In Episode 119, Natalia Villalobos, VP of Inclusion at The New York Times, joins Melinda in a transformative discussion on ways to empower individuals to be agents of change within organizations. They delve into the importance of active listening and learning about the workplace culture to understand the change model before taking action. They explore creative and practical ways to collaborate as a team on solutions to drive meaningful change together. They also discuss how leaders can give people grace throughout the change process by cultivating a learning-oriented workplace culture and providing support and resources to help everyone navigate the change.
- Learn more about Natalia’s work at The New York Times
- Watch or listen to EP116: “Fostering Inclusive Conversations At Work With David Glasgow”
This videocast is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now. Learn more about our show sponsor Interpreter-Now at www.interpreter-now.com.
- “If we can create a learning environment that is a place of curiosity, then there isn’t necessarily a wrong or right; it’s just we’re figuring it out…. That’s a really important place to be in and a place to foster with people so that the fear can drop and action can move forward…, [and] one of the greatest tools for making that happen is grace…. When you mispronounce someone, or when you’re not showing up the way that you might want to, you can give yourself grace; it’s a place of easefulness…, non-judgement; it’s a place of not inaction, but it’s a place of saying, ‘I may not get it right, but I’ll try again….’ If we always stay paralyzed in the face of fear, we never offer ourselves grace, that our leadership roles may fall flat in terms of what they could really accomplish.”
- “What’s really important, when being a changemaker, is to assess your landscape— both the one that you’ve entered and the one around it…. You want to assess the environment in a way that allows you to take in enough knowledge to help you create the right type of strategy. So before you take action, you’ll have to listen…, learn, and… figure out what is the right set of those tools and skill sets that you need to apply to the organization, rather than just what you think is the best thing for the situation.”
- “When you’re sitting down with the leader, and they’re like, ‘I’m overwhelmed,’ one of the things that… is really important is to think about how do we create a common set of language, a common set of interventions, a common sense of paths and pathing…; then you start to organize the chaos, that can be chaos that someone feels in their work environment; it can be chaos that they feel inside because they’re grappling with how this is showing up in the real world with the murdering of Black men, women, and children; it could be, ‘how do I take that feeling that I have and how do I help people within this organization?’ So you’re kind of starting to help soften and shape and guide, and from that place of overwhelm to a place of action. Empathy plays a huge role in making that transformation possible.”
Natalia Villalobos (she/her)
VP of Inclusion at The New York Times
Natalia Villalobos is the first Vice President of Inclusion Strategy & Execution at The New York Times. There she is responsible for the DEI strategy for 5,800+ employees within the US and internationally.
Prior to joining The Times, Natalia was Google’s “Feminist-in-Residence” leading internal and external global diversity programs. She created Women Techmakers, Google’s outreach program for women in technology. She scaled Women Techmakers from a once-per-year event for 400 women in 2012 into a sustained program that provides economic opportunity for over 300,000 women annually in 190 countries. Natalia also led DEI for Developer Relations, Google’s outreach organization for developers. Within this organization, she oversaw hiring, retention, progression, and culture initiatives for Googlers.
She believes in meeting and listening to users where they are with an empathetic, human-centered yet data-focused approach. With a degree from Sonoma State University, Natalia has applied her background in civil rights and social movements to the tech industry where she is a recognized leader in gender equality and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) broadly.
Natalia has been featured in USA Today, CBS News, Newsweek, Inc. Magazine, BBC, Business Insider, and more. She has enjoyed speaking at Stanford, Harvard Business School, DLD, SXSW, NASA, the Grace Hopper conference, Google I/O, Tech Inclusion, and at international summits. She is currently on the board of Micro and the Tribal Link Foundation. She was on the Advisory Board for UC Hastings Law School’s Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, advised Arab Women in Computing, supported the Anu & Naveen Jain Women’s Safety XPrize. She has two patents with Google.
In 2010, Natalia founded 300 Acres, a digital storytelling campaign that went viral to save 300 acres of the Ecuadorian rainforest for the Quichua people. In 60 days, Natalia successfully raised $104,000 of a $73,000 goal to purchase the land and place it in a trust to avoid the land being sold to oil developers. Prior to Google, Natalia had a successful career as a Community Manager for Yahoo!, Digg, The Institute for the Future, Get Satisfaction, The Seasteading Institute, and StyleMob. As a public face and voice for companies, and as a conduit for global online/offline communities, Natalia was an effective advocate for products and experiences totaling 400M+ users.
