We talk with the founder of Vaya Consulting and lecturer at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business about what has and hasn’t changed in tech culture, how companies try to shortcut diversity efforts, and why well-intentioned white people often screw up.
> We’re taking on 500 years of colonial America when we talk about race. And nobody can be expected to do that in a training… We’ve hit this mainstream complacency with, “Great. You hit 4% black people in your company. Wonderful. Oh. You have 6% Latinx. Wow! You’re really doing well.” Like that’s kind of where the conversation is stuck. It’s a Benetton ad.
> —Nicole Sanchez, founder of Vaya Consulting
We’re taking a few weeks off, but don’t worry: Nicole’s going to leave you fired up all summer. And look for new episodes of NYG in August!Links on links on links:
We, like, talk about our word choice on the show and off—from “I think” to “I don’t know”—and debate the benefits and drawbacks of changing how we speak.
Have a bitchin’ summer, everyone! Stay sweet and we’ll see you in August!Sponsors
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Jenn Lukas [Ad spot] Today’s episode is supported by Shopify. Shopify makes great software that helps anyone with a great idea build a successful business—and they’re growing. Join the more than 3,000 diverse, passionate problem-solvers around the world who already call Shopify their professional home. Visit shopify.com/careers for all the info, including office locations, open positions, and more about what makes them so great [music fades in, plays for ten seconds, fades out]. Welcome to No, You Go, the show about being ambitious—and sticking together. I’m Jenn Lukas.
Katel LeDû I’m Katel LeDû.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher And I’m Sara Wachter-Boettcher, and welcome to our Season 2 Finale!
SWB We can’t believe we’re already at 20 episodes, plus a bonus-ode, and five editions of our biweekly newsletter. P.S. Are you getting our newsletter yet? It’s called I Love That, and you will love it. Sign up at noyougoshow.com/ilovethat, because Edition 6 is going to come out this Friday, June 29th. To round off the season we will be digging deep into the world of diversity and inclusion with none other than Nicole Sanchez, founder of Vaya Consulting and one of the smartest, loudest, most trusted voices in workplace inclusion. But before we do, let’s talk about something that I think we’ve all noticed this season and that is the way we speak. Like… you know… word choice?
KL So my friend Allison Crimmins, who we had on the show in Season 1, wrote to me and said that she noticed that we say “I think” a lot. She noticed in one episode that we said it, like… a lot [chuckles]. Which made her think about how many times she writes it in emails and speaks it out loud when she’s not really even meaning to, along with other words or phrases like “I just,” “perhaps,” “maybe,” and starting sentences with “I’m sorry.” Ugh! I do that too. I do it all the time. And there was a period of time where I looked at my emails and would scrub them out. I would scrub them out of the beginning of emails and was like, “What am I doing?” So basically all of those things that we say, qualifying statements that make us sound like we’re basically apologizing for [chuckles], you know, existing or, you know, taking up space. I came across this article and this app called Just Not Sorry that you can install and it will alert you to when you use “I’m sorry,” “I think,” “I just,” “maybe,” and let you do that more easily when you send emails. So I thought that was really interesting.
JL Part of me when I hear things like this, or I hear other people critique people’s language, I sort of want to be like, “You know what? Like, who cares? Eff those people, because that’s not really what like the main meat of a conversation is,” and part of it really frustrates me. And then part of me thinks realistically in life there’s a lot of things that people do that really frustrate me and they’re going to judge me for it. So I have two options: either, like, eff it and don’t, or think about how that affects my life and career and consider whether or not I want to make a change.
SWB I think in this whole conversation it’s really useful to kind of parse out, when are these kinds of softening words being used in ways that are helpful and beneficial to conversation and that show that you are listening and sort of in a conversational moment with somebody, you’re not just like talking at them, and when are we using this kind of language to kind of hedge what we actually think, or to even obscure what we actually think, or to, you know, make it easier for people to walk all over us? And I guess something I think a lot about is how often is that sort of like your default state—“sorry for existing” and “sorry for saying anything”—versus when is an “I’m sorry” an appropriate kind of interjection in a conversation? And so I guess I think a lot of that gets flattened in this conversation, right? Because so much of the advice that you read out there, you can find like—if you Google this, you can find a hundred articles about this in about a minute that’ll just be like, “Just remove ‘justs’ from your emails, get rid of every single time you say ‘maybe’ or ‘I think’,” and the reality is that, what if the problem isn’t that women say those things too often? What if the problem is that men aren’t socialized to say those things enough? And I think that that is part of the problem, too.
JL Yeah I know we’ve talked about this in the past before is like hey, you know, really being careful about, you know, as an engineer who gives feedback to people, how we give that feedback. And me saying something like, “I think you could rework this by adding an attribute here,” is better than, “Add an attribute here.” It just like—especially because you’re communicating online and not face-to-face with someone that you’re not necessarily knowing the inflection that I have. So, “I think we should go get ice cream,” versus, “We should get ice cream!”
SWB Wait! Hold on. Hold on. We should get ice cream.
KL I mean that should be a statement always [laughs]. A lot of times when I start speaking with someone, especially if I’m trying to have a conversation that’s a little bit more difficult, I find myself softening things and I think, you know, in that case that’s really valuable and I don’t want to lose that. I don’t want to lose touch of that. But I do—I think it is good to just keep an eye out on like instances where I could be a little bit more assertive or, like I said, concise and clear.
JL Yeah for me when I communicate, especially at work, I want people to know that I’m confident in the things that I’m recommending.
JL And I think a lot of this is making sure that you do sound more confident.
