Watch the full webinar here, or read the transcript below.
I’d love to hear a little bit more about how you moved from working in DEI in academia to now.
I actually started my career as a 9-12 grade English teacher in Atlanta, Georgia. And that was the first time that diversity, equity, and inclusion became a part of what I did for a living. I started with professional development workshops for my fellow teachers about building belonging in the classroom for students and their unique needs.
We worked in underserved communities, so really understanding what our students needed and how the classroom could be a safe haven for them in order to learn and get some amazing work done. That was where I got the bug to start DEI understanding and diving into the literature.
Then I went and got a master’s in higher education. And the emphasis of that program was social justice. So I really started reading Audre Lorde and Bell Hooks and all the greats, around understanding how social issues and issues of racism and sexism and all the isms and the systemic discrimination really impact our lives.
Then I worked at NYU and Cornell University and worked with students, but also helped faculty and staff understand how we embed DEI into what we do.
Then I made the switch over into tech. And one of the reasons why is that I just felt like the tech industry deals with some of the same issues that higher education does, or academia does. I was really putting more effort, in my opinion, into the work of understanding inequality and putting in the resources for us to really begin to try some things and do some things in order to remedy some of these generational issues that we’ve been experiencing for quite some time. So I had the energy and I said, it’s time for me to make a pivot. I want to get in on that excitement of changing things.
Not to mention that a lot of these tech companies are impacting the way we live our lives. When you think about 15, 20 years ago, we weren’t allowing people into our homes while we were away on vacation through Airbnb, right? We weren’t putting our lives up on Instagram and Facebook. So these tech companies literally changed the way we navigate the world. I thought if we could get these companies to understand diversity, equity, and inclusion, imagine how else we could change the world through their influence.
I know one of the things that I’ve seen is that tech companies, Headspace Health specifically, have been really promoting diversity efforts. A lot of them are, and have the ability to be, what we think tech companies are: agile and progressive. And they can do that because some of them don’t have the long history that other companies have and the challenges of steering that ship.
But I also know that some companies, while they may talk a good game about their diversity efforts and wanting to do great things in the world, sometimes it’s harder for that to happen in action. What have been some of your experiences in coming up against some of the challenges that have been there in order to make these changes?
I think you hit on something that’s really important and something I’ve been talking about for a number of years now that there is a difference between appreciation and an understanding of why diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging are important, and actually doing something about it.
With many clients I’ve worked with, with many organizations I’ve worked for, when you get in and start doing the work, there’s this disconnect like, wait, I know we said we wanted to do this, and this is kind of this utopia that we’re trying to create, but I didn’t know we had to do that in order to get there.
It’s like, yeah, we have to change the way we do things. We have to institute systems and processes and ways of thinking in order to reach that vision that we all agree that we wanted to get to. So there is a disconnect between what we want to be and how we act, what we have to do, and actually to get there, which to me is one of the biggest barriers.
I liken it to, I want to lose weight, right? I’m not in the best of shape. So I’m trying to get back into the gym. I hired a trainer. I know I need to do it, but the action it takes to get there, I’m like, oh, I don’t know that I can do that. I have to change my eating habits, but I love ice cream. I know I need to do these things to get to that vision that I’m looking for, but when it actually comes time to do it, I make up all the excuses as to why.
And I think that’s exactly the same way that we’re seeing within organizations across different industries. There is a complete disconnect. And I do believe that there are many people, many leaders, who, in theory, believe in the vision that we keep talking about, but when it comes time to do certain things, because it requires us to, to relinquish privilege, to relinquish power in order to make it happen, that’s where we really get into a lot of trouble. Because people fear that and what that means, and what change looks like. So I think that’s a big barrier to our true success in making advancements in this area.
What we’re talking about today is really those parallels between DEI and mental health. Do you see some of the same challenges in changing people’s minds or getting people on board for mental health as well?
Oh yes. I think that the barrier around mental health alone is that the organization, like DEI, doesn’t understand its role in the issue. Many organizations, many leaders, are of the mind that their job isn’t to be social justice warriors, their job is to make business. They lack the understanding of how DEI intersects with that work. As stewards, as people within this society, as organizations situated in a community, where we oftentimes displace people with the building of our buildings and making housing expensive, there’s a DEI issue or DEI intersection with how we do business.