MELINDA: Hello, everyone. I’m Melinda Briana Epler, Founder and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How to Be an Ally. I’m your host of Leading With Empathy & AllyShip. Welcome!
Allyship is about learning, showing empathy, and taking action. That process often includes learning, unlearning, and relearning, then building empathy for people with different experiences, and above all, taking consistent action. So each week, we’ll learn from somebody new. Please 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.
Today, our guest is a friend, a colleague, a former client, and an incredible lifelong advocate, Natalia Villalobos, who is the VP of Inclusion at the New York Times. We’ll be talking today about how we create change in our organizations by empowering people to be change agents. So that’ll include understanding the model of change within your organization, partnering with leaders, building communities of practice, and giving people grace throughout the process.
NATALIA: Thanks for having me, Melinda.
MELINDA: All right. Let’s start first by getting to know a bit about you, Natalia. Can you share with us a bit about your story, where you grew up, and how you ended up doing the work that you do now?
NATALIA: Yeah, thank you for the invitation. So my name is Natalia Villalobos. I’ve also gone by Natalie Villalobos, so you might find me as both on the internet. As I like to tell people, Natalie felt very much like the girl name, and Natalia, which is just my name in Spanish, felt like my woman name. So I had changed my name a few years ago to be representative of that new chapter in my life.
I am an 11th generation Californian, and I am very proud of that heritage. At the same time, I’m the only person in my family who lives in New York. So I definitely love spearheading and being a bit of a trailblazer in my family, seeking out new lands for big opportunities. For most of my life, I was in tech. For over 15 years, I was focused on utilizing my primary life value, which is community, and using that as a method for change in organizations. In the most recent past, that was Google. At Google, I was leading our gender equality investments and efforts, specifically for women in technology. I helped build a program called Women Techmakers. I was also able to partner with an exceptional group of people to launch and build Google’s first black equity grant called The Tech Equity Collective. Most recently, I am at the New York Times as their first Vice President of Inclusion, Strategy, and Execution.
To Melinda’s point, if you had to ask me where did it all start, I’d probably tell you about a paper that I wrote when I was in high school. I was in something called the YMCA Youth and Government Program, which is basically teaching high schoolers about the model legislature and court system. That’s to kind of reenact different roles in the California state government. I thought I was going to be a high school history teacher, so I picked the State Board of Education, and my paper that I wrote when I was 17 was to include diversity, equity, and inclusion classes and workshops within all public schools in the state of California.
MELINDA: Oh, wow!
NATALIA: Yes, you can imagine that this is something that’s been on my mind for quite some time. That was when I was 17. I’m 39 now, and I believe I’ll be doing this work for the rest of my life.
MELINDA: Awesome, I love it! Actually, I’m just thinking back to when it started for me, too. Also in high school. Yeah, definitely, I wrote papers when I was in high school. I wrote long, dense papers, because I was an overachiever and perfectionist and all the things. But it was when I created a sister school in, then, the Soviet Union, that was a big deal at the time and really changed how I view the world in so many different ways.
Okay, so you’re a changemaker and a community builder who has worked to create change in a number of different organizations and in different ways. So getting to the topic today, can you share how you think about creating change in different environments? How do you create change in different environments?
NATALIA: I’ve been in a number of different environments. I would say that, I mean that that could be partnering with nonprofits. It could be working for a large company. It could be working for an institution, like the New York Times, that’s been around for over 170 years. When you first enter into an environment, you come with a set of tools, skill sets, and knowledge. If you’re anything like me, which maybe you’re not, you might have a strong bias to action; you might feel an internal need to create change. People might come to you with thoughts and feelings and ideas, and you’re like: “Ah, I’ve got to solve for this as soon as possible.” That inner drive is really important to listen to, but it’s also important to temper. Because what’s so important is to also think about the environment and the type of environment that you’re looking to participate in and make change in.
In some cases, you might be in an environment that is really focused on innovation, and design thinking, and accelerating, and trial and error, and launch and iterate. You’re really playing in a relatively high-risk environment, and risk is rewarded. In other environments, it might be slow. It might be a sense of building greater consensus than what you’re used to. It might mean more feedback than less feedback. It might mean lots of decision makers, rather than you just being the primary decision maker.
