Lesley Slaton Brown, Chief Diversity Officer at HP, Inc., joins the program to discuss her diversity story as well as her career path towards becoming a chief diversity officer. Lesley shares her thoughts about the importance of allyship, as well as how to encourage ally behavior. Discover how leaders can step out of their comfort zone, and how to create spaces where learning can happen.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Lesley’s diversity story, which includes her birth order (10:00)
- How Lesley made a decision between pursuing academics or athletics (20:00)
- Lesley’s career progression towards becoming a Chief Diversity Officer (27:00)
- HP’s legacy and the connection to diversity and inclusion (34:00)
- An important example of allyship (44:00)
- The importance of encouraging allyship (47:00)
- How to use our advantaged parts of our identities for good (54:00)
- How leaders can step out of their comfort zone (56:00)
- The importance of “calling in” vs. “calling out” (64:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Lesley, welcome to The Will to Change.
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: Thank you Jennifer. I’m excited to be here.
JENNIFER BROWN: I am too. So we haven’t had many chief diversity officer, grand poohbahs on this show, and you are one of my favorites. In fact, I quote you in the first chapter of my new book, which I was so elated to have your approval to do that. So people will just have to pick up the book and read in the beginning chapters what Lesley said about the practice of inclusiveness as a muscle that we build and what goes into that and why it’s so important.
So I will leave that for all of you loyal listeners and please go seek out her words of wisdom in the book. But as I said, I’ve looked up to you, Lesley, for a long time and I believe you’re an incredibly strategic voice on this topic and you’re doing this and leading this work for a very large venerated organization, which is big tech. But I know that you’ve had a long and winding road, just like the rest of us in this field. And maybe some days, you’re like, how did I get here?
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. So feel free to give any advice. I know we have a lot of aspiring practitioners in the audience for The Will To Change, or people who are just starting out in their careers and trying to figure out this strange but beloved field that we call diversity equity and inclusion and how to get started, how to make sure they’re getting the right skills and what’s really possible for this field as the field, I think, matures, which is really, really exciting to see that we are growing and maturing and broadening and there’s more and more of us doing the work officially, I think?
And more and more companies asking for assistance in doing the work, which is just really very exciting. And interestingly, smaller and smaller companies are having their first diversity leader. So I’m especially encouraged by that because those are tomorrow’s huge companies. But anyway, so let’s start as we do with our diversity stories, and I know a little bit about it and I won’t spoil it, but tell the audience a bit about you, where it all started and where you found yourself as you grew up, various parts of the country and in various environments.
And I’m sure that all of that very much shaped you and informed the passion and the resilience that you bring to the work today. So I will hand it over to you.
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: All right. Well, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I am excited to talk about this topic. And it’s interesting when I think about diversity, equity and inclusion and where it began for me. I have to just say one word, life. So when I think about my life, first and foremost, Jennifer, I am the youngest of five children.
But what’s interesting about my birth order is my grandmother and my grandfather, my paternal grandmother and grandfather and my mother and father were, in essence, having children at the same time. So my parents were very young parents and to put things in perspective, my mother had five children between 1960 and 1966. So she was literally popping out the babies, five babies in six years. So we are stair steps.
But the interesting thing about that is that my mother was 15, my father was 17 or 18, so they were teenage parents with a lot of children at that. And my grandparents had children a little bit older because my grandmother had my father and then she had many unfortunate miscarriages and then had an adoption and then was able to have kids later.
So I literally have an aunt, an aunt that’s four years older than me. I have an uncle that’s about seven years older than me and so on and so forth. So we were all raised and there’s four of them and five of us. So there were times when we were all together and it was nine happy kids just living life together.
JENNIFER BROWN: Sounds fun.
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: Yeah, it was fun. What was interesting about that is my mother being so young, she dropped out of high school and later in what I saw – and this is part of this diversity journey for me – was I saw my grandparents, I saw my mother’s mother, I saw my father, I saw everybody in extended family get behind my parents, get behind my mother to go back to school to get her GED, to go on to college and to stay home, be a stay at home mom until me, the youngest of the five of us went into school and then she started work. She went to work for the federal government.
I saw my grandparents and uncles and even aunts start their own businesses and mostly out of necessity. So I grew up in Central California in a very agricultural community, semi-diverse, but there was still racism and there was still the injustices and the different things. So I saw my grandmother go and get her master’s at, I don’t know, 40, 42 or something like that.
So when you think about that, I didn’t see anything but hope and I didn’t see anything but success in a collective group of people surrounding each other, what we would call our village or our tribe. But in that tribe, there was some of everything. I saw from low economic to high economic, from low education to high education, I saw the spectrum, and that was the most beautiful gift I was ever given.