SWB My sense is that focusing on clarity and making sure that we are hitting specific points in the way we want to and feeling confident about the things we are saying, that’s really valuable, right? Like, we are sending this information out to the world and we want as many people as possible to hear it and have it resonate with them, and I think that when we are focused and when we can cut out sort of too much extraneous stuff, that’s really helpful. On the other hand, people use filler words. That’s a human thing to do. The kinds of—_kind of, sort of, um, uh, you know_. Everybody has different filler words that they rely on, but the reality is that people use filler words. And in fact they’re have been a lot of studies that men use them just as much as women, but women tend to be criticized for them. And a huge piece of this is just the way that we end up policing women’s language as being somehow not up to par with men’s language when the reality is, it tends to be a little bit different and it also just tends to be more, like, hyper-watched, right? Like you feel like people are paying so much more attention to it. I mean that’s one of the reasons I know women radio hosts get so much mail about their voice. I am just waiting for us to get some angry email about vocal fry because I feel like that’s a rite of passage [Katel laughs]. I’m not actually waiting for that email. Please don’t send it.
KL Yeah we’re really not trying to will that into the universe. But at the end of the day I do think that I would rather sound more human than just completely cold and assertive and confident. And I know that that might be the ideal in a lot of people’s minds, but, I don’t know… I’m going to strive for not apologizing when I know what I’m saying, but also making sure I make my point as clearly as possible.
JL I definitely find that I try to be more careful with this in written communication. And I try not to hyper-focus on editing myself when I’m speaking. I’ve done, as a public speaker, you know, I’ve watched recordings of myself, which is painful, but you do learn a lot. But that doesn’t mean I’ve watched every recording of myself. And it doesn’t mean that I do it at a regular basis. You know every once in awhile I go, “Oh. Maybe that’s something I want to think about,” but I definitely don’t harp on it, because again that balance of, like, where I feel more comfortable. Now I know I just said ‘like’ in that last sentence, but you know what? I’m ok.
SWB So I’m the person who listens to all the raw recordings and goes through—
KL [Laughs] God bless you.
SWB—everything that we produce and then provides notes to our producer about, you know, where I think the good bits are and what we can probably cut out. And I will say that one of the things that I’ve really noticed is that we talk like people actually talk. We talk like friends talk over drinks. That is part of the show. Like that is part of the point. And removing that is, I think, not the goal. At least not my goal. However, I think that there are also things that I find all of us end up over-relying on, and I think actually in terms of this conversation something that I wish we all said less of… it’s not “like”—I could give a fuck about “like”—it’s “I don’t know.” And I think that one’s really easy when we don’t want to assume that the other two of us agree with us and so we’ll make a point and then we’ll kind of say, “I don’t know,” as if we’re not certain that we actually believe the thing that we just said. That’s one that I want to be more cautious of. But some of this other stuff, I just look at it as like when people have conversations, they speak naturally. Natural language has filler words, filler words are fine, and we edit out and clean out some of the stuff that doesn’t go anywhere, but we’re not going to edit out every example of that, because that would make it feel stilted and weird, and it wouldn’t give it that sense of, like, you’re sitting around the table with us having snacks.
KL And I just want to say that, you know, I want to thank Allison for bringing this up because it is clearly so complex, and I’m sure that we will talk about this a little bit more. So, I don’t know, I’m glad that it came up [laughs]. God fucking damn it! I said “I don’t know.” [Music fades in, plays for three seconds, fades out].Sponsors
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[11:45]Interview: Nicole Sanchez
SWB Today’s guest is someone I have personally admired for a long time now, and that is Nicole Sanchez. She is the founder of Vaya Consulting, a firm that’s pioneering solutions to tech’s culture problems. Problems like lack of diversity, pay inequity, and biased hiring practices. She also earned an MBA from Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and now teaches a workplace diversity course there. Nicole, I have about a hundred things I want to talk with you about [laughter] and thank you so much for being on the show today!
Nicole Sanchez Oh no, thank you. I am such a fan of your book. I love it so much. I have given to many people, Technically Wrong is just such a good read. So thank you for that.
SWB Uh, thank you! But we did not bring you on here to plug my book—
NS [Laughs] Ok.
SWB Because we gotta talk about what you are up to. There’s so much here. So first off: can you tell our listeners a little bit more about Vaya, like what your work looks like, and sort of what made you found this company?
NS Sure. So I’ve been working on workplace diversity and inclusion for 24 years, and my first job doing it in tech was actually in 1999. And what I started learning there and continued to learn is that people are very interesting in groups, and they do interesting things, but they don’t generally do new things. They keep doing the same things over and over, which means some of the same ways of success, but also some of the same mistakes. And where it gets really interesting to me and why I ultimately started my firm is that when we look at groups behave and we purposefully try to make them diverse—in a lot of ways, but specifically in terms of race and ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic background—really fascinating things happen. And it’s not… my work isn’t so much about rectifying the past, even though that is definitely some of what my inspiration and what my motivation. It is more about, we build better things in diverse teams that are working well. We as humans, we as people in the United States, we in tech, when we have a diverse group of people who are behaving inside an inclusive structure— meaning everybody has a voice, everybody has a shot, everybody has an equitable stake in what’s going on in the outcome—the kinds of things that are produced are unparalleled, when you compare them to some of the more traditional ways, especially the way tech has been built by more homogenous groups of people who share the same class background or the same education. People mostly have their heads wrapped around, “Ok diversity is good and we need more of it,” but they don’t know how to get it and they certainly often don’t know what to do with it once they have it. So we’ve really rolled up our sleeves and get into the tactical work of revamping a hiring system, for example, or doing executive coaching for the executive who just isn’t fluent in this conversation yet but really needs to be. And so in any of our dozen clients, there are different points in their trajectory, but always pointed towards building a culture of inclusion with a diverse group of people running and working inside it.
