Representation Matters: A Conversation on Moving Diversity Forward with Vernā Myers

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This is a podcast episode titled, Representation Matters: A Conversation on Moving Diversity Forward with Vernā Myers. The summary for this episode is: Episode 100! Vice President of Inclusion at Netflix Vernā Myers. Recorded at Representation Matters 2019 this funny and insightful conversation brings a new perspective to inclusion. A warmup for this year's Rep Matters on, September 14–18.
The Hidden Power of Implicit Bias
00:16 MIN

Michael Rivo: Welcome back to another season of Blazing Trails. I'm Michael Rivo from Salesforce Studios. Today's episode kicks off this series with a topic that's always been top of mind at Salesforce, diversity and inclusion. Joining me today to introduce today's conversation is Molly Q. Ford, vice president of global equality programs here at Salesforce. Welcome to the show, Molly.

Molly Q. Ford: Hi Michael. Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Michael Rivo: Well, it's great to have you. And so, today's episode features a conversation with someone you and I both know and admire, Vernā Myers, VP of Inclusion at Netflix.

Molly Q. Ford: Absolutely. Vernā is one of my sheroes, I'm careful not to call it a hero, but a sheroe. She was able to join us last year for our annual representation matters event and she talked about how we can move diversity forward, a topic that obviously is near and dear to my heart, so excited to showcase this today.

Michael Rivo: Yeah, it was a great conversation and it's a great lead into the event that's coming up just in a couple of days. Can you tell us a little bit more about what's happening this year?

Molly Q. Ford: Yes. Representation matters. I like to call it my Black, Brown, and Indigenous Davos. It's the world economic forum convening that is Black, Indigenous, and Latinx and tech, it's happening this year, September 14th kicks off, it's a full week. It broadcasts daily at noon Pacific time, and you can join by going to Salesforce Live. So we have some great conversations around civic engagement, racial justice, we'll see some heroes and sheroes in the C suite, Black and Latin X talent, and also hear from an amazing author about the plight of Indigenous folks. So great program, again, kicks off the week of September 14th via Salesforce Live.

Michael Rivo: Okay, well great. Thank you so much for joining us, Molly, stay tuned after the episode for more of our conversation. And now I'll hand it over to Lori Castel Martinez and Vernā Myers.

Lori Castia Martinez: I can say we are thrilled to have you here with us today to bring this conversation to the workplace. So let's start at the beginning, this diversity and inclusion journey for you where did it start? How did it become such a passion for you?

Vernā Myers: Thank you. First of all, for just having me, it's a pleasure to be here and see all your beautiful people. It's interesting, but I think maybe this whole thing started when I was just about to turn eight years old. It was a moment where I first saw my father cry. It was the night that King was assassinated in 1968 and he had been a hero in school, he's a hero, obviously my dad was a hero, but to watch my dad who was strong and never cry reach that point, it made me realize something was very special that was happening and that it was very traumatic to my family. And I think it was really that night that I decided that I wanted to be an embodiment of King's dream and that I wanted to do right by his legacy and that meant striving for peace and dignity and respect and justice. Those became words that came to life even as his life was taken. And I have a brother and a sister, older sister and a brother and I would always be like," The family needs to meet. The children are not being treated with dignity." I mean, it was crazy.

Lori Castia Martinez: Started early.

Vernā Myers: And my sister was just like, "Oh, here she goes. Don't talk to mom and dad, they're not going to listen to us." And it started there. And then I also realized that when King was killed and I know so many people are young and just didn't have that experience, but I'm from Baltimore City and the place, oh, we have Baltimore in the house, the place went crazy, like a lot of cities in the country, there was burning, there was fire, but out of that rage and those ashes and a whole bunch of shame for the country, they started opening doors just a little bit, not enough to get us all through, but just a few little black kids and I happened to be one of them. And there where pools all of a sudden, and there were math enrichment programs and then they opened up the school district and you could travel, before we were contained in our neighborhoods and you know what that means if you want to understand systemic issues around racism and how it impacts education and opportunity. And so, I got to go across to a different middle school that got me to a high school that got me to a college and then a law school and on and on and all the time I'm looking at what's not right. I often say I love being a Black person for lots of reasons, but one of them is that early on you realize that the emperor has no clothes on, right? You're just like, "Hey, something ain't right." And I often say to my good White friends where they were like," I don't have anything against Black people." I'm like, "That's nice, that's nice." But they can't see the system, right?

Lori Castia Martinez: Right.

