In Episode 72 (recorded live), Tonita Webb, CEO at Verity Credit Union, and William A. Adams, Technical Advisor at Microsoft & Technologist, join us to discuss the systemic barriers and biases that Black leaders experience in the workplace, the importance of self-care and addressing healing, and how we can build workplace culture where Black leaders can thrive.
- Find more about the promotion and wage gap Black workers face.
- Find more about how we can create a racially just workplace.
- Learn more about Tonita’s work at Verity Credit Union.
- Learn more about William’s work.
- Learn more about Microsoft’s Leap program.
- Read here about Black Folktales.
- Check out EP32: “What Allies Can Do During Black History Month.”
This videocast is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now. Learn more about our show sponsor Interpreter-Now at www.interpreter-now.com.
This episode is sponsored by First Tech Federal Credit Union, a member-owned financial institution that is powered by a people-before-profit philosophy. Learn more at First Tech Federal Credit Union.
- Tonita: “It has to be a culture and a place where people feel like they belong. Many BIPOC people in general, but specifically for Black people, we have been taught to assimilate. So when we walk in the door, we’re not even ourselves from the start.”
- William: “A saying that pretty much any Black person I know of my age has heard this growing up: ‘you need to work twice as hard to get half as much.’ That’s the background that we grow up with.”
- Tonita: “There is still an issue with pay equity for BIPOC folks in general and for BIPOC women. You can go down each race and ethnicity in the BIPOC realm, and it’s terrible compared to what they make vs. their colleagues…. The pay inequity not only negatively affects BIPOC folks, it negatively affects all of us. That is wealth that is not being put back into our economy. So to pay fair and with equitable practices, we all benefit.”
- William: “You have to do that social network at all levels. If you really want those people that you worked so hard to get in the door, if you want them to stick around, they need social fabric.”
- Tonita: “If you are BIPOC and you navigate this United States, you have trauma and you need to deal with the trauma or it’s going to eat at you, and that can impact your health, it can impact how you show up, it can impact your goals. This country has told us that we are not a priority, it’s time for us to make ourselves a priority.”
- William: “As much as we might feel alone and the only in many situations, the truth is we are always supported even when we are in the middle of the battle.”
CEO at Verity Credit Union
Tonita Webb was named the CEO of Verity Credit Union in early 2021, the first woman and the first Black American to be named CEO in the organization’s history. She continues to move Verity forward in socially responsible banking to create vibrant communities. Tonita brings a strong vision for harnessing financial tools, data, and technology, with a passion for diversity, equity, and inclusion, to enhance the lives of underserved members of the community.
Tonita came to Verity from Seattle Credit Union, where she spent fifteen years both as Executive Vice President and Chief Operations Officer, and formerly, the Senior Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer.
As an Air Force veteran, an MBA, and mother of four, Tonita leads by example and gives herself freely to her community work. She currently serves on boards for non-profits like Southeast Effective Development (SEED) and 21 Progress, as well as social enterprises like Pioneer Human Services. She is a champion of diversity and inclusion and is a frequent public speaker on the subject.
As important as her credentials are, Tonita learned empathy and compassion while being raised by her single mother in low-income housing projects in Virginia. Her mother’s work ethic has inspired her to lead, whether serving her country, her employers, or her members.
William A. Adams
Technical Advisor at Microsoft, Technologist
William A. Adams is an award-winning D&I innovator, engineering trailblazer, and philanthropist. He was named the first Technical Advisor to Microsoft’s CTO, Kevin Scott.
As co-founder of the LEAP apprenticeship program – Microsoft’s D&I Program of the Year in 2020 – he helped launch the training of more than 26 cohorts around the world. His most recent collaboration with the U.S. Virgin Islands aims to train technical talent and build critical technical infrastructure.
Early in his 30-year career, William was one of the first Black entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. He developed mission-critical custom enterprise apps for NeXT computers and pioneered an instant messaging service purchased by the CIA.
Today, in addition to his role as Technical Advisor at Microsoft, William is the philanthropic founder of The Event, a collaborative, community-based hackathon. When he’s not tinkering with code, the husband and father of three builds cabinets, knits, and rides a motorcycle.
MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship, where we have deep real conversations to build empathy for one another and to take action to be more inclusive and to lead the change in our workplaces and communities.
I’m Melinda Briana Epler, founder and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How To Be An Ally. I’m a diversity equity and inclusion speaker, advocate, and advisor. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc.
All right. Let’s dive in.
MELINDA: Welcome to our Change Catalyst Live Event Series and the Leading With Empathy & Allyship Show, where we have deep real conversations about how we can all be more inclusive in our workplaces and our communities to really lead to change.
I’m Melinda Briana Epler, author of How To Be An Ally and founder and CEO of Change Catalyst, where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, coaching, and events.
