Today’s episode is all about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Bree had the pleasure to chat with Nicole Sanchez, EWMBA, class of 2012. She is the founder and CEO of Vaya Consulting, which offers best-in-class DEI, leadership, and culture consulting services for companies shaping the 21st century, primarily in technology and media.
Nicole has been doing DEI professionally for more than 20 years. In this episode, she shared her definition of diversity, equity, and inclusion and why creating DEI in the workplace became her passion.
This passion ultimately led Nicole to found Vaya Consulting. She started her own consulting company where she could go and do DEI on her terms and rules.
Furthermore, Nicole shared the challenges she faced when she began Vaya and gave us insights on how they carefully choose their clients. She also let us in on how they address wellness and mental health in their workplace, which is essential during this time.
Her definition of DEI in a nutshell
“Diversity is you get a bunch of different people together, and you focus a lot on race. Equity is how we disperse resources and make decisions that ultimately are fair and point us towards outcomes we want. Inclusion is how do people feel when they’re inside. It’s about shaping your cultural norms around the actual shape of the people who make up your company.”
Why psychological safety is currently her favorite entry point into DEI
“The most fundamental thing we need in a group is psychological safety. All people from all backgrounds want to feel safe. So, I start everything that was psychological safety. It fundamentally means that you’re able to take risks without fear of repercussions, that you can say things and try things and point out problems without fear of the floor dropping out from under you. That’s what it means in the workplace.”
What people can do/change to create DEI in the workplace
“No matter what organization you’re in and what your background is, no matter how involved or not involved you’ve been, there is a group of people of color in your company who is talking about this, whether it’s been formalized or not. Get connected to that group and find out what’s up. It’s the same thing as any community organizing. Somebody else is already doing this work and has a good lay of the land and connect with them to see what they’ve tried, what they need support with, and what you can do to help.”
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
Bree: What is going on y’all? You are listening to the OneHaas Alumni Podcast, and I’m your host today, Bree Jenkins. I have the honor and pleasure to be joined by an incredible educator and entrepreneur, Nicole Sanchez, MBA class of 2012.
I just heard Nicole’s name while I was a student at Haas everywhere. Local DEI champion, Nicole is your girl. She even created the diversity in the workplace class at Haas. Want to talk to someone who has worked in education, nonprofits, and tech? Nicole’s got you. And the most personal to me, looking for someone who can help review your case competition, Nicole’s feedback and contributions really helped us to get a win on that one. So, thank you, Nicole, and welcome!
Nicole: Oh, Bree, thank you. Thank you for having me. What a nice introduction. Can I just take that around with me and play it and be like, here’s the introduction I like of me. Here, listen.
Bree: I’m so glad you like it. Yes. So, excited to see you. Before we jump into your background and your time at Haas, I just want to check in with you, how are you doing? It’s a time.
Nicole: It’s a time, isn’t it? I am like everybody. I think I’m really tired. I ran some numbers the other day and in the last 12 months, I’ve been inside 40 companies. And I have led a conversation on race, specifically, race in America, specifically race in the workplace, once every two and a half days for the last year.
And my chief of staff said she ran those numbers and she said, no wonder you’re tired. I’ve been very fortunate on the physical health side of the pandemic that my family got away relatively lucky. And I chalk a lot of that up to luck, not all of it, but some of it up to luck. And on what those of us in the field of diversity equity inclusion called the great white awakening of 2020 that became an enormous emotional lift and I learned a lot in the last year, so thank you for asking. The answer is tired, probably like everybody who’s listening to this.
Bree: And especially, I know those who are working in this field too, there’s a different kind of tired that can be experienced. I’m curious about what is giving you energy and joy. It sounds like you’re able to keep your physical health up. So, what’s giving you energy?
Nicole: What’s giving me energy? Oh, there’s so many things. So, I think for those of you who know me, my kids are a big part of my life. So, I have two kids who are now young adults, they’re 18 and 21. And, God bless them. They, like many people who are at Haas and many people at UC Berkeley, had to move back in with us in the beginning of the pandemic with my husband and I. And you know, that’s never what you want to do when you’re 17 and 20 and trying to launch into the world and then someone yanks you back and goes, but you have to move back in with your parents. But getting another year or year and a half being really close to them has really (unclear) my, I don’t know my resolve or my just my energy.
