🌐 Impact Week: A conversation with Janet Van Huysse and Lisa Gelobter, CEO & Founder of tEQuitable
Janet Van Huysse, Head of People at Cloudflare, interviews Lisa Gelobter , CEO and founder of tEQuitable. tEQuitable is an independent, confidential platform that addresses issues of bias, discrimination and harassment in the workplace.
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All right, great. Hi, everyone. Welcome to Cloudflare TV. I'm Janet Van Huysse. I'm Cloudflare's Head of People.
I'm really excited. I have a special guest with us today.
This is our first Impact Week ever. And joining me today is Lisa Gelobter, the CEO of Techquitable.
And Techquitable is a platform that we use at Cloudflare that we really love.
So for those of you who are not familiar with it, Techquitable provides an independent sounding board where employees can confidentially raise a concern, access just-in-time information, and get advice from a professional ombudsman, which is really one of the things that really makes Techquitable stand out for me.
They also help companies, especially people like me, heads of people, understand systemic workplace issues, and your special sauce, provide actionable recommendations to how to make things better.
So in the spirit of full transparency, as folks can tell, we're a Techquitable customer, and we're a very happy Techquitable customer.
And Lisa, we're so grateful to have you with us today.
So thank you. I'm so happy to be here. I thank you, first of all, for inviting me to join you on your first ever Impact Week.
I'm really, really excited that you all are doing this and putting this together.
I think it's such an important message.
So I'm grateful, glad to be included, and also really, really happy with the partnership that we've had with Cloudflare.
So it's been a wonderful experience thus far.
Yeah, and we're definitely going to talk about it. I want to do a little bit of a background, Lisa, so people can get to know you a bit.
And then we've decided that we're going to have a very two-way street about Techquitable, which are two-way street conversation, two-way conversation.
I'm so excited for that.
Okay, so one of the things that we've been talking about in preparation for this is every time I talk to Lisa, I learn something new about her.
And one of the things I learned recently is I had a ton of assumptions about your background and the story, right?
And so what I saw, like those of you who go to LinkedIn like I do and look up someone, I see Ivy League, computer science grad.
I see these really great brands, like this amazing career of someone's dreams.
And I just assume that it's just like the straight shot, like high school, college, amazing job, amazing career.
And very frequently, it is that straightforward. So I would love for you to share kind of your journey, especially your early career and interest in STEM and kind of how you got here.
Yeah, no, thanks for that question. It's one of those things that I often say like, look, I'm a black woman with a degree in computer science, which unfortunately makes me somewhat of a unicorn, which makes me cry pretty much every day.
But the other thing that I really do like to talk about, because I don't think we talk about it as much, we've gotten used to talking about race and ethnicity and gender and the discrepancies within tech.
We don't talk about socioeconomic stuff quite as much. And so I am the child of immigrants.
And while I do have a degree in computer science, and it is from an Ivy League school, it took me 24 years to get it.
So again, I come from a low income background.
It turns out when you work 40 hours a week to put yourself through school, it's hard.
And so I ended up having to drop out actually a number of times.
And, you know, and so it literally just took me that long to actually get it done.
I, you know, for me, one of the things that's also really important to talk about is, is what a degree in computer science can bring you, can give you.
And if you look at my career, right, there's some stuff that's been, I think we'll probably talk about that later.
That's been pretty exciting.
But also for me, you know, when I left school, even without a college degree, I was making two times what both of my parents made combined.
Right. And so there's something about like, look, I needed a J-O-B. And, and so, yeah, so, so the socioeconomic aspect of it, like, yes, I am very, I'm other in many different ways.
And especially as kind of you become more senior and you rise to the ranks, like you recognize the differences between your experiences and others.
And so much of that truthfully is also grounded in like, in terms of where I come from and what I know and what my experiences are not just in my day to day, but also my history and background.
Yeah. You never like, it's always with you, right.
It's a part of you. And it seems like it's definitely a part, we'll talk about it, like a thread.
I feel like that you've pulled through your career.
I'm curious, just like, okay, 24 years, it takes, like, I'm trying to wrap my head around that.
Were there times where you were like, okay, just give up, like the degree isn't important?