Happy Black History Month. And also, Happy Lunar New Year as well.
To start off Black History Month, we really wanted to have a conversation that goes beyond the basics, beyond diversity in recruiting. While recruiting is important, many companies start there and end there, and we really want to make sure that we’re going deeper. So, that’s what we’re going to talk about today—strategies for supporting Black leadership in the workplace with Tonita Webb, who’s the CEO of Verity Credit Union, and William A Adams, who’s the technical adviser to the CTO at Microsoft.
So welcome both of you. Thanks for being here.
WILLIAM: Thank you.
TONITA: It’s our pleasure.
MELINDA: So, we will have time for questions at the end. So please, if you have questions, put your questions in the Q&A function so we can find them easily. And then use the chat freely. We’d love to know what’s resonating with you, what you’re learning, and so on. So, please do share.
All right. So, Tonita and William, we always start with getting to know more about you personally. If you could just start by saying a bit about your story, where did you grow up, how did you come to do the work you do today?
TONITA: I grew up in South East Virginia in a remote area. I grew up in a single-parent home. I’m the oldest of three kids. My mom, unfortunately, when I was about five, was diagnosed with lupus, so most of my childhood was her struggling with her illness. And oftentimes, my siblings and I had to go live with one of her sisters because she was too ill to take care of us. I grew up in low-income housing and a picture that was not encouraging for me to really do anything positive. But one of the things I gleaned from my mom as she struggled with lupus is just this faith and this desire to keep going forward.
I did well in school. That was kind of my ticket out as I saw it. I went to undergrad at Hampton University. I wish I could say I had it all figured out. I didn’t. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I decided to go into the Air Force. I was a police officer in the Air Force, just kind of fell into that. The Air Force is what got me out here to Seattle. We lived in Seattle for about four or five years and left and lived in Key West, Florida. That’s where I got introduced to human resources.
I realized that that was kind of it for me, people. Understanding the humanity in people I left out when I went to Hampton. I was an engineer major because I did well in math and science. And everyone said that’s what I was supposed to do, but I am kind of extreme extrovert and Chatty Cathy, and that just didn’t work well. So, I switched gears to business.
My husband and I decided to leave Florida and make Seattle our home. I worked in various industries. After having my last kid, which I’m a mom of four, and I put him in preschool, I decided to go back to work, and it was at a credit union as an HR manager. I was just hooked because this was my opportunity to help people on a deeper level.
All of us, at one point in time, have thought about finances, worried about finances. I was able to see up close and personal the inequities in finance. And so, I learned everything I needed to know within the credit union industry. You fast forward 16 years, and today, I get to serve as Verity CEO. That was my life in a snapshot.
WILLIAM: That is quite a snapshot.
WILLIAM: So, my name is William A. Adams. I grew up in Southern California in a town called Placencia, which you can’t even see the dot on the map. It’s at the very northern edge of Anaheim, which is Disneyland. So, I grew up around.
At that time, there was a strange juxtaposition of orange fields, strawberry fields, and Rockwall International. Our neighborhood itself, we would call it the Body Ho, which is the, you know, it’s the neighborhood. It’s the hood. This is not hardcore content or something like that, but this is migrant workers, families, just working families.
It was a split. There’s a freeway that was put in between our neighborhood when I was younger, and all the Mexicans are on one side, and all the Black families are on the other side. And we were on the Mexican side. So, I grew up with Carlos Santana and speaking Spanish and stuff like that. It was a rough-ish neighborhood, but not too rough. I mean, it was rough enough that the police didn’t come around unescorted. And there were some kids that were in jail or older kids that were in jail. But, you know, it wasn’t like shootings on the street and rampant drugs and all that sort of stuff. Just people trying to, you know, raise their kids.
My father died when I was seven. Tonita was telling, “Hey, I have some similarities here.” I’m one of three children. I’m the youngest baby. And, you know, so from when I was seven onward, it was just my mom raising us. And the only real thing she said to us was, “Look. If you go to jail, I’m not bailing you out. So don’t end up in jail.” I was a precocious little kid. I just did my thing. I was into, like, my chemistry kit, my electronics kit, and my construction kit. I did all that. I did sports. I was just into my thing.
Eventually, we moved to another place down the street. I eventually got a personal computer from my uncle. That was the beginning of my career in tech, really. It was just growing up at the time when Apple computer was becoming Apple computer, and the IBM PC was becoming the IBM PC. I was getting into programming. I was hooked. Right? Thus, when I was 12, I taught myself how to code. There was just a series of things after that.
