Melinda Briana Epler, Founder & CEO of Change Catalyst, and Sam Sepah, Artificial Intelligence (AI) Research Product Manager at Google, have an open conversation around “Why Mentorship & Advocacy Are Key to Career Growth.” Sam describes his journey as a Deaf Persian in tech. He shares key takeaways from his work in HR and DEI, the difference between having a mentor and having an advocate, and how as allies and advocates we can work to make products and tools like AI universally useful.
- Sam Sepah’s website
- Sam Sepah’s keynote at the Ability in Tech Summit: “Give People A Chance To Thrive”
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey and Sean Covey
- About Dr. Marshall Goldsmith and 1∞ Coaches Methods
- Tax Credits and Deductions Available to Businesses by deaffriendly.com
- J.E.D.I & the Justice Equity Diversity (J.E.D.I) Toolkit
The live show is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now and White Coat Captioning.
- “Sometimes when you have your ally and they have enough distance from it, they can point you toward the right support you need, the right network, the right way to get what you need because they have played this playbook before. They have seen this movie before. They are able to point you in the right direction and help you chase your dreams.”
- “Not every mentor I have had has been the best advocate. Mentors, you know, they are good at their specific niche. They may be good at the specific domain knowledge that they have…. So, sometimes I don’t really feel like I need a mentor as much as I need an ally. A mentor is someone I am going to meet with every Tuesday and Thursday, and we are going to sit down and talk about things. An ally doesn’t work that way. You can’t just have the structured appointment. They have to be there ready to support you in any situation when you need to bounce an idea off them or you need motivation or you need to maybe overcome some huge barrier that’s just been presented to you. You need to be able to get them quickly and say, ‘Hey, I am stuck in this situation. You know, here is what it is. Can you point out something to do?’ An ally may not be able to show up in person every time but at least you are on their mind and they are going to support you in that situation and help you push and overcome a barrier.”
Artificial Intelligence (AI) / Research Product Manager at Google
MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship and allyship where we have deep, real conversations about how we can be more inclusive leaders in our workplaces and communities. I am Melinda Briana Epler, the Founder & CEO of Change Catalyst where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting and events. This is a safe space to learn, build empathy, and learn tangible and actionable steps we will take into our communities, workplaces and make a difference for each other. Today I am excited to have Sam Sepah with us to talk about “Why Mentorship & Advocacy Are Key to Career Growth”. Sam is Artificial Intelligence Research Program Manager at Google. Welcome, Sam. So good to see you, again. Really glad to have you.
SAM: Thank you. So glad to be here, Melinda. Always delighted to see you and it is an honor to be participating in your show today.
MELINDA: Awesome. The honor is mutual. If you will join me and let’s describe ourselves to our listening audience and anybody who is Blind or Low Vision in the live show as well as anybody who is listening.
SAM: Sure. Absolutely. I am a Persian, White male, I am about middle age, I happen to be wearing a red shirt, I wear glasses and I am high energy. Very high energy.
MELINDA: Awesome. Awesome. Great. Thank you. I am a White woman with long red hair wearing a dark, dark blue shirt and black and white glasses and medium energy, I would say. Sam is signing in American Sign Language and we have two interpreters on the scene that will be on the screen the whole time. Dan is interpreting for Sam from ASL to English. You will hear his voice. And then Jewel is on screen interpreting for me from English to ASL. I want to take a moment to say it is not hard to do this. Please think about doing this in your events. We can put you in touch with Interpreter Now who does this regularly. I am happy to share the knowledge that we have gained around this as well. And also a special thank you to Jewel who is on screen interpreting. I know she can’t say anything but appreciate also that she has been an incredible partner behind the scenes and in pulling this episode together and having diverse interpreters on each episode, so really, appreciate you. This is also being live captioned by Maggie at White Coat Captioning. You can turn on the captioning at the bottom of the screen. Click closed caption. Our team, Juliette, Renzo, and Ariyah are doing amazing things behind the scenes. They are there for you in the chat and Q&A. For Q&A if you have questions, put them into Q&A so you can find them easily. Use the chat because we would love to hear what you are thinking about and learn what is resonating for you. Can you tell us a little bit about your story and how you came to do the work you do?