Or were you always like, okay, this is a setback, but like Northstar degree.
So I finally, you know, some reason I actually never did math.
So I was, I started college in 1987 and I finished I'm the proud member of class of 2011.
Brown keeps on trying to invite me to like young alumni stuff. And I'm like, I don't, I don't think you need me.
So I was 40 finally when I graduated. So truthfully is, you know, for me, I have been able to be relatively successful even without the degree.
All right. I think I'd gotten to be a VP at Viacom already. Like I'd done a couple of really great things already.
But, but, but there's something like, I have a friend in particular, another, another, a black man who comes from a low income background who was like, you need your degree.
And I will say, fast forward, I now I've worked at the department of education at the federal level and you, and I've learned so much stuff.
Right. And so actually there's all this lore about like, oh, and computers, you don't need a degree.
Like you can just like hack your way through stuff.
You can learn stuff. And I will say, so there's studies that show that getting a degree, a college degree from a four-year institution can be worth more than a million dollars over the course of your lifetime.
And the poverty levels between people who live with just a high school diploma versus a college like are dramatically.
And so for me, what I always say is if you're black or Brown, you still need a college degree.
So it never, the only time it was like a true, I knew it was an impediment was I actually applied for a role at Columbia university that I was like as a job that I was eminently qualified for, but I couldn't even apply because they wouldn't let me like without a college degree, I couldn't even upload.
So generally I think it's good practice. Look, you do what you have to do at the end of the day, but it is, you know, and everybody's journey is different.
Yeah, no, I hear you. So you did, I mean, you mentioned it, you had these, this really like great career, especially at media companies, NBC universal, Hulu, Viacom, in tech, Adobe, macromedia.
And then you transitioned into the white house, the department of education where you served as chief digital, chief digital service officer.
So talk to me about making that transition.
Like, I'm very curious to hear away from the corporate world into government.
Yeah. You know, it's so funny. People are always like, oh my God, the biggest change in your career has to have been going from private sector into federal service, right.
Working at the white house. And it's so funny for me, the biggest change I did 20 years working at software companies.
And then, then I did 10 years working at basically media companies where software was in service of the greater good.
But at the end of the day, they really were media companies. That was a pretty significant change for me, just in terms of culture, in terms of how they're managed, in terms of things that are important and then, and how you communicate in those environments.
And so, so for me, one of the things that I say about what I learned at Viacom was I learned how to be a business executive there, right?
I now say, give me five minutes with anybody in a PowerPoint. I can convince anybody of anything.
And that was a skill that I actually really took to the white house because it was about, it was about lifting all boats, right?
It was about figuring out how do you bring people with you on the journey?
And so to me, look, at the end of the day, it was not a hard call, right?
That I could actually go and not just serve my country.
And again, it was for president Obama. So there's also that.
And, and for me, the idea, especially reflecting on the fact of what my educational journey looked like and how challenging it was, if there was something that I could really do that could have an impact, you could make a change for millions, if not hundreds of millions of people in the country.
Like I, it's one of those things that at some point somebody's like, are you going to do it?
And I was like, I think when the president asks you to do something, you just say yes.
It is like, okay, where do you want me to show up?
Okay. And so you felt like that transition was less of a shock than tech to media.
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, my account might not be how I say that, but yeah, it was, because here's the thing is I got to government and I got to tell you, people show up day in, day out, put one foot in front of the other, because they're trying to make a better place for students or for, or for loans and like, and it's super inspiring.
And, you know, and they've been doing that for like for five years and 20 years and 30 years and, and being able to contribute to that and bring a level of expertise to like provide new tools and a new paradigm and a new framework for thinking about the problems and addressing the problems.
But right. I'm not an education expert. I, it was really just about like, I was bringing new, new, new people to the table.
And so, oh, it was, it was, it was one of the best things I've ever done.
Yeah. Well, you, you, I mean, I feel like when I look at your career too, that thread of doing good, creating positive change, creating, you know, technical, like equitable workforce, being inclusive, like that comes out kind of loud and clear, I feel like.
And so, and you have all these, I want to take a minute just to talk about like the board work that you do and the, and some of the committee work.
