In Episode 103 (recorded live), Melinda Briana Epler, Founder & CEO of Change Catalyst, joins Paula Quintana, Senior Analyst, for High Alpha Innovation’s Satellite Series event on “How to Be an Ally.” In this fireside chat, Melinda shares how we can start our journey as allies to drive a more inclusive and equitable culture in a startup ecosystem. She introduces small steps anyone can take to intervene and counter the impact of microaggressions across teams. She also discusses how startups can set tangible goals and develop strategies to achieve measurable progress for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Learn more about Melinda’s work:
- See Melinda’s work at Change Catalyst
- Read Melinda’s book, How to Be an Ally (McGraw-Hill)
- Download “The State of Allyship Report: The Key to Workplace Inclusion”
Learn more about Paula’s work:
This videocast is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now. Learn more about our show sponsor Interpreter-Now at www.interpreter-now.com.
- “If your priority is to build a diverse team, one [thing to consider] is ‘what are your goals around that?’ The second is, ‘how are you helping people to learn more about how to do that effectively?….’ [When] you want a diverse team…, you have to actually work on it: ‘What is my hiring process? How are we unintentionally leaving out underrepresented candidates? And how do we design that differently?….’ If you’re working on equity, look at your compensation equity. Make sure that everybody is equitably receiving compensation, whether that’s pay…, equity, or… promotion; how are you developing a promotion process that is going to be inclusive, that is not going to perpetuate inequity?”
- “We found that White men tend to not want to have those uncomfortable conversations when we first start up as an ally; they want to learn from resources…, training, learn on their own, and start the process first before they have those conversations. So if you are starting to work on this as a team culture, know that it’s important to give people different opportunities to learn; sometimes it’s conversations, sometimes it’s learning from outside resources and articles or training. A group training is a great way to start; bringing somebody so that you all have that same foundational language and understanding and can start to work together.”
- “If you harm somebody, it’s your responsibility to apologize and correct that mistake and correct the impact from that mistake with that person. And— especially if you’re a leader— it’s really important to publicly apologize and say how you’re going to do better…. That modeling as a leader is so important when you’re working to create a more inclusive culture; you’re really showing that you’re on a learning journey, that you care about this, [that] you’re inviting other people also… to be on this learning journey with you.”
Senior Analyst at High Alpha Innovation
As a Senior Analyst at High Alpha Innovation, Paula works to launch new startups with partners through business model design, assumption validation, and market research. Her passion to leverage innovation to create positive change and improve lives is evident in her work spearheading DEI initiatives within the High Alpha Innovation community. Paula was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia and now lives in Richmond, Virginia.
MELINDA: Be open to new ways of thinking and understanding. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc.
Let’s get started.
PAULA: Thank you, Melinda, and everyone that’s here. Before I even start, I’m going to introduce myself. My name is Paula Quintana. I’ve been at High Alpha Innovation for almost a year. I’m a Senior Analyst here, and I’m on the Business Design team. So I’m particularly very interested in talking to you, Melinda. So thank you so much for being here.
Just to get started, can you please introduce yourself and mention anything about your background that you’d like to share with us?
MELINDA: Sure. So I am the Founder and CEO of Change Catalyst. I’m also the author of How to Be an Ally, which is a book that was released from McGraw-Hill recently.
I will say a bit about my background maybe, that might be helpful. So I was a documentary filmmaker for a number of years, for 10 years. My whole life, I’ve been focused on social impact and social change, environmental change. So from documentary filmmaking, I moved into working with startups and Fortune 500 companies that had social impact campaigns. I worked with mission-driven brands to really drive social impact and environmental impact using storytelling, behavior change, behavior science strategies, and change management strategies. And eventually became an executive.
I was working at an engineering firm in San Francisco and working with healthcare systems, the nation’s largest healthcare systems, to reduce their energy and their waste and their water use to improve their social impact. I was creating real positive change in the world, I was proud of my work, and it became the worst professional experience of my life. There were little things that happened daily that impacted me, and that impacted my ability really to thrive, to lead, to be creative and innovative. So it took me a while to kind of realize what was happening. I was the only woman on our leadership team of my team. There was a culture that just wasn’t created for me, and people didn’t make space for me in that culture. So it was little behaviors and patterns every day that made me feel belittled, disrespected, unheard, othered, like I didn’t belong; the biases and microaggressions.