So when I say my journey began, literally, it began with just my life. So I get very energized by being around differences and being in a sea of sameness is a little uncomfortable to me. So from people with disabilities in my family to my parents opening up their home for people returning from the military and needed to get back on their feet or people going to school and needing just help, I saw from a cousin that was going through a divorce and was having a difficult time with mental illness, my parents taking in their child.
I can go on and on and on. I saw literally a cousin that was on the trajectory for greatness in athletics because of the family being low income and going into the hospital and being turned away and being turned away because they were on Medicaid, developed gangrene and loses leg to amputation. I saw those types of injustices growing up, and I was fortunate to have parents and to have grandparents that said “help, stand up, reach back, push forward.”
It was just all of those things. So when I think about my upbringing, when I think about life, I just think about a fine-tuned lens within my DNA that doesn’t allow me to see anything but the differences and be able to help and stand in. So it is, for me, been a life or a journey of service more than anything. Yeah. And I’ll say this really quickly, but I had the, I would call it very fortunate, opportunity to literally go from living in a Central California community of diversity and that collective family embodiment that I talked about, to literally then going through high school, graduating and getting a woman’s athletic scholarship to Boise State University where I went and there was not very few of me.
And that really then sparked for me that ability to go someplace and create an environment in which you can thrive. And that’s really been my journey.
JENNIFER BROWN: So you moved to Boise and I know you weren’t so happy the first year. What kind of advice… Maybe it didn’t feel like the greatest advice at the time, but looking back, you told me it was really a powerful advice, what did you get from this loving family that wasn’t afraid to push you when necessary, push each other?
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: Well, it didn’t seem at the time so loving. I literally cried every single night for a year when I first moved to Boise, Idaho. And I would call home and call my dad and say, “Daddy, please come get me.” I would beg him and plead with him and I would lie to him and say, “Somebody tried to run me over.” I would think of what would be the worst case scenario for my dad’s protective instincts to come and get his daughter out of this place.
And his advice to me was he said, “Sweetie, you made a commitment and you signed a contract and you need to fulfill that and you’ll be all the better for it.” So at the time, I didn’t like that of course. My goal was to get him to come get me.
But he was so right in that when you have the ability to learn and to grow and to teach, because when you get into an environment like that very homogeneous environment as a woman of color, you’re teaching also, but that has to be a conscious choice that you make.
So that’s what I found for me was many a time, people made me feel like I was an outcast or I was different or I didn’t belong. And I had to make the conscious choice to say, I don’t want to lash back out at that person and make them feel like they’ve made me feel. I’d rather rise above it and to teach them. So that’s been, as I think about this journey, it was something that helped shape and mold me into a lot of the work that I’m doing today.
JENNIFER BROWN: For sure. I can so see the evidence of that in the way that you lead this work today, for sure. And the seeds were all there. You shared that you got some jobs while at the school and it exposed you to I think those diversity issues early on both for yourself and for others who weren’t in the picture. How did that shape you? And I know actually you returned and spoken at your alma mater, which is such a neat thing to be able to do and go back to your younger self.
I’ve done the same thing and it’s hard to describe that feeling of going back from a place of I think wholeness, relatively more wholeness than that younger version of yourself still trying to figure all of it out. But what was that like?
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: Yeah. So I did. I recently spoke at Boise State University at the Andrus Center for women in leadership and policy, and it was interesting because it was, to me, a full circle moment. So as I said, I went to Boise State on a women’s athletic scholarship. I played two of my four years. Ending my second year, I made the decision that I wanted to … I was majoring in communication and I wanted to try some internships.
I just felt like there’s more out there for me to do. And I unfortunately went to and spoke with my coach and my coach said to me, “You know what, you need to make a choice. Is it going to be basketball or is it going to be” … he referred to the social butterfly stuff that you’re doing, which is very interesting because I’m more introverted than I am extroverted. And I said, “You know what, basketball was something that was fun for me. I was fortunate to have athletic ability, but I also had the academics.”
So I sought out opportunities and academic scholarships and other opportunities. And I ran into this woman, Margie van Boren, and man, I wish she was living today, she was the assistant dean in the student special services organization. That organization on campus was responsible for what at the time was called nontraditional students. And that was women returning to education and students with, or persons with disabilities.
And the math tutoring program, the minority organizations, the black student union, Chicano and Latino student unions and some of those types of organizations. And I ran into her one day and she said to me, “Lesley, I think I have something for you. Come back on Thursday and let’s talk.” The office opened at 8:00. At 7:45, I was standing there waiting like, is she going to get here early? I got to see what’s for me.
