Melinda Briana Epler, CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How to Be an Ally: Actions You Can Take for a Stronger, Happier Workplace joins the program to discuss what people want and need from allies, why allyship is vital for business, and how people become better allies in our workplaces.
To read Melinda’s “The State of Allyship Report: The Key to Workplace Inclusion” visit https://ally.cc/report.
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
Doug Foresta: Hello, Will to Change listeners. Want to join the Beyond Diversity Book Insider Family? It’s easy to do. Visit jenniferbrownspeaks.com and go to the tab that says Books. Click on that, you’ll see a dropdown for Beyond Diversity. That will take you to the landing page where you can enter your details to join the Book Insider Family and get early access to exclusive updates and invitations to launch events. Again, that’s jenniferbrownspeaks.com. Go to the tab that says Books and the dropdown that says Beyond Diversity to sign up prior to the book’s launch on November 9th, 2021.
Melinda Briana Epler: In terms of where to start, you start with where you are, right? Don’t try to go from 0 to 10. Don’t try to go from A to Z in one motion. Start at A and work from there. So if you’re trying to change an individual behavior, you need to understand where they are on their journey. If you’re looking to help them become a better allies, work them in becoming a better ally, are they in the denial stage? Are they in the observer stage? Are they an advocate? And so, that really matters in how you support them. The second thing is you need to know what their motivation is, what their entry point is to this work. Everybody has their own motivation. And it really isn’t until they tap into that, that they’re really going to fundamentally shift.
So what we found is we just released a State of Allyship Report, where we researched how people learn about allyship, what motivates people around allyship, what people want from their allies, and also the business case for allyship.
Doug Foresta: Everyone has a diversity story, even those you don’t expect. Get ready to hear from leading CEOs, bestselling authors, and entrepreneurs as we uncover their true stories of diversity and inclusion. And now, onto the episode.
Hello, and welcome back to The Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta. Before we begin the intro for today’s episode, I want to remind you that the next round of the DEI Foundation’s 6-week online course for inclusive leaders begins October 12th. And to learn more and enroll today, text DEIFOUNDATIONS, all one word, to 55444, and use the coupon code PODCAST for 20% off.
This episode features a conversation with Melinda Briana Epler, she’s founder and CEO of Change Catalyst. Melinda is a strategic diversity, equity, and inclusion advisor for executives, entrepreneurs, investors, and activists around the world. As part of her change-making work, she is an inclusive leadership coach, trains executive and management teams, and builds learning and development solutions for clients. She is also the author of the book, How to Be an Ally: Actions You Can Take for a Stronger, Happier Workplace, and the host of the popular, Leading with Empathy and Allyship Podcast. She’s a Ted speaker, award-winning documentary filmmaker, and former marketing and culture executive. And you’ll hear later in the episode about the report by Change Catalyst called the State of Allyship Report: The Key to Workplace Inclusion. To access that report, visit ally.cc/report. Again, that’s ally.cc/report. And now, onto the episode.
Jennifer Brown: Melinda, welcome to the Will to Change.
Melinda Briana Epler: Thank you. Thank you. Excited to talk with you.
Jennifer Brown: I am too. I am too. We had your wonderful partner on, Wayne Sutton, about… Gosh, I think maybe six weeks or two months ago. It was in August ahead of his Icon Summit, which focused on mental health for black and brown men. Not to start with that, because this is all about you today, but I wanted to direct our listeners to understand the Melinda ecosystem.
Melinda Briana Epler: He is. Yeah, that’s very important. He’s a very key piece of my ecosystem.
Jennifer Brown: He is. And you, his. I know. I know you are. And you’re just one of my favorite couples to connect into to be inspired by how much you learn from each other, how much you inspire each other. Your own thought leadership has probably just taken a quantum leap through your conversations and what you’ve learned from being together and supporting each other, going on this journey together.
So anyway, we will talk about Wayne today. But I want it mostly to be about you. Congratulations on your book. So everybody, we’re going to be diving into Melinda’s book called How to Be an Ally. It is available now, and recently came out. I was at your launch event and it was just one of those like family reunion for people who love you and appreciate you. And I felt really inspired that we’ve stayed in touch and been a part of each other’s journeys and kind of cheering each other on to tackle this topic. Because there’s just hasn’t been traditionally a lot written on it. And even still, I think between you and me, we could probably count on two hands, maybe even one hand, the number of books that focus on this very important topic. So thank you for the hard work you put into this. Yeah, I know book writing is just no joke.