SAM: Sure. Absolutely. I have had a long journey throughout my career just like every one of us. In my situation it was sort of unique naturally. I was born in Iran. I was born like a perfectly normal birth, just like every other kid is born. This was back in 1981 if you want to figure out how old I am. At the time of my birth, I had 10 fingers and 10 toes and everything was normal. My parents never predicted anything would have adjusted my health or anything about me. I was the first son in the family. The first child. There was a lot of joy in my family.
As time started marching on until I was about the age of two, I contracted spinal meningitis which caused my Deafness. This is an event that changed the entire course of my whole family’s life because when I recovered from the illness, and I arrived home, my parents had a really difficult time trying to tell their two-year-old boy that he could no longer hear and he wasn’t going to hear again for the rest of his life. I had already maybe started to talk. I was identifying animal sounds at the time. I was able to listen to music. Just everything that hearing two-year-old were doing at the time. So, suddenly, not having any more hearing ability was a big deal. I used to watch TV a lot and then suddenly I was not going to be able to do that anymore. My parents reacted by saying this child deserves a better life and he will get that through education.
My parents were highly educated people. Fortunately, I had their ongoing faith that hearing loss was not going to deter my success in life. They wanted to make sure I had the right educational placements that had the right resources and had the right environment for my success. Long story short, we ended up moving a lot, immigrating to a lot of different countries. First to Germany and then to America until my parents finally found the right Deaf educational resources for me. They learned sign language themselves in order to be able to communicate with me. This is how I was able to grow up, build my self-identity and self-esteem as a Deaf person.
They identified a special residential school for the Deaf as opposed to a Public school with a Deaf program because then you are not exposed to Deaf adults or Deaf members of the community who can be role models and you have few Deaf peers in the environment so you don’t get the good socialization you need. My parents chose a residential school so I could be exposed to successful Deaf adults and see Deaf from a variety of walks of life and get that exposure so that it is really developed by Deaf identity. That’s what built my self-confidence and self-acceptance in who I am.
My parents always taught me that Deafness has nothing to do with one’s ability to survive in life and pursue your goals. You can go ahead and pursue your wildest dreams. It doesn’t matter that you are Deaf. And to have a positive attitude about breaking down barriers when they exist. And that once you have the right role models, right environment, right place, you can’t help but succeed. That has extended into my employment.
I have had many successful employment situations. For over 15 years in the HR field. I have acted as a professional that’s been in learning development, helping corporations grow their workforce, and support their workforce. I feel like this all goes back to my motivation to give back to the world, to make sure people are in the right place for themselves for where they are in their lives.
MELINDA: Awesome. Thank you for sharing. I learned some things about you even though we have known each other for a while. Can you then talk about how that has — how your career has progressed? You started in HR and D&I and now you are in a very, very different role. Can you talk about that? And some of the things you have done? And maybe also, even though you are in a new role/a very different role, are you bringing some of that work, some of what you learned into your work now?
SAM: Absolutely. Sure. The biggest reason why I pursued a career in HR is because I believe in serving people. Everyone in my family is involved in different capacities that way whether it is health care or other fields. It is all about being of service to other people and wanting to be an advocate and of service and inspire people. HR was a perfect fit for me. It is not so largely different from where I am now in a technical career. But what I learned from HR, or at HR, is how to serve people through organizational change. This is where my passion is. How can I lift a diverse community? How can I make business leaders, help them to make the right decisions? And help them grow more globally? And so I have had different HR functions from being a recruiter, HR business partner, different training opportunities, analysts. All different kinds of things. What I have learned is that the most important thing is how you motivate people. No matter what job you are in, no matter what stage of life you are in, you really can’t get through life without having that flame inside to be motivated to be doing what you are doing. It all goes back to that. You know, people say that — at least a couple times during your life you are going to have a career change. Some research says 5-7 times you will change your career in your lifetime. I believe that’s true. I left the HR field after 15 years, took a big leap into the tech world as a product manager. But, you know what I have learned is how you motivate and inspire people and help them understand their goals is really key. Building a strategic plan, helping people commit to that and deliver. It is those soft skills I bring from HR to what I’m doing now which is helping the company build truly amazing products that will change people’s lives. The foundation is there and I am able to inspire, motivate people through coaching and helping them solve problems, and pursue the project as they are trying to deliver projects. It has been a good transition. Transitioning happens everywhere I go.