And it turns out she had this position, and it had the best title. It was Student Assistant to the Dean of Student Special Services. And by the way, it was the highest paid work study position on campus. So I was blessed with not only the great title and that opportunity, but also being paid for doing something that was, for me, second nature. It’s like, you want to start programs that help people empower? Of course, I got this.
JENNIFER BROWN: Of course.
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: So that was the start for me actually on this journey. And even as I progressed once I graduated, I held that position for two years and I did some special projects during the summers in that program doing research and different things. But after I graduated, I actually applied for a position, I don’t know, it was probably a year out and I didn’t get the position. So I thought, well, okay, I’ll go on and do whatever it is I’m supposed to do. I didn’t really think much of it because again, it was second nature for me.
So I went to work, I was in a management training program and banking and I did that and I was a part of a bank robbery and I was like, yeah, banking is probably not what I want to do either. I don’t really the idea of people walking in with guns and threatening you, and taking the money. Not a good scene. I did that and then went on and did corporate communications at a construction engineering firm.
And it was there actually that I learned that I really did have the aptitude for the technical, which was interesting because my dad was a mechanic and I just liked taking things apart, I didn’t always quite put them back together right. So it was there that once I’ve learned that I had the aptitude for that, that interested me then in technology and that’s how I landed my way into HP eventually.
JENNIFER BROWN: How many years has that been?
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: That was about four or five years out of school. About four years out of school. Yeah. Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: And then how many roles did you have at HP before finding yourself as the lead voice on the diversity and inclusion strategy?
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: Very interesting question because I still didn’t go into diversity at the time. I was in marketing, I was in the business, I was doing global marketing. I went from doing self-promotion and advertising and project management into product marketing. And that’s where that technical piece came in for me. And being able to understand the business and how to negotiate pricing strategy and your manufacturing and all of those different things, forecasting.
But all the while, Jennifer, I was always volunteering and helping with recruiting and helping with things that helped build the culture of the organization or the company that I was in, HP at the time. And it had always been important to me to, as I said before, carve out that space where you could bring your whole self and you could thrive. So whatever organization I went to, my impact was always first, my work, but also looking at, what’s missing in this organization so that I can come to work excited every day?
I feel like I’m spending a lot of time here and pizza is not doing it all, pizza party.
JENNIFER BROWN: Totally.
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: It is, I want to come energized. I want to come and solve problems. So I’ve always from day one, been a part of helping to recruit more diversity and bringing more people in. How do you not only bring folks in, but then you allow them to just thrive and be empowered to come and lift up. That’s one of the things that I was taught growing up, was I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors, people that made great sacrifices, blood, sweat and tears.
And in my case, literally, in order for me to be able to go to school and to be able to go into corporate America. And it has always been my role to then, because I’m standing on those shoulders, to always make up a place and carve out space for more people that are of color and more people that are different to be able to come in and thrive in that environment.
So I went through the gamut of marketing and global marketing and literally I, at one point, even left the company and did a dotcom startup. And when I came back into the company, one of the things that I learned was – and it’s quite interesting – I had a general manager, he was also a mentor of mine and I went to him one day and I said, his name was Lyle Hurst.
I said, “Lyle, I saw this position open, it’s about diversity and on the site, and I’m really thinking about doing that.” I did that back in my college days. And he says, “You know what, you’d be great at it.” He says, “You’re doing great work here, you do great work for our organization.” He said, “You’d be great at it, but here’s the catch.” He said, “If you really want to go into that work as a profession, you have to be every single day, be willing to lose your job.”
And I thought, okay, I think I might have been a single parent at the time. I don’t think I want to come to work to try to lose my job every day. And I joke about that, but in all seriousness, what he was saying, and it made very clear to me was, he said, that is a position that … it’s a change agent position. And if you’re not willing to step into that role and every single day be able to make people a little bit uncomfortable to push them outside of their comfort zone and ruffle some feathers a little bit, he said, then that’s not the job that you want because you’re not doing anything if people aren’t squirming a bit.
JENNIFER BROWN: I like that.
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: Yeah. So that was probably, I don’t know, five or so years, maybe six years into my work at HP. And I thought, I’m not sure if I’m ready for that. So I hit the 10-year mark and I left and I went out to do a startup. And he got a promotion. And when he got that promotion, he hired me right back into the company and it was a little bit over a year later and he said, “Here’s what I want to do. We are working in social impact of philanthropy and we’re doing projects with third world countries and we’re looking at the digital divide. I really want you to be the program manager for West Africa, for Senegal, West Africa.”