I went to UC Berkeley. I started a company with my brother in software development. We did all sorts of stuff in Silicon Valley, which I won’t go into, but I ended up at Microsoft in 1998. I just had a series of shipping software and doing killer things like, “Oh, we’re going to hire more women and minorities. It’s time to do that now.” And then setting up programs that do exactly that and hired hundreds of women and minorities over the last few years. And I just keep going. It’s like I helped pull us into creating development centers in Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, and presently I’m doing the same for the Caribbean. It’s like, we need to be there. So, that’s why I do. It’s always a mix of humane things and codes. I’ve never stopped coding.
MELINDA: Awesome. Thank you both for sharing that. Yeah, I appreciate that.
WILLIAM: Oh, just one more thing.
MELINDA: Oh, yeah.
WILLIAM: She said extreme extrovert. I would say I’m not an extreme introvert, but I’m on the opposite end.
MELINDA: I love it. I love it. I am an introvert as well. So, there we are. As you grew into your leadership roles, what support has been really valuable to you along the way? Support from allies? Support from folks along the way? And maybe also, what additional support could you have used that you didn’t receive?
WILLIAM: It’s kind of a trick question because as much as we might feel alone and the only in many situations, the truth is we are always supported even when we’re in the middle of a battle.
My very first support was my uncle, who gave me my first computer. Right? There were mentors around that I recognize now that I didn’t understand what mentors were when I was younger, but I recognize now is like, “Oh, the podiatrist that gave me my first computer book.” That’s kind of a mentor, you know, someone who believed like, “Hey, young man. Here, maybe you’ll be interested in this.” It was a brief encounter, and that’s it. He gave me one book. I still have that book today.
And then along the way, either in my own business or at Microsoft, Microsoft in particular, there have been a couple of managers. And really, it’s a few. It’s not like 20 managers. A couple of managers essentially said, “I believe in you. What do you need? What do you want to do? I believe in you.” It’s been as simple as that, really. And there are certainly people I can go to now. What would you do in this situation, but really, that isn’t as much as the other one, which is someone just saying, I believe in you, and following it through by giving resources or whatever.
TONITA: For me, I would say I had my grandfather, who said that I was different and different in a positive way. Like I said, I grew up in low-income housing projects. I grew up in projects, and the picture was kind of painted for young Black girls like me, and my grandfather would speak differently and say I was different and I was going to be more than where I came from. Where I wish that it was consistent, or where I had this kind of encouragement, was in school.
For me, I grew up in the same town that my parents grew up in, and my parents had me in high school. I think I was going into the sixth or seventh grade, and I was a little younger than everybody else because my mom said I talked too much, so she lied about my age and put me in school. I was probably about 11 in the seventh grade, so I was a little younger than other folks. And when I came in, I had already known my teacher also taught my mom.
One thing about my family, we look alike. You can look at us and tell we’re part of the same family. So, when I walked in, the teacher asked me which was common, which daughter is your mother? Because my grandparents had four girls. So that was always the question that me and my cousins or siblings got. I said, “The baby. I’m her oldest.” She was like, “Oh, yeah, I remember when I had her.”
So, as I walked away to find my seat, I heard her whisper to another teacher in the classroom that I would be pregnant before I left Junior High, is what we called it. I was on the stage. I’m not even sure I knew how that happened, but I remember it wasn’t a positive thing that she said. And it just stung deeply. The good part for me, I am stubborn as heck. So I immediately went, “Well, you just wait and see.” But I also realized not everyone goes there first. I wish in the beginning that teachers, folks outside of my family who loved me, saw much potential and encouraged me.
MELINDA: Thank you for sharing that. I’m also sorry that that happened, and that’s not okay. We had a conversation last year about how we can raise anti-racist children. I think that there’s potential for everybody who’s listening who has children to raise them in a way where they might say something too, especially the extroverts that have that on the top of their tongue and can be an ally at that moment, too.
In past episodes, we’ve talked about systemic barriers and microaggressions and biases, but I want to talk a little bit about what you’ve experienced in your work just to give people a sense that perhaps those aren’t just as you’re rising, you’re experiencing as you’re rising, but also as a leader.
I know that when I was an executive, I experienced a ton of microaggressions and systemic barriers and biases. And so, could you maybe give an example of what you’ve experienced as a leader just so people have a sense of even at the leadership level, what happens?
TONITA: I felt that there were other things that got me where I am, right? Like affirmative faction or when I achieved the role that I have today, there were whispers around me being a diversity hire, even though folks understood and knew that I had been an executive for over a decade at the same type of financial institution and that I’m in the middle of writing a dissertation for my doctorate. So, education was not a question. The experience was not a question. But for me, as a Black woman, there has to be another reason that I’m here. And that has been consistent throughout my career.
What I found is initially, you know, I didn’t know how to handle that. And not to say it’s still not disturbing, or it doesn’t hurt. I now understand that that’s about the person saying it and not me. So what I had to do was start working on myself and healing from all the trauma that I experienced, like the example that I gave you.