Vernā Myers: They can't see if all the races stayed home all night, stayed home and slept, racism would still be alive and well all day long, you know what I'm saying? Because it's just automatic, it's just built in and so, I think that's the stretch for a lot of people who haven't been raised with that certain identity and experience that they can't see it, but I could see it early on. And I really began after practicing law that didn't fit and then I got an opportunity to start saying, "How do I bridge these disparities that I see?" Because I was the first Black person my law firm had ever had and I was the only one and I was like, "What? How is that still possible?" It was Boston, legal space. I'm not hating on the Boston people I lived there for 30 some years, but there's a history.

Lori Castia Martinez: Yeah, for sure. Well, many of us know you for your famous quote, "Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance."

Vernā Myers: Yeah.

Lori Castia Martinez: Can you tell us about somebody that asked you to dance, so to speak and how did that impact your career?

Vernā Myers: My parents were amazing. So basically I always feel like in the big life, there are so many people who gave me opportunity who could see my strength and encourage me, but then when I think about what moved my career, because I have had a successful consulting business on my own as a Black woman, entrepreneur for 22 years, which when I think about it, it means that I'm old.

Lori Castia Martinez: Or fabulous.

Vernā Myers: But when I think about the number of people who paid in to make that possible, I'll give you an example. Unlikely mentor, who really, I think asked me to dance because he was a White guy, maybe 20 years older than I was, he was from the Midwest, Chicago, Jewish, balding older Jewish man. In fact, he called themself that, bald old White man, bald man or something like that. And so, he said to me, he was a consultant and he was working in the law firm space that I was working in, he was talking to me more about financial things because he'd been a partner in a law firm, he wasn't any longer and he kept hearing my name, so then he reached out to me, he said, "I keep hearing your name, people have a lot of great things to say about you. Why don't we get together?" When we got together. He said, "What do you want to do? How are you thinking about things?" And I said," Well, I'd really like to do a conference." He's like," Well, I've been doing conferences for 25 years, I'd be happy to help you figure out how to do it." I said, "Really?" He said," Yeah, let's do it together for a few years and then you can do it." We had a really successful conference space for five years and then off he went and I went on for five or six more years to do that conference. But he also said," Come to Chicago, sit with me for 24 hours and I will tell you how to make more money than you're making right now."

Lori Castia Martinez: Wow.

Vernā Myers: Right? And I was like, "What's up?" You know how Black people are, like, what is this? I don't know about this. But I want to say that, I really want to say that because I see people inviting people sometimes on the dance floor and they're like, "Oh, what's up."

Lori Castia Martinez: Yeah.

Vernā Myers: Right? Or they get out and they don't do their best dance because they're so suspicious and there's a lot of cynicism and there's a lot of mistrust and I get it and I know where it comes from but you have to really look for those people who are saying they want to make a difference and make it easy and not hard for them to help you make a difference and he was not lying. Within a year I had increased my revenues by 50%, it was crazy, just by doing things that he had learned to do and that he was passing on.

Lori Castia Martinez: Wow. That's amazing. Well, in the spirit of sharing, you have shared with all of us this fabulous book.

Vernā Myers: Thank you.

Lori Castia Martinez: We're all very excited about it. What if I Say the Wrong Thing? Many of us, 25 Habits for Culturally Effective People, lots of stories, lots of great tips. What's one habit that you want to share with us?

Vernā Myers: Well, can I see this book right here? So my first book was so long, it was this big, it was this long, my editor was like," Do you want people to just buy it or do you want them to read it?" I was like,"I want them to read it," he's like," So you're going to have to cut it down." I had a whole section on Whiteness. He was like," Okay so, right now the whole book is off kilter because this one chapter about Whiteness has got 80 pages." So the second book, I was like, "Okay, I got to make this thing readable on a plane." Basically you need to get on a plane like on the East coast and go to the West coast or vice versa and be schooled, okay? So I made it really assessable, it's tip based, I know people like their tips.

Lori Castia Martinez: It's in your purse.

Vernā Myers: Basically people were asking me this question all the time and what I noticed is that there was a paralysis around engagement and bridging the divide because folks were constantly afraid they're going to say the wrong thing. So I was like, "Okay, I got to take these excuses away from folks," right? I want to tell them an example of something that God said incorrectly, I want them to know why it's incorrect because a lot of us either hear things being said to us, that we're like, "That's not good," or we say something and all of a sudden the whole room freezes or people start looking at their shoes and you're like," Oh, man." So I was like, but you don't know why, you don't know why it's wrong. It just hits you wrong or it has a bad impact, but you don't know why it's wrong. So I was like," Okay, I'm going to explain what's wrong and then I'm going to explain how to get out of it." That's the idea or how not to get in it. Anyway, so I mean, one of the things I think it's tipped to where I'm like, I hope she can drive and a lot of people like that because it's the story of me being on a plane and hearing a female pilot's voice come over the PA system and being all excited. I'm like," Oh, women are in the stratosphere, the cockpit, we're so awesome. We're moving up. It's all good, women's rights." And then it started getting bumpy and I was like, "I hope she can drive." And that was my indication that I was a biased person because I realized when I was coming back on that ride, the next leg, it was a male pilot, it's always a male pilot, it is often bumpy and I never questioned the competence of the pilot.

