The Virtual Consultancy: Jennifer Brown on Building Scalable Businesses in a Digital World

Jennifer Brown | |

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In this episode, originally recorded as a podcast for Gaper.io, Jennifer shares her experience of how JBC has created a virtual consultancy during the COVID-19 pandemic, and shares tips for building a scalable business in the digital age.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • How Jennifer built her team (6:00)
  • The benefits of working remotely  (9:00)
  • The challenges of finding talent (11:30)
  • The impact of working remotely on work/life balance (14:00)
  • Creative ways to use technology for team building and connection (17:00)
  • The benefits of inclusion for organizations  (21:00)
  • How customer expectations are driving DEI efforts  (24:00)
  • The challenges that organizations faced during the COVID-19 pandemic (26:00)

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

MARK ALLEN: Well, very good. And how did you come up with that name for your company, I wonder?

JENNIFER BROWN: It was the easiest thing.

MARK ALLEN: Okay, so it’s JBC. There we go.

JENNIFER BROWN: It is. It is. Absolutely.

MARK ALLEN: So to start with, can you share a brief background of yourself and your work experience?

JENNIFER BROWN: Sure. So I came to New York to be an opera singer, which a lot of people don’t know, and I trained, and unfortunately injured my voice, and there was all kinds of drama around that, and I had to reinvent. And so I studied HR and leadership development because I thought maybe I could be a trainer and use my stage craft, but in the corporate classroom teaching leadership skills. And so pivot into that world, really found my home. I really loved it. And I proceeded to have some internal HR roles, and then I started my own company 13 years ago. And now, I have a team of 20 folks or more, depends, and we get to work across all different kinds of companies and many different industries to build more inclusive workplaces where all of us can thrive. That’s my specialty. So I like to say I was meant to use my voice, just not as a singer, but give voice to the voiceless in the organization, and lift that up so that companies can be better, and really make the changes they should to retool themselves for the future.

MARK ALLEN: Interesting. And I’m going to divert a little bit. Normally, one of the things I’ve heard from different people I’ve done podcasts with is COVID has evened the playing field between the in the office and not in the office people. Do you find that’s true?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. I think from my lens, which is always looking at cultures of belonging, or not, the lack thereof, the video world is an interesting one because we simultaneously can’t hide parts of our life that I think we used to be able to hide in the workplace. And maybe your listeners know or don’t know about this, but many of us are downplaying parts of our identities that might be stigmatized or marginalized, if we can hide them. Some of us can’t. We can’t find hide our ethnicity, we can’t hide our gender, but we can definitely hide our sexual orientation, some of us. So I think in this virtual world, it’s been interesting because we are getting a real view into each other and I hope, doing the right thing with that information being shared with us, which is that we’re literally parachuting into each other’s living rooms.

And I think just seeing the whole person, and appreciating, and having empathy for how people live and people’s real lives, versus maybe the life they don’t want to show you has, I think, deepened our understanding of where people struggle. And we may not share that struggle, but it’s empathy work that all organizations needed to do, but it has sort of forced us to look at it and address it. And similarly to the summer and the social justice movement, it’s also forced organizations to look at how certain people and certain identities feel in the workplace every single day, what that experience is like. We’re now having a much more honest conversation about the work that is ahead for us to remedy that.

MARK ALLEN: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Very good. So we’ll go back on the topic now. So I’m just curious about that because I hear that from a fair number of people. So what has been your experience with remote employment? You’re obviously an employer, so from that aspect.

JENNIFER BROWN: Mm-hmm (affirmative). We’ve always been a remote team, and people are amazed that we do what we do, but my team is all over the country and the world. Some of the people on my team I’ve only met twice in person, but I’ve worked with them for eight years. Even in the pre-pandemic world, we were very used to it, so I think we really hit the ground running this year with our ability to work remotely. And we really love it. I think it enables us to have our lives to balance things, to have total freedom in our schedules. Yes, we do client work, so we need to honor when the clients are available, et cetera, but we have so much freedom to schedule things around and get the work done around our lives. And I think that it really leads to greater retention on our team, the ability to juggle things, parenting, other gigs.

I use a lot of contractors and so some of them are also professors, or also teachers, or have their own clients, in addition to our clients. And so the ability to call the shots, I think is incredibly empowering for people to stay in an organization. So I always say, the more flexibility you can give people, the better. The more you can trust people, the better. What’s hard about it, obviously, is a collaboration needs to be scheduled. It can’t be catching somebody doing something amazing, giving feedback, or pulling up a chair. And we do miss that. But like I said, we’ve been virtual for over a decade. And so we’ve had to already know every single tool, whether it’s Skype, or Google chat. We’ve been using all this stuff. So this year, we’ve just stepped it up and really come into our own because we’re very effective at what we do virtually. Thank goodness. We don’t lose much in this modality because we’re educators, so we do it well.

