Melinda Epler
1,273,410 views • 9:37

In 2013, I was an executive at an international engineering firm in San Francisco. It was my dream job. A culmination of all the skills that I've acquired over the years: storytelling, social impact, behavior change. I was the head of marketing and culture and I worked with the nation's largest health care systems, using technology and culture change to radically reduce their energy and water use and to improve their social impact. I was creating real change in the world. And it was the worst professional experience of my life.

I hit the glass ceiling hard. It hurt like hell. While there were bigger issues, most of what happened were little behaviors and patterns that slowly chipped away at my ability to do my work well. They ate away at my confidence, my leadership, my capacity to innovate. For example, my first presentation at the company. I walk up to the front of the room to give a presentation on the strategy that I believe is right for the company. The one they hired me to create. And I look around the room at my fellow executives. And I watch as they pick up their cell phones and look down at their laptops. They're not paying attention. As soon as I start to speak, the interruptions begin and people talk over me again and again and again. Some of my ideas are flat out dismissed and then brought up by somebody else and championed. I was the only woman in that room. And I could have used an ally.

Little behaviors and pattern like this, every day, again and again, they wear you down. Pretty soon, my energy was absolutely tapped. At a real low point, I read an article about toxic workplace culture and microaggressions. Microaggressions — everyday slights, insults, negative verbal and nonverbal communication, whether intentional or not, that impede your ability to do your work well. That sounded familiar. I started to realize that I wasn't failing. The culture around me was failing me. And I wasn't alone.

Behaviors and patterns like this every day affect underrepresented people of all backgrounds in the workplace. And that has a real impact on our colleagues, on our companies and our collective capacity to innovate. So, in the tech industry, we want quick solutions. But there is no magic wand for correcting diversity and inclusion. Change happens one person at a time, one act at a time, one word at a time.

We make a mistake when we see diversity and inclusion as that side project over there the diversity people are working on, rather than this work inside all of us that we need to do together. And that work begins with unlearning what we know about success and opportunity. We've been told our whole lives that if we work hard, that hard work pays off, we'd get what we deserve, we'd live our dream. But that isn't true for everyone. Some people have to work 10 times as hard to get to the same place due to many barriers put in front of them by society. Your gender, your race, your ethnicity, your religion, your disability, your sexual orientation, your class, your geography, all of these can give you more of fewer opportunities for success.

And that's where allyship comes in. Allyship is about understanding that imbalance in opportunity and working to correct it. Allyship is really seeing the person next to us. And the person missing, who should be standing next to us. And first, just knowing what they're going through. And then, helping them succeed and thrive with us. When we work together to develop more diverse and inclusive teams, data shows we will be more innovative, more productive and more profitable.

So, who is an ally? All of us. We can all be allies for each other. As a white, cisgendered woman in the United States, there are many ways I'm very privileged. And some ways I'm not. And I work hard every day to be an ally for people with less privilege than me. And I still need allies, too.

In the tech industry, like in many industries, there are many people who are underrepresented, or face barriers and discrimination. Women, people who are nonbinary — so people who don't necessarily identify as man or woman — racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQIA, people with disabilities, veterans, anybody over age 35.

(Laughter)

We have a major bias toward youth in the tech industry. And many others. There is always someone with less privilege than you. On this stage, in this room. At your company, on your team, in your city or town. So, people are allies for different reasons. Find your reason. It could be for the business case, because data shows diverse and inclusive teams will be more productive, more profitable and more innovative. It could be for fairness and social justice. Because we have a long history of oppression and inequity that we need to work on together. Or it could be for your kids, so your kids grow up with equal opportunities. And they grow up creating equal opportunities for others. Find your reason. For me, it's all three. Find your reason and step up to be there for someone who needs you.

So, what can you do as an ally? Start by doing no harm. It's our job as allies to know what microaggressions are and to not do them. It's our job as allies to listen, to learn, to unlearn and to relearn, and to make mistakes and to keep learning. Give me your full attention. Close your laptops, put down your cellphones and pay attention. If somebody is new or the only person in the room like them, or they're just nervous, this is going to make a huge difference in how they show up.

Don't interrupt. Underrepresented people are more likely to be interrupted, so just take a step back and listen. Echo and attribute. If I have a great idea, echo my idea and then attribute it to me, and we thrive together. Learn the language I use to describe my identity. Know how to pronounce my name. Know my pronouns — he, she, they. Know the language I use to describe my disability, my ethnicity, my religion. This really matters to people, so if you don't know, just ask. Listen and learn.

An executive told me recently that after doing allyship on his team, the whole team started to normalize calling themselves out and each other out for interrupting. "I'm so sorry I'm interrupting you right now, carry on." "Hey, she's got a great idea, let's listen."

Number two, advocate for underrepresented people in small ways. Intervene; you can change the power dynamics in the room. If you see somebody is the only person in the room like them and they are being belittled, they are being interrupted, do something, say something. Invite underrepresented people to speak. And say no to panels without underrepresented speakers. Refer someone for a job and encourage them to take that job and to take new opportunities. And this one's really important — help normalize allyship. If you're a person with privilege, it's easier for you to advocate for allies. So use that privilege to create change.

Three, change someone's life significantly. So, be there for somebody throughout their career. Mentor or sponsor them, give them opportunities as they grow. Volunteer — volunteer for a STEM program, serving underserved youth. Transform your team to be more diverse and inclusive. And make real commitments to creating change here. Hold yourself and your team accountable for creating change.

And lastly, help advocate for change across your company. When companies teach their people to be allies, diversity and inclusion programs are stronger. You and I can be allies for each other, whether we're inside or outside of work.

So, I realized recently that I still have lingering shame and fear from that moment in my career when I felt utterly alone, shut out and unsupported. There are millions of people out there, like me, right now, feeling that way. And it doesn't take much for us to be there for each other. And when we're there for each other, when we support one another, we thrive together. And when we thrive, we build better teams, better products and better companies. Allyship is powerful. Try it.

Thank you.

(Applause)