Lori Castia Martinez: Yeah.

Vernā Myers: And I'm like, look at that miss diversity lady, right? And I was like, good grief if I study this and do this work all the time and that thought came to my mind and I didn't realize in the moment that it was a problem, I had to actually see the difference in that leg back and then I started really going," Oh my God, this is what they're talking about, automatic associations." That even though I'm a good person, I got a brain that's sorting very quickly through a lot of data and it's going to be doing it even more so when it's feeling like there's a high risk, right? And so, what happens is my brain says, big tube in the sky, you want a guy. That's what the brain has been taught over and over again and hey, I know some guys who can't drive. I know some women who were excellent drivers, so even having that information, wasn't enough to keep me out of that automatic association and I feel like that's what happens in the workplace a lot. I feel like that happens in our relationships no matter where we are, in our communities, in our society is that we're not aware of how our brain is making up stories about people before we even know who they are and either that's a good story or that's a story that you don't want anything to do with.

Lori Castia Martinez: Yeah. Well, let's flip this on its head. You mentioned a minute ago, what if you're on that other side of that awkward comment or that awkward conversation, what tips do you have for those of us in the room who've maybe been in that seat?

Vernā Myers: Yeah, right. And it actually just goes back also to what he said about microaggressions and micro-inequities, right? So I know that our first response is no, she didn't or are you kidding me or whatever. But what I have learned to do is to decide that I'm not going to take on the whole thing by myself, I feel like we should share the pain, right? And so, what I am really trying to do is to give people a notion of impact, because what happens is that people are like," But I'm a good person and I didn't mean that, you took it wrong and you're too sensitive and all of that," right? So that's why a lot of us don't speak up when there's a problem but as a result, we take it all in, it hurts our feelings, we've got the trauma, it's re-stimulating us. And so, I have learned to say things like," Excuse me, but what do you mean?" Just what do you mean? Because I could be wrong, I could have jumped to a conclusion, you might be able to clean it up, you know how they say," Clean it up," right? I want to give you the chance to clean it up or seriously, when someone really says something that slaps me up across my face, I'm like," Wow, that hurt," or I'll just say," Ouch." So I try to get my whole company to get the ouch thing going because ouch just like this nice piece of feedback that's not like, I hate you, you should disappear or I got this from my son, he's like," Awkward." Like I feel like that's just awkward, right? So, I mean part of it is if you're a comic person, you can throw that in there or you can say," Can we start over?" Or you can say things like," I've had a really different experience." This is especially important for an ally, like maybe you're not taking the full brunt, but you can see that it is a problem that you can say something like," Well, my experience is really quite different, or I wonder how people would feel if they understood this or that or are you aware of that?" So you add extra info, so it really is depending on what day it is, right? Because some days we just are not up for it, so I'm not saying that in every case you need to say something, but I feel like we need to say more things in more cases than we do, because we're always trying to fit in, get in, stay in but we don't understand that when we don't stand up, it actually makes it harder for us to ultimately stay, or to stay in the full capacity that we could deliver. And so, we start to retreat, we start to look like we got an attitude all the time. We're not attractive sometimes because it's weighing on us and you don't have to do it in a moment, some people are really good, I've learned to do it in the moment. Like if I'm in a taxi or something and the driver starts going on about some people, right? I mean, I time it, but when I'm getting out, I'm like, "I don't think we use that language anymore, thank you!" You know what? Sometimes you're just going to have to do it that way or I'll say something like, "Well, not everybody is married to a person of an opposite gender," because they'll just have that heteronormative language that they're using and I'm like, "Actually..." So I think you can do it in a moment, but if you can't do it in the moment you can come back. You can say, "You know that conversation we had? There's just one thing that just stuck with me and so, I thought I should just share it with you." Now at Netflix, we're big on feedback. So we're like, "I need to give you some feedback," but it's a nice setup because feedback could be about anything, but this is another way that you could say to someone like," When you use that term, I'm not sure that you know that actually the better term is this because that blah, blah, blah." And so, a lot of times people appreciate that. Nobody wants to keep stepping in it.

