WITness Success: What it means to be an ally

I had the pleasure of attending the first annual WITness Success conference and it was the most rewarding and empowering conference I have attended. Not because it was about the technology, but because it was about the people behind the technology.  It was about their experiences in technology as an ecosystem, about their struggles, about their successes and how they have come together to cope.  I felt inspired from this conference and want to share some of my learnings back with the community.

What does it mean to ally yourself with another person?  Ally comes from alligare in latin, to bind together.  It means to join, unite and support.  It means to share in each others’ experiences.  Being an ally knows no race, knows no religion, knows no sexual orientation or gender, knows no physical ability or limitations, knows no age, and knows no nationality.  This blog post is for you, my fellow ally.

I want to tell you a story, but before I do, I want to mention that I asked several great women to review this article. Most notably, I asked Cheryl for her blessing to post this, since I did not want to violate the safe space that we had created at this conference.

I was sitting in a table in the back of the room with a few people that I have known for a while. There were a few great new faces as well, one that was completely new to the Salesforce ecosystem, as well. Cheryl Porro, the SVP of Technology & Products at Salesforce.org, took the stage.  Kyla Longe, the organizer of the conference, gave a brief introduction.  The room filled, with 100+ plus faces staring at the stage.

Cheryl’s speech started a lot like mine.  She wanted to tell a story.  She told us of her past and how men had wronged her.  Her story was raw, unadulterated, and vulnerable.  In the back of the room, I sat, my eyes welling up with tears. This powerful woman felt strong and courageous enough to share this burden that she had during her life with me.  I have to appreciate how hard and difficult that was for her.

I had heard how these men had wronged her and I felt my blood curdle and boil.  At the same time, I felt sad and discouraged that this had happened.  Then, she turned this story into one of strength and empowerment.  She told us how people had supported her, helped her grow and helped her through tough times.  She then went on to say: “Leadership is love.  Leadership is empathy.”

This quote stuck with me.  It hit something directly at my core. I knew, at that very moment, that this space and time would hold a great place in my memory.


Why I’m Here

You may be asking yourself, what is a white, gay male doing at a Women in Tech (WIT) conference? It’s a question that I was asked three times.  Each time, I confidently said, “I am here to support you.  I am here to listen to you.  I am here to encourage you. I stand with you.”

The day after the conference, after waking up well rested, I headed down to the lobby, where I met with a few friends and met some new faces that I had not seen yet at the conference.  I asked the new faces about their thoughts on the conference.  One woman’s comment was that she did not know that men would be here and that she felt that it stifled open and honest conversations.  My chest clenched a little bit.  My heart beated a bit faster.  She was talking about individuals like me.  My first impulse was to get defensive, but I tried to steady myself.  That view, is problematic, I explained, since this is an event about diversity and inclusion meant for both women and allies.

She rebutted that Cheryl shared a very difficult story of her past and that having men there would make that difficult.  I can’t deny that is a possibility.  How could I?  After all, the story started with how men had treated her badly in the past.  I sat down, leaned in and my tone got softer.  I told her, yes, Cheryl shared a deeply intimate story and it was so courageous of her.  I felt that this story makes me think even more highly of her than it did before.

This individual then said to me, that men would not be able to sit through this deep story and that it would be hard for them. I did not deny this.  I said, “It was hard.  It was so hard.  Hearing this story from this fantastic woman telling us how men hurt her was hard.  But. (I paused). I owe it to her. I owe it to her as a human, as a person to listen.  That’s why I’m here.”  She then said, “Not all men are like you.”  I agreed.  I can’t deny that.  Not all men are like me.  I thought, well, why shouldn’t they be? I think that I’ve learned empathy and understanding over the years and I can help them learn too.

I told her that I appreciated the fact that she told me this and that she gave me the opportunity to speak to it.  This made her vulnerable. I won’t lie. It hurt me.  It hurt a lot. But, we were able to push past that and have a great conversation about listening and what it means to be an ally.  I want to help others listen and I don’t want anyone to be afraid to speak up. Always let it be known: “I am here for you. I’m here to listen.”