MELINDA: Yeah. I have transitioned my career many times. I believe that’s what makes me stronger in the work that I do. I do believe having those rich, unique experiences and working on different teams has made a difference in my life, so I agree.
MELINDA: Yeah. Could you tell us a little bit about your current project? What are you working on right now? I think it is really interesting.
SAM: Sure. Absolutely. It is really interesting where we are with technology, with the revolution that’s happening and where the hot products are now and what they are being expected to deliver throughout the world. It is really an interesting time now. There is a lot of unrest. There are a lot of protests over civil rights and equality. So trying to figure out how to integrate technological training with what’s going on with human beings is really interesting. I am part of a research team called Xeno. We do different research projects on artificial intelligence and machine learning, hoping to develop quality interactions through interactive media and social media. We are partnering with YouTube and Laurel L’oreal?, for example, the cosmetic company, in how consumers can try on a lipstick or makeup without having to actually do it through special effects on YouTube with this plugin you can be trying on the pink lipstick on your camera and see if it is looks good on you. Maybe you ought to change to a more red color sort of thing. This technology, very precisely, identifies parts of the face using a face mesh and other 3D characters and allows this interactivity to happen in real-time. It is amazing. At the same time, there are other projects we are overseeing, such as the development of sign language translation through the camera. This would allow 70 million people throughout the world who use sign language to use the Google platform to sign to their camera and have that translated. This is the kind of moon shot and Google believes these sorts of things are possible. They are not impossible. I was hired for my expertise in helping them build that. It is just a really exciting time to bring these effects to people, bring these improvements to people, and to help them solve real world barriers of access to communication. This is what I do every day.
MELINDA: That’s awesome. You know what? Actually, I think this episode we wanted to talk about mentorship and advocacy. I wonder even in the product work, if you think about advocacy in particular. And kind of how you think about that as you are doing that work around a product.
SAM: Yeah, I believe that, well, self-advocacy as a Deaf person, and someone in a minority, it doesn’t matter where you work, or who you work for even though what an amazing inclusive community you might find yourself in, you will always have to advocate for yourself. People aren’t going to be aware of your barriers. They are not going to know without you educating them. I have learned how to advocate for myself by speaking up. If I am leading a team meeting and we are doing strategic planning, I can’t take notes. My eyes can only be in one place at a time. I have to be on the interpreter with my eyes and my hands have to be up while signing. I have to delegate that responsibility to someone else. Who is willing to take notes in this meeting? First of all, it is nice to share that responsibility. Of course, when the meeting is over I will have to check and make sure the notes are accurate because I am going to have to use that to make assignments and develop project trackers and things like that. That’s one thing. Another thing is I believe that sometimes my colleagues need support in order to succeed in their career personally. For example, a contractor who was working under me, I was supervising her. She was struggling with her own mental health. She was working from home and feeling more and more increasingly isolated. I immediately responded and advocated for her. I said I need to support your wellbeing here. It is sort of me code-switching almost to advocating more for her. You not only have to advocate for yourself but advocate for other people as well. It is a real balance that you need there.
MELINDA: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So can you talk about – you have worked your way up to the career ladder and what are some of the barriers you faced along the way? And then, you know, how do you overcome those barriers? And self-advocacy and I think there’s people advocating for us as well. There’s three questions in one. [Laughter]
SAM: Sure. Absolutely. I think what’s most important is, you know, when you have to push-pull some levers in specific situations, if needed. Not every mentor I have had has been the best advocate. Mentors, you know, they are good at their specific niche. They may be good at the specific domain knowledge that they have. For example, global HR projects or something. Great with working with international teams, or cross-cultural factors. Whereas a mentor I have now may be more skilled with technical things – the whole tech world. So, sometimes I don’t really feel like I need a mentor as much as I need an ally sometimes. A mentor is someone I am going to meet with every Tuesday and Thursday, and we are going to sit down and talk about things. An ally doesn’t work that way. You can’t just have the structured appointment. You have to be there ready to support you in any situation when you need to bounce an idea off them or you need motivation, or you need to maybe overcome some huge barrier that’s just been presented to you. You need to be able to get them quickly and say, ‘hey, I am stuck in this situation. You know, here is what it is. Can you point out something to do?’ An ally may not be able to show up in person every time but at least you are on their mind and they are going to support you in that situation, and help you push and overcome a barrier. I have to judge carefully when it is time to pull the lever and get my ally or pull the lever and get my mentor. That’s what I have done throughout my career.