WILLIAM: I’ll start this by saying that pretty much any Black person I know of my age has heard this growing up. You need to work twice as hard to get half as much. All right? That’s the background that we grew up with. Our parents are saying that to us because they’re trying to prepare us for what we face, right? The reality of the world that we’re about to emerge into. I kept that mantra in the back of my head. I know the moment I finally let it go and said, “I’m good enough.” And it was when I was 40, on a beach in Hawaii, about to go to India. And you face all sorts of things as you’re coming through.
It can be anything from being passed over for that promotion, which happens all the time. The more common one is you have to train your boss how to do their job. You’re good enough to train your boss, but you’re not good enough to be the boss happens all the time. But Tonita said about, you know, why am I here? The affirmative action thing, the diversity hire. You’re here because you’re Black. It’s like, I’m here because I’m smart, yo, and I’m probably smarter than you because I grew up with you have to be twice as smart to get hassled as much. I am smart.
Today, I have a different attitude. In my earlier days, I would take a lot of those aggressions with frustration, perhaps. I said somewhere that I probably slipped more into my Yoda phase than my Samuel L. Jackson phase. So, I made more attempts than I was. I am more Yoda, and I can observe what’s happening to Tonita’s point of saying, “Well, that’s you? That has nothing to do with me. I know what I am. I know how good I am. I know what I’ve done. What have you done?” Right?
So, I look at the aggressions nowadays, and I can recognize them for what they are. It’s just jujitsu or an aikido game after that. It’s like, deflect, move around. I now understand how to play the game better because I see what’s happening. It’s like, “Oh, I see you’re one of those racist people.” “Oh, I see this right here. This is one of those systemic things.” “Oh, this promotion I didn’t get. Oh, I get it. It’s because this is your boy. Okay.” Do you know what I mean? You can make the observations, and you can not be paralyzed by it but just move around. It’s like, “Oh, I see. I get the game.” Right? And I can have a hand in changing the game, as well, because I understand what the game is. And I’ve done this. I can take part in changing the game, changing the social constructs, changing the culture, all that sort of stuff, because I understand what’s going on.
So, yeah. I mean, those aggressions are out there. It’s hard to get rid of it across the board. We’re humans, and we’re always going to do that kind of stuff. But we can be aware that they exist and train ourselves on how to navigate in this environment and float on the wind if you will.
TONITA: Absolutely. I agree. It is that it’s almost like you’re in a maze of systemic pressures and microaggressions. One of the things I remember early in my career are folks who the previous generation would say, “Well, yeah, that’s what I had to deal with.” And I get, you know, probably why they said that in the space that they were in because things were much different then than they are here today. But one of my commitments is to make this place, this world, better. And when I arrived in just to say, “Well, that’s what I dealt with.” is just not acceptable to me. I love what you’re saying. We understand the game, so we can change the game. My kids behind me, the next generations to come, did not have to deal with the pain and trauma we have had to deal with as we have risen in our careers.
WILLIAM: Amen to that. And I actually told younger people. It’s like, “Look.” They might be new people in the company. And they might be like, oh, you know, this and that. This is wrong. I say, “Look. I didn’t work as hard as I have, so you have to listen to this. Go tell them how you feel because I created the safe space for you to be able to tell it like it is and be prepared to walk because you can go get a job over there. Don’t be afraid. I did the work so that you don’t have to be afraid to go do what you need to do.” I agree with you 100%. It’s like we got here. We can’t say, “Well, I got mine. You’re on your own.” No.
MELINDA: I would suggest that that works for all of us too that wherever we are, we don’t just say, “I’ve got mine.” that we’re pulling everybody else up. And as a White woman, pulling up women of color and so on and really supporting and helping them thrive. I think that’s a great impact that we can all make if we all were to work to make our workplaces better than when we arrived. What a better place it would be. Yeah.
WILLIAM: Let’s do that.
MELINDA: Yeah. Yeah. Okay! Let’s do that. This would be a good segue into how we do that. I think there are a few things that you both are saying around solutions. One is the systemic issues that we need to change. I do think that recruiting in the work that you’re doing, William, there around expanding the market to more places with diversity is really important. And then, what we do internally in our culture is to retain. And actually, there’s one more. It’s healing I heard in there as well as our own self-healing.
William, can you talk a little bit about bringing more Black folks in the door and how we can kind of begin to support them as leaders as they grow in their careers. I will say that I’ve worked with a lot of tech companies over the years, and recruiting is where they often start. They come to us. We used to have tech inclusion career fairs. They’d come and say, “We need Black senior talent. Senior-level talent. How long have you been working on diversity, equity, inclusion in your company? Oh, the last year? Well, okay.”