Melinda Briana Epler: Indeed. I had no idea.
Jennifer Brown: You had no idea? I warned you.
Melinda Briana Epler: Oh, yeah.
Jennifer Brown: You probably got a lot of warnings.
Melinda Briana Epler: You did. You did. Yes.
Jennifer Brown: But you fought through, and it’s out in the world. And even in the pandemic where… And some of our listeners may or may not know this, but authors who published in the pandemic are facing all kinds of supply chain challenges.
Melinda Briana Epler: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jennifer Brown: You were just telling us about distribution problems. It’s frustrating to do all that work, and then know or be told that it’s not in the place as it should be. But life is long. And you probably have a lot more books in you too as I would guess.
Melinda Briana Epler: Oh. Yes, I do. Yes, several in my head already.
Jennifer Brown: It is addictive.
Melinda Briana Epler: After having just gone through that [inaudible 00:06:21] again.
Jennifer Brown: I know.
Melinda Briana Epler: But I do believe that there’s a real power in putting words in frameworks out there to help people, really, to develop the change that they want to create.
Jennifer Brown: Absolutely. And I think if you’ve got it in your head, it definitely needs to get onto the page and then into people’s hands because we all learn in different ways. You’re right. The book… Somebody may never watch your Ted Talk. And by the way, I would point everybody to it because it’s great. It was probably… Part of the Genesis of all this too is sort of the reaction you got.
Melinda Briana Epler: Yeah, it was actually.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah. So anyway, Melinda. Okay, we’ll get to all that, but tell us anything you’d like to share about your own diversity story. You go into this a little bit in the book, but what would you like us to be grounded in about you, who you are, why you’re passionate about this, like how that evolution came to be for you? That you would now be an author and sort of dedicating your life and your professional life, certainly in personal life to this topic.
Melinda Briana Epler: Yeah. Well, I have always… And first off, thank you for all of those wonderful things that you said. I really have appreciated our friendship and our own mutual allyship, really, as we can work to create change together.
Jennifer Brown: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.
Melinda Briana Epler: So yeah, my work, my focus on in life really has always been since I was pretty young to create positive social and environmental change. I spent the first many years of my life really figuring out how to do that. From high school, I was… I was in high school during the Cold War, near the end of the cold war, and created a sister school with the school… It was Pakistan, which was then part of the USSR, to bridge peace. I’m just kind of have always been really focused on creating change. And in college, I really sought different ways to create positive change in the world and study cultural anthropology, comparative literature, and also environmental science.
And also, that was really a big moment for me when I was… I think my first year in college I was walking across the of Washington Campus and came across a group of black students with a megaphone. They were angry about how they were being treated in society. I sat and listened to them for a while.
I grew up in Oakland and then in South Seattle, both of which were very diverse places at the time, and had a wide diverse group of friends from many areas of the world, many areas of the country. Different cultures, religions, and so on. But it wasn’t until I happened upon that group of students that I kind of had this aha moment. They were talking about everyday racism that they were experiencing. That was kind of a moment for me where I was like, “Well, they’re just complaining. They’re just complaining.” And then I sat and listened to more and I realized, “Oh, wow, I have been taught by society that we’re in a post-racial society, but we are absolutely not.”
And so from then I continued to really investigate and look at the inequities in the world and use… I went from cultural anthropology into filmmaking ultimately. I was a filmmaker for 10 years, using the power of storytelling to create social and environmental change, and worked on a number of documentaries from HIV aids crisis in South Africa through a lot of climate change related work and climate equity related work. And then moved into creating behavior change campaigns using storytelling and behavior science with Fortune 500 companies that were doing social impact work with NGOs and government organizations working to create change.
And eventually made my way to become an executive working with a international engineering firm in San Francisco. I was doing work. I was the head of marketing and culture. I was also doing behavior change work within a big healthcare system using the power of storytelling and behavior science to really create change around social impact and reducing waste and water consumption, and a number of kind of environmental different environmental energy related outcomes.
I found myself in a very non-inclusive environment at that company. I was the only woman on a leadership team of 19. The culture wasn’t created for me. It wasn’t set up for my success. I was facing little everyday spikes. Every day. Every day. Over and over again that were wearing me down, little microaggressions, little biases that people had about me that ate into my ability to do my work well and also to really thrive in that workplace ecosystem.