So biases, I think we all know what that is. Microaggressions are kind of how biases show up in our words and actions. They’re little things that people say and do that can make you feel disrespected, little slights and insults every day. They add up over time. Megan Smith, the Former White House CTO calls it “death from a thousand paper cuts.” It’s the little things every day.
So once I kind of realized that was happening, and I started to realize that it wasn’t me, that it was the culture around me that was failing me, that then I started to work to create change in that company, and then eventually left. Because I wanted to create change not just in that company, but across the tech industry. So I left my job as an executive to start Change Catalyst, to really address diversity, equity, and inclusion across the tech industry. I co-founded it with my then boyfriend, now husband, and we’ve been working for nine years on driving diversity, equity and inclusion. We started in the tech industry and have expanded beyond the tech industry as well, working with startups and investors and the larger companies as well.
PAULA: Thank you, Melinda. It’s great to hear. But let’s get started, Melinda. So can you tell us a bit more about why you decided to write How to Be an Ally, and just basically, what it means to be an ally at the workplace?
MELINDA: We have been working on diversity, equity, and inclusion for a while, and realized that a lot of companies and startups were just one person who was working on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Whether that’s somebody that just really had a passion for it, or that was a small DEI Committee. With slightly larger startups, a lot of times, they create a DEI Committee to address it. Or occasionally, a CEO of a startup would be interested in it and want to kind of push it forward. But we started to realize, well, it’s not possible to create change across our cultures if just one person is working on it. It really takes all of us working together. We all have biases. We all create our culture. We all are a part of our culture. We are a part of our systems and processes, which are inequitable and can perpetuate exclusion.
So really, it is not until we reach that critical mass of allies across our industry, across our companies, that we will fundamentally shift and create change, and really develop more diverse, equitable, and inclusive startups and companies. So that is each of us looking within and understanding that we all do have some biases that we need to correct, and making sure that we’re not unintentionally harming each other with our words and actions, and then ways that we can recognize that there’s an imbalance in opportunity in life. There’s historical privilege and oppression that still seeps into our systems and processes.
The startup ecosystem is a great example actually, where only 2% of all investment capital goes to anybody but a White man. That’s women, that’s people of color; that’s anybody else. So it’s an inequitable system. There are biases within, just as an example, the workplace systems as well. So each of us recognizing that there is that imbalance in opportunity, and working to change it is how we’ll really fundamentally shift.
So that’s allyship. It’s recognizing that there’s an imbalance in opportunity. It’s recognizing that people experience marginalization, and working to change it; using your power and your influence to change it. We all have power and influence. If I were to say what is allyship in one sentence, it’s empathy in action. So it’s really learning about each other, learning about our unique experiences, building empathy and showing empathy for one another, and then taking action in support.
PAULA: This makes me remember when I started to think and my journey in allyship, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. That switch of like, at the beginning, I was thinking of the workplace, like, what can the CEO do, what can leadership do, what initiatives should I do? But then there was a switch of, wait a minute, I need to look at myself. Like, what are my biases, what am I doing? I’m focusing all of the time pointing fingers, which I’m not saying that that’s not important. I’m saying that that should also be done in conjunction with, what are my own biases, what am I doing? How are my attitudes changing culture? So yeah, I’m excited then about some of the next questions.
So I want to start then somewhat broad. So I started my journey, and I started talking to other people, friends, or even colleagues, I’ve realized that people are afraid. They’re afraid of talking about DEI or allyship. They’re afraid of making a mistake, basically, or saying something wrong, and that people are going to think that they’re not sensitive, that they’re not aware of what’s happening, or even worse, racist or sexist or ableist.
So, Melinda, what piece of advice would you recommend? Or what resources would you recommend to someone that has little knowledge about DEI or allyship and wants to get started?
MELINDA: Yeah. At Change Catalyst, we’ve done a bunch of research on allyship and found that our biggest challenges to being an ally are often the lack of skills or confidence to be an effective ally. So recognize what those challenges are for you, that would be my first is what’s holding you back, what is that fear? Go beyond I’m afraid. Or maybe even just sometimes people say they don’t have time to be an ally, go past that. Make time and really investigate. If you don’t know how to, learn. Do some reading. My book is a great example, and there are lots of other resources out there as well. Really work through your challenges and go past the fear. Fear is often discomfort when we’re talking about this work, it’s often deep down about discomfort. Yes, it can be uncomfortable. Many of us were taught not to talk about race when we were growing up. So we have to get past that. Many of us were brought up to not talk about sexual orientation or other experiences that people have. So recognize that in yourself and move through it, move past it.