The whole tech industry is a little bit like that. So, what does that mean? That means that Black people have been excluded since tech began, more or less. A little early in tech, it was a little bit different. So, now you’re looking for senior-level talent when there’s been this exclusion. So anyway, could you talk a little bit about how do we change that piece?
WILLIAM: Well, in 2015, I co-created a program called Leap, which was about bringing in women and minorities, underrepresented minorities into our company. The program is essentially a 16-week apprenticeship, which still runs today and is owned by the HR department. But the essence of it was essentially to find a crack in the system, if you will, and to say, “Well, normally you just get college hires, and they’re the only ones that apprentice. Otherwise, it’s industry hires, which have to have ten years of experience or whatever. So you’re not going to find people who are in between.” So this is where the program came in.
The way the program works is the first four weeks are essentially “in the classroom.” All that means is that we bring them in cohorts. There might be anywhere from, I don’t know, 30 to 50 of them at a time. And you form a cohort because you’re trying to build that social network from day one. Because one of the biggest challenges to any subculture joining a larger culture is that the subculture gets snuffed out because they don’t find their footing, so they have to adapt and be absorbed. And if they can’t, they just get spit out.
So you bring one Black guy from South Carolina and drop them into an all-White male group in Seattle. You don’t tell him where to get the best food that he likes, where to get his haircut, which neighborhoods are going to be favorable, not even which radio station has the kind of music you want to listen to, and you say, “succeed,” right. And they’re like, ah, and they’re out within a year, right. But if I bring 50 of them at once, and I let them gel with each other and form a social group, social network, they’re more likely to succeed, right? Because they’re grouped. They’re not just one-offs. They can’t be picked off so easily. And they have a stronger voice. And when they’re coding on their own, or whatever, and they’re like, “Man, I don’t want to go to the majority culture and ask for help because they’ll think I’m weak.” But you can turn to one of your 50 friends because you’re on the same boat, and you’ll support each other, right?
The important thing is setting up the social construct, the social network so that these people are together rather than one-offs. That’s an important thing. And it goes up to the executive level as well. Let’s see. I’ve met 1-2-3-4 guys, Black males, brought in senior and brought connected. Like, I got connected to them within two weeks of them joining. Because somebody said, “Oh, you’re a Black guy. You should talk to William.” It looks like, whatever, you know. We’re gonna come together. And yeah, I now have some Black tech bros for the first time in the company. Right. And that’s important for their growth because I can be the old grizzle veteran going, “Well, you got to do the following. If you don’t get along.” They get to stand on my shoulders instead of just being out there in the wilderness on their own. So, you have to do that social network at all levels, right? If you really want those people that you work so hard to get in the door, if you want them to stick around, they need social fabric.
MELINDA: This isn’t your day job, right? I just want to be clear for everybody. Yeah. What is your answer to that?
WILLIAM: Someone described what I do as, “Oh, you have tenure.” And there’s no such thing as tenure. Let me be clear. We do not have tenure at Microsoft. But what it means is that I’ve been there long enough. I have enough credibility. I’ve done enough positive things. And I continue to do positive things. That, yes, I have to do some bread-and-butter thing, but I’m also allowed to do passion projects like going into Kenya and Nigeria. That’s a passion project. I just went to my boss and said, “Look, we need engineering over there. Please don’t say no.” He’s like, “I’m not gonna say no.” And that was it. Now I have engineering in Africa, right.
So, doing these things. Sometimes it is my job, like the LEAP program. I started it when I had a day job. But within a couple of cohorts, I said this has to be a full-time thing. One of my supporters said, “Okay, I’ll pay your paycheck. Keep doing that.” So, it did become my full-time job for a couple of years. And then, I took up the duties of helping our CTO be the CTO. And I do different things. So there’s always some engineering thing because I get paid as an engineer, so I have to occasionally show some engineering. But I’ve got enough leeway to do these passion projects because they’re beneficial to the company.
MELINDA: So, Tonita, with your HR background, let’s talk about culture and kind of retention and reducing turnover. What are some of the solutions you see there, especially for Black leaders? That’s what we’re focused on here.
TONITA: There are a few things. The first I’ll start with, that it has to be a culture and a place where people feel like they belong. Many BIPOC people in general, but I know specifically for Black people. We have been taught to assimilate, right. So when we walk in the door, we’re not even ourselves from the start, right? So then if the culture is expecting you to assimilate to whatever design they have come up with, then, to William’s point, I’ll probably last a year or two, and then I’m out because I have this internal rage going on because I’m pretending to be someone.
TONITA: Yes. And then the culture is validating that I can’t show up as myself. So, why? Create a culture that no matter what the person’s background is that they can show up as themselves. Growing up where I grew up taught me so many valuable lessons, and it was definitely a part of my journey and how I got to where I am. If I tried to pretend that’s not who I am, then it’s not going to work out, too.