I think what’s really important, when being a changemaker, is to assess your landscape, both the one that you’ve entered and the one around it. So I also like to think of competitors, I like to do landscape analyses when I first join an organization, to get a sense. You want to assess the environment in a way that allows you to take in enough knowledge to help you create the right type of strategy. So before you take action, you’ll have to listen, you’ll have to learn, and you’ll have to figure out what is the right set of those tools and skill sets that you need to apply to the organization, rather than just what you think is the best thing for the situation. So a lot of customization, I would say, a lot of adaptation.
MELINDA: What is a good process, or is there a process for doing that? What does that look like to really take that on, to really understand how change works in organizations, how the culture works in organizations, in order to do that?
NATALIA: Yeah, that’s a great question. So people will often bring up, in diversity work or in community work, it is strategic, it is action-focused. But I think at the end of the day, you might not cure it, but it’s healing work, and that happens in a lot of small and big ways. So that’s how to think about it is, research with active listening, qualitative and quantitative, being able to then diagnose and assess what needs to be done. Then you move into your action plan, and then I think you get into a place of operationalizing, metabolizing, getting it into the system. Then I think you’re in a testing phase. It’s like, “Did that work? Was my assumption correct?” What can I then ask people, is this really working? They’ll be able to give me feedback, and then I’m going to iterate on it.
MELINDA: Yeah, I have questions within that. I think it’s so important to linger on what you said, too, around healing, that this work is a lot about healing. I think also identifying the pains so that you can do the healing work. One of the things that I have definitely found is that, in one way or another, most of us are walking around with pain, and it shows up in ways that can be harmful to ourselves and harmful to each other too. That in this work, often when we come up against barriers, it’s because of something that’s happened, some kind of pain or trauma that has happened in the past that is emerging and present.
NATALIA: Yeah. It makes me think of, do you remember that sweatshirt that we made together years ago?
NATALIA: It was the gray one, I think it said “Focus on solutions.” I think mine is still packed away in my pandemic storage unit. But that sweatshirt is something that I still think about, that one-liner: Focus on solutions. I bring that up now because, in our workplaces, in our lives, in our communities, whatever it might be, we have a lot of different feelings; we have emotions about things. Oftentimes, when there is suffering or pain, historical or systemic, things like that, oftentimes people will come to me with this bundle of emotions, and they’re just like, “Can you just take this from me? I have these feelings. Can you do something with it?” Maybe one of the more difficult jobs of someone who has an empathy-focused role and is an ally is to help both receive, validate, and then help figure out what is the next step. What would you like to have done with that set of feelings? So I do a lot of untangling of the solution that someone would like to have come from an emotion, and that takes time.
My calling, I think, in a lot of my work — I’ll be in some big meetings, and then I’ll have 30-minute meetings at coffee — the moments that I know I’m really making a difference are those 30-minute meetings when someone can bring me something and we can find a jam together; we can find a solution together. A good example of that is, giving people some options is listening and saying: “Okay, would you like for this group of people to come together and express themselves to each other, let’s say in a town hall?” Say, folks are experiencing Asian hate and violence, and the Asian community is feeling a type of way. Okay, do we just want a container to get the feelings out? Or do we want an opportunity to take feelings and express them in a document and give that document to somebody? That’s another solution. Do we want to maybe write down our thoughts and feelings into talking points for people managers, to be able to express why, or to speak about the experience that Asian people are feeling, and then they create more allies.
So I think when we sit down and we listen to pain, it’s not again like we’re trying to get to action. But I think it works really well when you partner to build a solution, and you can’t build a solution on your own. I can’t build that kind of solution on my own, it needs to be in partnership with. So I think so much of what I love doing is building that sense of co-creation with everyone that comes my way, so that it feels like we’re doing that healing and solving work together.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. But I think that gets into my next question for you, we’ve already started to talk about it, which is how we move from big ideas, big strategies, into execution and the individual actions that really are the ones that create those cultural shifts. How do we get there? So you started to talk about partnership, and maybe you could go more into that. What does partnering with look like? What does collaborating with leaders look like in order to create change?