Lori Castia Martinez: Yeah, no, fair enough. Well, speaking of those who help us out when we're in the workplace, allyship and at Salesforce it's something we've been talking a lot about.

Vernā Myers: Yeah.

Lori Castia Martinez: Tell us about your experience at Netflix. How are you talking about allyship? Why is it important to your business and the journey that you're on?

Vernā Myers: So I got there this time last year, right? So my first business was to get us all on the same foundational conceptual understanding about inclusion, about diversity, about cultural competence, about unconscious bias, about privilege and allyship is the next step on that understanding what this work is about. And the reason why we got to allyship ultimately is because as you get all this information, what are you going to do with it? So allyship goes from concept to action. It's really a call to action. And we're actually starting to launch this whole thing around the whole world and it means different things in different places to different groups, but mostly what it means is that you are going to stand up and be part of correcting the inequity and the disparity in whatever environment, whatever team, whatever country, whatever society, right? And I think the solidarity idea is something that has to be driven home and also that allies are in partnership and you really can't just call yourself an ally, you actually have to do something, like we're never given out the I'm an ally T-shirt yet, right? Because we're like, nah, folks are going to be trying to get the T-shirt, but not doing the work.

Lori Castia Martinez: You got to earn that T-shirt.

Vernā Myers: Right? And I think the biggest misconception that we are trying our best to make sure people don't inaudible is that somehow they're like the people who are helpless and then there are the people who have all the power and they're going to help these people, right? Because they're good people and they're nice and that's not what allyship is about. Allyship is you understand that unless this person is good, nobody's good. That you stand to benefit as much as anyone that you're stepping in to support, because we cannot continue in a world where people are not respected, aren't given dignity based on something that should not be of any relevance whatsoever, their identity, their background, how they identify, right? So one of the things we're saying to allies is you must be led. You don't lead the other person, the other person has to lead you. You have to be in partnership, it's a lot of listening, it's a lot of learning before you can even step, really. And so, that is the work. You're not doing philanthropy, it's not about sympathy, it's about realizing that you want a certain type of world, that you have also been injured by sexism and racism, all of that, all of us bear the brunt of those oppressive systems in different ways and so, we all have to be part of changing it. And it's everything from our larger society to how people interact with each other in the workplace, in a team, with their outside partners, their clients, their customers, it's all part of the same thing.

Lori Castia Martinez: Yeah. Well, thank you. Many of us, to the tune of 2 million of us are fans of your Ted Talk...

Vernā Myers: Thank you.

Lori Castia Martinez: ...where you're talking about this chipping away at biases, and you say it in your Ted Talk, you have to walk toward the discomfort.

Vernā Myers: Mm-hmm(affirmative).

Lori Castia Martinez: Tell us about that. What does it look like to consciously walk towards that discomfort?

Vernā Myers: It's so funny because after that Ted Talk, I mean, people would be coming up to me in the street and they're like," Okay so, I went to the grocery store...

Lori Castia Martinez: Oh no.