And we moved out of Berkeley. We were some of those people who moved out to rural lands to get some space and some nature and some quiet. And that’s the other thing that I’m very fortunate to be doing that has absolutely made me and kept me healthier throughout this entire thing. Mentally, physically, all the things.
Bree: Definitely give a big shout-out to the outdoors. During this time being in California, I feel super lucky about that too, to go and hiking. I’m like, I just need to be outside. Give us some strength.
Nicole: That’ why y’all chose Berkeley.
Bree: Yeah. I was like, okay, where do I get mostly sun?
Nicole: And I remember one of my friends who went to I won’t say what school, but it’s a big one in the Midwest that starts with an M and she’s, yeah, it’s a big blue M and she goes, oh, we have tunnels to get from class to class. Why do you need tunnels? And she was like, why do you not know why we need tunnels? And I thought, oh dear God, thank you for letting me be from the Bay area. God bless you.
Bree: Let’s dive into Vaya Consulting and the origin story of your business. Where did it all come from?
Nicole: Sure. I’ve been doing diversity equity and inclusion work professionally for 20 – I just started my 28th year. And so, it was long before it was called diversity equity and inclusion. We called it lots of things. Pluralism, multiculturalism, cross-cultural communications. I didn’t ever, and still don’t really have a strong feeling about what we call it.
It’s really about building culture where anybody can have a fair chance at thriving. That’s basically it. Can we collaborate across differences to make something really cool happen? And can we do it with minimal damage to each other? And that was the inspiration for me, leaving college and stepping foot in my first big full-time job and realizing that this was not at all a place where I or others like me were thriving.
The first time I ever asked my manager for help because I was dealing with a coworker who was making me feel, I’ll just say some kind of way, because I didn’t have the words for it then. And so, it probably came out like he’s making me uncomfortable.
Granted, this is like 1994. And so, my boss just shrugged and said, oh, that’s yeah, you’re just going to have to deal with him. You’re just going to have to work around him. And I kept thinking this can’t be right. And if it’s right, then I think we made it to not be right because I don’t want my little sister who’s coming up behind me to have to go and deal with this in two years.
And I also came of age at a time of Anita Hill. And when we listened to and saw her testimony and now come to learn decades later that there was a line of women out the door who were trying to corroborate her story with their own stories and with what they witnessed and that it was shut down. And then, you know, she carried the weight of the world on her shoulders at that plate. And I thought, okay this absolutely cannot be the way we’re supposed to have to enter into the workforce.
And so, I didn’t know what I was doing other than that. Trying to find ways to make it more fair. And I did a lot of weaving in and out of organizations. I was an executive director of two nonprofits. I went back and worked at my undergraduate Alma mater running the ethics program over there. Got to do all these really interesting things but I kept coming back to the fundamental premise that I’m really interested in. How do we help a group of people who are from disparate backgrounds come together and make something good happen? With all of the trauma that we inherit, with all of the things that we learn about each other and experience about each other, we then put us into workplaces and go, okay, don’t let anything bad happen, go on, figure it out.
And we don’t give people a roadmap for what’s supposed to happen if you and I, from very different places, can’t see eye to eye on something and there’s friction between us and we’re not even speaking the same language even though we’re both speaking English. Like, what do we do? And this is the work, right? This is the work of helping disparate groups of people come together and collaborate.
I also am very agnostic about what they’re building. I prefer to go into social ventures. I prefer to not take on clients who do harm, I think, in the world. But ultimately, I was in all of these companies and realized I just have to, I just have to go do this in my own way, with my own rules.
And so, in 2014, I started Vaya Consulting and I named it, so, for those of you who speak Spanish, I named it Vaya Consulting because it sounds like Vaya con Dios. And it’s a sort of an inside joke. I didn’t think it would stick. And that’s why it’s called Vaya.
Bree: I love that. I was wondering, I was like, we have to talk about this Vaya.
Nicole: Yeah, that’s where it comes from.
Bree: What kind of challenges were you finding that you brought into your mindset as you began Vaya?
Nicole: A couple of things. One is that people used to tease me and tell me that I was like chicken little. But I was saying the sky is falling, the sky is falling, in 20 years. And I wasn’t saying the sky is falling. They thought I was saying diversity is going to come, especially racial and ethnic diversity, with millennials. It’s going to come and it’s going to be terrible. I was saying, Hey, everybody. Get ready. This is going to be amazing. And nobody believed me.