MELINDA: Awesome. Is there an example or two you can share where someone has been a meaningful ally for you in your life?
SAM: Yes. Yeah, for example, let’s say I want to get a promotion. I might call a mentor and say hey, I am thinking about applying for a promotion for a senior role. What’s been your experience? How do you see these promotion decisions being made? What’s the right preparation? What sorts of projects should I be leading now in order to increase my visibility to senior leadership? Can you give me some tips? I am not necessarily an expert in your domain and you are not necessarily an expert in disability but there is an ally out there maybe who may not be in my career but may experience personal barriers. A close friend of mine at Google named Sarah has been around Google for quite a long time. Let’s say there are issues with the interpreter budget. They are not going to fund a business trip or something and support my interpreter coming with me for budget reasons. I may approach one person who attempted to deal with it but realize what I really need is my ally to step in. Sarah did this for me. Singapore was the trip where I had to go and bring interpreters. I said to Sarah, you know, how can I approach them and say I really need this service? Appeal their decision. And so Sarah sat down with me and she is the one who knew how to come up with different options and be able to convince them that I needed the interpreting service. She was more like a coach for me to help me develop the defense and explanation I was going to need in order to get what I needed to land this appeal and, of course, low and behold the funds were approved and I was able to have my interpreters with me in Singapore so I could make my presentations to an amazing group of people. This was a very expensive training people were attending to have me lead that training with my interpreters there. Enormously beneficial for the business. Sometimes there could be these barriers that can seem overwhelming. Sometimes when you have your ally they have enough distance from it they can point you toward the right support you need, the right network, the right way to get what you need because they have played this playbook before. They have seen this movie before. They are able to point you in the right direction and help you chase your dreams.
MELINDA: Yeah, yeah. We have someone in the chat, Madeline, who is talking about this is an important distinction between advocate and mentor. I would say they are all a continuum of allyship and all important within the roles that we play in making a difference for each other. In terms of advocacy, and you know, the ways that we can show up, you are kind of talking about some small, simple ways, and then I think there are bigger ways or ways that it doesn’t take that much time but we can make a big difference in somebody’s life whether that is advocating or showing a pathway to basic needs around language.
SAM: Yeah. I think one reason why I chose my ally — when I do choose an ally it is two different kinds of people. I choose an ally who is Deaf and I also choose an ally who is hearing. Ken is a Deaf man and practically invented YouTube captioning and is one of the first Deaf Googlers to work at Google and has been a long-time employee of the company and knows the right people to talk to get what you need through the company. And then when I sometimes need a hearing ally, I need them to bounce things such as a hearing colleague said this or that to me so a hearing ally can be supportive and give me tips from the hearing culture point of view. I have a Deaf ally to get the Deaf point of view, and a hearing ally to get the hearing point of view, and that balances helping me choose what direction to go in.
MELINDA: Yeah, awesome. And can be throughout our lives from different points in our lives as well. Bigger points in our lives like getting promotions or changing careers. I would say those career change points have been hugely important for me to have allies there. People that are advocating for me and opening up their network to me when I didn’t have those kinds of networks. Those kind of things have made a big difference in my life.
SAM: Absolutely. Yeah, you know, I have learned sometimes allies, mentors, they might not have a fully developed network. You think they must have a book or something. Sometimes my network is already more developed more than my mentors or allies. But what I don’t know is how to work the network. What’s the right time? What’s the right place? This is what I am learning from those people. It is OK, I might say I have this person so and so and they will say when did you speak to them last? Six months ago. What did you talk about? I don’t remember. They will just say no, you need to talk about your project specifically with them. You need to ask your ally to become your project sponsor. This is what was suggested to me. It is not so much this mentor or ally knew so much about my project. The one who is giving this advice to go deeper with my ally. It is just they knew how to do it and knew this is what you should do. You should have a person really sponsor your project even if it is a person you don’t know very well. Yeah, yeah, interesting.
MELINDA: We were doing research on allyship and learning what a lot of people want from allies is building confidence and kind of trusting yourself and kind of that push is a piece of that. That push that showing you how to do it and also pushing you to do it I think is the other piece of it.
