Maxine Williams: “Big ideas can change the world”

Trinidadian lawyer and actor Maxine Williams on how she became Facebook’s global head of diversity, and why her role at the powerful web company is a platform for spreading the benefits of the digital world — as told to Tracy Assing

Maxine Williams. Photograph courtesy Facebook

I started using Facebook in 2007. I joined as an employee in 2013 — I am the global head of diversity for Facebook. That means that I develop strategies to find, grow, and keep the best and brightest talent from all backgrounds, while leveraging the diversity of perspectives already present at Facebook to build the best products possible for the 1.23 billion people who use Facebook all over the world.

My upbringing in multicultural Trinidad and Tobago certainly set the stage for an appreciation of differences among people. I have also always been eager to experience the breadth of offerings in the world — from pursing a number of different careers to living in and visiting a number of different countries and learning different languages.

[I’ve] lived in Barbados, Jamaica, and Haiti as an adult. I have travelled all over the other islands as well, staying for various periods of time, whether for work or pleasure. I also ran a Caribbean human rights organisation with operations throughout the region. I have a particular soft spot for Haiti, where I went to live as soon as I graduated from university. I have always felt such gratitude to Haitians for waging the war against slavery that ultimately gave us all the key to freedom.

One of the life lessons I’ve learned from growing up in the Caribbean is that numbers don’t tell the whole story. We come from tiny countries whose numbers in total population would be considered villages in some parts of the world. However, I have seen the ingenuity and brilliance produced by people of all backgrounds in our islands, so I know it would be foolhardy to make investments in people based only on their proximity to dominant or majority cultures. The minority perspective is an invaluable one.

What I miss about life in the Caribbean is both the weather and the ways of our people — their ease, frivolity, and complexity, all of which exist in a fascinating synergy. What I share most is the language and the music. My “sing-song” accent is always a source of interest and delight to others. Soca music goes with me wherever I am. I started a group for Facebook employees called “Carnival Crews”. A few of us played mas in San Francisco Carnival this year, and it was glorious.

I first left Trinidad to attend university in the US, at Yale, and then to study law at Oxford University in England. Law was a default discipline for me. When I won the Rhodes Scholarship, I applied to study international studies at Oxford, but was not accepted into the very restricted programme. The head of my Rhodes Committee, Delroy Chuck in Jamaica, saw that as a near miss, and was pleased to tell me that now I was free to do what I should have done all along — study law. I saw the logic in his view, as the study of law was an exciting journey through history and sociology and all sorts of good stuff — all within a framework that honed one’s analytical skills.

After that, I moved back to the Caribbean to do human rights work, and then practiced law in Trinidad for many years. I went back to the US when my career in the media led me in that direction. I have been fortunate to follow my dreams, and the realisation of those dreams has required a certain degree of movement.

I have worked as a broadcast journalist, actress, TV host, commentator. However, the most impactful and lasting benefits have come from my training and work as an improvisational actor. While at Yale, I was a member of a group called “The Purple Crayon”. We worked as a team performing improv comedy across the country. The basic principles in improv are: a) “always say yes to what you are given by the audience or a team member and build on that” — otherwise referred to as the “yes, and” principle — and b) remember that if you fail today, there is always tomorrow.

When you are in front of a few hundred people with no script and only your wits to rely upon, you become very attuned to your potential for creation and for partnership with your team members. The experience I gained from seven years in improv has been invaluable. It has helped me as an attorney, when I have had to stand up in court and make arguments, cross-examine witnesses, or respond to surprise submissions by opposing counsel. It has helped me as an interviewer and TV host, to sense what the audience and the guest most want to discuss, and to steer the conversation in that direction. Most importantly, it has taught me how to listen to the people I serve and to the colleagues with whom I attempt to build castles in the sky.

Having walked in so many different shoes, I think I have both a professional and an innate sense of the importance of integrating differences and the requirement that respect be given to all.

I knew that Facebook, with its focus on people and connecting them throughout the world, would be an incredibly exciting place to work from a diversity perspective. Facebook is so much more than a place to find out what your friends are doing on their vacations, or where they are going for dinner. It is the place where Trinidadian Olympic swimmer George Bovell could build a friendship with a Ugandan swimmer, and through that develop a programme to reduce drowning deaths in Uganda, by teaching people how to swim. It is a place where parents of sick children share ground-breaking medical interventions. And it is the place where someone like me, living in the diaspora, can stay in touch with friends and family far away in an instant.

I’ve learned so many things at Facebook, but one that stands out is that big ideas can change the world, if you are prepared to do the hard work to make them happen. At nineteen, Marc Zuckerberg had already taught himself how to program computers and honed in on that skill to develop his idea of connecting the people around him — and, later, the world. I see him and thousands of employees at Facebook work just as hard every day to improve on that idea and the Facebook product. We are never satisfied with the status quo.

I am working with some of the sharpest minds and most passionate souls I’ve ever come across to solve really hard problems, such as how to get more women to study computer science and stay in the game. It is the greatest shame that the number of women acquiring these technical skills has dropped by half in the past ten years, while the need for technical workers such as software engineers has increased dramatically.

We are open-sourcing the solution to the problem by getting everyone at Facebook involved in working on the issue of generating greater diversity. Innovation, openness, and drive are what will deliver impact.