I felt like, and I know there were handfuls of people doing the same work, I wasn’t the only one by any stretch. But we didn’t do this with the internet at the very beginning. We had no internet. So, we were in our own pockets, figuring this out. And the thing that keeps coming back to me is the quote by Gandhi about first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
Because at the very beginning, I was just ignored. I couldn’t even get on a slate of a conference if I paid. And if I did get invited, I was put in this dinky little room that was like, three people. It was like the three black women at the conference would show up and it would be me and the three black women. And we will be talking about all the things that we already knew. And so that was the ignore.
Then they laugh at you. It’s an ugly point when folks started using the phrases like social justice warriors, right. It’s oh, you’re just (unclear) out here, like donkey Haute, they taking on these windmills, and don’t you know that capitalism isn’t going to allow you to do this and you all sound like you don’t understand business.
Bree: Does that mean that social justice warriors at the time was kind of derogatory? It sounds like it wasn’t positive.
Nicole: Oh, it’s still is in tech. It’s still a derogatory term, right? For, that’s not PC, we’re the PC police. And I’m like, I don’t care about PC. I don’t. I care about the fact that you are a large man standing over my desk, intimidating me. And I’ve got no recourse.
We can talk about politeness later but I need some relief from the bigger things. And whether you want to say black or African-American, we can dissect later. Right, now, black women in our company are suffering at an alarming rate and we are losing their talent. They are, they’re quitting our company because we don’t know how to retain them. And so, we get stuck on these things like, hey, everybody, let’s do unconscious bias training. I’m like for what? For why? You cannot un-train unconscious bias. You cannot train it out of people. So, what are you doing? There are 17,000 other way more interesting entry points into DEI.
Bree: Which entry point do you either use the most often or find the most effective?
Nicole: Lately, it’s been psychological safety. To explain to people that the most fundamental thing we need in a group, in any group, you can be the PTA, you can be the bowling league, you can be a high-tech company, right? You have to have psychological safety.
And whereas, let’s say three years ago, people would roll their eyes when I would say that. Now, I think because of the collective trauma we’ve been through, people go, yeah, I want to feel safe. And they know what lack of psychological safety feels like now. People from all backgrounds go, yeah, I want to feel safe. Even people who didn’t before. And so, it accelerated the conversation.
So, I start everything that was psychological safety which fundamentally means that you’re able to take risks without fear of repercussions, losing status, losing a job, losing an assignment, being looked at funny, having your job threatened that you can say things and try things and point out problems without fear of the floor dropping out from under you. That’s what it means in the workplace. And in order to do that, we need to build trust.
And so, then we talk about trust and that’s the place I feel like where people are their most human right now. It’s the first time I’ve seen collective agreement on something. Yeah. We want to feel safe. In all my whole career, that’s where I’ve been. That’s where I’ve been spending a lot of time.
Bree: And you talked about the companies that you work with. It sounds like you’re kind of industry agnostic, but you do care that they want to make an impact or at least that they want to change. Are there other factors that you’re looking for when you’re deciding to work with a company?
Because at this point, I think everybody’s probably knocking, like, hey we need this, can you help? And they all have different reasons and backgrounds. And so, I’m curious what are the things that you’re looking for when you’re deciding who to work with?
Nicole: Just to give you a sense of scale, our inbound business in 2019 looked a certain way. And by July of 2020, our intake was up 1500%. We physically couldn’t say yes to everybody but our default before that, because it was still so rare to get your teeth into a company with some real desire to move. There were big companies that didn’t want to move. So, the first thing we want them to do is say, do you want to move? Do you want to do this work? And I said yes to every company for the first, I don’t know, maybe four years. I said yes to every single company that knocked because I was still trying to figure out who’s serious about this.
And so, I took on some companies that would probably shock people because I thought if that’s a really well-known company that plays such a major role in the lives of so many people and they’re interested in changing, I’d like to be in there helping them change. And unfortunately, what I kept finding out was no, they didn’t. No, they didn’t.
And it doesn’t mean the people there didn’t want to, you know, inevitably I was talking to black and brown people mostly women, lots of LGBTQ folks. They’re going, we need relief. And if the leadership didn’t see that as a problem, see that as a talent management problem or a problem that would ever hit their bottom line or a problem that would ever hit the quality of their product, then it didn’t matter.