SAM: One thing that’s interesting is in research, the research organization — or research is showing confidence and trust in terms of working with an ally. Years ago when I started my HR career this was at IBM. I was an HR business partner. This was for the Vermont manufacturing plant. I got there to start work and I am all excited. My boss at the time, who is an HR manager, he was very blunt with me. Very ruthless and blunt kind of guy. He said hey Sam, I took a risk in deciding to hire you. You better prove me right and do your work well. I was like wow. You know? I mean, he turned out to be an amazing ally and advocate for my growth but he was telling me the raw truth. He took his reputation on his life to hire me. In the whole history of IBM it had never happened. In the 100-year history of the company, this was the very first. He was like you are it. You are going to be the one who makes a difference. Don’t mess it up. So I realized wow, you know, he had a lot of —
MELINDA: No pressure!
SAM: Right. Right. No pressure. He has people above him watching what he is doing. This is where I realized that your Allies take risk and risk their reputation and you need to do well for them in return.
MELINDA: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And also, just to recognize within that also is that pressure of being the first of being the only, is real and important to recognize too. That’s an additional burden that some people carry in the workplace and additional stress as well, I think, from a — for a lot of people and important for us all to remember and realize.
MELINDA: I think a lot of people like us who are —
SAM: I think a lot of people like us who are in the minority whether that’s Latino, a woman, or whatever, sometimes you have that pressure. That’s always in the back of your mind. You are feeling that pressure always there sort of. And you have to live with it. It is not always by choice. Sometimes it is by default. It’s there.
MELINDA: Yeah. Yeah. And that is the top two things that we have learned that people want from allies: building confidence and trusting. You just kind of give a great example of that second piece.
MELINDA: I want to talk a little bit about mentorship too. You know, you said at our Ability in Tech Summit back in 2016 when you did a talk, you said you have had over 30 mentors in your life. I just wonder if you could talk about what stands out as a good mentor. What works for you and kind of what have you seen working across your teams?
SAM: Well, I think in 2016, when we were talking about the fact I had 30 mentors, I was working with people who were sitting in Europe, in Asia, in all different parts of America, all over the globe at different levels. Some were senior executives. They were all kinds of different people. Some worked at different companies. Some were from nonprofit organizations, community members. I realized I felt like something was missing. Sometimes the mentors you have aren’t always good. And what’s important to be successful is some of them are great people, great at what they do, but they don’t have the teaching skills. You may have some of the good listeners, empathetic, very wise but can they teach? Do they have the teaching skills? The most awesome mentors have that. I will give you an example. I had a mentor who was brilliant. Really brilliant. Brilliant author. And he was focusing on executive coaching. He had written several books on the subject, gave presentations to thousands of people in different audiences, he did trade shows and conferences and everybody is looking up to this man and his wisdom. After sitting down with him a few times, I realized he is not a good mentor. I mean, I thought, OK, what if I asked him to sponsor my project? What if I said don’t by my mentor, sponsor my project? If I could build a project on leadership development for senior managers or something, and if I had him coach me through that giving me tips on how to build it, build the curriculum, scale up the project, then that could become much stronger. We will have a stronger launch and greater participation. That happened because I twisted the role I expected him to play from being a mentor to being more of a coach. He was a great coach but a terrible teacher. It was just that tiny difference that made all of the difference. It changes everything and the whole thing succeeded because of that.
MELINDA: Very interesting. I want to pause for a moment. We will jump to Q&A if you all have questions in a little bit. If you have questions, please, use the Q&A function so we can find them easily. Sam, are there any folks that have really worked out well in terms of mentors in your life? And what qualities do good mentors have? Teacher obviously is a key it sounds like.
