I had the pleasure of interviewing Aubrey Blanche, Global Head of Diversity and Belonging at enterprise collaboration company Atlassian. There, she works with teams across the business to enhance access to technical education, recruiting, retention and career mobility for underrepresented minorities. Aubrey recently spearheaded Atlassian’s 2018 State of Diversity Report, which looks at the gap between how people feel about diversity and inclusion efforts at work and the effectiveness of D&I efforts. Follow her on Twitter at @adblanche.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory?
I had an unlikely and career that’s led me to where I am today. I was adopted when I was almost three, and in a lot of ways I consider myself a human A/B test. I was born to a low-income, Mexican American mother, and adopted into a White, middle-class family with uniquely American mixed roots. My physical appearances and cultural upbringing put me somewhere in between–I pass for White and straight, but strongly identify with being a queer, mixed Latina woman. I’ve been an outsider in some way or another to most of the groups I would naturally identify with–and I’ve learned I’m not remotely alone in this regard.
Career-wise, I’ve also followed a bit of a twisted path–from classical opera training to tech–to where I am today. I studied journalism and political science, and worked in editorial roles for many years, before deciding to get a PhD in Political Science studying democratic military strategy. After a couple of years, I realized that the “academic researcher” hat didn’t quite fit, and dropped out before landing my first tech job at Palantir Technologies while knowing basically nothing about the industry. I worked there in biz dev for a year before creating a role in diversity & inclusion, because I just couldn’t square the common narrative of a lack of diversity in the media–that it was a meritocracy, etc.–with the actual math about the problem. I was lucky they were open to creating the role, and in 2015 Atlassian gave me the opportunity to build their global diversity & inclusion function (which we’ve evolved into diversity & belonging).
My personal background and path has given me many liminal and invisible identities, which has helped me to see many perspectives on a lot of issues and inhabit a variety of cultural spaces comfortably and is an asset in my work. It’s also given me an acute sense of awareness of how my early experiences–which gave me access to a stable, love home and an “elite” education–influenced the opportunities that I was given. While I think I’ve done a lot with what was put in front of me, I know that there is an incredibly number of folks with the same potential as me who didn’t have those opportunities put in front of them. That drives me to make the most of what’s given to me, and to make sure I’m creating more access for others at every step of the way.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading diversity at Atlassian?
Shortly after joining Atlassian I had a pretty huge learning experience. From the get-go I wanted to make sure we took an intersectional approach to D&I. That is, I didn’t want to confuse “diversity” for gender, which often leads companies to create more access for straight, White, economically advantaged women (who are great are definitely need support as well), but leave folks with other and/or more marginalized identities behind. Part of that was considering race and ethnic identity in our strategy, among other “categories”.
Well, Atlassian is an Australian company with offices all over the world, and most of our employees aren’t American though, so most folks didn’t necessarily have any idea about the constructs that I was talking about. Imagine trying to teach and influence about racial justice and getting (perfectly reasonable) questions like “What does Hispanic mean?” or “What counts as Black?”. It was a really humbling experience for me to have my perspective checked like that, and helped me see my blindspot around how I needed to support folks. I needed to talk about diversity in a way that’s meaningful to people based on the kind of diversity that’s relevant to them–not just to myself.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think that Atlassian’s values, and how deeply rooted they are, has created something special and unique. I realize that sounds like a corporate cliche–and I thought it was during my interview process–but it’s something that I see influence our decision-making every day. Our dedication to making positive progress (“Be the change you seek”) and our focus on being great team players (“Play, as a team”) create an environment I want to work in. We’re definitely not perfect, but there is such a kindness to people here that feels really exceptional. People generally have good intent, are willing to examine when they screw up, and want to learn and grow from that experience.
When I was interviewing, I was talking to one of our executives about the job, and he asked me to give the ‘business case’ for D&I. He stopped me halfway through my answer, and said, “Great, I believe you can do that. But I want to be really clear that we care about this because we do the right thing and care about our people.” That blew me away, and I knew I HAD to have this job.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
Always! Right now I’m really excited about focusing on belonging, and collecting more data on that aspect of our folks experience (I actually just changed my title from Head of Diversity & Inclusion, to Head of Diversity & Belonging). It might seem like a subtle shift, but it’s an important one. Belonging is a deeper level of someone’s experience, and something that we all have a need for. My goal is to help understand where we can do a better job of creating a sense of belonging for all of our employees by identifying where the gaps are–then we can design programs and interventions to solve for those gaps.