And then in summer of 2020, all of a sudden, they went oh, shit. And then our metric had to change for who we wanted to work with. We got to be choosier. That’s one thing that I feel very privileged to be able to do. Number two, we got to generate a lot of business for some up-and-coming practitioners and we prioritized consulting firms that were led by black women and they’re on our homepage and there’s a resource list that says here are black-led consulting firms, go with any of these other people before you call us because I’m just a regular old Mexican lady over here. And there’s more than enough to go around. So, we did that.
And then we got to where we’re able to get even a little more precise. Now, it looks like three things for us. Number one, do I have direct access to the CEO? And I used to really undervalue that because I was like, oh, I don’t need to talk to the CEO. I’ll talk to everybody else. And you’re like, yeah, but ultimately the CEO signs the final check. So, if I have access to the CEO, and that’s going really well. I’m surprised how well that’s going. The second is that we either think they can have a massive, positive impact or they are impactful in their sector. So, I spent several years working with GitHub, and GitHub was a place that was sitting in a spot to influence an entire sector. Tell you all that story someday. That’s a very interesting treasure chest of lessons.
And then the third thing for us, and this may sound funny but we really undervalued is do we like to work with you? Are you nice people? Are you listening to us? Are you taking our advice? Are you kind in your dealings with us? Are you flexible given all the way the world works? Are you interested in trying new things? Are you open? Can you be vulnerable with us? We have to be clear about what your standards are but we haven’t found a better way than saying their organizational culture works well with our organizational culture. And that’s the way we’ve said it in a nutshell, but we’ve got to drill down on that a little more. And that’s now how we choose our clients.
So, we’ve turned away some really big ones. We’ve taken on some really small ones. And if those three things are present, then we can help a company move pretty far.
Bree: I was hearing in that third one a little bit around, I love how you said are you are listening to us, but I feel like I’m hearing a little bit of like active listening. So, you’re repeating back or you’re showing that your mind can change, that you’re open to change, that it’s possible. I love to try new things, too. And there, what if we tried to do something, what are your interest levels? Because if we do the same things we’ve always done, we kind of just end up in the same place.
Nicole: That’s right. That’s right. And, they’re like, so we have book clubs and we have employee resource groups and I say, so what’s that got you in the last few years? And they’re like, what do you mean? You’ve of spent all this money on these programs that may or may not be impactful. You keep spending money on it and it’s not connected to anything bigger. There are no goals around it. There’s, you know, nothing. Why would you do that?
It’s actually insulting to DEI work to have everything be yes. And I tell my clients a lot that I am not interested in doing DEI work where everything is yes, everything’s on the table. Everything’s okay. We accept all things. The real work of DEI is where the boundaries where you say we won’t accept that. No, we won’t spend money on that. No, we won’t endorse that. The nos are way harder than the yeses. And that’s, I think that’s where the fun happens too. But I’m a nerd.
Bree: Similar. We got another nerd here on the call, too.
Nicole: Yes. Thank goodness.
Bree: I’m wondering about even as you say DEI, we’ve talked about it a couple of times, how would you define DEI? I feel like different people have different definitions. I just love to hear your perspective.
Nicole: Let’s see. I tend to define them carefully when I’m doing training with people. And I’ll dig into the definitions. Like with diversity, we talk about all the differences that we show up with all the infinite axis of characteristics that make up each of us. And we deal in the aggregate numbers and trends of predictability around who is going to succeed, who is going to make the most money, who is going to attain the highest levels of education, which is far too predictable on race.
And so, we talk about, yes, diversity is everything. And you have to understand that we’re looking at both the individual and the systemic patterns of what it means to actually try to make something more diverse. And if you shy away from centering race, you’re going to miss all the work.
So, one of the things that I used to see earlier in my career was companies would say, okay, we’re working on gender, which meant we’re a group of white men who are trying to add white women. That was it. Maybe we’ll let some Asian folks in. That’s really what their data looked like. And the thinking was we’ll start with white women, then eventually those circles will broaden so that we might be ready for a black transgender woman someday in the year 2100, maybe, and that’s not how you do it. We have to center those who are most vulnerable in a system. And right now, black trans women by race and gender have the lowest life expectancy in the United States, hovering at about 31 years old.
