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September 21, 2021

Black Voices: Utah CEO believes diversity leads to success

Editor’s note: This story is part of KSL.com’s “Black Voices” series where we share Black Utahns’ stories about what life is like for them in the Beehive State.

SALT LAKE CITY — Marlon Lindsay remembers it like it was yesterday. He was 14 years old on a field trip in Connecticut and staying in a hotel with his fellow students. While walking down a hallway, an approaching child slowly backed away and ran to their mother, calling Lindsay the N-word.

The child didn’t know any better and was clearly just repeating what they had been taught by parents. But the word still stung.

“We’ve been dealing with intentional offenses all our lives,” Lindsay told KSL.com.

Lindsay, who was born in Jamaica but raised in Connecticut, moved to Utah briefly in 2011 before moving to New York. In 2016, he moved back to the Beehive State and has been here ever since.

Lindsay now works in the tech industry and is the co-founder and CEO of 21stCentEd, powered by TechTrep. It’s a virtual academy focused on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) where children can learn skills crucial to succeeding in these fields when they grow up.

“We fundamentally have to think about changing the way we prepare our students with (STEM) in mind right when they graduate from high school, everyone must be prepared to have the skill to work in the 21st century,” he said.

As a high school student, Lindsay said there was no way he would’ve been interested in the STEM field.

“I would shy away from it,” he said. But if it had been introduced to him through music, with coding added on top of that, he likely would’ve been more excited about it. It is all about finding those access points that cater to a student’s needs and help them feel confident in their abilities to excel in STEM, he added.

In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, the company decided in 2020 to focus on ways to include minority groups in their work. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women and people of color have historically been underrepresented in the workplace in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

In any field, diversity is essential to success, Lindsay explained. Businesses have diverse consumers; and in order to better understand their needs, companies should make sure there are diverse voices at the table at every level.

“Our products must appeal to that diversity and the folks creating those products; you can’t appeal to diversity if you’re not diverse yourself. So, diversity is crucial,” he said.

While Lindsay said he felt the 2020 protests were a great way to shed light on the inequities and discrimination some face in the country today, he also thinks it’s important to make sure once everyone goes home the important work continues.

“When the protest ends, we have to ask ourselves: What are we doing beyond just highlighting the issue? Are we investing in systemic change, meaning, are we having continued dialogue, are we creating opportunities for our underserved population so that they … have a fair shot at becoming successful like the dominant group,” he said.

That’s exactly why Lindsay finds his work in helping inspire students with STEM so important — he is building the bridge from social awareness to action.

“I’m creating the structure where we can transform communities so that they can become economically viable, where all people are participating in a vibrant economy, and capitalizing on the opportunities that we’re seeing,” he said. “How Black lives matter translates into progress is to help our school systems and our communities create a structure through which we’re looking at every single student and providing them the support that they need to be successful.”

Helping build these bridges is no easy feat, especially considering minority groups might face discrimination and other obstacles. Since living in Utah, Lindsay said he has experienced more unintentional racial bias than derogatory slurs, like the incident in Connecticut.

“Utah has been gracious,” he said. “But I sense the discomfort in folks that I don’t have anything overt to talk about.”

Over the years, Lindsay said he has learned to take a step back from a situation and remove his personal offense to focus on the educational opportunity. Carrying the burden of education can be tiresome, but he said opening a dialogue with people is really the only way to elevate.

“This is your moment to educate and if the person is willing to listen, you just take the time,” he said. “I’m always open to have a conversation around it and I step up and I think, do what’s necessary to shrink the perceived divide or differences. … Have that conversation about why that could be offensive.”

In Lindsay’s experience, nine times out of 10 the person was unaware their remarks were offensive and their intention was not malicious.

“They just don’t know,” he said. Lindsay hopes the other person gets a glimpse into the life of a Black American and walks away with more awareness of how they can erase unintended racial biases from their everyday life.

“I think human interaction is really powerful,” Lindsay said. “Because experience creates context.”

If a Utahn ever finds themselves in the middle of what might be a difficult conversation, Lindsay has some advice:

“Be open to feedback and dialogue. Don’t be afraid. Don’t take it personally,” he said. “It takes courage to say something. And it takes just as much courage to hear something. And so engage in a dialogue and come out a little bit better educated than you, you step into it with and so essentially just be open.”

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