And it was around, how do you go into a third world country, help build sustainable businesses to help uplift the economy? And I thought I hit the jackpot. That was a role that I was like, I am ready for this. And that, I will say, I really believe prepared me. It was another step of preparation for going against the grain.
At the time, there was this revolution going with young women coming back from university and the country wanted these women to stay in the country and they really wanted them to teach, I think, more than anything, but these were women that were going and getting their MBAs and they were back and they were ready to start businesses.
So we helped empower that. And by bringing in HP product and tools and rather than telling them what to do, we partnered with them to understand what they needed to do, but we started with the culture first. We never talked about and we never touched technology. We talked about, we learned, we observed, we listened and it heightens your cultural competence skills. And that’s what our starting point was, and helping build these economies and helping women, in most cases, women build businesses and sustainable businesses and economy for their economy.
So that was another part of the journey. So let me just pause there. You know I can just keep going and going.
JENNIFER BROWN: I know. It’s so good. It’s like a movie. It’s like a movie.
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: It is. It is.
JENNIFER BROWN: Maybe it will be someday. Wow, there’s so much in there. Well, I heard the broad exposure that you made sure to have because you’re a voracious learner, as it’s really obvious about you. And you had some good advice and some good mentorship. It sounds like really good allies for your career too, looking out for you and perhaps identifying opportunities that you might or may not have thought about for yourself, which is what a really great sponsor in particular does for us.
And all of these things then wrap together to make you effective now at the strategic level that you’re at, where you get to own this and all the pieces of it. And so, when I even say this, it’s such a complex and giant field in a way. And that’s what keeps it so interesting. What else would you say are the skills you employ most often when you think about the skills that are needed at your level after all of this?
And I would love to hear specifically leadership skills. What does it call on you when you have to put people in that uncomfortable place every day? Because otherwise, you’re not doing your job because it’s true, nobody wants to be pushed and organizations don’t want to change. And particularly people that have some level of power tend to want to hold onto that and perceive things that appear to be challenging that as, I don’t agree with this, but it’s perceived as, well, I’m being challenged to change and somehow share the pie, I guess.
I would imagine that’s still something you hear. I know I hear it in classrooms and in executive briefings I do. They may not say it that way, but I think that there’s this sense of if I expand my consciousness or if I admit what I don’t know, which is a lot about this topic that somehow, it’s not a good thing for me versus a real builder opportunity for me.
But anyway, I wonder. So tell us about, I guess, maybe the skills that you call on the most these days and all of these past experiences have informed all of it of course, but if you could, and I don’t even know if you can shortcut a journey. It’s an interesting field because I think we all end up in the field after many years of doing other things, but if there were such a thing as a magic wand, what are those top things that you lean on heavily in order to be effective at the place that you are?
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: Yeah. I love that question because I think what’s unique? So I think first and foremost, what’s unique to me being at HP is that HP has a legacy of caring for people doing well while doing good and about integrity and about those kind of core characteristics that exist. So coming into a company that already is saying, we care, we want to have the most diverse board of directors in the tech industry and we want to push for women at the highest levels of the company to be able to influence and to make decisions, and then track that so that we … that we’re making.
And really, flex our muscles around partnerships and helping build for whether it’s coding for kids in marginalized or underserved communities. So all of those things are core to the company. So I think one, I’m attracted to an organization, a company like HP for that reason, and because I can bring my true DNA. So for me, it’s a little different in that I didn’t come from an HR background and so I didn’t do the benefits and competence in all of that. And God bless those folks that do because I have so much admiration for them.
But the approach that I took was really from looking at marketing, being in the business, understanding the value or the impact, that uniqueness, diversity, innovation ultimately, creativity have on your bottom line. So for me, it has been bringing all of those skills, and I think you’re absolutely right. I know I speak to young people every single day that say, I want to do what you’re doing. But this is life for me. This has been a life’s journey. It’s not something that I just said, this is going to be my career and I’m going to take this class and that class and you know what, I’m going to know all of this.
It has been my life’s journey. And the single most thing I can tell you, Jennifer, is what my family developed in me very early on as empathy. And that was literally this little four or five-year-old girl sitting up in a church and watching how my uncle was treated as a person who was a part of the LGBT community and not being accepted and the names that he was called, and to be able to empathize.
He was a big guy and he protected me. But when it came to listening to and hearing the things that people would say, that’s how I’ve stepped into that allyship. And that took empathy. That didn’t take any course in college or anything. When I think about leadership, I think that leaders need to be, and as as vulnerable as I call for people to be is as vulnerable as I will present myself.