As companies, as we talked about going to these DEI programs, you have to build in healing and care. As we bring up historical issues, as we talk about microaggressions, racism, the system, this was not new for BIPOC people. We know this has happened. We know these things are in place, and it’s draining. It’s traumatizing. And if we’re just constantly throwing this information at folks to change the greater good, it can be damaging to your BIPOC folks.
I’ve even had to check myself in that journey of I’m tired. I’m tired. I am glad you are on board to change things. But right now, I don’t have the energy to hear about your plans or how passionate you are, or how disgusted you are what with whatever is happening in the world. So, how are we taking care of our employees as they’re constantly hearing this negative stuff that more than likely is bringing up past things for them and re-traumatizing them?
And then the last thing I would say is equity. I don’t care what your policies are. I don’t care how you think you’re hiding salary and benefits. Folks talk. And BIPOC people end up understanding, knowing, finding out that so and so, their White colleague makes more than them and has less experience and has even done less for the organization. There is still an issue with pay equity for BIPOC folks in general and for BIPOC women. You can go down each race and ethnicity in the BIPOC realm, and it is just terrible compared to what they make versus their colleagues.
MELINDA: Absolutely. Absolutely. I don’t have the statistics offhand but what we’ll do is we’ll share some resources in the follow-up, and it’ll be on our website once the video and the podcast come out so people can learn more about that because the numbers are very significant. And it adds up over your career, as well. It’s the long-term wealth and intergenerational wealth too that it is impacting.
MELINDA: As well as the personal perception of value and all of that as well.
TONITA: I just want to add that pay inequity not only negatively impacts BIPOC folks. It impacts all of us. That is wealth not being put back into our economy. So, to pay fair and with equitable practices, we all benefit.
MELINDA: Absolutely. Absolutely. You started to go into this a bit around healing and the importance of healing. I want to ask you both. There has been, I wouldn’t say, a new focus, but a wider focus, a broader focus on race and improving diversity, equity, inclusion for Black people in particular since George Floyd was murdered. How has this impacted you, honestly? Has this led to the systemic change that we need?
WILLIAM: George Floyd. There’s so much wrapped up in that particular incident. First of all, it’s a grotesque moment in time, right. And what made it grotesque is that we’re all home for the pandemic. We’re all on our screens. And YouTube is live. And everyone has 4k HD cellphones capturing the event. So, you couldn’t avoid it.
Now, for a lot of White people and others, I heard colleagues, and that’s the first time I’ve ever known that there was any problem. It’s like, okay, so you’ve been walking through, maybe watching too many Jeopardy episodes rather than seeing what’s going on in the world. For a lot of Black people, it’s like, “Aha. They got another one.” He’s not the first one that year, and he wasn’t the last. And in the last 400 years, he’s just one of a million. We had a whole city wiped out by White folks. The history books didn’t even blink. So, you know, there’s that.
But for me, as a Black person, another thing happened, which was an activation. I mean, I was already on a path of trying to do things. I had that LEAP behind me. I was a woke at that point. Even before that happens, like, what can I do? I got to get back. I’m getting older, tail ending my career. It’s time to start giving back. That helped crystallize it, and I put a number on it. Almost immediately, I said, “All right, I’m going to spend $100,000 on investing in Black businesses.” That’s where I started. I’ve continued to say, “I want to help develop Black businesses because that’s important and it’s something I can do, not because I’m a multimillionaire, but because I’ve had all this experience of my life that I can now help apply the next level. LEAP was one level of things. Now, there’s this business level of thing.
And then the last thing, and there are so many things, but the last thing I’ll mention is the effect it had on me, and this goes back to something Tonita kind of allude to is how I responded to my White colleagues. It wasn’t all White colleagues. Some of them were just from different countries. Typically, Asian. The whole, “I’m sorry. You must feel this,” “I feel awful that…” It’s like, don’t feel sorry for me. I’m not the one with the problem here. Black people aren’t the ones that have a problem. We are the ones being killed, right? We don’t have a problem. You have the problem. You guys are sick, and you need to heal yourselves. We’re here to help you, but you’re the ones that need to heal. And that was the final thing for me.
People would want me to come and talk to their group about how it felt being Black and other things. And I would just tell people I am not a monkey in the zoo. You don’t get to observe me and walk away without sharing your own emotional journey because that’s not fair, and I won’t be observed. I’ve been observed long enough. You need to start doing some work. So, if you want to have an honest conversation, where we’re both vulnerable, and our emotions are raw, great, we’ll have that conversation, and we’ll help the healing between us. But other than that, I’m weary. I’m done. I don’t have time for you. You guys have been doing this long enough. You need to figure out what your problem is. Right? Those are all the things that came out of George Floyd for me.