So you're on the steering committee for DevColor, board member for Education Trust and Time's Up, as well as the Obama Foundation Digital and Technology Council.
Okay. So two questions.
One, why is that work important to you? I think I know, but I want you to tell everyone.
And then two, how do you decide what to engage with? Like, yeah. Right.
Our time is a, you know, it's a finite resource. So how do you choose which ones?
Like, okay, this one, I'm going to put my time and will behind. Yeah.
You know, that's a great question. And it's so funny and similar to, if you look at my career trajectory, it looks like it's all super intentional.
It was well thought out.
Like I was going from one to two to three to four. Of course, that was never, that is not how it works.
I'm sure your career hasn't been that way either.
And, and right. So it's every time there's an opportunity, it's really about like evaluating what the opportunity looks like, how much I'll learn, what I can contribute, what that's going to look like.
And that's similarly, whether it's, whether it's your, whether it's your JOB or, or board work that you might be doing.
You know, it's one of those funny things for me is one of the reasons why I know technical is the right thing for me to have started to be doing is the articles.
Like when I'm, you know, in the morning, when I get up and I'm reading the news and whatever the stuff that I'm reading in depth, and I'm really like interested in, I'm clicking on all that stuff is the stuff related to equity.
And so that's how I know that I'm doing the right thing with tech equitable.
And that's how I know and education.
And so that's how I know that those are the areas and places that I want to focus.
And I actually really feel like I can bring something and I can contribute, but it's also it's also important to me.
Right. So, right. As you know, as a black woman coming up in tech, it's so funny.
People are always like, oh, who were your mentors?
And I was like, I was again, partially because I was at, I was on the Internet side of things at the beginning, essentially the beginning of kind of the consumer Internet.
Right. There was nobody, there was nobody before me.
Part of the reason I ended going to BET was because it was, again, I'd been into tech for 20 years and it was the first time I'd ever had either a black person or a female anywhere in the chain above me.
And because at the time it was a black studio.
So yeah. So those are the kinds of things about, like, I try to get out and talk as much as I can, because this goes back to the, you can't be what you can't see.
And so trying to provide that support and also making sure that you're contributing value.
Right. It's, it's also, how can I help? And if I don't think I'm going to be able to help, if I don't think I'm adding something, then, then let me, let me send you to somebody else who's also going to be fantastic.
Yeah. Yeah. Well, I like that you talk about it, like you adding value and also like, what do you learn from it?
Right. I definitely always feel like you've such a lifelong learner kind of attitude about things.
It just keeps you fresh and fun to talk to always.
Okay. Let's talk about Techquitable because it is kind of the current endeavor and it's how we got connected.
And I did a little bit of an intro in the beginning about Techquitable, but I think one of the reasons that we love Techquitable as much at Cloudflare is because it's independent, it's confidential, it's impartial, it's off the record.
And so I think as employees try to go on the platform and kind of figure out how to resolve conflicts or concerns that they have, it feels safe, right?
It just feels safe for them.
And I also love the educational component. Like I, when we talk about Techquitable at Cloudflare, we're like, okay, definitely go and like think through the steps of wanting to report something or, you know, an issue that you want to resolve, but it's also a great place just to go for learning.
Like, what can you do as a manager, as a team member to help create a fair and equitable workplace for everyone at Cloudflare?
So I love that there's so much I can give to my managers and team members.
So I'm just curious about like the founding story and like how you got the idea and how much, you know, maybe has it evolved since the original plan?
Yeah. It's a good question. At the end, I want to circle back to how I got connected with Cloudflare because I'm not sure you actually remember this story.
I remember it vividly because it was super intentional.
So yeah. So for me, right, I've been fortunate enough to work on some pretty transformative technology, right?
Between Shockwave, which transformed the face of the web, right?
It allowed people to interact with media, to Hulu, right?
Which again, changed to video, to working at the White House or the Department of Ed, right?
I worked on something called Power to Work More, which in just over three years has been credited with improving college registration rates by a point and a half.
And for me, like the idea, like how do you make significant impact at scale?
So as I was leaving the administration, right, trying to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up, because it's a journey, I was like, look, if we can send a Tesla Roadster into outer space, this is not rocket science.
