Wayne Sutton, serial entrepreneur and founder of the Icon Project, joins the program to discuss the importance of focusing on the mental health of black and brown men, and why he created the Icon Summit. Wayne shares his own story and how working on diversity and inclusion in tech impacted his mental health. Discover the intersections of DE&I and mental health.
To learn more about the Icon Summit, visit: https://theiconproject.org/summit/
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Wayne’s journey including co-founding a start-up (14:00)
- Why Wayne wanted to do a summit about black men in tech (31:00)
- Why Wayne changed the mission of the Icon Project (37:00)
- The need for safe spaces to talk about mental health (40:00)
- Why we sometimes need to exclude to include (42:00)
- How the pandemic has changed work/life balance (43:00)
- The stigma that still exists around mental health (44:00)
- How companies are responding to employee’s mental health needs (47:00)
- The opportunity for allyship around mental health (53:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
WAYNE SUTTON: I’m not sure people realize that for Black men, only 6% of Black men receive mental health services. It was the lowest of all groups, [inaudible 00:00:11], the lowest life expectancy in a group. African-Americans are 20% more likely to have mental health issues than any other population and take what happened last year with the pandemic. AAPI individuals, about 15% of those have reported a mental issue in the last year. I would dare to say we have a mental health crisis and unfortunately, if you go back to my passion for tech, you do good in the world, I would also dare to say the tech issues are to blame for some of the increase in mental health crises we have in the world right now.
DOUG F.: 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, bestselling authors, and entrepreneurs as we uncover their true stories of diversity and inclusion and now, here’s your host, Jennifer Brown.
Hello, and welcome back to The Will to Change. This is Doug [Feresta 00:01:12]. Of course I’m here with Jennifer Brown and today’s episode features a conversation with Wayne Sutton. He is founder of The Icon Project. The Icon Project mission is to address Black and brown men’s mental health and professional development needs in tech and not only we’re going to talk about The Icon Project, but Jennifer, there’s also The Icon Summit coming up, correct?
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right, that’s right and I wanted to alert everybody this is coming up quickly, so we wanted to get this episode out to you and the information about the summit out to you as well. The Icon Summit is running July 28th and July 29th, Pacific Time, 9:00 to 1:00 PM each day. It’s two half days with a really rich agenda, so I encourage everybody to check out theiconproject.org/summit. Wanted to just highlight that registration is free, but there is an application or nomination form, self-nomination, so there is a little bit of something to fill in, but all are welcome even though, Doug, this is a summit that’s focused specifically on mental health for Black and brown men in tech.
I wanted to make sure I let everybody know that everyone is welcome, but that this looks like an incredible program. I’m just looking at some of the topics on the agenda. Why mental health in tech matters now, finding therapy and creating community in audio rooms, ecosystems that value mental health, Latinx storytelling and mental health, why professional development matters. There’s some focus on redefining masculinity in 2021 and some discussion about how companies can support mental health and also creating your own community for the next traumatic experience which I’m very intrigued by that topic.
Creating your own mental health community for trauma, which doesn’t end and which does continue in different forms. It will continue in my mind, Doug, as long as we have inequitable ecosystems in the workplace, right?
DOUG F.: Absolutely. Yeah, of course.
This trauma will continue to happen, the trauma of exclusion, the trauma of micro and macro aggressions, the trauma of unexamined bias and unchecked bias that runs rampant through organizations and particularly in tech. We don’t have time to go into that here, but if anyone doesn’t know what I’m talking about about the tech industry in particular, please go and read but you’ll hear Wayne actual share a bunch of those statistics, Doug, in the episode.
DOUG F.: I want to just make sure that listeners understand that The Icon Project, the summit is a really great summit but the project is more than just the summit, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right, yes. I asked Wayne what transpires the rest of the year and they are launching a therapy fund where applicants can submit grant requests in I think 2022, so maybe that’s not quite set up yet but that is one thing that they have started to enable on the website. A therapy fund, again, all with a purpose of destigmatizing the conversation about mental health and the access to resources to get support.
Then also they will be launching a fellows program too, which I believe also will be a 2022 initiative. So, Wayne is definitely on the move and you’ll hear in this episode his winding journey with mental health himself and how he has struggled with it at various points in his life and what therapy has unlocked for him and then how important…
When he put out the call that he was launching this community for Black and brown men specific to this topic, how many people showed up? Which always tells you you’re onto something, right? Always tells you you’re not alone.
DOUG F.: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: That there are so many conversations that need convenors like Wayne and also the bravery of somebody like Wayne to say, “This is my story too.” I just thought that was so inspiring and there are so many conversations yet to be had and so many communities yet to be convened that are dying to be convened, literally. It just was another one of those beautiful examples of all the work that is ahead of us that we don’t even know is ahead of us. I mean, I don’t know, I find that very…
That really piques my energy, Doug, to sort of figure out what conversations aren’t we having with whom that are a missing piece and also need to be had within a community, sort of out of the limelight if you will. So, a conversation amongst a certain community about a certain topic, in this case mental health which is deeply stigmatized as a discussion amongst Black and brown men specifically.