NATALIA: One of the things that I think I am struck by when I think of diversity strategies, and sometimes they’re said at a company-wide level. It’s a public commitment, and we’re saying something that is maybe multi-year. We’re setting a vision, and we’re saying: “These are our values, and this is what we want to accomplish.” This is very broad. This is more generalized of an industry. I think sometimes we think that’s enough. We make a statement, and then leaders can interpret that statement, and everyone go do your best. There it is like, “Well, I don’t know if that’s really going to get us where we need to go.” Because people need a plan, people need to be able to have some accountability; we need to be able to measure things, we need to be able to have quarterly reviews to make sure we’re on track.
I believe that every leader stands behind this work differently, and their organizations may be at different maturation levels when it comes to actually doing the work, and that’s okay. But we can’t just leave it vague and broad, we’ve got to bring it home. I think how we bring it home is, you’ve got to sit down with leaders, and you’ve got to say: “What’s coming up for you? What is a priority for you in this work?” Some people might say hiring, some people might say retention, some people might say the culture in my space isn’t as welcoming as it might be. That’s a great place to start, to give me a starting point. So I think you need both. I think that you need to have the broad company vision that’s kind of like the north star, and then you need to help people navigate.
One of the things that I’m really interested in is the practice of building toolkits and strategies that can scale. Because often, DEI teams are small teams, and you don’t want the DEI team to be the only team that does it. That’s not where the responsibility stays and where it lands. The responsibility is really with these different leaders. So I think when you can sit down with folks, you get a sense of the starting point, it also gives you a sense of the diversity of problems they might be looking at. I think then, that’s when you can build out playbooks, templates, toolkits, standards, and communicate your strategy, your plan, your vocabulary; the journey to these leaders, and you’re imparting them with the method to go forth. Then you work the method with them, and that’s where you get to be an exceptional partner and that center of excellence. I think that that’s much more scalable.
I think one thing I wanted to mention here is, you have the go forth model, like the “I’m going to work the method with you.” But again, you don’t want that to be so siloed. So I think another great opportunity, when you are bringing people on to your approach, is to bring them together. As I mentioned, community is so important to me. So how do we bring those leaders together to learn about this work? How do we bring their program managers, the operators that work together, to do the work? And how is everyone learning in partnership with each other? So it’s not just thinking of partnership of me to them, it’s to each other. I think that that means that then I can go on vacation from time to time, because there’s a great group of people who are actually carrying the work with one another and not just relying on me. I think that’s important for DEI practitioners, too.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. Because we need to build our own resilience, and that empathy practice means that we’re sometimes taking in things that we need to come back out through that resilience practice. We’re working with a tech company, and one of the things that the head of diversity, equity, and inclusion is doing is recognizing that each team leader has a different passion. Kind of what you said, each team leader has a different passion. So rather than saying, “No, that’s not your priority right now,” it’s going with that. Like, you have a passion for bringing more women leaders into senior leadership positions. Excellent! Let’s support you and bring you forward and give you the tools and the skills that you need in order to do that effectively. Another one is more focused on diversifying their candidate pools, and another one is more focused on building trust that their team has lost because of layoffs or something like that. I’m just making this up, I don’t know, these are not real examples.
NATALIA: Yeah, you’re doing a great job.
MELINDA: So I think what you’re saying is that when you’re working to collaborate with leaders, it’s building these customized approaches and allowing them to lead their own work, rather than telling them, and saying this is your directive and this is your directive. Also, within that, creating accountability. Everybody has to have some kind of accountability and check-ins and milestones, so that you can check in on what’s working, what’s not working, and change it if needed. So just thinking about the communities of practice, bringing people in together, would that look like then saying: “Okay, so this leader is focused on advancing more women into leadership positions, and this leader over here is doing the same things, we’re bringing them together to share.” Is that what you’re talking about?
NATALIA: Yeah, I think that that’s a great outcome. That’s absolutely right. I think to double-down on what you were saying, you have to meet leaders where they are. I think you can have a vision of where you want them to be, but no. We talk about this a lot in DEI work, it’s a journey. Imagine if you’ve got 13 different senior vice presidents, that’s 13 different both individual journeys, 13 team journeys, 13 organizational journeys. So meeting them where they are is respecting them and the journey that they will be on. I think that’s another great sign of partnership. So definitely meet them where they are.