SWB And so I know that this issue is near and dear to you because of your own experience in the world, but you also wrote before that this was something that was important because of your father’s story. And you wrote this really moving article about it and I would love to talk a little bit about that and how that story has driven or affected, you know, the work that you do now.
NS Ah thanks. We just passed the third anniversary of my father’s passing. I wrote it for him, really, about six months after he passed and it’s called “Diversity and Tech and What We’ve Already Lost.” And my dad grew up the youngest of 11 kids in East LA, and then later in Montebello, for anybody who is from Southern California and for whom that matters, and he met my mother at Montebello High. And my dad was a fantastic student, specifically in math and science, and his dream was to go to UC Berkeley. And his parents couldn’t afford it, so he had to figure out first of all how to get in, which he did. And then how to get himself up to Berkeley, which is where I live now, and how to pay for school, and where to live, and—and everything. This was 1962. The fall of 1962. There was no affirmative action. Very little financial aid to be had. And so he was really scraping it together. And over the course of his first two years he really met head-on the ugly twins: poverty and racism! Poverty and racism are an evil pair, and he really just clearly fell victim to both of those things, and ended up having to drop out, go back down to Los Angeles, he and my mom—they ended up getting married, they lived together in [chuckling] relative happiness for over 50 years, they have four children, all of us girls, and he didn’t get to finish at UC Berkeley. He didn’t get to finish his degree, which was absolutely his dream. And when I go back and think about his story, and now that so much of the history is online and searchable, I look at who some of his classmates were in his math classes and in very early computer classes. Because UC Berkeley was one of the only—well, was one of the first universities to make computers accessible to students—and he was learning how to program them and playing on them. And his classmates were people who went on to be pioneers in tech. And my dad ended up spending 35 years working at a fast food restaurant, which he ultimately owned. My dad did get a degree later on at Cal State East Bay, which was great, but his health was failing at that point and he didn’t ever get to actually be the inventor, teacher, computer scientist, mathematician that we knew he always wanted to be. And it had nothing to do with his potential, had nothing to do with how hard he worked—because he worked harder than anybody I’ve ever known. It had everything to do with being born in a certain package compared to a different one. And that is how we lose talent in tech. It isn’t always as obvious as the racism my dad faced, but there are so many barriers to people like him today with accessing the field of technology and certainly being entrepreneurs or having ownership stakes in valuable companies, or inventing really cool things that are going to go to Mars. There are so many barriers being born the youngest of 11 in East LA and actually achieving that dream. And we, you know, we’ve done a decent job at removing some of those barriers, but they’re not all gone, and I worry daily about the talent that we’ve lost in our sector as a result.
SWB That story is so moving and, I mean, first off: it’s just such a moving tribute to your dad. And we’ll link to it in the show notes, of course, so everybody can read it. And the other thing that really struck me about it is that it was such a perfect encapsulation of the problems that we face when we start trying to talk about things like meritocracy or we talk about the way that the tech industry almost acts like there is no past. Like that everything is new, and so everything is a fresh start all the time, and I think it kind of creates this culture where we’re not thinking about the way that people are being shut out before they can have any chance to make anything at all.
NS Yeah. That’s right. And our system here in Silicon Valley and in tech overall, although I think it’s probably most present here in the Bay Area, is that somehow on the one hand, we want to talk about how fair and meritocratic everything is, and if you just work hard and grind, if you hustle and do all the things, then you will achieve success. And then on the other hand, the same system is creating the barriers to entry, creating the barriers to resource access, creating the barriers that continue to allow the “winners,” quote/unquote, the “winners” to keep “winning” and those of us who are trying to come in, you can’t get a foothold. The system is so really rigged against that, you know, you just think about somebody who has a great idea that could be the next billion-dollar company, or $10 billion company, and if you come in from a background where you don’t have any financial security of your own, you don’t have the network to talk to the people who can help you get the capital, you don’t know what the right events to be at are, you are—you stick out like a sore thumb for whatever reason, whatever the package you’re in causes you to stick out as not according to the pattern of the rest of Silicon Valley. It is very difficult literally, like logistically, as well as psychologically, to make those breakthroughs. And I don’t see many people who have access to the resources that maybe, you know, VCs do or CEOs of companies, I don’t see them going out of their way to very effectively remove those barriers to new talent. And it is intellectually dishonest when we say, “We want the best,” but we’re also going to simultaneously create barriers to some of the best getting inside the system.
SWB Yes! All of this talk about, “We want to get the best,” I’m like, “Y’all don’t even know what the best means!” [Nicole laughs] Like, “How would you even know what that is if all you’ve ever seen is this one very narrow slice? How do you even know you have the best? Like you actually don’t.”
NS [Chuckles] Well I had one client, just to give you an example of that, who had hired me to identify bias in their hiring system. They brought my consulting firm in and I was sitting in a candidate review process where they were going over their docket of candidates for jobs, technical and non-technical. And my job was to raise my hand and say, “Hey, I think bias has crept up into the system.” And the first candidate that I witnessed be evaluated by this group, the candidate wasn’t there, they had already gone through the whole system. The candidate docket, somebody puts it down on the table and says, “Well, this guy went to Harvard and worked at Facebook, so obviously we’re hiring him.” And so I hadn’t been sitting down but for 30 seconds [chuckling] and raised my hand and say, “If that’s what you think the best is, why did you spend tens of thousands of dollars to interview him? When you could’ve found that out from LinkedIn, if you looked—or his resume?” You say, “Yup. Harvard: check. Facebook: check. Great: you’re hired.” If that’s ultimately what you’re using to make your decision then don’t—don’t waste your time meeting the person. Just go look for people who worked at Facebook and went to Harvard. And we see this over and over again. This lazy shortcut for validation. People, for example, wanting to use GitHub commit graphs as an indication of how strong of an engineer you are. That doesn’t—that’s not how that works, because that’s a subset of the talent you want to be pulling from. So it is very lazy to say, “Ok, anybody who’s in open source, anybody who has the time to dabble in these public projects, great: you have a leg up.” You’ve now advantaged the already advantaged in that hiring process. And we just see this happen over and over, and it’s not as simple as somebody sitting there saying, “I don’t think women are smart enough to work at my company.” Like those are easy. Those are easy to spot and extract. It is much harder to get into the systems that have petrified around those beliefs.
