Jennifer Brown Speaks Speaker | Author | Humanist Fri, 21 Jul 2017 22:36:04 +0000 en-US hourly 1 124619203 Engaging Men As Allies For Gender Equality With Ray Arata Fri, 21 Jul 2017 12:08:07 +0000

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Ray Arata, Founder of The Better Man Conference & Co-Founder of The Gender Leadership Group shares his experience of developing his own healthy masculinity and the work that he is doing to engage men and women in partnering to support gender equality. Ray shares what he sees as the biggest obstacles that prevent men from embracing their full self, and the fears that male leaders have about addressing inclusion and diversity. He also shares his perspective on the importance of women embracing men as allies for gender equality, and why gender equality is beneficial for everyone.  

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • Ray’s wake up call that led him to discover healthy masculinity (2:58)
  • A “rite of passage” that helped Ray wake up to his true self (3:53)
  • A central theme that Ray heard from women in organizations (9:25)
  • Why Ray decided to create a conference for men (11:30)
  • A deep fear that many male leaders experience (15:35)
  • How men can bring their full self to work (16:25)
  • How to close the gap between the intention for equality and results (24:41)
  • The role that women can play in engaging men (27:40)   
  • Some of the speakers and topics at the Better Man Conference (34:00)
  • A cutting edge topic in inclusionary leadership (36:46)
  • Gender lessons that Ray learned from his niece (39:17)
  • The unique challenges that transgender individuals experience in the workplace (41:01)
  • The role of femininity in men’s work (41:48)

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Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation

JENNIFER BROWN: Ray, welcome to The Will to Change.

RAY ARATA: Thank you, Jennifer. It’s good to hear your voice.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you. I’m glad you’re here with us today.

We are going to learn a lot from you today on a topic that fascinates me and moves me both in my head and my heart — men stepping forward as allies for equality.

There are very few of you who do this work full time. I can count them on maybe one or two hands. Your story goes way back. Your awakening has happened over multiple “ah-hah” moments. When we were preparing for this, we talked about it as “multiple hero’s journeys.” I loved that because normally we think of the hero’s journey as perhaps a one-time thing in our lives, it’s that one big crisis, it’s that challenge that we had to pivot out of, recover from, and somehow come back and make the world a better place as a result.

You’ve had multiple moments like that, and it sounds like the universe had a lot to teach you in order to bring you to the point now where you can hold the space for the conversations that you’re holding, which is so important to the world right now.

Would you take us back through those journeys? What happened in each, and how did they build on each other in order to bring you to where you are today?

RAY ARATA: I’d be happy to do so. I might need you to remind me, but we’ll get there.

The big moment, my true wake-up call where pain was my teacher was in 1999 over the span of four months. After building a custom home, moving in with my then wife and three children, who were seven, five, and three, at 1:00 in the morning, I got the “I don’t think I can be married to you anymore” speech.

I just remember in that moment thinking, “What? This isn’t making sense to me.” That started my wake-up call spiral.

At that time, I had a financial services business providing retirement consulting to high-tech startups. Six weeks later, a male partner and friend left and went to another firm. In that millisecond, he went from friend to foe. So it was a double-whammy wake-up call that had me languishing for six months until one day my unlikely knight in shining armor — my manager in the financial service industry — called me out on some of my behavior.

I walked into his office and he said, “Ray, I want to invite you to consider going to a men’s weekend.” He handed me a brochure. I’ll save the guys’ talk spoken in that moment, but he smiled and said, “I can’t tell you what goes on there, but call my wife. It changed my life.”

I walked out of that office saying, “I want to do whatever I can to save my marriage and my family.” I got on a plane to Houston, and I went to what we now call in the ManKind Project an “initiation into healthy manhood” — a right of passage, if you will.

Unbeknownst to me, this right of passage was the journey from my head to my heart. It had me look at my behaviors. Some healing occurred on this weekend, and a tremendous amount of awareness that had me wake up to myself to see the impact I was having on myself, others, and all my relationships.

That started my journey, and I was still a financial services representative. That’s the big wake-up call number one.

In 2007, just before the great recession, I had my second wake-up call. I was coming to terms with the realities of not wanting to be in the toxic financial services industry any longer. For those eight years I had been leading men’s weekends, running men’s circles, and the big guy in the sky was starting to send men and women to me to sit down and have cups of coffee because a lot of men were struggling.

I began to realize I was living two separate lives. I was doing all this men’s work that was lighting me up, and I was still in the financial services industry. I made the very painful and necessary decision to leave the financial services industry, and with some struggle, I set out on my next hero’s journey as a coach. I was trying to figure out, “What is my expression? What is my purpose?” And even though it was right in front of me, it was difficult to fully embrace.

I languished. I started to get some clients, but things kept moving forward. In 2011, someone close to me said, “Ray, you need to write a book. You need to write a book. You need to get all the stuff that’s inside of you to the outside for others. You need to play a bigger game.” That’s what I remember being told.

I set out and I wrote this book called Wake Up, Man Up, Step Up: Transforming Your Wake-Up Call into Emotional Health and Happiness, with the intention to meet what I imagined to be millions of men at a wake-up call moment.

JENNIFER BROWN: What you “imagined” being the operative word.

RAY ARATA: Exactly. Once I wrote the book, unbeknownst to me, I had no idea what was going to happen. Jennifer, as you know, a lot of people write books for a lot of different reasons. Some just need to get it out, some want to try to make money, some consider it a calling card or a business card. I didn’t know any of those things. I just knew I needed to write the book.

One day, I met a diversity and inclusion consultant who did a lot of women’s leadership work, and she wanted to meet with me. She said, “Ray, I really think you’ve got something here. I’m really curious about your “man” expertise. Let’s meet.”

I’ll never forget the question she asked me: “What would you do if you had a room full of women leaders, leaving them wanting more?” And I said, “Honestly, I don’t know.”

So I went back to the book that I wrote for men. In the book, there is one chapter called Your Father and another called Your Mother. I wrote about influences of the mother onto the son, and influences of the father onto the son.

I looked at that and thought, “Oh my God, those influences apply to women.” So I put together a whole package of a workshop and I put it in front of her. Lesson number one: Ray, it’s not about you going in there telling the women or coaching the women. Your role is with the men. That was an important and valuable lesson, which kept me asking, “Where is my gold? What am I supposed to be doing? Who am I supposed to be working with?” Which is not to say I don’t have work to do with women.


RAY ARATA: My hero’s journey came when I formed a company called Gender Allies with dear friends Rayona Sharpnack and Robin Terrell — two women.

We were pretty early in the conversation around gender partnership, recognizing that many companies were putting a lot of time, money, and resources towards skilling up women, women’s leadership conferences, women’s ERGs. That’s one leg of the stool. A lot of companies were also addressing the institutional barriers and blind spots, and they started to do unconscious bias training, et cetera.

But I connected to the third leg of the stool when I started to speak at women’s conferences. When I started listening to the women, being the emotional man that I am, I heard the sadness, I heard the anger, I heard the frustration. But what really got my attention was the lack of progress.

In that moment, it all came rushing at me. All the stories that my mom told me about being second born in an Italian family where her older brother got all the rights and privileges. Culturally, in an Italian family, that meant she didn’t. I thought about my wife, who is the oldest of seven children in a San Francisco family where the youngest brother runs the real estate company. I thought about my daughter, who was graduating from Duke with a degree in computer science. Talk about a big wake-up call amidst my hero’s journey. In that moment I realized, “Ray, this men’s work that you’re doing, it’s great that you’re helping men, but what are you supposed to be doing with it?”

I realized in that moment that I was supposed to go forward to work with male leaders to help them understand and own their privilege, to make that conscious, heartfelt decision — and business decision — that it’s time for male leaders to step into being the modern-day inclusionary leader. That meant becoming a gender partner for women and becoming an ally to other minority groups.

That journey has been going on for about five years. I’ve had many moments, and a lot of it was lonely, questioning myself. I know that this is much bigger than me, so I was smart enough to fly in the face of the old, macho paradigm of not asking for help, so I’ve been asking for help and support all along the way.

Only recently have things begun to change. I’d say my last and current hero’s journey happened whilst I was going to these panels, talking to rooms full of women about why it’s important to engage men, not as the white knight, but as partners, and beginning to understand that there’s something in it for men as well. I realized I was going to these women’s conferences and I was one of very few men. Who is doing something to put the spotlight, attention, learning, and awareness for the men? Which helped me, through a mentor of mine, to see that I needed to do a conference.

That’s how the Better Man Conference was born last year. Let me tell you, creating something out of nothing is extremely difficult. Signing your name next to a $50-, $60-, $80,000 price tag with a line of credit?


RAY ARATA: Somehow, some way, the doors opened. I met Sheryl Sandberg, I met Jennifer Siebel Newsom, I met Michael Kimmel. A lot of these people have become friends and colleagues of mine. I just kept asking for help.

The conference was a success, and here we are. And you’re going to be one of our featured speakers come September in San Francisco. We’re already 60-percent sold out, the sponsors are there, and now companies want to address this topic of engaging male allies.

I’m in it right now, and I imagine another hero’s journey is coming, but I don’t know what it is, so I’ll stop there.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love it. But you are going to welcome it when it comes.

RAY ARATA: Yes, I am.

JENNIFER BROWN: Now you have the muscle to get through it and figure out, “What is the message in this?” You’re incredibly open. You’re one of the most open-hearted people I’ve met, and you are truly listening to the need and you want to be in service. Obviously, we share that so much. If that means we change our business model 20 times in our career, so be it.

RAY ARATA: I’ve done it about 20 times.

JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly. Kudos to you for creating a space for all of us who are interested in this.

In my book, Inclusion, which came out two weeks after the election in November — I will always remember it that way, for better or worse — I did write a lot about the role of male leaders. I’ve been exposed to some really wonderful male leaders in the context of usually the executive sponsors of diversity efforts within corporate clients. They step forward. Sometimes they’re “volun-told” as you and I know. Often, they step forward and say, “I’d like to be the sponsor of this effort and lend my social capital, use my voice, my platform, my seniority, my connections, and my funding.” There are people who are quietly doing this, and I think they are the unheralded heroes. They’re important role models, actually, to pull out and show to the world.

I find that many men don’t know how to enter the conversation. Perhaps it’s because the penalties for making mistakes in the public eye, particularly for very senior men, are so swift and severe. I know you agree with me on this. Just look at what happened with the man on the Uber board and the Arianna Huffington situation where he made some quip such as, “More women might be good for representation, but bad for the amount of talking that’s going to happen in the meeting.” He was gone within 24 or 48 hours from his role.

You and I talked about that. We need some flexibility in this process where we’re all learning how to be with each other and supportive of each other. There are going to be mistakes made, but our greatest fear — yours and mine — is that people are going to become afraid of coming into the conversation, putting themselves out there, asking for help, or acknowledging their learning curve. That’s particularly hard for male leaders, who tend to dominate corporate America, because we envision a paradigm in which they have to be bullet proof and have all the answers. Unfortunately, when we envision a leader, usually they’re only male.

It takes a lot of work to keep that façade up for men, it’s exhausting. From all the data that I share in my keynotes, I know that men are not bringing their full selves to work.

We want to create accountability for decisions we don’t agree with, comments that are made, or in the case of that same company, inaction around harassment or bad behavior. How do we create enough flexibility for people to trust that this is a conversation that they can really have?

RAY ARATA: In hearing your question around flexibility, Jennifer, whatever comes up for me is a multi-faceted answer. Contextually, what I want to say first is this is where healthy masculinity and what that means in the context of leadership comes in.

You mentioned a few of these leaders are quiet leaders. Part of me says, “We need them to not be quiet.” You’re correct, it’s exhausting to hold the façade up and be closed down, et cetera. For the modern-day, inclusionary leader, I think it’s a combination of humility, being humble, being in one’s heart, understanding the power of vulnerability, and recognizing where we are on the spectrum of being an ally. It’s that kind of leader that’s going to give permission to be human to other leaders, middle managers, all the way down, and to lend their hands, lend the support, be willing to make mistakes. But until those leaders are willing to model that, it’s going to be a very challenging situation.

I don’t know if that answers your question, but that’s my first salvo.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. I couldn’t agree more. I think leaders set an enormous tone. What I’ve noticed as a woman doing this work — a white woman as well — is the juxtaposition of what I can say and how I can influence around, say, men’s roles in inclusion and being inclusionary leaders. It’s just different than how men speak to other men.

That’s going to be a very important leverage point for all of us who care about creating change. It’s not always up to us to do the teaching. And when I say “us” I speak for the community of women, for example.

It’s very important for men to influence other men — perhaps most important for that dynamic to occur. Whether we agree with that or not, maybe it’s a status thing. I don’t know how you look at that, but maybe it’s the status that men ascribe to other men. It’s a powerful motivator. Whether we like it or not, that’s the way our world works.

How do you need men to influence other men by standing up and creating that momentum that none of us seem to be able to create?

RAY ARATA: The words that come to mind are “courage” and “heartfelt.”

When we were talking earlier about covering, it occurred to me that my journey as a man has been to cover my heart less, my emotional side of things. I’m just realizing in this moment how many men are afraid to be authentic. Only through experience is there an understanding to lead more with your heart because there’s a sweetness to it, all of these benefits.

I’ve had numerous experiences leading men. In that moment where I could choose to show you my tears, speak to my fear, whatever the case may be, I’ve learned to just swan dive and show myself to you. Every single time I’ve done that, especially with men, I get comments like, “Ray, I’d follow you anywhere.”

What I’ve come to realize, from a vulnerability perspective, is that there is immense power. Why do I bring up courage? It takes courage to take that risk for all men despite what your brain is telling you.

JENNIFER BROWN: Your brain is telling you to be afraid because of the peer pressure, the social penalty.

RAY ARATA: Don’t do it. Yeah. You’re going to get annihilated. If you show them, you’re going to get taken out. Or there is the social pressure that guys are going to look at you weird and ostracize you. I’ve gone through all of that. Despite the fact that I’m a white, male, heterosexual man with economic privilege and I’m over six feet, go figure, I’ve still got all of this going on inside of me. Yeah. I’m not different.

JENNIFER BROWN: And you still feel afraid. You shared with me that you felt alone for a long time doing this work.

RAY ARATA: Yes. Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Respectfully, you were ahead of the curve.


JENNIFER BROWN: Some of us feel like we’ve been waiting for the inclusion conversation to really catch fire for a long time — a long time. It finally has in this really interesting way. Do you think something has really ignited and there’s an opening of the door to all of this that’s occurred?

I do want to bring up our president because you and I had an interesting conversation, and not an overly negative one. It’s more thinking about the impetus to action, and perhaps the real persona that he represents, and perhaps as an instigator or the role that his persona plays in creating change, in motivating change, in increasing a sense of urgency. It gives us more fodder to work with, more interest, more readiness, and more willingness to actually have these kinds of conversations.

RAY ARATA: Yes. I see Donald Trump as an instigator. If I’m going to love everyone, I have to be able to also look at someone like Donald Trump and say, “He’s a man.” I could make up that he might be a pained man. I could make up that he takes things very seriously. But when I look at the effect that he’s had, it makes me think of Carl Jung and his talk about “shadow,” which was his word for the parts of us that we hide, repress, and deny.

All of us have beliefs about ourselves. Unless we’re paying attention, we can get triggered and our behavior sneaks up. What happens when you have a president like Donald Trump, you see that shadow part of him out there in public. The reason that’s a good thing is because it brings it out of the dark and into the light. Everyone can make a decision, even him, where do we go from here? There’s no hiding.

Unfortunately, for a lot of people, it’s bringing up a tremendous amount of fear and anger. For some people who may voted for him and wish they didn’t, shame.

We’re in a moment of time where I really believe that as an American, it’s time that we all step forward, and come together. We’re going to look back on this time, and Trump will have been part of this. Rather than render negative judgment on the guy, I’m just going to say that in a weird sort of way, he’s a spiritual teacher of the lesser-known variety.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you for that. Somehow, that’s very healing to me. I think you have articulated that everyone has a purpose. You’re right, I am certain that this will serve a purpose, and our job is to discover what that is, to pay attention, to be present, and to choose proactively who we want to be as people.

What I’ve found since then is the allies have stepped forward. People are beginning to understand that being well intentioned is not enough. Before the election, what I struggled with most in creating organizational change was motivating people who call themselves allies. I’m not sure they would even call themselves allies, I’m not sure they even knew what that word meant, but they would describe themselves as progressive or believing in equality, or the classic that men might say about having a working female partner, wife, or daughters.

People would come to me and say, “I’m well meaning, this is something I really relate to.” And yet, it didn’t go far enough in terms of that showing of yourself that you were talking about earlier, that courageous, uncomfortable edge that we need more leaders to live on. If I’m well intended and it’s 2017, equality and diversity is a thing that’s baked into everything.

From where I sit, organizations are completely blind to unconscious bias and are not navigating this in an effective way. This is the reason that we still see problems such as lack of representation of diverse talent and nothing is changing. Year over year, the demographics have stayed the same in all of the companies. When you look through all the tech companies that disclosed their data three years ago, nothing has changed in spite of being transparent, doing training for everyone, et cetera. Merely saying, “I’m well intended, I voted this way, I have daughters, and I want a better world for them” just hasn’t proved to be enough.


JENNIFER BROWN: What are we missing in the equation to really light the fire that many of us so desperately want in order to really create the sea change?

RAY ARATA: Well, first of all, you and I have been at both ends of what it means to be an ally. One is not an ally until someone in a marginalized group so anoints you.

What we’re talking about here, and the stretch I would offer to all men, is that it’s about commitment. This is the phrase I’ve been using lately: Are you willing to call yourself an ally in training? It has a stretch feel to it, there’s a commitment because you’ve spoken it. Are you willing to walk the path to be an ally, not just at work, but to people in your community and in your family?

Having that conversation, I have yet to meet a guy who wouldn’t want to do that. There’s a role for women to ask the men around them what most guys love to be asked to do — to support somebody else. I always invite women by saying, “There has got to be one guy in your organization whom you like and connect with, ask for his support. Offer yours. Have a gendered partnership conversation.”

It’s going to take that commitment. It’s going to have to come from the heart. I keep coming back to the heart. It’s going to have to come back to the heart. That’s why I’m trying to get a movement going, and I’m trying to bring forward this redefinition of masculinity in the context of leadership. I hear, “Business case, business case, business case.” And I’m sitting here thinking, “What about the human case? What about these men who are fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, partners?” They already know. They’re in relationship, so all I’m trying to do is remind them, “All this stuff you’re doing over here in your personal life, it has application in your business life.” You have got two families, your business family and your personal family, and there’s dysfunction in both.

So I’m really trying to bring forward family ideals because everyone wants to belong and be at the table literally and metaphorically. One serves soul food; one serves real food.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. Which is which might vary from person to person.

RAY ARATA: Of course, yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: I know you have also really paid attention to intersectionality in your latest iteration. You’ve walked your own path as an ally, either self-proclaimed or identified by someone else, hopefully both.

When you morphed from gender partner to ally, that was important. It’s not just semantics. I’m sure that was really intentional. How have you come to define intersectionality in your men’s work? I am so curious, when we talk about masculinity, are we picturing the white, straight guy? This is gender, white, straight guy. Or where is the role and the room for the LGBT man? The trans man? The man of color? What about different generations of men and boys who are looking at these things so differently? And yet, they continue to imprint on each other, generation after generation in some unhealthy ways.

How are you thinking about that intentional answer, baking it into your approaches these days?

RAY ARATA: First of all, healthy masculinity is an inside job. It’s not how we look, it’s how we “be.” The one common throughput amongst all men is that we all have a heart and we all, in our own way, want to be in our truth.

To me, healthy masculinity is about being in your truth, in your heart, and understanding and appreciating sameness and differences.

On my path, especially in the ManKind Project, we’ve put together multicultural men’s groups so that men can connect at the heart level, but also do their work around intersectionality.

I’ve sat in a group where I was the only white man. I was told by a biracial man, “Ray, I need you in this group so I can do my work around white men.” It’s the heart that drives us and connects us.

When I went from being a gender partner and looking at all the leadership work I was doing, I said, “You know what? There’s more work that I need to do.” As a member of the northern California leader body of the ManKind Project, I have blessed three gay men into our community. I have been asked to be a partner with several women of color who were in the VC community. The intersectionality is everywhere.

I went through a training one time in which they handed out a piece of paper. There were all these boxes to check like, “Have you ever been marginalized?” There were no boxes for me to check. I felt some shame around this.

Then one person said, “Hey, Ray, weren’t you just in the hospital getting your hip replaced? And didn’t you just have an experience where you were marginalized?” And when he said that, I started to cry. It was probably one of the first times that I really understood.

I’m still learning. I still call myself an “ally in training” because I don’t profess to know everything. The moment I do that, game over for me.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that humility. Absolutely. Give us some of the amazing names that you have attracted to your conference coming up in the fall. I’m so honored to be speaking at this conference. Tell us about individuals who are doing great work who have different perspectives on this. I know you partner so well and appreciate all of the viewpoints because it’s going to take a village to have this conversation.

Who is having the complementary conversations? Which organizations are into this, embracing it, and running with it, in your opinion? Who are pushing the boundaries and investing in men’s leadership in the way that you support or are involved with?

RAY ARATA: A friend who’s near and dear to me, one of them is Michael Kimmel and the Center for Men and Masculinity. His message is that gender equality has something in it for men. Consider that.

Another name would be Don McPherson, a retired NFL football player, self-proclaimed feminist who has a tremendous amount of passion around this topic. He has been talking lately about his recognition as a man of color that before white men could be asked to step out and be courageous, they need to embrace their wholeness as a man. Imagine me, as a white man, hearing that from him. It’s very, very powerful.

I’m excited to have you at the conference, Jennifer. In addition, I’m also going to have a guy by the name of David Smith. He’s out of the Navy, and he co-wrote a book with his partner, Brad, around mentoring. He will be there.

Others who will be speaking include the national diversity and inclusion officer at Kaiser Permanente, Dr. Ronald Copeland; Chris Crace, who is running the HeForShe campaign for Pricewaterhouse; and Noni Allwood from the Center for Talent Innovation. There’s a whole list of folks who are going to be talking.

My partners include: The Professional Businesswomen of California; The Good Men Project; The ManKind Project, who is a sponsor; The Representation Project, headed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom; Lean In, headed by Sheryl Sandberg; and Rachel Thomas, who spoke last year. I could go on and on, my mind is blanking a little bit, but that’s just to name a few.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s impressive. David Smith is going to be on The Will to Change podcast as well. I love his work.

RAY ARATA: Beautiful.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. His book is called Athena Rising, and it’s about why men should mentor women. A man writing on that topic is a super unique kind of book to have in the world, especially coming from a Naval officer. Am I correct in that?

RAY ARATA: Yes. Yes, you are.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. He does incredible work, too. Ray, what are you most excited about? Which edge are you most excited about pushing at the upcoming conference? An edge, where you may not know where this is going to lead, but you’re going to put it out there and trust that, somehow, this community will swarm around it and push forward.

RAY ARATA: The very fact that we are springboarding from gender to the other areas, the other marginalized groups, that in and of itself is the edge.

Men aren’t totally in the conversation with women yet. So for me to bring in LGBTQ, to bring in race and ethnicity, talk about fear. I have some fear around that — healthy fear, not the shut-down kind of fear. I want it to be welcomed, embraced, and acted upon.

We made some decisions yesterday on the content flow, and I’m really excited about the experience and how it’s shaping up. Probably what I’m most excited about is the gender breakout session in the morning. We’re going to put all the men in one room and all the women in another. We’re playing around, demand dependent, with also having a non-binary breakout to create the safe space, to have some introspection, a little bit of unpacking of unhealthy masculinity for the men, and a repacking for the rest of the conference. And for the women, ideas on how they can engage with men and what they need to understand about this whole healthy masculinity piece. I’m really looking forward to that.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s fabulous. Where did the idea for the non-binary breakout come from? What were those discussions like with your planning committee?

RAY ARATA: In the ManKind Project, while we’ve historically been a largely white organization, working really hard from a multicultural perspective, we continue to experience issues. We have a Gateway Weekend for gay men and questioning men and trans men to go have their men’s weekend. The spotlight is on this topic for us, and has been for a while.

To the credit of one of my partners, he said, “Ray, as the ManKind Project chair-elect, this issue is becoming more and more real. We need to up our game. As you look at the binary/non-binary scale, we need to at least bring attention to this and be cognizant of it and see if there’s something to be done.”

If that’s not enough, I have a niece who is gay who is teaching me. I didn’t know what “pan” meant a year ago, or going to a training and understanding cisgendered. Right now, everyone is very, very open.

I have a friend who is an executive at a top company who says he has a trans kid. The vocabulary is coming in, it’s real, it’s not going away, and I think it’s about time. I don’t want to be any different in that, and I want to create the opening if possible and educate.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that you are going to allow for that and enable that space. I’ve learned so many amazing things from my transgender colleagues and friends. Watching them navigate the relative status of being female or being male — visibly female, visibly male — and the differences they experience in the workplace as they show up. Now, they have experience as showing up as two different genders. All of those changes speak volumes to what you and I are talking about. There are norms that we need to unpack, question, challenge, and hopefully change. Our trans colleagues, friends, and loved ones live that up close and personal every day. There is so much that can be taught around that experience, led by those stories around gender norms that we haven’t questioned. And when I say “we,” it might be the cisgender community.

There is a lot of knowledge and inspiration that will come from the LGBT community around the gender conversation in general because that’s such a fundamental, core conversation for our entire community. Are you feminine enough? Are you masculine enough? Are you non-binary? And how do people respond to that? How do people learn to live in the gray around identity when we tend to be such a binary world? We need to learn that.

RAY ARATA: Here’s the question and the answer: It has to do with being human. The highest context here is “human.” As much as I’m a masculinity guy, my 18 years of doing men’s work has been a journey towards my inner feminine on the way to being a whole person.

When I talk to men and women, I invite women by saying, “Listen, I understand that it may have been necessary for you to over masculinize yourself to compete and be successful, my invitation is to bring more of your feminine characteristics.” And to the guys, “It’s not so bad, these feminine qualities inside of us are pretty cool.” Hence, everybody, let’s be more human. That’s the invitation to navigate forward.

There is one other thing, Jennifer, that you asked earlier. What do we need going forward? What might leaders need? The word that came to mind is “resilience.”

At the conference, a gentleman named Victor Lee Lewis is going to lead a session in the afternoon which is designed to be totally experiential. It’s called Building Resilience as Allies. If you’re a white woman, what does that mean to you? He’s going to touch upon that. I’m thrilled that he’s going to be doing that session. He’s a master.

JENNIFER BROWN: I cannot wait.

RAY ARATA: There is stuff in there for all of us.

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m so excited. I love what you said, “Masculinity and femininity are energies, and we possess them.” When we’re out of balance, like everything in the world, that’s when unhealthiness happens.

Unfortunately, the corporate world has skewed the balance differently than you and I know is healthy. It harms everyone in the equation. Those who are over balanced towards one side and under balanced towards another are not able to show their full selves. Women are not able to bring their full selves to work, or masquerading as something that’s not true for them. It is truly making us sick, both emotionally and physically. Add it to the list of things that we need to change in the world of work so that we can make work really work for us, all of us, and all parts of ourselves.

I really appreciate this. I want to leave folks with information on you and the conference and things that you’re involved in. Where would you point people to learn more about Better Man and anything else you want to share?

RAY ARATA: Sure. For the conference, go to There is plenty of information there, including an opportunity to sign up for a newsletter. The conference will be in September, that’s one place.

The other place you can go is, that is our consulting company. There’s a newsletter sign-up. We’re pushing out a lot of content for people to understand and learn from. We’ll be out on social media, I don’t know the Twitter tags, but be that as it may, that’s all out there.

For the men who may be listening, if this masculinity talk has you curious, you can go to Amazon and look up Wake Up, Man Up, Step Up. Read the reviews. Decide for yourself. It’s a book I wrote for men to go on their own journey. While it’s non-corporate, it’s personal and heartfelt in nature. You’ll get it, trust me.

JENNIFER BROWN: I believe you. We are following you, Ray. Thank you for your leadership, your voice, your courage, and for being willing to be a little lonely out there occasionally in order to shine the light for all of us to go forward. I deeply, deeply appreciate it. I can’t wait to see what happens at this conference and what I learn in my own journey. I know you’re looking forward to the same.

Here’s to launching a new wave of masculinity, an understanding of it, and creating real change in the near term if we do this right. Thank you for coming on the show.

RAY ARATA: Thanks so much, Jennifer. It was a true pleasure.