I asked Wayne one of my favorite topics to ask people and one that I wrestle with and I’m asked about all the time is are we ever allowed or entitled to exclude to include? I can go on and on about this, having run for example women’s development programs, closed door LGBTQ sessions where those of us who are underrepresented in work places find refuge in rooms that are built by and for just us.
The level of relief that that provides, the level of feeling immediately seen and a deep level of knowing and common experience, even though of course we acknowledge there’s always diversity in every room, but there is that commonality as I’ve understood it and experienced it as this really powerful, emotional experience. For people to be in a room with others of the same identity, exploring something we never talk about is super, super powerful.
I’ve seen it in the programs I’ve led for various clients where it’s specific to developing professionals of certain identities and where allies to that community are not included intentionally so that there can be this very specific conversation about the role of identity and all these things, which is very real. It’s substantive if we don’t exclude to include, I fear we aren’t going to get to that specific conversation and that specific support really that’s needed in a community like this that Wayne is bringing together.
I think this is going to be incredible. I’m definitely attending and I’m just going to be a fly on the wall taking a lot of notes. My inclusive leader continuum, Doug, this is where I’m learning. I’m in aware, phase two, as the aspiring ally that I want to be and in order to do that, I need to deeply understand what’s not spoken and what causes fear and therefore, what prevents people from seeking and gaining support that at least in many workplaces and in many employers, there are services called EAPs which is employee assistance programs that are free and confidential and yet, under utilized.
Just one example I think of the lost opportunities when something is stigmatized, I can’t even admit it to myself and then I can’t admit it to others and I don’t want to be seen taking advantage of resources. Right? It’s the ripple effect of stigma that is so disastrous for us.
DOUG F.: Yes. So true, Jennifer, and so, I want to make sure that we direct people to The Icon Summit and how to find it, how to register so you can go to theiconproject.org/summit and the dates are July 28th and July 29th, 2021, 9:00 to 1:00 Pacific Time and now, let’s get on to the conversation.
JENNIFER BROWN: Wayne, welcome to The Will To Change.
WAYNE SUTTON: Hi, Jennifer. Thanks for having me.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, I’m glad to talk to you and the timing is excellent to be recording this in July of 2021 because of a conference that you have coming up at the end of July and the timing of the mission for that conference, which we will get into in a moment and that you happen to also be a co-founder of Change Catalyst. So, Melinda I know well and for all of you that don’t follow Change Catalyst, please do. I’ve been a guest, I have been sharing out the incredible other guests that Melinda brings on and Melinda, by the way, has a book coming out on allyship, Wayne, which is very exciting.
WAYNE SUTTON: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: So, congratulations to your family.
WAYNE SUTTON: Thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yep, and Melinda gave a very well known TED talk on allyship too, so look up Melinda Effler on that. Wayne, you and I have never had a lot of time to dive deeper into your why, how you arrived at this concept for this conference and the project, which is bigger than a conference, I know, the nonprofit that you run called The Icon Project. But take us back to your diversity inclusion journey, if you would, and give us some context about where you came from and how that light got lit in you that would ultimately carry you forward to doing what you’re doing today.
WAYNE SUTTON: Yeah, yeah. Thanks, Jennifer. I always take a deep breath before that question because it’s-
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, right.
WAYNE SUTTON: It takes me back and some part is also triggering, some part is just inspiring for me, so take a deep breath. Okay.
JENNIFER BROWN: Let’s do that together. Yes. We’re here now.
WAYNE SUTTON: Present. Being present. But basically, [inaudible 00:11:49] my journey is, I would say fascinating… Not fascinating but intertwined with this intersection of being an entrepreneur and having a passion for technology and later, really starting to understand what advocacy work means. I won’t go too far back, but you hear my southern accent. I’m originally from a small town called Teachey, North Carolina.
Back in I think early 2000s, the population was 200. That gives you the sense how small it was. I grew up in the south, grew up in the country. My mom was an entrepreneur, my dad was a mechanic and I feel like I got the traits from them in terms of hybrid want to be an entrepreneur, want to work in tech. When I say tech, I’m a nerd. I’m a self-described nerd, geek. My old mantra used to be I want to inspire entrepreneurs to use technology to change the world. You know?
I want the flying cars. I’m okay, I used to be okay before, say, eight years ago with having a chip in my arm and using it for transactions, Bluetooth, things [inaudible 00:13:11]. I just want technology to be used for good. I want clean water, I want to be able to help use technology to help stop fires from spreading. How can we use technology with climate change?