Often, allyship starts by learning and unlearning and relearning. We learn about each other. We learn about our unique experiences. We learn about historical experiences that people have had. We learn about people’s cultures and identities. And sometimes we have to unlearn, too. We pick up biases throughout our lives, from the beginning of our lives. We pick them up from our friends, our families, our media is a great perpetuator of biases. Media, films, video games, that’s an inequitable system as well. So there are not a lot of diverse underrepresented creators that rise to the top, too. So it’s really important to kind of expand who you’re learning from, or how are you learning about each other? When you’re sitting down to watch a movie or a TV show, think about creating those shows, and expand. Really go beyond to learn and grow, and unlearn and relearn, from different perspectives.
Then the next step is to take action. Really, we often see this as this big overwhelming thing, diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s a lot, systemic inequity is a lot to work on. But it’s really taking one action at a time. So just take one action at a time, and then the next one, and then the next one.
PAULA: I really like that. I remember feeling overwhelmed, like, there are so many different things that I could do and I don’t know where to start, and this is so much. To be honest, I’m just doing one thing at a time, I don’t know if that’s the best path. I don’t think there is a best path. There are different paths. So I’m just taking it step by step. So I really like that.
Then next question, I want to tie it to early stage startups, so more of the workplace. So similarly, I’ve heard from founders or employees at early stage startups that they’re too small to start thinking about DEI or allyship, that they’re going to wait until they have a critical mass when it’s more important. So what are your thoughts about that, and what would you say to someone that says that or that you hear saying that?
MELINDA: Yeah, I have several thoughts about that. One is that it’s not going to get easier if you wait longer, it’s easier to do it when you’re a small startup. It’s easier to change the culture, or to create a culture that is inclusive from the start. It’s easier to hire diverse, underrepresented people from the beginning, than to wait until you have a bigger team that all look pretty similar. It’s much harder to hire somebody who’s from an underrepresented background if your whole team doesn’t look like them.
And it’s better for business. You want a team that is representative of your customers. You want to create products that don’t unintentionally exclude people, that don’t unintentionally perpetuate inequities. So we take a big risk if we don’t develop a diverse team from the beginning creating products, that’s a big risk that you take. So bring a diverse team together from the beginning to design and create an innovative product that’s really going to work for the customers and the users that you are designing for.
Then the other piece is that, I talked a little bit about the inequities in the startup ecosystem. When you look at startup equity, when you look at compensation across the startup ecosystem, it’s extremely inequitable. Women and people of color, they have less equity in startups. That is largely because there are two things happening. One is that there are biases in the compensation process, and we tend to give people more equity based on how we see and experience them; there are biases in that. Then the other piece is that women and people of color tend to come into startups later, and so they have less equity in the company as a result of that. So you’re perpetuating that inequity in systems as well.
PAULA: Do you think the easiest way to start is to start in group discussions with a team, to get beyond fear?
MELINDA: It’s a good way to start. I would say that everybody learns differently. So for some people, those conversations are really important and helpful in their learning process, and in the process of creating change for other people. Some people don’t want to have those conversations as they start out being an ally. We found actually that White men tend to not want to have those uncomfortable conversations when they first start out as an ally. They want to learn from resources, learn from training, and learn on their own, and start the process first before they have those conversations.
So if you are starting to work on this as a team culture, know that it’s important to give people different opportunities to learn. Sometimes it’s conversations, sometimes it’s learning from outside resources and articles, or training. A group training is a great way to start, bringing somebody in so that you all have that same foundational language and understanding and can start to work together. I would highly recommend that, if you can. Sometimes, if you’re an early stage startup and you just have a few people on your team, you might go to some LinkedIn learning, for example, where everybody watches a video and then you talk about it afterwards, and then you start to put things into practice from the video together.