So that vulnerability allows your people that work for you and work with you to connect at a different level because when I go to tell someone or to make suggestions on, you could have said it this way versus that way, or here’s what we’re trying to do and here’s the strategy and it’s uncomfortable for somebody to talk about minorities. And it’s okay, you could say black people or brown people, you can say those things.
It’s about first, building respect. And when you can build that mutual respect, then you have … that’s about relationship building, right? It’s that respect. Ultimately, it becomes trust. So I approach those things as one, it’s a gift to be able to share, to teach and to learn from others. And my hope is that people see when I sit down with them that sometimes, it’s not always an easy conversation, but because we have mutual respect and I have trust in you, and you and me, that we can work through this.
We can talk through this because we have to have hard conversations on the topics of diversity, equity and inclusion. And it’s interesting you talked about getting that piece of the pie. I saw this wonderful quote. It said, “Equal rights for others does not mean less rights for you. It’s not pie.”
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s not pie. Exactly.
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: It’s not pie.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that.
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: Yeah. And I often think about that and it’s because I am pro-black and pro-women and pro-Latino and pro-people with disabilities and LGBTQ and veteran, it does mean that I’m an anti-everything that that tries to destroy those communities.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. I love that.
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: So those are the conversations that we have, and we have on a daily basis. But for me, it starts with empathizing and then building that relationship of respect and trust to be able to talk about the leadership skills and all the other stuff. You can code and you can program and you can do all of those things, but it is about being an inclusive leader means bringing those things to bear.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. Beautifully said. That was lovely. And you told me a story about making sure that you activate your allies when you’re trying to speak the truth. When I asked you originally, when are you the least comfortable? Because I’m sure you do, we all do, where we feel we’re pushing people by raising something or bringing up a term and defining it and explaining perhaps what’s missing in a process that we’re a part of.
Maybe we’re the squeaky wheel, maybe we’re at a conference, maybe we’re noticing that all these authors around us and big deal thinkers are all of one identity and we’re pointing that out to people that don’t necessarily know what to do with that feedback. You and I talked about a meeting you had recently. I think you’re on a virtual call and I asked you like, how have people had your back and how have you activated your allies to help you intentionally?
Because these days, I’ve been saying to people, many hands make light work. Some of us are really doing a lot of the lifting to speak up for ourselves. And even that is hard time after time. It reminds people of who you are, versus maybe the job that you’re doing. Some people look at it as a victim mentality, which I don’t like to hear it all, and that’s my favorite question actually because I like to take it apart.
It’s not at all playing a victim in any way, it’s saying I’m not being heard and seen and valued. But the problem is that we’ve put the onus on those of us who aren’t being seen and heard and valued to always be the one that raises it, or that we feel like we’re shouting into the void when we’re trying to educate others, for example, about things like intersectionality, which you and I both agree is so critical in everything we do.
So you told me a story about how you were on a call and you activated someone virtually to have your back. And I just wanted you to repeat that if you remember that story. Do you remember that? Yeah.
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: Yeah. So it’s often that, especially being a person that’s coming from a marketing background to be in HR environment. A lot of times, your ideas, your thoughts, because those are completely two different complete functions and disciplines. So what’s interesting for me is that sometimes, you can make a statement and it feels like it just goes into the vapor and go over people’s heads.
JENNIFER BROWN: Totally.
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: This particular day in the story that I was sharing with you, we were reviewing, it was a virtual call and there were people from different backgrounds, different areas in like our labs. So technical and HR and a marketing person even, I believe, was on the call. And as we were reviewing this very good, very well-thought-out, very deep data around some diversity and innovation and this kind of better together strategy and everything.
So one thing, and I’ve shared this before, is intersectionality. This comes to your point around intersectionality. I often see the things that are missing as a woman of color. You’ll see data that shows about women and gender. So when you talk about gender, you’re often missing a few elements, obviously, too that I often represent.
So I made a comment about the data and again, it was very, very good. But did bring out and highlight that it would be great to see this data, but also with a cut of women of color, people of color and to dissect it out. It would be great to see veterans and how this looks as far as this innovation and veterans in the role that veterans play or people with disabilities even for that matter.
And there was this silence on the phone, and you know this.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: A few seconds seems like a few minutes, like doing virtual, right? And then somebody just came in and just started talking about something else and went on like, okay, I thought it was a pretty good point and it was completely overlooked. So one of my allies, one of my dear friends and colleagues was on the line.