SAM: Well, I always believe that everyone should have at least three mentors in their life. Some people say that’s a lot. It is not as many as you think. First of all, you need a spiritual mentor. They don’t necessarily have to work at the same place as you but they are your spiritual mentor that helps you balance your wellbeing, your sanity. I have that. Sometimes I have been through a very stressful week and it is really bad. The spiritual mentor helps you. You are not necessarily talking about your work and you are talking about you as a person. Where are you mentally and emotionally and spiritually? I think that’s really important. Second type of mentor is a cultural mentor. Like, for me, being a Deaf person, I always like to have another Deaf person who maybe works at the same company so we can share our pain together. I was an HR mentor, my Deaf mentor was an engineer and I was able to say to him, I think I am being — I am not comfortable here being Deaf or things are happening because I am Deaf — can I bounce this off you? This Deaf engineer was able to say yeah, you are not alone. Validate my feelings as a member of the same cultural group who is a minority in this workplace. You know that person has life lessons for me to learn on how to be a Deaf person in this environment. The third type of mentor is someone in your domain knowledge. Not necessarily from the same career but maybe somebody who is two levels up. A senior executive or VP who wants to help me grow. They might not understand my Deafness or disability but they will be an advocate for my skills as an HR leader and give me support that way, and maybe lead me to more visibility projects. Those are the three. Your spiritual mentor, your cultural mentor, someone who helps you really preserve your identity of who you are and then third, someone who is going to help you grow your career skills. To me, I feel like those are the three essential mentors that everybody should have.
MELINDA: I love that. That’s fantastic. Yeah. I am kind of thinking about the people in my life and I agree with you. I haven’t really thought about it that way. I love it. How do you feel about giving back to them as a mentor or advocate?
SAM: Well, you know, when I started my career, I do believe in giving back. My goal is to give back to my allies, the people who helped me, the people who hired me and gave me a chance to work with them. I realize that’s not the only thing. Often, they are not expecting anything. They don’t want you to give anything back to them. Maybe a thank you card, a note of appreciation, but what the biggest award you could give to them is to personally grow. And pay it forward to the people coming behind you. That’s been a huge part of my life. The CEO, there is a special Deaf organization in Massachusetts, called me and said we have an HR director position open; we really need somebody for this. I was able to place a phone call to a Deaf friend of mine and say there is a job opening here. I know you are in the middle of your career search. You might need to be introduced to this person. He said, ‘Sam, I am thrilled. I was able to reach my dream and got this job because of you. How can I pay you back?’ I said, ‘don’t pay me back. Pay it forward. Now you pay it forward to the next person coming along.’ This is what I believe in. Because the whole reason I got where I am is because somebody paid it forward to me.
MELINDA: Absolutely. Again, one more time for you all. We will jump to questions in a minute. There are some good questions I want to get to. I do want to just ask, because I started the show by saying that it is easy, this is not hard to have interpreters to make this happen. I think many people think accommodating Deaf colleagues, there is too much of a barrier there. It is a major obstacle to hiring people or to including Deaf people. Can you talk about and I know this is a burden here but can you talk about accommodation and what that looks like for you in your work? In your daily work.
SAM: Sure. Absolutely. I think the one thing is people I often work with will ask me how do I hire Deaf people? Is it expensive to hire Deaf people? You know, why should I be willing to invest in you? My common answer is – first of all, research is proving that any disability combination in the last 20 years, the average is less than $500. Believe it or not. Most disabled people, when they get the job they learn how to adapt. For me, yes, I do depend on interpreters but there is a lot of other technologies you can take advantage of. Chat rooms and video technology and other technology. That’s the one thing. Another thing is often people say can we develop a technology to replace interpreters and I say well, really, it is that the communication need belongs to me. I am the one who really should be making the decisions as opposed to us. We are all using the interpreter together even though I should make the decision on it. The service is for both of us, not just me. You are making an investment in our relationship when you do this. So, you have to look at investing in the interpreter service as a good return on your investment. Often, I have companies trying to recruit me because of my HR expertise first and foremost. You are an expert in that and you have expertise in technology. Back in 2000 when I was first getting into the career, that was a hot ticket. Not many had those skill sets. Both of them — HR and tech. They would say you are worth it to hire you and pay for your interpreters because I was able to deliver for them, make improvements in the workforce, and grow the organization. That way they looked at the interpreting services as a good investment. Interpreting isn’t that expensive and the expense of the interpreting has led to a positive impact and not a negative one. My success is really because people were willing to invest in me.
MELINDA: And I would add a third which is just the value of diversity and that having diverse sets of experiences and identities on your team is going to bring more innovation to the products you are working on, to the work you are doing around culture and all of those things as well.