PAULA: I definitely agree with that. I remember, there were certain topics, and it also depends on the level of competence. Like, if I’m only talking to Kristi, who I’m super open with, I would be willing to be like, whoa, I said something wrong. But I know Kristi knows me. But in a big group, I’m like, I don’t want to say a lot of things wrong, so maybe I’m going to read a lot more before. So yeah, it definitely depends who you’re talking to, who you are; maybe I’m more outspoken sometimes, maybe I’m not. So yeah, you can definitely tell it depends on your personality.
MELINDA: Yeah, and it’s much easier to work all together on this. If you’re starting to interrupt biases or microaggressions, it’s easier for your whole team to be doing that together. Maybe you pick one or two microaggressions to start working on. Maybe that’s interrupting each other, so everybody is working on not interrupting each other. When you do that together, it’s a whole lot easier than individuals trying to do that. You can create a culture where you’re calling each other in to learn, rather than calling people out.
So there’s a distinction between calling people out and calling people in. When you call somebody out for exclusion or for microaggression, then you might end up shaming them, and shame is one of the worst motivators for change. So we want to work hard not to shame people, but to call people in. To learn and let them know, hey, you know what, you said this the other day, and I wanted to just share that that can be harmful for this reason, and really call people in to learn about that.
PAULA: I think you alluded to a question that I was going to ask later, but I’m going to ask it right now, because I think it’s relevant. So let’s say I’m on this journey, and I make a comment that I realized I made a mistake. Something came out the way I didn’t intend it to come out, that was definitely not what I intended to do. But it’s a microaggression, I know it is. So in that case, Melinda, what advice would you give me to handle that situation?
MELINDA: Recognize your mistake, have empathy for yourself, and apologize. Apologize to anybody that you might have harmed, and then correct your mistake and keep going. It’s a learning process, everybody’s going to make mistakes at one point or another; we all make mistakes from time to time. It’s really recognizing it, apologizing for it, making that correction, and then moving forward.
PAULA: And with that, do you think it also depends on each person. Like, let’s say we’re in a big group and I make a mistake. I had some microaggression in some big group, and perhaps I didn’t say anything then. So will I apologize to the person, or should I wait until the group is altogether? Does it depend at all? Is there a strategy that you recommend? Or does it really just depend on the circumstance?
MELINDA: Sure, it definitely depends on the circumstance. Then I would say that if you harm somebody, it’s your responsibility to apologize and correct that mistake and correct any impact from that mistake with that person. Especially if you’re a leader, it’s really important to publicly apologize and say how you’re going to do better. You know, I made a mistake the other day, here’s what I did, and here’s what I’m going to do differently next time. That modeling as a leader is so important, when you’re working to create a more inclusive culture. That you’re really showing that you’re on a learning journey, that you care about this, and you’re inviting other people also to do the same, to be on this learning journey with you. As a leader, you might even let your team know that you’re working on this, maybe you’re working on one or two biases or microaggressions. You let the team know that you’re working on it and invite them to call you in if they see you do or say that thing. That starts to create a culture where it’s okay to do that, where it’s safe to do that, where it’s normal to do that. It makes a huge difference in driving more inclusive and equitable culture.
PAULA: Great. The next question I had for you was, I know we’ve talked about, let’s say, action items. I remember reading your book, and a part that you said that humanizing and empathizing are keys to reducing our own biases. So can you tell us a bit more about that, what does that mean and how can we practice that?
MELINDA: Yeah. I mean, especially working on a startup, often, the work can be very transactional. That we want to get to the next deadline, we just want to do this product launch. So everybody is working toward that, and we forget to stop and listen to each other and really show empathy for one another, and remember that we all have things happening in our lives that might be affecting us. So we do need to consistently, even when we’re working toward a project deadline, maybe even especially when we’re working toward project deadlines, have empathy for one another and notice when things are happening in our lives, notice when somebody is going through something and check in with them. So in that way, making sure that we’re empathizing with people.
Also, when we’re first meeting people, or even when we’ve been working with them for a long time, often we look for what we have in common. That’s often how we build relationships with one another, especially from the beginning. But when we’re building a diverse team, sometimes we don’t initially see what we have in common. The neuroscience of that is that we tend to build trust with people who are like us, where we see and experience similarities, and we tend to distrust people who are less like us. So really work to value what is distinct and unique about each of us and our own experiences, and trust those experiences as well. Trust each other. Beyond that initial kind of finding similarities, we want to find differences and value those differences too.
