Debi Yadegari of Villyge: “Game Plan”

Game Plan. If you want to develop a culture that values its employees, review your mission statement and set goals. At the end of the day, what do you want? Once identified, ask how will you get there and create the steppingstones to success. Break down the goal into tangible bits that will push the […]

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Game Plan. If you want to develop a culture that values its employees, review your mission statement and set goals. At the end of the day, what do you want? Once identified, ask how will you get there and create the steppingstones to success. Break down the goal into tangible bits that will push the ball forward, toward the end goal. Whether your goals involve DE&I (diversity, equity, & inclusion) hiring objectives, the creation of policies that positively impact and support working parents to decrease attrition, or becoming a preferred employer — how will you get there? Roadmap it out. Create a framework that includes a timeline and task others with the job of oversight. Creating or changing a culture takes work, and the realization of that is step one.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Debi Yadegari.

Debi Yadegari is the Founder and CEO of Villyge, an employer-paid benefit that supports working parents. Once a Wall Street lawyer, Debi launched Villyge in 2013 to address the problems she faced as a working parent in corporate America.

Today, Villyge utilizes its online platform to empower working parents and connect employees 1:1 with career coaches, parenting specialists, and wellness experts. Villyge also works with companies to create parent-friendly work cultures that improve the management and productivity of family leave and working parents.

Prior to launching Villyge, Debi began her career as a Corporate Associate in Big Law, where she specialized in security offerings within the capital markets. Subsequently, she served as Counsel to the Investment Banking Division of a leading international investment bank. While practicing law, Debi also offered pro bono legal assistance to the New York Legal Assistance Group.

Debi received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Barnard College of Columbia University, where she double majored in economics and political science, and received her Juris Doctor from George Washington University. Debi is a Certified Lactation Counselor with the Academy of Lactation Policy and Practice and lives with her supportive husband and five children.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It was 2004 and I was working in a high-powered role as in-house counsel to the investment banking division of a large international bank. I had recently left Big Law and my career was on a fast, upward trajectory. And then I became pregnant. Not one week before I announced my pregnancy, I was told by a female superior that if I were to ever become pregnant at the bank, I would destroy my career — that is how I began my journey as a working parent! Before exiting on leave, I was offered a “mommy track” position that would be more amenable to my shifting schedule and told we would talk upon my return. When I returned to work, I was told there would be no accommodations or flexibility for me as a working mother. Six months after the birth of my first daughter, I walked away. I soon realized that I was one of the 43% of women and 33% of the men who walk away post baby due to a lack of employer support, and I knew I had an opportunity to pave another way. Today, Villyge works with employers to ensure working parents no longer need to choose between their personal family goals and professional success.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The reception to Villyge has been overwhelming. We regularly receive emails, DMs, and phone calls from working parents (moms AND dads) telling us they could not do it without Villyge. One memorable story came from the CHRO (Chief Human Resources Officer) at a client’s company who shared that she was tackled with an embrace from an extremely appreciative employee upon their return from leave!

But the most humbling, and perhaps interesting story, happened when I crossed paths with a former co-worker. She was always…excuse my language…a complete hard-ass! There is more than one story of her actually making me shake in my boots when I worked under her. When she saw me, she stopped me and shared with me that working parenthood absolutely crippled her. She then went on to say she used Villyge’s resources to support her during her return to work post-baby. It turns out, even this tough as nails lawyer could not have managed working parenthood without Villyge. The kudos coming from the places we would least expect them are further proof that no one is immune to the stresses and demands of working parenthood.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes, we have something under wraps right now that will be launched in 2021. It will allow us to utilize technology to bring more working parent support to more companies, and to the corporate change culture from the inside out. We are very excited!

Even if we could be right there, to hold the hand of every working parent, and get them up and over each and every hurdle, it’s meaningless unless we change the corporate culture. Villyge believes in the importance of bringing a 360-degree, holistic solution to corporate America that will empower employees and create a parent-friendly work culture to improve the management and productivity of family leave and working parents. Our new roll-out scheduled for 2021 will allow us to do that on a much larger scale, positively affecting more workplaces and more working parents.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

There are so many reasons and, frankly, our work culture needs a complete overhaul. Once upon a time, employees would work for an employer for decades, and they were seemingly happy dedicating their entire career to a single employer. Over time, we have shifted our ways and our desires. We are now taught to question decision makers and authority; we are much less polite and more casual with our co-workers. With this new, short-lived company tenure, the creation of a culture where everyone grows together from within is negated. Add to that, there is a complete lack of proper managerial training, and employees are often promoted based on technical skills, not soft skills. People today have more stress, more responsibilities, and more tension outside of work due to financial pressures, etc. And I could go and on…