I had hit a real low point. I thought it was me for a while. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t effective in this… I’ve done all this work and been so successful in my career and then kind of hit a wall or a ceiling as one might say. And started to read about workplace culture, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and microaggressions. And I realized I was in a really toxic workplace culture with microaggressions.
That was a big aha moment for me where I realized that I couldn’t thrive in that company and we needed to create the change in our workplaces in order for the change to really happened through our societies. We need leaders who are diverse. We need leaders who are able to thrive in the workplace. And so, I worked to create change in that company, but really wanted to create bigger change ultimately in the whole tech ecosystem. So I hired people to kind of continue to work to create change in that company. And then I left to start Change Catalyst and founded that with Wayne Sutton. Bringing it back to Wayne.
Jennifer Brown: Yes, back to Wayne.
Melinda Briana Epler: Yes. Wayne and I… Wayne is working on diversity, equity, and inclusion for a long time in the tech ecosystem as a founder working on accelerators, and founded the first accelerator for black entrepreneurs. Together, we decided we wanted to create big change in tech and has since kind of moves beyond tech. But at the beginning, we started a tech inclusion conference. Really bringing people together to focus on solutions to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Really driving change across the ecosystem by developing some best practices and some kind of reducing the silos that people had at the time to bring people together rather than reinventing the wheel in silos. Bringing people together to talk about what was working and what wasn’t working, and really developed some best practices as an industry. And then from there, we continued to do our tech inclusion events. Now we do a lot of training and executive coaching, leadership training, management training, and still do some events as well to work to create change.
Jennifer Brown: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Oh my goodness. I really learn so much from you listening to the winding road of your story. I have so many questions. I guess one is your understanding of how behavior change happens, how humans respond to challenge and discomfort and what do we need to set up to encourage and support human behavior change. I guess, when you think back to how you used to understand it in other realms and then how you understand it now, I’m curious what has changed in your approach? Or what is particularly perhaps challenging or nuanced in terms of generating something like more allyship? Which is I know what you and I desperately want. But I would imagine your depth of understanding of how change happens has probably deepened and broadened, and also probably been very challenged by the particular realm that we work in now, because it just always feels to me like it’s a masterclass in change management, you know?
Melinda Briana Epler: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jennifer Brown: This whole conversation about DEI is like the ultimate test for how people change.
Melinda Briana Epler: Yeah. Yeah, I would say that it has deepened and broadened both. I will say that I used to do a lot of environmental related behavior change, and it’s not any easier.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah.
Melinda Briana Epler: It’s not easier.
Jennifer Brown: Right.
Melinda Briana Epler: There’s different. It’s different. And there’s a little more, I would say, interpersonal toxicity that can happen as a result of diversity, equity, inclusion behavior change. But overall, it’s hard to create behavior change. It’s hard to move people to change their behavior over time. And so, what I would say is that when we’re looking at wanting to create change, we have to look at multiple levels and know that at each of those multiple levels there’s a science behind it. So there’s the individual level of behavior change. And when we first want people to change, often the default is to say, “Well, we’ll just make them aware, and then they’ll change because the ones that are aware, they know that they need to change. And so they’ll just change,” right?
Jennifer Brown: Of course. Yes.
Melinda Briana Epler: And that’s not how it works. I mean, when you tell somebody to stop smoking, they’re not going to stop smoking, right? I mean, they go through a series of internal changes that create that behavior change ultimately. There’s different models for that individual behavior change.
We’ve kind of worked to create that model of allyship where really understanding where people are along the stages of allyship, we call them. And it starts with denial. I was in denial. I just talked about how I walked across that University of Washington Campus and I was in denial, right? Many of us are in denial unintentionally and unconsciously, perhaps. We need to move beyond denial. And then we observe first. We kind of start to see well and test the assumptions that we’ve now made to make sure that they’re real, that they’re aligned with our values.
And then the next stage is to learn. Actually, a lot of people get stuck learning around allyship, and that’s where we need to go to really push people toward action. Then, people take small actions to begin with. They don’t suddenly create systemic change as an ally. You start with very little things that you can do, the easiest things that you can do. Maybe that’s mentoring. Maybe that is saying to somebody, “You know, that word doesn’t sit right with me. I have learned that that is a word that can cause harm. Here’s what you should do differently.” But each person has their own kind of entry point. And then gradually as we take more actions, we become an advocate. And then we might become an accomplice where we’re taking even further steps toward change. Some of us like you and I have become activists. We’re really dedicating our lives to create change.
