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Making Diversity + Inclusion the New Norm with Nicole Armstrong of Queen City Certified

“We all want the best talent. We all want the most innovative ideas. If you’re only looking at a small group of people for those ideas and for that innovation, you’re going to be very limited. Part of what we talk about is diversity—diversity of ideas, experiences, lived experiences—that doesn’t cost you a lot. It just costs you time, commitment, and intention.” —Nicole Armstrong, founder and CEO of Queen City Certified

Why do stories matter to the innovation process? What values can be instilled in innovators who share stories? How do innovation leaders inspire creators to tell and share their success and failure stories?

We speak with Nicole Armstrong, founder and CEO at Queen City Certified, to talk about how data-driven strategies, interdisciplinary collaboration, empathy, and passion can fuel an innovative movement. Queen City Certified is the nation’s first employer certification and leadership program for gender equity in the US workplace. Nicole works with and recognizes employers that aren’t just talking about equity but implementing data-driven strategies to ensure people of all genders can thrive, regardless of race, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. With hands-on coaching and mentoring, she gives visionary leaders the tools to redesign organizational policies, shift company culture, and disrupt biases so that they can attract and retain best-in-class talent.

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Nicole is the founder and CEO of Queen City Certified. Queen City Certified sets the standard for gender equity in the workplace. They implement data-driven strategies to give visionary leaders the tools to change organizational policies, shift company culture, and disrupt biases so that they can attract and retain fellow innovators.

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This episode is powered by Untold Content’s innovation storytelling training. Increase buy in for your best ideas in this immersive and interactive, story-driven experience. Where your teams refine storytelling techniques for their latest projects, prototypes and pitches—and get inspired by 25 epic examples of impactful innovation stories. Learn more at https://untoldcontent.com/innovationstorytellingtraining-2/.

Katie: Our guest today is Nicole Armstrong. She is founder and CEO at Queen City Certified. I’ll let Nicole speak to what Queen City is all about, and to your innovation background, as well, especially in the social enterprise sector. Nicole, I’m so grateful to have you on the podcast. Thanks for being here.

Nicole: Thank you for having me. So, Queen City Certified is the first employer certification for gender equity in the US workplace. My background to get here is a little bit maybe non-traditional. So, I actually started off in design, and I think that that ability to problem solve has followed me throughout my career, but worked in the social sector for over a decade. So, always been passionate about social justice and equity, and had most recently been using those skills in the social innovation space.

Katie: It’s fascinating to me. Not just your background as a graphic designer, maybe in your core roots back in the day, but I think it seems to me like your career transformed into design-thinking expertise. That then led you to create your own startup, and what I would argue is not just a startup, it’s a movement around gender equity. So, could you share with us a little bit more about that transformation from design thinking into the guts to start a movement?

Nicole: Absolutely. So, I always view it as a culmination of life experiences, both of my own and of people that I’ve known, and having worked in the social innovation space, I had the opportunity to work with a lot of marginalized communities. There’s one story in particular that always sort of resonated with me, and it was a woman that I had worked with who had been a researcher with us on one of our projects when we were looking at health outcomes for kids under five. She was a single mom and she was expecting her second child, and went into labor very early, before 30 weeks, actually.

Katie: That’s so scary.

Nicole: Very, very scary. Her son was in the NICU, and she had no access to paid time off. She had no access to paid parental leave, and because her company was less than 50 people, she didn’t even have access to unpaid leave.

Katie: Right.

Nicole: So, it always sat with me…

Katie: So her job itself was at risk?

Nicole: Exactly, yeah, just simply for having a child. So, I always remembered thinking, you know, we talk about how much we value family in this country, and we hear that a lot, but it sort of raised the question about which families do we value? After my experience working as a social innovations specialist, I was actually undergoing my own job search, and had received this offer from a great company, very large company here in town. They sent over the benefits package—

Katie: In Cincinnati where we’re headquartered.

Nicole: In Cincinnati where we’re headquartered. The benefits didn’t mention anything about parental leave. I was a mom of one and I wasn’t planning on having kids right away, another child right away, but I wanted to know if that were in my future, would the opportunity be there? It was sort of this uncomfortable position to be in, because do you ask? Do you ask about it and then have the employer maybe assume that you’re thinking of having kids right away? So, I remember thinking it should just be transparent, right? There needs to be a level of transparency. I received the offer, which was great. I was really excited about the role, but the role wasn’t quite in line with the title and the salary they were offering. I remember the salary was just above what I’d made at a very small non-profit, and when I sort of brought that up and said, “Hey, there’s a misalignment,” the recruiter totally agreed with me. So, I did what any person would do in the era of leaning in, and I negotiated and the offer was rescinded. I remember thinking in the back of my mind, “Had I been a man, would this have happened in the same way? Would the outcome have been the same?”