Your words inspired me to remember something that I had done with our tech organization here at the Times. We have a great set of data. Our HRS team is exceptional. I was able to partner with a woman on my team, her name is Arielle, and leaders of the tech organization, and we were able to look at all of the different data. There were some key themes. Now I can’t share what those themes are. But what I can say is we created a design sprint workshop. So I’ve done years of design sprint thinking and workshops at Google. I was like: “Okay, how do I take this method, this tool that I already have in my toolbox, and how do I apply it to a new group of people and help them work the problem?” So what we did is we actually, and maybe this is something I can share with your audience afterwards, I can find some way to maybe show us that on the web, but I adapted the design sprint thinking model so that our first few slides were the setup. It was, “What are we going to do, what do we want to achieve, and here’s how we’re going to do it together.” Got people in a room, there were about 18 of us, and we went through the four or five major themes in terms of what we received for marginalized and underrepresented people within the organization. What we did then was to give people a chance to individually write down on post-it notes what they thought the solution was to that.
Now imagine, I have 18 people, I have 18 different versions of a solution, and they’re all coming from different places across the tech work; operations, strategy, HR, everyone’s coming with their own lens. I think sometimes when we’re all coming with our own lens, depending on how you’re seeing an organization, you might not be heard as much. So it creates an equal table of caring solutions. Then what we did is, we then created a set of themes that my team likes to work on, that comes up a lot in DEI. So hiring, progression, retention, culture, and accessibility. I put those big five posters around the room, and I said: “Go put your sticky note, your solution out, wherever you think it lies on one of those themes.” Everyone had to get up, express their idea, and everyone heard each other, that’s very important.
Then the next step was, “Alright, everyone gets three votes.” So we got those little dots stickers that you can get at Staples, and everyone went up and put a sticker on what they thought the most impactful solution was to do in the first year. Then we could collectively see what were we all, if we could be investors, think of it like Shark Tank, what were we going to double-down on. That gave people a sense of input and creative control over what did we want to tackle together across all these teams. Then we split each other up into teams, and you had to represent one of the top ideas. Again, I love Shark Tank. So basically, my prompt was: “If you had to pitch our CEO, Meredith, on your big idea, and this was like a million dollar buy-in, sell me on it in a minute or two or less.” Then those teams — again, from different walks of life, different backgrounds and experiences — got together and pitched their big idea to the room. It was amazing. It was hysterical. It was the best. The whole room was laughing and supportive and cheering each other on. Now some of those big ideas have worked themselves into our multi-year strategy to drive diversity for the tech work.
So if you’re like, tell me about a process, that’s one I thought was really engaging and fun across a very matrix environment that allowed us to get to the creative solution together.
MELINDA: Yeah, I love that. I can see how that would work if you’re in different roles within the organization, whether you’re an ERG leader, you’re a diversity, equity, and inclusion leader, you’re a people leader. You’re a people leader that wants to develop a diversity, equity, and inclusion plan for your team, and you want to roll your team in the process, that might be a great way to roll your team in the process. It might also, as a result, filter out some ideas that are maybe allowed ideas, but when you actually get down to it there, when you pitch it, it falls flat because it’s not a robust idea that people really want to work for.
NATALIA: Yeah, and we got to prioritize those. I think that’s another big thing. When we’re looking at making change in an organization, again, there’s the monolith, there’s the on high, then there’s the custom. Then within each of those organizations, we’ve got the individual leader vision, meeting folks where they are, building processes that will resonate with that group. Then you’ve got to prioritize, what are you going to do first? We had just done lots of listening and speaking, we hadn’t even gotten to building the actual plan. So again, when making change, I think it’s a lot of this setup which takes time. You can’t skip through some of this stuff. I think that that was also important is to really help get a sense of, we got 10 great ideas out of that exercise, but we can only pick three. You’ve got to keep people focused. Then those three things have got to have KPIs or OPRs, pick your frame, and then we’re going to work it, and we’re going to assign some ownership to it. I think that then, rubber starts to hit the road. Then we get to think about what are the resources we need to accomplish it: people, money, otherwise, whatever. Then you have time to run. So all this setup, like, change takes time, both in actually cycling through it, but then all of getting people together in terms of consensus and decision-making, and then reporting up and out about how well It’s going. So this stuff I love because it’s slow progress, but it’s meaningful progress.