So I IM’d her and I said, “I think that the intersectionality comment just went over everybody’s head.” And she commented back really quickly and we went on listening to the call. We didn’t let it distract us. And towards the end of the call, it was only a 30-minute call, but towards the end of the call, she came back and she circled and she said, “You know what, I want to bring Lesley’s point back up, because it was a good one in that…”
And then she went on to say that we really should consider and look at. And lo and behold, we ended the call. And then I had talked to you and I had gone back to her and I said, “You know what?” And I’m going to call her name, it’s Christy. I said, “Christy, I just want to thank you so much for reiterating my point because I felt it just fell on deaf ears.”
There was no consideration for the point at all. And I said, and that often happens when we start bringing in new and different layers of intersectionality into the diversity conversation. So people can get with the gender conversation, but then when you start bringing ethnicity and race and all those other things into it, and I said, so I just really, really want to thank you for being an ally.
So we had some great conversations back and forth about that is next, and she said, “Then you should see what they’ve done with this now as far as the data and how the cut has” … And that’s so easy to do, that’s so easy to do. Every single person can do that. And I often say this about diversity. I understand that it takes time to build diversity, especially in the tech industry. Where it’s just lagging.
But the inclusion piece of it, that belonging piece of it, anybody can do that. Just speaking up on behalf of, looking out for the good of, somebody is not in the room yet, save a seat for them. How great does that feel when you walk into a room and the seats are already taken but somebody saved a seat for you? So those are just the simple things. So I thank Christy for that. And there have been others too.
But those are the easy things to do, is that person’s comment was overlooked, or let’s revisit that and circle back to it. And … Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love it. It is really little and makes a huge impact. And imagine if you felt that you needed to bring your point up again and again. It only would have hurt you, I think.
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: Yeah. Well, it gets tiring.
JENNIFER BROWN: And it gets tiring for you. And I love that you also thanked somebody for the support. I am really surprised always when … Well first of all, a lot of people don’t know what allyship means and they don’t know the word. And then when you describe it to people, some people will say, that’s just good leadership, or that’s being a good colleague. And you can say, yes indeed, it is. But the fact that if you have an intersectional lens on your allyship and on your leadership, that means that you can almost anticipate, I think, how people will be included or excluded or who may, by virtue of just who they are, feel that they are marginalized because of being underrepresented.
And we don’t see somebody that looks like us around us. And on a day-to-day basis, we don’t see any leaders that share our identity. So I always feel like there’s certain folks amongst us that are on the edge that they’re on that edge of trust. They’re on the edge of staying in the company. There are many doubts about whether they can actually thrive and flourish based on all of these kind of cues that they get or they often don’t get.
Yeah. So to circle back, I think, when somebody has shown and demonstrated allyship to encourage them to do more of that is often a real educational moment because some people are so good, they just don’t see themselves doing this. And they also don’t understand the power of it and now, they can be more intentional about it, which is what we really want to do.
In teaching what this looks like, we want to encourage more people to do more of it in the hopes that others will watch and listen to them doing that and then say to themselves, well, that’s okay to do, and that person is doing it, and maybe I’ll follow that person and maybe I’ll emulate that person, particularly, people with power when they do that because they’re being watched, I think, disproportionately more.
Yeah. So I love it. And I love the story too because it’s women performing allyship for each other, which I totally love.
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: Absolutely.
JENNIFER BROWN: Which I think is fabulous.
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: Well, and I’d like to go another step it’s a white woman. And that’s something that we often don’t like to talk about because we try to group women together. But when you think of white women supporting women of color, women of color supporting white women, we as women need to come together more. So that’s like a whole another layer of conversation there.
JENNIFER BROWN: Totally. Lesley, you had said, and I share this a lot, if we build strategies for those among us that have, I think the least ability to be heard because of stereotypes, then everybody else will benefit. We talked about that, and I shared that in a session today and people paused and thought about that. And because sometimes, we think we’re checking the box around our diversity strategies when we’re serving, we’re serving the masses I suppose, or those who are like your point, if we say women, often what’s meant is really white women.
So we check the box and we say, well we were successful on that. And somebody like you could come along, or somebody like me, hopefully, and say, well hold on a second. Did we have an intersectional approach on this? And you really took it I think the right extreme, which is look, if we build strategies for those who are most struggling to bring their full selves to work, then the benefits will flow to everyone else, versus serving those that are already relatively more comfortable, or perhaps relatively have more acceptance.
They might have a single marginalized identity, but they may have lots of other privilege. And the LGBTQ community for example has a lot of privileged dynamics in it I think. I’m often the only woman in many rooms. And when that’s pointed out, if it’s even pointed out and I point it out or something, everybody turns to me and says, well, can you bring more women? I say, women don’t want to be here. They’re not comfortable.