So fast-forward maybe month, month and a half, and I ran into a good friend of mine who I had gone to college with, and she said, “You know, I was working for a firm for over a year as a freelancer, and they told me they were going to make this job permanent, and I said, “Well, I’d love for you to consider me.” At the time, she was expecting, and her boss looked at her and literally said, “Well, look at you. We can’t hire you.” So, it was one of those moments where I just—first I was so—

Katie: Unbelievable.

Nicole: Yeah, it was unbelievable. I thought, “Why are we still talking about this in 2018? This is absurd.”

Katie: Yeah, absolutely.

Nicole: At the time, my daughter was a little over a year, almost a year and a half, and I just thought, “I don’t want her to be having these conversations, or to doubt how far she can go or what she can achieve based on her gender.” So that’s where this idea for a certification around gender equity was born. I sort of thought, if we looked at this from an asset based approach, how can we celebrate what organizations are doing well, make it more visible, right? That’s that accountability in that transparency piece. Then, encourage them to raise the bar for everybody else in their industry. So that’s where this was born. It was just life experiences, I suppose.

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Katie: Incredible. So, it was a culmination of social observation, and so much of that was thanks to the position you were in as an innovation specialist in a social enterprise organization, and then combined with personal experience. I think, even as you’re sharing those stories, I personally, and I’m sure listeners, can think of 10 other people in your life or a personal memory you have of feeling nervous about how to advocate for your family needs or your personal needs, your health needs, and some of those issues are just even more heightened for women when we are the ones to deliver children, for instance. So, I mean, I’m thinking of my own stories.

I know as a graduate student, if a graduate student got pregnant in the universities where I was a student, there were no policies to protect us as laborers at the university. We were teachers, we were instructors, if you will, and there were no policies to protect graduate students at some of the universities I worked in. Or I’m thinking of even getting paternity leave negotiated. I had a good friend who worked in a manufacturing company, and when he went to request paternity leave, the answer he got from HR was, “Well, we’ve never done that for anyone in the past, so we really can’t start a new precedent, that would be unfair to the past.” These stories, they sound almost like they’re from an alien planet, that we’re still having these debates. So, tell me more about, you know, I think that just speaks to the power of pulling those stories together in order to identify why something innovative must happen.

Nicole: Absolutely. When I sort of had this idea, I started doing research. I really wanted to understand what was out there, what existed. I found a certification, a global certification around gender equity, but I thought, the culture of the United States and how we approach sort of workplace and opportunity is very different. It’s very different based on culture, even between the United States and a country like Canada, which you would think culturally isn’t that different, but when we look at benefits, for instance, we don’t have any protected paid family leave in the United States, whereas I have friends and colleagues in Canada who have up to 18 months of paid leave and protection for their job. So, I really wanted to design something around the United States.

But I think what’s so interesting about your observation, this idea of how do you collect stories and how do they impact individuals, and I think that is where part of our work lies. Part of what we even talk about is how our systems have been designed with sort of the male experience as the center, it’s sort of considered universal, right? The female experience, or I would even argue people of color, their experience is considered niche. So, even how we’ve designed our workplaces, how we’ve designed our systems, is reflective of that. I use the example, I don’t know if you’ve seen this film yet, but Little Women. I took my mom for her birthday, it was a fabulous film. We went in, and I think all but two people in the audience were women. So, it sort of gets this notion that this film is a woman’s film, right? It’s a niche film.

Katie: Is niche, yeah. Right, right, right.

Nicole: Then you look alternatively at a film like Dead Poets’ Society, where it’s all about male students and a male teacher, but nobody sees that as a male only movie, right?

Katie: Sure.

Nicole: So, part of what we talk about, and part of the storytelling that we do, is we start to look at systems through the frame of, who are we actually designing them for, and how do we define a human experience? When we really dive a little bit deeper, we start to see that it’s through usually a white male lens. But it affects men, too, and that’s what I think is so important. You were talking about paternity leave. Even within our own certification, we don’t reward organizations for maternity leave, because it reinforces the notion that it’s a woman’s job to take care of children.

Katie: Interesting. 