So, with that, being from North Carolina, I had a startup in around 2008, I think, but prior to that, give some of my other background, I started off being a graphic designer, then worked at two newspapers, one television station, was [inaudible 00:13:47] social media, was one of the first thousand users of Twitter, maybe the first Black person on Twitter. It’s a debate, but I know one of the first 10 Black people.
JENNIFER BROWN: Can we pause on that? Wow.
WAYNE SUTTON: Yeah, and then I had a startup with a co-founder. He built the mobile app and social network and I was the business development marketing guy and went out in the community [inaudible 00:14:12] location based, hyper local location based platform to connect small businesses to the community in Raleigh-Durham area. Being an early adopter of social media, I used to host tweet ups. Those were the thing back in the day in North Carolina. I held what I believe… Could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure this is the truth. I had the first social media conference at a historically Black college ever and this was at North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina around 2008.
And then everything changed around 2011. Wasn’t getting traction for the startup, we were in the midst of an economic down turn at the time across the country, in America and we were trying to raise some capital, angel capital [inaudible 00:15:17] and on the East Coast, that was difficult. I was in the south, I experienced some racism. I would go to tech events that I would host or organize and people would ask me to… There’s nothing wrong with having a servant job, working as a waiter, as a servant or a host.
There’s nothing wrong with the job, but I was hosting an event. I was the conference host, tweet up host of the event and people would come to me asking me to get them a drink or pick up the trash or say things that was inappropriate. All that was weighing on me. So, you combine not being able to raise capital for the startup, [inaudible 00:16:04] in tech. I literally would go to events, I’d be the only Black person in the room and in tech and this is 2008 to 2011.
All that was weighing on me and I’m just a geek, nerd trying to use technology like everybody else. Everything changed with CB Insights came out with a report that 1% of venture capital goes to Black and Latinx founders and that data was even skewed because it was combining the two demographics in that 1%. That hit me and I knew other Black founders because of Twitter and social media. I knew Black people who were spread out. It was maybe 10 of us who knew each other, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Of course.
WAYNE SUTTON: What I later learned… Let me start over. I knew the 10 and I was in North Carolina and I was like, “I need to do something about this.” Plus, I was jealous of Silicon Valley because everything was happening up there and I’m in North Carolina. I’m like, “I want to partner with some friends of mine and want to go to Silicon Valley and try to make it with the big [inaudible 00:17:17]”, right?
That was the beginning of my learning, my advocacy work, learning that okay, I see a problem that affects people who look like me, who are underrepresented. How can I create a solution around that?
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow, Wayne. That is some serious history. Okay, so you arrive, you’re in Silicon Valley and then how does your passion for advocacy then shape the kinds of jobs that you go after or the kinds of entrepreneurship that you launch?
WAYNE SUTTON: Yeah. Great question. I decided to come to Silicon Valley with a program to help change the data. Myself and a couple of colleagues, we partnered up and created the very first incubator and accelerator for underrepresented tech. That was in 2011. It was called [inaudible 00:18:15] Accelerator and we did a little bit of The Real World meets The Social Network movie. It was eight founders in one house in Mountain View, California and myself and my colleague, we went from trying to do our own startup to basically managing this accelerator and this incubator.
CNN heard about what we were doing and reached out because they read a blog post I did and the blog post got featured on Wall Street Journal. [inaudible 00:18:47] blog, I also was a very… I used to blog a lot back in the day and CNN decided to film us for a documentary, Soledad O’Brien, called CNN Black in America: Silicon Valley, the New Promised Land. This was in 2011.
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow.
WAYNE SUTTON: So, I spent the next year running the accelerator, officially moving to San Francisco, learning more about venture capital, angel investing. Went from being a nerd in south North Carolina to walking to Google headquarters, Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, meeting well known venture capitalists, going to dinners, cookouts, meeting billionaires, meeting the coaches of coaches, meeting one of the guys who coached Larry, Sergey, these tech famous people.
It was kind of odd, but also seeing the [inaudible 00:20:02] of it as well was like, “Okay, we out here.” There’s very few Black people. San Francisco has a homeless problem. I would dare to say there’s some classism happening even among Black people in tech and I’m also dealing with my own traumatic experience of moving across country. I had at the time a one and a half year old son, I was going through a divorce, and the accelerator that I helped start was set up legally as a separate entity without me and I feel like I needed to start over.
So, in 2012, I’m in San Francisco going through all of that and I hit rock bottom in terms of depression. That was hard. That was hard. Rock bottom in terms of depression. The worst part about it, not the divorce, I shouldn’t say that but one of the most difficult parts about that time during 2012 was I wasn’t even aware that I was depressed. I was just moving, just living, active, busy, trying to make it, and not understanding why am I feeling this way. What is causing me to think various thoughts about life, living, success? What is driving me? What is not driving me? What’s making me sad?