And there’s other people that may not be comfortable here too. So the onus is on, I guess, those who are relatively more comfortable or have greater ease going through their day-to-day life to notice where we really need to point our strategies. And I just wanted to get your language describing this because I’m not sure I’m doing the most elegant job.
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: Well no, I think as you think about strategy and you think about intersectionality, if you even think about the LGBT community, gay white men are really benefiting from the movement. So if you start looking at some of the data, you’ll see black trans men are murdered at an alarming rate. So if we’re going to be about a movement for pride and for the rights for the LGBT community, then we should also care about other communities.
So black lives matter should matter or HIV awareness. I can layer on a number of different movements or causes that are about action, but there’s still only a certain group that’s benefiting from it. So that’s how it’s been in the tech industry is if you prioritize getting more women into tech, this is great, but you’re getting more white women into tech, which is a higher economic for white households.
But then, you still have brown and black and people with disabilities and veterans, and I can go down the layers, that’s still missing out. And I think even in the DNI and equity space, we have to make a more concerted effort to look at and to bring these causes together to see where they intersect so that we do the service for all, and not for just one.
JENNIFER BROWN: That was beautifully said. Thank you for that. It’s just such a profound thought and being aware of the privilege dynamics that all of us, I think, are in many cases, unwittingly perpetuating because why wouldn’t we? We grew up steeped in this. We grew up in this world of haves and have nots and such disparities which are only growing.
So I think that it’s so incumbent on communities that are experiencing being underrepresented and marginalized to be allies for those voices that are the least heard amongst us. And is that piling on the work like we were talking about? Why do we have all of these burdens? But I personally have found the idea of being an ally for my transgender, non-binary friends and colleagues and loved ones, as an LGBTQ woman, a very powerful call to action.
I find it very rich. I find it stimulating because I have to learn about who is not here and why. And why are they not in my personal network? Why is my world so homogeneous? And then we all struggle with that, but I do think it’s bringing that to the table. And I don’t know if there is easy answers, but just the effort and to go beyond that check mark to double-click and triple-click down into intersectionality, that’s got to be where it goes because I think that younger generation that’s coming in is very intersectional and very, very comfortable talking about all of their identities and the intersections of them and how they want to honor all of them in the workplace.
I think we built workplaces that have a long way to go in terms of welcoming and honoring, but at the very least, we’ve got half of that equation rolling.
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: Right. And I think that, and it’s one of the things that I do. I think it might have been black history month this year, but I challenged our leadership. I challenged everyone to push themselves outside of their comfort zone. Go and sit and have lunch or coffee with somebody that’s different.
If you are an executive leader, get out of the glass bubble and go down to the cafeteria. And I actually had one of our leaders that did and he came back and he said to me, “You know what? I read your note. And I went and I sat with a group. I invited myself to sit down with a group of folks sitting and having lunch.” Now, this is somebody, a leader that lives in the Palo Alto area, and he sat down with a group of folks, and the conversation they had was about their commute from Oakland, California into Palo Alto.
So he sat and he listened to that conversation. He said, “I’ve never thought about the time across the bridge, what you have to do, the impact to your family, all of those different things when you have this horrific Silicon Valley commute.” And he said, “I’m thinking about things differently.” And this is the leadership. So that might be, well maybe that’s how a commuter benefit comes along because you have a leader now be exposed to what other people outside of being able to drive five to 15 minutes from the office has to deal with.
So we have to keep challenging. We have to keep learning and growing and pushing ourselves. This role for me, it’s the new reinvented Lesley. I came out of marketing. And part of the reason I wanted to step out was to reinvent myself and not be seen as just a marketer and that go-to person for multicultural marketing or global marketing.
And when you push yourself outside of this comfort zone, outside of your day to day and the hustle and the bustle, and we should do this every single day, you should want to learn something new about somebody’s experience. And sometimes, it means being vulnerable and saying, you know what, I don’t know much about your culture. Can you tell me what’s the symbolism of that dress or the whatever? To me, it’s fun, but it’s the only thing that I know.
JENNIFER BROWN: I know. Right. Right.
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: It’s the only thing that I know. My grandmother always said, “You don’t know something, ask.” So I grew up in a family of asking. And if somebody said something about somebody, you didn’t have to go into conflict with the person, you could just ask the question and very innocently just admit that I don’t know, or I don’t understand, or what does that mean? Please help me understand. It’s that simple.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. That’s very simple. I know. And yet, there’s some fear of getting it wrong, which is very human. And also, not wanting to intrude and all of those things that we know are present. But I often say there is no other way around but through on this stuff. There’s got to be exposure opportunities and aha moments and cross different conversations and putting ourselves, particularly those of us who perhaps are more comfortable on a day-to-day basis.