MELINDA: So let me ask you this. In that process of developing a strategy of working to create change within organizations and partnering with leaders to create change, and gathering input and feedback, and piloting and feedback, all of that, what do you do to enroll the folks there? I think maybe two that I want to ask you about. One is, the leaders that are overwhelmed by diversity, equity, and inclusion, and they’re like, “I have no idea what to do, just tell me what to do.” They’re not necessarily saying they don’t want to do it. Maybe they’re saying, “I don’t have time to think about it. But you’re the expert, tell me what to do.” Then there’s also the leaders that are not focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and don’t want to deal with it at all. What do you do with those two?
NATALIA: My first thing that I think about is prioritization. I’m going to go where the energy is. If you have a desire and a drive, I want to meet it, and I’m going to meet it with the best of everything I have. I think that you also have to break down DEI a little bit too. I say this, so one is, we’ll keep prioritization here, but you’ve got to create a common ground, like a common sense of what do we even say. I’ve been playing with this, so I’m pitching it to your audience for the first time, and there’s more. So if you want to talk to me on social media, please come talk to me about some of these ideas. That is the idea of, when we say diversity, equity, and inclusion, someone might say, “DEI is controversial. It’s a social justice movement. It’s shiny investments only when it matters. It’s thoughts and prayers when things happen. Does it really need to be integrated into systems?” That’s one: DEI is controversial.
I think two is: DEI is a journey. I’ve kind of already mentioned this. DEI can be a journey for a person, it can be a journey for a team, it can be a journey for an organization, it can be a journey for a company; those are four different sized things. That’s heavy just on its own.
Then the other one that I’ve been thinking about next to it is, DEI is a discipline. It’s academic, it’s historical. It is something that we can go to school for, but it’s something that is a craft. I think, kind of wrapping all this together is something that I like to say, is that DEI and this work is a living narrative. It changes every single day, and that’s what’s beautiful about it. It’s a non-stagnant practice of meeting humans, loving humans, and helping people get to a greater sense of wholeness and connection to themselves, to an organization, a sense of affinity. It’s ongoing. It’s ever-moving. I think that can also be challenging. So when you’re sitting down with the leader, and they’re like, “I’m overwhelmed.” I’m like, “Tell me buddy, talk to me. I get you, and I got where that might feel overwhelming.”
I think that, let’s just even get to the place of common language. So one of the things that I think is really important is to think about how do we create a common set of language, a common set of interventions, a common sense of paths and pathing. I think then you start to organize the chaos. That can be chaos that someone feels in their work environment. It can be chaos that they feel inside because they’re grappling with how this is showing up in the real world with the murdering of Black men, women, and children. It could be, how do I take that feeling that I have and how do I help people within this organization. So you’re kind of starting to help soften and shape and guide, and from that place of overwhelm to a place of action. Empathy plays a huge role in making that transformation possible.
Then I think, as you mentioned, then there’s the people that are just like, I just don’t get it. Then I’m like, “Well, I’ll get to you later, eventually. Eventually, I’ll break it down for you. But I’m going to start with these folks.”
MELINDA: Let’s get to all these other wheels in motion first.
NATALIA: “But in the meantime, here’s a book, written by my friend, Melinda.” I think that I’m not here to force your journey, it’s only going to work if you want to greet it, if you want to come to the journey yourself for your team. I’ll give you resources, let me know what you think. It’s a soft sell, get people curious. Being curious, in this work, is a huge lightbulb moment for people. I think if you can suspend judgment, then you can get to a place of curiosity, and that’s when the good stuff really starts to happen.
MELINDA: Yeah, and maybe part of that is understanding what might be holding them back. Maybe it’s a belief. Maybe it’s a pain, to go back to that. Maybe it’s something else. Maybe they’re feeling pressure from some other end and just aren’t able to concentrate on it. There’s so many different reasons why there is that perceived wall that may have some holes in it if you poke with your curiosity enough.
NATALIA: Yeah, absolutely. I think that, historically, when I’ve talked to folks, there’s fear: the fear that you’re going to get it wrong, the fear that you’re going to mispronoun someone, the fear that you’re going to walk into a room and not know the latest news that might be affecting someone. So oftentimes, people, leaders and non-leaders, will feel like, “I’m just going to sit here, and I’m just going to be silent, and my presence is enough.” When in reality, the folks who are feeling the most impacted need you to say something. I think when I think of DEI, it’s a learning environment. When we’re thinking about change in an organization, what doesn’t work is judging each other, and saying: “Oh, you’re only there? Oh, I’m here? We’re making this comparative assessment. Because again, we’re always looking at data, we’re always looking at each other.