I wasn’t even conscious of the concept of self-awareness, of wellness, of self-care. I wasn’t even aware of it. That was difficult.
JENNIFER BROWN: Take us then, what happened next? I mean, did you learn to live with it? Did you come out of it? How did that experience fuel you for the coming years in terms of what you would create?
WAYNE SUTTON: Yeah, so I get emotional talking about this because I don’t share this often. I don’t have a problem, it’s just life. Once I hit rock bottom, I spent time in a mental institute in 2012 back home in North Carolina. I went home. About a week I think. Maybe a week and a half. About a week. I got out and just put things in perspective. I got out, completed my time where in North Carolina [inaudible 00:22:58] divorce. Signed my divorce papers. Did custody with my son, agreed to that with my ex-wife, and I was like, “I want to go back to San Francisco. I have to do this for me. I have to figure out my life and [inaudible 00:23:19] and I have goals, dreams. I have a son that I want to make a better life for financially and I want to go back to San Francisco.”
So, I had some great mentors that reminded me of angel investing. I was doing this work of trying to create a better, more inclusive tech ecosystem or at that time, trying to bring awareness to the lack of diversity in venture capital, entrepreneurship. One of my mentors, he reminded me of this and he was like, “You have to put your own oxygen mask on first. You got to take care of yourself before you can take care of others. If you’re not in a position to take care of yourself, how can you lead?”
So, what I did was I went back to San Francisco, I had [inaudible 00:24:06], I had a startup I had accepted a job offer at and I started going to therapy every week all year.
JENNIFER BROWN: Was that something that wasn’t familiar to you? Or was there stigma that you struggled with relating to doing that and making that choice? Were you really private about it? What do you remember about how you felt about that at the time?
WAYNE SUTTON: I remember feeling that I needed this and also remember feeling I didn’t know I needed this, but I was grateful to be going through it and then also, it was very private. The stigma is still there in our society, especially for Black men. It’s changing now gratefully, [inaudible 00:25:00] talked about going to therapy and needing therapy, considered a weakness and then you add [inaudible 00:25:09] and the hype around what makes a great entrepreneur that was happening at that time, it was like, oh, you see these well known venture capitalists or people write articles like, “This is what makes a great founder. This is what makes a good entrepreneur. They have these skills. They communicate, they have this and that.”
It just created this sense of feeling like a failure that that wasn’t me, because I didn’t communicate like that and I struggle with my pronunciation at times. You don’t know that I went through speech therapy as a kid in elementary school for six years. You combine that with my southern accent and you see articles around great founders are articulate, it creates a sense of doubt which leads to imposter syndrome.
JENNIFER BROWN: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
WAYNE SUTTON: So, I was struggling with all these things of I don’t look like that, plus I’m Black, I’m from the south, but I have goals and dreams in tech. So, people would tell me, “Yeah, don’t talk about being in therapy.” I mentioned I was a blogger. I wanted to blog about it and [inaudible 00:26:25], the founder and CEO was like, “Yeah, don’t write about that.” So, it was suggested that I keep quiet about therapy at that time around 2013.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh my gosh, so much is changing. I won’t say has changed, but is changing and so, all right, then what happened next in your evolution? I know you’ll eventually end up focusing on this issue, that was your issue and building something that could hold the space for this conversation to be had which is so important and commendable and I’m so thrilled that you’ve been running your nonprofit for awhile. But yeah, did you have a couple more employee type jobs in the interim? Or did you just say, “I know what my purpose is now and I’m going to build something that supports the kind of support I didn’t have”?
WAYNE SUTTON: Yeah, yeah, good question. That was 2013, so I put my head down, I stayed at the startup about six months. When you go through the startup life cycle, you raise angel and you’re shutting down because it’s not the right time. Then I set out to try to do my own startup again and that’s when I met one of my other mentors and he’s no longer with us, but it was Bill Campbell but he gave me some advice, wrote me an angel check, and that was amazing at the time. Grateful for him and his wisdom.
I realized when I was doing my [inaudible 00:28:11] startup in 2014, it was called Pitch To, [inaudible 00:28:15] pitches for venture capitalists. I was trying to break into the industry, build a mobile app, and I realized that my passion still was around underrepresented entrepreneurs and at that time, I wanted to be a VC. I had six months of runway, I was like, “Okay, I’m doing my thing now.” I’m going through therapy, feeling better.
Because nobody knew I was going through therapy, people didn’t know I was dealing with depression, people was hyping me up like, “Oh you should raise the funds, you should do this.” I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, right.” I listened to some of that advice and in 2014 and 2015, I tried to raise a venture fund for underrepresented founders. At the time, the tech industry was still saying it’s a meritocracy and diversity was a bad word and I’m putting my name out there and it was hard. I couldn’t do it.