Like maybe we can use those same best practices, product development strategies right here on our home planet.
And as I just mentioned it to you, as I just mentioned it to you, right, I've worked in tech, I've worked in media, I've worked in federal government, and then I have a very random connection to USA Gymnastics because I'm also a professional gymnastics photographer, because who isn't?
And so there was- Most people, Lisa, most people.
So they were like big honking, flashing arrows pointing me in this direction.
And so, you know, and so for me, as I think about what it means to make, and that has just kind of built, right, what it means to make a safe, equitable and inclusive workplace, right?
Especially as we're coming back from COVID, we work with production companies too, right?
Now it's not just like COVID tests and plexiglass, but how do you actually ensure that people are feeling safe and included and welcome and a sense of belonging within the workplace?
That was scary.
Oh, go ahead. I was gonna say, so I just wanna say, go back to for you, part of the reason that I actually reached out to you was that I'm on a group on Facebook and somebody who had been at the, at Cloudflare, I think six weeks was like came on to testify, like they weren't paid.
I think they were, they were an engineer to testify that this was the first place that they had worked at, where it felt like there was a real investment, that people were committed to creating an inclusive workplace that people, it wasn't just lip service and people like, and so it was literally like, it happened to be a group that I was in.
I happened to read it.
And I was like, well, that sounds like a really progressive organization that might be interested in, in partnering with Techquitable because it really, I was like, that's who we want to partner with.
That's the kind of organization who are actually, they want, they're invested into it.
They want to do it. And so that was, I actually asked for an intro to you very specifically because I was like, Hey, I just, I heard great things about y'all.
Yeah. I remember. And I remember thinking, yeah, we are committed, but we, you can't ever stop the work.
Like you have to just keep working on it.
And I think this is one of the things that, I want to talk about Techquitable too is, sometimes I find myself saying, Oh, it's like an extension of the people team, but it's really not.
And in fact, I think one of the reasons that Techquitable is so valuable for us is that, listen, I hate it every time I hear it, but when I hear like, Oh, going to HR is like the nuclear option, and people just put a lot of weight into reporting to HR, or just even like trying to talk through HR and I work hard to feel really accessible and fair.
And I know my, my team does as well, but it's just, that's something that I'm not, I'm going to work hard at and why I love Techquitable, it feels safe.
And it gives our employees an option to go have those earlier conversations that hopefully make them much more comfortable coming to my team or to their manager or any manager at the company.
And so that like having that safe space for our employees was really important.
And one of the big, big appeals of Techquitable when we first met. Yeah, no, I think that that's, I think that that's exactly right.
And just to be clear, like, this is not, we do not work in conflict for HR, we don't do HR job, that is not, we are, and it did, we, our goal is to partner with and to augment, right?
And there's all kinds of reasons why people don't necessarily come to HR. So the bulk of the people who come to us are things who are the microaggressions, the micro inequities.
My boss makes, made a sexist crack or tries to touch my hair or, or, or even things that don't necessarily have to do with identity.
We get a lot of like, you know, I joined a Zoom call with 20 people and I heard my manager talking about me because they didn't know that I was on the call, right?
It's, it's the, it's, it's this range of things around, you know, somebody spoke with me, just spoke to me just what I perceive to be disrespecting, right?
A lot of times you don't know, like, if something has actually crossed the line.
And, and again, like, I'm always taken for the other person of my race in the building, right?
Like, like, but we look nothing alike or, or I know you're third generation Asian American, but you speak English so good.
Or like, there's all like, like, you know, when you get told, oh, you're black, but you're so articulate, it's those kinds of things.
Like, I'm never going to go to HR for that, right?
Partially because like, I'm not trying to get somebody fired over that, right?
I want the behaviors to stop, right? And I don't want that to be my responsibility.
But on the other hand, like that, that's why HR feels like the nuclear option.
Cause it feels like all of a sudden I'm escalating it to this, to this, and because so oftentimes we're told like, oh, you shouldn't have taken it that way.
They didn't mean it that way. Where's your sense of humor? Just like all that stuff that's caught up in it.