SAM: Absolutely. You know, quite often when I worked in different companies, often they will want to do some PR type event or media and they will say ‘hey, Sam, we are planning to do work with Disney, do a TV promotion. Do you want to take a look at that?’ It was great they were thinking of me as bringing me in to get a diverse perspective on it. They bring me out to do recruiting on college campuses and looking for diversity there. Yes, it is always to their advantage to bring as many diverse perspectives as possible.
MELINDA: Jumping to questions a bit. We have a few questions about mentorship. A couple questions about mentorship. One is from — what do you think about reverse mentoring? Kind of this idea of mutual mentorship as well? I think of it as mutual mentorship.
SAM: I love that. I love that reverse mentorship. I still use that today. Maybe for the last 15 years since I started my career, really. I recently hired two instructional designers that are helping us build an online curriculum for about 7,000 hardware engineers who are needed throughout the world. These two are experts in online training which is a skill set I don’t have. I was asking them to teach me what you think we can do here in terms of influencing the direction. It wasn’t like he sat down and had reverse mentor hour. It was like I need help understanding this and I need you guys to teach me. Then maybe I could teach you more about the abilities of the particular platform I am using Adobe Captivate. We were able to help each other through a lot of informal conversations. That helped me become a better leader so I was able to serve them better. We had things to share with each other.
MELINDA: Yeah, just to add to that, in my own experience, is I think a lot about, you know, somebody is helping me as a mentor, how I can help them as well. There’s just so many ways that we can help each other. We all have different areas of knowledge and experience and expertise and we are all also struggling at different points in our lives and can be there for each other at different points in our lives. I think about the people that I have mentored and the people who have mentored me and I usually learn something from people I have mentored and try to add value to my mentor’s lives too when I can.
SAM: Yeah. Yeah, I think sometimes you could ask what are the new apps? Even the things you learn from mentors are really valuable.
MELINDA: Madeline asks a question around the role of ERGs — employee resource groups and infinity groups. Do you believe ERGs can serve as a collective mentor? Or do you define mentor only as individual? Interesting.
SAM: Oh, absolutely. I have managed several ERGs as a diversity program manager myself. I have been involved in those groups and put mentorship programs in each of those groups. I am a member of an ERG. Yeah, I definitely believe in ERGs. It is an ongoing evolution, first of all. You may have some years where the ERG is really active and some years it is not. Over the course of my career, I have seen the network happening is really good. I am Persian, for example, I don’t know who the other Persians are and I know we are a unique group of people from the Middle East and not easily recognizable. You can’t just go up to someone and say are you Persian? We don’t do that. You are at work every day and it is only through an ERG you get to the room and see each other and are like wow. Once a year, we have the Persian New Year celebration and enjoy hooking up and meeting each other and seeing each other again. We say you work in this area of engineering. Let’s grab lunch sometime. You don’t have to chase each other down. You are there in the group together and that might lead you to other people that you could meet. It is great visibility for me. I am Deaf and use sign language so I am easy to spot but other cultures it is not easy to identify just by looking so the ERGs are great that way. The other great thing about ERGs is it is a safe place to let it all out. Things not working, you want to get feedback, it is always a great place for that. Definitely take advantage of it.
MELINDA: Awesome. Awesome. Thank you. Melissa Echo Greenly, and for those that don’t know, she is amazing and the founder of deaffriendly.com. Lots of great work she is doing. Please look her up. I hope you don’t mind I give you a plug there, Echo. Something to add about accommodations there are yearly tax credits for companies that earn a million dollars for making their accessibility for colleagues, for employees and customers. She has got a link there we will share after the episode. Thank you. Sophia asks in my current job, the last two years I just started being exposed to Justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, allyship, mentorship and my heart is growing for a career focused in HR. Are there books, podcasts or other resources you would recommend for someone who wants to start and grow a career in that direction?
SAM: Yeah, I think one thing that’s beautiful about HR is you don’t have to be specialized in anything to get into HR. You can come from a law background, medical background, and any of those other professionals. I have met a lot of amazing HR people and their initial backgrounds were totally different and from all walks of life. All kinds of areas of study and different professions. I think the one thing that’s most important is do some volunteering. I think that may be the best part because then you are showing your soft skills, your HR soft skills because that’s what is really important. Being able to communicate, lead people by influence, some aspects of HR are setting up a program or event or something with an ERG. Do those things, sign up to do those kinds of things and often, you know, you will be seen doing that and that visibility is really going to help you. Also, there’s a lot of educational things you can take advantage of, resources online. There’s instructional developers and engineers that have come into the HR career. I think the most important thing is: focus on your soft skills. Your emotional intelligence, coaching skills, ability to empathize, and be familiar with team performance. I think the best book I would recommend I would say is probably the seven high — the seven characteristics of highly effective people, I think it is called?