The Better Man Conference

Gender Leadership Group

Wake Up, Man Up, Step Up: Transforming Your Wake-Up Call into Emotional Health and Happiness, the book by Ray Arata

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How to lead in a volatile and uncertain world Fri, 14 Jul 2017 16:25:26 +0000 Live Grey’s immersive 2017 Life@Work Company Culture Conferences bring together culture leaders and influencers for an exploration of how to build workplaces of the future—a subject that is incredibly important to me as the president and founder of a diversity and inclusion training provider and consultancy, and incredibly close to my heart as a woman business owner and out member of the LGBT community.

So when my dear friend KC Carter invited me to speak alongside my friend Bob Gower, who is an authority on responsive organizational design and a past Will To Change podcast guest, at one of their two-day retreats, and unwind and reflect on humanity at work, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.

The theme of the conference was how to lead in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world, and I wanted to share my favorite three takeaways from the event in case they’re useful for you, too:

Organizations that “use up” people are not the future

When it comes to future-proofing, or even present-proofing your organization, Bob Gower talked about how we have to acknowledge that we tend to have a short-term way of looking at people as assets. 

But when we look at people that way, they eventually burn out and ultimately, leave. Instead, we need to see people as individuals and, as we say at Jennifer Brown Consulting, ensure they feel Welcomed, Valued, Respected and Heard℠.

The workplace of the future requires diversity of thought

The lifespan of large, successful companies has never been shorter. That’s according to a study of turnover in the S&P 500, which predicted that around 50% of the S&P 500 will be replaced over the next 10 years.

This new reality that we’re grappling with demands that we seriously consider how we rapidly iterate our business models.

If we want to thrive in spite of that level of complexity, the last thing we need is uniformity of thought. We need multiple perspectives that enable us to future-proof our organizations and change our DNA so we can flex and adapt rapidly.

Eliminating blind spots must be a priority

It’s not just diverse perspectives which are needed at the table, it’s the diversity that comes from different backgrounds.

We need leaders who are willing to think outside the box and realize, If I hire people who look like me, and who have the same background as me, I’m not going to be able to respond in the right way. I’m going to have the same blind spots as everyone else.

It’s a need Yammer co-founder Adam Pisoni, a previous Will To Change guest, recognized as he founded his startup. He didn’t want the first 10 or 20 people to look like him, necessarily. Instead, he intentionally began filling his hiring pipeline with people of diverse identities and backgrounds in order to create a more inclusive culture from the start.

What else would you add when it comes to building workplaces of the future? Is there anything else you feel is essential to keep in mind?

Let me know in the comments below.

PS. If you want to learn more about building the new workplace of the future, pick up a copy of my book “Inclusion: Diversity, The New Workplace & The Will To Change“—now available as a paperback.

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Amanda Steinberg: Empowering Women to Create Wealth On Their Own Terms Fri, 07 Jul 2017 17:19:57 +0000
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

You can also listen on iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play.

Amanda Steinberg, author of Worth It- Your Life, Your Money, Your Terms and founder of DailyWorth and WorthFM, shares her journey of finding her identity and increasing her net worth. Amanda discusses some of the obstacles that keep women from accumulating wealth, and how to overcome them. She also addresses the need for women to invest their money in people and causes that they believe in and the social impact that investing can create.

In this episode, you’ll discover: 

  • How Amanda’s mother supported her in finding her own identity (3:00)
  • Why Amanda felt she needed to leave her marriage (8:00)
  • What led Amanda to address financial services specifically for women (14:00)   
  • The perception of women in the financial services industry (15:00)  
  • A problem that Amanda found with female investors (19:00)  
  • Why women need to invest money in startups and political campaigns (22:00)  
  • What an angel investing network is and how to get involved with one (25:30)  
  • The potential pitfalls of the free market economy (29:00)  
  • How to build in protections against bias in corporations (32:00)  
  • The underlying fear that keeps people from supporting diversity efforts (34:50)   
  • The coming transfer of wealth to women (37:00) 
  • How women can shift their financial behaviors regardless of their net worth (38:50)
  • A mindset shift that has helped Amanda grow her following and community (41:00)

Click to tweetPsst, did you know? You can click, select and share any of the text in this post on Twitter, Facebook, or via email.

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

JENNIFER BROWN: Welcome to The Will to Change, I’m Jennifer Brown.

My guest today is Amanda Steinberg. Amanda launched DailyWorth in 2009 to bring a fresh voice and an outsider’s perspective to personal finance. Today, DailyWorth’s newsletter reaches more than one million subscribers.

In 2015, she started the digital investing service WorthFM, which received front-page coverage in the New York Times business section.

Oprah selected her for the exclusive Super Soul 100. Fast Company named her one of 2016’s most creative people in business. Forbes named her one of 21 new American money masters.

Amanda has appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, CNN, MSNBC, and is the author of Worth It: Your Life, Your Money, Your Terms.

Amanda, welcome to The Will to Change.

AMANDA STEINBERG: Jen, it’s so great to be here.

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m so excited you’re on.

We always start with a diversity story, and I know from learning about your childhood, your mother in particular, that you had some really interesting relationships with gender norms as a girl growing up. You also are one of the fortunate women that I meet who have incredibly strong female role models from a business perspective in your family.

Would you take us back to realizing something was different for you in terms of the expectations? Also, tell us a little bit about your mom, if you would.

AMANDA STEINBERG: Yes, gladly. I guess I can just summarize it: As a kid, I liked boy things, and I didn’t like girl things. I wanted Transformers, G.I. Joe dolls and to play Little League baseball.

In 1985 suburban Philadelphia, I was an anomaly. At least I was an anomaly that spoke up about it. Maybe there were lots of other little girls who felt the same way who didn’t feel as comfortable doing so.

My parents separated when I was three, and my mom definitely went through a long, dark phase in terms of struggling to figure out who she was going to be as an independent woman who never planned to be independent. The thing I always really cherish about my mom was that she always supported whomever I wanted to be.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s incredible. Fast forward to your early adulthood and your first marriage. Tell us about how you were still living a life that didn’t quite feel authentic to you in terms of your career, your marriage, and what the gender dynamics were in all of that, along with expectations. Tell us how it took you to a very dark place before you had to strongly reinvent.

AMANDA STEINBERG: Yes, it’s funny. Even though I was raised by a pretty feminist mother and I was allowed to be whomever I felt like being — whatever that looked like — social pressures are way more intense than even individual will or family permissiveness.

Despite my somewhat more masculine interests as a child, the other thing that made me feel really different was my level of ambition. I would look around at the world, I would look around at all of the poverty and suffering and messages I would receive through the media around what was going on in more impoverished places, and I had the ridiculous notion from the time I was five that I could do something about that.

I’ve never seen limits, and I don’t see risk. It’s just part of my brain structure. Which sounds interesting, it also gets me into massive trouble and major hot water constantly. I’m an expert at digging myself into giant holes that I then have to pull myself out of.

It’s really scary when you’re 20 years old, you realize that you have this power to make a lot of money and to build businesses, which I did at a really young age. I was worried I’d become the lonely old lady with cats — which is really funny because I have.

JENNIFER BROWN: Nothing wrong with that.

AMANDA STEINBERG: That’s the joke. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Just because you’re alone, it does not mean you are lonely, and all those distinctions we learn as adults.

By 22, I decided, “I had better get married and have kids or else I’m going to be miserable.” There was this equation of causality that even intellectually we know isn’t true, and yet those damn social pressure are so harsh.


AMANDA STEINBERG: I got married at a young age, had kids at a young age, bought a house at a young age. My ambition translated into my personal life, and I got very good at not only earning money, but earning all those attributes of a, quote, unquote, successful life. That sent me into a really dark place because I had a massive identity conflict between what it was I really wanted versus making other people happy. And why was I so damn tired and out of control?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. I’m sure. Looking back, you’d probably describe it as a really depressed time. You were still taking a lot of risks. You dug yourself into some financially tough places.


JENNIFER BROWN: Tell us a little bit about your first efforts to be a businesswoman and what you wish you’d known. Where did your appetite for risk really serve you, and where did it get in the way? What was the gender dynamic you were experiencing or maybe fighting against at that point?

AMANDA STEINBERG: Well, my risk tolerance has always served me in that I’ve been able to put my mind to things and take the necessary risks. Whether it’s building a consulting agency as a software programmer for the first ten years of my career. Whether it’s being able to build the business that I wanted on my own terms so that when I had children, I could work from home and not worry about anybody else’s rules, which was always important to me.

It also came with this massive amount of optimism, “Everything’s going to work out.” The reality is that I bought a house that needed $30,000 for repairs and didn’t understand the investment dynamics of owning a home.

Then my business grew so much in one year that I ended up with a $60,000 tax bill. So there I am, close to $100,000 in debt with a two-year-old and a newborn in my arms. For those of you who have children, you know how exhausting it is. For those of you who don’t, the level of sleep deprivation that comes from babies — especially the amount that mothers typically have to take on for various reasons — compounds all of that. It was a pretty dark couple of years.

JENNIFER BROWN: Tell me about your husband. At the time, maybe he wasn’t the right kind of partner. It’s easy to say. Of course, when you’re in it, it’s hard to see. You really hit a wall in the relationship in terms of how it was supporting you and how you needed to show up in the context of it as well.

AMANDA STEINBERG: Yes. Even though it was always obvious to me, and I expressed it, I think that there is an expectation around how mothers behave in society these days. We can have some ambition, but not too much because that means that you, then, are neglectful of your family.

And I think everyone, including myself, thought that once I had children, some of my ambition would taper off. That didn’t happen. And as a result, I even went to therapy for many years in order to try and change my ambition, change level of things that I was aiming for. That is actually what led me to the most depression. When I would try to modify myself and reduce my goals and stop putting so much pressure on myself to build a successful career, I felt like I was becoming someone that I didn’t recognize.

Eventually, you have to realize, “You are who you are.” And it’s hard to modify.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so true. You told me a story about the day you decided that you were going to get divorced. You said to yourself, “I’m going to live my life as who I am.”

AMANDA STEINBERG: I did not have a choice. And I imagine for folks who are gay, who are transsexual, who are all these different types of things where what you are does not fit the norms, there’s a day where you break. You say, “I’ve tried to change, I’ve tried to be something I’m not.” And that is even worse.

Yes, there was a day when I decided I was finally going to become fully independent, no longer part of a marriage, move out, get my own apartment, and stop trying to modify myself.

I drove out into the street, and I remember screaming and crying, “I don’t care what the future of my life looks like, I just know that I have to be who I am, I can’t change.”

JENNIFER BROWN: In your selection of your current life partner, obviously, diametrically opposite choice criteria. Tell us a little bit about him, the role that he plays, and what he has been able to solve for in supporting you that your first relationship really didn’t.

AMANDA STEINBERG: It’s funny, that day when I drove out of my house in my ex-husband’s car so that I could buy my own car so that I could leave, I ran into my current partner at a traffic light. I had known him from grade school and had not seen him since. We’ve been together basically ever since that day at the traffic light. It was literally two seconds.

JENNIFER BROWN: That is so magical, I love that story.

AMANDA STEINBERG: Which is weird because I think five seconds prior I had sworn off all men.

JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly when the universe gives you what you need. They wanted to cut you a break, you had been through enough.

Tell me about him. Is he a feminist? Would he describe himself as a feminist? Would you describe him that way?

AMANDA STEINBERG: He would describe himself as the ultimate feminist. The theme of our relationship is actually a Radiohead song that we love, Lotus Flower, where the chorus is, “I set you free.” That’s been the theme of our relationship, which is amazing because if I feel like I’m trapped, I turn into a nasty, nasty person.


AMANDA STEINBERG: You can’t tell me what to do! It’s so immature, but I see it showing up constantly. We live separately. We live ten blocks from each other. We both have two children from our prior marriages. We only see each other a couple days a week. We are both traveling a lot. We live separate lives together, which is exactly what both of us needs and wants. I did not think that that was possible for real.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. Nobody does that, or at least we don’t think they do. And it’s certainly not socially sanctioned.

AMANDA STEINBERG: Right. For sure.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. That’s so cool. How did he get so cool? How would you summarize his journey to waking up, being woke, like he is?

AMANDA STEINBERG: I think he’s just always been that way. I don’t know. Like me, he didn’t fit norms, knew the feeling of feeling really lonely at times in his life. He was always unconventional, creative, artistic, didn’t like sports — stuff like that. So he was just very familiar and open to the fact that gender does not have to be a precursor to anything specific about who you are, how you act, your roles in relations, who earns money, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so fortunate. Did you read Lean In?

AMANDA STEINBERG: I did. I was one of its first reads, actually. I got an early copy.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so exciting. Wow. Do you feel super radical compared to what was talked about in that book? Could you relate? Did you think it went far enough? What were your reactions?

AMANDA STEINBERG: I think that Lean In was intended for a mass audience of women, as opposed to people like me who are anomalies, we’re outliers. It was fantastic because it really brought in the conversation of giving women permission to be ambitious. “Ambitious” is still a bad word for many women.


AMANDA STEINBERG: Because we’re afraid that our ambition makes us unattractive and unwanted. In some cases, it does make us unattractive and unwanted to a certain segment, but there are plenty of people out there who are far more gender fluid these days. Thank God for that. We are speaking up a lot more now, and gender is becoming — slowly, but surely — less of a determinant.

JENNIFER BROWN: Slowly. My goodness, you are right about that. We’ll talk about all of the things in the news later on.

I want to change gears a little bit. You did your time in financial services, right? Now you’re the money guru for women, and such an important asset to our community and to the conversation. I really appreciate what you’re doing for so many women — demystifying the process, educating them, making sure they’re saving and protecting themselves in a way that maybe you didn’t know to do early in your days. You can see how your mission has come full circle, which is really cool.

So you were in the institution, in the financial services world, and you were noticing so much bad behavior. I don’t think there’s enough time in the world to catalog all of the stories that you were sharing with me. What was that like? When did you get fed up and realize, “This system is not worth this energy, and I’ve got to build it anew. I’ve got to build a parallel world where I can really address what I’m seeing here”?

AMANDA STEINBERG: The financial services world that I’ve been living in — I’ve had DailyWorth for eight years now. For the first six years, DailyWorth was a media company that sold advertising.

What was interesting was how the heads of financial services institutions and those who are responsible for marketing at the deepest strategic levels saw women as an ideal, quote, unquote, target — I love the language of advertising, target, quality target — for the future, but recognized that women were not engaged in financial services nearly as much as men who would be on a website like MarketWatch or Yahoo! Finance, which are really, really heavily read by men.

There were multiple stages of how furious and frustrated I became with the industry at large and their approach to new markets and perceptions of women. But it really came down to the fact that in 2014, DailyWorth‘s advertising revenue, which was in the multi millions, started to plateau. And I could see it was going to start going down because the perception was that women aren’t really interested in money, and when they do contact financial services institutions, they ask too many questions, and therefore, are not profitable to serve.

I’ll give you a little bit more context so you know what I’m talking about. DailyWorth is a daily e-mail about personal finance, and we made most of our revenue by selling advertising to the companies that want to manage your retirement and your investment accounts. So we’ll call them “brokerages” as a broad-sweeping term. There are lots of different types, but for all intents and purposes, we’ll call them brokerages.

I’ve talked to the heads of marketing in probably every brokerage in this country that wants to advertise nationally, because that was all we did for years and years.

And I saw their hesitation that was specifically gender delineated. I knew they weren’t reaching women because most women don’t read financial media, but I didn’t realize there was this conscious bias around women being high-maintenance customers.

That made me turn DailyWorth into Worth Financial, which is now an asset management company. When the advertising revenue started to go down, the board of directors of DailyWorth decided it was time for me to sell DailyWorth because they were nervous that we were going to go out of business as a result of this.

I went around and met with a lot of CEOs and heads of corporate development at these large companies. Instead of hearing them embracing the possibility of women engaging with financial services on a deeper level, most of them actually explicitly said they weren’t interested because they did not see women as profitable customers.

I thought, “This is half of the market, and in order for women to become equal, we need to be able to control and engage with our finances.” There are trillions of dollars flowing into women’s hands. I decided, “I am not going to sell DailyWorth right now. I am turning it into your competitor, and I’m going to serve half of this market very happily, thank you very much.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes! I love it. That’s so good. Yay!

You talked about women asking too many questions. When you look at customer service metrics, you can see this. Literally, the time that a rep spends on the phone to answer those questions is not profitable time. It’s so cynical to think that we’re just too expensive.

Interestingly, you thought that women’s propensity to ask too many questions hurts us in terms of playing in the financial world in the way that we really need to. Can you say a little bit more about that?

AMANDA STEINBERG: Yes. Women do need to ask lots of questions, and they’re actually totally right to be asking these questions. I will give you some examples of questions we get over and over again at WorthFM, which is the investment side of our business. “How do I know if my investments are performing? How much do my investments cost? What type of investments am I invested in and why? What type of accounts do I need?”

These are all very, very logical questions, but it becomes a challenge for us as a gender. I realized through two additional conversations that this is still something we as women need to address.

The first thing that happened was when I had been raising money for Worth Financial — venture capital, because we’re not profitable yet, we will be soon, so we’ve needed external capital in order to grow. What I found was that I would talk to women investors, those affluent individuals who can afford to invest in startups, and they, too, would ask so many questions. I would have three different phone calls and meetings with a potential investor, and more often than not, the women would say, “No.” Whereas more often, the men would have one phone call and make a decision, either yes or no. At a much higher rate, I had a lot more success raising money from men than I did from women.

Part of this is because women have not been in control of the finances for most of their lives, so it’s newer to them. Either they weren’t raised to understand it, they inherited it recently, something changed, or what have you.

But then I realized that women asking questions was more of an issue. I was having dinner with the former mayor of Philadelphia. He’s a mentor of mine; I worked for him when I was in high school before he was mayor. And he said, “You know what, Amanda? I think what you’re doing is really important around women and money. When it comes to political fundraising, women would oftentimes ask way more questions and also be far more likely to reject the donation than their male counterparts.”

So on one hand, while it’s totally valid that we need to understand everything about how our investments work, we also need to become more risk-takers as women and put a little more of our capital at risk. That’s why the political field and the business field are still so male dominated — they’re the ones writing the checks. But women have just as much money as men do.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so good to hear. You said something beautiful, “Questioning is an avoidance of the power we need to take.”


JENNIFER BROWN: I wrote that down when we prepared for this. If we want the world to be equal, do you have advice for those of us who are really risk averse? Who knows? Maybe because of socialization, maybe you were born that way, thinking back, is there anywhere you learned it? Or do you really think it was hardwired into you? For some of us for whom it’s not hardwired, what do you recommend?

AMANDA STEINBERG: First of all, for those of you who are listening, everybody has a different financial situation. If you have a lot of credit card debt, if you have loans that you don’t understand and you don’t have at least a couple of months in savings, then you shouldn’t be taking a lot of risk. You should be doing what you can in order to pay down that debt, et cetera.

If you are someone who makes multi-six-figures, has at least $500,000 saved, and you feel like you’re on track, those are the ones whom I tell to take an amount of money, maybe a quarter of your liquidity. Let’s say you have $30,000 in cash, maybe take $5,000 of that and put it to work somewhere else. And if you have millions of dollars, it’s all about asking: What percentage of your money can you put at risk that if it disappeared, it wouldn’t make a difference in your life?

It’s vital that we put some of that money to work either in the politics that we believe in or for the startups that we think need to really exist, that capital is very much needed and there’s nowhere else to get it other than from wealthy individuals who are going to take a risk. So women need to put more of that money to work.

The other distinction I’ll give you is there is “excessive” risk, and then there’s “calculated” risk. Understand, all risk is not created equal. As far as the money I’m talking about, there are plenty of people out there for whom losing $25,000 would not make any difference in their long-term life. There are other organizations out there that need that risk as well. And you may lose all of that money. If you are donating to a political campaign, you do lose all that money. But you don’t really lose it because you are creating things in the world that will not exist otherwise, and that’s vital.

JENNIFER BROWN: Vital. And it’s vital that we see more role models of women who are really playing on the big stage, they’re jumping in.

What’s going on in the VC world? That’s one of the big negative narratives that we read about all the time — a stark lack of women investors. What do you think would change that frustrating reality that we keep reading about? It’s probably similar to the lack of diversity that we see in so many big corporations and their top leadership.

AMANDA STEINBERG: I think that there is a grotesque amount of sexism in the industry. And I think that it’s going to take really amazing leaders. I know plenty of male VCs who aren’t slimy bastards, and I know plenty who are. I was once almost drugged. I have been hit on more times than I have fingers and toes to count. It’s not uncommon for a VC to use a pitch meeting from a female founder as a way to try and hit on her. There are articles about this constantly.

Oftentimes, these are really high-profile people, and as female founders, we can’t afford to piss them off, so we’re silent about it. It’s everywhere.

There is a lot of press today about all of these women who have come out against one particular VC, I’ll try and find it right now as I’m talking to you. I’ve seen six people share it, which is good. I didn’t share it because I got scared. I’ve got 20 VC friends, and I may need them in the future. I’m still falling victim to this.

That’s all the more reason for women to step up, write more checks, and become angel investors. Otherwise, it is a horribly, horribly slanted playing field.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. Can you share with our listeners the angel networks? Explain what that kind of investing is. What are the reputable organizations and communities you can get involved in and how does it work?

AMANDA STEINBERG: Absolutely. The way it works is if you make $200,000 per year for the last two years as an individual or $300,000 a year as a household for the last two years, or you have $1 million in net worth, then you are what is called an “accredited” investor. That means that you can buy shares in small, private companies that have the potential to grow and become worth ten times their value through some form of exit in the future.

That is called “angel investing.” It’s not like investing for your retirement, it’s not like a stock portfolio. It’s high-risk investing where you’re either going to lose all of your money or you’re going to make a massive, massive return, and usually not a lot in between.

As a result, most who do angel investing do it for a variety of reasons. Maybe it’s wealth that they would otherwise put forward philanthropically and want to support small businesses, that’s very valuable. It could be those who have enough wealth that they can afford that level of risk and want more diversification. There are also strategic angel investors who follow methods like investing in ten companies, knowing that one of them is likely to be a homerun. They work very methodically to invest in ten companies knowing that one of those is going to be the homerun that’s going to give them the return that far outweighs all ten investments. Those are three ways in which people can angel invest.

I will give you a few names that I’ve had a lot of success with. One is called Investors’ Circle. That’s a national angel investor network that invests in double-bottom-line businesses. One is called Astia. One is called Golden Seeds. You can just look up “angel investor network” and then put your city in. I know of Baltimore Angels, in Philadelphia we have Robin Hood Ventures. There are many popping up at universities. I know the University of Pennsylvania has one. I’m sure Harvard has one. Look for your alumni network. There are tons. Just start Googling.

The other place to go is AngelList, you’ll find a lot of good things going on there.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you. I wanted that to be explained. I remember learning all that for the first time, not realizing how easy it is to get involved. We need to show that we’re investors, not just the businesses being invested in — we also need to be that as well.

Did you follow the film, Equity?


JENNIFER BROWN: It was so cool. What were your observations about how that got made or the power of having an all-female director team, writing team, investor team? They literally got all of this investment money from women, often women who had been in financial services.

AMANDA STEINBERG: I just thought, “Wow, there’s a movie about women in financial services.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Wow! Pinch me.

AMANDA STEINBERG: Wow. There’s a movie about women in banking. We haven’t seen that before.

JENNIFER BROWN: Which is so sad. I know.

AMANDA STEINBERG: The progress we look for today.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, they’re small crumbs of hope.

AMANDA STEINBERG: Two days ago I went to a luncheon for Travelzoo, which is a publicly traded company, whose board is now 80 percent female. They’re the first one to be 80 percent female. On one hand, “Yay.” On the other hand, “Why is this the first time this is happening?”

JENNIFER BROWN: I know. I know. Why is it such a newsworthy item? I look on with envy at Europe and the fact that they set quotas for women on boards. I think it’s 40 percent in many countries, and they actually achieved it and the sky didn’t fall and the world didn’t end. Somehow, they magically came up with a pipeline of women board members and everything is proceeding along. I don’t know what it is about our country and our history that makes it such a taboo conversation to be having.

AMANDA STEINBERG: Well, this country worships the free markets as gospel. I don’t worship the free markets. I think free markets, left to their own devices, are going to reward the rich and make everybody else poor. But for whatever reason, even really poor folks don’t vote that way, they vote for the free markets. I’m a big fan of regulation, and absolutely think our companies need to be regulated in order for our society to work. But in this country, the religion is the free markets. We’re getting into politics here, which we should probably stay away from for right now.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s all right. It’s all right.



AMANDA STEINBERG: But it’s a deeply political discussion about beliefs about what makes society better, and I think regulation does a lot of really important things.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. And free markets are not exactly free of bias. When we think about those people who are making those decisions, the representation of different kinds of people is not there, but also the decisions that are made are biased. We all are. We carry that around with us every single day.

AMANDA STEINBERG: Everybody has bias.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. And it’s unchecked and very unaware — although aware in some cases that, unfortunately, we’ve been seeing in our national leadership as well. Sometimes it is overt bias, and it’s so shocking when you see it. There are many, many more cases of being generally well intended, but not really understanding your level of biased behavior.

AMANDA STEINBERG: We all think bias is bad and wrong and would like to think that we’re all evolved, that we’re color blind, that we’re gender blind.


AMANDA STEINBERG: I imagine you know this more than anyone, but everybody is biased. Remember the Korea expert on BBC whose two children walked in and interrupted? Remember?


AMANDA STEINBERG: I spent the first 24 hours saying, “Did you see the nanny run in?”

JENNIFER BROWN: All of us did.

AMANDA STEINBERG: And it wasn’t the nanny; it was the wife. I thought, “Well, there you have it. I thought it was the nanny.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Meanwhile, she’s this tremendous businesswoman. I don’t remember what she does.

We all do it, women especially because we haven’t seen a lot of role models to challenge that bias. Even those of us who do this work find ourselves jumping to those conclusions. It’s crazy when I find myself doing that. It is shocking.

AMANDA STEINBERG: Either it’s crazy or it’s a part of the human condition that we just have to be accountable for and create scaffolding around.

I teach this a lot in our financial advice. We have all of these archetypes. If you are like me, you are a visionary archetype, meaning that you don’t see risk. We’re not going to change you so that you do see risks. You have to build in certain protections to account for that. I guess that’s where regulation comes in.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. And in the corporate world, there are protections against bias. When I work with corporations, I say, “Okay, let’s look at your recruitment practices. Let’s look at the schools you’re looking at. Let’s look at the job description and see where there’s gendered language in the way that you have described the role.” There is such a thing. In fact, there are tech startups right now that you can plug in your job description language or your performance review language, and it will go through and flag all of the gendered terms. It’s really incredible what technology can do now, and it will suggest alternate words.

So if you’re looking for a “coding rock star,” women are actually going to read that and say, “This isn’t going to be a fit for me,” and they may pass on that opportunity. Just an example of some language that women don’t relate to. It can be as small as that.

It can also be looking at who you’re promoting and advancing and who gets involved in talent reviews for that promotion. Do we have diverse slates of people to review, assess, and promote?

People assume a meritocracy. They assume that the right talent is going to rise to the top.

AMANDA STEINBERG: Haven’t already seen that that’s not the case?

JENNIFER BROWN: Well, we have. Yes, we have. I always say, “Diversity is not just going to happen because you’re well intended or you happen to believe in equality.” Even if you talk a big game or if your company wins a lot of awards, in my experience, it has nothing to do with the culture inside the company and the messages people are getting about whether or not they’re welcome.

AMANDA STEINBERG: That alone is a really, really powerful message. I wonder how many executives in really powerful places would accept that. Even with the best intentions, diversity won’t work, it has to be proactively implemented.


AMANDA STEINBERG: I’m curious how many would believe you.

JENNIFER BROWN: I know what you mean. The other interesting power dynamic is that there is an assumption that if I open the door and welcome this and broaden my lens, it is somehow going to jeopardize what I have. I always think of diversity as, “One plus one equals three.” All of these things we talk about. It’s going to make us a better leader. Leading across difference is probably the number-one skill set that we’re going to need for leaders in a very volatile world. And yet, we’ve got to get to the heart of what people feel and sense is being taken away from them if they somehow support this or participate. Some of that is true.


JENNIFER BROWN: When you think about the election, think about what we learned about economic opportunities for certain people. What is changing so fast that it’s endangering the very economic viability of so many people? I don’t have any answers for that, it’s going to continue.

It reminds me of the stance towards diversity which says, “I need to protect what’s mine, and I don’t know what’s on the other side of this diversity conversation. What is it going to mean for me?”