MARK ALLEN: And do you have an office in Manhattan, or no office at all?

JENNIFER BROWN: No, no. No office at all.

MARK ALLEN: Have you ever?

JENNIFER BROWN: Never.

MARK ALLEN: Wow. That’s great.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah.

MARK ALLEN: That’s one big expense you don’t have to worry about.

JENNIFER BROWN: I know. If I could say one more thing…

MARK ALLEN: Sure.

JENNIFER BROWN: I think if I had had to have a physical office, I almost feel like the tail can wag the dog, in terms of where you find talent from. You’ve got this expense you have to justify, but what we’ve been able to do is literally, I might be giving a keynote in Seattle, and I might meet somebody and get to work with them, and they might tell me, “Hey, I’m looking for an opportunity,” and I can just say, “Yes. Come on board.” And there’s no drama around your physical location, or time zone, or anything like that. So I’ve been able to cherry pick my team, not based on location, and it’s just been so… I just can’t imagine having found all these amazing people, but also having had to do that in one location, even in New York city. I still think good people are hard to find.

MARK ALLEN: Right. And there are a lot of them, talented people in New York, but there’s a lot of demand for them, so they’re… Right?

JENNIFER BROWN: That is right. Exactly. Exactly.

MARK ALLEN: And then you come along, you say, “Hey, yeah. You can work from Seattle. I don’t care.” I’ve had bosses like that, and that’s how I am. And it’s like, you’re right. People are like-

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. I loved that when I was on the other end of things. Yeah.

MARK ALLEN: Yeah. Certain people. Some people are a little freaked out, but other people are like, “Oh, my God. This is great.” And I actually was offered a job, it was a really good job, but they would say, “You got to come into San Francisco every morning,” and I’m like, “I’m not going to do it.”

JENNIFER BROWN: So much wasted time on the commute. Gosh, people are learning in the pandemic how much more productive we can be. But then, you’re right too, I guess it is a matter of taste because some of us like that structure, we need the team interaction more often. I find the opposite, which is my danger zone is being a workaholic virtually. There’s literally no boundaries. Particularly if you’re a business owner, you just, you love your business like you would a family member and you’ll give it anything. So I do think too, the… And then you’ve got time zones to deal with. There are long days, for sure, so you just have to be really careful about that.

MARK ALLEN: One thing I’ve always done, because I’ve been working remotely for over 10 years, is I joined a gym, and I’m just like, “At 5:30, I’m going to the gym.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Great.

MARK ALLEN: Right? Because now I can’t do that, but I do other things. I actually live 500 yards from the San Francisco Bay, so I actually take a walk by the bay.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, I’m so jealous. That walk must be beautiful.

MARK ALLEN: Well, if you’re ever in San Francisco we can do that walk.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love it. I love it.

MARK ALLEN: I can see San Francisco, and I can see Oakland, and I can see the sunset over the San Mateo Mountains.

JENNIFER BROWN: I can totally picture where you are. I walk along the Hudson River. Not so picturesque, but it has it’s moments.

MARK ALLEN: Yes. Well, I just think water in general is-

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, indeed.

MARK ALLEN: Yes. So what do you think is the future of remote employment? You obviously embrace it, but what do you think for the general population? What do you think?

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my gosh. Well, this year has hastened all of that, right? It’s shown us that we can indeed be just as effective from wherever, and I think companies really needed to almost have that proven to them like they have. My friend at IBM said that the client teams realized they were getting the same level of commitment, and work, and output from their entirely virtual team that used to be required to be onsite. And so it literally has changed. So many ripple effects from that because now, we can hire people from anywhere. So the other is, different geographies that you can attract talent from.

When we complain about the pipeline issue, which in the diversity world, sounds like, “Oh, there’s not enough women,” or, “There’s not enough people of color in STEM fields that are ready now.” When we think about the casting our net really super wide and to different geographies, all of a sudden, the pipeline opens up. And so I think… You live in the Bay Area, it’s a very expensive place for talent. And it might be a limited… I wouldn’t think it’s a limited pool, but people can’t imagine that it’s actually a vast pool, but geography is constraining. And also, by the way, it’s expensive to live there.

MARK ALLEN: It is.