PAULA: I’d like to add something that you said. It’s not even my words, but it’s in your book. I remember one part was like, how about our own social media? Who are you following? Are you following everyone that is from your same race? Are you following only men, or only people that identify as women or as men? I think that really made a click for me, like, I had never thought of that. Then again, this idea of like, how are my own biases day-to-day affecting my work? I think now I’m starting to ask those questions. Like, the information that I’m consuming every day, is it coming only from one specific type of person? Is it only a White male that’s writing the content that I read every day? Who are the people that I’m following on social media? Hey, maybe I have to be more aware of learning about, as you said, people that are different from me, and how is it going to help me. So I think that has really helped me realize I have to be more aware of that, and that directly impacts my work. Because that is just checking my own biases, beyond stories that I’ve been taught my whole life.
So I just remembered that, and that’s how you practice empathy, learning from others. But it has definitely been an intentional effort. I’ve had to think about it. I’ve had to go out of my way, like, who am I following on my Instagram, which I’ve never thought of? That’s great, I remember reading and that is a really good point.
MELINDA: Awesome! Also, I would encourage you to think about your networks and your own friends as well. 70% of White people have only White friends. I mean, that’s statistics, that’s the data. So as a result, you’re learning from some people and not learning about others. So you want to expand, learn about people on social media. It’s a great way to expand your understanding and build empathy for people who are less like you.
PAULA: This made me remember another thing, Melinda, in your book, of how we talk a lot about microaggressions, which of course it’s important that we know what it is. But I remember, you mentioned microaffirmations and microinterventions in your book. I really liked that idea, and I’ve been implementing some of that. But I wanted to spend some time here talking about it. So can you tell us what those are, what are microaffirmations, what are microinterventions? How can we put them into action?
MELINDA: So this is two different chapters in my book, so it’s a lot to distill and too much to answer. So microinterventions are ways that we can stand up for what’s right and intervene when we see a microaggression happen. It’s really important because there’s a lot of harm that can be caused by continued microaggressions in particular, but even that one microaggression. If somebody is not allowed to speak, or their voice is silenced, that can impact their whole career, that can impact how they feel like they belong in a moment. If they aren’t able to voice their ideas, you might miss their ideas when you’re developing a product, and they are not able to advance their own career by being recognized for those ideas, and being allowed to champion those ideas and take them and run with them.
So microaggressions, they can impact us in the short-term and also in the long term, physically and mentally as well. Research shows that repeated microaggressions over time can impact people behaviorally, cognitively, and mentally as well. We can even pass on our trauma from microaggressions within fetal cells, from generation to generation. It’s amazing that that trauma can pass on physically through our fetal cells, and also through our words and actions as well. So it’s really important to address them, so we want to intervene.
There are easier microaggressions to intervene, and maybe more difficult, more uncomfortable ones. So I can just address a couple of easy ones here to get you started. Interruption. So people with underrepresented identities are more likely to be interrupted. When that happens regularly, again, you’re silencing people. So you want to interrupt interruptions. It’s simple, really, it’s just making space in the conversation. You know, I don’t think Paula was finished with her thought, I’d love to hear the rest of Paula’s thought. Opening the space. Often, when you’re working on a team, a couple of people, two or three people will dominate a conversation as well. They’re kind of taking up more than their share of airtime; inequitable airtime. So make the space in a conversation for that as well. You know, I can see that Lisa has been trying to say something for a long time, and I would love to make space for her to share thoughts.
Also, echo and attribute. So often somebody with an underrepresented identity will have an idea that’s dismissed by the team, and then somebody else has the same idea a few minutes later and they’re championed, and it’s generally somebody from the dominant population. As a result, somebody else will share that same idea and they’ll be championed. So you want to echo and attribute. You want to make sure that that original person is recognized for their idea and they are allowed to champion that idea. You know, I heard Kristi say that the other day, and I thought it was a great idea, and I would love to hear more about Kristi’s thoughts there. So you’re echoing and attributing that idea back to Kristi in that case. There’s a lot of racist, sexist, ableist, heteronormative microaggressions. I encourage you to look in my book to learn more about those. These are just a few quick and easy interventions.