I think it’s the same thing with mental health, understanding that we want people’s personal lives to be so outside of the work. We don’t understand that those things don’t leave or sit at the door when we come into the building or come into the virtual Zoom room.
I think workplaces are trying to understand what our locus of control is and where our responsibility is to support mental health. Is it just benefits? Is it just providing really good healthcare so people have access to therapists and coaches and things of that sort?
I think that’s the struggle that I’ve seen is, how far do I go as an employer in being involved in the mental health of my employees? And I think the conversation that we’ve seen is that the impetus for the mental health concerns isn’t just happening outside the workplace, it’s happening in the workplace. As a black, queer man, I’m not just dealing with racism and homophobia outside of the workplace. I also deal with it in house as well.
The workplace is a part of the situation and therefore has much more, or needs to have much more, involvement in how we impact the mental health of the people who work for us.
It speaks to the fact that work has become so integrated in our lives, especially as so many people have transferred to working from home. Those boundaries aren’t very clear. Especially for us who have come out of this millennial generation where we want our work to be meaningful. We want to be passionate about what we do. So our work does really become part of our identity. It becomes even more important to have those things taken care of in our workplace, as well as our home life in the room, to be able to have that balance.
Yeah. To create the situation where if I need to go run an errand, go to the eye doctor, take care of my health, go to the gym, go for a walk, that I work for a culture that allows me that space to actually do that.
To be honest, I think that we’ve always had work integrated into our personal lives, even before the pandemic. It’s just now been brought to light. We spend more time at work with our colleagues than we do in our own homes with our families. That’s always been the case.
Now, we’re home more, because we’re not commuting and physically leaving our spaces. But work has always been a major part of our lives. Now we’re really understanding it. And people are like, whoa, wait a minute. There’s a major imbalance here between how much time I spend on the job, how much I earn, my career advancement, and the quality of life that I’m living. I think people are really starting to figure out, no, that’s not what I want anymore, and that’s, what’s making this such a big topic in my opinion, but it’s always been there.
I think too, that awareness of that very issue is a big reason why there’s been so much push from younger generations to really make these changes. In a lot of places, these younger generations that are coming into the workforce are big drivers of change organizationally, even though they may not have the power of being an executive or being in senior leadership. It is really fascinating and great to see.
Speaking of changes in the workplace, Headspace Health is a merger between Headspace, a meditation technology company, and Ginger, a therapy, pure mental health company. I know that both companies, one, had a passion for diversity and inclusion and, two, have a strong passion for mental health and desire to make changes of how we approach our mental health and how we treat our mental health. What it’s been like to bring those two teams together, because on the one hand you have a lot of alignment, but on the other hand, whenever you do that, there’s going to be challenges and things that come up that make those kinds of changes difficult.
Absolutely. I think anyone listening or watching this who have been through an acquisition or a merger, understand how difficult it is to bring two companies together because you have different systems, you have different processes, you have different ways of going about the work that require you to really sit down, listen to each other, and understand where each side is coming from in order to bring together into one entity.
One of the biggest challenges was you had strong identity on both sides, and neither identity really wanted to lose itself in creating this new organization. So we had to really take, in my opinion, from a DEI perspective, pieces of both sides of this merger to say, how do we come together to make this new thing that is representative of who both organizations are, or were?
There’s lots of conversation and dialogue and active listening, which can be a challenge in a space where you constantly want to move, move, move. But really taking the time to go, no, we want to make sure we’re doing this writing, that we’re listening to our people and listening to even our customers around, what their needs are and infusing that into the new identity, which is Headspace Health.
Then also recognizing that whatever DEI work we do needs to ladder up to the overall business strategy, because it needs to be embedded into the strategy. So allowing our C-suite leaders to do their work and to create the vision and the values around how we do what we do.
Then taking that work and understanding, how do we lay over DEI into every area of this in order to make sure that it is woven throughout and not just something that is happening tangentially, or parallel, to the business strategy, but really embedded into it.
Figuring all that out and wanting to move was a big challenge, at least for me, I’m a little impatient. But I really had to step back and go, no, we have to make sure we’re doing this right, and make sure that we have everything in place to be able to do it right.