Nicole: Right? But really, it’s everyone’s job and opportunity to take care of children, and there are many men out there who would like to be more active in their children’s lives. There was a study that Deloitte did that found that even when men have access to paid time off, they don’t take it. At the most they take about 10 days.

Katie: It’s culture. Because culturally, often it’s not accepted.

Nicole: Exactly.

Katie: So even if you can get it passed through human resources, you may come back to your particular co-workers and say your plans, and their response, and this is true for women, too, you know, expecting mothers, their response might be, “Oh, well I only took two days off.”

Nicole: Right. I actually had a gentleman come up to me and say, “Look, we had a young father who was going to take the entire parental leave, and one of the partners in the firm said, ‘Well, you’re not going to take the whole leave. I thought you wanted to make partner?'”

Katie: Oh wow.

Nicole: So there’s this expectation that even when it’s available to you somehow, you shouldn’t take the full amount of time. So, we actually only reward points for organizations that offer parental leave for people of all genders.

Katie: Beautiful. That makes a lot of sense.

Nicole: Yeah, because really, it’s about sharing that caregiving and giving an opportunity for dads. One of the best stories we can tell of our impact was from one of our very first cohorts. One of our certified organizations changed their policy to include men in parental leave, and there was a new dad who was able to take parental leave for the first time and bond with his child shortly after that organization got certified. So in fact, one of the first innovation or impact stories that we heard was about a man benefiting from gender equity.

Katie: Beautiful. That’s incredible.

Nicole: Yeah. So, I mean, I think part of it is sort of finding that human connection, and I think everybody can relate in some way to the challenges or obstacles of balancing family life with work life, and so that’s a great place to start.

Katie: Absolutely. I know that I’ve asked a lot of questions that kept us focused on parental leave, but I know that’s only one element of what certification means. So, tell me more about your innovation, how you thought of this concept of a gender equity certification, and what does that actually look like?

Nicole: Yeah, absolutely. So, I love what you said before, that it’s a movement, because that’s really our ultimate goal. Our true mission is to create a movement of employers and of people who are committed to gender equity in the workplace. So, even when thinking through what this process may look like, one of my main focuses was how do we bring people together, and how do we leverage what’s already being done well? So, we actually built the certification as a cohort model. So the employers who go through certification actually do it with other employers, and it’s from across sector and across size, so we’ve had anywhere from cultural institutions to government departments to law firms go through it as a group. What’s amazing about that is the shared experiences, right? A lot of organizations are facing similar challenges, and a lot of them have unique stories to share, even in their own experiences of overcoming those challenges or their success stories, what they’ve tried. So, we bring them together so that they can share those as a cohort.

Then the other piece of it, I think, it’s one thing to have policies and practices in place, which as a certification program, we do audit those policies and practices. We want to make sure that they’re in place. But the other piece of it is really understanding how they’re implemented, and so we conduct a survey of our employers’ employees to really understand experience across different groups. So, we disaggregate that data by demographic subgroups so we can really start to dive into sort of the intersectional experience that someone might have. That’s another piece of the story, I think, too, is often when we think about gender equity, we think of women. But we really want to start challenging people to say, “Really, this is about people of all genders, and how do we create an environment that allows people, regardless of race or income or sexual orientation to thrive?”

So, we look at gender in a much more holistic view, so we have a lot of conversations and storytelling around the intersection of gender and race, and gender and class, so that we can start to bring to light some of those personal stories, but also allow our employers to start looking at systems in a different way, and they can start saying, “But how would it affect this particular group,” right? Because how a policy might affect women, for instance, might be different than men. How it might affect women of color might be different than trans women. So, we really want to start challenging them to think through those lenses. So the survey data gives us a lot of those insights. We can really start to understand, “How do women experience the workplace, for instance, overall compared to women of color? Are there similarities, and are there disparities?”

All of this data, all of these data points gives our employers an opportunity to focus on maybe where they should put their priorities over the next few years. We really walk with them hand-in-hand and accompany them in developing sort of a roadmap moving forward, and they share with each other what their goals are so that they can start to sort of build a network of support with one another. Then, the final piece of that, I would say, is part of what we try to do is co-design with our employers, so at the end of each cohort, we always have a reflection session where we say, “What worked? What do you need? How can we help you in achieving your goals?” One of the most exciting pieces that came out of a cohort in early 2019 was this idea that a lot of our organizations are trying to tackle similar challenges.

Katie: Absolutely.

Nicole: But they’re working in silos, right?

Katie: Right.