So, we’re talking to an extremely vulnerable group of people. And instead of designing things with them in mind where everybody benefits, when they’re well taken care of, we go, oh yeah, eventually we’ll get to you, and it’s too late. And so, we have to actually do the work of centering the margins and building around the people who are most vulnerable in the system because in this case, a rising tide lifts all boats. That’s how it works. That when black women are thriving in a system, the rest of us are probably doing okay.
Bree: I love what you talked about how am I thinking about the outcomes of the people who are most vulnerable. Let’s go back to DEI. So, we talked about D.
Nicole: So, we talk about the D of DEI, and of course, I went all out. So, the short version of the E is equity is not the same as equality. Equality means same. You give everybody the same, right, without consideration of context or the problem you’re trying to solve. With equity, we make decisions, resource distribution decisions, power distribution decisions, hiring decisions.
We get equity and equality confused. And so, let me give you a graphic example. You have a hundred dollars and you have 10 high school students, and your job is to get 10 high school students to a museum in downtown Chicago. 10 high school students to go to the Chicago Museum of fine art and I’m messing up its name and I apologize to people from Chicago who are listening, the lions and everything, the really cool one.
And you say you’ve got a hundred dollars to get 10 high school students. What we get really well-trained to do growing up in the states is to say, okay, 10 people, a hundred dollars, a hundred divided by 10 equals, $10. Everybody gets $10. What we are not well-trained to do is say, what’s the problem we’re trying to solve, and will a hundred divided by 10 actually do it? Well, no. You immediately, no, you can’t. Because the people who live the furthest away from the museum are going to pay the most to get there. And live the furthest and have the lowest income and tend to be black and brown.
So, you look at it and you go, oh, the kids with money who go to this school whose parents have apartments downtown can walk or they can hop in an Uber and there’s no skin off anybody’s nose. Someone else further away will be prevented from participating if we don’t give him $15 to make this commute. And in the bay area that’s like a real number. I don’t know what it is in Chicago, but roundtrip in the bay area, $15 is easy. Especially if you live in the far suburbs where folks are mostly black and brown, and you have to commute into San Francisco.
And so, we forget about these things. This is equity and we go what’s the matter a hundred divided by 10. And we don’t say what’s the context in which we’re trying to actually solve this problem. And that’s equity.
So, diversity is you get a bunch of different people together and you better focus a lot on race. And everything else is important, but you’re not off the hook with race. Equity is how do we make resource decisions, time, money, energy, mentorship, et cetera, et cetera, training. How do we disperse resources and make decisions that ultimately are fair and point us towards outcomes that we want?
And inclusion, the I of DEI is how do people feel when they’re inside. The only way you can measure inclusion is for me to say, Bree, do you feel included in this particular system? If you tell me yes, then I go, oh all right, there’s something really good happening there. I’m very interested to know why you feel so included. And if people say no, then it means there’s more work to do. And it’s about shaping your cultural norms around the actual shape of the people who make up your company.
It’s about getting ready for the ways that people show up. But you can’t know the 7 billion different ways that people would show up because we’re all unique. The most important part of inclusion is how do you react when you’re faced with new information? If you tell me that your identity is something that I don’t understand, my job in this culture is not to recoil. My job in this culture is to learn so that I can ensure I’m creating a space where you feel like you can achieve psychological safety.
Bree, you may have to edit that whole thing out because I am on one today.
Bree: I’m keeping all of that. I love it. Especially because I feel like it breaks down some words that we’re not always explicit about. And as you just talked about being explicit about the words that you use is important, understanding the criteria that you use, and how you’re coming up with information is important. So, that transparency and people know what we’re all talking about when we’re talking about DEI.
When you talked about inclusion, you said, I ask you, Bree, do you feel included in this environment? And I also ask you after that. So, for me there’s more work to be done even if you say yes, there’s not just yep, you feel included, awesome, check.
Nicole: Absolutely. We’re done. Right? And you go, what is going right? Tell me so we can make sure that we don’t defund the things or do away with the things that are actually mattering to you.
Bree: And you also talked about equity and using equity to get to fairness. I hear a lot of equal is fair. So, how would you answer to that if someone says equal is fair?
Nicole: I would say, what is the problem we were trying to solve? And in what context are we trying to solve it? And this is the part of working with companies that is so funny sometimes. And that when they start talking about equity in terms of ownership, suddenly the word equity means something totally different. It’s a completely different word with different rules when we’re talking about how many shares of a company do I own. And so, we use that word equity in that way, and then we try and apply it for people in ways that sometimes betray the logic of capitalism. The logic of shareholder value.