That said, I would be very curious as to how that statistic compares with the rate of happiness in the workplace pre-smart phones, pre-blackberries, and pre-fax machines. Up until 9 months ago, our workplaces looked a lot like they did 50 years ago. Sure, some offices had gone to open concept, and some had added a few cool toys, but other than that, we have been using an old mold to fit a new culture for too long. Today, we are expected to check our personal lives at the door when we start work, but somehow our professional lives follow us outside of the office. We are expected to be available 24/7, yet still be 100% focused during the antiquated hours of 9–5. (Though, that is usually an unspoken expectation that would never be outwardly declared!) Without defined parameters, employees are always on; that leads to stress and stress breeds unhappiness. If we can work towards setting expectations, with guidelines around time requirements, we can take a load off of employees and a load off of ourselves, as managers. When employee expectations are blurry and undefined, employees waste time spinning their wheels and trying to please superiors. It is time for our work culture to recognize flexible time arrangements, within the confines of the role, and allow employees to take personal time, as needed. We need to stop the clock and set objective performance criteria to rate employees and judge team progress.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Happy and supported employees have been shown to be 12% more productive, while unhappy employees are less productive and less engaged. The cost of that disengagement? Economists have calculated the cost of disengagement to be 34% of an employee’s salary. Thinking about an employee’s happiness is not a fluffy endeavor. It is a business essential task to ensure the maximization of a company’s bottom line. Happiness, employee well-being, and productivity are all intertwined. Companies must recognize that employees are their most valuable asset, and it is time they are treated as such.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

Game Plan. If you want to develop a culture that values its employees, review your mission statement and set goals. At the end of the day, what do you want? Once identified, ask how will you get there and create the steppingstones to success. Break down the goal into tangible bits that will push the ball forward, toward the end goal. Whether your goals involve DE&I (diversity, equity, & inclusion) hiring objectives, the creation of policies that positively impact and support working parents to decrease attrition, or becoming a preferred employer — how will you get there? Roadmap it out. Create a framework that includes a timeline and task others with the job of oversight. Creating or changing a culture takes work, and the realization of that is step one.

Personal Example: As the CEO of Villyge, I knew I wanted to create a diverse workforce that would breed ingenuity and help us achieve our mission. As a small company, this takes effort as our hires are sporadic and our access to large pools of candidates are small. To achieve our goals, I actively sought out recruiting sources that were aligned with my goals and ensured that every open position would not close until candidates of color had also been considered. As a result, 25% of our workforce identifies as Latino and 10% identifies as black, and we are all Villyge family.

Support Affinity Groups. Encourage the creation of employee resource groups (“ERGs”), and do not be afraid of the power in numbers. To flourish, employees need support and the more support the better. So, whether the ERG is an ERG for employees of color, an ERG for working parents, or even an affinity group for marathon runners, encourage safe spaces for employees to come together and share with like-minded co-workers. Employees who feel bonded with their co-workers are more likely to feel bonded to the organization. And, as a leader, attend ERG meetings and take an interest in the priorities and conversations of these affinity groups.

Personal Example: One of our clients, Teva Pharmaceuticals, has a wonderful parenting ERG that brings in speakers and layers of support for their working parents. As the ERG has grown, many more supervisors have begun to attend the meetings and sessions. In turn, employees and supervisors find themselves bonding over the same issues. That ability to connect over issues that lie outside of work creates an increased opportunity for employees and supervisors to develop a connection inside of work. As employees, we do not work for a company, we work for people. When there is a connection to those people, we are more motivated, more engaged, and more driven by a desire to produce.

Develop Your Community. See each employee as an important part of the end goal. As they say in theater, “there are no small roles, just small actors.” From maintenance to the mailroom, every employee is a valuable member of the team. Treat them as such. If you do, you will, as they say, “get much more juice from every squeeze.” We all seek community, and it is essential that every leader develop theirs. It begins with respect and empathy, and, from there, goes viral. As a leader, you set the tone for how others within a company treat one another.

Personal Example: I started my career in Big Law, at a firm where it was ok to yell at or speak with disdain towards subordinates. It comes as no surprise that Big Law has one of the highest turnover rates, and those who “escape” are often applauded. Years later, alumnae still speak about the years they “survived” there!

Be Flexible. Even after 9 months of WFH (work from home), we must still plead with employers to be flexible. Needs change and leaders must recognize that maintaining a rigid approach to work hours and/or schedules risks the loss of top candidates, and turnover is extremely detrimental to developing a culture of positivity and growth. One-off opportunities to provide a different type of support, or individual specific support, can create a culture that values the individual in a way that benefits the whole.