JENNIFER BROWN: So why are we cutting off the opportunity to look at more talent? And so I think that problem would improve. And then I think balancing our lives. Balance has been really, really difficult for parents. And we’ve learned this year that how difficult it is to be juggling a kid, and leading a call, and the background noise. And all those struggles have been with us for a long time. It’s just that we’ve swept them under the rug, or we’ve hidden them from our employer because we’re worried that it’s going to negatively impact our reputation. And ask any mother this, and we will be able to tell you stories of hiding pregnancies, and all kinds of crazy things.

MARK ALLEN: Really?

JENNIFER BROWN: And a stigma is still real. Yeah. And father is not taking advantage of parental leave because there’s a stigma related to doing that, and so they just won’t take it. And the statistics show that it’s underutilized, just like vacation time is underutilized. So yeah, I think that this is net, net. I personally think it’s a positive, but I’m more comfortable working remotely, so I’m a little bit biased, but I just think the more we can take into account the whole person and their life, and then let them architect or show the agency to architect their structure in a way that works for them, to me, that’s always a good thing for productivity and creativity. Not treating people like children with rules and requirements, but the more we can think outside the box about, “I want to keep this person. What gets in the way for them, in terms of expectations around performance?”

And I’m not saying performance expectations shouldn’t exist, but I do think I’ve seen some really creative ways of teams sharing jobs, and one person’s on, one person’s off, busy time, slack time, people with kids, people without kids balancing each other, and helping a team output be what it is, but in a different way, really rethinking how work gets done, who does what pieces. I think there’s a lot of opportunity here to really rethink it. And what do we miss from not being in the office together? Yeah, there’s some sacrifices, but I don’t know. Digital technology is rising to the challenge, and we can do white boarding, and polling, and we can accomplish a lot in this way. I’m an extrovert, and I always think, if I’m able to be happy every day, and just be staring at a screen, and still feel like I’m getting my extrovert plug plugged in somewhere, I’m pretty amazed that I am as satisfied as I am, I have to say. And the PJs help too.

MARK ALLEN: I know. And for the record, I am not in my PJs. I have actually [crosstalk 00:12:25].

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you for dressing up today.

MARK ALLEN: I actually forgot to put on a good shirt because I literally just came from the dentist, so this is what I wore to the dentist.

JENNIFER BROWN: Nice. Nice.

MARK ALLEN: And I’m an extrovert and introvert. It’s interesting.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, yeah. You’re an ambivert.

MARK ALLEN: I’ve never heard that term, but thank you for making… Because I’m also a software developer, so.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, okay.

MARK ALLEN: So sometimes I’m just banging away at the computer, and that’s why I like doing this because it gives me a chance to get out and talk with very interesting people like yourself.

JENNIFER BROWN: Very cool. Very cool.

MARK ALLEN: So tell us about Jennifer Brown Consulting. What do you really concentrate on? Who are your target customers? All those things.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my goodness. Yeah, well, we’ve been… So I said we’re about 13 years old, and we have our foundations, I think, in the leadership development world, and the training world. And then, diversity, equity, inclusion is almost a lens over that. It’s a field unto itself, but it really helps. It’s almost… To do it really well, I believe, it needs to be a multidisciplinary approach. So we focus these days on building diversity, equity and inclusion strategies for companies, so literally, we’re consultants. We look at our problem, we lay out a process of month one, month two, month three, ongoing. This is our project plan. Here’s how we’re going to get a strategy built for a company. And it can be a company of any size. We will encounter hundreds of thousands of people companies that need massive training rollouts that we’ll design and deliver.

We’ll encounter a 30,000 person company that has no strategy and doesn’t really know what it’s doing, but knows, particularly after the summer, knows that it really needs to be able to respond in a meaningful way to the unrest, and the dissatisfaction, and the things that plague us as a society, and by proxy, that plague the workplace, which is exclusion, which is bias, which is all those things. So we literally roll up our sleeves and build strategies for very complex organizations, and it’s really interesting work. It’s a lot of stakeholder engagement, it’s education around what is the D, what is the E, what is the I. And by the way, let me just define those, diversity, equity, inclusion. So it shorthand in my world for diversity is the who. It’s the demographics, representation. Inclusion is the how. How are we included once that diversity is at the table, so to speak, virtual table, real table? How are we included? What’s the behavior?

And then equity is really the lens where we look at the systems and processes that are permeated with bias because they are. Because they were built… The workplace wasn’t built by and for a very large diverse group of people. It was built by one group of people that dominated the business world for a really long time, and I might argue, still does at the senior leadership level. So there’s a lot of missing pieces and broken links in the chain, so to speak, that routinely push out talent that doesn’t fit a certain mold. And this is why we still look at the Fortune 500 and see something like, less than five African-American CEOs. So we have to somehow fix this whole process of how people grow up in an organization, how they stay there, how comfortable they are there, and then how they ascend into leadership.