TONITA: I almost felt like I wanted to be in church and Amen you.
WILLIAM: Can I get an Amen?
TONITA: I guess I can pick up now. Sorry.
WILLIAM: The collection play will be coming around.
TONITA: For me, much like William, I really felt that I was in a space trying to change things. My family would say to me, my Southern family, like, “Whoa girl, your mouth. It’s going to get you in trouble.” Those types of things, right. So, I thought I was there until that happened. I also recently made a transition where all three of my sons. I have three sons and one daughter. They were adults. And right a couple of months before George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery happened.
I have athletic boys that will go for a run. My world was just rocked in a different way because when I saw these things through this lens as a mom. I stopped seeing things my whole life, but now I’m a mom, and I just was grappling where I have very little control over what they do now. Right? When they were young, I could kind of sort of protect them, but now that they’re grown men, it’s up to them. And the worry that came over me was just overwhelming.
I realized how much I had pushed down. That happened to me that I hadn’t ever talked about, that I hadn’t dealt with. I just had this immense anger. And I will tell you what did it for me was the smile on the officer’s face. That just brought up everything that I didn’t remember, I thought I was hiding, or that I was pushing down. I made a commitment that I was going to show up as my authentic self with my worries and concerns, not just as a mom but as a Black mom of Black men. And my hurts, my anger in a way that was healthy. So what that meant for me is I needed help to deal with that. That was decades and decades of stuff that I just pushed down.
For my own healing, I realized there was healing I had to do because if I did not, I was going to lose it and snap on someone any day with all the Teach Me and some folks who, even with my background, said it was my responsibility to help bring people along. No, it’s not. No, it’s not. No, that’s what Google was for. You can Google just like I can. I’m not going to do that. But I had to figure out how to do that in a way that I wasn’t damaging myself or damaging any progress that my organization was making.
So, that’s what came up for me. It was really centered on me as a mother because I saw my sons. And to hear someone cry out for their moms. I have three mama’s boys. They won’t say it, but everybody else will tell you they are. It just broke my heart. And everything that I had pushed down regarding that, I realized I had to do something about that and deal with that.
I want to bring that point up because it’s really important that we, as BIPOC people, take care of ourselves. If you’re a BIPOC and you navigate this United States, you have trauma, and you need to deal with the trauma, or it’s going to eat at you. And that can impact your health. It can impact how you show up. It can impact your goals. This country has told us that we’re not a priority. It’s time for us to make ourselves a priority.
WILLIAM: I think that’s a really important point. For me, at least, is that a lot of Black history in the last, let’s just call it 40-50 years has been handout, you know, you owe me. I think we’re done with that. I think we have to move to a state of, “We’re going to do for ourselves.” Right? I think it’s very important that professionals like ourselves should be standing up and going, all right. We got some sports millionaires and billionaires over there. We got some music people over there. We got some more athletes. We got some tech people. We got some CEOs and whatnot. We have the brain trust. We have money. We have ideas. We need to start setting our own path and not just waiting for the rest of society to bring us along because we know how that goes. We have 400 years of how that goes. It’s time for us to just stand up and say, “All right, this is what we’re gonna do.” because the society around us is going to educate itself at its own pace. The world isn’t always fair. And, you know, it’s not always equitable. We have the means whereby we can start setting our own path as much as we can—and working with purpose.
TONITA: What I hear you saying, William, is, we have to understand our own worth and power. And sometimes, I believe we don’t. We think we have to get permission. And no, we don’t. No, we don’t.
WILLIAM: Exactly. I mean, you’re a CEO of a company. There are plenty of people who can look at you and go, “Oh, I didn’t know we could do that.” Right? It’s like, yep, we sure can. Let me show you how. Right? So, yeah.
MELINDA: Thank you both for sharing that. I think what I hear as a White person there is that we have a lot of work to do, obviously. And I know that. I have known that for a long time. I’ve been working on it for a long time.
And for everybody who’s listening, we all have a lot of work to do. And as managers, as leaders, and companies, it’s really important to recognize that it’s going to happen again. There is regular violence against Black people, injustice against Black people. And so, it’s important to support folks. It’s important to have those mental health resources in your company. It’s important to recognize that this is happening and not just be self-centered in that space. Right? It’s really important to recognize and have empathy for folks as they experienced that and so many of the different ways that you talked about.
We’re running short on time. We have two questions from folks wanting to create change. And so, Erika asks in discussions around DEI at work. They’re really focused on being 100% inclusive. So, not leaving out the 60% of the room that are still cis White men, and which bothered her. What are your thoughts around engaging White men meaningfully and helping trigger aha moments for those folks, because I’m sure both of you have done some of that?