Do you think we’re undergoing a culture shift at the same time in the opposite direction? Do you see signs of hope and change in terms of gender relationships? Maybe it starts with men revisiting — heterosexual men anyway — how they partner and support women in their lives.

Certainly, we see that wealth is changing hands really, really fast. We see female customers, for example, refusing to work with their husband’s wealth advisor because they’ve never been talked to or considered part of the conversation. Suddenly, they’re going to be in charge of all of the buying decisions and all of the wealth, and they’re faced with a largely male financial advisor population, interestingly.

AMANDA STEINBERG: I’ll tell you this: I don’t feel really hopeful right now, but if all the women listening today and more and more women take risks, and we decide to create more of our society in our own vision and start to invest more capital in the more equitable, democratic institutions that we want to be serving us, then, yes, I will have hope.

But we have to see a shift in the way women are distributing capital. Women are inheriting the majority of wealth. Women are inheriting trillions of dollars in this country right now, but we’ve got to put our money where our mouth is.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. The whole vision of us hoarding our cash, which of course is rooted in not having ever controlled that before.

AMANDA STEINBERG: We weren’t prepared. We don’t know how to deal with it.


AMANDA STEINBERG: It’s a foreign object. We think, “Oh, God, I don’t want to screw it up.” Of course.


AMANDA STEINBERG: People screw it up sometimes. They do end up poor when they had millions. I’ve seen it multiple times. It does happen. There’s a reason to be somewhat scared, but that’s not a reason not to figure it out.

JENNIFER BROWN: How can our male partners in life and business, our friends, how can they support us to show up differently around our money habits and beliefs?

AMANDA STEINBERG: I think holding their male colleagues and friends accountable to less sexism is huge.

I was sitting at my car dealer the other day. One of the car dealer reps walked up to another with a picture and said, “Look at my new baby boy.” And the other said, “Oh, you had another son. You’re so lucky. Girls are such a pain in the ass.” And I thought, “Wow, that was cute.” How much of that banter goes around? “Boys are low maintenance; girls are high maintenance. You’re so lucky you have sons.” Things like that. Change that conversation, and don’t let even those tiny little quips be acceptable anymore.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. And every parent I know says, “The boys are so much work, but the girls are a delight.” You hear the opposite all the time, too.

AMANDA STEINBERG: Let’s stop making gender a determinant of children.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Agree. That’s great, Amanda.

One last question: Say a woman does not have the assets to become an angel, although may some day, what can we do in our lives with whatever we have to start to shift our thinking about ourselves, the narrative that we have with ourselves, and also our financial behaviors? What is going to make the most difference?

AMANDA STEINBERG: Well, I wrote a book.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yay! Good segue.

AMANDA STEINBERG: It’s called Worth It, and you can go to Amazon and search for “Worth It, Amanda Steinberg.” I recommend that you read my book. That’s exactly what it’s written to do — to shift your mentality. I promise you, it’s entertaining. It’s not another boring money book. I would have fallen asleep writing it.

JENNIFER BROWN: I can vouch for that. It’s awesome, a great read.

AMANDA STEINBERG: Thank you. And if you want to start proactively managing your money, I also invite you to check out, which stands for Worth Financial Management. That’s our investment advisory business. It’s all digital. You can sign up online, you never even have to talk to a human, but you can talk to a human. We help you get started really controlling and managing your money.

JENNIFER BROWN: Fabulous. I love your voice on Facebook. I want to tell people where they can find you. You’re so real. You’re one of the most real and accessible human beings, and not afraid to show that you’re flawed.

AMANDA STEINBERG: Because I’m highly flawed.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s part of what we have to unpack as women, honestly, showing this face to the world that takes so much time on the back end to create and polish. I’m always aware of commenting about how we look on camera or trying to delineate and create this boundary between the mess that we may feel in our daily lives or the chaos with our kids or whatever it is, and then presenting this other thing to the world. You really have successfully and beautifully navigated your truth in all of its glory.

AMANDA STEINBERG: Well, it goes back to that day. You can find me, just search Amanda Steinberg. I have a professional page, too, with one of those blue checkmarks, but I really never post there. So just follow my personal profile.


AMANDA STEINBERG: It all started that day at the traffic light when I gave up on everything I thought I was supposed to be and only embraced what I know that I am. And this magic happened in my life.

Every time I have put myself out there as flawed, I actually get a greater embrace from an even larger community. So it’s totally out of self-interest that I’m authentic, because when I’m authentic, everything in my life works better. I don’t know if that’s true for everyone, but it’s true for me, so I just keep doing it.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love it, and it’s really resonating.

Thank you, Amanda, for your wisdom, your risk-taking, your dedication to empowering women in these really concrete ways. I think my favorite thing you said today is we have got to be in the game to shift it, and we are inheriting the largest wealth transfer probably in our history. We may want to play it safe because it hasn’t been a safe dynamic for us our whole lives. It doesn’t mean that we can rest on that. We’ve got to push into it, learn a different language, and we’ve got to get comfortable with it. We have to set the agenda with our money and put our money where our mouth is and bring our values.

AMANDA STEINBERG: We have to create a collective vision of what we want the world to look like, and then we have to build it. We cannot wait for anyone else to do it.

JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely. Thank you so much. Please buy Amanda’s book, everybody. Read it, take notes, highlight every page. Put your money in play. Thank you so much, Amanda, for joining me.

AMANDA STEINBERG: Absolute pleasure.



Get your copy of Amanda’s new book: Worth It: Your Life, Your Money, Your Terms



]]> 0 693
Bob Gower: Challenging the Patriarchy Through Organizational Design Fri, 23 Jun 2017 08:00:54 +0000

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

You can also listen on iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play.

Bob Gower is an authority on agile development, lean theory, and responsive organizational design. He’s the author of Agile Business: A Leader’s Guide to Harnessing Complexity, and has assisted leaders at numerous companies — including GE, Ford, Chanel, and Spotify — in creating more effective organizations. He holds an MBA in Sustainable Management, is a Certified Positive Psychology Practitioner, and speaks and publishes regularly on what it takes to build great organizations.

In this episode, you’ll discover:

  • The “sex cult” period of Bob’s life and what he learned from that experience (1:54)
  • The connection between organizational agility and employee well being (8:15)  
  • Leadership patterns that Bob has had to unlearn (12:43)   
  • The importance of cognitive diversity within teams (16:04)
  • An example of agile leadership from Bob’s organization (23:30)  
  • Techniques to help monitor for inclusion in meetings (25:39)  
  • The “mental gymnastics” that diverse team members often need to go through within organizations (35:18) 
  • Leadership traits that have been traditionally valued within organizations and why they are problematic (40:00)
  • A study about male chimpanzees and the lessons for middle management (41:53)  
  • An online tool that Bob uses when he is initially evaluating organizations (45:41)
  • An important leadership trait that has been traditionally undervalued within organizations (49:17)
  • The connection between vulnerability and legacy for leaders (53:35)  

Click to tweetPsst, did you know? You can click, select and share any of the text in this post on Twitter, Facebook, or via email.

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you for joining me on The Will to Change, this is Jennifer Brown.

My guest today is Bob Gower. Bob is an authority on Agile Development, Lean Theory, and responsive organizational design. He’s the author of Agile Business: A Leader’s Guide to Harnessing Complexity, and has assisted leaders at numerous companies including GE, Ford, Chanel, and Spotify in creating more effective organizations. He holds an MBA in sustainable management, is a certified Positive Psychology practitioner, and speaks and publishes regularly on what it takes to build great organizations.

Bob, welcome to The Will to Change.

BOB GOWER: I am so happy to be here, thanks for having me.

JENNIFER BROWN: You are a man of many, many stories, and probably some of the most bizarre I’ve heard. Remembering that the title of this podcast is True Stories of Diversity and Inclusion, one of my favorite applications of that, which is that everyone has a diversity story, even “appearing-straight” white men.

Tell us about a particular time in your life when you were part of a certain community that is actually hugely unusual — and probably surprising to a lot of our listenership — and what it taught you. I’ll just say that and let you take it from there.

BOB GOWER: Sure. I think you’re describing what I refer to as the “sex cult period” of my life. And that’s a somewhat inflammatory, headline-grabbing title, and it’s also somewhat accurate. It was an intentional community, but also clearly can be described as a cultic organization based on the folks out there that classify such things.

And its focus was on sexuality. It was run by a woman, and our focus was on female sexuality. It was an organization that was built on the shoulders of an older organization both in terms of its business, and let’s call it community organizing or induction playbook, and also in terms of some of the technology or the stuff that it taught.

I guess it’s been about ten years ago now. I was going through a divorce, and I went to a workshop on relationships. The entrée into it was simply me being in a place where I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I was struggling, I guess, around this idea of relationship. It was not my first divorce.

I saw an ad for an organization that said, “Hey, we will teach you how to have better relationships, how to relate better to women.” And I thought, “Wow, that sounds amazing.”

And I went to a workshop, and I guess really, when I look back on it, I was very consciously inducted into a culture. So maybe we can take some of the inflammatory language out of it. On the one hand it was very beneficial to me, on the other hand it was very destructive for me. And on the one hand it was a unique organization, and on the other hand, this kind of stuff happens everywhere in all different kinds of organizations. So I prefer to talk about it from a more concrete place rather than an inflammatory place. I’m not here to “out” the organization and destroy them, I’m here to help people understand organizations, our relationship to them, and how they can defend themselves better.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love the way you describe it. When you say “sex cult,” it’s funny how we go immediately to the sordid side of that word. And yet, I would imagine it taught you a lot about your masculinity.

You’re one of the men in my life with whom I can have very honest discussions about men, masculinity, and gender norms. I always learn so much from you because you challenge me, and I know you’ve challenged yourself. I want to ask: What did you learn about your own masculinity coming out of that experience that you’ve taken forward that has been life changing?

BOB GOWER: Wow, what an excellent question. What I learned about my masculinity? Well I think the first thing, like I said, I’ve been married more than one time. Currently, as you know, I’m very happily married. You know my wife Alex.

I had been married unhappily, and I think in this cult — let’s just continue to call it “the cult.” Why not? It’s fun. In the cult, it was kind of a group marriage in a sense. Very much in the sense that we all lived together, there was some shared sexuality, and certainly a lot of codependence that you find in a lot of relationships. Being in the cult gave me the opportunity to play out all of my negative patterns to the Nth degree because it was all at once, everything, all the time.

And I think coming out of it, what I realized, and it was a very, very painful set of realizations, but I think the real thing was around how I had spent most of my life trying to please women. You know, just saying, “What do you want? What do you want? What do you want?” What they really wanted from me was what everybody wants: We want respect, we want honesty, we want people to really listen to us and care about us. I don’t think that matters whether you’re male or female.

What I found was that when I came out of that organization, I had spent so much of my life focused on women and making myself attractive to women, that I hadn’t really figured out who I was, what I wanted to contribute to the world, or what I was really up to in life. I had somehow been so wrapped up in relationships that I really hadn’t pushed myself to answer those questions in a real way.

What I found was that as I began to find answers to those questions, I became much more attractive naturally, as long as I was respectful, kind, asked real questions, and was honestly interested in people. Then people would say, “What do you do?” or “What are you up to in life?” And I would have a real answer that was something I was passionate about, something I was excited about, and something I was increasingly skilled at. Not only was I more attractive, but I was also attractive to the right people, let’s say. I began to attract the kinds of women into my life — my wife– who, herself, was up to really cool stuff, was a really great person, was really kind, and really interesting. What I learned is that it’s not all that complicated in some ways.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s interesting because I see echoes of your experience in your work. It’s not an accident that you focus on organizational agility. It’s actually this beautiful tie-in of work in organizations as a means of self-actualization, which is something you talk about a lot. I think there’s a lot of skepticism about whether work can be all those things to people. And maybe there are echoes of that sense of the positive parts of community that you experienced.

BOB GOWER: Yes, I think so. It’s funny sometimes how simple it all can appear to me. Yes, people hire me and the teams that I work with because they have organizations that are broken or troubled in some way — it’s attrition, they’re losing people. Sometimes there’s a diversity element, but we certainly don’t sell specifically on that. We care about it a lot, but it’s not something we consider ourselves experts in. Often, it’s speed or agility, which is a strategic position. They say, “We’re unable to respond to the market, we’re structurally impaired. Things are moving too slow inside the organization.” So people ask us for that kind of thing.

The means to get there in today’s market. 100-150 years ago, when we were in an extractive industrial economy, you didn’t really need to care about the people who worked for you all that much, and sometimes it was even a liability. Right? People like Rockefeller and others built vast fortunes based on extracting value from human resources, extracting value from ecological resources.

Today, fortunately, we need more people because we’re solving complex problems most of the time. If we’re talking about speed, we’re talking about the ability to solve a problem, and usually the ability to collaborate with a variety of mindsets and a variety of skill sets in order to solve those problems.

If I’m going to help make an organization speedy from a structural and leadership mindset standpoint, I have to also make the organization really care about the people that are working there, care about their wellbeing. This is why you see the programs in Silicon Valley where people get free lunch, free gym, and free dry cleaning at the office. But I think it goes one layer deeper where you really have to — from the leadership mindset and structural standpoints — set up the team, set up the organization so people can really show up, and be full, whole people.

That, then, begins to set you up for these other conversations around self-actualization and all of these things. I like to describe it as, “Creating places where people can come and do the best work of their lives.”

Aside from all of that, just like inside of our relationships, whether or not we’re doing well in our organizations, whether or not they’re painful or happy, they are still opportunities to self-actualize. Sometimes the more painful, the more opportunity there is for self-actualization — another learning opportunity.

JENNIFER BROWN: “Challenges and opportunities,” as we refer to it in the human resources world. We have those organizational structures that aren’t ready for the future, that aren’t agile, that aren’t self-aware, that might have been built for speed, but not necessarily for seeing the whole person.

You and I know that, historically, those organizational structures have been built and honed by men. I live that reality every day trying to help companies look at themselves and honestly think about what they would need to do to change, to get diversity not just of identity, but background, diversity of thought, and bring all that difference to the table so that we can have that rich, creative abrasion that we really need in order to achieve what you’re talking about.

As a man who’s looked a lot at his own patterns and norms as a man, and thought about leadership as it’s been traditionally defined, what do you bump up against when you come into these systems with a lot of homogeneity staring back at you? In the meantime, you know that they must change, it’s a “change or die” scenario.


JENNIFER BROWN: What are the reasons for resistance? I’m particularly curious to hear a man like you weighing in on male leaders, perhaps. What is the change that’s right in front of all of us? What is their reaction to it, and how you get them over the hump of that?

BOB GOWER: Yeah, how we get them over the hump is just pushing day by day. I don’t know that I do it particularly well sometimes. As you know as a consultant, your work sometimes feels like — what’s that line from the movie Shakespeare in Love with Geoffrey Rush? He says, “The theatre is always like impending disaster, but it always works out.” I don’t know, it’s a miracle, right? In this kind of consulting, I always feel like I’m on the edge. And sometimes if I’m not on the edge of getting fired, I almost feel like I’m not pushing hard enough.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. That’s actually true. Yes, that’s true.

BOB GOWER: It’s funny, when you were asking, “What impedes you?” I was just going to say “Patriarchy.” It really does. And I think patriarchy in the sense that it’s very much the water that we swim in, not in the sense of trying to call out any specific individual for bad behavior — even though I could, I see it all the time, and probably even see it in myself, right?

I think no matter how vigilant we are, we are who we are. I was born in a white, middle-class family in the suburbs of Philadelphia and raised to be a business person essentially, right? My dad was very kind, I was raised in a very kind and loving household, but at the same time, I am who I am. I’ve had to unlearn, I’ve had to unwind my own patterns over the years when it comes to leadership.

I remember the first time I was invited to a conversation with HR, being a very new manager, and being told that I couldn’t say certain things to employees. I won’t go into the sordid details of all of that right now, but I was joking about being fired. Joking about, “Oh, you’re so fired,” when they would give bad work and that kind of thing. Really having to learn there’s a power differential here and I have to respect it. Frankly, I see a lot of male leaders, but I’ve worked in fashion, I’ve worked in some organizations that are predominantly female, and I think what’s interesting is some of the same patterns persist no matter the gender of the person. Again, it’s the water that we all swim in.

If you’re in business, you’re in a system that has been defined by generations of men — much like politics. But I think, specifically what I see, what we are always trying to work with, is most organizations are based on hierarchy and fear for the most part. It may be a really kind company, and a really kind boss, but underneath it all there is, “If you don’t do what I say, you’re going to be fired or I can coerce you into doing what I tell you to do.”

There’s a benefit and a challenge there. I’d actually love to hear your thoughts on this because, on the one hand, we need diversity, we need variance of thought. What’s the term you used? Creative abrasion? We talk about actually a former colleague of mine coined the term “generative difference.” This idea that we want difference in our teams, but in order to perform, we need to be synchronized, we need to be aligned in our action. As mundane as it is, if I’m working on one thing and you’re working on the other, if we don’t agree about the outcome that we’re working towards, then we’re not going to get there. The traditional way of generating that alignment is through coercion, fear, and hierarchical power. What we want to generate is more networked collaboration, let’s say.

There always seems to be a give and take because if we get too diverse and too much variance, then we’re not aligned, and we’re not getting anywhere. But if we have too little, then we’re all doing the same stuff, right? I really would love to hear your thoughts on this because like there are different kinds of diversity, right? You can have four Stanford MBAs — two women, two men, different racial backgrounds, different religious backgrounds, different upbringings — but at the end of the day, they’re all four Stanford MBAs, which means they look at the world in substantially the same way.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. I think that is such the challenge of cognitive diversity. When we talk about how millennials define diversity, which is making corporate America’s head hurt, they place their identity diversity secondary to cognitive diversity or diversity of thought.

It’s interesting to see how the prioritization or the ranking of those things changes over time as they move up the ranks in increasingly homogenous organizations. But that being said, it’s a challenging concept if you set organizations up traditionally by identity characteristics both observable and not.

The diversity of thought piece is really interesting. How do we square that with the fact that there aren’t enough women, aren’t enough people of color, and aren’t enough people with diverse identities populating our organizations? And now we add this layer on top with diversity of thought, where you can have tremendous diversity of identity in a room, but everyone has the same background, the same socioeconomic story. There’s a “sameness” that leads to blind spots that can be equally harmful.

It’s this never-ending litany. It reminds me of Facebook having 60 descriptors for gender. How do we even talk about it when we can’t even nail it down anymore? We have a generation coming in who is “multi-everything.” I get asked a lot of questions about whether labels are meaningless now because there are so many. And we have a generation that doesn’t want any labels anymore, by the way. I actually love the opportunity that this presents to get out of that binary we’ve always thought about diversity: “Are you black? Are you white? Are you gay? Are you straight?” That has never been accurate, but we reduced ourselves to those things so that organizational architects could identify us. So it’s really interesting to think about this new era of how people define themselves, what they want to show to others, and what they want to bring into the workplace.

How do we monitor teams for inclusion of all of these different aspects, both visible and invisible, and get them to synchronize? I’d love your answer to that, and then let me add another question: Is the manager responsible for getting that diversity together and then leading for inclusion? There needed to be somebody in an authority role who was monitoring, watching out for the group process, making sure all voices were heard, and that people were engaged in their own comfortable style — all of that.

But you work in a lot of leaderless teams. I know that you’re fascinated by that. I’m so curious. Does everyone, then, take responsibility for inclusion? How do we teach that?

BOB GOWER: Yeah, it’s such a challenging question. There are so many things I’m struck with by your question.

One refinement: I don’t necessarily work with “leaderless” teams. I still think leadership is a thing, I think it’s something that’s more broadly needed now, rather than more specifically. And some people don’t necessarily want to lead, they don’t want to be responsible for inspiring or nurturing. They’re a database engineer, and they want to be a database engineer. They want to do the database work.

You mentioned millennials, but I think partially because of millennials, but partially just because it’s a good idea, we see a greater emphasis on purpose or meaning. I can mean purpose in a very lofty sense. We’ve done some work with Charity: Water and various nonprofit groups that have really great missions that are very inspiring.

Right now I’m also working with a chain of restaurants, and I’ve worked with some locomotive engineers and lawyers. It’s not necessarily they have missions that are particularly inspiring to me from a nonprofit, “make the world a better place” standpoint, but at the same time what I’m trying to do is make sure that everybody in the organization is more connected to the mission as it exists. They know who the customer is.

So I may be a database engineer, but I know why I’m generating this database, why it’s important, why it’s valuable to the customer, what features the customer may be looking for. I have some sense of empathy and attunement. And maybe that’s really what we’re talking about is increased empathy and rather than running our organizations on fear, running them more on human-to-human connection.

That might be internal. Again, I advocate for creating very small teams so people know each other. In a matrix organization, these large, old matrix organizations that I’m mostly starting with often, the fungible unit of value of human resource value delivery is a single individual, a single resource. And you’re very, very specifically labeled, right? You are a legal resource if you’re a lawyer. You’re a database engineering resource or something like that.

And so one thing we start to do immediately is we separate role from soul. So you might need many roles to run an organization, and a single individual could fulfill many roles. I work a lot in technology, so it could be as simple as a QA engineer and a developer actually being the same person, they just play, “Right now I’m going to do the QA work, and then now I’m going to do the development work.” It could be as simple as that.

In an organization it could be when we have a meeting, we need someone to hold us to an agenda, to lead the meeting, to facilitate the meeting. We need someone to hold us to an agenda, make sure we reach the outcomes we’re trying to reach, make sure everybody gets equal air time. I think that is a real diversity issue — making sure people get to speak.

And what we find is if that’s the hierarchical leader in the organization, then we run into trouble, but if it’s just somebody who raises their hand and says, “Oh, I’ll do today, I’ll lead today’s meeting,” then we get to much, much better outcomes.

JENNIFER BROWN: It all came to the leader on paper. Talk about agile, you’re also really flexing. Every day you may be wearing a different hat, and the ability to step in and do that I think is creating a stronger pipeline of employees and people, but it would also really allow people to discover maybe new areas of competency of passion.

BOB GOWER: Yes. The team I work in, I’m part of a company called The Ready, and we’re all org designers. We just hired somebody recently, she’s wonderful. I didn’t make the decision, I don’t know who did, I’m out of the office a lot these days. But she’s now facilitating every single meeting we’re in. The newest person on the team is facilitating every single meeting.

Now we have very strict formats, we run meetings in very specific ways. We also make decisions in very specific ways to be very inclusive. I think these kinds of almost programmatic protocols are incredibly valuable and incredibly powerful because what we need to do, going back to your diversity question, we need to short circuit our habits.

I worked with a team a couple years ago that I said, “Hey, there aren’t any women here.” And the response I got was, “Well, women just don’t like this kind of work.” And I said, “No, I don’t think that’s it. I really don’t. I think that we are just hiring from our network.” It was about a 60-person company that had grown pretty organically, so we were just hiring from our network. We know a certain kind of person, and that’s the kind of person that we’re offering work to.

Furthermore, if we do happen to interview somebody who is not like that, there are two things that happen: One, let’s say we do interview a woman. She comes in, she doesn’t see anybody who looks like her here, so she’s going to feel out of place and, perhaps, uncomfortable. Two, we have no really deliberate process when it comes to what we’re interviewing for. We just ask people, “What did you think of so-and-so?” And they said, “Well, I don’t know that she’d fit in around here or he’d fit in around here or they’d fit in around here.” We can take the gender out of it.

But then we’re most likely being run by our unconscious programming, which makes your work and this work so challenging. So what we need is programmatic policy and processes that allow us to short circuit that.

Just in meetings, it can be as simple as working it around where we go around the room and say, “Do you have any clarifying questions? Do you have any clarifying questions? Do you have any clarifying questions about the proposal? Do you have an objection to the proposal? How about you? How about you?” So you call on people very specifically.

Myself, I identify as mostly an introvert. I can be very quiet in new groups of people, so I really identify with someone who has a hard time speaking up sometimes. But then you just get more air time. I think these kinds of things are the healing patterns, but they’re very slow acting, let’s say. It’s not like you’re going to come in and sweep through and change things all at once.

JENNIFER BROWN: Bob, what I would actually add to what you just said — and those were some great tactical examples of what you can do to monitor for inclusion — you described going around asking, “Do you have anything to add? Do you have anything to add?”

I think people who are underrepresented, and potentially people who are introverted, might just give you a one-word answer to that. “No, I’m fine. I don’t have anything to add.” I think we’ve got to ask open-ended questions and say, “What is one thing you might ask about it? What is one thing you’re wondering?” I would not let people off the hook. I think that shows it’s not just a check-in, it’s actually real inquiry.

Also, what we’ve learned about introverts, I might add, is where and how you ask people for their input really matters as well. Some of us are uncomfortable offering our opinion quickly, on the spot, in a group. So how do we follow up with certain people with different communication styles to really include them in a substantive way? I think meeting behavior alone is such an interesting and important part of inclusion, like you correctly identified. I just wanted to add some color to that.

BOB GOWER: Yes. I totally agree. It’s like an old facilitator trick. When I’m speaking or facilitating, if I ask, “Does anybody have any questions?” it’s signaling, essentially, that I’m done. But if I ask, “What questions do you have?” and then I’m pausing, it opens things up, especially sticking with the awkward silence after.

I think your point is really well taken about opening up and being inclusive. I think really what we’re talking about is just placing attention on these things, and then creating some organizational habits, some organizational structures. I’ve talked about structure several times or I’ve used the word. And what I mean is that most organizations are structured in a hierarchy. If I look at the org chart of any organization, it doesn’t really tell me how the work gets done, who works with whom, or what the organization is doing. As a matter of fact, it really just tells me what the power structure is, who’s trying to please whom, and some sense of pay grade or where you are in the strata. I care about that stuff. I think that stuff drives an interesting set of behaviors. You need it in order to establish pay grade.

There’s a line from Stanley McChrystal, who wrote a book called Team of Teams. He was the general who ran the theater in Afghanistan for many years. He talks about this move. His world is talking about how did we create an army that was able to respond to the disconnected network that is the terrorist cell? But we had this hierarchical army that was moving too slow because orders were too slow to flow down, and information was too slow to flow up, which is exactly what most organizations find themselves in today.

Anyway, his line is: “The kinds of leaders we need are leaders who move from chess master, which is the leader who knows all the moves, is able to think three moves ahead and then tell the pawn what to do, to someone who’s more of a gardener, someone who is more responsible for nurturing. Let’s call it the rules of the system or the overarching algorithms that a system runs on.”

So when we think about it, we think that what we want to do is create teams. We say, “A team is this, this is what defines a team in this organization.” Usually, we like people to be pretty much 100-percent dedicated to the team they’re on, a small group of people, and most of their work to flow through. So we flow work through teams, rather than moving individuals on to different jobs. So we don’t move the individuals around, we move the work around into these small, high-functioning teams.

The leader’s job in that world becomes much more to nurture. How trusting are people of each other? Trust is something I talk about a lot, something I care about a lot because if I trust somebody, I can get so much more work done in so much less time than if I’m constantly trying to check myself and jockey for position or something like that.

So we want to run organizations based on trust. The leader’s job becomes to really keep an eye on that. And then in the sense that we need everybody to be leading, we need everybody to show up as also keeping an eye on that.

I mentioned the woman who’s facilitating all of our meetings these days. After we had a meeting the other day, she mentioned, “Oh, yeah, there were some people that didn’t talk during that meeting. Would they like to say anything now?” It really created this opportunity for people to be more participatory. And it came from, perhaps, the youngest and most junior person inside the organization. I think that is a real testament to the founder of the organization and the community that he’s created. He plays by the rules, he nurtures the organization, and we’re a small team. He was gone for a week, and we barely missed him last week because he’s created an organization that runs itself.

JENNIFER BROWN: There you go. Well, that’s the mark of a successful leader. Sadly, it’s not the kind of leader we’re promoting in most organizations, as you and I know, so we have our work cut out for us.

You and I talk a lot about gender. And in a “VUCA” world — volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous — you mention women are driven by different things, and are actually stylistically better leaders or more effective leaders in a VUCA world. That woman’s instinct in the story that you were just sharing about checking in and really waiting to hear, and wanting to hear the answer to the question. Is that something you see women employing a lot more stylistically? How do we make room for more voices like that to enter the C-suite so that we can change the energy of organizations more towards what you’re talking about?

BOB GOWER: There are really a couple different questions in there, too. On the one hand, broadly speaking, obviously, we all exhibit different traits. But, broadly speaking, men are trained and maybe even we’re genetically predispositioned to be very literal, very direct, and face a problem head on.