And we say, and I have fought this battle inside many companies, do you want to create two billionaires or would you like to create dozens if not hundreds of people who have never had access to generational wealth and put millions in their pockets and create real social mobility, right? For the people who have done the work, what is the difference if you get $200 million or $2 billion, what is the difference to your lifestyle?
And I actually asked the CEO this once. I was like, do you want a billion dollars or do you want to make 10 people a hundred million dollars? And then he was like well, I like ten. And then I was like, do you want to make a hundred people 10 million dollars? And he was like, oh yeah, that would be really great. And I was like name the people whose lives you’d love to change with $10 million in this equity. And of course, he’s naming people who we know come from low-income backgrounds, who are disproportionately black and brown, who are like, you know. Yeah, do that, man.
And I know that the thing that gets me in trouble sometimes when I’m teaching in business school or elsewhere is that’s socialism. I’m like, is it though? Cause we’re talking about one guy not getting a billion dollars. I thought the promise of capitalism was like shareholder value.
Look at the value you that can put in your shareholders’ hands and change the trajectory of families and neighborhoods. And I cannot tell you a single person who’s done it yet. And it’s really hard because when the money gets real and the lights turn off and that acquisition is there or that exit is there, man, people will sell whatever and grab what they can on the way out the door.
Nicole: It’s ugly.
Bree: There’s preservation it sounds like for their own families, which is also understandable. And doesn’t sound like it’s in line with what they say their intention is.
Nicole: That’s right. And I’m like, you want to play on equity? You want to brag about your company’s work on DEI? Do this. This is where you’ll actually show people. Don’t tell me your priorities. Show me your budget. I will tell you your priorities, period.
Bree: This is making me think about challenges and I was listening to you speak on a different talk and you were talking about how much you do like to be challenged where people give you feedback. What did you mean by that, Nicole? I’m curious, would you say there’s a good question someone asked you or it helped you to learn a bit or think more deeply about a topic or even a challenge you received?
Nicole: Yeah. I teach my own classes now. I teach advanced DEI for practitioners and DEI for engineering managers now through my own practice. And somebody asked me a question, one of the engineering managers, and she said, do you think the values of DEI are fundamentally opposed to the values of capitalism, and can they ever be reconciled. And for me, that’s the most fundamental question. And so, when people challenge the role of DEI in the industry, what like are you really trying to do? You’re talking about redistribution of resources, Nicole. And I’m like, yeah, but within the rules of capitalism, like fine, fine. You can call me whatever you want. I haven’t spent time wondering, I certainly don’t run around saying I’m a happy capitalist. I don’t claim to be a socialist either. I just think there must be a better third way that is not as extractive and exploitative.
And so, I think that for me is the hardest question. So, when people ask that, I have to be honest and say, I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s one that I think about daily. And at the end of the day, I still think, at a minimum, it’s still about harm mitigation, which is why I got into this work.
And if that’s what it did was ease suffering between here and there, because we have to go through this system then, okay, so be it. I’m okay with that, but it’s hard.
Bree: As a business school student and all the things that, the work that you’ve been in and also helping corporations, I feel like that question is probably at the core of it for most people. Yeah. I love that there just must be a better way. It feels like that question puts you at two polar opposites when you’re really like, there has to be something closer to better.
Bree: That’s not on the extreme potentially of either you’re completely exploited and that’s all, and certain people get all the wealth and others don’t get anything or everything is just completely distributed equally, actually not equitably, equally.
Nicole: Right. Right. Exactly.
Bree: Regardless of what people do, there has to be something.
Nicole: There has to be something more creative. I’m not going to get into it. I’m not going to piss off economists who listen to your podcast because you’re going to get some letters about what I was saying. Some emails about what I was saying. But I just ask people even if capitalism has been so good to you.
And it’s, you know, you’ve lived the American dream or you saw your parents live the American dream or somewhere else in the world and you’re really, like, you have to at some point in good conscience, say, this chain leads to exploitation somewhere. That’s how it’s built. This chain leads to exploitation, and it’s really hard to be free from that.
And can we at least be honest with ourselves about are we okay with that? How much harm? Who? How often? How terrible is it? Because none of us have, especially if you are at the managerial level of a private company in the United States, like myself included, we do not have clean hands on this.