Then, microaffirmations are little ways that we can counter the impact of microaggressions. So when somebody is told repeatedly that they’re not good enough, when their expertise and experience is regularly questioned, when they’re belittled, you can sometimes internalize that. You can internalize what people are saying to you and what you’re experiencing, and it can come out, it can show up as imposter syndrome. That feeling that you’re not good enough, despite all of your skills and expertise, that people might find me out because I’m an imposter. You have that fear of people questioning you, because people have questioned you. So you’re internalizing that, and you might lose competence, you might recede a bit as well.
So as an ally, you can help build somebody’s confidence. That can be non-verbally. Like, several of you are clearly present right here right now and nodding and showing your interest, that makes a big difference for somebody. So the nonverbal cues that we give each other can help build our confidence in that moment. Then, if somebody is nervous, if they’re nervous stepping into a new opportunity, nervous about speaking, you remind them that they’re the expert that they are. You know, I’ve seen you do this before, you’re amazing, and nobody else knows this better than you. Little ways that you can recognize people’s expertise, recognize their skills. You can also acknowledge their skills publicly too, acknowledge their skills on the team too, to make sure that everybody is recognizing their expertise.
Give people a chance, trust them is another one. What we found in our research is that the top two ways that people tend to want their allies to show up for them is to build their competence or courage and trust them. So because people with underrepresented identities tend to be distrusted, we talked about trust a little bit, so how are you showing that you’re trusting people? Whether that is trusting them to lead a meeting for the first time, trusting them to lead a project, or taking a chance on them by hiring them. Knowing that we tend to make decisions around trust, and that includes hiring, based on people who are more like us. Recognize that, and also trust people who are less like you. Then when you do that, make sure you’re supporting them so that they can succeed and thrive as well.
PAULA: Thank you so much, that was awesome. I know that was a lot of content that I asked you to go through. Just wanted to make sure that we touched upon that, because that was great. Can you give us some examples, even if it’s our larger startups or companies, of how DEI and allyship can be better integrated with the DNA of an organization?
MELINDA: Other than what I shared, I think it has to come from the top, and it has to come from the leadership team. Not just in terms of making it a priority. That’s one, is making it a priority for the team. That means not just saying that it’s a priority, but embedding it into your accountability. If your priority is to build a diverse team, one is, what are your goals around that? The second is, how are you helping people to learn more about how to do that effectively? Our hiring processes in tech and the startup ecosystem in general, they’re inequitable; they’re not inclusive, generally. So that means we actually have to design them differently. So how are you designing that differently? How are you supporting your team to do that differently? Saying that you want a diverse team is not going to change things, you have to actually work on it. You know, what is my hiring process? How are we unintentionally leaving out underrepresented candidates, and how do we design that differently? Just as an example.
If you’re working on equity, look at your compensation equity, making sure that everybody is equitably receiving compensation, whether that’s pay or that’s equity, or that is looking at promotion. How are you developing a promotion process that is going to be inclusive, that is not going to perpetuate inequity? Often, people with underrepresented identities, people of color, people with disabilities, women, tend to be promoted less frequently. As a result, there’s inequity in promotion as well, and that ends up changing your leadership team. So making sure that you are building in accountability systems, looking at that from the beginning, building that into how you’re thinking about the promotion process? How are you thinking about reviews and making sure that people receive the quality feedback that they need in order to grow? Again, women tend to receive less quality feedback from the managers, the statistics show that. So knowing that, how are you developing a feedback cycle to counter that, to make sure that your leaders are providing that quality feedback for everyone that needs it?
So it comes from leadership, and it’s really important to not just show it as a priority, but develop goals around it, develop accountability around it, work on it, as the leader. We all have opportunities for growth. So how are you regularly working on that together, and then how are you teaching your team to do that as well?
PAULA: Okay, I know we have about 15 more minutes, and I’ve said we were going to go to questions from the audience. But I do want to open it up. Are there any questions that anyone wants to ask, even if it’s not related to anything we’ve said? Lesa?
LESA: So I spent a bunch of time in Tulsa, where they were trying to rebuild Black Wall Street. I found it fascinating to be part of a discussion where a number of people that came in for this one meeting were, in many cases, younger, in many cases, not Black, and there seemed to be a fear of asking too many questions. Like, I don’t want to act like I don’t know what Juneteenth is, I don’t want to act like I don’t know what, name the holiday, is. I know, if I remember right, in the book, you said something about not going to your single Black person that you know, and asking them to attribute all of their knowledge to you. So how do you suggest that one navigates that?