And so giving them a platform to, to, to, to be heard, to, to vent, to, to figure out like, you know, we have a learning module that we call how to respond to a backhanded compliment.
Right. Or you can talk to somebody and just kind of like help you process.
All right. So what do I want to, what do I want to say about my, to my manager back about that conversation that we just had?
Like, how do I, all right. All right. You know, one of the things that we do is we'll be like, well, so if you said something like this, how do you think they would take it?
Have you ever had a hard conversation with your manager before?
Has, have you ever seen somebody else have a hard conversation successfully?
Can you model anything from that? If you were to say it again, like this, how would they take it?
Would that feel authentic to you? Would you feel comfortable with that?
So just really helping process some of the stuff is really it's, it's, you know, to your point, it's, it's, you know, it's not like executive coaching.
It's, it's just in time coaching. Coaching for everyone. It's just in time training.
It's, it's stuff that's in the moment and real. And so that's the other thing for us.
It's so important to how we operate is we're, we try to be really authentic and speak with an authentic voice, right?
So it's not abstract.
It's not a lot of big words. It's not superficial. It's not the right word, but everything we do is actionable, right?
What do I do now? And so I think that that's really important.
And I think that's part of why it's helpful to partner with HR, right?
It's not, we're not doing your jobs. But it's really about helping folks in the moment feel, feel empowered so they can figure out what their next step should be and be more confident in that.
Yeah, that is the, the actual part is one of, as an HR leader, right?
We meet quarterly and go over the results and what you're seeing on the platform, all confidential.
I don't know. You, you don't even know who a cloud player is logging in, but we get to see patterns and trends.
And, and one of the things I love is you're like, okay, Jan, I'm seeing these three patterns.
Here are three things you can do. And I kind of, I remember the first time we walked out of that meeting, I was like, wow, like 75% of this I can do right now.
It wasn't like I, it was a big lift or things I had to go kind of build from scratch.
I was like, oh, I can do 75% of this right now. And I just loved that, that it was so actionable.
You really helped us be like, okay, how can we take this and do something with it?
And then the other 25%, it's like, good, I've got some, you know, work to do.
But that actionable part I think is really, really a differentiator.
And I think, and to your point, part of what we do is we try to work right.
We really, cause we're trying to make systemic change. It means about empowering and supporting the employee, but it also means helping the company identify and address issues early before they escalate.
Right. We're trying to create this virtuous cycle there.
So, so what would you say to an organization that is right?
So like, what do you think is the best value? Like, why is this so important to Cloudflare?
How does that represent your culture, your value systems?
What does this, why does this matter to you? I think it was, well, we have enough, we have these things called Cloudflare capabilities that they're basically like other companies can call them values or call them the behaviors that get rewarded by Cloudflare.
And we have one around diversity and we have one around empathy and we all kind of like lines up there.
Right. As I know that I just left new hire orientation and I told them that we do things like tech, equitable and unconscious bias training and how we work together workshops because we value diversity.
Right. And so we're looking to build diverse teams by definition.
That means we're going to have different opinions, different backgrounds, different experiences, different triggers.
Right. And so what I want to create is a world in which we can have a really safe place to to say, Hey, I don't want to screw something up and say the wrong thing.
How could I learn? I want a safe place to say, Hey, this happened.
I don't feel good about it. And I don't want to just brush it under the rug.
I want us to be able to talk about things when they're small, before they get big.
And I want I really want to create that kind of a culture that it isn't like, okay, heads are going to roll.
It's like, hey, how can we come together and be and be honest with how something was received or something landed with someone and learn and get better?
Because by definition, if we are successful as a company, we believe that diversity is going to help us become a successful company.
We can reap all the benefits of diversity offers, which means we're probably going to have more conflict.
And so I want to make sure we can talk about it in a really safe space to grow and learn.
And so that was really, I think, what was so important to me about Techquitable is like, we're doing all this internal stuff, but what's another way that employees can have those conversations that prep work, think about it, feel supported in a way that feels very safe to them.
So as much as I want it always be the first people I want to run to as HR, of course, I want it to be us.
Sometimes it is, sometimes it's not. And so how can I make sure I'm covering as much ground and create as much safe space as possible?