I think about it sometimes, and this is just my own conjecture, but if men feel in danger, then we’re going to try to take on the problem physically, head on, and directly. Whereas women — and this is just my abstract theory — tend to be smaller and tend to use more subtle forms of control inside of organizations.

I’ve asked this, and maybe you can share your experience. I walk into a room, and it’s taken me years to train myself to notice the mood and the feeling of the room. Really, I can sense it, but it’s not necessarily naturally where I go. But most women I speak to will say, “Oh, yeah, that’s just the world that I live in. I walk in, I know that person’s angry at that person. That person is upset. That person is happy.” They’re tracking the emotional quality in the room. Would that track with your experience of the world?

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s funny you say. When I teach diverse leaders, and by diverse I mean in the corporate setting, that’s women, female leaders, LGBT leaders, LGBT people at one of the big banks we work with. And we talk a lot about that the vigilance that we’ve needed as one of “the only” in any given situation as we move up the levels in organizations, it teaches you this level of emotional intelligence. It’s interesting, though, not because you decided you wanted it, but because you needed it for safety.


JENNIFER BROWN: And to hold on by your fingernails to the seat at the table that you had somehow finally achieved. So that vigilance around, “I don’t want to be rejected by this group that now I am in the midst of, this is where I want to be.” But you have to be exquisitely careful, and you need to be exquisitely aware.

As an LGBT person, of course, the awareness is all about, “Do they know about me? Do they know who I am?” We go through these mental gymnastics. I always describe it as having these parallel conversations in our head. Not only do we need to be contributing to the meeting, showing our expertise, and taking control, but we also need to be going through the math of saying, “If this happens, then what do I say? If somebody refers to this, how do I answer a question I don’t want to answer? How do I distance myself from that? I just heard a joke that makes me uncomfortable, am I going to say something about it?”

That sensitivity is born out of a need of survival for so many people. This is true for people of color, too. Ask anyone who’s in largely white and male ranks in financial services. It is crazy. And, yet, it develops this competency that I think you and I are talking about that’s actually the exact competency that we’re saying leaders really need to exhibit more of.

So that’s why it’s the silver lining to what has fundamentally been a really challenging journey for so many. And, yet, when I work with gay leaders, it’s so empowering to consider that what we have worked so hard to achieve for survival reasons is actually something that is not only going to be valued, but necessary for our organizations, and actually be a beacon for others.

So it’s actually this really cool flip on something that a lot of us have looked at as a really hard story, and yet, it’s as if, “Wait a second, there was a reason that I went through all this. And it’s not only to be a different kind of leader, but to teach a new generation of leaders in a different way.” That’s very, very empowering for people to look at it that way.

BOB GOWER: Yes. You talked about like this fear of exposure, this fear of being placed outside the group. After my experience in the cult organization, I thought, “Well how did I fall for this? How did I end up in a cult and giving up my self?” And part of it is that cults, and I think even most organizations, will use the threat of expulsion as a means to keep people in the organization. Right? We’re very, very, very programmed on a deep evolutionary biological level. Being rejected by the group is what is traditionally threatening to our survival. Quite frankly, being rejected by your employer can be rather threatening to your lifestyle these days, and to your survival in extreme cases.

So we use this fear of exposure, and this is where it acts as a very, very subtle thing. Then the other question you asked, which I think is really fascinating, is: How do we, then, get more people like this that we need? I completely agree with you. We need people who are nurturing, people who are paying attention to the emotional landscape in an organization.

I dealt with an organization recently where there was very, very, very high emotional cost to speaking up, to making change, this idea of psychological safety that they’ve been talking about. Amy Edmonson’s work out of Google has been so influential on my work. There’s this intense lack of psychological safety in this organization, but from a real-world standpoint, there were no business consequences, right? People were just afraid to look dumb. They were afraid to make the wrong decision, they were afraid to make the boss angry. The boss was male, he showed up very much as a dad, and people didn’t want to disappoint him. It became really challenging because on one hand he’s a brilliant guy who has deep insight, but on the other hand his reflexive communication style, and perhaps the hiring patters inside the organization as well, have created an organization where people are really, really afraid to do anything. It’s very hard to get them to talk about, “Well, what’s this really going to do to our bottom line? What’s this really going to do to the business?”

And so people are frozen into an activity almost, and that freezes the rest of the organization, and then there is a real cost. There’s more of a cost to not doing things these days, than even doing something which is maybe slightly wrong if we’re working quickly in iterative batches, and hopefully, we’re improving over time.

I don’t know how we hire more people. I feel safe getting somewhat political with you, what I feel like we saw in the last election was a culture, a system, and our whole political system was set up to value certain traits, and to undervalue other traits. And the traits that it values, the traits that promotion inside of a corporation values, just like the traits that an election cycle values, are not the traits that actually help you do the job well, right?

You have to be a self-promoter, you have to be a good orator, people like it when you’re commanding inside of a room — at least the people who are in charge of hiring you. We like confidence. As humans, maybe, we even respond to confidence.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with Amy Cuddy’s work on trust, but there’s this idea that trust has two components. One component is: “Are you strong? Can you deliver? Do you have the skills, do you have the competence to deliver on the thing that you say you’re going to do?” And then the other is care: “Do I care about the people?”

And what we find is that care is somewhat easy to feign, it’s easy to fake, even though it’s incredibly important. In the big abstract sense, if I’m being hired by somebody, if I’m being promoted by somebody, those aren’t the people that I have to work with, those aren’t the people who are going to report to me, those are the people that I report to. And so I can say, “Oh yeah, I care about people. Sure, I’m a nice guy.” But the way I show up with the people below me is terrible.

Do we have time? Can I quickly tell you about an interesting study that I heard about recently?


BOB GOWER: I think it mirrors this exactly, and I think the solution is hidden in it.

So the study was you take five male chimpanzees and you put them in a room together. And because they’re chimpanzees and this is the way they operate, they form a hierarchy. That’s just what they do. There’s one, there’s two, there’s three, there’s four, there’s five. It’s a stack-ranked, force-ranked hierarchy, and it’s very clear who’s who based on their interactions with each other, and the scientists who are watching this can identify that.

What they then do, is they take one of them out. Let’s say we take number three out or we just begin to pump that number three full of testosterone. And they said, “Well, what’s going to happen?” That number three is now like really aggressive, really energetic, and really whatever.

So you would think that they would then challenge number one, right? They would then rise to number one because they’re going to be more aggressive.

But that’s not what happens, apparently. What happens is the hierarchy stays exactly the same, but the chimp who’s number three just brutalizes the ones beneath him, right?

I see this in middle management. I see this played out all the time in middle management, where the boss will think, “He’s a pretty nice guy, he’s a pretty good guy.” He doesn’t see the brutalizing, he doesn’t see the bad behavior that’s happening beneath.

Maybe one very, very simple thing that we could include in organizations is that you have to be hired and approved by the people who are going to report to you, right? So I get to hire my own boss, essentially. At least I get to participate in that conversation.

JENNIFER BROWN: How you treat people you don’t have to be nice to? I’ve always thought when it comes to diversity and inclusion, I’ve wanted it to be bottoms-up in terms of ratings. I would love to see a tool someday that really judges leaders, and maybe publicly, because I think that would lead to some change, however uncomfortable. This is the behavior I see. It’s not just what they say in the company meeting or in the town hall or on the corporate website, it’s how they authentically, or not, personalize the issue of diversity and inclusion. They’ve done the work, and when they speak about it, the real measure “You’re talking about it, what are your actions day to day to support it? Are you showing up? Are you practicing it every day? Do you share your journey?”

There are lots of metrics you can look at, but I would absolutely not ask somebody’s peers, who are usually — as you and I know — men weighing in on how other men are doing. That’s probably not an accurate picture of how they are actually resonating with people across difference. How are they really being heard, and how are they resonating?

If we had a tool that did that, it would be so helpful for me. When you look at how leaders measure their ability on diversity and inclusion, their track record, there’s a study by Chuck Shelton that shows the difference in self-analysis, and analysis by other men of men, and analysis by everything else of those same men. It’s really fascinating because, again, you walk into a room and people assume you’re a white, straight guy. You have privilege, you don’t know anything about any of this that we’re talking about.

And I know that’s not fair with someone like you. So it’s really quite fascinating to think, “How do we find the allies like you in a sea of sameness in many organizations? How do we hear you? How do we know that you’re there?” How do you show yourself as somebody who says, “Hey, I don’t necessarily get all of this stuff, but I’m working really hard to understand it, and how can I be helpful to you?”

BOB GOWER: Yes. I think you’re getting down to relationships. I love the idea of the tool you talked about. I use Glassdoor all the time. Whenever I’m hired by an organization, I begin to look at Glassdoor. It’s the first stop I make to check out an organization, because it does allow for anonymized reviews of that organization, and sometimes leadership shows up as a part of that. I don’t know if you use that or not.

JENNIFER BROWN: I do. I have questions about how they show up for diversity and inclusion. How do the leaders particularly, even name by name? I’m asked all the time, “Which companies do this well?” And I always say, “It is down to the individual in some cases. You can’t really generalize about a company or a culture.”

BOB GOWER: Yes, absolutely. I think this is one of the reasons that in my work I really emphasize building teams based on relationships. One of the interesting things we do often is I’m a big fan of meeting on a cadence. Every Monday, we have this kind of meeting. Every first of the month, we have that kind of meeting, right? So sometimes it’s, “Hey, how are we doing?” You retrospect, you think about how you’re doing. Or you do a quick, lightweight planning of the week to come. “These are my priorities.”

We’re really big fans of transparency because the kinds of behavior we’re talking about thrive in secrecy. So we advocate for tools like Slack, where it’s more open conversation, rather than e-mail, which is a more private, one-on-one conversation. And so what we find, weirdly, is that executive teams often don’t talk to each other very much. They don’t really interact. They don’t really have a community themselves. They don’t really have a team or a sense of, “These are my peers, these are the people that I count on.”

What they have is a sense of being the leader, being the star. So we’re touching on some topics that are really near and dear to me. I get really upset when people that I work with, read about, or even people that I know — because I know a lot of people who lead organizations — don’t really seem to care about the people who work for them. This can show up in terms of the kinds of benefits that are offered inside an organization, or just the attitude.

Unfortunately, it’s genderless, too. I’ve seen women behave very, very badly in this way, and I’ve seen men behave very badly this way. Often, I think we’re dealing with a male-defined structure, but it’s one that almost seems to favor sociopathy and narcissism to a certain degree, right? I can’t remember what the percentages are, but psychopathy or sociopathy shows up at a certain percentage in the general population, but much higher, rather statistically significantly higher — not 50 percent, 4-6 percent or something, but still significant within the range — within like the CEO population.

JENNIFER BROWN: I have to see that study.

BOB GOWER: Yeah. There’s a wonderful book called The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson where he goes into it in great detail, it’s lovely.

JENNIFER BROWN: Love it. Yeah, we value that in our leaders. Back to your point about bluster, control, and “powerful” defined in a certain way. Behavior which gets you the job, but has nothing to do with how you build relationships. It’s crazy.

BOB GOWER: Yes. And vulnerability is undervalued, right? We don’t value people who say, “Well I don’t know the answer to that question.” Even though that’s 99 percent of the time probably the answer, given that we’re trying to do really complex, interesting stuff together.

One of the things that I challenge myself to do, and one of the reasons I talk publicly about having been in a cult as well — by the way I was very, very nervous about coming on and saying I’ve been in a cult. This was the thing when you were talking about the LGBT community and business, I thought, “What do I talk about? What don’t I talk about?” I have this like gap in my resume that’s kind of long, “What did you do then?” “Well, I was in a cult.”

And when I was coming out, I was broke and trying to put my life and my career back together, so I didn’t talk about it at all. I just talked around it. I didn’t outright lie ever, but it was really a challenging time for me. It was one of those things that I would walk around, always afraid that someone was going to find out. And if they found out, what would that mean? And I also carried my own personal shame about it, right?

Then that real fear hooked into this imaginary fear, and it all blew up. I was constantly vigilant about it. And then a few years ago, a friend of mine just said, “Hey, man, this is your story. And it’s a really interesting story. And it’s a story like nobody else in your business really has. Why not come out and talk about it?”

And what I found is a couple things have happened as I’ve come out and talked about it. One is that, yes, I became instantly a much more interesting guest at cocktail parties. When people would say, “So what are you doing?” I could say, “Well I’m writing this piece about this time I spent living inside a cult.” And they’d say, “Really? Tell me more.”

Whereas before I would say, “Well, I help organizations become more efficient.” And people snooze, right? They’ll go to sleep, right? So a difference there. I became a more interesting person on some level because I was telling more, I was being more vulnerable, more authentic, more real, telling more about myself.

Also, I began to attract people to me. We just actually closed a deal with a company, and it was based on a contact that I made at a talk called, Sex Cult to C-Suite, that was the title. And I met this person there, and it’s with a pretty big financial institution that we closed the deal. She came up to me after and said, “Oh my God, what an interesting story.” And because we tend lead with who we are.

And I think maybe this leads me to where I think all of this is going, is that we need to create organizations that invite, reward, and even encourage the whole person to show up. I know if there’s no part of myself that’s trying to hide some shameful thing, I have more cognitive capacity available to solve the problems that I’m trying to solve. But if I’m walking around with this fake face — and this leader whom I was describing before, this very masculine leader who was leading by fear, he probably has one of the more developed fake faces, business faces. I know there’s emotional depth in there, I would bet my life on it, right? I would bet my life that there’s fear, vulnerability, and care. But it’s layered over by “This is who I have to show up as in order to succeed in the world.” And some of us have learned that very well, and so we have to unlearn. We have to create spaces, frankly. We have to create safe spaces, right? We have to create spaces that are safe for individuals to show up, and encourage it, reward it, and celebrate it, right? Celebrate diversity, but it’s very, very risky because all of our habits are built going in opposite directions.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. As we dismantle, hopefully, you’re in my secret dream, the command and control way of looking at organizations, and what strength and power look like. I think that embracing vulnerability and our diversity stories, as I often talk about, those are not things to be hidden because it takes energy from us.

One of our problems is we can’t see ourselves in leadership. We look at that picture and we say, “Well, I don’t see any women, or I don’t see any out, gay executives at this company.” And what we surmise is, “I can’t be that someday.” That is an illogical but logical conclusion that we draw.

In my work with execs I say, “Don’t just do it for yourself, you actually need to do it for your legacy. You are creating an opening by showing vulnerability that will show that leader, that future CEO someday that never thought of themselves as being able to be a CEO, you are all of a sudden making it one step closer for them to achieve that by sharing this. Sometimes I can get people engaged that way, and appeal to their desire to create that legacy behind them.

Bob, we are out of time, but I could talk to you all day about this stuff because there’s so much work to be done.

BOB GOWER: Absolutely, so could I.

JENNIFER BROWN: This has been wonderful. Thank you so much. I want to have our audience be able to find you, read your writing, and continue to absorb the wonderfulness. Where can I point them?

BOB GOWER: Sure. I have a brand new website, it’s called Very clever. Basically, all of my writing is linked there, my speaking, and my work. If they want to find out more about the team that I work with when it becomes specifically organizational design, it’s


BOB GOWER: So, and Thanks.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you so, so much. Keep up the work that you do investigating your gender, your behaviors, being an ally, being a champion for inclusion. I really appreciate your voice out there, and I look forward to continuing to learn from each other as we travel this path.

BOB GOWER: Likewise. Thanks so much for having me.




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Navigating unconscious bias when the whole world is watching Mon, 19 Jun 2017 18:53:21 +0000

“Combating our unconscious biases is hard, because they don’t feel wrong; they feel right. But it’s necessary to fight against bias in order to create a work environment that supports and encourages diverse perspectives and people.”


Laszlo Bock, CEO and co-founder of Humu, Former SVP of People Operations at Google

Like it or not, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, we are all prone to unconscious bias. As I write about in my book Inclusion, even those of us who do this work for a living still struggle with our all-too-human wiring.

When I walk into a room of all-white male executives, for example, it’s easiest for me to make assumptions about who they are, only to discover as I ask them to share what diversity means to them that most of them also have a story associated with identity or background, and the experience of exclusion, which may be related to ethnicity, socioeconomic class, political affiliation, or family, to name a few.

Almost as often as I make these assumptions, I discover that I’ve made an error that says more about me than it does about the other individual. This is an important reminder to me—and should be for all of us—that everyone has a story about diversity.

Everyone has a story about diversity.
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It’s also critical for me to discuss this connection in my conversation with those who enjoy privilege—namely, the men in the room who have the power to influence changes that would affect many in their organization.

It is critical that they too see themselves as having a story to share.

Rather than view unconscious bias as an unwelcome intrusion in my thoughts, I see it as a reminder to be watchful and to keep learning, to share my process and progress with others, and to put myself into situations where I am confronted with a broader array of examples of “different from me.”

Others certainly may not enjoy this journey as much as I, getting stuck in resistance, stubbornly defending their own lens as the only way to look at a situation.

They protect themselves and their beliefs and shore up their power and position for what they think is survival and maybe self-protection, but their behavior actually has the opposite effect and can send damaging ripple effects outward, especially in organizations where so many still look upward for cues about norms, behaviors, and what’s acceptable.

Leaders are watched very closely. And the scrutiny CEOs are subjected to, in this social media age—in which one remark can lead to public outcry, fallout, and even being fired—means it’s not just other leaders in an organization who are watching closely, but society as a whole.

The world is watching… and inclusion is now a baseline, especially for millennial customers and employees.

When faced with a situation in which a company representative has said the wrong thing, an organization must take swift and intentional action to rebuild trust without delay. And, depending on the severity of the misstep, action must not only be immediate, but it must be long term. 

The world is watching... and inclusion is now a baseline
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The good news is that this presents executives with an opportunity to become more self-aware; to begin their journey along the Ally Continuum; to demonstrate a commitment to building a forward-thinking and inclusive workplace not just today, but every day.

The bad news is that the polarization that can happen around the outward expression of unconscious bias can send an unintended message to the people we need to participate in this discussion the most, making them feel like they won’t ever be successful in navigating inclusion.

The question is:

How can we invite people to broaden their understanding and change their perspective? How can we invite people to do better; to be better?

For a company going through the throes of a PR disaster, how do we get people to revisit their unconscious bias without bringing an entire company to its knees? 

We have seen companies respond, via punishment, to those involved in those disasters. I have heard mixed reviews from many executives: some stating punishment is the right response, others stating training should be, and some stating that there should be a mixture of both.

Being in this position is never what any company wants, but there is no silver bullet. There is no ‘right’ answer.

Some people are born being allies who are passionate about equality. Others learn to be over time. Regardless, all allies—and future allies—require support and coaching and trust in order to progress.

If you are a business leader who has made the business commitment to advancing diversity and inclusion, like the 150+ leading CEOs who have pledged to act on supporting a more inclusive workplace, and you’d like to explore what that kind of support might look like for you, get in touch today.

In the meantime, what are your thoughts on this new landscape that is still taking shape? I’d love to know.

Let me know in the comments.

Our Stories, Ourselves: Overcoming Stigma to Build Authentic Workplaces With NYU Law Professor Kenji Yoshino Fri, 09 Jun 2017 03:08:38 +0000

You can also listen on iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play.

Kenji Yoshino, Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU School of Law, discusses the concept of covering in the workplace and his own experiences with having to downplay his identity. Kenji discusses the legal implications of covering, as well as the value to organizations of creating a culture where people can bring their full selves to work. He also shares how he is bringing in experts in theatre and improvisation to assist in teaching the concepts of diversity, inclusion and belonging to legal students.

In this episode, you’ll discover:

– Kenji’s diversity story and his struggle with his sexual orientation (2:54)
– The difference between covering and “passing” (7:07)
– The cost of covering in the workplace (12:31)
– The real commonality among LGBTQ individuals  (21:04)
– A surprising group that often engages in covering behaviors (21:54)
– The value of having introverts on leadership teams (29:20)
– Why the true number of people who cover in the workplace may be much higher than is currently reported (32:00)
– How covering differs between groups (37:28)
– How the law is starting to address covering demands in the workplace (42:00)
– The differences between diversity, inclusion and belonging (48:00)
– How Kenji is using theatre to teach about diversity and inclusion (55:02)
– How discrimination is perpetuated by current hiring practices and what do to about it (56:10)

Click to tweetPsst, did you know? You can click, select and share any of the text in this post on Twitter, Facebook, or via email.

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

JENNIFER BROWN:  Welcome to The Will to Change.  This is Jennifer Brown.

My guest today is Kenji Yoshino.  Kenji is the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU School of Law, and the director of the Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging.

A graduate of Harvard, Oxford, and Yale, he specializes in constitutional law, anti-discrimination law, and law and literature.

He’s the author of three books:  Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, A Thousand Times More Fair: What Shakespeare’s Plays Teach Us About Justice, and Speak Now: Marriage Equality on Trial.

He is frequently quoted in such media as The New York Times, NPR, CNN, and MSNBC.

Along with our previous guest on The Will To Change podcast, Christie Smith of Deloitte, he is the co-author of the 2013 report, Uncovering Talent: A New Model of Inclusion.

Kenji, welcome to The Will To Change.

KENJI YOSHINO:  Thanks so much for having me, Jennifer.

JENNIFER BROWN:  Thank you, I’m so glad you’re here.

I am a big admirer of your work.  I’ve been following you for a long time.  I quote you all the time in my circles, and everybody always knows who you are, especially for a substantial amount of work you’ve done around the concept of “covering,” which we’ll get to in a little bit.  But first, I wanted you to acquaint our listenership with a little bit about your story.

You are intersectional in many ways, and I know you have navigated your various identities along the way in your career.  I know you’re really introspective about it and you’ve written a lot about it.  Can you tell us a little bit about how you discovered your authenticity, how you began to live in a really aligned way, and how you sort of brought those pieces of what makes you who you are together to create the person that you are today?

KENJI YOSHINO:  Well, first, let me say that the admiration is mutual.  And, of course, I’d be delighted to give an introduction.  It might even be useful as a way of weaving in an introduction to the concept of covering along the way.

JENNIFER BROWN:  Perfect.  I thought so, too.

KENJI YOSHINO:  Great.  The way I sort of think about my own development to becoming a comfortably and openly gay man is through three demands for assimilation that weakened over time.

I came out, by today’s standards, relatively late, I suppose, in life.  I had just graduated from college and was at Oxford, and was on a fancy fellowship.  And I realized that I’m no longer asked to be the interviewer for these fellowships because I always described Oxford as the global epicenter for depression because I was struggling with my own sexual orientation then.

I think of that as a conversion phase because the only thing that I wanted to do in that time period was to convert to heterosexuality.  The only consistent foray I made from my college rooms in those days was to go to the college chapel to pray to become straight — and to gods I wasn’t even sure I believed in.

So it was only actually after I went to law school that I accepted the fact that I was gay and moved from what I’ll call the “conversion” phase to the “passing” phase of my life.  I accepted the fact that I was gay, but masked that fact from everybody else.

Unfortunately for me, that was the first year that Yale Law School offered a class called Sexual Orientation and the Law.  No one on the regular faculty was equipped to teach it, so they got a person from the ACLU to guest lecture.

And I had this dilemma where I had to figure out whether or not to sign up for the class or not, realizing that on the one hand it might not ever be offered again, but on the other hand that in 1993, which is the year this was, that if I signed up for this seminar, I would effectively be outing myself as a gay man because the only people who were taking that class at the time were gay women, gay men, and a few righteous straight women.  And a straight man would not be caught dead touching this class with a ten-foot pole.

So, ultimately, sort of long story short, I decided that I needed to just have the courage of my convictions and I’d take the class, and as expected, out myself to the entire law school community.

I had an extraordinary experience there where I discovered not only a deep acceptance that I had never experienced before from the community that I was living in, but also within the law, just realizing how much law could do to make the lives of LGBT individuals better.

By the time I graduated from law school, I was an academic, to be sure, but was engaged in a lot of advocacy and was passionate about becoming a law professor.  I was hired back at Yale on their tenure track to do LGBT work, among other things.

But the kind of kicker of this is that no sooner did I arrive at Yale Law School, then I encounter a third, subtler, demand for conformity.

Jennifer, frankly, I thought, by the time I’ve overcome conversion and passing, I could kind of relax about my sexual orientation because everybody knows I’m gay.  The people who hired me knew I was gay, so I could just stop managing my sexual orientation.  But as it turned out, a very well-meaning, very friendly colleague put his arm around me and said, “If you want to get tenure here, you’re going have a lot smoother ride if you are a homosexual professional rather than a professional homosexual.”

I know exactly what he meant.  He meant that I would do much better if I were the mainstream guy who taught constitutional law, federalism, the separation of powers, and the Dormant Commerce Clause, and just happened to be gay on the side as a kind of “extracurricular” activity, rather than if I were the gay-rights guy who was writing on gay rights topics, teaching gay rights classes, writing gay rights amicus briefs, and so on and so forth.

And such was the terror of the tenure track, that for a couple of years I tried to accede, but finally, I just realized that I would much rather not get tenure as somebody who I was, than get tenure as somebody who I wasn’t.

What made me curious about this was that I didn’t have a term for the demand that had been placed on me, so I threw my net out on the sociological waters and came up with this term “covering” from Erving Goffman.  “Covering” is his term for when an individual tries to conceal or downplay a known identity. So it differs from passing in that people know you belong to the group, but it is very similar to both conversion and passing insofar as it’s a demand for assimilation.

So the idea is it’s fine for you to be gay, but downplay it.  Don’t write on gay stuff.  Don’t bring your same-sex partner to work events, et cetera.

It was only after I overcame the covering demand that I finally felt fully authentic in the workplace, and then I began to apply that to other contexts in my life where I felt like I had an outsider identity — being Asian American, being the most obvious of those.

The thing that struck me as really critical was that conversion and passing didn’t relate to being a racial minority, because very few people, if any, were asking me to either convert or to pass on the basis of race.  Many, many people were asking me to cover on the basis of race by, quote/unquote, “acting white” or downplaying my advocacy for Asian-American issues, or so on and so forth.

So I hope that helps as a kind of thumbnail autobiography that also situates some of the key concepts that we’ll be talking about today.

JENNIFER BROWN:  Yeah, that’s perfect, Kenji, and I can so relate with the evolution that I experienced.  First I was an HR professional, then a leadership expert, and then morphing into a diversity expert, and the feeling of finally joining all those pieces that you had sort of minimized and spent so much time distancing yourself from, and all the energy that goes toward that, which you talk about in your research.  You actually quantified it in your research, that it has a negative impact on our self-esteem, and so we’re carrying this around.

Did you have a moment when you realized you could actually relax and breathe?  Did it feel like you were throwing off a weight that you’d been carrying at some point?  Where you said, “I can do this, I can be authentic.  I can work from my passion and it’s not going to harm me”?  What year was that, when you felt that truly for the first time?

KENJI YOSHINO:  Yeah, it’s a great question.  I would date it at somewhere in the middle of my tenure track, when I made that fateful decision of, “I’m just going to go for it and write about what I’m passionate about because it seems ridiculous to cut myself off from my passions in this way.”

So if we think about my stepping onto the track as 1998, I would say somewhere in the early 2000s, that was when I sort of decided I’d rather get tenure as somebody who I am rather than anything else.

So that did feel like a lead overcoat had fallen off of me because I was finally reconnecting to all the passions that had brought me to that point in the first place, which is all these gay rights cases.

Think about the ’90s and the run-up to the early 2000s.  This is when Romer has been decided, this is the run-up to the big Lawrence case that overturned Bowers vs. Hardwick, so the Lawrence case is seen as the Brown vs. Board of the gay rights movement.

All of this is breaking in the air around me.  You can just see that it’s electrifying.  And here I am, sitting on the sidelines kind of being gay, but downplaying the fact that I’m gay.  So flipping over to sort of saying, “I don’t really care anymore whether I get tenure or not.  What I care about is my integrity as a person and as a scholar and writing about the things that I care about.”

I have to say, in Yale Law School’s defense and to its credit, that it was just that one person who had given me bad advice.  As soon as I said, “I’m going to keep writing about the things that I care about,” everybody on the faculty — except for that one individual whose advice I had taken, so it’s on me for having listened to that one person — but everyone else said, “Where has this person been for the past three years?  This is the person that we hired.  You seemed to have such a fire in your belly and such a passion for your topics, and then you went really quiet for a couple of years.  We were, frankly, getting really worried about you.”

Then, ironically, three years later, I got tenure unanimously — flipping even the colleague who had given me the bad advice.

Obviously, I was lucky.  I don’t want to say this is everyone’s experience, or even generalizable, but I at least want to put out there that there is a deep connection between working on the things that you’re most passionate about and doing your best work.