I needed to learn more. I ran out of runway, but I did launch a pre-accelerator under the brand Build Up. I did a couple courses for underrepresented entrepreneurs in tech and that was an awesome experience but it was hard, because still the tech industry wasn’t ready at that time for a real conversation on diversity and changing it. [inaudible 00:29:32] late 2014, 2015 when the tech industry released diversity numbers, everything changed.
That’s when I met Melinda and we started doing Change Catalyst and decided to give a tech inclusive conference where Jennifer, you spoke at a couple times and we appreciate that. While all this was happening, at some point, I can’t remember but I want to say around 2016, I stopped going to therapy. I’m now doing tech inclusive conferences across the globe with Melinda. We want to create an inclusive tech ecosystem. We have this diversity data and that’s my passion. That’s what I’m working on now. [inaudible 00:30:15] consulting and I want to say I picked up therapy again around 2017, 2018.
I didn’t stick with therapy that long because the therapist, it just wasn’t a right match for me and that particular therapist at the time but knew I was dealing with some depression on and off and my confidence was fading and so forth. So, we’re doing tech inclusion and I started going to a couple brunches for Black men. It’s literally five people in a group of 20 people around 2017 and I was like, “You know what? I would love for us to communicate more,” so I created a Slack group and that eventually grew up to around 1000 Black and brown men in tech, to where it’s at now.
Then around 2018, I’m like, “I want to do a summit, I want to do an event centered on Black men in tech,” because [inaudible 00:31:16] I have and other stories I’m hearing, I know I’m not the only one and I know we can use some more community around [inaudible 00:31:28] are. Late 2019, I was like, “I want to do something around Black and brown men in tech. I want to call it The Icon Project,” and then at the end of 2019, I partnered with Instagram and I did the first Icon Summit at Instagram headquarters in New York.
At that event in 2019, we had 300 guys in attendance, about 30 speakers and when I say it was one of the most [inaudible 00:31:59] events I’ve ever done, things I ever did in my life, it was one of the things that made me proud and almost brought me to tears. We were there, we’re being verbal, we were sharing, it was authentic, it was real, it was powerful, and guys networked with one another, they learned and they grew, and that was the mission.
JENNIFER BROWN: So incredible. Oh my gosh, and now, I mean if anything, the need is even greater. The problem is still there. Diversity in tech is still an issue, but now with the world having changed so dramatically, I can imagine I’m sure because of the pandemic, you must have had to skip what you were planning to do. Maybe you did an online version. I don’t know, Wayne. So, tell us about the… You knew that you had this need and that you were the person that could convene around this and highlight leaders. So, what happened after 300 people showed up, Instagram supported it? Tell us, how has it evolved since then and what are you looking at producing here in a couple weeks? How does it look different? How has it evolved?
WAYNE SUTTON: Yeah, so the event in 2019 happened and we know what happened in 2020, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh yeah.
WAYNE SUTTON: Pandemic came, the world changed, our company [inaudible 00:33:28] started Change Catalyst, we were in talks about getting acquired at the end of 2020. At the end of 2019, we started up. At the end of 2019, after the Icon Summit, Melinda and I, our company Change Catalyst was in the process of getting acquired. I put The Icon Project and everything on hold at the beginning of 2020. It was like, “We’re about to get acquired, let’s see what happens.” Then the pandemic came and the acquisition fell through after about four months of negotiation.
We were shocked. When I say it was close, our lawyers had the term sheets, their lawyers had the term sheets, [inaudible 00:34:15], he just had to… I say he. The other company’s board had to review the papers and then send to us, we sign, it’s a done deal. That’s how close it was and then it fell through and I would say combined with that, the pandemic started and affected our business and livelihood, the pressure started to hit hard for me and I’m assuming a lot of people in the world. Icon Project was on hold, but I did do a couple virtual check in’s, did a couple virtual events.
We actually had an offline event in San Francisco early 2020, because [inaudible 00:35:00] and a lot of [inaudible 00:35:03] and then [inaudible 00:35:04] I think I did a virtual check-in. I think I was like, “Let’s put this on hold because I’m not sure what direction I’m going in life right now.” I decided to get a job in tech at my next company called [inaudible 00:35:24], focused on data visualization in around April 2020 and decided to do this tech job and do the best I can and see how the world pan out.
Melinda was writing a book, she was continuing to run Change Catalyst, starting doing some workshops and executive coaching and it was wild because I just wrote an article about this two weeks ago, three weeks ago and I didn’t realize how close to the time it was that I joined a company in April and then May is when the murder of George Floyd happened.
I joined a company and a month later, that happened. I was just depressed, but the company had great leadership and supported me and let me take the time that I need. I still tried to do the best I could to be productive and then the end of 2020, October, I started going to therapy again and ironically, we hadn’t mentioned that Melinda and I ride motorcycles, but motorcycle is a form of therapy for me but I needed a professional therapist.