It’s incumbent I think on us to put ourselves in what might be less comfortable situations where we do have the opportunity to learn and not feeling awkward about it. But that taking that first step to do that and make that overture or ask that question or really admit what we don’t know, which none of us like to do, but it’s got to be that’s where we start. And that’s where we build that trust you were talking about earlier. I think that’s where it starts.
And then I hope we become learning collaborators. I hope that we’re gracious enough to support each other in each other’s growth culturally and about identity and that we will have enough patience and grace with each other. That this is really a two-way street of learning. And let’s, together, agree that the world might be pulling us apart, and the world might be reminding us about the chasm between us.
But actually in my book, good leadership means that you’re pushing into that. It means that you’re leaning into that. It means that that’s actually a growth opportunity. And show me the leader that doesn’t care about growth opportunities. That’s what it’s all about. So anyway, I think it’s such a wonderful call to action for those of us listening to this. How long has it been since you’ve gone and sat down or spent time with or suggested coffee with somebody of any difference from you?
And what was that like? What did it transform in us and how can we do more of it?
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: Yes. Agreed. And we talked about the lady on the airplane, Jennifer.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Yes.
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: When I was boarding that plane this, woman has her hand down and … You can’t sit there. And I had every right. After all, it was A1. But you can’t sit there. She was in the window seat and I was in the middle seat, looking to get the aisle seat, so then I went to the middle seat. You can’t sit there either. The first seat was for her daughter, the second seat was for her granddaughter.
And it was one of those things. It took me a moment, because it hurt. It really did hurt. And there’s the old Lesley that would have said, okay lady, you have every right to sit here. You’re just going to deal … Or, there was even a Lesley that, even if the end seat was open, I would have took the middle just because I want to. She’s going to learn. Today is the day I’m teaching this woman.
But instead, I just went and I stepped back. And I said, you know what, I just want to use this opportunity because ultimately, neither a daughter or granddaughter sat in either of those seats. In fact, I think the middle seat was open. And I just happened to have on a shirt that day that said, be good to people. So I’m, like my goodness. I got to do this.
But the interesting thing about that for me, was when I looked and I saw that a daughter wasn’t sitting there next to her and that middle seat was empty, and the hurt it caused me was, well lady, it is a matter of not how you say things … I’m sorry, not what you say, but how you say things sometimes. I’m sorry, I was really saving this seat for my daughter or for my granddaughter. Would you mind?
I’ve been on a plane before and saved seats too. No big deal. But all of these things for me are learning in this space because I have to do self-care. I have to calm myself. I have to center myself. You, I know, Jennifer, you have to do this because the world can trigger you, and people will learn by our actions. And by us being intentional about making the commitment to create learning space for people.
So let’s call people into conversations, rather than calling us out all the time. Now sometimes, that’s needed, don’t get me wrong, but work, trust, respect, building these relationships at work, it requires us to be able to be in relationship with one another. So I just say, if you’re in a corporate office, if you’re in a small office or even in your family, you have that ability to influence about calling into a conversation, having a conversation, listen for understanding, empathizing and trying to hear another perspective doesn’t mean you have to accept it or live that perspective, it just means just try to listen to others and understand.
JENNIFER BROWN: The presence that you have. And I think this enables you to stay centered and really being the practicing of self-care I think is modulating appropriately and maintaining that core sense of calm and presence and wisdom which I would use to describe you, like what your presence feels like, that it’s grounded and it’s gracious and it makes space for people, and all of the behaviors that you’ve talked about today.
And I’m sure, I know people are so fortunate to have you as a colleague and also have you role modeling what this behavior means to the organization because this is the core of the work. And sometimes, it doesn’t feel you want to lash out and you want to be satisfied in the short term or you want to be heard, and it is really tempting, but the calling in energy, it is so collaborative and it’s so mutual.
And it does bind ourselves up with each other, which is a truth. We need to go further together, as the old proverb says. So Lesley, we’re out of time, but I could talk to you all day and listen to you all day. And I hope folks can stay tuned with you in social media, or what’s your preferred platform? And do you-
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: Yeah. Twitter, @DailySlate.
JENNIFER BROWN: Love that. What a great handle.
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: That’s slate for Slaton.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. DailySlate. Great.
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: Yeah. I’d love to love converse with folks.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. So please reach out to Lesley, tell her what she means to the movement and to the community. Thank you so much for the work you do, and I look forward to continuing to learn from you, Lesley.
LESLEY SLATON BROWN: Thank you, Jennifer.
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