So that’s kind of the individual behavior change. Then there’s the organizational behavior change in our models. There’s a science behind that as well. That there’s individuals within this organization. And organizations also go through stages. So we call those stages of inclusion. It’s really important to look at that whole system of the individuals within that system and the whole system itself to really create the change throughout organizations.
Then there’s also the ecosystem. Just for an example, in tech we have problems in education that are leading into workplace issues, right? And so we have to look at that as a system. We have problems in venture capital, which also works into the workplace, because in venture capital, there’s so many biases there of who gets invested in. What kinds of companies get invested in? Who are the leaders in those companies? And it’s perpetuating the same issues that are in our workplaces. And so, there’s really a systemic problem across the industry as well.
Jennifer Brown: That was beautifully laid out. So just to reiterate, it’s individual transformation that we’re going after, it’s org transformation, and then it is the ecosystem that feeds those two systems. And it’s all of those pieces together. And if we kind of solve for one… We have to be solving, I think, for all of them at the same time because they all inform each other.
Melinda Briana Epler: Right. Yeah.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah. And sometimes I’m asked what do I… Don’t you love those sort of impossible to answer questions? I’m sure you hear like, “Where do I start?” Where do we start if we have to prioritize? And it’s hard to answer because everything is tied to everything, and everything is predicated on other things and also dependent on them. And also, we have sort of an entire system that I would say is unaware or in denial of its dysfunction, right?
Melinda Briana Epler: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely.
Jennifer Brown: They’re like, “Jennifer…” Or, “Melinda, where do we start?” I know you’re asked that. And you’ve been looking at tech for a long time, which I mean maybe you can answer it in the sense of tech, because tech has gotten really, I think, bad rap. And I don’t know if that’s changed. Maybe you’re seeing some bright spots or a lot of bright spots about tech. But maybe if you can tell our listeners a bit of why tech has become like this example of the systemic problems and maybe what not to do. Or maybe like good faith, but failed efforts. I don’t know. Sort of being cautious around what gets measured gets done, which can backfire.
But yeah. I don’t know if there’s a particular question in all of that, but wherever you want to go with the questions of, where do you recommend people or organizations or ecosystems start to change. And then maybe tell us a little bit about the status of tech these days.
Melinda Briana Epler: Yeah, sure. Well, in terms of where to start, you start with where you are, right?
Jennifer Brown: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Melinda Briana Epler: Don’t try to go from zero to 10. Don’t try to go from A to Z in one motion. Start at A. Start at Level 1, right? And work from there. So if you’re trying to change an individual behavior, you need to understand where they are on their journey. If you’re looking to help them become a better allies, work them in becoming a better ally, are they in the denial stage? Are they in the observer stage? Are they an advocate? So that really matters in how you support them. The second thing is you need to know what their motivation is, what their entry point is to this work. Everybody has their own motivation, and it really isn’t until they tap into that, that they’re really going to fundamentally shift.
So what we found, we just released a State of Allyship Report where we researched how people learn about allyship, what motivates people around allyship, what people want from their allies, and also the business case for allyship. And so, we’ve learned a ton from that. We had some assumptions that were debunked essentially from our own research. [inaudible 00:24:00].
Jennifer Brown: Oh, wow. Like what? What was one?
Melinda Briana Epler: Well, the number one thing that people want from allies… Actually, there’s two that are close, first and second. “Build my confidence or courage” and “Trust me.” I would not have expected that. I would not have expected that. I would have expected that it might be “Hire me” or “Refer me for a job” or “Refer me for promotion” or something. But it was the very basic level of “Trust me” and “Help build my confidence and courage.”
I also learned that people’s motivations, the number one motivation for allyship is fairness and justice. Business success is one of the lowest on the rankings. So a lot of times, companies will really focus on the business part of it. Well, managers, they have all of these outcomes that they need for their work and business outcomes that they need for their work so we should align allyship with those business outcomes. Well, that’s not actually why they’re motivated to be an ally. So we need to be aware of that, right? They’re motivated by fairness and justice. Some are motivated to be a good leader. Some are motivated by their partner or their colleagues. But businesses class is pretty far down there.
So what are some other ways that we can tweak our training, tweak our language, our awareness building so that it is more aligned with people’s actual values on us? It’s really important.
Yeah, as an organization, the saying “Meet yourselves where you are” if you’re at the very basic level of understanding diversity, equity, and inclusion, start there. Or start with a basic understanding and leveling the organization so that you all have some common language that you can use and move from there. Don’t start with unconscious bias training.