And I just besieged us with all of our brainpower to go. Can’t there be a better way? I don’t know what it is. And I will leave that to other people who have other expertise to tell you what they think the better way is. But I know far more people who capitalism has hurt than has helped.
Bree: Thanks for sharing about that. It’s something that goes in my mind all the time. And also, with anything, I’m like when I buy this product, who does this impact, and I don’t think about that enough. And am I ever-changing my behavior based on that? And if I never am, how much do I care? So, sometimes that feels bad, but also, I can’t go around calling myself a good person if I’m not thinking about other people.
Nicole: Yeah. If I’m honest, this is, okay, I’m talking to you with AirPods in my ears. I am well aware of being in it. I also don’t remember a time when I got to choose whether or not this was the economic system I wanted to be part of.
There’s a VC who said to me, I don’t know how many years ago, I was in his office, it was in a big Sand Hill Road office in Menlo Park. And we went in and he wanted to pick my brain about diversity equity inclusion. So, this was like three or four years ago. And he goes, Nicole, you’re very good at what you do. And I said, thank you so much. And he said, just one problem. And I said, oh no. He goes, I’m just not sure you’re much of a capitalist. And I was like was that (overlapping words).
Nicole: Was there a menu? Was I supposed to check a box?
Bree: Right, yeah. I’m in this system and I’m trying to just make this system better
Nicole: I was like, oh, you mean that’s like a thing that you feel like you are.
Bree: Yeah. I heard that you’re someone who cares about making sure that people are able to work well together creatively.
Nicole: Minimal damage. Minimal damage.
Bree: So, speaking of damage, I do want to get to wellness and mental health. Because sometimes I need a break. I need to breathe. How could I be effective in this work that I try to do every day without taking care of myself? What does that look like for you, and then for people who you work with?
Nicole: We have one value at Vaya Consulting is that we go at the pace of good health. It’s our only value. We know we value diversity, equity, and inclusion. We know we value doing high-quality work. Those things are clear since we started, but those things still aren’t as important as we go at the pace of good health.
And so, when someone needs to say, hey, I need to slow it down from where I am, it’s really interesting when you ensure that people have that power and you are true to your word and you don’t ever go, oh man, right now? And you really go, okay, we’re closing ranks around you do what you need to do. That’s the response.
First of all, people don’t abuse it. But the trick is to get them to still take the maintenance time. So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed if this is too much if this is whatever, you absolutely raise your hand and we slow it down. The harder part is maintenance, and that’s been the hardest part for me as well.
And so, one of the things that we’re trying to do now, and that I’m advising a lot of clients on is we’re adding two managers one-on-one templates agendas to talk to every single person, not about will you take time off, but when are you next taking time off? We are proactively getting into the habit of ensuring that people are taking the time that’s allocated to them.
Now, this creates an HR issue, which, you know, it’s a technical HR issue that we can talk about later in so far as people use their vacation times as savings accounts, basically, and they never take their vacation times. On the other hand, you’ve got lots of tech companies where they say you have unlimited PTO, which basically means we’re never going to tell you when you’re doing something right or wrong. You just better hope you don’t take too much time. But people actually err on the side of not taking enough.
And so, working with people to figure out what is a good cadence for each of the people that you manage to ensure that they have downtime built-in. It’s like, you don’t have to go on vacation, but you have to take your days. It’s like the bars close. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here. So, how are we building that into our actual workflow so that I can tell you, okay, Bree, every third week you have a three-day week and that’s how we go. And it’s my week, this week. And it’s your week next week.
Whatever’s going to work for your team and the deliverables that you have, we’re not actively building in rest into project management. And I’ve been working really hard on making sure that it’s peaks and valleys. Think of it like a sign wave, the way nature moves, right? The way water flows down a hill if you let it. The way sound moves, it’s like up, down, up, down. And people can do that, especially if they know that after a big up, they’re going to get time to recover. And for some people, it’s like mountainous and a drop and mountainous and a drop. And for some people, it barely fluctuates, but nobody can work without rest.
