Don Shin, founder president and CEO of CrossComm.
About this project The 52-week project showcases accomplishments, challenges and opportunities of individuals and businesses run by people of color, women, immigrants, veterans, representatives from the LGBTQ+ community and a few other groups forwarding the mission of diversity, equity and inclusion in the greater Raleigh-Durham metro area. The project also will delve into important trends and issues relating to DEI.
Don Shin can’t help but recall late folk singer Woody Guthrie’s lyric, “This land is your land, this land is my land.”
“In the past few years, I’ve shed many tears realizing that it’s [still] not yet true, at least from the perspective of many of my countrymen and countrywomen,” says Shin, CEO and president of CrossComm, the software development and consulting firm he founded in 1998 while still an undergraduate at Duke University.
Shin, whose parents emigrated from South Korea, was born in Michigan. His heritage and his upbringing as a first-generation Asian American have intrinsically influenced his business, the culture of his company and his commitment to diversity.
“This is my native country and the only country I’ve ever truly known, but I grew up in a household that was influenced by East Asian values and an East Asian outlook on culture. I had to simultaneously flow within a mainstream perspective and an ethnic minority perspective; I had to be culturally bilingual, so to speak,” he says. “It is different today, and I truly believe that we are closer than we have ever been to the possibility [of inclusion] at least within some communities and areas of this country. … In many ways, I resented being different as I was growing up; I wasn’t proud of my ethnic heritage because we were all trying to fit into what was accepted in mainstream. As a young adult, I started to appreciate the unique perspective of growing up in an ethnic household, that I didn’t have to see everything in the world through one lens but could see any given situation from multiple angles. Now, I am extremely thankful for my ethnic heritage.”
As a child, that dual perspective was challenging; as the CEO of an innovation-leaning technology company, the ability to see the world through multiple lenses is an advantage. A naturally eloquent and articulate speaker, Shin pauses frequently as he discusses the sensitive topics of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and smoldering race relations across society.
“I wanted to believe in America as a melting pot; yet, I didn’t see it on the playground, in the interactions with white children who implicitly assumed they had a greater stake [in our country] or belonged more than I did,” Shin recalls. “We still have those fundamental problems today, but at least the conversation is more direct, both for those who are championing diversity and those that dismiss it. I would rather have a more straightforward conversation than subtlety.”
After graduating from Duke, Shin relocated to New York City to start a CrossComm branch office, a move motivated in part by the business climate that existed in Durham in the early 2000s where he says there were fewer businesses looking for cutting-edge web and mobile app development.
For several years he commuted regularly, bringing projects from New York City to the CrossComm team in Durham. In the late 2000s, the commute shifted as he relocated to Austin, Texas, still running CrossComm from afar, but always feeling a personal bond with the Bull City.
“My heart has always been in Durham, so three years ago my wife and I decided to move back; it’s such a special thing to be able to offer my children a diverse environment to grow up in as a person of color,” Shin says. “Austin has pockets of diversity, but they feel relatively siloed off and it’s still a predominantly white culture. Durham feels more authentic in its embrace of diversity, in large part due to its unique history and heritage as [a place for] diverse entrepreneurship.”
As a young entrepreneur attending Leadership Durham, Shin learned about the city’s heritage of Black entrepreneurship. “Durham is changing very quickly, but I want to see the heritage of diverse entrepreneurship preserved,” he says.
That preservation requires confronting both the past and the present frictions in race relations.
“A lot of the challenges that this country has around the topic of race will only begin to be resolved when we address the original sin of slavery,” Shin says. “And my fate, as a non-white but fully American citizen, is invested in seeing reconciliation happen and equality ring true – and not just for Asians, because when claims of white supremacy or a white stake in the future of this nation are trumpeted, it is the fate of all of our children that are impacted. Although I am not Black, I must be a part of this; I must do what I can to have a positive impact on my local community, my city and my state. As a business owner, I must encourage Black leadership in business – starting with my own sphere of influence and seeing how that can be extended incrementally over time.”
Within his company, Shin makes every effort to bring diverse voices to the table, seeking first to hire the right person for the job but always digging deeper when evaluating candidates to learn each individual’s personal background. Since March 2020, CrossComm has nearly doubled its headcount to 25 employees and revenue this year is expected to top $3 million, nearly triple the pre-pandemic figure of $1.3 million.
One of his concerns is that executive decisions in many companies are made without the benefit of open and honest conversations.
“I love that my director of marketing is Black and that I can have conversations on a leadership level about these topics,” Shin says. “Part of why I wanted diverse voices at the table is so that I could have honest, vulnerable conversations.”
Another growing concern is that implicit biases may be inadvertently built into the technology used to guide the decision-making process.
Phillipe Charles, CrossComm’s director of marketing, says there are two considerations for diversity within the tech industry. “There is the diversity of people who work in the industry, and there is the diversity of the people impacted,” he says. “Don and I have talked about social media, that the algorithms are designed to keep people in echo chambers; they are designed to reward people for celebrating people who think just like them.”
Their conversations explore how responsible technology can help make the world a better place.
Diverse perspectives need to be incorporated into the systems that guide decision-making behavior and, in the case of machine learning, the training data needs to reflect diversity, they say.
“Machine learning is all about making predictions, which is, in essence, what prejudice is about,” Shin says. “Prejudice makes assumptions based upon hearsay or anecdotes, or perhaps a limited sample set of data. When you train a machine-learning model to recognize what a crime scene looks like or what dangerous people look like, the perspectives and judgments of the people deciding which data is used gets transferred into the machine-learning prediction engines. That is how machine learning comes to adopt the same prejudices – implicit or subconscious – as those who are curating the training data.”
While he’s excited to talk about CrossComm’s technology, what Charles values most about the company is its inherent respect for diversity. “The best way to fully respect people and their unique selves at work is to respect who they are outside of work. That’s part of CrossComm’s magic – that there is flexibility in how we work.”
Creating the supportive culture has been an intentional process at CrossComm.
“We make sure people have space to not only have meaningful work, but also meaningful lives outside of work,” Shin says. “That is probably a prerequisite for diversity.”
Don Shin, founder president and CEO of CrossComm.