity, including a plan to invest in career development and advancement for employees in the centers.
  • Since her arrival at StockX, Williams has led a variety of company-wide discussions regarding the critical intersection of race, tech, diversity, and the sneaker industry.
  • “StockX has deep connections to Black culture and it is our obligation to not only speak out against injustice in the world, but to work for change from within,” Williams told Business Insider in a statement.

It’s likely that every StockX employee knows what happened on October 2, 2018, the day Kanye West visited the company’s Detroit, Michigan offices.

It’s not just that Kanye is famous. It’s common for celebrities and sneakerheads to stop by the fast-growing that recently surpassed 10 million lifetime sales since its founding in 2015. As a resale marketplace and product authenticator, StockX is considered a pillar of the sneaker and streetwear culture that has long defined Detroit.

Still, a visit from West, the progenitor of the Yeezy brand, was a big deal for StockX, where pairs of the rapper’s sneakers regularly fetch thousands of dollars. At first, the tour of the company’s US headquarters, led by StockX cofounders Josh Luber and Dan Gilbert, seemed to be going smoothly. Then the group stopped at the Detroit data center to see where sneakers and streetwear are verified and reboxed by authenticators.

While an important part of a resale business, work at authentication centers is generally done in a warehouse separate from the corporate offices. StockX’s authentication centers are staffed mostly by people of color, whereas many executives, including Luber and Gilbert, are white. The contrast incensed West, according to a former employee who was present during the visit.

“[West] told them that what he saw was the worst part of his entire trip to Detroit at that point,” said a former StockX employee who was present during West’s visit to the center. This employee, who worked in the center until April, relayed how upon looking down at the center through a window, the rapper turned fashion designer changed his entire demeanor.

West became upset after seeing the warehouse-like center filled with people of color, likening them to “robots,” and describing the center as a “sweatshop,” the former employee said. West also grabbed Luber’s hat off his head to make a point about standing up to bullies and empowering minorities, according to the former employee.

StockX would not comment on any details of West’s visit, though a post from the company’s website confirms that West was at the company that day. Four other former employees who had heard about or viewed a video of the incident corroborated similar details.

To some former StockX employees, West’s tirade, while over-the-top, pointed to what could be seen as an optics problem for the company in terms of diversity.

Two years later, StockX is re-examining its approach to diversity and inclusion. Business Insider spoke to StockX’s recently-hired VP of global diversity and inclusion Marlin Williams, who explained how the Detroit-based startup is approaching diversity as a company rooted in the sneaker community and Black culture. Business Insider also spoke to one current and five former employees who were let go in various rounds of layoffs since December, all of whom requested anonymity in order to speak more frankly about the state of diversity at StockX.

StockX: Between startup and sneakers

After StockX’s second major round of layoffs in February, the company hired its first-ever VP of global diversity and inclusion, Marlin Williams. With a slew of previous Detroit-based tech-adjacent and diversity roles under her belt, Williams was well-versed in the startup culture in the Motor City.

And while StockX’s identity as a tech-startup is important in understanding its relationship with diversity and inclusion, its role within the sneaker industry is perhaps even more crucial. As a company based in sneakers and streetwear, StockX is intrinsically tied to the industry’s roots in Black culture.

“Especially in streetwear and sneakers, where this is derived from the neighborhoods that these people grew up in, it’s deeper than just reading about it,” said a former StockX warehouse employee, explaining why the company’s unique role in the sneaker industry makes Black representation more critical than in a standard tech startup. “It’s deeper than buying a pair of sneakers. It’s about, how did these sneakers impact your childhood and growing up, and what did they mean to you and your neighborhood and to Black culture?”

The unique position of StockX is not lost on Williams.

“StockX has deep connections to Black culture and it is our obligation to not only speak out against injustice in the world, but to work for change from within,” she told Business Insider in a statement.

Since her arrival at StockX, Williams has led a variety of company-wide discussions regarding the critical intersection of race, tech, diversity, and the sneaker industry. A current employee in StockX’s Detroit office said that since Williams’ hiring, StockX has hosted open discussions and conversations to allow BIPOC employees to publicly share their experiences in their personal lives and at the company.