SWB So this completely brings us to the next thing I wanted to talk about which is like, ok, you have been doing this work for more than a couple of decades. Two full decades in the tech industry! [Nicole laughing] And so I saw that you recently gave this talk, a keynote that was called “Diversity and Inclusion Hit the Mainstream, Now What?” And I think that that’s—that’s kind of my question. Well, so now what? Like we—we’re talking about this stuff. Companies are increasingly willing to hire people like you to help them fix it. But where have we started making progress? And where are we still stuck? And how do we move beyond lip service in this conversation?
NS I think we understand diversity on some level, even though we can’t all agree on it, what it really means when you get to the granular look at it. We know it means bringing lots of different kinds of people together and that something good’s supposed to happen, but along the way one of the stops we’ve taken in this conversation is enumerating transgressions, which is very important because people deserve to be heard when they’ve been wronged. And we have invested a lot in individual stories of individual people who have suffered inside a system. And, like I said, that’s really important, and it’s not to invalidate their experience, but we haven’t done a good job of indicting the system that allowed that to happen, because you cannot pick out every bad actor one by one, first of all. And second of all, the system is much more strained than any individual. I meet with clients all the time and I’m just going to—I’m just going to tell it [chuckles] kind of like it is, which is what I said in my talk. I meet a lot of well-meaning white people in particular. I meet a lot of white women specifically who say, “I can’t figure out why in my HR system I still can’t convince a black woman to come work here.” Right? And it’s just tons of good intentions that still don’t add up to progress, and so we’re stalled on this. We say, “I’m not—” You know, people say, “I’m not racist. Ok. I’m not racist. I’m not sexist. I’m not homophobic.” Great. Why are we still seeing the yield that we’re seeing? And the answer is that we’re not digging into understanding the systems. One of the systems that has yet to be indicted is, for example, the system of how equity is distributed in a company in Silicon Valley. That in my opinion and from my experience has a much greater potential for impact on the people we want to benefit from our diversity and inclusion initiatives the most, and to move the needle most significantly. If we can actually indict the system of how VCs in particular set up equity distribution, we’re going to make a much bigger impact than, “Let’s hear another story about another person who transgressed or had something bad happen to them.” Again, people deserve to tell their stories, but it is not the thing that’s going to get us to the next level as a sector. And so that’s where my talk was really about like, “Ok. We get it. It’s bad. It hurts. So then what? Let’s talk about equity distribution, let’s talk about executive compensation, let’s talk about your hiring practices, let’s talk about recruitment practices, let’s talk about promotion and evaluation inside the company,” the real nitty gritty that actually makes up the results that you’re seeking to impact. People think, “Well, yay, we’re talking about it, and therefore it must be better.” And that’s not true. It’s actually driven some conversations further underground. It’s stalled other efforts. And I think people would find it surprising to know that I don’t love the way that we report our data, our diversity data as a sector right now. I don’t. I think it actually paused some efforts and slowed them down in ways that where I would’ve wanted to have seen much more traction by now.
SWB Can you tell me more about what you mean by that? So, what don’t you love about the way that diversity is being reported? And for those who aren’t familiar with it, like can you just describe a little bit about how you see it being reported, and maybe what you’d like to see different?
NS Sure! So it’s still voluntary. Companies are not compelled by anything other than social pressure to release their diversity data. And what companies who do it generally do is they say, “Here’s how many men, here’s how many woman,” and there isn’t a lot of reporting off of the binary. “Here are the men in our company, here are the women in our women in our company; here’s technical versus non-technical,” and we know that inside a company that’s very [sighs] that’s very company specific. You know you may be inside one company where the support team is highly technical and another one where they’re not. So it’s very difficult to know what we’re actually measuring there. And then they say, you know, “Leadership/non-leadership,” and then they say, “Here’s race and ethnicity.” And that’s basically it. And so what companies have done is they’ve been able put their best foot forward because it’s simply a snapshot. It’s a snapshot that counts heads. How many people are here today on this day that we recorded? And it doesn’t tell you any story. So every company now knows that as long as you’re on a cadence where you feel good about your hiring, and let’s say you start cohorts in September, and you particularly start new hires in September, and you’ve made great efforts to diversify your new hires. If you report your data in September, your snapshot looks really good. But we’re not reporting six months later where we learn people of color start to fall out of the system and start to go, “You know what? Turns out this culture isn’t actually that welcoming for people like me.” And so within the first six to 12 months you may lose all those people you reported in September. But you got another, you know, amount of time to make up for it again, by the time you have to report again. So it is in some ways very easy to mislead people into thinking, “This is who’s always working at our company.”
NS [Continued] One example that a client gave me was saying that, “We report every June, and in July of last year we lost 30 women. Out of a company of 500, we lost 30 women within two months because of something that happened. But we know we have 10 months to hire 30 women back and show no blip at all in our reporting,” which actually tells a story of what’s going on inside the company. If that makes sense. And so that to me is where it set us back. It didn’t help people on the culture part, it got the diversity part but it didn’t get the inclusion part or the equity part or the belonging part.