If we can create a learning environment that is a place of curiosity, then there isn’t necessarily a wrong or right. It’s just we’re figuring it out. I think that that’s a really important place to be in and a place to foster with people, so that the fear can drop and action can move forward. I think one of the greatest tools for making that happen is grace. I think when grace was first introduced to me, the first time I really heard it was, maybe you go to church when you hear the word grace. If that resonates with you, that’s great. That’s a good place to start. I hear it in hymns. I think grace came to me through therapy and the work that I’ve personally been doing on my own journey. It’s this place of offering. I think we don’t have to wait for grace to be bestowed on us, we can bestow grace to ourselves. So when you mispronounce someone, or when you’re not showing up the way that you might want to, you can give yourself grace. It’s a place of easefulness. It’s a place of non-judgement. It’s a place of not inaction, but it’s a place of saying, “I may not get it right, but I’ll try again.”
To your point, resilience is really important. Because as we talk about this work, it’s not going to be finished in our lifetime, it will only be moved forward. If we always stay paralyzed in the face of fear, we never offer ourselves grace, that our leadership roles may fall flat in terms of what they could really accomplish. So I think that that’s something that I would encourage folks listening to think about is, what are the ways that you can bestow grace to yourself in the hard moments? How can you foster a sense of curiosity and a learning environment, so that people can lean into the work rather than then feel like they are fearful or paralyzed and lean out of the work? I think that’s what we can do as leaders is really set the table for curiosity.
MELINDA: Yeah. In a recent episode with David Glasgow, one of the things we talked about was shame. We talked in depth about the shame and the guilt that can come up, and that can be a barrier to change, to taking action. I’ve been thinking lately, that there are times when I am feeling shame or guilt, and what that is, I’m investigating that internally and I’m realizing it’s me beating myself up. It’s me saying, “You did that, and that was terrible, and shame on you!” Basically, I’m saying that to myself. I mean, first off, it’s not healthy. It’s not good for you, and it doesn’t help change the world. It doesn’t create the world that you want to see if you’re stuck in that space. That sense of giving yourself grace, I think, is really essential in this work. That we’re all going to make mistakes, we’re all going to, from time to time, realize afterwards: Ah, I should have done that, or I shouldn’t have done that.” It’s maybe apologizing if it’s something where you were doing harm, and then giving yourself grace, and just allowing yourself to be and learn and grow in the process.
NATALIA: Yeah. I think one of the visualizations that I do is, I kind of imagine myself as a kitchen colander, like a sieve. It’s kind of a funny visual. But it doesn’t really help us to hold on to things. It gets real sticky when we hold on to too much; too much guilt, too much shame, too much “I wish I could have.” So I think of myself as a kitchen colander. For folks who are wondering what the heck I’m talking about, it’s the thing that you might put your vegetables or fruit in and put it under some water, and then the water drains out, and all that’s left is your freshly clean fruit and vegetables. If we can imagine ourselves in this way, then we allow things to come to us and pass through us. I think that’s really important. Because every day, we’re called to action, we’re called to think about change, we’re potentially going to receive emotions, we’re going to be in a place of, “I sit in a seat of privilege and leadership, and might have to support some very quick problem-solving.” The lighter I can be, the more I can do. I think that that is really important.
I’ll say that, oftentimes, when we beat ourselves up, around this work or not this work, one of the things that was gifted to me was, oftentimes that voice is not your voice, but it was the voice of someone who said that to you. That was a mental unlock for me. Because when that voice comes up, I don’t listen to it. It’s kind of like the imposter voice. Don’t invest in believing your imposter voice. I would equally say to not listen to the voice that is the one that’s being hard on yourself.
So I think that there is a really beautiful place to open up to. When people start to shift into that monologue, the dialogue between you and this voice, is to just say, “I got this, I love myself, and I’m going to go for it and figure it out.” I think that there are these little keys that we can give each other. I think I might have mentioned this to you over coffee at some point. This idea of, true power for me is not keeping all these keys to myself, all these things that I have figured out. But it’s when I find them, I kind of give them away. That could be like, when I’m navigating an organization and I hit a wall or someone gives me some critical feedback, I then internalize it, and then I pass that note on to somebody else. I think that that’s a really important part of, if someone comes to you with something tough, don’t be tough on yourself, but take the lesson and pass the lesson on. Make something easier for somebody else, I think is a really, really important part of building equity in an organization. Because then it’s not just you changing the org or the company. That’s important, but it’s not the only piece. What’s greater is to go back to that community of practice, and let them know the lesson and let them know the note, and then you have hundreds of people changing the org or changing the culture. That’s good stuff.