MARK ALLEN: Hmm. Very interesting. And all these things you’re talking about, I think these companies that have those old ways of thinking, I think it actually hurts them in the long run because they’re losing out on whole sections of society that they actually could be addressing. Right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Yeah, so I think if you want to keep your head in the sand, especially after this year, I would strongly advise against it, even though it can feel that it’s uncomfortable work, and it’s a new competency. It’s like anything else. You mentioned going to the gym, it’s a new muscle. And so for a lot of us that haven’t lived our life as a black person in the corporate world, or as an LGBTQ person that’s closeted at work, we may not understand what it feels like, but we can learn about it and then we can lead, and I think of it as the word allyship, which means taking on someone’s struggle as your own, meaning, I’m your partner in supporting your career, in removing obstacles, and challenging biases that challenge you, challenge all of us. And so it’s really all of us looking at the workplace and saying, “How could it be better? And what can I activate that I have access to, to change that outcome for somebody, and make this a place of belonging where everyone can thrive?”

But it really does take the awareness that that’s actually happening. I think a lot of people aren’t… We see things through our lens. We think that things are, if they’re comfortable for us, they’re comfortable for somebody else. If the system works for us, it works for everybody. And I think I spend a lot of my time explaining why that’s not true, and then opening up the eyes, and then recognizing it, and taking and taking it seriously, not debating it, or arguing with it, or denying that it’s true. And then, inevitably, all fingers point back at us to say, “Well, now that I know this, what kind of person am I? Am I the kind of person that’s going to step forward and be a courageous leader? Am I going to be a voice? Or I’m going to remain silent? And am I going to abdicate this conversation, or outsource it, or leave it up to others?”

And I think that’s… I would tell any leader, if you aren’t taking this on in a personal direct way, you’re not going to be relevant. You’re not going to be able to lead in the future because your teams are going to look different than you, you’re going to have to establish trust with people that come from different backgrounds, you’ve got to understand what’s not psychologically safe for others in workplaces that might feel safe for you, and what to do about that. And then organizations need to really get this because we’re pivoting, and we have pivoted into this very diverse world of consumers and customers, and whoever your customer is, they are looking different, and they will look very different in the future as the demographics of the country change.

So when we think about the insides of an organization, need to reflect the world that the organization exists in, and I would argue at the pleasure of. So if there’s a mismatch between the world, we are selling to serving, supporting, and our internal demographics, we are probably are going to have a lot of blind spots at the tables where we’re designing those products, and services, and remedies, and all that stuff, and PR, marketing, all of it. And that’s a really risky place to be. It’s like, you don’t know what you don’t know because there’s no one to tell you otherwise. And we only understand our own experience. It’s very difficult for me to do a marketing campaign targeted at a group of people that I’m not a part of, or to not have anyone to pull to the table to design that with, who have that direct personal experience. So, yeah. So it’s a liability and a risk not to be working on this.

MARK ALLEN: Yeah. Well, actually, I’m from tech, and tech, 27% are female and that’s…

JENNIFER BROWN: Poultry.

MARK ALLEN: And it’s only 12% in Silicon Valley.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. That’s right.

MARK ALLEN: My daughters are techies, though.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yay. Good job. Nice job, dad.

MARK ALLEN: She doesn’t like me to say who she works for, but it’s a very big company that rhymes with boogle.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my gosh. Wow. Yeah, lots of issues in tech. Tech likes to think it’s better at all this stuff than it really is. There’s a little Kool-Aid drinking going on over.

MARK ALLEN: There is. We won’t go into it. That’s a whole-

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, that’s a whole other one.

MARK ALLEN: So the ongoing pandemic forced everybody to go remote in March. You’ve been remote for 13 years, so that part of it, I got to believe is second nature to you. But did it cause any challenges that you weren’t expecting, or any challenges for your customers that you had to help them with?

JENNIFER BROWN: Huh. Yeah, I think a lot of customers assumed that our work couldn’t keep going somehow because we couldn’t get on a plane and go be in a room together. And so once we got them over that hurdle, they actually realized, “Oh my, goodness. This is actually so much easier.” And what it did, it compressed our timelines, which could have created other problems of scalability for us, because all of a sudden, where we could only do 10 or 15 projects, we could now do 30 or 40 projects at the same time because we’re not having to travel or manage their travel schedules really, which was the challenging part, getting roomfuls of people together to do something together, which is, that’s our bread and butter. So I think that, strangely, the cycles have been working for us, and been able to shrink the time it takes to give the output, that we typically takes months to do, so that can result in a really intense schedule. I know everybody’s struggling with potential burnout right now, if you’re in a really busy industry. And then the sameness of our days.