KENJI YOSHINO:  This is not just a question of, “Did it harm me?”  When we did our survey results, we found that of the people who reported covering — 61 percent of our survey sample — 60 to 73 percent said that it was somewhat to extremely detrimental to their sense of self, depending on the axis of covering that we were talking about.  So even adopting a very parsimonious definition of harm, that’s a very, very high number.  A supermajority of individuals were reporting harm.

But, then, it’s also a question about the organization, because of the 53 percent of people who said that their leaders within their organization expected them to cover, 50 percent said that it somewhat to extremely diminished their commitment to the organization.

So if you want people to actually come back to the organization and make the organization their own, it’s really important that you not impose these covering demands on them.

JENNIFER BROWN:  That’s right.  That is so resonant, and people can really connect to the concept.

I want to just go back to one concept you talked about, though, that always strikes me:  It’s not just the energy we put towards minimizing a stigmatized identity that is harmful to us, but it also prevents us from building trusting relationships and becoming trusted colleagues.

I was just in a room of senior, out, LGBT women.  There was a meeting called Out Women, which was incredible because it’s so unusual to be in a room of women like that.  I mean, it almost never happens.  So when you’re in those rooms, you’re pinching yourself because we can barely find each other.  And then, when we get together, it’s like you can breathe a sigh of relief to say, “At least we’re out there.”  We may not be connected as a community because we’re going about our lives, but particularly in the senior levels, a lot of women have achieved this tremendous success, but I think have still been isolated throughout their career paths to a great degree.

So we’re in the same room, and the panel is talking about how, when we are not fully ourselves in business relationships, it is said about us that, “Well, I don’t know who that person is, exactly.”  Or, the performance feedback might be, “I don’t know if I really know who their family is.  I don’t know if I trust them with this deal.  I’m not sure I can really promote them,” because there’s not the sharing that goes on between heterosexual colleagues.

So the harm is also in terms of the higher up you get in the corporate ladder, the more important relationships are, and the more people really need to know everything about you in order to put you in charge of a giant P&L or a huge region of a company.

And gay people have gotten so good at putting their personal story to the side — and, by the way, working double hard to hang on to the status that they do have — that they become this unknowable person.

That is exhausting, but it also gets in the way of our success as well because people don’t know the richness of who you are. So I just love the story you said that they were like, “Wow, where has this person been?”  They wanted to know all of you, which I think is surprising for some of us to actually realize that that’s been there all along.

KENJI YOSHINO:  I think that’s exactly right, and an extremely astute comment.  I hadn’t quite put it that way to myself before, but the way I’ll connect it to my own story, and I hope that this isn’t too mockish, but before I came out, I had very a wonderful community, I had very wonderful parents.  They would say, “I love you,” all the time.  I trusted the “love,” but I didn’t trust the “you,” because the “you” that I was presenting to them was a heterosexual version of myself, so they didn’t really know the real me.

So it was only actually after I came out to them that I trusted not only the “love,” but I also trusted the “you.”  I felt like when they said, “I love you,” that they actually really meant me, not some other person.  Again, that’s not their fault; that’s my fault because I was hiding myself from them.

I think that a very similar thing happened to me in my workspace, as you’ve just described, which is to say, there was a lot of comments about “I respect you.”  Right?  But if you don’t trust the “you” on the other end of the equation, either as a person at whom the comment has been directed because you feel like, “How much do they really respect me when they don’t really know me?”  Right?  Or, alternatively, as the person who is making the comment like, “I respect you.”  There may be a kind of comma, “But, I don’t really know you.”  Or there’s something that I can’t even put my finger on that makes me feel distant from you.

So, in fact, we’re lucky if someone says, “Oh, I really like that person.”  I’ve heard this, too, many, many times — not just on sexual orientation grounds, but on race grounds or on gender grounds, or what have you.  “I really like this person, but this person is not fully comfortable in their own skin around me, and so therefore, I can’t fully embrace this person as a friendly colleague or someone whom I would trust with a really big deal.”

We’re lucky if someone is articulate enough and self-conscious enough to be able to say that.  I think much more often, it’s just this inchoate sense of, “I’m trying to build this network and I’m going to pick these people and not these other people.”  And these other people are defined not so much by any kind of conscious decision making, but rather more like, “Oh, I don’t feel comfortable around this person.  I don’t know this person well enough.”  And you may not be able even to verbalize that.

JENNIFER BROWN:  Yeah.  Oh, my gosh.  You know, we have this really powerful moment in our LGBT training that we do for a big bank where we think about, what are the gifts that we have gained as leaders that are LGBT people?  And when you do a big brainstorm and people come up with things like resiliency, resourcefulness, courage, and emotional intelligence.  And I say, “These are things that were earned because of a challenging personal situation about your very identity, and who you are, and being seen.”

We had to learn how to overcome that using 15 different tools in our toolkit.  We had to get really creative about, how do you build a relationship with people when you’re actually hiding most of who you are?  How do you do that?  How do you ascertain whether you’re safe, physically or emotionally in a certain situation, and you have to get the work done anyway?

When we kind of do that flip, it’s a transformation in terms of how they actually value the challenges of adversity and what it has built and forged in them.  It is so amazing to see, and it’s like, their favorite part. We call it the “gifts of being LGBT.”  And I ask them, “How did it create you to be a different leader?  And, by the way, how has it now equipped you to be the kind of leader that your company needs the most, now and in the future?”

If you can connect those dots, and I think this is true for all diverse talent, we’ve looked at our deficits, I think, because of our identity for so long.  And yet, in the companies for which I consult, the very variety that they’re looking for — that adaptability, flexibility, and the ability to read a room and to shift and be flexible, or to be creative about problem-solving or taking risks — all of those things, to me, sound like the competencies of every leader of the future.

I think that diverse talent has so much to teach from their experiences.  Yes, it was hard won, but I really see a day, and I hope for a day, when we are emulated because of, perhaps, what we’ve been through.

KENJI YOSHINO:  I think that’s exactly right, and I think that one of the things that — not just “I think,” but I know that one of the things that’s in the literature about leadership is that authenticity is a really key pillar of leadership, and that people are unwilling to follow people whom they view to be inauthentic.

I think that when you’re talking about it in the LGBT context, or anyone who’s willing to be out there as a diverse person, but nonetheless articulate themselves as comfortable in their own skin, is someone who is being authentic, and therefore is worthy of emulation.

There are many other metrics along which we can think about diverse candidates bringing leadership by virtue of their life experience, such as the empathy or the sensitivities that you were raising earlier.

But I think that if I were to take away the nub of what you are saying, what it really would be for me is if somebody just says to me, “I am gay.” and openly like that, then I actually know so much about that person, or at least I think I do, with regard to the amount of courage that that person has and that commitment to authenticity, the amount of resilience that that person must have had to be able to say that, the amount of independence to not take other people’s judgments for their judgments.  Right?

So it’s actually a vast panoply of characteristics.  One of the things I’m really fond of saying is that when I think about this tribe of gay people, I think that the commonality that’s most important among us, by far, the least important commonality is sexual orientation, right?  By far, the least important commonality is the gender to which we are attracted.  The much more important set of commonalities is what it means to have grown up hiding something, being an outsider, needing to figure out when to be authentic and when not, when it was safe, when it wasn’t safe, how to empathize with other people who are going through the same struggles, et cetera.

In a way, we are defined as gay people by our gender of object choice, but it’s really a much richer set of life experiences for which that is still, unfortunately, a proxy.  Right?  When you say “hard won,” it’s really those hard-won attributes that I view to be our true commonalities.

JENNIFER BROWN:  That’s so well said.  I love that concept.

I have to ask about the covering research.  The amazing thing about that is the “big reveal.”  When I teach it, anyway, it’s that there’s a certain group that engages in covering behaviors and distancing from stigmatized identities, and it is our white, straight, male colleagues.

So, could you say a little bit more about how that goes across when you present your research and you reveal that?  I know what happens for audiences when I talk about it, and it is just this moment with the audience that is so poignant, I think, for so many people.  I mean, it’s not just for the white guys in the audience to feel seen and heard, and maybe for the first time to be included in the discussion, but for everybody else to say that.  Some people laugh or chuckle, some people roll their eyes.  I wondered how that moment goes across when you talk about it and how you interpret people’s reactions to it, and what it says about the whole inclusion conversation today.

KENJI YOSHINO:  Yes.  Again, thank you for the question because I have the exact same experience of feeling like that.  In a way, it’s a key finding of our study, which is that 45 percent of individuals who are straight, white men report covering on at least one axis.  The study, by the way, is the study that I did in conjunction with my colleague Christie Smith at Deloitte, it’s available for free on the Internet.  It’s called Uncovering Talent: A New Model For Inclusion.

But when we pushed out the survey on covering, one of the things that didn’t surprise us was that cohorts that have historically been subjected to discrimination or bias or exclusion from the workplace reported very high levels of covering.  So 83 percent of gay individuals, 79 percent of African-American individuals.  But the thing that did surprise us was that 45 percent of straight, white men reported covering.  When I reveal this to the audiences that I talk to, I get exact the same response.

A friend of mine was joking to me about this because she is a body-language expert, so she was telling me, “Just watch people’s feet because people’s feet don’t lie.  They always point to where they want to go.”  And if you’re a diversity and inclusion person, and I suspect you experience this too, and you have to present to corporate boards and boards of trustees of universities or foundations who are predominately “pale, male, and Yale,” right?  Then you get a lot of resistance because people, quite understandably, associate diversity and inclusion with the irony that straight, white men are excluded from these paradigms.  “So we’re going to spend the next hour beating up on me” is the way in which many straight, white men experience these conversations.

So when they hear that 45 percent of straight, white men report having this secret self that they feel like they can’t bring into the workplace, immediately the feet reshuffle.  You can practically hear it.  And if you’re looking for it, you can certainly see it in all the body language.  It’s not just the feet realigning from the door to you, it’s also that arms that are crossed get uncrossed, that people who are leaning back in their chairs lean forward.  Now they’re genuinely curious because they have the follow-up question, which I’m sure you get as well, which is, “How do we cover?  What is this 4 percent of straight, white men covering?” And, of course, we have the answers to that, including things like age, socioeconomic status, mental or physical disability or illness, religion, and veteran status are among the top answers that people have given on our surveys.

So, that is a really important atmospheric moment, where people finally realize that this is a diversity and inclusion paradigm which is capacious enough to include them, and that they, as straight, white men, are not going to be lionized or demonized in the conversation, but are actually in the soup with the rest of us in the search for greater authenticity in the workplace.

I’m sure many of your listeners are sort of immediately coming in with the head-scratching question, “Well, are you really saying that all forms of covering are bad?”  And of course, I’m not saying that.  You know, for me to speak English or to have manners or what have you, are forms of assimilation, and therefore, of covering.

But where we land in the study is to say that when we try to answer the $64,000 question — which follows on the admission that not all forms of covering are bad — which is:  How do you winnow out the good forms from the bad forms?  The answer is: values.  Right?

Many people in our survey said, “I have to cover as a republican,” or, “I have to cover as a democrat.”  From our perspective, none of the organizations that we’re surveying — this may change in the future, I don’t know — but none of the organizations that we were surveying at the time said, “We believe in the capacity to express your political affiliation at work as one of our core values.”   That’s not an inclusion metric for us.

So we thought, you know, “There’s no hypocrisy going on here.”  Whereas every organization said it believed in inclusion on the basis of gender, but every organization contained women who said, “I have to cover as a woman by, say, downplaying my childcare responsibilities.”

So even along that affiliation-based covering axis alone, we had a woman, in every organization that said that it believed in gender inclusion, saying that they had to downplay their status as mothers.  In that instance, in that latter instance, we would say that that’s an organization that’s not living up to its values.

So with these straight, white men, I think that the point is, if what the straight, white man is covering is some kind of bias against LGBT individuals, or any other cohort, then I’m kind of like, “Well, keep that covered.”  Right?  Because that’s not necessarily our vision, or maybe you need to find another organization, or maybe you need to lobby the organization to change its values. Predominately, it’s no harm, no foul.

But, if a individual is saying, “As a straight, white man, I have to cover the fact that I am older,” in a tech company, or, “I suffer from clinical depression or anxiety and I have to cover that,” or even, “I’m an introvert.”  I think work styles is, increasingly, an interesting axis of studies based on Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which I think is a classic in its field.


KENJI YOSHINO:  But, when we are talking about things that are either squarely within the anti-discrimination canon, or the diversity and inclusion canon — mental and physical disability, religion, veteran status, or age — that’s certainly something that we should pay attention to.

Even if it’s something subtler that’s an emerging distinction, like introversion, we should pay attention to it, too, because it’s something that I can’t think of a good reason for, why an organization would say, “In order to work here or advance here or to be a leader here, you have to be an extrovert.”  Given everything that Cain has argued about the power of introverts.  Right?  Which is to say, introverts listen more. Wouldn’t it be great if we had organizations with leaders who are just as renowned for being listeners as organizations who are renowned for having leaders who are great orators?

JENNIFER BROWN:  Yeah, we need all kinds.  I always say everyone has a diversity story.  I always follow up the information about the covering that’s happening amongst white, straight men, by saying what I heard you say once, “It’s not the pain Olympics.”  I think people want to know who’s covering more and how relatively more painful is it, and sort of my story is harder than yours.  All of that dynamic in that conversation, I don’t know if it’s a fruitful one, but I know it’s going through people’s heads.  So I always try to say to audiences, “That’s not the point.”  The point is to build the kinds of workplace cultures where everyone can share their human experiences about things others may not know about them.

When I see an often straight, white, male executive, for example, telling their diversity story, and really making a point to be vulnerable, I do believe that something shifts in their followership.  They are viewed, especially by millennial talent, as an authentic leader who kind of gets inclusion and is putting themselves out there.  I have to convince them that it has this incredible effect because I’m not sure they always see it.

I do believe it’s going to be more and more critical to hear from everyone about their diversity stories, and more broadly defined. What did being an introvert in a sales organization mean, in terms of how you developed as a leader?  That’s a really interesting story of exclusion, and a story about being uncomfortable, and a story about not being a part of the group.

But it’s heavy stories, too.  I’ve had straight, white, male executives come out about their political views, their religion, their disability, having a child with substance abuse issues that was suicidal.  It’s a bit incredible the kinds of things that people will say, but often they will come up to me afterwards and say it.  They don’t necessarily say it in front of their peers, so you can also see that the group mentality is still really powerful when men are in rooms together.

But it’s just been incredible.  I think we need so much more of that, and that’s my work.  I feel really drawn to making sure that we make this a skillset.

KENJI YOSHINO:  I have to say that I’m of two minds about that, and maybe you can help me out here.  On the one hand, I’m in total agreement, Jennifer, that if we look at the 45-percent statistic, I always think, “Well, this is what people said on the fly on a survey where they’re being introduced to the notion of covering for the first time.”  I bet that if you let me spend any amount of time with these individuals, that number would go up to 100 percent because I have yet to meet a person when I do workshops and I hand out covering charts that I ask people to fill out how they cover along my four axes of appearance, affiliation, advocacy, and association — I have yet to meet a person, a human being, who’s been unable to fill out that chart.  Having to cover is part of the human condition, and part of working in an organization that is not going to be perfectly tailored to your individual needs.

So, I agree with all of that, and I also think that that explains or reflects, why people might wait until later to come and talk to you about it.  What they’re feeling within the stricture of the diversity and inclusion conversation is that if you are a straight, white guy, you’re not allowed to have a diversity story, right?  So, if you’re going to communicate that diversity story because you have one, you have to do that to the facilitator afterwards in a discreet way rather than being public about it.  Otherwise, everyone will think that you’re whining or that you’re not seeing your own privilege or what have you.

So, agree with all of that, and the importance of the work that you’re doing. But, on the other hand, and this is where I say I’m of two minds, this is the flip side of the coin.  I also don’t want to create a false equivalency between the 45 percent of straight, white men who are covering and the 79 percent of African Americans who say that they’re covering.  Right?

So, I don’t want this to be what some call “moral licensing.”  Right?  Where I can kind of pat myself on the back by saying, “Oh, well, that African-American individual has to cover, but I have to cover, too.  So, therefore, we’re totally equivalent.”

So I’m not looking for the pain Olympics, but I am looking for some kind of attentiveness to data and this understanding that this notion of covering was immediately available to the African-American individual in the way that it wasn’t available to the straight, white man.

Now, again, you could say that that’s because straight, white men aren’t allowed to be diverse or to have secret selves.  But I think part of it is just, honestly, that African Americans have to work their identity alongside their jobs harder than a straight, white man does.

For example, in our survey, we had no qualitative responses for straight, white men with regard to association-based covering demands.  And that, to me, spoke volumes about how there’s a lot of bridge-building that we could do.  We can say that with regard to appearance-based covering, straight, white men have to do it on the basis of age in the same way that, say, an African-American woman might have to do it by straightening her hair.  Right?

But, with regard to association-based covering, that’s a bridge too far, because every cohort — other than straight, white men — is reporting this association-based covering demand of being unable to associate with members of their own group.

So whether it’s Asian Americans, whether it’s African Americans, whether it’s women, we got reports that said, when more than three of us are talking beside the water cooler, someone will walk by and say, “Are you plotting something?  Is this a revolution?  Is this an NAACP meeting?”  All direct quotes from our survey.  Right?  So the fact that straight, white men didn’t report any of that suggests to me that straight, white men, along that narrow dimension, are more able to swim through an organization freely than other groups.  So, it’s those differences that are important, too.

Ultimately, perhaps we don’t need to arbitrate — I’m curious to know what you think — between those two views of should we be emphasizing the commonalities or should we be emphasizing the differences?  I do think that once you show 45 percent of straight, white men cover as compared to 79 percent of African Americans or 84 percent of gay people, the fact that everyone is paying the tax makes the straight, white men, who are finally being acknowledged as paying a tax, much more sympathetic to the claims of other groups.  Right?

So, ultimately, we may not need to arbitrate which explanation or which way of framing it is correct. Either way you frame it, the fact that straight, white men feel appropriately included within the diversity and inclusion paradigm means that that paradigm is enriched for every group that’s seeking shelter within that paradigm.

JENNIFER BROWN:  I think I agree with your final conclusion.  I think just including them is revolutionary, honestly.  I just can’t believe as somebody who’s 46 years old and doing this work, I feel relatively young in this work.  I came into it very mindful of my predecessors and the way that we had a race and gender-focused conversation.  The work really oriented around that for years and years and years.  And we called it the “shame and blame” style of dealing with diversity issues in the workplace.

I just always wanted something more.  I wanted it to be a positive connection and conversation.  I wanted it to be about what is universal between us.  I just think that’s really resonating with people now.

If it’s kind of a blunt instrument, I’m okay with that, because it’s so new.  It is so new to have people feel they might have something to say about it, to give them a voice.  And I think that that is going to change the energy of everything.  I always learn so much from you, but I love that you were able to explain that one kind of covering is not like another, and one group is doing one kind more than the other, and there are differences.  There are real differences in terms of people’s experience.  You and I know that.

I spend so much of my time explaining the data to executives, in particular, to say, if this is not a meritocracy, you can believe that all of us have equal opportunity, but that is completely dismissing the reality for so many who are starting out barely flush with each other and then falling behind over the course of many, many promotions — hopefully promotions — and career moves, and covering demands, to the point where it’s like, death by a thousand cuts.  So many people end up just spinning out of organizations because it is overwhelming and exhausting to be the “only,” in room, after room, after room, to feel that other people get promoted and you’re not on the list for the pipeline.  It’s exhausting.

And I think people can see it.  At the top of the house, people can see it in their numbers.  All they need to do is look at their workforce and segment it by identity to understand that, “Gee, I thought it was an equal playing field, and it’s clearly not because we are not able to attract, retain, grow, and advance to be representative of the market and the population that we do business in.”

In most organizations, that trend is really clear.  All they need to do is look at their HR charts and they can see it.  And they can see it in the pay inequities that widen over time, right?  There’s so much data.

I think all of this needs to be “thrown into the soup,” as you say.  Different people are convinced by different things, and I think that’s why we also need to be really creative in terms of all the different lenses we provide, and by some miracle, we can get maybe 80 percent of a room on board.

KENJI YOSHINO:  If I may, on that last point about how we need many different levers in this conversation.  When I think about uncovering talent, I always think about the case for uncovering talent as being a three-legged stool.  I think of there being a moral case, a legal case, and a business case.

The moral case is the one that sort of threads through this conversation when we use terms like “equity” or “justice.”  Just saying it’s just a matter of human dignity to allow individuals to allow themselves their expression of their full selves at work.

With regard to the legal one, I have to say, it’s a professional deformation that I’m a lawyer, so I do tend to look at things through a legal lens.  What’s been fascinating to me is that back when I wrote the original book on covering in 2006, now over a decade ago, the law was not doing that much.  The thesis of the book is this has to be a culture project rather than a legal project.  If you’re fired for having two X chromosomes or if you’re fired for your skin color, then you’re going to win your employment discrimination suit in a hot second.  But if you’re fired for acting too, quote/unquote, feminine, or if you’re fired for not straightening your hair, then the outcome is much less clear.

Oftentimes, you’ll lose in a court of law because the courts are very, very skeptical about protecting mutable or changeable attributes of your identity.  Their logic is often that “If you can change it, then you can engage in self-help.  Therefore, the law doesn’t need to come in and save you and the law should be reserved for instances where people can’t change the underlying attribute.”

But more recently, Jennifer, what’s been interesting under the legal rubric, is that, for example, in the Abercrombie & Fitch case a couple of terms ago, that the law is kind of catching up to regulate covering demands and penalize employers who impose covering demands.

In the Abercrombie & Fitch vs. EEOC case in 2015, what happened was that Abercrombie had a no caps policy, and a woman who was Muslim refused to remove her headscarf.  Now, her headscarf was not visibly of Muslim provenance, so you couldn’t tell just by looking at it that she was observing a faith.  Nonetheless, the Supreme Court said, “Look, you asked her to remove something that was her religious paraphernalia.  That’s a substantial burden on her religion, and so this is a really easy case. You lose.”

So that is a covering demand, right?  It’s a covering demand, ironically, that asks her to uncover something.

JENNIFER BROWN:  Yeah, ironically.

KENJI YOSHINO:  But it’s a covering demand that says, “As a Muslim, you have to assimilate to the secular or preppy, collegiate preppy sort of mainstream.  And so you have to remove that headscarf.”  That’s a totally changeable attribute, but the court understood that changeable attributes can often be, if not constitutive of identity at least correlative with an identity in a way that should raise the law’s concern.

Then, finally, in this three-legged stool, beside the moral case and legal case, there’s a business case.  The business case is both the war for talent that we’ve been talking about, which is that if you really want a talented workforce and you realize that of the 53 percent of people who have experienced covering demands from their leaders, 50 percent feel somewhat to less committed to their organization.  That’s a wake-up call for you as somebody who’s managing talent in terms of why you’re having so many struggles retaining diverse talent.

With regard to the war for consumers, the diverse talent is going to understand the end user so much better.  We have story after story after story about how uncovering can lead to greater innovation and greater business outcomes, whether that’s Sandra Lopez, an executive at Intel, who creates the charging bowl after a bunch of male engineers are trying to figure out how to charge a wearable that looks like a piece of jewelry.  They’re agonizing over this, she solves it in a second, right?  She says, “That looks like a piece of jewelry.  I throw my jewelry in a bowl at the end of the day.  Have a bowl that is a charging bowl that sends an electric current through the bowl.  It won’t affect the rest of my jewelry, but it will recharge my wearable so that it’s ready and fully charged the next day.”

And they were kind of like, “This is miraculous.  You’re a genius.  How did you come up with this?”  And she was kind of like, “By living my life.  You know?  This is how I live my life.”

But the key thing about the Lopez story is that, she’s totally publicly on the record about this, she said that when she first started at Intel, she did not want to be identified as the female executive, and was very reluctant to intervene in ways that would make her status as a woman — obviously, in Silicon Valley, this is an issue — more visible than it needed to be.

So, it was only after she engaged in the same kind of struggle internally about authenticity within herself, as I described to you earlier on this podcast, that she decided that enough was enough, and that she wasn’t going to walk by and not make a contribution that would tremendously help the company when she had the insight into the end user that the other engineers on the team didn’t have.

And I have stories from the publishing industry, from the finance industry.  We can talk about those if they’re helpful, but more generally, what we’re really interested in at the Center — which is a center I lead under Diversity and Inclusion and Belonging at NYU School of Law — is this notion of flow and how authenticity is so connected to flow.

When people talk about having a peak flow experience of feeling like they are at their most creative, at their most productive, they often associate that with losing themselves in their work, which is very, very correlated to feeling like there aren’t any external restraints on them expressing who they really are in their work.

JENNIFER BROWN:  Oh, my.  If we could enable people to feel what that feels like on a regular basis, not just here and there, doing what they love.  It’s kind of the different between jobs, careers, and callings.  I’m so fortunate, and I know you probably feel like this too, that we get to work from our passions most of every day.  It’s incredible.

You mentioned the Center and I know we don’t have much time left, but I’d love to hear, you are director of the Center of Diversity and Inclusion and Belonging at NYU.  And in the short time we have left, I guess I’d love to hear about this word “belonging.”  I’m asked often about, “What is the different between diversity and inclusion?  Should inclusion be first and diversity second?”  And then we have these new chief equity officers, like Tony Prophet at Salesforce.  We have the Office of Inclusion and Belonging at LinkedIn, which my friend Rosanna Durruthy’s going to be leading, which I’m really excited about.

Is it an evolution to this concept of belonging?  And why do you particularly relate to that or resonate with that?  And do you think it’s important to throw that into the mix at this point?

KENJI YOSHINO:  Yeah, it’s a great question.  So, let me first cop to the provenance of the term by saying that I completely stole it from a colleague at Harvard.  I’m president of Harvard’s Board of Overseers this year, and I’m on their taskforce for inclusion and belonging.  She was really focused on the word belonging, in part just by her experience of figuring out why people left Harvard.  And when they left Harvard, they would just say, “I don’t feel like I belong here.”  Right?  So, it was really that which she was trying to foster.

I don’t want to put words in her mouth, so now I want to think about this on my own terms.  When I was thinking about the Center, I was thinking, well, diversity is, from my perspective, hardly even an ideal.  It’s just a brute fact of life.  You either have diversity with regard to demographics or you don’t.

Then, inclusion is a build on that, which is to say once you have a diverse population, how do you create an inclusive culture so that those individuals are not simply invited into the organization and then told completely to conform to the organization in ways that make them have to cover or minimize their identities?

So it’s not enough to get Sandra Lopez as an executive into Intel.  She has to feel comfortable enough to make the contribution and not sit on her hands and act like all the other male engineers, but to say, “Look,  you guys are getting this totally wrong. There’s a really simple solution to this dilemma that is torturing you.”

For me, belonging is a step even beyond that.  Which is to say, you can send all of the inclusion cues that you want, but ultimately, you have to think about what you’re trying to solve for and what utopia would look like or what the goal is.  I think what the goal is for all these inclusion efforts is this notion of belonging, and of feeling like the organization has a stake in you, and you have a stake in the organization.  That’s really when you can fully be yourself and feel like there’s a total alignment between your goals and the organization’s goals.  That’s what belonging means to me.

JENNIFER BROWN:  Yeah, and you called it, having “claims” on the community.  I loved that.  That was beautifully said.

KENJI YOSHINO:  Yeah, and it also ties up with really interesting work that’s being done also at Harvard, at the Business School, on psychological safety.  So, Amy Edmondson up there has this notion of psychological safety that Google took up.

Google is trying to figure out what made for its most successful teams.  It looked at all of its most successful teams and tried to figure out what the common denominator was among them.  Some people thought that it would be that you just would stick the highest-performing individuals on a team and that they would form the highest-performing team.  As you and I know, that is generally not the case, because of prima donna effects or other effects.

What they did find was the common denominator was this notion of psychological safety, which they defined as a capacity to — and I’m not going to get this exactly right, but paraphrasing — the capacity to share of yourself and to contribute ideas without fear of reprisal or recrimination from the group.

So this can range anywhere from, “I just had a cancer diagnosis and that’s why I’m missing all these meetings,” all the way to, “What do you think about self-driving cars?  Is that a crazy idea or not?”

So, I think that that notion of psychological safety is so allied with both the notion of belonging and the notion of uncovering, because uncovering leads to psychological safety and psychological safety leads to uncovering.  To me, the three concepts are deeply allied and intertwined with each other.