TONITA: It’s a difficult road, Erika, because just the way this country has been built is to protect White men and their feelings and their power. How you start with that is dismantling that power in that systemic way and allowing the emotions to happen. I’ve had some powerful conversations with White males who have said to me, “I grew up poor.” Okay, let’s talk about what that meant for you versus me as a Black person. You got to have those discussions. And then, on the other side of it, it’s really up to them what they do with it.
And sometimes it means what you’re doing is weeding those folks who can’t be brought along, out, and that’s okay. I think companies who like to center, what I call is the fragility that sitting in that room often can’t reach their full potential because you’re allowing that to hold you back. You got to go for it. It’s going to be tough. There’s going to be people angry and upset, and you let them be. And hopefully, they go on a healthy journey to understand why they’re so upset. And then if they can’t do that, “Have a nice life. Bye.” Right?
MELINDA: Don’t get stuck there.
TONITA: Yeah. Yeah.
WILLIAM: I’d like to add this comment that Emily made in the chat about our organization, Microsoft—invested in inclusion. And that’s exactly right. That’s what is applied here because when you look on a global scale, Microsoft is a global company. Here in America. It’s all about women, Hispanics, Black, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders. Those are the top hits, right? That’s where you’re trying to get in the door because those are the classically underrepresented minorities.
When you go to Nigeria, forget all that. Everyone’s Black. So, it’s about women. And it’s about certain tribals. Right. When you go to India, again, it’s about tribals. There are no White men. There are no Black people. I mean, there’s plenty of dark-skinned people. They don’t call them Black, but, you know. So, you have to just recognize that the real game is about how do you include more voices at the table because that’s going to make your company stronger.
So it’s really about an inclusion game, where it just gets hyper-focused here in the US about the Black thing because we have such strong history on that particular axis, and that’s why we’re focused on it. But really, it’s about inclusion and just asking yourself, so those White males who are threatened, or those males who are threatened in Nigeria, you just ask them, we want to make a better product by including more voices in the product development. That’s the game right there.
It’s about convincing those people, and like Tonita just said, some people, they’re just not going to be convinced. Like, look, I got my privilege. I don’t want to give it up. Right? All right, you’re off the boat. I’m going to find the guy who’s willing to share because we want to make the boat stronger. Right? And that’s just the way it goes. And if they want to go down the hill, you know, singing the flag, raising the flag of exclusion, so be it right. And hopefully, we end up in a world that says, “Wow, that was the anachronistic point in history where we used to do stuff like that, and now we don’t.” So that’s all I want to say about it.
MELINDA: We didn’t get to another question here. I’m really sorry. But hopefully, we’ll be able to address it in the future. One last very quick question. I always end by asking our audience to commit to taking action. So, for each of you, what is one action you’d like people to take after listening or watching?
TONITA: What I would like you to do is self-care. Make sure you are taking care of yourself in the way that you’re able to do it, you can afford to do it. I would ask you to create a plan to have an executive coach, a therapist, or yoga, or something. How many minutes and hours can you dedicate to becoming your whole self and heal from your past trauma? That’s what I’ll ask you to do.
WILLIAM: Mine would be to go read a book from a culture that you’re not used to. My favorite one if you were reading about Black culture in America would be Black Folktales because you’ll hear about High John the Conqueror, and Stagolee, and also Br’er Rabbit, and also some other fun things. So that would be my commandment. Very short—go read a book from a culture you’re not used to because you’ll learn a lot about that culture.
MELINDA: Awesome. Thank you both. Really appreciate this. I’m sure you’re seeing the chat too. People are really appreciating this conversation. Thank you.
TONITA: Thank you.
MELINDA: Thank you all for participating in the chat and for being here for your questions. Thank you again to First Tech Federal Credit Union for your sponsorship.
And just a few last things for continued learning. Last year, we had an incredible panel of Black folks who shared what they want from allies during Black History Month. You can check that Episode #32 at ally.cc.
We’ve also addressed Black mental health, emotional tax, the effects of racism on Black men and boys, in particular, intergenerational trauma, and more. So, there are lots of ways to deepen your learning through reading and also through listening and watching other episodes at ally.cc.
So, thank you all. Happy Black History Month. Please do the work and take care of yourselves while doing it. Bye.
MELINDA: To learn more about this episode’s topic, visit ally.cc
Allyship is a journey. It’s a journey of self-exploration, learning, unlearning, healing, and taking consistent action. And the more we take action, the more we grow as leaders and transform our communities. So, what action will you take today? Please share your actions and learning with us by emailing podcast@ChangeCatalyst.co or on social media because we’d love to hear from you.
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Leading With Empathy & Allyship is an original show by Change Catalyst where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. Appreciate you listening to our show and taking action as an ally.
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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