Personal Example: We all know the pandemic has presented many issues for working parents. Lack of childcare and lack of schooling are just the tip of the iceberg. In light of that, a team member came to me and expressed that her schedule was no longer manageable, her family life was strained, and she was unhappy. We worked together to find a win-win solution that would benefit both her needs and Villyge’s goals. We moved some responsibilities off of her plate, we made a concerted effort to plan for long-term projects, and limited her work hours to when her children were sleeping. Her income was reduced to allow Villyge to take on another hire, but we retained a top employee; and her happiness improved immensely. Eventually, her children will be back in school and maybe she will choose to pick up more hours with us at that time. Ultimately, this situation worked out because, when she came to us with a problem, we went to our mission statement — working parents should not have to choose between their personal goals and professional success — and together we found a solution that worked for all.

Create a “TEAM.” When you have a “TEAM,” Together Everyone Achieves More. A team requires a leader who is trusted and respected, so be true to your word, role model your intentions, and nurture an atmosphere where employees can grow to depend upon one another. Replace an environment of one-upmanship with one that values teamwork. Ideally, your employees will give it their all because, more than fearing their own personal failure, they cannot bare to let the team down. Just remember, that type of corporate culture takes work.

Personal Example: Since the start of Villyge, we have had team meetings, virtual happy hours, and a slack channel where we share personal wins. New hires are “born” into that atmosphere and quickly integrate into our culture of TEAM. I would have it no other way.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

As I said above, we have to stop using an old mold to fit a new culture. Baby Boomers and Gen X view the employee and employer relationship in a much different light than Millennials and Gen Z. Younger generations prioritize life outside of work to a much greater extent than the generations that came before. In fact, 66% of millennials report life outside of work is much more important than work and another 23% of millennials report that life outside of work is just as important as work. A generation back, work was always the priority.

One thing that has not changed is the importance of family and, as a society, we must prioritize the needs of working parents. That means reconsidering how we handle family leave and childcare, and how we hold companies accountable for how they support their employees and caregivers through life’s transitions. Fifty percent of the average workplace is comprised of working parents, and to maximize productivity, increase engagement, and decrease attrition, companies must step up to the plate. Not only do they have an ethical responsibility to support their employees, they have a financial incentive to maximize profits and increase their bottom line. Working parent support does that.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

Not only am I a Founder and CEO, but I am a working mother of five. I see myself as the captain of two ships and I use a similar strategy on both fronts. I empower my team members to fly and then I let them go. I do not micromanage: I do not have the time and it is not my style. I believe in a mission-based philosophy of management. I hire employees who believe in our philosophy and who are dedicated to the advancement of our goals. Then I trust them to push that agenda forward, under my general direction and with my support, but by utilizing their ways. For example, I hired a Director of Employee Success who began as a coach. She came on board, proved her commitment, showed her dedication, and gained my trust. She also proved herself able to accomplish so much more. She was promoted and I gave her full reigns. As the division of Employee Success continues to grow, so do her responsibilities and direct reports. I remain an advisor, but at this point it is not for me to step in and undermine the practices that have made her division so successful. The same is true for my kids. I set the expectations clearly (good grades, community service, time spent with family, time caring for the family dog, the completion of chores, hygiene!, etc.), and provide my children with the autonomy to achieve those goals. If they do, they maintain the ability to self-govern these tasks. If they don’t, there are consequences and greater oversight. Neither teenagers nor employees care for heavy handed oversight! But first, you must set the expectations, the goals, and the KPIs (key performance indicators).

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There is a lot to be said for the hurdles female founders face, and there are even greater hurdles for female founders with young children. For me to get to where I am today, it took a village and it took the support of my family. I have 5 children (ages 3, 9, 12, 13, and 15) and an amazing husband and life partner. They give me the time and space to run my business and to create a platform through which I can support and positively nourish the lives and careers of countless working parents. My children know that my sacrifices are for their future, and my husband understands that my work is necessary to change the culture of work.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I appreciate that I have a platform from which to spread a message, promulgate new ideas, and bring learnings to those invested within the HR space. When necessary, I use this platform to advance principles that are important to me, even when they fall outside of my direct wheelhouse. For instance, I have addressed race relations within the workplace and other culture-altering topics, because I believe I have a duty to use my platform to speak up when necessary. I am also a big believer in raising up others and teaching them to swim. I dedicate hours every week to counseling budding entrepreneurs, who are equally as dedicated to changing culture or binging goodness to this world. I am raising five children and see it as my parental duty to send five beautiful adults into this world, equally as committed to change and leaving their mark on society. Finally, I am a big believer in giving back to my community and I am involved with a number of non-profit organizations.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Never give up.” I grew up with the hard knocks of life and used education as my trampoline to success. Anything is possible when you put your mind to it.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to inspire a movement of gratitude. With gratitude and appreciation come happiness, and happiness can absolutely change the world. Everyone can benefit from a little extra gratitude and gratitude is always possible, regardless of how much or how little we have. If we could do this, there would be less stress, less fighting, and more love. Perhaps it’s a little “Pollyanna,” but as you said — you never know!

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