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Michele Heyward, Turning false assumptions into positive change

Despite working in heavy construction as an engineer for 12 years and advancing, Michele thought she was way behind her friends from college. She started talking with them, "And what I came to find out was I was actually doing better than them, although I wasn't where I wanted to be in my career. In having those discussions, I found out was all of these barriers they had encountered, that I had initially encountered in my career, but were able to circumvent them or have them removed because I ended up getting a sponsor."

These are the barriers women of color experience. Michele learned her colleagues were leaving jobs, not getting advancement opportunities and struggling with under-employment. Oftentimes, they weren't even getting invited to meetings about projects they were leading. "I've literally had many women tell me, people in their organizations would have meetings about their projects, and never tell them just come back and give an assignment."

As if that isn't bad enough, these highly trained and specialized women are often given menial tasks. Their bosses are "not giving them technical work, even if they're technically good at what they do."

As a project lead, Michele learned "If things go wrong, you're to blame for it, but you had no input in it."

There are many instances where people assume she is an admin staff and not an engineer. In one story Michele shared, the man she was meeting with "Never, ever apologize(d)" for his false assumptions about her. Sadly, she continues to experience this problem, "it hasn't changed, even being a tech founder, I still get the same assumptions that I don't know what I'm talking about."

Michele put her mind to solving this problem when she founded Positive Hire in 2017. The problem she's solving is, "if you put together all the black women, all the Latina, native women with engineering degrees, you have less than 4%. And so if a third of them are leaving, right, you have even a smaller number of engineers that are remaining. So focusing on such a small number to most people doesn't really make sense, for me if I'm talking about myself, it makes complete sense. And that's really why I started doing building out Positive Hire."

Michele explains, "Positive Hire's, an early-stage tech startup where we focus on connecting black Latinx and indigenous women who are experienced scientists, engineers, to technology professionals to management roles, we're really focused on retaining the talent that has 10 plus years of experience before they leave."

As Michele has built her company, she incorporated the good experiences she had working with a sponsor at her corporate job. "When you have a sponsor, you really have somebody that sees the potential in what you bring, the value you bring to an organization. And they're in behind closed doors, and they're saying things about you to help you grow as a leader, but also to get you more opportunity in the organization."

Michele's sponsor exhibited exemplary leadership. "Whenever there was something good to say he gave it to the team. Whenever there's something bad was going on, he carried the weight of that."

She observed how his approach was different than most managers, "It is also power dynamics. His engagement wasn't about power. His engagement was really about how to grow members of his team as much as possible. He led, he taught through storytelling because it's very powerful."

The role leaders play in improving diversity in the workplace is crucial because they set the bar for cultural norms. A common expectation in the workplace is for co-workers to have congenial and friendly relationships. But, "for us, sharing personal information at work, can hurt us in the long term, [more] than it may often benefit us. So that's why it can be very difficult for dominant cultures to really understand marginalized people. And our responses or what they think is our lack of response is always very protective of our spaces, as opposed to being open to others can be our way to be to self-preserve."

This is one example of a common cultural assumption that must be examined closely. Just because a co-worker or employee doesn't open up to you doesn't mean they aren't engaged or committed to their work. Leaders have an opportunity to shift the dynamic by creating an invitation for sharing rather than an expectation. Michele advises, "More importantly, ask them how they like to be approached, ask them when and let them know whenever you want to share feel free. Right? It could be little things like I'm allergic to peanuts, number one."

This disconnect begins during the hiring process and harms efforts to diversify the workplace. Clients tell Michele they want to get to know their perspective hires during the interview process. But when they haven't created a safe space, a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) applicants' reluctance to share personal details is a matter of self-preservation. "By trying to connect with people, rather than doing an interview process, is really then going to even lower your ability to diversify your talent within your organization."

Michele is aware that in order to successfully fulfill Positive Hire's mission, they have to go beyond the tech. "While we have the technology as part of our solution, it's a human problem that has to be solved by humans. And so there's a lot of training that goes on, on how to ask questions, how to respond, how to build safe spaces, where people of marginalized communities are able and willing to have conversations on an individual and a personal level."

Connecting cannot be forced, in part, because it isn't about disclosure. It's about finding something in common. Michele once bonded with a colleague because they had the same car. "It is different from networking, right? And I think is finding that very common bond between a person and yourself." Such encounters are about small but meaningful points of connection.

One of the challenges Michele experiences at Positive Hire is performative Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts. This is visible when, "employees leave within 12 to 24 months on a consistent basis... it's an indication that leadership does not buy-in and is not supporting what is going on in the organization when it comes to marginalized employees."

Again, we come back to the important role leaders and CEOs play in improving DEI. Michele advises, "self-awareness is the first thing because you can't possibly change an organization. If you don't know yourself, what you are doing is racist... second part of that is the accountability."

Doing the work to be a more inclusive leader and culture isn't easy, in fact it's often quite uncomfortable. But, "The uncomfortableness is where you're going to find a growth in the change. You have to take action as well." In other words, to improve diversity in the workplace you have to do the hard work, individually and collectively. And those at the top must participate in the efforts while also ensuring resources are available!

Michele concludes by sharing what co-creating means at Positive Hire. "Co-creating for us is really three parts. And the three parts are Positive Hire, being in the middle, and on one side, we have our black Latinx and indigenous women in STEM. And they're sharing their struggles, their goals, and their wins. Us taking that information and going to employers like hey, this is what they've achieved, Oh, we didn't know that. These are their goals, although it's really great. But these are their struggles. Right? And co-creating is creating solutions, right? Those struggles are so prevalent, yet they're very consistent in the career path and journeys of these women. How do we remove those barriers? What solutions do we have to deploy to make sure that they are gone, but also they don't return? And that's really really important to me, that is what co-creating means here at Positive Hire."

Connect with Michele

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