Nicole: So you have all these different organizations around the city and around the region working on similar challenges, but they’re working in silos within their own organizations. So, the challenge was, “Hey, if we were going to support each other in this work, if we were going to help each other with sort of the time and the capacity restraints that we have, what would that look like?” This particular cohort said, “Well, what if we developed working groups? What if we found out what our shared challenges were, we came together as a group, and then we took a deep dive on that challenge, developed approaches, and then shared it out with the other working groups? So we may go deep on one issue, but then at the end of it, we have access to three different approaches based on the other issues that the groups are working on.” So, we launched that last October.

Katie: What were some of the topical areas?

Nicole: Yeah. So, one of the biggest areas was around recruitment and interviewing practices. So how do we not only increase the diversity of candidates that we have coming in the door, but how do we even tackle diversity of sectors, right? So we have organizations who are in the tech industry, the life sciences industry, industries that tend to be very, I would say, lack diversity, very white, and in some instances, very male. How do we help diversify that? How do we make these industries more inclusive for other people who might be interested in them? So, that particular group is going to do a deep dive on not only how do you reach more diverse candidates, but how do we start to support diversity within the sector itself? So that’s a really exciting one.

The other one was sort of going back to what we were talking about before around parental leave. But also there’s other policies, I think, that organizations put in place that people often feel like maybe they can’t take. So how do we create a culture where people feel empowered and able to actually take advantage of the policies that are in place? We have a group that’s committed to culture, and they’re going to be doing a deep dive to understand, “What are some of the barriers that get in the way of people wanting to take the time, whether it’s flex time to care for an aging parent, or maybe time off for a newborn child or an adopted child? But how can we begin to shift that culture?”

Then, our final group is around leadership development. So, once we get people in the door, we get this incredible talent in the door, how do we keep them? How do we move women and other underrepresented groups through the pipeline from the very entry up to the very top? Because oftentimes what we’ll see is there’s a drop off around mid-management, so we want to say, how do we make sure we’re putting systems in place to get them there? So that’s what that working group will be working on. What’s really exciting is they’re using the design thinking process, so over the course of a year, they’re going to go through discovery and sense making and ideation and prototyping to see what works, and then they’re going to be developing tools that then they’ll share out with the other working groups at the end of the year.

Katie: That’s incredible. It’s really beautiful. I think so much of the heart of innovation lies in that interdisciplinary and collaborative creation, and you’re bringing together leaders and workers from so many different sectors who are diverse in terms of their identity and their backgrounds, and even the particular function that they’re serving in the companies that they work for, and you’re asking them how to sort of percolate together to solve problems that really do cross every sector, and some more than others, as you mentioned. What’s so neat to me is, you’ve created … Queen City Certified is an innovation in and of itself, but to become part of that community, to become certified is, in my opinion, it’s an articulation from those companies that they also want to be innovative. There’s a lot of research out there to say that diversity fuels innovation.

Nicole: Absolutely, yeah. That’s what’s so inspiring, actually. I always sort of brag on my clients, because I love them so much, and they are … I think the interesting thing about certification, even when we’re talking about storytelling, it’s almost a visual symbol to the community and to peers and to other organizations that this organization is committed to doing this work.

Katie: Yes.

Nicole: I always say that certification is the beginning of the journey, not the end. So, the organizations coming in, they’re not coming in … It’s interesting, when we talk to them, certification is sort of the icing on the cake, but really what they’re coming in for is the framework and the structure and the tools they need to get to where they’re going. It’s really that idea of, how do we have accompaniment on the way to getting to our goals? So, certification is sort of this visual symbol that they’re on this journey.

Katie: Yes, absolutely. It’s accountability.

Nicole: Exactly, it’s accountability, it’s transparency, it’s celebration.

Katie: And it’s the how.

Nicole: Yes.

Katie: I think so many organizations, the business culture today, people are much more articulate, much more clear about the importance of gender equity and racial equity and inclusivity. But I think because of what you mentioned around systemic structures of how business is done, or how industries run, the how is really the most difficult part. So, not only are you providing roadmaps, you’re also bringing together leaders and building off of their unique ideas and strategies.