JENNIFER BROWN:  Oh, my God, I love it.  I love it.  I love it.  This is well-explained.  You always make new connections for me.  This is great, Kenji.

We are out of time, but I want folks to be able to know where to find your books.  So, we’ve got Covering, which is a classic, from 2008?  2006?


JENNIFER BROWN:  2006.  And then Speak Now, which was out in 2015.  Can you say just a quick sentence about what that’s about for our audience?

KENJI YOSHINO:  Yeah, absolutely, and thank you for your kind words.

Speak Now is more of a wonky legal book, I have to say, but it is a story about the trial that occurred on the Prop 8 case.  I don’t mean wonky in the sense of you have to be a lawyer to read it, but wonky in the sense of it really tries to argue for the trial as a truth-finding mechanism, and how important the fact that that trial occurred was to the drive for marriage equality.  I think we got to Obergefell — the 2015 case that made same-sex marriage the law of the land — much more quickly because there was this 2010 trial in the Northern District of California.  I do my best to connect the dots in a way that I don’t think many people have.

JENNIFER BROWN:  So cool.  Okay. So, definitely pick those up.

And then tell us about the activities of the NYU Center for D, I, and Belonging.  Where can people find information on programs we can attend and other such things?

KENJI YOSHINO:  Yeah, absolutely.  So, if you just Google “NYU” and then “Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging,” and you’ll probably need “law school” in there somewhere as well, our center will come up.

We’re hugely excited about the activities that we’re engaged in.  If you think about it, if you’re a visual thinker like I am, I think about it as like a top bar that’s about interdisciplinary research on diversity, inclusion, and belonging that’s particularly focused on uncovering talent.  My dean was kind enough to build a center around my intellectual work.

The two verticals underneath that top bar are, first of all, internal; and then second, external.  So, the internal stuff is really trying to help our community broadly define not just the law school, but the university, and to live up to its stated aspirations with regard to diversity, inclusion, and belonging, with reference to the best practices and the academic literature.  I mean both of those things, not just the academic literature that’s been published within the law and outside of the law, but also the practical experience that practitioners like yourself would bring to the table just by dint of your great experience in organizations.

Then the external-facing part of it is targeted engagement with various organizations, ranging from nonprofits to universities to corporations to law firms, and thinking about their diversity and inclusion issues from the same set of perspectives.  We don’t do anything that isn’t based in social science, or in the academic literature.

I should also say that we have events that are mostly open to the public in our speaker series.  Next year we are going to have Arlie Russell Hochschild, who wrote this great book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Fear and Mourning on the American Right.  We’re having Mahzarin Banaji, who wrote the book, literally, on unconscious bias.  We’re also having Anna Deveare Smith to talk about theater and how theater touches on issues of diversity, inclusion, and belonging.

The last thing I want to say about the Center and its external commitments is that the thing that we’re most excited about right now is thinking about the linkages between the academic literature and theater.  So we’re using acting troupes in order to bring the teachings and the lessons of this academic work to life.  So we’ll have seven actors simulate an actual team, and then they will stay in role for the whole time and improvise in an interactive way with the audience based on how the audience reacts to various scenarios that we’ve scripted for them.

Just to give you an example, let’s think about the Lumen-Cohen study, which you and I are both familiar with, which is, if you and I were to choose a police officer, unfortunately, we would be disproportionately likely to choose a man, regardless of credentials.  And whatever credentials he was strong in, we would say were the criteria of merit because we have an unconscious bias that most police chiefs are men, because most police chiefs that we’ve seen in our lifetimes are men.

If we were to change the criteria — in our scenario, it’s a law firm and the law firm is interviewing a man and a woman — we actually have the ability through theater to bring this home.  So in the first interview, the man has really strong academic credentials but has no practice credentials, and the woman is the opposite.  So we play that out.  And then the instinct is, “well, that wasn’t so unfair because the partners make a really good case for why they hired the guy because he had all these sterling academic credentials.”

But then, we’re able to replay the skit and we just flip the genders of the two parties.  So, now it’s a woman who has exactly the same academic credentials and the man who has the practice experience.  And some of the partners are talking about how practice experience is crucial.  “What you really need here is to hit the ground running, and that’s what we want.”

So you just see this in practice, and I think that really hits home in a way that simply presenting the study, even in a lecture format, would not.  And then, people are able to react to it and absorb it, and the say, “Okay, we get it now.  What’s the solution?”  The great thing about this Yale study is that it gives you the solution, which is that if you pre-commit, at least in the study, to the criterion of merit, which is, you and I would pre-commit ex-ante before choosing the police chief how much we believed academic credentials mattered and how much we believed experience mattered.  Or for choosing a new lawyer, how much we believe experience or field experience would matter.

Once you pre-commit, at least according to this one study, the gender bias not only diminishes, but it totally disappears.  So, imagine that times twelve, which is the kind of suite of offerings we’re doing along recruitment, retention, and then promotion.  And you get a really rich kind of tapestry of engagements with individuals where individuals are not just being talked at and being told the content of these studies and the solutions that we would derive therefrom, but are being given a chance to interact and to push back.

People are like, well, what if we push back and we say, “Oh, the criteria of merit here are going to be so abstract that it wouldn’t really have a pre-commitment binding effect”?  Or, alternatively, “That was just one study.  Have other studies been done in this area?”

That’s exactly the kind of engagement we want.  So far from trying to protect ourselves from that kind of engagement, we welcome it, and then the actors will respond in role.  Part of the brilliance of this is that the actors never break from their characters to say, “I’m actually this person” but, rather, will remain in that role for the duration of the presentation.

It’s a way of marrying the right brain and the left brain.  I think on the one hand, one of the reasons we’ve invested so much in data and in the scholarship is because there is a really strong kind of left-brain impulse that says, “No matter how compelling that story was, I can’t responsibly make policy based on one person’s compelling story, so I’m going to discount that story unless you show me it’s representative.”  So that’s what the data does.  Right?

But on the other hand, I think that people are moved to action not by being given reams and reams of data, but rather because a story just stays with them.  So if you can do both, if you can both give them a moving story through drama or theater or through the arts or through narrative or through literature, and also show that it is a representative story, which is what our data does, then that’s when you get the real right-brain/left-brain synergy that’s necessary to really move the ball forward.

JENNIFER BROWN:  Oh, my God.  I wish we could all attend all of those.  I know you probably do them individually for companies, right?  They’re never open enrollment for the public.  Is that true?

KENJI YOSHINO:  That is true.  Although, currently, actually one of our partnering law firms is very, very close to announcing that they are going to pay for the law school to do this.

JENNIFER BROWN:  Oh, wonderful.

KENJI YOSHINO:  To have it done for our students and that would sort of be open for the public.

JENNIFER BROWN:  That’s great.  That is fabulous.  Well, as a theater person and former opera singer, I so appreciate the synthesis of the hemispheres and the learning styles that the stage provides.  I just love that you’re doing that.

Kenji, thank you so much for bringing your voice to The Will To Change, and all of your knowledge.  You’re just such an inspirational leader and researcher, and you’re full of helpful information.

I just wish more people could spend more time with you, because anyone that’s in the room with you, learning from you, is truly privileged and entertained, too.  I just love it.  I always enjoy being on the stage with you, being in the audience.

I hope everyone reaches out and researches the Uncovering Talent report, which is available online and it’s for free.  I recommend it all the time and I talk about it in my book as well.  I quote Kenji and his co-author, Christie Smith, whom some of you may remember, we’ve already had on our podcast as well.  So, Kenji, we had a wonderful conversation with Christie, who’s also an incredible leader and role model within the LGBT community and way beyond.

Thank you very much for your time today.  We are going to be watching you closely and cheering you on.  Thank you so much for your advocacy and every way that you’ve made the world better for all of us.

KENJI YOSHINO:  Thanks so much, Jennifer, and right back at you.


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Changing the Conversation: The Power of Female Voices in Shifting the Business Landscape Mon, 05 Jun 2017 16:01:46 +0000 In late 2014, I witnessed a firestorm in real time on Twitter that shone a light on the real and perceived gender gaps around us, as well as the reasons for them.

I was, via hashtag, “attending” the Grace Hopper conference, listening in to the feed as hundreds of women were sharing their insights and experiences virtually.

A CEO panel was invited onto the stage and, when the question of how women should navigate their careers arose, one advised the all-female audience not to ask for a raise—saying they should have faith that the system would give them one.

You can imagine how quickly he found himself having to retreat from his “have-faith” stance in the face of confusion, disappointment, and righteous viral anger.

The next day, there was an emergency panel called for these same executives, except this time, they were in the audience, listening to women leaders speak about their experiences and challenges in a workplace that seems to put obstacles in their path.

It was a powerful correction.

As one of the first and largest diverse affinities to be identified as a priority by many companies, female talent has stepped forward in large numbers in their efforts to seek community, support, and to identify their unique value proposition to the business.

We still have a long way to go based on the number of organizations who scarcely track their workforce statistics by gender, let alone other characteristics. But we also have some stunning success stories which have already left a remarkable legacy.

The battle isn’t over yet, but we can play it smarter now.

I care deeply about how we do that, which is why next Tuesday I’m excited to be joining a panel called “Changing the Conversation: The Power of Female Voices in Shifting the Business Landscape” as part of the NGLCC’s Women’s Book Event in NYC.

We’ll be discussing the particular ways women succeed and are challenged in building their careers, the impact of our various identities and diversities on our journeys, and how more women can be inclusive leaders and role models in changing the conversation to include all of our voices. And I’ll be talking about how to build your thought leader and author brand in dialogue with fellow LGBT businesswoman and author, Jenn T. Grace, and Penn Mutual AVP of Talent and and Diversity Jessica Choi.

The event is for financial services professionals, financial advisors, insurance professionals, women’s opportunities group, and all who embrace diversity or want to learn more about its importance in the workplace.

Afterwards, I’ll be signing copies of my book, Inclusion: Diversity, The New Workplace & The Will To Change during a networking and cocktail mixer.

You must register to attend, and you can do that here.

More details are below.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017
6:00 PM – 8:00 PM EDT

Empire Wealth Strategies (Penn Mutual)
2 Park Avenue, Suite 300
New York, NY 10016

Register Now

If you can’t make this event, don’t worry.

I have a book signing as part of the HSBC Business & Finance series at Bryant Park in NYC on June 26. I’ll be talking about the experiences I had compiling my book, Inclusion, and what energized me as a writer. There will also be a discussion and an opportunity for you to ask your questions.

Click here for more details.

P.S. The story at the beginning of this email is an excerpt from my best-selling book, Inclusion. If you’d like to download the first chapter of the book for free, you can do that here.

What’s occupying YOUR emotional real estate? Fri, 02 Jun 2017 19:05:19 +0000 I’m in a room with 25 male executives and they’re scowling at me. I know they’ve stepped away from earning their oodles of money to attend a required training on a topic that makes most people really uncomfortable.

Now the room is silent and they’re watching the clock.

I am there that day to talk about why diversity and inclusion matters to their company.

They’ve been in the headlines recently about a harassment lawsuit involving homophobic and sexist comments, and have brought my company in to do focus groups with hundreds of employees to try to understand what in the culture led to this kind of behavior being acceptable.

I’m armed with the feedback, and it’s not pretty.

I’m not in any danger that day, but I’m not feeling safe—far from it.

I’m actually on HIGH alert.

I scan the room and I’ve noticed I’m the only woman in the room. And I’m pretty sure—although we’re never entirely sure—that I’m the only member of the LGBTQ community, too.

As I’m doing this calculus, I’m asking myself—as I often do—how safe, and how brave am I feeling today?

Some of the louder voices in the room dominate the discussion, arguing with the data and minimizing the feedback. I see myself in the feedback and they do not see me.

That moment I decide not to come out.

Instead, I decide to cover up my true identity…

Watch my full talk on this here.

So many of us are familiar with that compulsion to hide or downplay aspects of our identity in order to fit in—particularly if we feel under-represented.

The LGBTQ community is a prime example.

At the recent OutWOMEN event at the Time Warner Center in New York, discussion was centered on engaging conversation and facilitating cross-business opportunity among a curated cohort of senior LGBTQ women executives.

And I realized again how isolated we are, the further up the ladder we go.

So many of us carry around the secret of our true identity for years as we rise up the ranks to become senior executives, ending up trapped in a false narrative about who we really are.

The urge to exceed expectations to keep people focused on our performance and away from personal topics of conversation is unsustainable, and can ultimately lead to stress and burnout…

But the good news is that, once you find the courage to share your truth, the impact of freeing up all that emotional real estate is significant.

Marcy Wilder from Hogan Lovells wrapped our discussion that morning with a poem called “A Song For Many Movements” by Audra Lorde, which included the words:

Our labor has become
more important
than our silence.

She finished by asking, “If your silence will not protect you, what will protect you? Or who will protect you?”

And then she answered:

“We will. That’s our job.”

That’s the power of community. And that’s the strength we all hold in our hands and hearts when we feel safe enough to allow ourselves to be fully seen.

I’d love to hear more about your own experiences with this, and how downplaying your identity has impacted you in the workplace—or how you have navigated bringing your full self to work.

I look forward to hearing from you in the comments!

Demanding Diversity in Silicon Valley With Yammer Co-Founder Adam Pisoni Mon, 22 May 2017 18:09:37 +0000

You can also listen on iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play. 

Adam Pisoni, CEO of Abl Schools and co-founder of Yammer, discusses his early experience of dealing with “otherness” and how that eventually led him to a greater awareness of the need for more diversity and inclusion within technology companies. Adam shares lessons that he learned from his experiences at Yammer, and the actions he has taken in his new company to increase diversity and inclusion.   

In this episode, you’ll discover:

·         Adam’s diversity story and why he felt different growing up (2:09)

·         Adam’s reflection on diversity and inclusion at Yammer (9:55)

·         When a tech company can be exclusive in its hiring practices (13:00)

·         Diversity lessons learned from Yammer and what Adam did differently with his new company (15:08)

·         The difference between building “bridges” or “islands” and what that means for companies (16:55)

·         The most important hiring decisions in an organization that set the tone for inclusion (19:00)

·         The radical stance that Adam took about diversity at Abl (20:55)

·         The steps Adam took to develop more diverse hiring practices at Abl (22:00)

·         The two dominant perspectives on diversity in the tech industry (32:22)

·         How to awaken tech leaders about their role in creating more inclusive companies (39:00)

·         Why compromise isn’t always a bad thing  (42:00)

·         How the nature of leadership in tech is changing (44:40)

·         Adam’s advice and message to leadership teams (52:35)

Click to tweetPsst, did you know? You can click, select and share any of the text in this post on Twitter, Facebook, or via email.

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

Jennifer Brown:  Welcome to The Will to Change, this is Jennifer Brown. My guest today is Adam Pisoni. Adam is best known as the co-founder of Yammer which he founded in 2008, ultimately creating one of the fastest growing software service companies of all time.

He oversaw product analytics and engineering, scaling the company to 500 employees, until Yammer sold to Microsoft in 2012 for $1.2 billion. A high school dropout himself, Adam has most recently returned to the field of education, channeling his passion for more agile and responsive organizations into his newest venture Abl; a school scheduling platform intended to help schools move beyond the twentieth century model of education.

Adam, welcome to The Will to Change.

Adam Pisoni:  Thanks for having me.

Jennifer Brown:  I always like to start by going backwards. You had some challenging experiences in school. I know that there are some clues in all of that that then probably led you to believe what you believe, and actually do the innovative work that you’re doing now.

Take us back and tell us what those years were like for you. Were they confusing? Difficult? Were they illuminating in some ways, and how did it set you on a trajectory?

Adam Pisoni:  I grew up in Phoenix, suburban Phoenix in a pretty middle-class area, pretty homogeneous middle class area which had a very large conference high school, and a pretty large school district.

All the way from elementary, middle, and high school, I just didn’t feel like I belonged, and I was picked on for being smart, and learned not to ask questions. I felt it was a school that didn’t reward intelligence, or critical thinking.

I just didn't feel like I belonged - @adampisoni on #TheWillToChange podcast w/ @jenniferbrown
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I remember at the time, starting in elementary, being confused about what made me different in a way that was deemed worse by those around me. Other than they were into sports and I was into other things, and in some cases I was into sports. There was something about me that was different and I didn’t understand what it was.

It gave me the sense that the people who have status, or are popular, that that wasn’t necessarily a thing that they earned. I had this sense that there potentially was some injustice in why some people ended up in some places or another. It gave me a bit of a distrust of authority, and the structures that allow some people to succeed while others fail.

By high school I had an experience that reinforced that. My girlfriend at the time went to a high school in a much better part of town, and I was blown away at the difference in her school in terms of the quality of the teachers, and the field trips they went on, and the resources they had.

There again I didn’t understand why my school was so much worse. I went to a public school, she went to a public school. I thought all public schools were the same.

I remember telling friends of mine about this experience that different public schools are a different level of quality. My friends thought that wasn’t true, and they’re just public school. They must all be the same.

The continued awareness that people’s experiences are very different in both positive and negative ways based on where they’re born, and character traits, and as a result from all that I ended up dropping out of high school after my junior year on the advice of the school. I said I wanted to go to college; they said there was no way to test out. I had decent grades and they said I should drop out, so I did.

Later in life I realized that, in many ways, I had it lucky. Certainly I’m in the majority group, and I had a lot of other advantages, and I had role models that I could look at in society that made it easy for me to transcend that.

I didn’t end up feeling that story meant that I could fully appreciate what a lot of other people have been through, but at the same time it did give me an empathy for that feeling of being treated differently when I didn’t do anything.

Jennifer Brown:  You’re realizing much earlier than the rest of us the concept of unearned privilege.

Adam Pisoni:  Not to give myself too much credit, I didn’t understand how that impacted other groups, especially around racial or gender boundaries until much later in life. I was primed to be able to see it, but I didn’t know about it.

Jennifer Brown:  I would call you an ally-in-training. Someone who will get the language later in your life to call it the proper term. It’s great that you started to notice those things that you were aware of, of otherness.

You were being othered, but you were also aware that you had been taken advantage of because of how you were born, what kind of body you were born in, and race you were born in, and that certain things came easier for you.

Adam Pisoni:  I dropped out of high school, went to college for a year, dropped out of college, and started a company in ’95. In 2001 was the dotcom bubble burst, and there was no work. I then moved to Mammoth for a couple years to get out of the tech scene.

Jennifer Brown:  Thinking back to those times, I’m sure they were crazy. At that age, did you continue to build on that awareness of difference, and where you fit in, and where you didn’t, and what people assumed about you, and your empathy? How did that evolve through that period of time?

Adam Pisoni:  Phoenix is a very homogeneous place. There were very few people that looked radically different from me at my school, and so while I think I was othered, that was convenient because there weren’t other areas of diversity to other.

I had no exposure to different types of people until I was 19 and moved to California when I started my first company. At that age, I started to see all these different people who had different races, and different sexual orientations, and I realized that a lot of the preconceived notions I might have had were wrong.

I don’t think, even at that point, I understood the nature of privilege, or the ways in which some of those other groups were disadvantaged or discriminated against.

I didn't understand the nature of privilege - @adampisoni on #TheWillToChange podcast w/ @jenniferbrown
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Through that period it was me coming from a very religious city, that’s very homogeneous, to California which is very liberal, and has a lot of people. It opened my eyes to the fact that there’s a lot of different life experiences and there’s a lot of different people that end up and start in different ways.

Jennifer Brown:  That’s amazing. You were riding the tech train straight up, and your story is well-documented at Yammer as the co-founder, building like you did, and your exit. I don’t want to gloss over all of that, because that must have been just an incredible experience to be a part of.

As you went through that, you learned a lot about leadership, and speaking a lot about the philosophy you have about power and leverage, and things like compromise, and you read a lot clearly. Your own leadership vision and style started to come to the fore during those days, even if you couldn’t actualize it because you’re on the speeding train.

When you look back at your time as a leader, you probably think there were ways that you could have been better or truer to yourself in that environment, during those years.

Looking back now, what did you get right? What do you wish you’d done differently from an integrity perspective, authenticity perspective, perhaps even a diversity and inclusiveness perspective? Why was that a good learning experience for you?

Adam Pisoni:  This is where, when I got out of college, I started a tech start-up, I didn’t have a lot of money and so raised a tiny bit of money and was trying to do stuff. None of us were thinking about this idea of diversity and inclusion, and obviously that was a luxury that we could just get out there, and raise money, and not even realizing that our experience was different.

Dot-com bubble burst, and so then at that point I had no hope of ever going back into tech again, because we didn’t know what was going to happen. I ended up going back into tech working for people, so I wasn’t really in a position to think about it, and more importantly, I think I still didn’t understand it.

Yammer then comes along and it’s the first opportunity where it’s not just a company that’s small, and racing for its life. I’m in a leadership position, and it’s growing quickly, and I had to start thinking strategically about the long term. We started as a very small company with a couple people that we could find in L.A. just building stuff.

There was something that definitely happened after we started to grow where general consciousness about diversity and inclusion in the industry, and some of it was because we were hiring people, and they were bringing some of that consciousness. There was definitely an awareness that began to form, especially in engineering among the early people, that we had started with a pretty homogeneous group, and that was not something we wanted to maintain.

This idea of wanting to fight for the underdog was very core to a lot of the early Yammer engineering leaders, but it was only later that we began to learn actually we’re not the underdogs; we had a lot of advantages.

There were people who had to fight much harder, and there was over time this growing consciousness of the fact that we were going to have to put in extra effort, which we did to maybe correct for the fact that we didn’t put that energy in early. Even still I think it was hard.

After Yammer, I look back about how even if we didn’t understand some of the ways we may not have been inclusive, there are things that are actually separate from. For example gender, ethnicity, and communication styles which end up being proxies for those things. You have to be so much more sensitive and aware to create an environment that’s going to be inclusive of a lot of different types of people.

It creates a lot of questions and tensions about how inclusive do you want to be? What I mean by that is not by race or gender, but is it that you want to handle people with lots of different communication styles? Or can you handle a company that both hires incredibly arrogant people and incredibly humble people? Where do you draw lines?

Coming out of that and being able to reflect, I was able to draw up a set of values that it’s okay to be exclusive with, where you say we hire people who are humble, and therefore we are not as inclusive of people who are arrogant.

When you’re talking about these complex issues of gender, and race, and all of the baggage and unconscious bias that comes with it, your best bet is to fight those battles early, and hire the kind of people that are going to allow you to build those muscles as you grow. It’s hard to recognize the boundaries of that once you’re larger and your culture is more established.

Jennifer Brown:  For you to even talk about humility in the Silicon Valley alpha male world that it is, it must have made you unusual or at least your team unusual. I know when you came out of Yammer you saw a lot of this a lot more clearly, and you talk about in some of your writing that you were part of what you call the PayPal Mafia.

As you realized that your dynastic privilege, as you called it, that you were part of a system that enabled you to be successful in a really unique way and in a relatively easier way.

The founding team, once it gets going, it’s hard to make changes to it, and it’s so fascinating that once that train leaves the station, that homogeneity actually perpetuates itself unless you’re very intentional about resetting it, and it’s more difficult to reset it than it is to set it correctly from the very beginning.

It sounds like it was starting to really clarify for you that it really matters what you prioritize, the filters you use, the lens you look at things through, and how you hold yourself accountable, especially as the leader with all of the power and leverage to set those terms, as difficult as they are to set.

Tell us about Abl, the organization that you have founded. What did you do differently in starting that venture? What were some of the challenges that you faced with that?

Adam Pisoni:  A lot of things, and coming out of Yammer, being able to reflect on what we did right and wrong even from a business perspective, and from a go-to-market customer, I took a lot of that to not just thinking about how do I start an education company that will be successful, but if the goal is impact, taking some of those lessons to that as well.

Yammer obviously was very successful because we found a need, and we got a bunch of customers, and we did a bunch of things right, but our product was one that required some leaps of faith from our customers to get value out of it because it required that you think about working differently, and think about transparency differently than you may have.

We were convicted and convinced that the world was going in that way, so we were there in the future while the world was catching up, and that’s how you win. I came out of that experience feeling like that’s actually not true when you’re talking about enterprises, companies, schools, or any kind of institutional setting. Individuals have very low friction to change, so you can build something that’s in the future and you’ll get early adopters, and so on and so forth.

When you’re talking about trying to change a company, or change a school, the risks are so high, the costs are so high that unless you’re coming in starting where they’re at today, it becomes really hard for them to change. I ended up with this sort of mental model of bridges and islands that you have to decide what kind of impact or company you’re going to have.

You have to decide what kind of impact or company you're going to have. #TheWillToChange @adampisoni
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Islands are really to prove something’s possible, and you’re going to go find this special group of people in this special place, that like do that but it will be necessarily smaller scale.

When you go to build bridges you’re trying to get to the broadest audience possible, but knowing that you have to start where they are. You’re going to have to sort of figure out how you scaffold them to the future starting where they are.

I went into education trying to find bridges knowing that there are plenty of islands today, and that’s how I ended up finding the central problems around the way principals manage schools, and offering software that helps principals design and manage the daily life of their schools. We found a high-leverage sort of bridge, because we can solve today’s problems and still help scaffold them in the future.

Part of what was different was the approach, this idea that we’re trying to build bridges, and Yammer was a little more of an island. As it related to diversity and inclusion, there was a sense of starting a company and recognizing that that core first group of ten or twenty people, there’s just so much wrapped into the benefits of what those people are. They set the culture that often stays the same.

I joined Microsoft decades after they were founded, and yet you can feel Bill Gates’ presence among every person. That culture that he created is still there, all the good and the bad, and those early people really do set the culture. That was a big piece.

The dynastic privilege piece, frankly was almost just a personal crusade because you can ask, ‘Should a founder feel responsible for the industry?’ And I did. I felt like I had benefitted from the privilege and I felt responsible for helping because most of the time when companies are successful, there’s diminishing returns in terms of the value that you get based on what employee you are. The first ten or twenty employees are in a much better position usually to go raise money, and to claim the success was theirs, and to take leadership positions.

Should a founder feel responsible for the industry? I did. @adampisoni #TheWillToChange
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If you think about a company with 1,000 employees that’s totally diverse, if the founding twenty or something are homogeneous, they’re going to get the most benefit later on in terms of starting companies and all that. So it wasn’t to me just about having a diverse company, it was having to start that way for a whole bunch of reasons knowing that that would be hard.

Jennifer Brown:  You really challenged yourself, and you didn’t do the typical thing which is to grab your friends from your existing community. Many of our friend networks look like us, so as a leader finally with the power and the leverage, you were in control.

You took responsibility and were radical about it to the point where you were pushing back on your investors and hiring the right people, knowing that the founding team couldn’t look like you. That wouldn’t ensure doing the best work that you could, and setting the tone for subsequent hires, how you look in the marketplace, and how you could serve your constituents; which in your case is schools, and administrators, and diverse students.

You got really hardcore about it, and I loved how you describe pushing back on your investors, but also your hiring requirements. Can you tell us a little bit more about what did you insist on, and what kind of pushback did you get? What did we learn from the pushback?

Adam Pisoni:  To be fair my investors were actually very supportive, but I don’t know that all investors are. The idea that you would have to start to try to choose your investors because they support those values becomes really important because generally speaking in a lot of cases, investors also feel like this isn’t their battle, and that starting a company is hard enough without putting on top of that trying to correct for this problem in the industry.

Choose your investors because they support your values. @adampisoni@ TheWillToChange
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I would never argue that it’s easier to start the way I did. It is easier to find your friends and hire them and get started that way. You just never get another chance to hire the first ten or twenty, and so you just give up on that as the goal.

There are people who didn’t have the privilege and all that I had, that probably wouldn’t feel like they had the latitude to do that, so I don’t fault them for that either. I do think that more people have to do that.

In the beginning I wanted a company that was diverse and inclusive, but I really did try to treat people fairly and equitably. The problem was a few fold then is how do you make sure you’re creating culture that does that? You need a diverse set of people to know whether you have a culture which is exactly a diverse set of people.

Where I really put the pressure on, was on the funnel. Who are we interviewing? With us feeling like, if somebody gets in and we’re going to interview them, then we should be considering them as a person. We should be doing things to try to remove our biases. Those are things like building rubrics to make sure we’re valued, where we have a process that different people go through a similar set of stages. We try our best to improve at the process of interviewing and eliminating, or reducing bias as much as we can, even if we know that’s impossible.

We should be doing things to try to remove our biases. @adampisoni #TheWillToChange
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Before that, the challenge that I saw right away is it wasn’t enough to widen the net. It wasn’t enough to make sure to go and not only look in the wrong places, but also look in places where there might be different diverse pools of talent. What I found is especially being a young start-up, the rate in which people in the majority group were just coming at us was greater than we could fill the funnel for anybody else. Because we’re talking about only ten or twenty people, had we not done some throttling I would say, there was no way that we would have had a more diverse early group.