I’m also trying to gain a deeper understanding of how we can better leverage our team-level approach to diversity. We’re currently the only company that provides team-level data in our annual external diversity report, and has been a key influence for us in driving change. So many organizations look only at the company level for their diversity analyses, and end up with representation numbers that lack an understanding of whether their teams are balanced. That’s critical, because it’s diversity of experience, perspective, etc. at the team level that drives better problem identification and collaboration, which ultimately gets us to the business benefits of diversity everyone’s after.
I’m also looking at ways to better support other companies in doing this kind of analysis, because it’s imperative that we collaborate as an industry to solve systemic exclusion, because it’s an industry-level problem.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive?
I’d advise business leaders that they have to care personally about their people as whole, authentic human beings (not just units of productivity). There is no substitute for that. That creates an environment where people can be open with themselves, which drives engagement, performance, and retention. In order to do that, I think that you have to go first: you need a lot of self-knowledge about your strengths and weaknesses, and awareness of the advantages you’ve been given and how you can deploy them in service of others.
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?
Both of my parents are exceptional people…they both came from pretty humble beginnings and have been very successful. But what has truly shaped me is how grateful and aware they are, and how much they try to share their blessings with others. That pretty much defines my entire worldview.
I’ve also had two advisors that fundamentally changed how I view myself. My undergrad advisor, Jonathan Caverley (now a professor at the Naval War College), basically taught me what feminism was by seeing my potential as a social scientist and then helping me develop it. He advocated for my work, and made me believe in my own capability as a researcher who could solve real problems. Justin Grimmer, now a professor at the University of Chicago, literally just didn’t accept my own irrational believe that I wasn’t good at math. Their refusal to accept my own self-limiting beliefs and constant reminders that I could be a great researcher and thinker defined who I am as a leader and person in many ways and has played a crucial role in how I approach all of my work–and life–to this day.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I hope I’m doing that every day! I feel almost unfairly lucky that I get to spend my days creating more opportunities for people who deserve them, and that as a reward I get to see other people thrive and do brilliant things. I’ve had so many advantages in life: I was able to get a good education; I’ve gotten jobs at “elite” companies; because of my invisible identities, I don’t face the same kinds of barriers others do…. I try as hard as I can to share those things with others. Privilege multiplies when it’s shared, which is pretty magical and something I try spread any way I can.
Can you share the top five ways that increased diversity can help a company’s bottom line. (Please share a story or example for each.)
There have been plenty of studies on the benefits of diversity on a company’s financial performance. An in-depth report from McKinsey found multiple clear indicators tying an increase in diversity to stronger financial results, and Scott Page’s The Diversity Bonus lays out the underlying logic of why that’s the case. But there’s more to it than money.
Diversity in the way that a company, its employees, and its users are depicted can help that company connect with diverse audiences. Imagine this: if someone never sees themselves reflected in your branding, how likely are they to engage with your product? At Atlassian, we realized that our illustrations weren’t always representative of all of our global customer base, so we created a design and illustration process to change our “meeples”–our depictions of people throughout our products and organization. Our meeples, and the design guidelines that inform their use, help us tell stories that attract individuals of varied skin tones, religious beliefs, cultures, gender expressions, abilities, and more–and ensure those stories are balanced, equal, and collaborative.
Greater diversity and a sense of belonging on teams also leads to happier people, greater engagement, employee retention, and more innovative ideas. It’s probably obvious why that’s valuable, but it’s crucial to success in an increasingly globalized and fast-paced world. It means that your teams will be better at identifying problems because they bring a diverse set of knowledge and cognitive models for understanding the world. Those same advantages make them better at designing solutions to the same, because teams with diverse “cognitive toolboxes” have more ways to combine what they’re working with to create novel solutions. I feel compelled here to point out that while I’ve talked about cognitive diversity, we know that because of how strongly our identities influence our experience, diversity of identity is the best indicator of cognitive diversity.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” -Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂
Brunch with Cindy Gallop, no question.
Originally published at medium.com