SWB Yeah, that’s so telling, too. It’s managing to the metric, right. So now there’s a scorecard out there and you’re like me in a class I didn’t like in high school being like, “Ok. What’s the minimum I can do and still get an A because this is not going to touch my GPA?” Right? Like that’s—
NS That’s exactly it. That’s exactly it. And also because we’re so opaque as an industry. You can lose 30 women and then deceptively hire 30 new women without them knowing potentially that this is a terrible place for women to work. And so you haven’t fixed anything but—but your public face looks great.
SWB So—and this brings me back to something that I know was tweeted from that talk, which was that the money shows us where people’s priorities really are. And so, what would it look like for a company to really invest in the kind of shift that you’re talking about?
NS So yeah the adage that I like using is, “Don’t tell me what your priorities are, show me your budget and I’ll tell you your priorities.” And priorities in Silicon Valley in particular and in tech overall—and I guess in business overall, I mean let’s just be honest—whose upside looks like what is going to tell you what is actually valued. So if you can say—and the reason I think that it’s—that it’s remained a secret is that people know that the disparity is actually shameful. There is no way that you can say, “Oh yes that single engineer who did so much for our work once we went public made $200,000 on our big exit. I, however, as CEO, who was really a pain in the ass to deal with, just walked away with a billion.” Like that’s the scale that we’re actually talking about. And then that doesn’t even bring it into account the custodial staff, the food service staff, the security staff, you know, working at your front door. Those people have been erased from the equation. And so until Silicon Valley is really ready to—until companies say, “All right, we’re going to tell you our percentages of distribution and we can actually report it publically and we want everybody to know because we stand by our method.” Until a company can do that, including their board and investors: “Here’s who owns what part of the company.” And it’s generally that about ten percent own 90 percent of the company and then vice versa. Right?
SWB Mm hmm.
NS And so once people start to get wise to that and demand that as a metric of reporting, I think we will start to see some stuff happening. I have yet to meet a company that has said, “We’re very transparent with this. I know what I own and I know what our CEO owns and I’m ok with it.” That just doesn’t happen, and until we hit that level of transparency with our resources, I think there’s a lot of shell games that can be played with diversity and inclusion. But follow the money, like Robert Reich always says, former labor secretary, “Follow the money. Follow the money. Follow the money, it’ll give you all your answers.” The same goes for tech. So I—I unfortunately get asked quite often, “Tell me a company that has got this figured out.” And the answer is there isn’t one. And I don’t mean that to be really depressing, because I think there are companies that actually are moving forward and trending well but no, there isn’t a company that has modelled this in the way that it needs to—that it needs to actually look in order for this to be successful in the next generation.
SWB Yeah, you know, so much of this reminds me of just like how easy it is anytime there’s change to be made, anytime there’s like big organizational shift to be made, to want to go to those shortcuts and to go like, “Ok. How do we get the benefits or whatever this thing is but without actually doing the painful part of having to [Nicole chuckles] operate differently? And commit to operating differently?” Like, you know, there’s no—there’s no shortcut to this and then the reality is that this is having a dramatic effect on, you know, the most marginalized groups.
NS That’s right, and I also think that some people have figured out that you can make money doing this. I mean I definitely am making a living working on diversity and inclusion and I stand by my methods and, you know, I’ve been at this for a very long time. We are seeing the market start to be flooded with people who offer advice, who offer consulting services, and we know, for example, there’s no race lens on what they do. Or they’re not pushing on—on the question of resources and equity. The rise of mediocre D&I advice [chuckles] that actually isn’t going to move the needle, but placates lots of people. And they go, “Well, see that wasn’t so scary, that wasn’t so hard.” Like, this work is hard, and we’re taking on 500 years of colonial America when we talk about race. And nobody can be expected to do that in a training. And you can’t—you literally, scientifically cannot undo unconscious bias with a training. And we’re still sort of messing around on the edges going, “Gosh. That was fascinating. Ok. Going back to my job, which is now operating same way it did yesterday.” If that’s how we’re going to do it and that’s what’s being sold, and that’s what people buy, I’m very nervous that we’re going to just hit this—this is the second part of the talk I gave—we’ve hit this mainstream complacency with, “Great. You hit four percent black people in your company. Wonderful. Oh. You have six percent Latinx. Wow! You’re really doing well.” Like that’s kind of where the conversation is stuck. It’s a Benetton ad. You know? A Benetton ad [Sara laughs] if you can—if you can make your website of your company feature a black employee, you’re good. Like that’s where we are now [chuckles]. That’s the bar. “Don’t—don’t look too hard at our board of directors [chuckles] because yeah. But we’ve got our Latina. We’ve got our black man. We’ve got our, you know, gender-ambiguous person. And we’ve got like your standard white guy representing our company.” And you know that’s not representative of their company, but they were smart enough to say, “Ok this is a marketing effort. Let’s show different people.” Great.
SWB So I’d love to ask about something that I think this really kind of connects to, which is that whole unconscious bias training thing you mentioned. So just recently we had, back I guess in May, Starbucks did its company-wide unconscious bias training day. And I was really interested in something you wrote about that, where you talked about the problems with unconscious bias training, as well as the problems with sort of like, positioning what happened at Starbucks—which if anybody doesn’t remember, is a Starbucks here in Philadelphia. Two young black men came in, sat down, didn’t order anything, they were waiting for somebody to show up who they were having a meeting with, and the police ended up being called on them. And so in the uproar over this, Starbucks decided it would do unconscious bias training for all employees. So one of the things you mentioned was also that this is not just like a quote/unquote “diversity” issue, this is about anti-blackness and anti-black behaviors, and that it was important to talk about that. So I’d love to kind of dig into that. Like, why it’s important specifically to name what’s going on, and what the limitations are of doing something like unconscious bias training, which I think a lot of people think of as generally good.