There is something worth mentioning here is that affinity groups do have their place.  They are a safe space in which a marginalized group can have discussions without feeling that they are to censor themselves or their opinions.  If you want to read more about affinity groups, here are some suggested readings:

Making Space (Source: tolerance.org)

Why Do We Need Affinity Groups? (Source: Mary Scotton)

Strategies for Affinity Groups (Source: Racial Equity Tools)


Work-Life Balance & Success

I had moderated a panel with three great women, Annie Shek-Mason, Chris Duarte and Mary Scotton.  This was a panel about their work-life balance and their success in their jobs and their social lives.  It was a great discussion and I want to share with you what I learned from them and the audience in just one short hour.

Here are the two big take-aways for me:

Make your “yeses” count.  Chris said that she made her yeses count by saying no to things that did not have a good ROI for her.  She said that she felt that by saying no, this was an opportunity to say no, but to introduce the right person who could help with the request. The impact of your yes counts.  Annie added on to this and said, make the duration of your yeses count.  She told a story of how she started a WIT group and had a succession plan in place so that when she relocated, the WIT group was sustainable.  Her first yes had a lasting impact.

It’s not just what is said, it’s also about what isn’t said (or asked). During Q&A, a brave audience member said, “I’m surprised.  You didn’t ask anything about children.”  We had talked a little bit about the support of our partners in our success, but we didn’t talk about children in detail.  Chris mentioned that her husband, David, was looking for a change.  They did the math and David decided that he was going to be a stay at home dad and support Chris.  Her daughter didn’t call her mom for a long time. This was hard for her.

We talked about one audience member’s choice to be at the conference.  She said that she had left her children of three at home so that she, as a person of color, could be visible.  Mary Scotton asked her, “Do your children know why you are here?” She said, “Yes.” And then went on to say, that this was something that was still hard, but she has support.  We then moved the conversation into, “how can we have women come to this conference, with their families?” Some great ideas came from that.

I had to remind myself as a moderator and ally, that it isn’t just the questions that I asked that are important, those that I don’t ask that are important too.


How you can support others as an Ally

  1. Acknowledge: Acknowledge that there is a disparity between marginalized groups in organizations.
  2. Show up: Show up to events that are for allies and marginalized groups.  Your presence speaks volumes.
  3. Ask questions: You should not feel stupid for asking something that you do not know.  I have not yet been confronted with disparagement for trying to learn more.
  4. Listen: Put down your phone. Take a minute to give your full attention.  The person sitting across from you deserves it.
  5. Say where you stand: Share that you support this person.  Share how you want to help them.
  6. Offer financial support: I am blessed to have a great company that allows me to attend this kind of a conference.  Not all of them do.  Many of the great women I spoke with attended on their own time, on their own dime. Companies: These great women deserve this time to come together, learn, grow and empower each other.  Please support them by providing them with the opportunity without having to provide their own money or paid time off.
  7. Find an organization to give to: You can offer time.  You can offer through volunteerism.  You can support other organizations through your expertise.  There are many ways to give back.  PepUpTech is a great example of helping the underrepresented gain a foothold in technology.  I had a chance to meet with great men and women about their experiences and apprenticeship.  Find organizations like this and support them.
  8. Mentorship and Sponsorship: You can offer your time to an individual to help build their knowledge up.  At the same time, your collaboration will help you learn and grow in ways that you did not expect.

The last thing that I want to mention is that as an Ally, I will not always get it right.  I need your support and strength.  Please call me out when I am wrong.  Please challenge my thinking.  Please help me to better understand.  Given the current climate of racism in Charlottesville and the manifesto written by a Google employee, we need to support each other now more than ever.  Let my strength be your strength.  Let your strength be mine.  Let’s lift each other up and support each other through times of hardship and peace.

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