Actually found my therapist through the motorcycle community in the Bay Area, so that was awesome. Then spending time with my therapist, started to feel better and then realized I’m at this job but my passion is around mental health and professional development. [inaudible 00:37:10], I’ve had coaches over my career, I’ve been in and out of therapy, mentors, and you get the sense that the world is hurting and you get the sense that people are not having a great network and you hear the pain that’s not being shared on social media or it was barely on Clubhouse. You know you want to create change, you want to help.
That led me to relaunching The Icon Project and we changed the mission. First in 2019, it was around bringing awareness and self-awareness and emotional challenges for Black and brown men in tech because I was actually afraid to talk about mental health. Not afraid but I was afraid of putting the mission of mental health in describing Icon Project in 2019 because I thought people wouldn’t get it or be afraid to connect with it. That was in 2019.
Now, I relaunched The Icon Project and the mission is to address mental health and professional development needs for Black and brown men in tech, so it’s right there. This is what Icon Project is about. We’re doing a summit at the end of the month.
JENNIFER BROWN: How many people do you expect to join, you know?
WAYNE SUTTON: Well, yes. I have this thing where I try to… What’s the saying? Under promise, over deliver.
JENNIFER BROWN: And over deliver.
WAYNE SUTTON: I’m not sure that’s the right thing.
JENNIFER BROWN: It is. We all do it. No. So, I will not pressure you for that number but just the evolution that you described in such a short amount of time but now we’re talking about it, it must be just so personal for you and so moving for you to find that community and see how extensive it is and like you said, when people are hurting and there’s no support specific to identity because it really does need to be specific to identity.
It sounds like you were very clear about that, that it needed to be a group by and for Black and brown men talking about this topic so that specificity, I’m sure, has been a revelation for people who have never heard it described in that way and the whole kind of… I don’t know if you’ve heard of this, but exclude to include, it’s one of those questions we get in the DEI world. Is it right? Is it ever right or okay to exclude to include?
My answer always is yes because the conversation is so different and so specific on a topic like this and for a particular community of identity like this. As an LGBTQ person, I know intimately the need for safe space when you can be in a room and have this deep and quick trust in the room and deep vulnerability because there’s such a sort of common threshold that you’re all starting from. It just must be so, so powerful. Tell us what you have planned and whether you want to share about the agenda or speakers and the response that you’ve gotten to this. I’m sure it’s vastly different than the first time around.
WAYNE SUTTON: Yeah. Yeah, thank you. Yeah, and going back to what you’re saying about exclude to include, you’re 100% right. Doing the work that Melinda and I did with tech inclusion over the years was eye opening and impactful, but it’s like I would tell people, “Our focus is inclusion.” When we say inclusion for LGBTQIA [inaudible 00:41:15] and Latinx community, people over the age of 35 and 40, that is underrepresented with age but I would also be like, “It’s okay if women want to have a women’s summit, Latinx community want to have a Latinx summit, Black people want to have a Black…” It’s okay.
Like you said, have our own safe space but the goal also eventually long term is as humans, when I see this world right now, we need [inaudible 00:41:57] differences and respect one another’s feelings. We’re in a different world right now.
JENNIFER BROWN: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
WAYNE SUTTON: Which was supposed to be the opposite. The tech is supposed to make our lives better, which it has but it also has done some damaging things as well. So, with all that, I’m doing the Icon Project, it has its focus, and I’m doing a summit to help bring awareness to relaunching the Icon Project and mental health for Black and brown men.
On the agenda, we have topics around why mental health now, what’s it like finding therapy, commitment to audio rooms with the rise of audio rooms. We want to talk about work life balance because that seems to be like something that always comes up in tech but I feel like now, it’s different with how the pandemic changed everything and how you fit therapy and coaching in and taking care of your physical self as well.
Then around professional development, finding mentors, coaching, finding coaches, having a conversation about masculinity. What does that mean in 2021? Another conversation about how companies can support your mental health. Those are just some of the topics that we’re going to be talking about the Icon Summit that’s going to happen on July the 28th and 29th in a couple weeks.
JENNIFER BROWN: Wayne, did you sense that there was still hesitancy on the part of speakers stepping forward and being known as somebody who presents at the conference? I don’t know, perhaps having to coach people to become comfortable. Was there still hesitancy because of the stigma? Just where are we on that? Because I’m so curious, when you lend your name to something like this, it’s a coming out process, as I know well. There’s risk to it, right?
I guess I would love to have the inside view of what have those conversations been like, what are you sensing people are ready to be associated with publicly?
WAYNE SUTTON: Yeah, great question. Great question. I would say that there still is a strong stigma, talk about mental health, as a Black or brown man in general and in tech. There’s a strong stigma. I will say that part of what I’m doing though is I am reaching out to [inaudible 00:44:41] who are connected to the space or I’ve seen post content around their own mental health or therapy and then some of them are founders who are doing startups like Hurdle.
