Photo cred: James Barrett
Last weekend I had the privilege of attending the Inclusion Now conference for women in business and tech, featuring Hillary Clinton finally “coming out of the woods” after her defeat. The election obviously impacted the majority of the room, and it was powerful to have the chance to collectively confront the anger and pain that is still fresh in so many people. The two morning speakers from Hollywood were also incredible. I’d like to share some of my own reflections and takeaways from the experience.
On Taraji Henson
Seeing Taraji Henson speak was so refreshing and real. She grew up in a rough part of DC and got into acting at a young age. “Art gives life, and it saved mine,” she said. Growing up in ‘the hood’ was rough and hopeless, and the expectation was that nobody who was born there would grow up to become anything. Her glimmer of hope came in having a chance to do something she loved (acting) early on, and having inspiring figures on the screen who came from similar backgrounds. Relatable heroes are an antidote against young people saying, “that seems cool but it’s not for me,” a point endorsing the importance of having visible representation in business and tech.
She is unabashedly fearless and determined. She says if you don’t have the fight all of her advice is moot, and often encourages her son by saying, “You have to want it more them me!” She’s also had her share of doubters. When she had a baby in college and still wanted to have a shot at Hollywood, many people expressed their skepticism and doubts, to which she replied “Why can’t you wait until I at least try? Let me finish college first before you tell me I can’t have a successful career in 10 years.” She did something that nobody she knew had done before, and by blazing that path had to stick to her own (extremely strong) moral compass. It’s reminiscent of Elon Musk saying the only reason he’ll quit is if he’s dead or incapacitated; why should you be constrained by the projection of others’ self-doubts when you haven’t even tried or failed yet? She’s a die-hard advocate for picking the principles you want to live by, and then working to embody them fearlessly.
Throughout her talk she was raw, vulnerable, eloquent and on point, and the audience was captivated throughout. It’s easy to doubt that famous people have interesting things to contribute outside of their domain, but in the end these people have lived lives that required such ambition and bravery that their perspectives are almost guaranteed to be different and inspiring. It reminds me of the value of having experiences away from the computer and in the real world.
On Hillary Clinton’s Keynote
It was also great to see Hillary Clinton dusting herself off and moving on. In a way her message is strengthened by her defeat, since (I think) her fanbase largely doesn’t fault her and now she can demonstrate her stoicism and resilience. Plus the gloves can come off and she can speak her mind more freely than she would be able to in office. She addressed the elephant in the room and expressed a bit of sadness and bitterness over the result last November. It's hard to fathom how hard it must have been for her on the world stage to suffer that particular defeat. Generally she was charismatic and a comfortable speaker, which was an interesting contrast to her portrayal as robotic and unrelatable. Maybe she was that way the whole time, or maybe she’s starting to embrace the subtle art of not giving a fuck.
I love the idea that even though she technically failed at her ambitious goal and has been on the other end of a huge amount of criticism, she’s still in a good position for impacting the world and inspiring millions, and even more so as a result of her campaign. Very much a “shoot for the moon, even if you miss you’ll land among the stars” kind of scenario. Thinking about my own career, it’s easy to imagine potential failure and criticism as reasons to not give something big a shot, but if the downsides don’t matter (they don’t) and the act of at least attempting something big does, then what's really holding any of us back?
On Experiencing Privilege
Privilege is often talked about in the abstract, and as a white male it’s easy enough to say that I’m aware of it in general. I do genuinely try to understand and appreciate its effects. However, as I'm learning, it’s actually very hard to understand the subtleties of privilege without experiencing them firsthand. As the conference was only ~5% men, it provided such an opportunity.
There’s a certain awkwardness to either not being acknowledged (e.g. a speaker saying, “Hello Ladies!”), or being acknowledged within the confines of the minority group (which also has a feeling of being put in a category of 'other'). Feeling somewhat excluded by either of these subtle things was new.
Also, when people are in a different group it’s natural to initially see that person through a lens tinted by that group’s associated stereotypes, and being on the other side of that was educational. Before the keynote the seats in our sections were rapidly filling up, and I wanted to save a seat for a friend who was in the bathroom. Here I was, the only guy in our entire section, trying to tell a group of older and more senior women what to do, and the irony of this happening at a women in tech conference was not lost on me. I did good reasons for what I was doing; there was a chance that these people weren’t part of MS/LinkedIn and therefore shouldn’t be displacing our teammate who organized the whole trip from our own section. But that didn’t change the broad expectation that men would do something like this because of entitlement or lack of respect for women. I felt stuck, like I had to overcompensate to avoid reaffirming a stereotype and feeling the shame of perpetuating the structural imbalances between men and women. I’ve heard sentiments from black women being afraid of being the stereotypical ‘angry black woman’, and thus having to keep their heads down in situations where it would have been perfectly justified to be angry, lest they reaffirm the stereotype. The two scenarios have important differences, but it was an empathy building exercise for this class of power dynamic nonetheless.
Also, it’s amazing how much harder it is to build relationships with people when you have to doubt how to relate and communicate with them. Hearing the stories of women at the conference made me realize that there's entire categories of things I just can’t relate with. Two women can bond over something that's unique to their experience, while in the same conversation I would at best be second-guessing myself about what to say, do or feel, lest I come across an insincere or insensitive. It wouldn’t be the same bonding experience, and I’d inherently be an outsider. The chain of having common context leading to stronger connections and relationships is powerful, and being on the other side made me realize how hard it must be when the tables are turned. There’s a lot of people who are ‘like me’ in tech, and I’ve got to wonder how many connections and relationships I’ve made as a result of this, and how much harder it would have been if I was someone completely different.
There’s so much to unpack in all of this. One thing I really appreciated in the conference was the acknowledgement that the ‘easy fixes’ that have been attempted around diversity and inclusion for the last 20 years aren’t enough. People see that it’s hard and messy, and requires more than yet another mandatory training. I think that personal stories are critical and help reveal the human side of the problem that will hopefully point to harder but more real solutions. I’ll look forward to learning and sharing more.