Doug Foresta: Hello, Will to Change listeners. Want to join the Beyond Diversity Book Insider Family? It’s easy to do. Visit jenniferbrownspeaks.com, and go to the tab that says Books. Click on that, you’ll see a dropdown for Beyond Diversity. That will take you to the landing page where you can enter your details to join the Book Insider Family and get early access to exclusive updates and invitations to launch events. Again, that’s jenniferbrownspeaks.com. Go to the tab that says Books and the dropdown that says Beyond Diversity to sign up prior to the book’s launch on November 9th, 2021.
Melinda Briana Epler: Yeah. So to answer your question about the tech industry, I think that one of the… There’s a few reasons why it’s such so spotlighted. One is it’s so bad.
Jennifer Brown: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Melinda Briana Epler: One is that it also is such a ubiquitous part of our world tech. And so many companies are tech, and tech is so much a part of our lives that it really has a huge impact on our lives. And so, we have a very non-diverse group of people in general developing products for the entire world. And that’s dangerous. So that’s one thing that’s also increasing the wealth gap in our country and in our world considerably as the diversity and inequities in hiring and in paying in the tech industry permeate throughout our society. There’s a growing wealth gap as a result.
And then the third I would say is that tech grows so fast. That very quickly a company will grow from two people to a thousand people. And when you do that, you rely a lot on your own networks. And because as I mentioned, the venture capital has so many biases around what founders get funded, those founders tend to be white men, young white men without disabilities. Usually straight. And so, because they’re going so fast, they’re really relying on their own networks to hire people quickly. So they hire people like them. The people that like them continue to hire people like them. And so it kind of perpetuates very quickly, very rapidly within the space. In a few years, you’d go from two to thousands of people in a tech company. That doesn’t happen so much in other industries generally. It’s also the disparity is growing rapidly. The impact on us all is growing rapidly as well.
Jennifer Brown: Thank you for that description. Speed is the enabler of bias as I always think about it, you know?
Melinda Briana Epler: Yeah.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah, when we are under pressure, we go back to what’s comfortable, to what we know, to whom we know. And that tends to be in our own image, unless you’ve really done a lot of work on diversifying and your practice at noticing yourself, being attracted to what’s familiar and comfortable. So it’s just really particular. And then the exponential potential for harm is like you outlined, is so staggering. And so I, for one, am really happy that there’s such a strong light on the tech industry as this bellwether, but also this extremely problematic potential… I mean, real result actually, but potential result down the line if we do not create it well at the core and at the beginning. Because it just ends up scaling, right?
Melinda Briana Epler: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely.
Jennifer Brown: And that’s when it gets really scary and the harm sort of magnifies and goes exponential.
Melinda Briana Epler: Yeah, there-
Jennifer Brown: Yeah, go ahead.
Melinda Briana Epler: There are so many tech companies that don’t start at the beginning, that wait until they’re about to scale or have already scaled. It’s so much harder to turn around that big ship than it is to start the ship off in the right direction in the first place.
Jennifer Brown: That’s right. I know. And you and I can say this endlessly, but I just feel like it continues to happen.
You know, one of my favorite guests, I don’t know if you know him. Do you know who Adam Pisoni is, who was a co-founder of Yammer by any chance?
Melinda Briana Epler: No, I don’t know him. I know of him, but I don’t know him.
Jennifer Brown: Of him? Yeah. He sold, I think to Microsoft, for an unbelievable amount of money.
Melinda Briana Epler: Okay.
Jennifer Brown: But I had him on the podcast to like… Gosh, he’s one of my first guests. He was starting an education startup. This was his next project. He really was extremely strict around how that founding team was created. He literally said, “I have told my team I am not even interviewing… Do not let into the pipeline anyone that looks like me or identifies like I do.” Like literally, just drop the gate and said, “If we are not relentless and religious about this, we will end up… For every one resume that’s not a white guy, there’s 40 or 50 or 100 resumes that are going to come in of white guys. If we’re just not really, really, really intentional right now, we are going to create problems down the line.”
And of course, in his sense, with his startup and the nature of it, it was especially important because it was an education advocacy company. But I mean, imagine if the stakes were perceived as that high on product development teams, right?
Melinda Briana Epler: They should be [crosstalk 00:32:07].