The founder’s name is Kevin, which is focused primarily on Black men but there are challenges because I still get the sense that people will want to attend and learn in the shadows versus speak up because they’re at a different journey in their career, right? If you were probably in a career, you may not want to talk about mental health because you don’t know how your colleagues or coworkers will perceive it or judge it.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Who are the companies you think are, you may not have the inside view on this, but who are creating such a safe space for this discussion and for people to get help that it isn’t as stigmatized, that they’re the future, I think, of healthy workplace cultures where somehow, they’ve normalized this as just another… It’s another diversity dimension that can derail us where we need additional or differential support. But are there some that you really think highly of, Wayne, that are doing it right and if or if not, what can companies do to really tackle this and acknowledge that it is pervasive in their workplace culture and provide the right supports? I would love to be inspired. I don’t know if the news is good or not, but if there are any, we’d love to hear them.
WAYNE SUTTON: Yeah, yeah. It’s funny. My goal is also I need to learn more about what a lot of other companies are doing, but what I do know and I’ve heard… I learn more myself about what companies are doing at the summit. That’s one of the reasons I have the panel of how companies can support your mental health, but I do know that companies, especially since the pandemic, have done a couple things to try to help with their employees around mental health and self-care.
We know that some companies transitioned to a four day work week, some companies have made their Fridays their mental health day in general. I believe that HP is doing that. Twitter I believe is a four day work week and that’s two I know off the top of my head. The company I was with at the time Observable, we did transition to a four day work week every other month. That was something we had explored when I was there.
But there’s also, I know one thing that companies are doing. There’s a rise in coaching and I would say mental health adjacent startups like [inaudible 00:48:35] and Ginger that are working with companies to provide coaching to the employees and do group coaching and then do group therapy sessions. They allow the employees to individually select if they want to continue one-on-one therapy sessions. It is done through the company versus done through the individual, so there’s been a rise in startups I’ve seen that’s been providing that.
The other rise in mental health community startups is startups that are working with insurance providers to be listed as a mental health option for companies on the insurance plan, so it helps reduce the legwork for individuals saying, “I need to find a therapist or coach. Where do I go?”
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Wayne, we provide something called an EAP which is the employee assistance program and even as a small company, I was surprised that we could do that and could afford it, but it is a confidential service that any employee can take advantage of without… Like I said, confidentially. These exist in many companies, but it’s interesting. I think that a lot of employees don’t know that it is something that’s available. The stigma of activating that conversation and then how do you loop in your boss if you need to, I think that we need to do a lot more education too for our leaders and our managers about how to constructively support someone through maybe an episodic, maybe a chronic situation, maybe an episodic situation and be much more humanistic in our approach.
It’s one of those things, Wayne, that every time I give a keynote and we do this certain poll about different diversity dimensions that we need more support and awareness around but that we are the most ashamed and terrified to share, mental health is always the top.
I agree with you. I think it’s a crisis that’s unspoken and also carries a lot of stigma for different identity groups like you’ve been saying. So two, not all of us feel okay accessing support or even knowing, like you said earlier in your story, that I actually am suffering from something that has a name. Even lacking that framework, that comes from our cultural identities, our families, what we’ve seen others be open about or not. I think a lot of this unfortunately requires just a lot more organizational focus.
I wonder, are the Black and brown men that attend all levels of seniority and are they also leaders in organizations that can then go back and champion some takeaways from the conference? Is it structured in that way?
WAYNE SUTTON: Yes, yes. I’m curating speakers across the board, everyone from product managers at, I believe it’s Confer, but it’s product managers at TikTok to founders to executives, to people who work in design to venture capitalists, to entrepreneurs. The speakers are curated from across the broader tech. There’s some coaches that do executive coaching that will be speaking, talk about some of the work they’re doing. So, the content and speakers, my goal is to make it so that Black and brown men across the spectrum, in terms of their careers, can find value.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m so glad to hear that. That’s excellent. This question always comes up on the exclude to include. Are anybody but Black and brown men invited or speaking? Or is it just specific and just open to that group?
WAYNE SUTTON: For speaking, for this one, it is just open to the group of Black and brown men for speaking.
JENNIFER BROWN: Okay.
WAYNE SUTTON: When we did the summit offline in 2019 in New York, that was only people speaking and attending in person. Doing this one virtually and with the content, we do have an application but anyone will be able to view the content online.
JENNIFER BROWN: Excellent. I think that’s so important. I’m so glad because the allyship here, opportunity for allyship and accomplicing is so powerful. Learning about different identities and the prevalence of mental health challenges I imagine would leave you changed. If you’re somebody that has responsibility for employee wellness or engagement or you have your hands on budgets or access to decision makers, it would seem it would be really an important thing to attend. I’m just glad to know that it is open to all from an attendee perspective. That’s what you just said.