NS Ooh! So, I’ll start with the unconscious bias piece. Certainly when I’m teaching my class at Haas, I talk about unconscious bias. It is a fascinating and very real phenomenon that most people don’t know is going on, and it basically runs in the background of your mind. We’ve all been primed by images and messages over the course of our life about good, bad, pretty, ugly, you know, worthy, unworthy, safe, dangerous. And whether we like it or not, and we can’t control it, those things get triggered, especially under pressure. And we do and say stupid things and we treat people differently according to how these biases are running in our background. And so it has been really well documented around things like juries, right? Even if you factor—because anybody can do it to anybody. It’s—I as a Latina can do it to another Latina. It’s not—it’s not as conscious as, “I’m Latina and I know that stereotypes are not real, therefore I’m not going to treat another Latina that way.” That’s not how it actually works. But it runs so deep and far in the background of our minds that we can’t access it through introspection. You have to access it by putting it under pressure and then you see it come out. So it’s a fascinating concept. What I have seen happen in this conversation is that it allows people to forget about the nuances of different kinds of racism or sexism or any phobia. Pick your [chuckles] favorite phobia. It lets people off the hook and thinks that all things are treated equally. “Well I didn’t know that I had a bias against Asian people, therefore I’m—but now I’m working on it, therefore that must automatically extend to black people, too, because I’m learning how to not be racist.” And that’s just not how it works, because context is everything. And who is on the receiving end of your bias is really what’s critical here, because your bias will not be the same for a light-skinned Latina like myself as it might be for a dark-skinned black man like in the Starbucks in Philadelphia. And so what folks aren’t talking about is that anti-blackness as a subset of racism is its own thing. And racism is both enacted by individuals, we know, but racism on a much larger level is a system where people who are in the majority and in power control the system to the detriment of people who do not share that same racial—those same racial identifiers.
NS [Continued] In this case, what happened in that Starbucks was anti-black racism. There were presumably other people of color in the room and who had come in and out during the day and had, you know, not ordered anything, had used the bathroom, lots of different people of color. But it was two black men who were—who received the bias. And I don’t even think it’s unconscious bias. This was an overt bias of having the police called on them in a Starbucks. Talking about anti-blackness in America is not the same thing as talking about racism in America, and if I could get one thing across to people who are working on issues of identity and the isms and the phobias is that context is everything, and that once you’ve solved one type of -ism, you have not solved them all. And so this is a constant drumbeat for me, is like, when you say that there’s an event for women in tech—and I wrote a piece called “Which Women in Tech?”—if you just bill it as just “women in tech,” who you’re going to get is white, and maybe some Asian, women coming to that event. That is what “women” as the overall banner means. And so you don’t get into the nuance of, what are black women in tech facing specifically? And what a white woman who is much more enfranchised and towards the center of an equation, of a system, experiences in her sexism is very, very different than what a black woman living closer to the edges of a system experiences. You’ve got intersectionality. You’ve got anti-black racism, anti-blackness, that she has to navigate. And so women as an umbrella term for “Let’s decrease sexism in tech. So c’mon women, let’s all get together.” Women of color, for the most part, do not hear it as an inclusive term. And so when people say “racism” it’s much easier to say racism as the umbrella term than it is to say, “That was some anti-blackness. That was some violence enacted on black bodies by calling the police,” and that is a kind of—that is a way that racism and bias shows up. But implicit bias or unconscious bias as a solution to one of your baristas calling the cops—they’re not related to each other all that much. What would have been much more effective for Starbucks is to clarify the policies that the company has for when the police get called into a cafe. That would’ve been a much more direct response to what actually happened which is, “Everybody is allowed to sit here and not order anything. Everybody is allowed to use our bathroom. The police only get called if somebody believes they’re in imminent danger. If you call the police simply because you thought somebody looked suspicious, you will be penalized or fired.” Right? That’s a much stronger statement in direct response to what happened, but what Starbucks did is they’re like, “Let’s take on all of racism. Let’s take on all of unconscious bias.” And now you’re—you’re just on a different—it’s just a different conversation. And unconscious bias trainings themselves have actually shown to potentially be counterproductive because they enact—they start to trigger biases that people weren’t previously aware of and create very awkward situations in the future.
SWB You know just today I was having a conversation with somebody where we were talking about why it’s important to—to name things and it kind of hit me that, you know, as a white woman, something that I realized is that I think that the way that we—we meaning like white people like me [chuckles]—like the way that we tend to avoid the specificity of language around saying something like “anti-black” and want to call it something like “bias” or even, if we have to do, maybe we’ll use the ‘r’ word. Right? Like maybe we’ll call it racism, if we have to. But one of the reasons I think that happens is that it’s a way to protect white feelings, like it’s a way to make it more comfortable and more palatable for me, because it is—it is uncomfortable when you get into the specificity of saying “violence against black bodies,” right? Like that is—that is more painful and—
NS That’s radical [laughs] right. Right.
SWB And so—and so it’s like, oh. It’s—even if well intentioned, it’s like the effect is that it allows me to stay emotionally distant from the harm. And when I’m emotionally distant from the harm and I’m also not experiencing the harm because I’m a white person, I am much less of capable of doing anything about it or interested in doing anything about it. And that that is like—the way that that functions, it ends up being, even if it’s well intentioned, it—it ends up reinforcing all of the things about white supremacy that we say we want to change, because we’re unable to call it what it is.