To Williams, StockX is currently faring well in terms of diversity metrics, though there is still more to be done. More than 40% of StockX’s total workforce are people who identify as BIPOC, Williams shared. At the director level and above are, this number is about 25%. According to StockX, these figures were derived as results from a survey employees took at their hiring, 85% of which opted to respond to the ethnicity question. StockX would not give details on the racial breakdown beyond BIPOC, which refers to Black and Indigenous People of Color.

“While we view diversity as our greatest strength, we also recognize that we have work to do,” WIlliams said in her statement. She added that she and her team are currently in the process of developing a six-point diversity and inclusion plan to “hold the company accountable.”

Pathways toward advancement

In his visit, West highlighted a need for StockX to assist in the advancement of its data center employees of color to roles within the office. Now, StockX says it is taking steps to make this happen. According to Marlin, a pillar of her six-step plan involves investing in career development for employees in the centers who wish to advance within the company.

After recruitment and retention, career advancement is one of the biggest problems for Black employees in the footwear and athletic-wear industry at companies across the board, said Darla Pires DeGrace, a diversity, equity, and inclusion strategist and former recruiter for Reebok. Pires De Grace explained how once a company hires diverse talent, they’re often ill-equipped to help employees move up at the company.

“They’re stuck in their entry-level roles or their mid-level roles with no room for advancement,” said Pires DeGrace, who is also a member of The African American Footwear Forum (AAFF), which works to address and solve diversity issues in the footwear industry,

In addition to suggesting that recruitment focus on diversifying mid-level and senior roles as opposed to entry-level roles, Pires DeGrace emphasized the importance of clearly delineating pathways to advancement, a key component of William’s six-step plan.

A former employee in the center who was laid off in April said that when he was at StockX, it was rare for someone getting promoted from a job in the authentication center to a corporate role. While many employees in the authentication centers might possess a deep knowledge of streetwear and sneakers, this employee said that many lacked college degrees or any formal experience in the field, both of which are generally considered prerequisites for obtaining corporate-level marketing, engineering, or finance jobs at any company.

As such, StockX recently launched a task force of diverse employees to help workers in the center advance into engineering roles.

Such a program would likely help further increase StockX’s overall diversity numbers at the corporate level.

Sneaker companies and startups are known for low levels of diversity 

Living at the nexus between the sneaker and startup world, StockX stands out for being generally more diverse than the companies adjacent to it.

In general, strong Black representation is difficult to find in the footwear industry. In the last few weeks, Adidas, Nike, and Under Armour have all acknowledged their part in maintaining a workplace lacking in diversity and inclusion. 21.6% of Nike’s total US workforce was Black or African American in 2019, according to the company’s 2019 diversity report. The New York Times previously reported that fewer than 4.5% of the 1,700 Adidas employees at the Portland, Oregon, campus identified as Black, according to internal employment figures from last summer.

Adidas announced in June a commitment to filling 30% of all new positions in North America and Nike CEO John Donahoe said the sportswear giant must get its “own house in order,” in a June 5 memo to employees, according to a CNBC report.

Startups have also historically struggled with diversity. Facebook and Google had less than 4% of Black representation in their US workforces in 2020, according to annual diversity reports. But when it comes to StockX, the company appears more generally diverse than a standard tech startup.

A former employee who worked in StockX’s Detroit offices until April pointed this out. And while he acknowledged that there appears to be more diversity in StockX’s authentication centers than in the offices, he affirmed that StockX was still “the most culturally and ethnically diverse” company he had ever worked at, even without many Black or minority executives.

To this employee, a startup veteran who is white, a lack of strong diversity is not a StockX-exclusive problem.

“Sneakers and streetwear is rooted in Black culture,” this former employee said. “Tech startups are not.”

SEE ALSO: Sportswear companies are facing a reckoning as Black employees demand representation in the industry indebted to Black culture

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