Jennifer Brown: On technology, engineering. They are… Right. Exactly. Perceived as that pressing, because you’re right, where you set your compass in the early days… If we say like begets like, I might argue that when I see a diverse team, a visibly diverse team, I maybe am sitting here as a recruit or somebody who’s interviewing and I might say like, “Hey, this is a place for me” I really want to be in that environment because I think I could do my best work because I see that it’s important to them.
So it just felt… I wondered how unpopular or unusual that kind of hard line is. I don’t know if you have any experience of anybody doing that, but I almost feel like we have to do that to correct for the gap. I don’t know how else we’re going to get, where we need to go from a representation standpoint to really address this without some really hard line takes like that. But I feel still that there’s this casualness about the stakes and sort of a… Well, there’s the meritocracy argument that always gets sort of used as an excuse to not do anything. Ugh.
Anyway. So I wondered if you’d seen some radical leaders saying “I’m not okay with just letting this kind of flow and hoping for the best. I’m going to do something really concrete about it”?
Melinda Briana Epler: There are not very many.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah.
Melinda Briana Epler: Not very many. I mean, the one thing I will say about the co-founder of Yammer is that he’s set in terms of money, right?
Jennifer Brown: Exactly.
Melinda Briana Epler: And so, do you need that cushion in order to make a decision like that? No.
Jennifer Brown: No. Melinda, that’s so true because I said, “How do your VC funders view this?”, right?
Melinda Briana Epler: Yeah.
Jennifer Brown: And he said, “Well, I just told them I’m not going to be on their timeline about it.”
Melinda Briana Epler: Right.
Jennifer Brown: But I thought to myself, “That’s easier for him to do.”
Melinda Briana Epler: Because he’s the co-founder of Yammer. Yeah.
Jennifer Brown: Exactly. Exactly.
Melinda Briana Epler: Yeah. He can do that as a white man, right? Isn’t he?
Jennifer Brown: Yep. Yep. Yes, he is.
Melinda Briana Epler: Yeah. As a white man who is… He’s got a track record. He’s positioned in a way to take a risk that other people don’t feel that they can take. So I would say that. And I am saying that some co-founders of successful companies in the past are taking bigger risks. Alexis Ohanian. I talk about him in my book.
Jennifer Brown: Oh, yes.
Melinda Briana Epler: He was a client of ours when he was still at Reddit. After George Floyd was murdered last year, he stepped down from the board of Reddit saying that he wanted it to be filled by a black person and his board seats. It’s awesome. I love him for doing that. And also, he is also a person that it’s easier for him to do that than maybe some other people. And I’m glad that he is. More people who are in that position need to use that privilege and make a change.
So, yeah, I think there’s some new funds that are focused on only founders with underrepresented identities. And that is really, really great to see. That has a fundamental shift. I will say if you asked me earlier what has fundamentally changed in tech, and that is one of the things, is I am seeing a focus on investment. It’s still small funds. It’s still not enough, but it’s better than it was. It’s a movement in the right direction. And that’s really exciting to see, because I think that a big piece of the systemic change is when we start to make different decisions around investment.
Also, some investors are starting to look at their portfolio companies and saying, “Hey, the data shows that if y’all are hiring more diverse talent, you’re going to be more successful, which is better for us,” right?
Jennifer Brown: Yeah.
Melinda Briana Epler: And so, a few are starting to work on their-
Jennifer Brown: A few.
Melinda Briana Epler: … portfolio companies as well in helping them to develop more diverse, equitable, inclusive companies. We’re actually working with some accelerators and venture capital firms to help their startups to develop more diverse, equitable, inclusive startups from the beginning. So that’s exciting too. That’s just starting to happen.
Jennifer Brown: Oh, I’m so glad to hear that. I can just envision though that the funds need to then have diversity around the table in order to understand even what the barriers are to make sure they’re influencing their ecosystem as effectively as they can, right? And that’s been a world with a major representation problem, not just in the portfolio companies but around the investment table also. Yeah, I mean, it’s sort of you start to pull the twine, and the ball starts to unravel.
Melinda Briana Epler: Right?
Jennifer Brown: Right. There’s no dearth of opportunity. That’s for sure. It’s everywhere you look.
Melinda Briana Epler: And you know, this change is going to be overwhelming. Where you start is where you can start.
Jennifer Brown: That’s right. That’s right. Yeah.
Melinda Briana Epler: You have to affect the change within the sphere that you can change.