MELINDA: Yeah. Just a rule of thumb is if you can Google it, you don’t need to ask somebody to share. If you can Google it, Google it. Find reputable sources. If you’re learning about Juneteenth, make sure you’re going to an article that is written by a Black person, or a resource that is written by an activist organization to really get it. The History Channel, some biases, and it often goes up to the top. Wikipedia, also some biases. They have been notoriously working on a lack of inclusion and a lack of diversity in their writers too. So we need to be aware of that, that we often look at Wikipedia as a resource, but there’s some major issues there too. So if you can Google it, Google it.
Then the other thing I would say is that some people are more open to educating you than others. Recognize that people are already marginalized, they’re already experiencing exclusion. So that is extra work on top of their daily work. So when you’re asking them to educate you, that’s an additional burden as well, or additional work as well, I should say. Some people are going to be more open to it than others, so you just ask. Like, Hey, I have a question, do you mind if I ask this? Sometimes they might say, I do mind, I don’t want to go there, you go find out on your own, and you do that. Other times people are open to it. So rather than making an assumption that people aren’t open to sharing their experience, you can ask, and ask if they’re willing to. If they say no, go elsewhere.
LESA: So in a previous life, I feel like I became the social media and PR police, relative to equity and inclusion. Meaning, constantly pointing out that absolutely everything that we shared didn’t look very much like inclusion, or sound very much like inclusion. I feel like it took like four years for it to catch on. I guess my question for you is, was that stupid? I mean, does anyone really notice or not? I do, but do others? Do people realize things like that are important. If I’m looking to go to work for an organization, do I look at their social media content, do I look at all their LinkedIn stuff, etc.? Your thoughts?
MELINDA: Well, to answer the last question first, yes. If you care about being on a diverse, equitable, inclusive team, you can tell by their website, by their social media, if they actually prioritize that, and you can tell by looking at the team page if they prioritize that. I would say that some companies are working on it, and they’re not doing such a great job with their messaging. So in your first interview with them, ask them, what are you doing around diversity, equity, and inclusion? If somebody says, well, we’re prioritizing that, then the next step, how are you prioritizing that, what does that look like? If they don’t have a good answer, it’s probably at the surface level, it’s probably kind of performative rather than systemic.
Then in terms of being the one person regularly calling people in to learn, it does get old, it gets hard, it gets toxic. So the first is to take care of yourself on that journey, because you’re taking on some of the toxicity, and that can start to live in your body. It can start to live in your thoughts, as well. So making sure you’re taking care of yourself. Get a good therapist, and also, work that through. I do this work regularly, so I actually have to do yoga to work it through my body and through my mind. Exercise as well and really take care of your own body, so it’s not really in there. Because it does, the studies show that it does. Trauma that we experience can turn into trauma in our physical beings.
Then the second I would say is, if you can work with more than one person, expand your team that is working on this, as much as you can. When Obama first became President, he hired more women that had ever been hired before, still obviously had work to do. At the same time, the women started to realize that they were experiencing microaggressions regularly, they were being interrupted, their ideas were not heard, and then other people would champion those same ideas and be championed for it. So they started talking with each other, and they started working together, echoing and attributing each other, making space for each other in conversations. They did it so deliberately that Obama actually started to realize, Oh, I see something that’s happening here. And it changed the culture as a result, but it was the power of them all working together. So that power is really important if you can find it.
PAULA: Thank you, Melinda. I see that Roz has a question. So I’ll hand it to you, Roz.
ROZ: Yeah. So I guess a question I have, just theoretically, if today you were to start a company not directly related to DEI, maybe it’s a b2b SaaS company, what would you do to create a sort of foundation of DEI in that culture? Maybe it’s tactical or strategic, whatever comes to mind first?
MELINDA: Yeah. If you’re still putting together the founding team, put together the founding team that is diverse. Sometimes it takes a little bit more time, because again, our networks sometimes look a lot like us, and so we have to expand our networks, we have to maybe take a little more time to find co-founders. So that is one.
Second is to build it into your values from the beginning, develop values. Sometimes startups don’t do that right away, that’s really important because that helps create the culture and show what’s important to the company. One of those values should be inclusion in some way. It could be empathy, it could be inclusion, it could be equity, whatever that is, it could be belonging. But make sure that inclusion is one of your core values.