Nicole: Absolutely. I think that’s how we get there. So, sort of one of my main missions is to always be based in research, to always be based in practice, so that we can understand what works and what doesn’t work, and never to become so in love with an idea or an approach if it doesn’t work. So, even at the beginning of this process, part of the sort of work that I’d done was really doing research to understand, “How do we actually disrupt bias in organizational systems,” right? Because we spend, in the United States, we spend a lot of money on diversity trainings, and there’s little research to show that they actually improve diversity. Part of the challenge is that behavior is really difficult to change, so even when we’re aware of our own bias, it’s very hard to change habits, behaviors, things that we’re comfortable with, right? So what are the tweaks that we can make to our systems? What are the little things that we can do, whether in policy or practice, that can actually help disrupt bias? I always use this example, because I think it’s such a phenomenal example, but there was a study that Harvard Business Review did where they found that in a final pool of four candidates, if there’s only one woman, or if there’s only one person of color, they statistically have zero chance of getting hired.

Katie: Wow.

Nicole: When we think about this, or even when we think about EEOC standards, and we have sort of these minimum requirement roles of interviewing at least one woman or person of color, well we know now that statistically that’s not going to have the impact that we’re actually hoping it will have, right? So what can we do instead? What they found was even if you increase that by one, so you have two women or two people of color in that final pool of four candidates, their chances jump to 50%. It actually becomes representative of the candidate pool.

Katie: It’s incredible.

Nicole: Yeah. That’s an easy tweak, right?

Katie: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

Nicole: That’s something that we can change within our systems that can —

Katie: Yeah, it’s a metric to try to aim for, and it’s very practical. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

Nicole: And it’s tied to outcomes. So, I think that part of our goal is to give employers the tools to try these things out, to not get tied to any one approach, but to really understand what works, and to just be really foundational in the approach to gender equity so that we can start to move the needle.

Katie: Yeah. I want to ask a question about the vulnerability that it takes to get a group of business leaders to open up and share stories about what’s not working and how they’re failing. I just think there’s so much vulnerability and fear that people might have around talking about disparities of any kind, and it’s tied to what our personal identities are, how much privilege came with our backgrounds. Could you share some stories that you’ve heard, or some moments where you were very proud that vulnerable conversations that needed to be had were spoken because of the nature of what you’re drawing attention to through Queen City Certified?

Nicole: Yeah. It’s interesting you mention vulnerability, because at the beginning of this process, one of my biggest fears was that no one would sign up to do this. It takes a lot—

Katie: Sure, people would be too afraid to—

Nicole: People would be too afraid, and sometimes I think, especially in our current culture, we often view vulnerability as weakness. So, I think for companies, and for employers in general, it can be challenging to acknowledge what’s not working, right? But what was amazing, I think, and what maybe is a little bit unique in our structure, is this cohort model. What we began to hear from our employers was having this safe space to have conversations with strangers.

Katie: Yeah.

Nicole: Sometimes there’s safety in being in a room full of strangers, because you can begin to say, “Hey, this is what I’m really struggling with,” or even, “This is what I’m personally struggling with.” That’s different than when you’re surrounded by co-workers or other teammates where you feel like, well, if you’re in HR, you can’t say anything, right?

Katie: Sure, sure.

Nicole: But there’s, I would say, less ability to be transparent in some ways than when you’re surrounded by this group of other sort of people who are facing similar challenges.

Katie: Yeah. So, that’s an intentional design decision that you made as you crafted this company, was you could have had consultants go into each organization at a time and give them their mandates and tell them their expectations and, “Here’s how you get certified.” You totally flipped that on its head and said, “No. It has to be interdisciplinary,” and I think part of that was that this could open people up to having a safe, secure environment to be able to talk through difficult conversations.

Nicole: Absolutely, and even talk through some of their own personal challenges around inclusion and diversity in the workplace. So, in our learning sessions, we dive into a lot of things. We talk about change and change management, how do you sort of navigate that process as you begin to roll these things out? But I think the other piece of it is doing an internal dive to say, “Where do I have bias?” Even when I look a lot of times as DNI practitioners, or is it HR professionals, we know logically that we want to have diversity in our workplaces, but when we begin to look at our own inner circle and our own personal lives, in some instances you may have that diversity that you want, and in some instances you may not. So, part of it is sort of tying sort of our own personal experience to the outcomes that we see in the workplace, because workplaces are nothing more than buildings filled with individual people, right?

Katie: Right.

Nicole: So, everyone sort of brings those personal lenses. So it’s really interesting to have conversations when we start to dive into that, and we start to see that intersectionality. And I think what’s beautiful about the cohort, because people are there with good intentions and we sort of start off these conversations with the understanding that we’re going to sort of walk into the uncomfortable, people are willing to say, “Hey, tell me more about what you meant by that, because here’s how I heard it, and here’s how it makes me feel.” It sort of opens up a dialog between people that maybe wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and we can get a little bit deeper into the intersection of the challenges that the LGBTQ community might face versus, in particular, women of color, or women who might have a disability, or even men who want to take a more active role in caregiving and sort of the barriers that they face. So, I think that the space that it creates, that safe space that it creates, is really important to the process, both for the individuals, but I think also in helping them frame sort of the, I would say, almost the pitch to the work when they go back into their organizations of explaining why is this important.