And so Techquitable just filled such a big void for us. Yeah. No, I think that's awesome.
And I think it's, again, this is one of the reasons why we chose to partner with you all is because of that mindset, like actually having that be a really important value to the culture, to the organization as a whole.
I will say, I don't think we've actually shared this with you.
I'm not sure we have.
We even created a piece called conflict is just another word for collaboration.
That's exactly it. It's actually, it's a positive. It's not a negative.
So yeah, no, I love that. Yeah. The other research is like the teams that like when diverse teams got together, they had more conflict.
It took them longer sometimes to come to the conclusion, but they were more likely to be right.
Right. They made better decisions, right.
Whether it was a jury one or whatever it is. So whereas you put a homogeneous team together, like we got along so great.
We were so fast to come to the solution.
It's like, yeah, but it wasn't the right one. You know?
So I love that. Yeah. Conflict is collaboration. That's so brilliant. One of the things, you know, you were talking before about like being in the moment.
I feel like the last year and a half has been a reckoning. It's been a reckoning because of the global pandemic and the differences that the virus had on different groups with all the police brutality and just the understanding of like systemic racism and systemic injustices, especially here in the US, but honestly global.
I'm curious of how that changed either the way people were using the platform or the content that you put on the platform.
Yeah. No, it's a great question.
Look, there's no, there's no question that everything has changed in the last year and a half across the board.
You know, and what we've tried to do is, one of the beauties of how we operate is that truthfully, we're probably talking to more employees, more companies, more DEI folks, more HR folks at more companies, probably than anybody else.
And, and so because of that, we start to see patterns. We start to see things surface.
And we're trying to like, at the end of the day, like, I just want to super serve both the employees and the companies.
And so looking at, you know, the things that were really important and mattered to employees during the pandemic, because we did a little survey at the beginning to employees very specifically because everybody was, all companies were throwing out these, these kind of benefits or options or ideas.
And so I reached out to employees and was like, what are you finding useful?
Like, yes, I'm glad that your company has done some stuff.
That's wonderful. What are you finding? And when they said they found something useful, we were like, now tell us why, why did you find that useful to you?
So to talk again, going back to the concrete, not the abstract.
So we ended up creating a bunch of kind of materials, learning modules, stories from that.
Like one of the pieces we ended up writing was parenting while working from home makes me feel like I'm drowning, right?
Because that was something we heard a lot.
We wrote, and then, and then of course, this continued throughout the year.
We wrote a piece in June of last year, which was from the perspective of a non-Black person of color.
And it's entitled, I wanted to speak up against systemic racism, but I froze.
And so we've written, we've added a bunch of stuff around allyship or about burnout, because that has been, we wrote some stuff around the post-election stress, right?
So, so we really do try to stay current with what's happening, but then we also have some, some of the more kind of evergreen content, right?
So things like strategies on how to have a tough conversation, right?
So it's, it's those kinds of things that I think really make it successful.
And we try to really speak again, be authentic, but speak to the needs of both the employees and the companies.
Yeah. Yeah. I think you did that so skillfully.
All right. We're down to our last minute and I always love to end on a positive note.
So what is something that you're optimistic about, whether it's in tech or workplace equality in general, or something that you think is you're feeling good about?
Yeah. We're headed in the right direction. I think for me, I look, I've been saying Gen Z is going to save us all.
I think there is something about, you know, I am so used to things, the, the way they are, the way they've always been, the, the, I mean, you look at, at right, Naomi Osaka, you look at Simone Biles, you look at the, like, no, this is not okay.
The fact that people today are having enough presence of mind to be like, this is not okay.
Not only am I going to stand up for myself, but I'm going to talk out loud about it.
I'm going to try to shift perceptions, shift the norms and make it okay to discuss these things.
And for, to me, that is such a positive, like, as we start to, right, the, the, the first step is talking about it.
All right. It's, it's, it's the, what sunlight is the best disinfectant.
And I just, and I'm seeing a shift and a, and a movement where folks are like, but why is that?
Okay. And I just, I think it's brilliant and I'm grateful for it.
Perfect way to end. Thank you so much for being with us today, Lisa.
This was wonderful. Thank you.