Just endless Zoom, Zoom fatigue. I think that wears on everybody a lot, I’m sure. I know for me, I miss the variety of the life I used to have, of traveling somewhere, and delivering, and traveling back, and just having that mental space, and that change of context was really refreshing, I thought. So, yeah. So, and then, because we were doing so much virtual delivery, we’ve had to build out entirely new parts of our company. So now, we have this whole team of virtual producers because we are delivering online so much, and so we decided to staff up to support our consultants who are delivering with the support person to manage all the tech, and make sure the chat is running smoothly, and everybody can get online, and there’s no audio issues. And just in general, the quality of the interaction is high. So I do think… And then we needed more consultants because we got more busy. So, yeah. So I think it’s been… It’s in a growth period. We’ve had to get really innovative and also add some like bells and whistles to our online learning.

Like our webinars and our keynotes, making them putting polling in, and white boarding things, and collecting, and doing survey questions, and collecting data with our clients. Actually, all of this is much easier to do virtually in the situation we’re in now, versus having been in a room with a thousand people. It’s very difficult to track those people down and get information for them. So we do text polling now. So literally, I’ll be like, “Okay, so here’s the QR code. Everybody put your phone over it. We’re going to do some polling on your phone during the session, and then I’m going to show you the results.” Stuff that we dabbled in it in the keynote world, I think, before this, but we’ve been forced into getting really creative. And yet, we’ve actually discovered better ways to do things, I think. And I hope that’s true for some of you in the audience and it’s all bad because pressure makes diamonds. And we’ve all been under pressure, and we’ve had to create, and you have probably created some really cool new stuff, and maybe faster than you would have because of the urgency of the situation.

MARK ALLEN: Yeah. And I think a lot of this stuff was already there, we just weren’t ready to make that-

JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly.

MARK ALLEN: … that leap. And COVID actually forced that. Right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah.

MARK ALLEN: And actually, I would think, one of the reasons your business expanded is now you have a… Part of the cost of doing business with you is travel, whether it’s you traveling, or the customer. And now, all of a sudden, your cost is lower. Right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly. Yeah. And so, yeah, it’s good all around, for the company, less budget for us, less coordination, not needing to investigate flights, all the other receipts on the backend, all that billing back to the client, all that.

MARK ALLEN: And you know the world is like, “Oh, my God.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, such a pain.

MARK ALLEN: $10 over on the [crosstalk 00:25:12].

JENNIFER BROWN: The per diem rate. Oh, my gosh. The bill is too much.

MARK ALLEN: No, you can’t have that extra glass of wine.

JENNIFER BROWN: Or no, let’s split the bill three ways because you’re billable, you’re not. Oh, my gosh. Yeah. All of that. I do not miss that, I have to say.

MARK ALLEN: I actually worked for a boss, that he, whenever we went anywhere, he would have me do the meet-

JENNIFER BROWN: The receipts.

MARK ALLEN: Well, put all the dinners and all that stuff on my budget because he’s [crosstalk 00:25:37], and all of a sudden, his boss got word and figured that out, he’s like, “No, no, no. No more of that.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, those are the old days. We’re going to sound like oldsters when we’re talking about this some day.

MARK ALLEN: Well, I started in the ’70s, the late ’70s.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, wow.

MARK ALLEN: My first job was punch cards, to give you an idea.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my God.

MARK ALLEN: And my youngest is 30.

JENNIFER BROWN: Wow, so young. Young at heart.

MARK ALLEN: So a little bit into my world. Well, Jennifer, this has been fascinating. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you today.

JENNIFER BROWN: You too.

MARK ALLEN: I wish you luck. If you’re ever in San Francisco, we can go for that walk by the bay.

JENNIFER BROWN: Walk by the Bay. I would love that. Thank you for the invitation. Same goes to you for New York City.

MARK ALLEN: All right.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s not scary here. It’s lovely. Come visit.

MARK ALLEN: [crosstalk 00:26:24].

JENNIFER BROWN: You live here.

MARK ALLEN: My son might go back, you never know.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, that’s great. That’s great.

MARK ALLEN: When my daughter went to NYU, I tried to get there once a year.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s good. That’s good. Yeah. We’re in for some rough times, but we’re hanging in there. We’re tough, New Yorkers, so.

MARK ALLEN: Yes, you are. I can attest to that.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, yeah.

MARK ALLEN: Thank you again, and have a great day.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks so much, Mark.

MARK ALLEN: All right, bye.