Katie: Oh, absolutely. So, do you notice that some of your cohort members will pull on each other’s stories and then take those back to their own organizations to say, “Well, here’s what I’m hearing collectively across other members of my cohort,” and that it sort of increases the confidence in the story?

Nicole: Oh, absolutely, and that’s what’s been pretty amazing, even within the working groups. So, some of our working groups will say, “Hey, some of our leadership says, ‘A yearlong is a long time. Why do we need a year?'” She said, “I was able to go back and say, ‘Because we’re working on this in a large group and we have this framework. All of the different experiences, all the research from all these companies, we’re going to have access to that data and to that information and to that input.'” So in a sense, I think when organizations feel like they’re a part of a larger whole, it sort of allows space for that process to breathe in maybe ways that it wouldn’t have otherwise. So, I think a lot of times DNI practitioners or HR professionals are tasked with creating more diverse workplaces, and they’re sort of tasked with these initiatives to create more inclusive workplaces, but they’re not often given the time or resources to do it well. So this is a way to say, “Hey, not only are we taking this approach, but all of these other organizations are taking this approach and we’re going to learn together.” So, I think that it’s that power in numbers in a way.

Katie: Absolutely. I want to go back to this idea of how can storytelling support recruitment, especially for companies or leaders who maybe aren’t ready to commit to this. As you go out into the world and explain what this certification is for and why it’s going to make a difference, have you found certain storytelling tactics working better than others, and have you found a way to sort of break through when a company’s culture or its leadership maybe doesn’t see the value?

Nicole: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think one of the key things that I’ve learned around storytelling is that it’s all about relationships and trust building. When you meet with anyone to sort of tell the story of innovation or tell the story of the work that you’re doing, I think the most important and the most influential thing that you can do is find a personal connection with that person, to understand, what are the unique challenges that they’re personally experiencing, right? Because I think in many ways, humans are sort of wired to avoid pain more than they are to seek pleasure, and we all struggle with these challenges in the workplace, particularly, I think, for the organizations and for the people that I meet with, they’re responsible for a lot of employees, right? They’re responsible for that employee experience. So, they have that pressure on them of being the person who’s sort of shaping the experiences of other people within their organizations.

So, part of it is sitting down and finding like, “Where are your pain points? What are you struggling with? Where are your goals? What do you envision for your organization? When you think about creating an inclusive workplace, what does that look like for you?” In a sense, I think, then you can start to discern, “Okay, here’s where their biggest challenges are, and here’s maybe where we can help them with those challenges. Here’s how we can sort of customize their experience and make sure that they have the information and the resources and the support and the networking they need to achieve those goals.” So, I think part of it is finding that connection, being able to share personal stories, too. I always, when I meet with folks, tell them the personal story of how I got here, because really, I think it’s important, especially as an entrepreneur, you have to have the passion behind it. This is, for me—

Katie: Yes.

Nicole: This is non-negotiable, right? When I think of the experiences of my friends and my colleagues—

Katie: I love that. Passion is non-negotiable.

Nicole: It’s non-negotiable, because—

Katie: I love that.

Nicole: Because when you come to somebody, they’re not just investing in the company or the process, they’re investing in you, and I think if they know that this for you is what you’re meant to do, and this is your passion, and this is why it’s so important to you, they’re more likely to come on that journey with you, right?

Katie: Yeah. I love that. That speaks to not just the content of the story, but its delivery.

Nicole: Absolutely.

Katie: Enthusiasm and passion and commitment can be 60% of what makes a story impactful.

Nicole: Yes. I think the idea of partnership, that I’m not — To be quite honest, I’m not here to sell any organization on QCC. I’m here to find partners in this work, and I think that organizations who’ve come and have worked with us, the employers, in many ways, they’re already committed to this work. They’re bought in. They just might need the extra tools, the resources, the community to push it one step further. So for me, when I’m meeting with potential clients, I’m on the search for partners. I think when you can communicate that, when you can communicate and say, “Hey, we’re in this together. We’re designing this together. We’re going to study the outcomes together. We’re going to sort of experience the pain points together,” it creates sort of a shared journey that I think people long for. Don’t you think?