That was the most controversial thing is this idea that you’re going to have to manage the top of the funnel, or the people that you’re getting to, in order to make sure that as people come into the funnel you have a fair chance at having a diverse company.

Jennifer Brown:  So you had to exclude certain people of a certain demographic, probably that looked like you if I could put a fine point on it, and literally not even interview them.

That takes so much more time, and it’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s so pernicious and deep in our system. There are so many reasons why the funnel would have gotten filled with people that might have looked like you. You wrote about it being relatively easy to change jobs when there are so many of you and you have an inherent privilege in terms of how you navigate your career. You’d had a really hard time hiring more senior diverse candidates to the team because they are dealing with headwinds, and challenges that make it more fraught to consider jumping from a secure opportunity over to a start-up.

You describe the reasons that your funnel got absolutely full of say white and Asian men. For example, you had so many that at some point you realized if you spent all your time interviewing them, you’re not going to be spending time interviewing the diverse candidates.

You really took a stand, and that was so brave, and I’m sure you got a lot of pushback and criticism. Reading your medium articles and all the comments, you get attacked and called things, your motives are in question, and I get the same thing sometimes, too. It sounds like you were steadfast, but what was the criticism that you got of the idea of reverse racism or it not being fair. Tell us about that.

Adam Pisoni:  The one thing that’s hard to explain to people about why an early stage startup is different than a late stage startup has to do with there being only one chance at the first ten or twenty, and if the rate at which you’re seeing certain groups over other groups is above a certain percentage, there’s nothing you can do.

Even if somebody said to me that I’m just not good at finding more candidates from more diverse pools, then even if they’re right, the question was do I accept the fact that my first ten are still going to look like me?

There’s this limited time and space, and at some point you have no choice but to throttle. I think it’s a dirty secret among the people who consult with large companies for diversity that eventually they always tell them they have to throttle because if all they’re pushing for is the rate at which they’re hiring, then casting a wider net isn’t going to fix that problem.

It’s such a disparaging problem, especially among senior candidates because at the senior levels from majority groups, they’re much more likely to jump ship from wherever they are and just try new things. Essentially you don’t really end up having a choice unless you accept that because you could do everything you were supposed to, it’s not your fault, you did everything right, and you just ended up this way. Is that acceptable? For me that wasn’t.

Jennifer Brown:  I love that it wasn’t acceptable.

Adam Pisoni:  The reverse racism, that’s a big one. In terms of this idea that maybe you’re excluding, we were careful to look when we interview someone. Other than trying to reduce bias, we’re not thinking about their race and gender. We’re just interviewing them. And when they’re hired, everyone is just here.

The thing we feel like we control is like the rate at which we’re interviewing which groups. That was the trick, and then of course the other argument is you’re potentially risking the company, and you’re starting an education startup that’s trying to help kids, and there’s a chance you’re going to either slow down or fail, and doing this good thing because you’re dogmatic about this other thing. That was a fair criticism I think.

Jennifer Brown:  You took it on and you realized you had so much to learn. I get all the same pushback of talking about quotas, or if people should always hire the diverse candidate. I think that drastic action is needed, just widening the funnel or looking further a field for candidates is not going to be all that it takes.

It just is not and we’ve seen evidence of that in the fact that we haven’t seen the numbers move in terms of diverse talent representation, for example in Silicon Valley. It’s almost like whatever we’re doing is not necessarily working and we need to get a little bit more serious about it and hold ourselves accountable.

Adam Pisoni:  The question I ask the general populous is, if we said that Google, and Facebook, and all these people were doing everything right to make sure they were doing their best to source from diverse pools, and diversity training, and they still weren’t improving, do we accept that as just being the industry? Or do we want this to change and therefore we have to take extreme measures?

Jennifer Brown:  Is it okay with our lawyers in a large institute?

Adam Pisoni:  That’s the trade-off question which is we’re always willing to do more, but are we willing to do less? That’s a really tough question.

We're always willing to do more, but are we willing to do less? @adampisoni #inclusion #TheWillToChange
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Jennifer Brown:  Privilege is hard to give up. Comfort is hard to give up. Why take a risk when you don’t need to? Why slow down the process and risk a company that’s going to do so much good in the world? I’m sure you had these moments.

It doesn’t sound like you ever doubted where you were going with Abl. It has actually paid dividends because having that diverse founding team has now begotten more diverse employees coming your way, and there’s a real phenomenon which I see a lot in large corporations of you’ve got to see it to be it.

We have to see someone who’s been successful ahead of us in our enterprise or small company that we know we’re going to be comfortable in this place because there’s other people that look like us. Have you seen that borne out in your company? Has it actually worked in that way at Abl?

Adam Pisoni:  Yes it has. In general the people now who find us, or apply, or we reach out to, and read about us, and interview here; if that’s a value of theirs then they see it, they see it in the company, and it becomes a lot easier to convince other people who share our values that we share their values.

That was a lot harder when we were smaller because how do you prove it other than your words? I think it’s a lot harder if you’re larger and it doesn’t seem apparent, so it’s been much better, especially for people who share our values. That’s the beauty of it.

Jennifer Brown:  Do you coach and counsel other largely white and male founders? Do you have these honest conversations with them? Do they seek you out when they’re not okay with this, when they don’t know what to do, when they want to lead differently, when they want to hold themselves accountable, and want to have a different kind of organization? Are you hearing more of those kinds of conversations? What role do you find yourself playing in them?

Adam Pisoni:  It’s almost like it’s become a little bipolar, or at least very separate because I now have a lot of friends that are going to go above and beyond. They’re going to make trade-offs. They’re going to make sure they try to make this happen.

It’s hard, and they’re not all in total control of their companies, but I hear that more now than I’ve ever heard. I also hear some of the opposite of it not being their problem. People who can point at Google’s numbers and say, “They’re just representative of the industry, and so to try to beat their numbers is like fighting a battle that we don’t need to fight.” It’s interesting that people tend not to fall in the middle of that.

Jennifer Brown:  That is so true. Do you think the happenings of the last couple months have driven more people at least to feel a sense of urgency? I’m curious.

Adam Pisoni:  Absolutely. I had that conversation with a CTO friend a couple weeks ago, and he was saying that when he read my article a couple months ago, he thought it sounded like a lot of energy on a thing which is really hard, and maybe it’s not worth it. Then he said all these articles about some of the big companies that are having some issues with their diversity and inclusion, it’s something he realized that it’s actually really smart.

To some degree we’re hopefully entering an era that if you choose to ignore these things, it is at your own peril. Because you’re just building up trouble in the future, and I think that’s because the expectations of the companies that serve us are going up.

If you choose to ignore diversity and inclusion, it's at your own peril - @adampisoni #TheWillToChange
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Society gets better in realizing that there’s privilege, and wanting to correct that, and we realize that companies are better when they’re more inclusive, the expectations go up, and as they do these companies are going to really struggle having not made the investment and said it wasn’t their problem, and now it’s their problem.

Jennifer Brown:  To the point where they really need to be investing in their own talent pipelines too. We have to get really creative right now because we’re living with a legacy of a lack of attention, or worse, unchecked bias basically for decades in these companies. I still think it’s rampant, and largely unaware.

Adam Pisoni:  I really hate making the business justification for diversity and inclusion personally. I know there are business justifications, obviously there’s a lot of research on how when you’re in creative work it’s better to have more diverse points of view, and you should have people that look like the people you serve because they can understand, and empathize, and all that’s true. But again, I think it’s the right thing anyway.

One of the things that I think about when I see these articles about some of these companies that are struggling, is having been at a big company now, I think about the vast number of meetings that happened because of that article.

Where leadership executive meetings, all the way up and down the chain where they’re trying to figure out what to do, how to respond, how to improve it, and just the cost of those from a real standpoint, from a focus standpoint, from a morale standpoint. There’s a really high cost that when you try to correct course later, and not just bite the bullet and do the right thing now. I think that’s real. It’s not a reason to do it, but it’s true.

There's a really high cost that when you try to correct course later - @adampisoni #inclusion #TheWillToChange
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Jennifer Brown:  Trust is built on a million steps but can be destroyed in one. How do you measure the discretionary effort that people might have been giving before something like that happens? The take-away that people have are that the company is not on their side, they don’t see them, they don’t understand them, and they don’t value them.

It’s such a lost opportunity, it’s such a drag on the bottom line, but what we struggle with is we know that that’s happening, especially in these companies that make really public missteps.

It is difficult to measure, and I do find I get frustrated because we’re always asked for the business case over and over again. Even as many times as you share it, they still want more.  I will come to the table with all these statistics from McKinsey and they’ll say, “But what about this? I only hire the best people, and I believe in meritocracy.” It just goes on and on, and it’s hard to know what is going to be the winning argument. I don’t know if you have any emerging thoughts on all of that.

Adam Pisoni:  This is where we get into some really deep topics about there’s always this counter-argument which is looking at the most successful companies in Silicon Valley. They were built by homogeneous teams, so how can you argue that that doesn’t work? Here’s your counter-argument. We can argue that the future will be different, and they will be put on more pressure, but it’s tough.

That’s why I don’t like the business argument because if we believe this is the right thing or not, we’re going to act accordingly.

I think that we are seeing a new breed of companies that’s working on this earlier, and hopefully that yields data about the impact as those companies are larger and able to attract and retain more diverse groups of talent, therefore some people who are the best who were skipped over, or missed, or not recognized by some of the other companies. There’s a lot of benefits that people see, but in some cases it’s early because we don’t have a lot of big companies right now that were started this way.

Jennifer Brown:  Maybe the next generation will be. When you think back, and maybe you were uniquely predisposed because of your youth, and lessons you had early perhaps, that this was all very intuitive for you. I know that you probably had a learning curve, of course you did. You said the wrong thing. You realized how much you didn’t know. You realized your privilege, or your realized where bias was creeping into your language, or your decisions, et cetera.

So how can we accelerate? How can we even awaken people to the need to change, let alone accelerate their understanding about their role? I have ‘The Will to Change’ in the title of my book because I’m really obsessed with change being driven from the top. It is so important, and yet there is the least awareness about all of what we’ve been talking about at the top.

People don’t give up power easily, or they assume they have good intent and they’re progressive. There’s a big myth that being well-intended is enough, and being even progressive politically is enough to make these changes, and I don’t personally believe that it’s enough.

How do we awaken this in more male leaders, that they will actually take this mantle on and do some soul searching, but also kind of hold themselves and others accountable?

Adam Pisoni:  I don’t have a great answer, because I started with the two. I was predisposed, and I did have a journey. As we’re talking I can only imagine people who worked at Yammer who might listen to this and think it didn’t seem like I was that into it then.

Jennifer Brown:  That’s honest.

Adam Pisoni:  There was a lot I had to learn, and even as I realized that the more I learned, the more I realized I didn’t know, and the more I realized that for example how uncareful I was with my language because I didn’t realize so many things. There was certainly a lot of energy required to talk to more people, hang out with more diverse groups and people, and not make it just something I cared about, but a part of my life.

I think there are different strategies for different people, but when we’re talking about people in leadership, I think one of the hardest parts for the people who see the injustice and really care get angry because we should. They should realize that that rarely works.

When trying to change people in leadership, especially when you approach people with the assumption that their intention is bad. You see so much of what’s being written right now about some of these big companies is attacking them, and it feels good because you’re angry, and this proved that you were right. It doesn’t change those companies in any kind of real deep way.

It makes them reactionary and do things, but what’s required is empathy. I think that if we could assume that a lot of these people really just don’t see it, or they’re trying and they don’t understand, then how do we build those bridges? It’s completely unsatisfactory because it’s like all we’re saying here is that we’re sort of trying to be really gentle with the people who have power.

What's required is empathy - @adampisoni #diversity #TheWillToChange
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Jennifer Brown:  You’re being an apologist. I get that sometimes.

Adam Pisoni:  For me it’s how do you be really strong about your principles, and be really clear about what you believe, and not to compromise those things, but know that the only way to change those people is to be around them, and to engage at a level where you’re not shutting them down, and you’re not just having a defensive argument, and yelling at each other.

That’s the only way I’ve found. These bridges and islands again, that islands are a great way to show that something’s possible, but they don’t change people who don’t know how to get there. There’s a separate set of efforts to go build bridges, that start where they’re at today, and recognizing their current set of challenges, beliefs, and then scaffold them in the right direction one step at a time.

Jennifer Brown:  For some of us that is scarier and riskier than for others. We talk a lot about allyship, and that means using a relatively privileged part of your identity takes less risk than maybe the woman does to have the same exact conversation.

Adam Pisoni:  Absolutely.

Jennifer Brown:  I’m sure that that’s what you do, and I think that’s going to change. I’ve noticed men listen to other men in a really different, very distinct way, and there’s a safety level there on both sides frankly. There’s a level of honesty that can happen, but also the person that’s giving that feedback is not as much at risk as some of us are to have the honest conversation, and these are hard conversations.

I feel triggered in these conversations as a woman, and yet I’m also a teacher and I know I’ve got to go into those uncomfortable conversations and have them, but I need to do it in such a way that is ultimately really patient, really gracious, and really meeting people where they’re at. To me that means remembering that everybody has a diversity story, and honoring their experience.

Oftentimes I don’t even know if leaders even think about it that way. They have a diversity story too. You do, and you’re pretty public about it, but a lot of people hide what’s been true about them. Whether it’s a disability, or a family dynamic, or being socio-economically, or not having the right education, or religious differences from their fellow peers, leaders, or executives.

I’ve heard a lot of different things, but even among men there’s a lot of reticence to share and bring their full selves into the picture. That’s kind of interesting to me to tease that out and tell them we need them to show up as everything that they are. It’s not just the perfect parts of them, it’s not just the big title, it’s not just the flash.

Leaders need to show up differently in the future because they’re going to need to resonate through their vulnerability as well as through their strength. I’m excited to see how that unfolds. It’s going to take a while.

Adam Pisoni:  Maybe this is part of the nature of leadership is a little bit changing. Leaders are normally rewarded for a set of behaviors that are not conducive to vulnerability, and it’s a very new thing that we think that might be important and would have benefits.

I like what you said about everybody has a diversity story. I didn’t tell my story because I think therefore I’m like underprivileged people. I’m not, I’m in the privileged group, but it means if you can put yourself in a situation then maybe you can begin to understand others better.

I was having a conversation with somebody about unconscious bias, and I gave them this analogy of dating someone and at the beginning of the relationship because of things they said or did, you formed some opinion about their beliefs. Then years later you made assumptions based on those opinions that were no longer true because they had changed, and you hadn’t updated your point of view. That’s how bias works. That is an example of how we take things in, and we believe them. Especially trying to make it less about the intent. There are bad people out there that believe horrible things.

It’s okay to try and if you find that they’re one of those people, not to engage. It’s okay to try to engage with the people who have good intent but are saying dumb things, and be empathetic, and then go home and punch your pillow a bunch. It’s also okay to do that because we need anger too. It’s that balance of be angry, but then build bridges. Do what you’ve got to do to actually make change happen.

Jennifer Brown:  It’s so true and it’s not about getting your ego entangled too. I think when we get defensive, I think the ego definitely comes up and our protective mechanism comes up too. You see that on both sides of the aisle honestly.

There’s the breakdown of trust generally, and not to get political, it doesn’t help that we’re being fed news in an echo chamber of sameness. I get really worried about our dialogue skills, and our ability to stand in this like supposed conflict. It’s masquerading as conflict, but really it’s about human needs, and it’s the need to be seen and heard, and to belong. It’s really fundamental and something that we all share.

We tend to square off, and I see that a lot in corporations. When we talk about male allies for women, or we talk about white allies for people of color in corporations, there is as much distrust on the other side. One group doesn’t want to enter the conversation because they’re afraid of being judged, and the other group doesn’t trust that group to come into the conversation and that they have good motives. That’s why I think talking about what diversity means to each of us, including people who might have been the beneficiary of privilege.

It’s not equating my experience with yours, but it is absolutely expressing empathy, and some understanding of what that feels like, and I think that’s a great place to start. What are some other bridge building skills as we wrap up our conversation? What is some other advice for people that want to follow in your footsteps and make themselves a little more uncomfortable and do more? Where can they get that learning?

Adam Pisoni:  The majority of my advice is to say I’ve been in positions of power, and in the majority group, and therefore have a lot of safety and privilege in that. I believe that my job is to push myself out of my comfort zone because I’ve already had to fight a lot less than a lot of other people, and so maybe I should fight more in other ways. I would challenge other people who are in the majority group towards that as well.

Even though they worked hard and did the right things, they can’t understand the degree to which they were on an updraft, and they were being carried by the current, whereas a lot of other people are really swimming upstream. So to just say, “Look I have to go above and beyond because I’ve had it a little easier. Even though it doesn’t feel easy, I’m just going to have to accept that it’s been a little easier.”

One of those things that’s the uncomfortable things you have to do is to meet new people who aren’t like you and begin to build real friendships there, and every friendship takes time and energy up front. That’s probably one of the most important things, because if you’re going to build empathy, but you’ve got to talk to people.

Not just talk to people, like interview them. You have to be friends with people who have had a very different life experience than you have, and to build a true kind of empathy that normally comes from being friends with someone who is over time revealing their experience to you. It takes energy to start but it’s rewarding because you become friends, they’re just friends. I just think it’s incredibly important.

You have to be friends with people who have had a very different life experience than you have @adampisoni…
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Jennifer Brown:  I love that. Typically we have affinity groups for this very reason. We have large groups of employees in some of the Fortune 500 that are diversity networks full of communities of people of different backgrounds, and cultures, and it’s just incredible to declare yourself as somebody who wants to be a part of those communities as a guest and utilizing parts of their privileged identity for good, and being an ally to others. As an LGBT person, I need allyship, I need support. I’m acutely aware of what hat am I wearing right now? How can I be in service?

Adam Pisoni:  This is just to say from my personal experience, you have to overcome some uncomfortableness, and awkwardness. What happened to me, especially as I got into this more and started caring about it more, I started meeting people who had very different life experiences, and invariably we were meeting over this topic.

This is what we would start talking about is diversity and inclusion. I had a weird feeling as I continued to have relationships with those people wondering did they just look at me as this weird guilt-ridden white guy that’s like using them for that? That’s bad too, and there’s all sorts of stuff wrapped up in it, but it’s like meeting anyone strange for the first time. You connect on some things, and then you know more about them, and then you sort of get past those things.

Get out of your comfort zone, and put in a little bit of time and effort. It’s hugely valuable just in terms of learning about the world, and yourself, and others’ experiences, and empathy, and everything.

Jennifer Brown:  All of it. It makes you so much of a better leader. Just the ability to cross difference and build inclusion around you; there almost is no other critical leadership competency. Especially in the future when the whole world and all the leadership teams aren’t going to look the way they do now. Are you preparing yourself to lead people that probably won’t have your background? How good are you going to be at that? That’s not something you can just snap your fingers and decide to be good at one day. It takes a lot of investment.

Thank you Adam for being steadfast, and being a visionary in terms of how you use your privilege, your platform, and your voice. I love what Abl’s doing, so I want to let people know how can they support your work with Abl? I’m sure people are going to wonder how they can work for that organization after this, but where can we find more information on all of it?

Adam Pisoni:  Our website is We are hiring engineers, data scientists, marketing managers. We’re still a very small company. We’re still trying to find schools. But we love introductions to principals who are our primary user.

Jennifer Brown:  I hope our community can support you in all those ways, and thank you for supporting diversity and inclusion in the way that you do. We all look forward to seeing what you are going to create in the world.

Adam Pisoni:  Thank you, it was great chatting.

Jennifer Brown:  Thanks, Adam.

Useful Links:

Twitter: @adampisoni

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Reclaiming Women’s Voices, One Story at a Time With Wokie Nwabueze Fri, 05 May 2017 17:45:51 +0000

You can also listen on iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play. 

WOKIE NWABUEZE, a communications strategist, organizational ombudsman, mediator and attorney, discusses the work she is doing to help women discover and reclaim their voice. Wokie shares what she sees as the biggest challenges and obstacles for women when it comes to sharing their voice, how to overcome those obstacles, and the work that she is doing with the Seen & Heard Project to help reclaim women’s voices, one story at a time. 

In this episode, you’ll discover:

·         Wokie’s story about how she first identified her need to be seen and heard (2:00)

·         An important distinction for becoming a powerful communicator (8:05)

·         Why understanding yourself isn’t enough to find your voice (12:00)

·         An experience that caused Wokie to question where she fit into the world (16:55)

·         The universal challenges around being seen and heard (18:00)

·         How to navigate the potential risks of sharing one’s voice (28:00)

·         How to speak so others can listen (30:05)

·         The #1 skill of effective communicators (40:00)

·         Where men fit into Wokie’s work (42:30)

·         Wokie’s mother’s advice and the lesson for younger generations of women (48:30)

·         The MOST important thing women can do right now (52:35)

·         The importance of stories and how to discern the truth (54:00)

·         How to get involved in the Seen & Heard Project (58:00)

Click to tweetClick the links above to share them as a tweet.

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

Introduction: Everyone has a diversity story, even those you don’t expect. Welcome to The Will to Change with Jennifer Brown. Get ready to hear from leading CEOs, best-selling authors, and entrepreneurs as we uncover their true stories of diversity and inclusion. And now here’s your host, Jennifer Brown.

Jennifer Brown:  Thank you for joining me on The Will to Change, this is Jennifer Brown. Wokie Nwabueze is a sought after communication and conflict resolution expert who has taught close to 3,000 people to communicate with impact. She has twenty years of experience as an executive coach, attorney, organizational ombudsman, and mediator.

She sits on the board of The Scheinman Institute for Conflict Resolution at Cornell University and has taught courses and presented at Columbia Law School, Princeton University, and various Fortune 500 companies. She received her BA in International Relations from Wellesley College and her JD from Columbia University School of Law. Most recently she’s the founder of the Seen and Heard Project. Wokie, welcome to The Will to Change.

Wokie Nwabueze:  Thank you.

Jennifer Brown:  I am deeply inspired by your message around being seen and heard, and I know about your childhood and the circumstances under which you came to New York City with your family. My guess is that the concept of being seen and heard is something that resonates with you going way back.

Take us back to how you grew up, how you came to New York, and when did you discover that connection to the need to feel seen and heard on a very personal level?

Wokie Nwabueze:  I was born in New York City, and I’m the first person on both sides of my family born in the United States. My parents are from Nigeria and Liberia, I have an older brother who was born in Liberia, and they came here and had me.

It was interesting. I think it had a lot to do with being seen and heard and growing up a girl because I often feel like my childhood was a bit of a social experiment. I was not only the only daughter, which means a lot culturally, but also the first person.

As my family was finding its footing in this country, they were also raising me and my brother, but me being a girl has always been an interesting experience in my family.

I would describe myself as someone who was very shy as a child. Very early on I was observing differences in how girls and boys and men and women act. The community that I grew up in was extremely diverse; it was affiliated with the United Nations so everybody came from a different country. There was one of each family in this community in which we lived, and for me it made things like culture, nationality, even race less important than gender for me as a kid. When all of those things are neutralized essentially by absolute diversity, what was left for me was girls and boys, men and women.

In my own family, my parents are well-educated, well-traveled, and so their vision of gender was different than other members of my family. I got a lot of mixed messages around my expectations for great grades, grow up and go to college, get a great job, or start an amazing career that does some life-changing work in the world; but I was also seeing women around me who didn’t have those aspirations or expectations in terms of rules.

I spent a lot of time watching boys have much more freedom, much less worry surrounding them, different kind of codes of behavior or expectations and standards than girls did in my family and outside of my family. For me, I spent all of my childhood in observation of what these things mean.

What was I supposed to do and be? How is it different from my brothers? I think that’s the beginning of when I started to feel shy. I wouldn’t say that I am shy or that I was naturally shy, but I started to walk in the world with a little bit of insecurity around who I could be, how I could act, and what kind of responses I would get because I was a girl.

In the beginning I think we’re all born expressive. I have two young children and I see that there’s not a lot of fear around expressing opinion. As we get older and start to look at the world for affirmation or confirmation of things that we want to be, or think we are, or want to experience, we get mixed messages about what our expectations are based on who we are. It caused me to pull back quite a bit.

I spent a lot of time watching boys have much more freedom @wokienwabueze #TheWillToChange
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Jennifer Brown:  That’s fascinating because I tend to be on the more accommodating side. I’m a listener more than a talker. I was one of those girls and I can really relate to the struggle of finding your voice. Maybe you didn’t start out that way, but somehow you internalize the messages you get, and then shift how you show up in the world.

Wokie Nwabueze:  Absolutely.

Jennifer Brown:  So fast-forward to what you’ve created, I was reading a little bit and even pre-November of last year, all that shifted there for you. Even when you started this work you wrote about the curse of the wallflower. You actually really put a fine point on the kind of women that need to be supported to tell their stories are not the ones that are the headline grabbers, they’re not maybe the ones that are highly verbal and highly confident.

There’s a whole generation of stories that aren’t being told because girls and then women either don’t think it’s important, or significant, or they don’t have confidence to tell it. I think that’s what you really focused in on a certain kind of woman it felt like to me with your work. Is that kind of where that all came from?

Wokie Nwabueze:  It’s women like me that I focused in on the most. You asked me earlier when I came into this work, or even into the own realization about my own quietness, and interestingly I started doing work around communication way before I realized that I was a person who needed to overcome my own shyness. I knew I was shy, I was always quiet, I was always more reserved, more of an observer and a listener.

I was able to go into the work of communication and conflict resolution and just leap-frogging over the real issue.

Back to my story, interestingly I was in the space of teaching people about how to become better communicators, I was mediating disputes, I was doing workshops on how to communicate, and I did that for years without really understanding.

I think a lot of people don’t understand that it’s not about how you communicate, it’s about who you are when you communicate.

It's not about how you communicate, it's about who you are when you communicate. @wokienwabueze #TheWillToChange
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For me, there was a moment in doing this work when I realized that I was doing it in a way that was superficial and that wasn’t really transforming women’s relationship to their voices. What I was teaching and what people usually go for is a very masculine-focused approach to how do you do it? How do you execute? How do you assert yourself? How do you get out there?

What people really struggle with, and the reason we hesitate, and we don’t communicate when we should, the reason that we don’t ask for as much, or we avoid conversations, or we even go into conversations with our guards up, or being more assertive than we might naturally be; all of that has to do with not feeling a sense of personal empowerment when you’re communicating.

So my work really shifted when I understood that for myself. When I understood that it didn’t matter how much I knew about how to communicate, how many frameworks I understood, how many conflict resolution approaches, or how many scripts I had in my secret folder. It didn’t matter if I did not feel good about using my voice, if I didn’t feel powerful, if I didn’t feel centered, if I didn’t feel like I had a right to be seen and heard.

For me in this work, that’s where my focus has shifted. So based on my own experience what I needed to do was literally go back into my life and reclaim my voice. Look at my story, look at those moments where I started to become more and more and more quiet, and to understand how that affected me and me using my voice in the world, and that’s the piece that needed to be healed. That’s what the focus had to be for me, and so that’s how it all kind of came around.

I needed to reclaim my voice. @wokienwabueze #TheWillToChange
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So to your question of what kind of woman, it literally is a woman who is like I was. Somebody who is sensitive, who is an observer, a listener, highly empathetic. I mean all the women I work with would fit into this description. I think it’s because when a woman is very sensitive, very empathetic, in observation of everything, you feel more, you know more, and in some ways there’s more to fear because you can assess what’s around you and you care. Oftentimes that’s what is the beginning of somebody quieting down and losing their voice in their life.

Jennifer Brown:  It’s almost like you are so open and so aware that it’s overwhelming because also you’re very other focused. Your stance in the world is making others comfortable of studying others, and helping to bring the peace or understanding.

Wokie Nwabueze:  Right.

Jennifer Brown:  I think a lot of us, that’s our stamp in the world, and in doing that unfortunately you get what you invest in, and you invest in understanding others but you don’t invest in understanding yourself, so you can only kind of spend that energy one way, and that resonates.

Wokie Nwabueze:  Even if you do understand yourself, you also need to prioritize yourself, and that’s a whole other layer of challenges. If you are a person who is collaborative, sensitive, accommodating, cares about other people, it’s very easy to take on roles where your own needs and your own perspective isn’t as valuable to other people. That’s just another layer.

Jennifer Brown:  We do a lot of work around race and ethnicity at my company, and I feel like the message particularly resonates for white women. I’m curious for women of color, there is a lot of research that states the differences.