And so, how do we figure rest into the actual management of your time is interesting to me. And then I think God bless millennials, God bless y’all. Seriously, you all brought talk of wellness and the ways in which you all were keeping yourselves well into the workplace, in ways that I had never seen. Sometimes it would be, it would have been like, yeah, we have a gym, and you’re like, oh, I’m never going to the office gym. And now, I’m like, wow, you’re right. Several of you are yoga instructors. And isn’t it nice when we go outside and everyone does, whoever wants to, does yoga? That’s such a better way of promoting health, just doing it with each other, like just doing it and making it a normal course of the day. We’re going for a walk, who wants to come? Great. And they’re not freaking shaming people who don’t go, you know? It is not about body size is not about endurance.
Nicole: One of the most impactful things I ever saw my team do was build an employee resource group that had a private chat room that was for mental health, questions, support. And it was very clear the level at which that group could handle versus, hey, we think you need to have some additional help.
And we kept it away from HR. Like they were consenting, but we kept it away from HR so there was no conflict. And people behave, when you put parameters on it, people will use a resource like that really well. There’s community moderation, there were rules, right, code of conduct, all of that stuff. And people would come in and form relationships in that conversation that you never would’ve seen happen anywhere else.
I remember in one case, as somebody came in and said, I’m really nervous to be here but I’m supporting my partner who is really struggling with mental health. I’m here at work but every day I’m worried about whether or not he’s okay and what’s happening. And the amount of peer support that they were able to offer and the normalization of talking about the realities of mental health and how it plays out in our lives, both our own mental health and our families and friends around us, like the normalization of it, seriously, I put that right on millennials as well. God bless y’all for making that normal. Thank goodness.
Now, Gen Z is gonna come kick all our asses. You’ve got Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles being like, oh, this is so not worth my brain breaking over this.
Bree: If I’m broken now, then how could I possibly be doing anything else I want to do, the company wants me to do, my friends want me to do, my family wants me to do. I can’t live my life, so no, it’s not worth it.
Nicole: Isn’t that the first thing you learned in operations theory that you can’t run a hundred percent of your machines at a hundred percent capacity a hundred percent of the time? Humans are not machines but it’s the same damn thing.
And yet we’re like, okay, perform at this level, all of you all the time, without any downtime to come offline for maintenance. We know this about machines and yet we don’t apply that simple logic.
Bree: What would you ask or even challenge our listeners to do, to create those kinds of workplaces that you care about, those workplaces where we’re causing minimal damage? What is one thing that you would ask people to do, ask people to think about, or challenge them to try?
Nicole: I would say, no matter what organization you’re in and what your background is, and no matter how involved or not involved you’ve been, there is a group of people of color in your company who is talking about this. And they’ve been talking about this, whether it’s been formalized or not, whether there’s been official talk of diversity, equity, and inclusion, whether it lives in HR or somewhere else, get connected to that group and find out what’s up.
It’s the same thing as any kind of community organizing, and I’m not talking about unionized and stuff like that. Although sometimes that’s really important. I’m just saying somebody else is already doing this work and has a good lay of the land, and connect with them to see what they’ve tried, what they need support with, and what you can do to help.
And then as soon as you can get professional support, it doesn’t have to be Vaya Consulting, it doesn’t have to be me, but to bring in an external expert to shortcut some of the stuff that you’ll have to do, like sorting through the brainstorms of how do we get DEI moving in this company.
There are tried and true methods. There are things that will work and things that will not help. And I usually work with like DEI committees and other groups on things like, you know, we do the grid and it’s like low impact, low cost, high impact, low cost. We want high impact, low costs, you know, all four quadrants.
And so, let me show you what high impact low cost looks like. Because why would anybody know this? This is not their area of expertise. It’s my area of expertise. And I can tell you, don’t do an internship program right out the gate. Please don’t do that. It’s an easy mistake to make. And an internship program is a surefire way to get everybody’s so frustrated about DEI. It’s a good pipeline mechanism, but it’s not necessarily great for DEI. You need an expert to tell you that. Just as if you were to revamp your entire financial software system, you would bring in someone to help you make sense of it.
Do the same thing, project manage it. Get an expert in, help you sort yourselves out, and that’s how you can do the work. Just make sure you bring in that external expertise sooner rather than later because it gets more expensive the later you bring somebody in. And so, if you do it up front, then you can be pointed in a direction that’s that can be really impactful rather than going the security.
Bree: All of us can get started with looking at those groups who are already trying to make a change, figure out how we can support, and then helping to build out what does this look like in an organization and how do I bring in those experts, and really being thoughtful about who those experts are. Thank you so much, Nicole. Thanks for this time together.
Nicole: Thank you.