Jennifer Brown: That’s right. And part of what gets in the way of allyship is, “I don’t know if it’s enough” or “I don’t know how to influence the system.” I think there’s a lack of understanding of how to wield the power that I have. Privilege, power, advantage. Those are synonyms for other words like access, like influence, right? Like network. Like Capitol.
Melinda Briana Epler: Influence. Exactly.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah. Years in my work, I think, is so much these days about letting people know that allyship can flow in this 360 degree way. And not just can, but should. And that each of us has access to something that we can be activating to challenge whatever is, like you just said, within our sphere of influence.
But unfortunately, I think we came into this moment of the last couple of years feeling like allyship was this binary, like “I have all the privilege and you don’t” or setting up this sort of savior, knight in shining armor sort of thing saving the day. There was a lot of misconceptions about this concept. And I think your book goes a long way towards saying all the different ways we need to look at this term. But it did kind of get a bad name to the point where some people were like, “Well, I don’t like that word,” you know? And I always found that response really interesting because they were getting hung up on the word and not really focusing on the importance of the concept.
Melinda Briana Epler: Yeah.
Jennifer Brown: But yeah. So anyway, I wondered, did you wrestle with what to call it? Because I know I did when I wrote my book, and I got tons of different feedback. But in the end, it is a word I still use a lot. But I wondered if it ever crossed your mind to say, “Do I call this book How to be an Accomplice? Do I call this book How to be an Advocate?” Words are powerful. We have to deal with, I guess, the baggage that words come with as educators. So I wondered if you had to take on that.
Melinda Briana Epler: Yeah, I do. I do. I do think that in diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice work, we argue a lot about words. And sometimes I do believe it’s important because sometimes the language might just not be bright, now that we have more knowledge and more information. And sometimes I think we argue about the words, argue about the words a little bit rather than to argue about whether there’s efficacy behind the actions. And that’s what I think is so important. And so yes, a lot of people will say that… Well, not a lot of people. There are people that will say that the allyship, we shouldn’t say allyship. Allyship is just performative. Well, it’s performative because so many people don’t understand how to take action around allyship, how to take true deep action. So rather than change the word, let’s change the action.
People will say co-conspirator, or accomplice, or advocates. All of these things actually I think are forms of allyship. Each of those is as a greater form of allyship. To be an accomplice, there’s only so many people who are ever going to be an accomplice. An accomplice is somebody who breaks the rules, right? We’re not all going to break the rules. We’re not all going to break the law to change the systems. We need people to do that, but not everybody is going to do that. Some people remain advocates.
We’re really focus on advocating for change. We’re really focus on advocating for each other, making a difference in each other’s lives. And that’s important too, right? We need that. We need that. We also need allies. We also need people to stand up and not be bystanders, but to be upstanders and to really make a change when they see something. Say something and do something. That’s important as well. So I really think that yes, and I use the term ally because I think that is a good term and is a powerful term.
Throughout history, allies have gone to war for each other, have fought side by side next to each other. This is not a light thing in our history. And sometimes we don’t approach it with enough depth, but that doesn’t mean we should throw away the word. We might.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, I love what you just said. That was so beautiful and such a great answer to redirecting us to focus on what really matters. But words do matter, for sure. I’m not saying that they don’t, but there’s a flavor and sort of a connotation to each one of these that has to be a different energy.
And I also think it’s sort of choose your own adventure as long as you’re going somewhere, as long as you are choosing one. I think not choosing one is not acceptable, but the work can be slow, it can be private. Work on ourselves to kind of enter this and start to consider ourselves in the system and how to use our voice. And a lot of that for some of us just needs to percolate. The point though is, I always say, to keep moving. Don’t percolate so long that time sort of passes you by.
Melinda Briana Epler: Right.
Jennifer Brown: And also, allyship is developed… We say, it’s a verb, right? It’s developed through practice. It’s developed through trying, failing, trying again. And who’s to say fail? I don’t even love that word. I think it’s try, get feedback, adjust.
Melinda Briana Epler: Right. Right.
Jennifer Brown: Try again. And also recognition. I’m sure you talk about this in the book, although I’m not quite through it all. But perfection. Just watching out for some of these things we do to ourselves, where we hold ourselves to these really high standards of somehow knowing everything that we really don’t, that we, for whatever reason could be denial, could be a lack of exposure, could be a lot of things that I don’t think we should shame or blame ourselves for but we have been shown now over the last year and a half. Especially of course, you and I know that we’ve been being shown for since the beginning.