Vernā Myers: ...there's a guy there, I've seen him for 20 years, I've never spoken to him because I didn't know what to say, whatever and I spoke to him." I'm like," How did it go?" She goes, "It's okay, it's okay." I mean, the things that people are scared to do blows my mind. I'm like, all right, but all of us quite frankly have some level of discomfort, right? So I'm taking my boyfriend to the HRC dinner in D. C., the Human Rights Campaign, dinner in D. C., Netflix is going to be there, I'm taking him. He's super straight, he's super Black man straight, from the South and I'm like," You ready?" And he's like," Yes!" But when you think about it, it doesn't matter, whatever your up identity is, like whatever your identity is where you're in the majority and you have you been used to the norms being around your identity, whatever that is, there's usually going to be some discomfort as you try to get comfortable. But people don't realize that, they somehow think you can get comfortable without being uncomfortable, you can't. You got to first be uncomfortable and do it enough until ultimately you know it's okay to wear jeans to the Black church because sometimes we're wearing jeans to the Black church now, and the Black folks in church are going to be nice to you no matter what, no seriously, because I had some White friends, they're like, "Oh my God, why didn't you tell me? We went to church, we had on jeans, everyone's dressed, we feel terrible. We were disrespectful!" I was like," It's not that bad. It's not that bad. I'm sure people talked about you, but really, no, no." But I mean, mostly I think we fear the unknown and the more we fear it, the more we fear it, you see? The more we don't make the connections, the more we don't gain the proximity, as they say, then we get to make up stuff about how scary folks are, how ignorant they are, how violent they are, whatever the stories are we make up. And so, my call to action for people is to, for example, if I asked you can only choose 10 people to come to a very important dinner at your house and it's not your 10 most important people including your family. Like, okay, we already stipulated that maybe your family is part of your closest crew, but non- family members, who would be at your table? How old would they be? What would be their gender identity? What would be their sexual orientation? What languages would they speak? What does your own circle look like? Because if you do that analysis, some of us have a super, super diverse group of people we hang with but many of us have a circle that reflects who we are. And that means on some level we are avoiding discomfort. Now some people are like," Look, I go to work every day and I'm outnumbered and yeah, hell, you're right, I'm going to surround myself when I'm not at work with my peeps." I get it and there are also some limitations to that, right? Especially as you think about where you're in the majority and where you might need to expand beyond your comfort zone. So I'm really saying don't get crazy awkward, build relationships around some common goal or theme. If you're at work, you're working, build a relationship with someone you're working with and then little by little, that relationship starts to grow, you grow trust and then you start to have more of that relationship grow into more personal things and then you start to have various conversations and then you are expanding your social and professional circles. And by doing so you can stop saying things that get you in trouble because if you have a friend, like I remember, I have a friend she's Jewish and I had gone to Barnard College and I had been with a lot of Jewish girls, many of whom were my friends, some who were not, but this was one of my besties in Boston growing up and I was describing a situation from college and I said to my friend, I said, "Well, she was a typical..." and I had used a name that I had heard over and over again at school, three letters beginning with a J and my girlfriend was like, "What?" And I was like, "She was a..." And she was like," What?" And I was like, "You know." She's like, "You can't say that." And I was like, "What do you mean I can't say that?" And then I did the typical thing we hate, but you're my friend, we have Jewish friends and I love the Jewish people. And I started doing all that stupid stuff that we hate when people are like, "I got one Latina friend and I was at her house or I've been to an Indian wedding." You're like, "So?" I was doing all that and she looked at me and she was like, "You can't say it." And I was like, "Oh shoot. I had no idea," right? But in a friendship, A. Your friend can tell you where you're wrong and B. You can apologize and C. They will still be your friend. So I say build relationships, create friendships, learn things from that and you can make mistakes in relationships and recover from them but when you do this to everybody and you keep them at arms length, it's really hard to build that rapport and trust where you can learn and grow.

Lori Castia Martinez: Yeah, that's amazing. Thank you, thank you so much.

Michael Rivo: That was Vernā Myers and Lori Castia Martinez. Molly, what did you think?

Molly Q. Ford: I could listen to that interview 100 times. Each time I find a new nugget of wisdom that Vernā is dropping on us, awesome conversation.

Michael Rivo: It really was an enlightening conversation and I thought some of the points around mentorship and allies was really interesting. Can you tell me some examples of allyship that you've seen in your career or that you've done with folks to help?

Molly Q. Ford: I have one that's kind of fun. We have a term called hepeat and I want to give credit. Hepeat is something two medical doctors on Twitter phrased. Michael, have you heard of a hepeat?

Michael Rivo: No, tell me about it Molly.

Molly Q. Ford: But you're going to know what it is when I finished. So hepeat, it's a situation where you're having a meeting and there's a group of folks in the room who are having a conversation and a woman has an idea and it goes unnoticed and everyone keeps talking and they're talking over her and they brainstorm and a few minutes later that man, a man in the room might have the same idea and then everyone goes, "Great idea, Bob. That was awesome." And the woman's sitting there stewing like, wait, that was my idea. And so, they call that a hepeat. When the man hepeats the woman's idea. So I want to flip that on its head and I challenge people to shepeat, right? So if you're in a room, Michael, and you see a woman or person of color, anyone for that matter, even a man get talked over or their idea, I'm going to call it colonized, then you can shepeat. Using your voice to say, "Hey everyone. I actually think that was Rebecca's idea. Rebecca, do you want to repeat that idea?" And so that's how allies show up. Use your clout, use your influence, use your privilege to show up for someone else., So no more hepeats. Now we shepeat, which means we advocate and amplify the woman or the underrepresented person's voice.

Michael Rivo: I love that Molly, because I think we've all been there in the meeting and we've experienced that. Well, Molly, it's been great to chat today and I really enjoyed this episode and the conversation, thank you so much for joining us.

Molly Q. Ford: Thank you for the opportunity, Michael, and highlighting a diversity inclusion, equality, and representation matters.

Michael Rivo: I'm Michael Rivo from Salesforce Studios. Thanks for joining us today.


Today's guest is Vice President of Inclusion at Netflix Vernā Myers. She's most well-known for saying, "Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance." In this interview, recorded at last year's Representation Matters conference, Vernā dives into why addressing diversity is a team effort.

To join this year's Representation Matters from September 14–18, go to