WAYNE SUTTON: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Okay. Wonderful, wonderful. Wayne, you’re such a great writer. I hope coming out of this you have a manifesto, you know what I mean? That you share the findings of the world in great detail and get it far and wide as I know you have the platforms and the access to do and people listen to you and I really hope everybody listening to this on The Will To Change, we’re releasing this right away so you do have time to register. Wayne, what can you tell us about… How long does the program go? Are there any particularities you want to share about registering and being a part of it?
WAYNE SUTTON: Thank you, Jennifer. The Icon Summit is on July 28th, 29th, it’s going to be two half days from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM, but to me, this is the beginning of the movement of The Icon Project. The summit is going to bring the community together to help folks on these solutions with the theme of we grow together. The Icon Project as a whole, we consist of the Icon Therapy Fund for individuals who may not have access to afford therapy or a coach. If you’re a Black or brown man, you can apply and receive a grant to cover your therapy or coaching sessions.
In 2022, we’re going to launch a fellows program, a virtual fellows program for Black and brown men in tech. There’s a community, the Slack channel I mentioned and then the summit that’s set to kick off, the event we’re doing in a couple weeks.
JENNIFER BROWN: That is incredible. I love that you’re funding the access to therapy and a fellows program. I’m sure down the road, there’s lots of mentoring programming opportunities. Yeah, I mean, it’s so many directions you’re going to go with this, Wayne.
WAYNE SUTTON: Yeah, thank you. Yeah, it’s nervous and exciting at the same time. I received a grant from [inaudible 00:56:17] in 2020 also and have some other [inaudible 00:56:22] individuals supporting me on the fund, but I am also constantly fundraising. The Icon Project is a nonprofit, so it’s one of the things where I’ll always be pitching. But with Icon Project, the goal is to support, give back, and help save lives and help people thrive in their careers. That’s what we’re doing.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s beautiful, Wayne, and I think it’s the only thing of its kind that I heard of. As usual, you’re out in front and you resonate with the need and your personal story fuels you in such a beautiful way. I think that it’s right program, right time, right topic, right audience, so I hope everybody checks this out. The URL just to be sure, is it projecticon.org? Is that right?
WAYNE SUTTON: The URL is theiconproject.org.
JENNIFER BROWN: Theiconproject.org. Great, okay. Great, and people can register there and everybody who’s listening as well, there’s funding support. Remember what Wayne just said, always fundraising. Of course, that’s your job apparently now until you change again but you have experience at it, that’s for sure. So yeah, this is just incredible and I would recommend if you can get the word out about this everybody who’s listening in your organizations, really what I’d like to see Wayne is to drive employees from employee resource groups, for example, and different companies’ affinity groups and allies to attend something like this.
That’s what I would wish as a result of getting the word out is that there’s a mobilization of employees and leaders just like, again, back to my experience in the LGBTQ community now, in the early days we would put things together and it would just mean so tremendously much to have people show up not just from the community, but others who want to support and who want to learn and who want to activate and activate their networks, activate their funding channels, activate their platform to get the word out, whatever we can do. This is a really awesome opportunity and a unique opportunity for learning for all of us.
So, Wayne, I’ll do my best to get the word out not just about the summit but your work in general and by the way everybody, Wayne is joining us on the DEI community call on July 22nd. So, that is July 22nd, noon Eastern. Wayne, thank you so much. I know you’re going to be very busy a week out from the summit, but thanks for taking an hour and all of you have enough notice that you can make sure you held that on the calendar. Please come and engage with Wayne. Thank him for what he’s doing, of course, which is what our community always does, Wayne, because we’re so grateful.
We know how much work this is and we know that it’s deeply personal, which makes it exhilarating and difficult all at the same time. So, please everybody, show up and show Wayne some support, but come with your questions. Come with ideas, how this kind of movement can really send its tendrils out into organizations which is where we really need this conversation, Wayne, desperately.
I just wanted to thank you. I’m very grateful for all that you’ve shared today. Thank you for being vulnerable about your journey and thank you for what you’ve created and I’m looking forward to pushing some tailwinds your way.
WAYNE SUTTON: Thank you, Jennifer. Thanks for having me. Thank you to you and your community for support. I appreciate you.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you. I’ll talk to you on the 22nd.
WAYNE SUTTON: Yes. All right, take care.
JENNIFER BROWN: Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at jenniferbrownspeaks.com? You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion, and the future of work, and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.
DOUG F.: You’ve been listening to The Will to Change, uncovering true stories of diversity and inclusion with Jennifer Brown. If you’ve enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. To learn more about Jennifer Brown, visit jenniferbrownspeaks.com. Thank you for listening and we’ll be back next time with a new episode.
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