NS Yeah! I mean it’s a very important thing for all of us to realize that we need to talk about hard stuff better. We need a better framework for doing that. And when companies ask me my advice and they say, “Where should we start?” One of my first bits of advice is, “Normalize a conversation around race.” I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone into a company and even when I say “black” and you can see people—like, I have one client, I’m done with them right now, but I had one client, and the CEO of this company, who was white, could not bring themself to say “black,” to describe somebody as black. Because it had been so ingrained in this person that recognizing race was somehow rude, and was somehow racist in and of itself, rather than just being a descriptor. But that’s about the value of the word that you’ve been taught, not about the value of the actual fact that I am brown. And if someone says, “Oh I didn’t even recognize that you were Latina!” I’m like, “That’s not true. Don’t say that.” [Sara laughs] Like, you know, like oh nobody—you just can’t be like, “Oh describe Serena Williams.” “Oh well she’s a tennis player, she’s a very strong woman, she’s tall, she’s very, very muscular, she’s very—” I’m like, “Yeah Serena Williams is black!” Like, you have to be able to say it because there’s no—there’s nothing wrong with that word. And so we have to work on there being nothing wrong with that. And what I’ve noticed a lot in working with white folks is that they need permission and coaching on how to start saying the precise words. They know them. You know them. You know that somebody is black. But you may say, “Gosh, am I supposed to say ‘African American’ or ‘black’?” And so that by the time it comes out of your mouth, it sounds unnatural because you’ve overthought and now you, whoever, the white person in the equation, has made race an issue by tipping their hand to the other person and going, “Oh ok. I see.” You don’t even know how to start this conversation. So I talk to companies about normalizing a conversation on race, because if you can do that, there’s nothing harder. 81 percent of millennials do not want to talk about race in mixed company because it just goes off the rails so fast. You need strong facilitation. You need a framework. You need good reading material like Ijeoma Oluo’s So You want to Talk About Race, which is mandatory reading if you care about this at this point. And in so doing, anything else that comes up to people who have—to a diverse group of people who have wrestled with a conversation on race—nothing is scarier than that in the United States. No conversation is scarier than talking about racial backgrounds and in mixed company.
NS [Continued] And for people of color the anxiety comes from like, “Ugh! Who’s going to—who am I going to have to decide I can’t trust anymore?” [Chuckling] Right? Like, “I don’t really want to know that you’re secretly struggling with these things, because I really like you and it’s just easy to go out to lunch with you,” and that’s the calculus that a person of color might be doing on the—on the light end. On the heavy end it’s like, “Am I safe here?” And a white person may be going to the calculus of, “I don’t want to inadvertently offend somebody. I don’t want to hurt any feelings. I don’t want to sound like a fool. I don’t want to make a mistake.” And that’s generally the calculus that’s going on in the room. So if you can actually help people get good vocabulary and use precise language, like I think—“I think this company is racist.” “Ok. You think this company is racist. Tell me how you saw that show up. Is it showing up across all—all groups? Are you seeing it specifically targeted at groups? Is it showing up on—you know, socially? Is it showing up in compensation? Tell me why you think this company is racist,” and helping people get to many levels below that so that we can actually unearth—like to keep talking about digging up, I just imagine digging stuff up and like tossing it out. Once you’ve dug deep enough to find it and you can toss it out because it doesn’t serve you anymore, we have to have language be our guide on that. And we have to teach people how to mess up. And how to rebound from that. And be ok with the fact that this is hard and uncomfortable and you’re all going to be ok when we’re done with this conversation. Provided you have good facilitation. Otherwise the same people who always get hurt are the same people who get hurt in that situation.
SWB I love this so much. I—[NS laughs]—you know I mean it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about and trying to talk to people about is like, if we don’t do it, we will—whatever it is. If you don’t do it, you will stay bad at it. You cannot get better at something if you keep not doing it [chuckles] right? If you keep avoiding it, you will never get better at it, and this always be a conversation that you’re bad at having. And so you’re going to have to figure out a way to practice having these conversations. So but not everybody has realized that there are people like you who can maybe help their companies have these conversations. So what are the kinds of things you’re working on right now that some of our listeners’ companies might be interested in?
NS Oh thank you for asking! So we’re for hire: Vaya Consulting, vayaconsulting.com. One of the things that we’re launching in the fall is management training because rather than saying, “Ok we’re going to take on diversity and inclusion and let us train your managers about diversity and inclusion.” That’s not as helpful as saying, “Here’s how to be a good manager through the lens of inclusion.” And—and so we’re launching on that um in the fall and so anybody who’s interested, you can go to vayaconsulting.com/inclusive-management-training. If you just have a question you can write to email@example.com as well.
SWB And for all of you out there who don’t have like a company you run, but you’re interested in this topic, which I think is a lot of you, definitely check out Nicole on Twitter and on Medium, because I learn a lot by following her those places. Nicole, it has been so great to have you on the show today.
NS Thank you! Thank you! It’s been really nice to be here [music fades in, plays for three seconds, fades out].Fuck Yeah of the Season
SWB Hey, ladies, do you know what season it is?
KL What season?
SWB It’s fuckin’ summertime!
SWB I’m so hyped for summertime, even though I’m a little bit sad, because this is the last episode of Season 2, and we are going on a little bit of a summer vacation. But I’m also extremely hyped because we’re taking a summer vacation!
KL Yay! Before we put our flip flops on and walk into the sunset, can we just reminisce a little bit about maybe some of our favorite moments or favorite Fuck Yeahs?
JL Fuck yeah we can. You know what I really loved this season? Way back in Season 2, Episode 1, we interviewed Neha Gandhi and she said, “It’s Monday today, and what’s the one thing that I need to do in order to feel like I’ve really accomplished something meaningful by Friday?” And I loved that! I just think it’s so neat to set up your goals for the week. I’ve become really into using Evernote and planning out what I’m going to do this week. I stole this from my coworker, Matt, who’s like a really hardcore Evernote user, and it’s just like a really nice way to set up your week to be like, “What do I need to focus on now?” So I really, I really liked when she talked about that.