MELINDA: That’s power. That’s great, I love that. Well, we’re winding down unfortunately, even though you and I could talk for hours about this. One thing I do like to ask at the end, because this is about learning and taking action, the work we do is about a constant process of learning and taking action. So what action would you like people to take once they listen to or watch this episode?
NATALIA: I love this! You just gave me the genie lamp, and I’m rubbing it to figure out what my wish is. I would love for your audience to hit me up on social. It can be LinkedIn. It can be Twitter. It’s not Instagram, because my Instagram is private. Let me know what piece of your power or privilege that you gave away, that impacted change in an organization. What did you teach someone that made your organization better? How did you act selflessly, so that change could accelerate? I would love to know that from folks.
And what wish would I have? I would love for folks to go back to their companies, to their organizations, to their teams, and to actively listen. Active listening is a little bit different than regular listening. When you’re sitting there and you’re listening, you’re not trying to make the next point. You don’t even have to go “hmm, huh” to try and perform that you’re listening. But you are suspending judgment, and you’re just being present with what is. I think if everyone here went back and actively listened to their leaders, to folks who are historically marginalized and underrepresented, we would be able to create more inclusive cultures, more inclusive strategies, more inclusive plans, that I think are more representative of the connective tissue that really creates a resilient organization, and a more cohesive organization, one that is truly representative of all ideas.
I would say, once you’ve listened, get curious. Curiosity is a beautiful sign of self-respect and respect for others. Get curious and have fun, that would be my wish. I think, ultimately, this work is heavy. Like I said, it’s controversial, it’s a discipline, it’s a journey. But also remember to laugh. That’s something that my boss there, our CHRO, Jacqueline Welch, really encourages in me, is to remember to smile through this work. She is such an incredible role model, as is my former boss, Lauren Lopez. So make sure to have fun and smile too.
MELINDA: I love it. One of the things that I worked on last year, and it’s always a continuous work in progress, is having joy in all of this, finding joy.
NATALIA: Yeah, absolutely.
MELINDA: I love that. Where can people learn more about you and your work?
NATALIA: Yeah, thanks for asking. So I’m relatively active on Twitter, fits and starts over there. But I would say you could get to know me and my perspectives. Be in touch on LinkedIn. I’m pretty active on LinkedIn, check it probably five times a day. So I’m most accessible there. You can also reach out to me, through there, through my email, which I’m happy to provide in the comments or caption section, if folks would like to shoot me a note.
But I’ll just say, Melinda is one of my favorite changemakers, and to be invited onto this show, to really stand behind her vision, your vision, is something that is always an honor to do. So I just really thank Melinda for making this space and for helping to lead the change across many industries and many organizations. Mad love! Because you’ve been doing this for so long, and you’re still here, and I love that we get to, over a decade later, still get to learn from one another.
MELINDA: I love it. Thank you, I really appreciate that. I appreciate you and your mentorship and friendship over the years, and all the work that you do.
NATALIA: Yeah, my privilege.
MELINDA: This is our last episode of the season. We’ll be taking a little break before moving on to our next season, and you won’t want to miss our next episode. Right now, our team is working hard on something new. I’m really excited about it, and I can’t wait to tell you. But I can’t tell you yet. So please tune in to our next episode where we’ll share a big announcement.
And until then, watch or listen to episodes you may have missed. And please, buy my book, How to Be an Ally, if you haven’t already. If you’ve already purchased my book, leave a review. Just click on the stars on Amazon or another seller, and write a few words about what you learned or how it helped. That makes a difference for me, so I thank you for your allyship, in buying my book, reviewing it, and of course, putting into practice what you’ve learnt.
Until next time, thank you all for being here and taking action. And we’ll see you soon.
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Remember, the more we take action, the more we grow as humans and as leaders, and the more we transform our communities. So what action will you take today? Let us know your actions by emailing podcast@ChangeCatalyst.co or reaching out on social media.
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. So 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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