Katie: Oh yeah.

Nicole: I think people want to feel like they’re sort of moving toward their goals both in a deliberate way and with a roadmap, but with somebody who is passionate, that’s going to be on that journey with them in the long haul. For me, that’s non-negotiable, because like I said, I have a daughter, but even for our sons, I think for all of our children, I don’t want to be having this conversation in 20 years, right?

Katie: Yes, exactly. Amen. Me either. Yeah, exactly. I think one of the questions I sent to you sort of before the interview had to do with, how do you use empathy to try to change the mindset of someone who might look at something like this and say, “It’s irrelevant to me, I’m comfortable. I’m in a position of leadership. Why should I be concerned, really, about bias?” I like to think most people wouldn’t at least say that out loud, but perhaps comfort or other reasons might sort of cause complacency. So yeah, what do you think? How do you address that concern about maybe what if this innovation’s not relevant to me? Is there a way? Are there certain strategies that you think are effective ways to convert that person to become a believer?

Nicole: Yes and no. So, I think that for the folks who may have sort of an understanding of some level of empathy, they have investment in their company, they’re willing and open to have the conversations, absolutely, yes, you can find ways to relate someone else’s experiences to them. Sort of our approach is we won’t convince the people who don’t want to be convinced, right? I think if we start to go and we start to outreach and we start to build conversations and relationships for the people who are invested and committed to this work, there’s power in numbers.

Katie: Yes, yes.

Nicole: So, instead of trying to convert those that we will probably never convert, we focus more on helping to leverage and make more visible those who are already doing the work.

Katie: Yeah.

Nicole: I would say some of the keys to building empathy, I think, again, it’s relating it back to personal experience. If you can relate it back, I always tell people, “I’m not going to make the business case for gender equity because it’s already been made.” But there is a human case, right? So when we are thinking about our workplaces, we all want the best talent. We all want the most innovative ideas. If you’re only looking at a small group of people for those ideas and for that innovation, you’re going to be very limited, right? It’s a very limited experience. So, part of what we talk about is diversity, in a sense, diversity of ideas, experiences, lived experiences, that doesn’t cost you a lot. It just costs you time and commitment and intention.

Katie: Yes. Yeah.

Nicole: The benefits of that far outweigh staying sort of in your comfort zone. So, part of what we sort of challenge our participants and our organizations to do is to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Katie: Yep.

Nicole: So, I think in a way, it’s tying it back to the what’s in it for me, what’s the why, what’s the pain points. So, if maybe you don’t see why inclusion or diversity is important to you on a day to day basis, but if you can start to tie it to your work, right? So when we start to look at the outcomes of projects, or of innovations, or of new ideas, everyone wants successful teams. So, there’s ways to tie it back to that. I think there’s something to be said, too, for sort of the moral imperative. We don’t necessarily depend on that, but I think a lot of our organizations, a lot of the leaders in this space who come to us believe it’s the right thing to do.

Katie: Yeah.

Nicole: So, I think that that’s a really great place to start, as well.

Katie: Yeah.

Nicole: I think just facilitating those conversations. It can be hard to understand somebody’s experience if you’ve never been there, and I think one can imagine how somebody feels in a specific situation, but I think having a relationship with that person and building that trust and building that relationship, you have more empathy for somebody that you care about.

Katie: Yeah, absolutely.

Nicole: So, part of it is sort of addressing sort of the relationship building and challenging people to sort of expand their networks.

Katie: Yes. Yeah. I’m thinking you’ve addressed so beautifully how commitments to inclusivity and challenging organizational structures can change a workplace. I’m thinking, in particular, if we zoom out even farther to the systemic sort of structures around venture capital and the innovation community, and the fact that so much venture capital historically has gone to white male founders, young white male founders, actually, too. So, there’s sort of an ageism associated with it, as well. We’re starting to see this change. It’s only, I think, the beginning of the change, but there seems to be more attention, and there is more, from a data perspective, more funding going to female founders. There’s often a business case around that, that you’re missing out on full markets. You’re missing out on divergent thinking. What are your thoughts around, based on what you know about how inclusivity changes a workplace, what do you think we should expect to see in the future when it comes to innovation itself and the way it’s funded?

Nicole: Well, one of the biggest groups of small business owners are women. So, women are out there doing the work, and I think you’re right, absolutely, that women are far less likely to get venture capital. I think less than 2% of venture capital goes to women owned businesses.

Katie: A painful stat, yes.