KL It’s nice because it’s also like you can deal with a week at a time. [Chuckles] It feels very doable.
SWB I mean I have a lot of to-do lists, but I’m not that great about being like, “What do I need to accomplish to feel good on Friday?” So have you been feeling like you feel more of a fuck yeah! on Fridays now?
JL It’s like my whole week, I feel like I have a general really nice roundabout view of and so I—sometimes I have to switch it. It’s not the same on Monday as it is on Friday. But by Friday I feel good going into the weekend, and I know I’ll be ready to set myself up. I set up a “What’s going to happen on Monday” also. So I feel ready, and it like really cuts that anxiety of Sunday of like, “Oh! What’s coming up next?” So.
SWB I do that week planning, too, but I think I what I need to add to it is something that is more on that like satisfaction end. Not just like, “Here is what my week is going to look like.” But, “Here’s how I’m going to feel when these things are done at the end of the week,” and use that as a little bit of that North Star throughout the week.
JL It’s definitely a prioritizing tool for me, figuring out, like, “What’s really the most important thing that I need to get done at this point?”
SWB Something I really loved that I think about a lot is this quote from Saron Yitbarek, where she was mentioning advice that she received from somebody else, who said, “I don’t believe in stepping stones,” and when I heard that, I was sitting in my office all by myself and I swear to God I fistpumped in the air [laughter].
KL That was very cool.
SWB It was very good to hear it and it felt so natural coming from Saron. And I think one of the reasons it really stuck with me—it’s not to say that sometimes stepping stones aren’t helpful or that everybody should think that way—but it was so refreshing and exciting for me to hear somebody just owning that they want to do big things and they’re not sitting around waiting. That they are not trying to take baby steps, that they are going to get out and makes things happen for themselves. And they were saying it in such a way—like the way that she said it was not aggressive, not like crushing it! It was just so confident and in control and I just loved it.
KL I mean I’m biased, but I loved having my therapist on the show. That was really cool and I know we’ve talked about it a bunch, but it was also really surprising to me that I had kind of a realization as we were talking to her, and that was really cool. It was when she was talking about how, you know, when you get sort of further along in therapy and you start to actually look at the relationship between you yourself and the therapist and use that as a tool for evolution of the therapy itself. I was kind of like, “Oh my god! My head is like exploding!” And it was really cool to have that happen on the show.
SWB I don’t think that it is selfish for you to talk about that episode, because that episode was really, really great for me, too! I thought it was so valuable and so wonderful to both kind of like take the veil off of the therapy experience, and also just to kind of like see you open up to the world and say, “Yup! I’m in therapy, my therapist is awesome! Here she is! And it’s the most normal thing in the world!”
KL Yeah. Yeah. It’s taken a long time but I totally believe that.
JL I also really loved that we heard about mentoring a lot this season from Sarah Drasner and from Lilly Chin, and just like different ways you can get into mentoring and how important that is [KL yeah] and that it doesn’t have to be something that’s like a lot of roadblocks to get into. You can mentor people and different ways to get into that.
SWB Something else I want to give a big fuck yeah to is not something that happened on the show, but it’s something that we started getting in our inbox. So, over the course of this season, we received a whole bunch of emails from people who wanted to suggest themselves as guests on the show. And apologies if we have not gotten back to you about that. We are definitely looking at topics and themes and what we really want to dig into over the next few months but we love you, and we really want to be able to say like, “Look: it is fucking rad to put yourself out there and to send an email that is like even suggesting yourself as a guest.” That is awesome and I definitely want to hear from anybody who thinks they’d be a rad guest on the show, whether we end up having a space for them or not.
JL Yeah I love these ideas of ways to put yourself out there because you don’t know until you try and so I just think it’s really cool. Plus I get to like learn more about what other people are doing, and what awesome things you all are doing.
KL So, one last thing I will just throw out there is that I’ve had a couple of friends separately say to me that when they listen it feels like there not just keeping up with me but they’re hanging out with me and hanging out with us, and that is so fucking cool. I just never dreamt that that would be an outcome of the show, and that has just been such a cool thing to hear. And I think about that every time we record now.
SWB I mean, I think that’s awesome, and I think it totally speaks to why we can have natural like fucking language like, you know? [Laughter] And it is—it is like hanging out with people, and so we are not going to lose that in this whole conversation.
JL I can’t wait till one day we have a No, You Go hang session with all of our listeners.
KL Oh my gosh! A No, You Go meetup!
JL Aaaah! Awesome.
SWB You know what I’m really waiting for? This will be my sign that we’ve made it: No, You Go fan fiction [Katel laughs]. Please and thank you.
KL Maybe like some fan art.
KL That would be cool.
SWB We are definitely. We are always waiting for fan art.
KL [Laughs] On that note, fuck yeah to Season 2! Fuck yeah to you both. And fuck yeah to all y’all who have been listening. It’s been so rad. We’re so excited to be here.
SWB And we’re taking a little break, but don’t worry: we will be back very soon. So look for new episodes from us in August.
JL And that’s it for this season of No, You Go, the show about ambitious—and sticking together. No, You Go is recorded in our home city of Philadelphia, still the Super Bowl champions, and produced by Steph Colbourn. Our theme music is by The Diaphone. Thanks to Nicole Sanchez for being our guest today. If you like what you’ve been hearing, please make sure to subscribe and rate us wherever you listen to our show. Your support helps us spread the word. We’ll be back in August [music fades in, plays for 32 seconds, fades out to end].
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