Then learn together as a team to make sure that you are thinking about inclusion as you’re building culture, thinking about each other, building empathy for one another from the beginning. Because you’re building the culture from scratch. So as you do that together from the beginning, it’s going to be easier to scale that.
Yeah, those would be the first three things that I would say we should start doing. Then as you continue to grow, you want to continue to build upon that and develop some learning. Because there’s only so much knowledge that each of us has, we have to look for outside resources to continue our learning journey.
PAULA: Thank you, Melinda. Go ahead, Rob.
ROB: You referenced a couple of times kind of the gap between good intentions and success for organizations on allyship, and you also referenced goals and accountability as being things that are really helpful tools for bridging that gap. I wonder, from an organizational standpoint, particularly like a growth organization that’s trying to put out a million fires at a time, like a startup, or like us, High Alpha Innovation, are there any examples that you can point us to that you’ve seen in your experience of like, what does a good, strong, credible public commitment look like? Where we can put out a goal out there, either publicly with our team or even publicly to the world, and hold ourselves accountable to getting over the gap? Anything that you’ve seen from partner organizations or folks you’ve worked with?
MELINDA: Yeah, I would look at developing goals around diversity, around equity, and around inclusion, all three of those, really tangible goals. Make them stretch goals, but not so stretched that you’re not going to achieve them. So you want to get close to those goals. You might have a three or a five-year goal, and then incremental goals to get there, and then develop the strategy to make sure that you’re achieving them. It’s more than just setting out goals. So that’s representation, diversity is representation. So looking at making sure that you’re representative of the communities that you’re serving. The tech industry is extremely lacking representation, so don’t use that as your benchmark. You want to use the world as your benchmark. That might mean you need to measure first and then develop some goals around representation.
Often, companies, when they’re talking and working on representation, will pick one or two identities. That doesn’t really work. So rather than picking gender, for example, pick gender, race, ethnicity, disability, and really work on all of that together, sexual orientation and so on, work on all of that at the same time. It’s much easier to do than to pick off one at a time. Because when you pick off one at a time too, you’re not recognizing intersectionality, that people can have more than one aspect of identity. Somebody can be a woman, and Latina as well, and have a disability, and be from the LGBTQIA+ community. So really work on representation across the board all at once.
Then inclusion, what is your goal around inclusion? Again, you can measure this. You can have an inclusion survey and see where you are right now, and then work on one or two of the indicators that you’re seeing. Whether that is increasing your engagement numbers for people with underrepresented identities, or that is decreasing your turnover. There are lots of different ways. I would encourage you to have an inclusion survey, and then pick one or two that you really want to focus on.
Then equity. Compensation equity, I should say, is probably one I’d start with, and then also promotion equity was the next one that I would start with. That can be really easy to look at where you are now and recalibrate if needed. So that can be your first goal is, within a year, everybody is going to be paid, compensated equitably. Then after that is, how are you embedding that into your hiring process from the beginning, so the offer is equitable, and then the promotion cycle is equitable as well? So that people continue to be compensated equitably.
Non-visible diversity. Yeah, I think it’s important to design for inclusion. The studies show that 49% of LGBTQIA+ folks do not disclose their identity publicly, similar stats for people with disabilities. So a good portion of people are not disclosing, and you shouldn’t need to in order to be included. So design your culture for people with disabilities, design your culture for people who have different sexual orientations and gender identities, and immigrant status is another one, exactly.
So design for inclusion, rather than designing for the individual identities that you think you might have on your team. Because what you think is not accurate, and there will be more people on your team who have disabilities that have other forms of exclusion that they’re not disclosing.
KRISTI: I love that, incredible answer. Melinda, thank you so much. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been taking notes behind the scenes for myself. Paula, thank you for leading this conversation. So have a great day, everyone. Talk to you. Bye, everybody. Bye.
MELINDA: We’ll share resources and a transcript from this discussion at ally.cc. Please make sure to subscribe to our channel and rate this show. It makes a difference for us. Thank you for being part of our community.
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Leading With Empathy & AllyShip is a show by Change Catalyst, where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. You can learn more about us at change catalyst.co.
Let’s keep building allyship across our communities and around the world. Thank you for listening.
Host: Melinda Briana Epler
Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.
As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.
Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.
Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.
Watch Melinda’s TED Talk
Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.
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