MELINDA: Habits, I think.
SAM: Habits. There you go. I tend to follow one book by Dr. Marshall Goldsmith. He is an amazing executive coach. I read lots of his coaching skills, guides and things like that. That helps me to coach – whether it is employees, working with unions, working with managers. Amazing information. Again, you don’t have to be an expert to be in HR is sort of the upshot.
MELINDA: Yeah, and so many different types of skills are important and you can bring to HR to make it better too, I think. I was talking with somebody else recently and we both have degrees in cultural anthropology and that’s not something they say on a job description we want someone with a degree in cultural anthropology, but it definitely makes a big difference in diversity and HR work.
SAM: Sure. My minor in college was sociology. I am proud to put that down on my resume because it proves I understand how organizations work, how society works. I think these are things you ought to be proud of even if it isn’t listed there in the description.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. We just have a couple minutes. I want to ask if you have any last thoughts around, both you and I have been working on diversity, equity and inclusion and culture and HR for a long time. It has changed over the years. When we started doing it, it was diversity, equity and inclusion was kind of a side project, maybe recruiting and now product teams are beginning to see the importance. It is really starting to be infused in management trainings and management styles. Where do you think it is heading next? Or where should it?
SAM: Well, you know, next is, for me, thinking how could I make an even bigger impact? Not just on the people or product but global level? This is what I am pursuing. Pursuing the moon shot every day. I think one thing I am really grateful for is the last stage of my career here is the people who have given me a chance to grow. Not to become necessarily ready to hire that minute but at least recognizing my potential and people who said Sam, you are not a 100% ready for this but I am going to give you that chance to grow. And now I want to share that. Especially working on this sign language project now. This is a dream project for me. To help 70 million people throughout the world be able to get access to sign language, or access to translation by being able to sign to their phone. This is amazing. In terms of what’s next? I think everyone is thinking globally now because the world is moving fast. We are also taking a realistic look at how Deaf children are language deprived. They don’t have the literacy they need and a lot is because the educational system needs a lot of workaround making literacy available to them. Literacy is really important around the world for not just Deaf children but any language. Another passion of mine is trying to pursue that. In terms of what’s next, I feel like that’s why I want to make an impact.
MELINDA: Awesome. Thank you, Sam. Thank you for being here and sharing your wisdom and experience.
SAM: Oh, thank you. So grateful to be here. Thank you.
MELINDA: And thank you, everybody, for being here and doing the work of change and your questions and thoughts you shared. We will definitely share some of these resources on our website when the podcast comes out next week. And join us each week for — one question, I have for you today, for you to think about as you go into your week is how might you advocate for somebody in the next few days? How will you show that trust? How will you work to build their confidence? How will you be there for somebody who needs you in small ways or big ways? Join us each week and share this with your colleagues and you can find previous episodes and the resources for those previous episodes at changecatalyst.co/allyshipseries. Find this on your favorite podcast platform and like it, subscribe to and review it. It helps us grow our audience. Thank you, all, and see you next week.
SAM: Bye, everybody.
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.
This show has given me clear opportunities to learn in the midst of 2020’s numerous social and personal challenges, including engaging remote content. I’ve learned new terms, heard new voices, diversified my interests and internalized personal narratives that have inspired me to get more active.
The show shaped my scope of reasoning on the dynamics in the corporate world, brand building, harmony across board with team mates. Your series has helped me feel less alone and less daunted by the challenges I face as a leader at a company that is used to moving fast with decisions and making swift progress across the board. I so earnestly want to grow and deepen my perspective when it comes to diversity and allyship; it’s not always clear how to do it. This series has felt like a path I can follow and revisit and draw strength and insight from. Thank you.
I watched many of your live shows in 2020, and I learned something from every discussion. They were inspiring on many levels. Early on during the pandemic (especially), the show also provided me with a sense of community that I was sorely needing. Thank you.