Some of the more tactical things that were challenges were just merging of our systems. You have employees in one database, employees in another database. In order for me to understand what our workforce looks like and where we have some areas of opportunity, that data was critical. So getting to a point where it was all together was a big challenge, but we’ve overcome it. We have a great team of people that I work with and are really helping to bring Headspace Health to life as one big entity.
I was really pleased to see how Headspace Health is continuing this focus on integrating DEI and mental health. I’d love to hear a little bit about how you’re really thinking about building it into the product and bringing it into people’s lives in that way.
I think one of the major things is representation. We know that when it comes to finding a therapist, when it comes to finding a coach, when it comes to really consuming media in general, people are craving representation, seeing themselves, because it helps them feel like the person that they’re working with or listening to understands their unique experiences. So we’re paying close attention to the diversity of our therapists, diversity of our coaches, and the diversity of our meditation teachers. And really looking at how we build in that diversity. And reaching the people who we’re currently not reaching through meditation, and recognizing that there are cultural barriers that prevent groups from accessing and talking about mental health first and foremost. So having someone who looks like them, who is representative of who they are, is one of the steps in helping to develop authentic relationships with the communities that we want to serve and continued representation of the communities that we currently serve. That’s really important for us.
I think the other thing is the quality of care, and really having conversations around making sure that our therapists and our coaches are experienced and educated in being able to support various populations like LGBTQ individuals, trans individuals, people with disabilities, and people at different stages of their life.
Having those resources there makes sure that we can meet people where they are at, through their very unique situations, and help provide the best quality services that we possibly can. We’re very human centered. That’s the phrase that we talk about all the time, like a human centered approach to everything that we do.
We also try and do that internally. Looking at our engagement surveys, how our employees are being impacted by the work and through the business so that they can show up in their best way. We’ve implemented various things for our employees to make sure that we’re also taking care of them, and we’re always in conversation around what else that might look like in order to really show up for them as they show up for our customers.
What I think what representation does, as you said, is it really builds trust. The different communities, especially in those places where you’re trying to bring something new, and bring people into an area that they may not have experienced before, that trust is so important to building that connection and helping people to feel safe and comfortable.
Yeah. Having that representation and then having the content to back it up. The representation is one thing, but if I see another black man or, or a black woman, or a Latinx woman, or Asian person, that gets me to come into the app and go, wow, there’s someone there who looks like me, but then the content also has to exist that represents my unique situations as well. So we’re also thinking through what is that content that will speak to those experiences too. But that can be hard.
It’s one thing to say, this is what we want, but when it comes to the reality of sourcing talent and finding the right people, how do you guys go about making sure that those goals match up with what actually happens?
I think for us, and with any organization, it really has to be about understanding where we are right now. And going back to that data, where are we currently? And then what are the systems, and the culture pieces, the processes, that might be barriers to us having a more diverse workforce? Or more diverse representation in the app? What are the systemic reasons that might exist that prevent us from advancing in that way? Without an understanding of that, and a willingness to do things differently, we’ll never achieve the level of diversity that we’re trying to achieve.
I think that’s one of the barriers that many organizations struggle with is, in theory, yes, diversity is amazing. We want it. Absolutely. But when it comes down to looking at the real nitty gritty of where are we now? How did we get here? What were the systems and the decisions and the attitudes and the cultures that got us here? And what are those same things that are preventing us from getting where we actually said that we want to be? That’s super critical.
So we’re looking at, for example, from our talent acquisition standpoint, what are the partners that we need to have? What are the actual steps in the systems that are currently in place that need to be switched out? We’re training our managers and we’re getting ready to launch an inclusive hiring training about what that looks like.
Then there’s accountability. How do we hold managers accountable to actually following that process? We have a vice president for talent acquisition who’s all about holding people accountable and really doing the hard work of saying, no, we cannot move forward with that process because look at your pipeline. Look at how are we reaching out to the communities that we know your team lacks in order to make sure that we’re creating an equitable opportunity for folks from different backgrounds to be able to join our team. So being willing to say, nope, we can’t move forward until this is right. That is a hard decision to make. And that’s how we are really putting our flag in it to say, this matters to us. And we’re willing to pause in order to get to it.