But I feel like once we have really seen what we’ve seen and been told what we’ve been told over the last year and a half, it’s hard to imagine that not sitting with and generating empathy, which then needs to turn into action of some kind. And it can be slow and small and incremental. It’s going to feel awkward and uncomfortable, but it’s just eminently doable if we kind of… We only have the healthy kind of pressure, I guess, right? That pressure that you felt leading up to your Ted Talk, I’m sure.
Melinda Briana Epler: Oh.
Jennifer Brown: Which is “Uh-oh. This is coming up, and I feel terrified. And yet, I’m doing the work. I know it’s going to go fine.” The important thing is you got up on that stage and you did it, you know?
Melinda Briana Epler: Right.
Jennifer Brown: So I do think though the push we need to give ourselves, the push we need to provide for each other and the space created for learning awkwardly and perfectly but doing it together and having that grace for each other as learners, because I always say there’s not a single one of us that was not a learner at some point. And yet, sometimes people these days act like they have it all figured out and they’ve never been on the other side of having assembling. So I also say that [inaudible 00:45:17].
Melinda Briana Epler: Yeah. And we’re all on the other side in some ways. Nobody’s a perfect ally for everyone. And we’re all still learning there. So I also think that’s important. But allyship really extends to multiple different identities and intersectionalities.
If you’re a good ally, if you’re a good accomplice, if you’re a good advocate, if you’re a good activist, you’re always learning and you’re always growing. The language is changing. People are changing. Hopefully, the amount of people that we want to step up and be allies for, or accomplices for, or advocates for is growing. And as a result, we need to keep learning.
Jennifer Brown: That’s right. That’s a beautiful note to end on. I want to make sure, Melinda, that everybody knows that you have a report coming out, State of Allyship, and that is…
Melinda Briana Epler: Yeah.
Jennifer Brown: So folks, if you’re listening to this, the report is/or will be out shortly. So make sure you pick that up because that will probably have a lot of the distilled wisdom from this amazing thorough book that I’m looking at. I mean, if you can pass something along, people love those sorts of papers. You know this. I know, Melinda. I’m just saying this more for our audience. That if you can put something in people’s hands that’s a quick read where it is going to create the aha moments, it’s going to frame the opportunity and encourage people and equip them with something to do immediately, which I’m sure your writing always does, Melinda. Everything you produce does that beautifully. But consider everybody allies need encouragement. And often I think people are allies without even knowing they are being one and imagine what would be possible if that became intentional.
Melinda Briana Epler: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jennifer Brown: And if more people talked about their journey and had the words for it, and then we’re role modeling and walking that and then others were seeing it and saying, “Oh, that’s what it looks like. I can do that,” that’s the force multiplier that I think you and I are talking about, which is, not just normalizing but usualising is my preferred word. Usualise this and say, “This is part of leadership. It is a leadership competency to do this well.” And it is not just important now, but in the future. To be any kind of effective leader, you’re going to have to be an inclusive leader. You’re going to have to investigate this concept for yourself. No, one’s going to give it to you. No one can do it for you. You know?
So anyway, I want everybody to check that report out. And of course, do not miss the book, How to Be an Ally. Melinda, I know you’re just so active on social. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention what a wonderful voice you have in social. So where would you direct people?
Melinda Briana Epler: Well, actually, the place I would direct you where you can find my social as well, all my social channels, is melindabrianaepler.com. Melinda, B-R-I-A-N-A-E-P-L-E-R.com, because that has all of the book and the social channels. Also, the report, you can find at ally.cc/report.
Jennifer Brown: Yes. Please, please, everybody go and check it out. Melinda, thank you. I’m grateful for you and this volume that is going to be the textbook. I’m really grateful you went through what it took. I’m sure during a pandemic of all times, to get this out. I would say everything’s going to be easier from here, but yeah, I definitely don’t know if I could promise that on the book writing front. But I think you might agree each time we undertake this, it’s such a labor of love and it’s something that needs to come out of us and get into the world. This book is going to shift a lot of energy in the world. It’s got to feel really good. And I want to say congratulations. And thank you for joining me today.
Melinda Briana Epler: Thank you so much. Thanks for this conversation. And thanks for all you do in the world and making the world a better place, and all the work that you do. Pushing people to do more and be better humans and better leaders.
Jennifer Brown: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely. I’m right there with you. Thank you, Melinda.
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