Nicole: It is painful. I think, particularly, when we think of the intersection of race and gender, even less so to women of color, and I think part of it goes back to this idea that we view sort of the male experience, or the white young male experience, as universal, right? So when we look to the attributes that people bring to the marketplace, to the skills that they have, we look at it through that lens. What we know, even in the workplace, is that we hire men for potential, and we hire women for experience. So, even when you think about people coming out of college, right, you have maybe a male founder and a female founder. Well, if we’re looking through the lens of experience versus potential, neither one of those students, or young people, are going to have a lot of experience.

Katie: Right.

Nicole: But if we reward men for potential, we’re more likely to invest in them than if we reward women for experience, because they’re just not likely to have it at that young age. So even that disparity and how we reward people from very entry level, right out of college, creates this divide that then follows people throughout a lifetime, particularly in their career. I think long term, when we’re thinking of systemic change, I think addressing some of these things in the workplace will lead to systemic change, because when we look at the gender pay gap, when we look at the raw gender pay gap, even the opportunity gap, how we actually reward professions, we know that it has little to do with the job itself. It really has more to do with the people that fill them. I always use this example of technology. Back in the 60s, coding was a woman’s job. Women were called computers, right? They were literally human computers, and it wasn’t rewarded financially that well.

Katie: Yeah.

Nicole: Well, what happened as more and more men entered that field? The salaries went up. The same is true, when more women enter a male dominated field, the salaries drop. So, part of when we’re looking at systems and we’re looking at how we reward attributes and what we bring to the marketplace, is understanding that it’s not that we’re rewarding the job itself, it’s that we literally reward jobs differently based on who is a majority dominant group that fills those roles. So, part of, I think, trying to close the gap within the workplace comes back in some ways to economic justice, right?

Katie: Yes. Yeah, absolutely.

Nicole: It’s rewarding women and people of color and other underrepresented groups for the attributes they bring to the marketplace in ways that are fair and equitable so that they have more influence over decision making, and their voices are heard, and they’re invited not only to the table, but they influence the direction that organizations take. So, I think going back to your point of systems, that’s how I sort of view systems change, is first we have to redesign the system. We have to be compensating people equitably, because with that compensation, and with that economic justice, comes power in many ways.

Katie: Absolutely. Let’s wrap up with a sort of rapid fire. What stories do you and I want to hear more of when it comes to equity in the workplace, in the innovation community, more broadly? We’re going to just rapid fire. I want to hear more stories of female founders and the reasons why they got funding. I want to hear those stories centered around potential. After hearing you mention those disparities, I actually didn’t know that. So, I want to hear more stories about how a VC or a funder saw potential in a female founder, why, and I just want to hear those amplified more. That’s one for me. What about you?

Nicole: Yes. I would take it one step further. I want to hear more stories about women of color and the successes that they’ve had. I want to start viewing success in different ways.

Katie: I’m thinking of like Backstage Capital.

Nicole: Yes.

Katie: I love following their work.

Nicole: I don’t want to hear about any more white Harvard dropouts that founded tech companies.

Katie: No more garage gurus, we’re done.

Nicole: Right. I don’t want those stories. I want the stories of women who built their businesses from nothing, because that’s what so many women are forced to do. I want to hear—

Katie: Raise your hand if that’s you.

Nicole: Yes.

Katie: Both of our hands are up. We know you can’t see—

Nicole: I want to hear the stories of mothers and fathers. Actually, you know what I really want to hear more of? I want to hear more stories about men and boys who are overcoming the gender norms and the gender stereotypes that limit their potential. I think so oftentimes we focus gender equity on just women, and those norms, those rigid gender norms that we have, are equally harmful to men and boys. I want to hear those stories.

Katie: Yeah.

Nicole: I want to amplify those stories, to make it acceptable that men can be in care-taking roles, and professions that maybe we think of for women. I always joke, “We don’t need more women in STEM.” I mean, it’s great if we have them in STEM, but we need more men in early childhood education and nursing, right?

Katie: Sure. Right, right.

Nicole: I want to hear those stories.

Katie: Yeah. I love that. Okay, thank you. We could go on and on. We could talk all afternoon, but I’m so grateful to have had this short bit of time with you to explore these topics, and I can’t wait to hear what all of the listeners think. Please share your thoughts in comments, and let’s continue this conversation around why diversity and inclusion matter to innovation, and how we can start amplifying those stories so much more. Thank you, Nicole

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*Interviews are not endorsements of individuals or businesses.

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