Not all women are a monolith in terms of how we use our voice, how we show up especially in the workplace, how we view our path to success, really how we use our voice quite literally, and it’s been really interesting to learn about that.

Going back to your story about your early days here when you realized the US tends to be all about race and ethnicity, maybe in that community more than gender, and we talked about kind of the community’s response for example Obama versus Hillary, and how surprised you were sort of parachuting into coming from the culture you do, watching how all of this plays out in the US, and the particular stories that we have here.

What is your analysis about what is different for women of color versus white women, and what’s really important for us to understand about that? I think as we support each other we need to dig into that, and be very aware of that too.

Wokie Nwabueze:  Going back to my own experience and my own background, it’s interesting when I think back to when race became a central issue for me. It was certainly always present, but I think in the community that I grew up in, and the schools I was in as a little kid, there was enough diversity that it was less of an issue.

I do remember very specifically going away to college and that being the first time that I was learning about history in ways that are real. A lot of what kids learn here in social studies classes, history classes, it doesn’t really get to the heart of this country’s history, and it doesn’t speak from different voices, from different perspectives, and so we kind of learn one approach to looking at the history of the US.

I remember going to college and having both the experience for the first time being a minority really. I went to a predominantly white college and it was the first time that I looked around and thought, ‘Wow I could see fifty people before seeing somebody that looks like me.’ And I didn’t have the home base.

Even my high school which wasn’t particularly diverse, I still came home and ate my parents’ food, and I was around the same people I grew up around. But in college it was suddenly there was no anchor, there was no home base, and I was here in a community where nobody looked like me, where nobody ate the food that I ate.

And so that was it, for me that was the first time. I started to take classes and I remember reading ‘The Mis-Education of the Negro’ with one of my favorite professors from college who recently passed away, Tony Martin. He was teaching this reality that I didn’t really understand existed in high school or when I was younger. So there was this double whammy of being in this community and then learning about the truth in a lot of ways.

For me that was a very difficult time where I had to deal with so many different emotions from shock and anger; a lot of things people are even feeling now post-election. I remember having similar experiences at eighteen by reading books from different perspectives, from different voices for the first time in my life. And so for me that was a very trying time.

Going back to being seen and heard, I remember there was a period of time when I was really in the question of, ‘Wow where does my voice fit in the world here? Where does my identity fit in in the world?’

I remember graduating from college and at the time I used to wear very long braids in my hair, and I remember getting advice that I couldn’t wear my hair like that and get a decent job. There were all of these different kinds of evolutions for me around my identity but also feeling attacked and being marginalized for my identity for the first time in a way related to race without all of the sense of security that I had previously in my life.

For me, that’s when race came into the forefront in my late teens, early twenties. To the question of what’s different for women of color and white women around voices. I will say looking at my experience, which has been fairly substantial, I mean I’ve been working with people around communication for about twenty years; I don’t think that there is a difference.

I’ve worked with everyone from little kids to incarcerated people to CEOs, men, women, people from around the world, and we have the same challenges ultimately. Because communication is what it is. I think it’s a dance of connection between people. It’s a way to be seen, to express, and also take in somebody’s perspective, their voice, their expression, and we move together in this dance when we’re communicating. We all do it, we all need to do it, and doing it well is fundamentally the same for me across the board.

Communication is a dance of connection between people. @wokienwabueze #TheWillToChange
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There are elements that have to exist for everybody, and we struggle with those elements for different reasons. It’s not necessarily based on race, but issues might come up that have to do with our personal experience which could tie to race.

So just to put that in context, for example in every conversation we have- not every single interaction, but let’s say if you’re having a dialogue with your boss at work and you want to ask for something, you need to be clear about what your agenda is, what your motivation is, what the purpose and the goal of the conversation is, and to do that you need to have a sense of your own needs and your own desires.

Women struggle with that because in a lot of ways we’re taught not to be greedy, not to ask for too much, not to rock the boat, and so we all struggle with that. But if we want to break it down and look at race, then we need to look at ourselves as individuals and begin to relate how who you are, and how you’ve had to walk through the world, how you’ve experienced other people, how they’ve experienced you, how has that affected your ability to be able to know what you want? To be able to value your desires?

So when we get to that level we can start to look at individual experiences that might revolve around race, culture, nationality, identity, all of those things because for each of us it plays out differently. Which it’s not to say that a woman of one race or another couldn’t have the exact same experience, they could. I think if we generalize, which in this case I wouldn’t, we might find that people from certain backgrounds struggle with some things more than others, but I say that our experiences is frankly very similar.

That’s what we don’t see. We assume that because somebody’s a certain race perhaps they’re stronger, or perhaps they’re more sensitive, or weaker, and I think that those stereotypes are very, very untrue.

Jennifer Brown:  You’re reminding me of when we talk about diversity of thought, that’s kind of the hot new way of talking about diversity and inclusion, and we talk about introversion and extroversion for example in that vein.

I think we can also talk about the listeners and the talkers, the accommodators that you particularly like to draw out in your work with Seen and Heard, and that is almost a personality type that transcends identity.

It can be the way that we show up in the world regardless of the body and the skin that we’re born in, this powerful personality trait and this powerful internalization of how do I bring my voice to the world? I appreciate that because it’s something that cuts across difference, which to me feels like a transcendent thing to focus on for all of us.

If we can figure it out for all of us, I think that’s the right place to focus versus on what maybe makes us different. I only know that we are treated differently, though externally, or we’re afraid that we will be. If I show up and I’m out as an LGBTQ woman, I’m always going through this mental calculus around, ‘How is this person seeing me?’ They’re not maybe focusing on me as a communicator, they’re focusing on who I am.

I have to kind of gear my communication according to how they are putting me in a box or not, and I would imagine that happens for women of color differently than white women because it’s a visible aspect of your diversity, and like it or not people are seeing us through that lens. So we just have to be more effective communicators in that way.

Wokie Nwabueze:  I think effective and also honest. I had a very interesting conversation about that I’ve been doing a lot of conversations about intersectional feminism and really mediating and facilitating dialogue between women across these different identity lines so that we can come together and have more understanding.

One of the things that’s come up I think is really interesting is this stereotype of the strong black woman, which I find fascinating. People so often describe me as strong, and I am a strong person, but in the back of my head I’m like, ‘Oh my God, do they know how shy I am? I’m so sensitive, I’m such a pushover.’

People have been taught to believe that, and to stereotype, and then people begin to need to believe that. Their identity is relative to what other people are, and so when one thing shifts, everyone needs to shift their perspective and ultimately who they are and how they behave.

One of the things that came up was somebody in one of these conversations brought up this idea of this strong black woman. ‘You guys are so strong.’ And it was pointed out very quickly that there’s a difference between being strong and having to survive.

There's a difference between being strong and having to survive @wokienwabueze #TheWillToChange
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When you think about the level of health issues, mental health crises, depression, all of these things that exist in all communities but speaking specifically about black women, it’s like no there actually isn’t. The strength that makes people feel that there’s this super-humanness, where there’s no help and of course there’s no crisis, and you just deal with everything sober. It’s just not true but the vulnerability is almost disallowed for certain communities of women.

I saw a really fascinating article about when there’s a tragedy around. We went through this period where there were so many highly publicized police shootings, which I know have always happened and are continuing to happen, but you remember that period of time, about eighteen months where it was just the front page of every news story. What was fascinating was that the families of these victims were forgiving the perpetrators.

So the articles were saying things like, ‘Yes you came in and you shot our loved ones and we forgive you. We forgive you.’ And what was fascinating is that’s a form of accommodation where the grieving the period, the period to be enraged, outraged was almost nonexistent because we went straight to this ‘let’s forgive so that there’s no violence and so that we can move forward.’ Which is beautiful but is that coming from a place of real empowerment and processing of grief and rage to come to a point of real forgiveness? Or is that a cultural phenomenon, an expectation imposed on certain groups of people, disenfranchised people so that they must be forgiving in order to survive?

It’s a question, and being in that exploration of it, it helped me to kind of rethink what power looks like, what you described, our own experience of having to accommodate the way others perceive us effects the way we communicate in the world.

And so back to my point about being honest, I think being an honest communicator takes a level of courage and a willingness to deal with the risk of losing a relationship or an opportunity, of literally rocking the boat. But until we’re honest, what are we really dealing with with each other? What’s the basis of our relationships and our interaction if we are not in our truth, not expressing our truth, making assumptions about each other, and then operating in that way in order to be safe or to keep it ‘simple?’

I think it’s coming into full presence with your own feelings who you are, who you want to be, what needs to be expressed, and then having the courage and the skills to express that, and beginning from there. And that’s where things are real. That’s the world that I want to live in, and I’m not talking about doing it in a way that’s damaging, or hurtful, even though some of the things you might feel, and think, and need to say could be hurtful, but also being able to do that from a place of good intention.

Jennifer Brown:  Right.

Wokie Nwabueze:  Of humanity, right? And they’re not mutually exclusive; honesty, humanity.

Jennifer Brown:  Yes, yes.

Wokie Nwabueze:  We could do both.

Jennifer Brown:  We can do both. For women that are literally though in danger, whether that’s LGBTQ women or women globally, is your message the same? Not that it’s just a matter of using and finding your voice and being true to yourself, but there are real head ones, some very real risks for some. It’s just so different for women around the world for example.

I’m always challenged with that question. We work on LGBT rights in the corporation, and in America it’s about, ‘Do I get the same benefits as the person sitting next to me, and let’s fix that financially or let’s build in policy language that protects me.’

In other parts of the world I’m in real danger even when I’m going to work. I’m actually only safe in the four walls of my company, but not the second I step out of the walls where I am criminalized for who I am. So it’s a whole different lens. Maybe the question is what have you learned about global women, or how are you tackling people for whom the danger is more real for them of using their voice? Is that something that you focus on?

Wokie Nwabueze:  One of the things that I think is most important for any woman, any person when we talk about being seen and heard, what I’m saying is it’s important to see and hear yourself; to have the ability to have honest dialogue with yourself, to know who you are, to know what you want, to know what needs to be said.

But as somebody whose work is also around conflict resolution, and I use the term conflict, people often feel like, ‘Oh I don’t mean fighting,’ but what I’m saying and when I talk about conflict, what conflict is, is it’s simply the point where two different points of view, two different values, two different needs meet period.

Jennifer Brown:  I loved learning that. When I learned that, it helped so much! Take the emotions out of it.

Wokie Nwabueze:  Right so in and of itself is it’s neutral. It’s how we deal with that meeting point, that point of conflict, that determines whether it’s good, bad, effective, ineffective, constructive, destructive.

So when somebody is in a conflict meaning you might have a need, or an identity, or want to express something that runs counter to somebody else, we have to think about the timing, we have to think about our safety, we have to think about our agenda, and how to best get to the outcome that we want, and we have to tap into our intuition, into our sense of empathy to understand who the listener is and how we can most effectively interact with them to get us to our goal.

So for years, and years, and years, and years, first I thought about this analogy working with kids but I still use it with adults. Whenever I do workshops, or training, or coaching I ask people, “What is an effective communicator?” And people very often think it’s being expressive, and that’s not what it is. I mean that’s being expressive. But being effective as a communicator means that the message that you want to and need to express lands with the listener the way you intended it to.

Jennifer Brown:  Yes.

Wokie Nwabueze:  Hopefully you’re present with your intention, and that your intention is in your best interest. I talked about with kids the idea of an airplane. If we feel like being an effective communicator or communicating effectively in a moment is just about speaking, it’s almost like saying a flight is successful when a plane takes off.

The takeoff is dangerous but the landing is pretty important too. If our message doesn’t land the way we need it to, to reach the goal that we set for ourselves, then we have not communicated effectively.

Jennifer Brown:  That’s right.

Wokie Nwabueze:  We can manage that but we’ve got to think about how do we get from the point of deciding, ‘I’m going to Florida for vacation’ to actually landing in Florida? There’s a process.

Jennifer Brown:  What’s the ‘inflight experience’?

Wokie Nwabueze:  What’s the ‘inflight experience’?

Jennifer Brown:  It’s the whole way you get there. It’s the collateral damage. In communication it’s the downside of being overly expressive, is you’re not sensitive to the experience of the other on the way to the end result. Allowing that end result to surprise you, and develop in a way. Being open to that is part of the beauty of life is that it’s sort of one plus one equals three. We create something that neither of us expected because of the journey that we went on together. That’s the magic of life is really not being able to predict it, and both being shifted.

Wokie Nwabueze:  I do a whole day workshop on it because it’s not just the inflight experience. It’s packing, it’s getting to the airport, it’s buying your ticket. It’s all of it, but it is about intention, and it’s about controlling what we can control, and then allowing the rest to unfold. So yes I agree with you that we can often have an unpredictable outcome. To me what that looks like is being open to possibilities.

Jennifer Brown:  I like it.

Wokie Nwabueze:  The idea of negotiating, it’s not that you come in and you say, ‘This is the one outcome.’ You might have one outcome that you really want, but what you need to do as a negotiator is you need to understand the party’s interests, what people want, and then you come up with a number of options that can be negotiated.

So when people think about salary oftentimes people are like, ‘I want this many dollars.’ But what if you could have more vacation days, a bigger bonus, a guaranteed promotion next year? There’s a breadth of possibilities that we can consider to get to an outcome that’s beneficial.

So I think that’s the place where I feel like we can be very open to unexpected possibilities, but to a point we also can control what the dialogue is. We can determine what’s the best timing. We can research the other person. We can understand what their fears are, what their motivations are, and then we can build a conversation that’s more effective.

You know people and women for example in my work with coaching executive women, a lot of times people want a promotion, and they’ll say, “I want a promotion because I’ve been here a long time and I deserve it.” Which is probably true and that’s wonderful, but if you go to your supervisor and say, “I want a promotion because I deserve it,” that may or may not go over so well because is that how your supervisor thinks about the business? Versus saying, “I know this supervisor really cares about Project X, and we’re working towards Y, and if I’m in this role I can do this, I’ll have access to that, my commitment will-”

If we build the request around what the other person cares about, they’re more open to it. And so rather than saying, “I’ve been here a long time and I deserve it,” you can say that, “If I’m in this team on this role, this is what I can produce. And I also think it’s time because I deserve it.” It’s a different conversation but it requires that we see the other person.

Jennifer Brown:  This is the gift of being other focused. We started our conversation talking about maybe needing to overcome some of that to find our voice, but actually I call this sort of the gifts of being the only one, is that you have to get creative in figuring out how to connect with people, and how to figure out how they will honestly come around to what you want. It’s a real interesting skill.

I think the people that are great at this are highly attuned to others. They’re really emotionally intelligent and they’ve studied and observed, they’ve mastered that. And so in a way it kind of reminds me of Susan Cain’s work when she studied the power of introverts in business.

It’s not an angle that we’d ever looked at before, and it just had never been documented. Once you learn about the particular power of what an introvert can bring to a team, or how they can navigate successfully, I mean it’s really eye-opening and I think some ways of showing up in our world get all the kudos and all the rewards, or we perceive that they do.

As we kind of revisit what leadership really needs to look like in the new age, we are bringing these other styles in and actually honoring them in a way. Whether you call that the honoring of feminine leadership for example, and I know a lot of people have complicated thoughts about that, but we know that a male dominated patriarchal style of leadership has sort of only afforded us one way in the business world, and I think that that is going to need to shift.

We all know it needs to shift, and my work with executives, it’s having the conversation around it might have served a certain point in time. It might have served for bottom line impact, or return on investment, or shareholder results, but it’s not the whole story and they’ve been missing this huge swath of different ways of leading that may not be that stereotypical maybe alpha male style that has dominated the business world for so long, and we’ve missed some really critical things as a result of that.

Just look around. Who have we not included and what has been the cost to sustainability, to our world, to our talent? We’re still losing women and people of color from organizations at a rapid clip and it’s not changing, it’s not getting any better. So we really need to kind of get down to how does fundamentally leadership need to change? And I think you have a really important message in that.

Wokie Nwabueze:  I think that it’s important to also highlight in my work and I think in my people’s perspective, I think it’s important to leverage who you are. I get a lot of pushback in my work. I talk a lot about empathy, and it’s interesting. Women and particularly women in male dominated industries are usually the ones who kind of raise an eyebrow and say, “I don’t like that.”

Jennifer Brown:  “I’m uncomfortable with that.”

Wokie Nwabueze:  Right, “I don’t like that.” Empathy to me is probably the number one skill of the most effective communicators and negotiators because of that very reason. They can see other people and they leverage that. This isn’t about being in a place of weakness like, ‘It’s all about them and I’m just going to-‘ No I think that it’s actually very effective as a strategy. It’s a bit of a superpower if you can see other people.

Empathy to me is probably the number one skill. @wokienwabueze #TheWillToChange
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I don’t think it’s so much that we shouldn’t be observers, or collaborative. I think that that becomes damaging when we don’t stick up for ourselves, like when the scale is so tipped towards other people and being out of focus that we disappear from ourselves.

So that’s the point where I think it becomes detrimental, but if you’re in balance of having your own sense of self and then realizing that who you are, these more feminine characteristics are actually part of who you are and can be leveraged to become more effective communicators. I think that’s when you’re in the game.

Jennifer Brown:  It’s so powerful. I’m curious, do you have men that have wanted to get involved in the Seen and Heard Project? I think there’s a message in all of this and some men are realizing they are not playing with the full parts of themselves as well. I know plenty of men who probably don’t feel seen and heard, and have had to masquerade towards this stereotype that they are expected to show up as. All the damage that happens to us just as human beings based on that very narrow stereotype of how they are expected specifically to show up. In a way they’re in a very harmful straitjacket in terms of how they feel pressured to show up, and it’s not true, it’s not their whole expression either.

So I wondered if you intentionally created a woman-only space? I know there’s a huge need for that too. How are you bridging, or are you bridging into that conversation?

Wokie Nwabueze:  In my work, in my coaching I have worked with men, I’ve worked with women. This is going back a couple of years but I did a workshop where there were as many men as women who were talking about this idea of being shy, of feeling like your voice was quieted, so I think that we all can struggle with this for sure. From a coaching perspective, training perspective, I think that the work is applicable across the board.

The Seen and Heard Project is very specific, and I would describe it as a passion project in addition to my regular work. The Seen and Heard Project really is a space for women because one of the things that I think doesn’t exist for women in the same way it does for me is a place where we share our wisdom, our stories, and our experiences around being seen and heard.

It’s something that resonates for women differently, collectively, and I think that our voices are quieted in the world in a way that men’s are not. The goal of the project is to have women share the stories of what they learned as young women, as girls around what their relationship to their voice and visibility should be, and sharing those stories so that women can take in their wisdom, and learn, and see themselves in other women.

It’s a little bit different than what I normally do, and it was driven by my own experience living geographically so far away from my family, and in I think a very male family. I have brothers, when I was a kid a lot of my cousins and uncles that came here for school and for work were male, and so I always felt as a girl that there weren’t a lot of women around me. There were women but not a lot of aunts, and cousins, and my grandmothers who’ve now both passed away didn’t live close to me.

When my grandmother died last year, that is what hit me the hardest. That there’s this body of wisdom that I wasn’t able to connect to because we didn’t live in the same country, and I didn’t see my grandmother that often. She was in Liberia so there were a million reasons over my lifetime between the Civil War and other issues where there just wasn’t an ability to travel freely and be around each other. When she passed away I felt like, wow the loss really hurt in that way.

That’s when the project started stirring in my mind, of what if we can capture each other’s wisdom. Because my work is around voices, and communication, and being seen and heard, what if we did it with that sole intention that we would capture wisdom around our voices? I believe in the work that I did and the writing that I’m doing right now, there are things that happen to us that disconnect us from our voices, and we don’t learn that that’s happening to us while it’s happening

So we grow up, and we look around and realize, ‘Oh I’m a pushover, or I accommodate people, I never ask for what I want. Why? What happened?’ I think there are ways to raise our girls differently, and there are ways that we can be more present with our own experience while it’s happening, and therefore not find ourselves in this situation. For me as a person who’s an ‘expert’ in the field of communication, it took me five years into this work before I realized, ‘Wait a minute.’

Jennifer Brown:  ‘Wait a second, what’s my story? Where does it live? Where’s the archive of me?’ I know the feeling. It’s like, ‘How did I become who I am,’ and you have to kind of dig if you even have artifacts from your early years. Where do you go to find that? In my culture I think women, even if your mom or your grandmas are close to you physically unlike your story, they still don’t talk about it. They don’t see themselves or communicate that or pass that down, and when you try to dig for it and understand who your mom is, it’s really difficult.

Wokie Nwabueze:  It’s really difficult.

Jennifer Brown:  My sisters and I do talk about that because that generation particularly was even more so not about their story, or minimizing it, or not talking about it, or just not going there and that ultimately doesn’t allow this next generation then to digest that and show up differently.

You know we can’t take the lessons. With no information, how can we ensure that it is then different for our daughters when I think our generation, yours and mine is trying to do the work by ourselves to try to excavate all of that and say, ‘What were my founding stories?’

It is harder for us than it needed to be, it was very hard for our mothers, and for our daughters then I think our work and your work clearly is about shortening that time and lessening the effort of keeping that ever present. Keeping their stories front and center, their truth front and center, honoring it, learning how to honor it, develop that muscle sooner in life so that that doesn’t happen again to the next generation. It just can’t.

I know as a mom of daughters I understand that this is a very pressing issue. I know we’re almost out of time, but what just got urgent for you after November, and the election, and the Women’s March? I know that things came into focus for you, and maybe in some ways became more complicated for you. Did that add fuel to your work? Did it clarify some things for you? Did it shift things for you?

Wokie Nwabueze:  It basically took me out for about a month.

Jennifer Brown:  I can relate.

Wokie Nwabueze:  Back to what we were just talking about in terms of mothers, I’ll never forget last January I was at an event with my mother and I asked her, I said, “If you grew up in the time of women’s empowerment, what do you think would be different? What would you have done? Or what piece of advice do you have?

I was all inspired and waiting, and my mother says to me, “You know, I wouldn’t always take the burnt piece of chicken.” I was like, “What do you mean?” She said that whenever she would cook for our family, if there was like a burnt piece of chicken, or the smallest piece of whatever, she would always take it. She said, “I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t assume that I should always take the burnt piece of chicken.”

Jennifer Brown:  That’s beautiful.

Wokie Nwabueze:  At first I was like, “What a wonderful piece of advice, no burnt piece of chicken.” Then it dawned on me that she never told me that, and that I’ve been taking the burnt piece of chicken for my whole adult life. Then I got a little annoyed, I was like, “Well why didn’t you say anything about that?”

So your point is exactly right that we don’t share, and we are the generation that’s kind of grown up post first wave. I don’t even know where we are in this section of feminism, but we’re the generation that our mothers can’t necessarily relate to. The have it all, there’s no reward for being a woman in the workplace, or a mother. We’re not at the beginning of a time when women were breaking down certain walls for the first time. There was no sense that I wasn’t expected to go to college, and go to graduate school and get a good job. I was also expected to have kids, and be a parents, and somehow balance all of that which I don’t know how possible it really is frankly, but there’s a lot we’re floating.

We’re floating and I know women in our generation aren’t necessarily thriving either. I have friends that have had serious health complications from trying to balance all of this stuff. So back to your question, when the election happened, and even leading up to the election, I was in this deep question of ‘where does this work fit in? What’s even happening here around women’s voices, and how we use them, and feminism, and women’s unity?’

It just was such a confusing time for me that I actually stopped everything and just sat still for a little while to figure out what needed to happen. I think I came back to the same place I was but from a more clear and powerful place, believing that the most important thing that women can do right now is come into our own in terms of our personal power, our sense of ourselves in the world, taking all of the messages and the awareness that is being thrust upon us now whether we like it or not, and understanding the impact it’s had on our lives, and the perception we have of ourselves.

Until we take back a sense of real personal power, we’re not going to shift anything. We’re not going to be able to come into relationships even with other women as feminists or however you want to define it with a sense of wholeness so that I can stand here and I can say, “Jennifer this is who I am, this is what I need.” You say the same and we start our negotiation from there versus from a place of scarcity, and fighting, and feeling like there’s a limit to how much social justice exists in world, therefore if I get, you don’t. So until we are full and whole, I don’t think much is going to shift and much is going to change.

Until we take back a sense of real personal power we're not going to shift anything. @wokienwabueze #TheWillToChange
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Going back to the Seen and Heard Project, one of the biggest things that I’ve started doing even with my children is focusing on this idea of everything we’re seeing is somebody’s story, somebody’s perspective on the world. I don’t know that I’ve always walked through the world with an awareness that I was listening to someone else’s story versus feeling like I was listening to the truth. Very different things.

So with my children, even my older daughter who’s in third grade, we talk about history, and she came home one day and she said about a famous baseball player, “He’s the best baseball player ever, right?” I don’t know if it was Yogi Berra or whoever it was, and I said, “Well I don’t know.” I said, “But I know that he’s the person whose story got told.”

Jennifer Brown:  There you go.

Wokie Nwabueze:  I said to her, “If your sister cleaned the room with you, and came downstairs and said, ‘Mommy I cleaned the room,’ and she left you out of the story, and I went and I told my friends, and they told their friends, and they told their kids.” I said, “A year from now what’s the story going to be?” And she said, “You know that my sister cleaned the room and I didn’t help.” And I said, “Is that true?” She said, “No.” I said, “But is that her story?” She said, “Yes.” I said, “What would happen if people thought her story was the whole truth?”

That’s what I’m talking to about my kids so that they can understand that their truth is their truth, and that it’s a question of finding a way for your voice to be in the mix, for your story to be part of what’s told, because then you shift history. That’s how it happens, but until women have the agency over their voices, until we are empowered enough to believe that, ‘Yes I deserve to be the leading character here. I deserve to be centered in this dynamic. I deserve to be a player at this table,’ then history won’t shift, and then what the next girl reads and believes about her possibilities won’t shift. And then what her daughter believes won’t shift.

For me it’s brought me right back into the center of how important it is that women are seen and heard, and that begins with seeing and hearing ourselves, and having the courage to understand how the world has impacted that perspective.

Jennifer Brown:  And then stepping into the center.

Wokie Nwabueze:  Absolutely.

Jennifer Brown:  Boy, we all need to hear this, Wokie. I just appreciate your work, I think this is so needed by so many people. It resonates personally with me, it is my story, it is universal, and it’s going to be so good for the world to have this archive that you’re building, and the energy that is going to come of it, to the encouragement especially for that next generation of women.

It’s hard enough for us to show up to our lives and to ourselves and witness ourselves being in the generation that we’re in. But I do know that it was relatively easier for us, not perfect, but I think dedicating our lives to making it easier for that next generation is there’s nothing more holy than that. So I just really want to thank you.

Tell people where they can go to be involved and specifically to share their story for the Seen and Heard Project. How can people do that?

Wokie Nwabueze:  They can go to We just launched. We have our voice story up which is an amazing woman named Sarah who was the victim of rape and child pornography. She’s so brave, and she told her story and the way she wants her voice to be used in the world right now is to tell women who were victims that they’re believed. When she said that to me, it’s like it broke my heart open. She said that’s the most important thing is for your story to be believed, and that’s why she wanted to get involved.

So far I’ve gathered and personally interviewed 42 women, and we’re going to feature them over this year. If people want to get involved they can submit a story through the website at and they can share and spread the word which is what I want most of all.

One of the things that’s also come up, which I plan to announce to my community shortly, is that I have a very close friend who has a film production company and we’re going to be doing a few film stories in the Spring and Summer, so that’s going to come up pretty soon as well.

Jennifer Brown:  Wow.

Wokie Nwabueze:  Honestly it’s something that I woke up one day and said, “I want to do the Seen and Heard Project,” and it’s evolving. It is a passion project that has taken over my heart and soul, and I’m just allowing it to take me where it needs to take me. Again I encourage people to visit, submit your story, and spread the word. That’s what would be most helpful.

Jennifer Brown:  That’s great, thank you. Everybody on my listenership is going to be completely enthusiastic about what you’re doing. So thank you Wokie for using your voice in the world as you’ve chosen to, or felt compelled to, and I really am excited to see everything that you create coming out of this project.

Wokie Nwabueze:  Thank you, and the same for you. I appreciate you and what you’re doing in the world, I’m so glad we got a chance to do this. It’s important.

Jennifer Brown:  Me too, we are alike.

Wokie Nwabueze:  We are!

Jennifer Brown:  We are, we are. Thank you so much, thank you.

Wokie Nwabueze:  Thank you.

Jennifer Brown:  Okay bye bye.

Wokie Nwabueze:  Bye.

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