Slack took home two of four awards for which it was nominated at the 2016 Crunchies awards Monday, a surprise to no one who has followed the company as it has grown to nearly 2 million users since it launched two years ago.

But those attending TechCrunch's annual gala for Silicon Valley's top tech companies took notice of how the workplace messaging startup accepted its Fastest Rising Startup award. Rather than send CEO Stewart Butterfield or an individual representative, Slack sent four female software engineers, all of them black, to collect the award.

In the context of an industry that struggles to diversify gender and ethnic makeup of staff, the image of Slack employees Megan Anctil, Erica Baker, Kiné Camara, Duretti Hirpa on stage in Butterfield's place made a statement.

Camara gave a concise speech about the importance of diversity at Slack as she accepted the award. "There are many things that are major keys to the success of Slack, not least of which are diversity and inclusion," she said as phone cameras rose in the press section. She continued that nine percent of Slack's engineers are women of color and the company is "the fastest growing enterprise software start up of all time."

The plan for acceptance of the award was viewed as a "both cool and funny" idea for how to deal with Butterfield's absence from the event, according to Slack spokeswoman Julia Blystone. The CEO was in Vancouver.

Ahead of the Crunchies, Butterfield and Baker discussed how to handle acceptance of the award. Baker had plans to attend because she was nominated for TechCrunch's first annual Include Diversity award for her advocacy of diversity in tech, and she was bringing her three colleagues as guests. Baker is known in particular for exposing unequal pay practices at her former employer Google with her release of staff salary data.

Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant won the award. In addition to nominations for Include Diversity and Fastest Rising Startup, Butterfield was nominated for and won Founder of the Year and the company was named runner up for Best Overall Startup. 

Slack's acceptance of the Fastest Rising Startup award comprised one of many references to hopes of increasing diversity in tech, at an awards show that in 2015 was remembered for racist and sexist remarks by host T.J. Miller of sitcom Silicon Valley. The whiteness and maleness of tech was lampooned throughout Brooklyn 99 actress Chelsea Peretti's comedic set as host, and TechCrunch senior writer Jordan Crook told Inc. prior to the event that diversity and inclusion would be running themes.

The move by Slack followed the company's second release of diversity data last week. The release shows a decline in the proportion of black employees in Slack's staff globally from 4 to 3.4 percent, and an increase in the proportion of black developers from 7 to 7.8 percent. Slack is 67 percent white and 57 percent male.

Given the data, the four women on stage seemed to portray an aspirational image for a company whose staff looks more or less as white and male as most other tech companies in Silicon Valley.

Blystone made two points about the data. First, the company has a larger proportion of black engineers than major tech corporations including Google, Facebook and Twitter, both globally and in the U.S.

Second, with Slack being a relatively small company at around 370 employees, data on diversity at the company is bound to be volatile as the company grows. Adding a few employees can move the dial significantly in one direction or another. She said opening of an office in Melbourne and accelerated hiring in Dublin and Vancouver have impacted global staff statistics.

Ultimately, though, it just seemed appropriate that employees who contributed to Slack's growth accept the award for the fruits of their labor, she said.

"With respect to diversity, we can focus on numbers, which are important, but equally important is changing the archetype of what people believe an engineer looks like," she said. "The women on that stage are what engineers at Slack look like. Representation matters."

Published on: Feb 10, 2016