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Celebrate, Educate, Amplify: The importance of being an Ally Year-Round

Ben Winn interviews Kalina Bryant about Black History Month, company culture, allyship, and resources she recommends.
Ben Winn
February 22, 2021
Interviews

Kalina Bryant is Head of Customer Advocacy at Asana and Host of the UnapologeTECH podcast. I first connected with Kalina when we had her on our Customer Advisory Board panel. Soon after, I had her on our podcast, and I also started asking her advice concerning my own CAB efforts at Catalyst. 

When the opportunity came up for Catalyst to lend its support to Kalina’s podcast, I jumped at it  because she is not only brilliant in all things tech, but she is also authentic, thoughtful, and an excellent interviewer. The purpose of her podcast is to provide a space for women of color and allies in tech to learn, create, and connect, and that is a mission the entire Catalyst team is proud to support.

Given Kalina’s expertise in both the tech world and the fight for equality, I couldn’t think of anyone better to have a candid interview with about Black History Month, and the role that both companies and individuals can play in celebrating this holiday, educating ourselves about Black history, and working to amplify the voices of those who are so vastly underrepresented in the tech industry.

Click here to download Catalyst's 2021 Black History Month deck

An Interview with Kalina Bryant

Ben: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me about this Kalina! To start off, you speak often about authenticity and the importance of being yourself at work. Why is that an important message for underrepresented folks and in particular, people of color?

Kalina: We spend a substantial amount of time working and connecting with our peers and it’s important to feel comfortable in your own shoes. If you are able to be yourself, you become more confident, and with confidence comes acceptance, and when you feel both confident and accepted you can thrive in any environment. This message is important to underrepresented groups and in particular people of color because we have been trained to conform. We are taught early in life to work twice as hard but not to show off. Women of color in particular are taught to work hard, be conservative, not to speak too much and honestly, to blend in. Who wants to live like that? 

We dedicate so much time to work. If you can’t be yourself at work, you are giving up a huge chunk of your life just for a paycheck. We shouldn’t live this way. We need to design a world where you can achieve, thrive and come to work as your full self. We need to be ourselves every day. When you can be authentic you can excel at your career. 

Ben: Lots of companies are doing things for Black History Month right now. Some are doing things behind closed doors, and some are being incredibly vocal about everything they’re doing. How do you think companies should approach Black History Month to ensure they are supporting people of color, but not tokenizing or commercializing them?

Kalina: The first step is acknowledging Black History Month and genuinely outlining an action plan to celebrate. Asana is the first company I’ve worked for where I’ve seen clear activities outlined to celebrate BHM. It has been thoughtfully planned out and we have an actual committee outlining key initiatives for February and beyond. This is also the first company I have ever been at that acknowledges BLM, which is positive, but highlights how far we as an industry still have to go. 

I do see a lot of action taking place at various companies in the industry, which is definitely an improvement, but my question to them is “what is your long term plan?” Advocating for underrepresented groups is a marathon and requires a substantial amount of work. I think if companies are going to celebrate and promote people of color, they need to make sure it’s not just for the month of February, and they need to outline what they are really trying to accomplish with their efforts.

Most importantly, they shouldn’t be using this month as a publicity stunt. You can tell the authenticity behind some companies and you can definitely spot the companies who are just following the status quo. If companies really want to see change, if they want to help, if they want to be an ally and create a better world for all of us—they should absolutely do something, but do it thoughtfully with long term goals. 

Ben: Being part of the LGBTQ+ community, I’m all too familiar with the tokenizing and commercializing that goes on during these sorts of events (in my case, Pride Month). What is a specific example of something you think companies should absolutely NOT do for Black History Month, and what is an example of something you think companies absolutely SHOULD do?

Kalina: I think that companies should definitely celebrate BHM, black employees, black excellence, and more. It’s a beautiful thing to celebrate other cultures and it’s amazing to hear black voices, black stories, and the like. We (people of color) need it, and the more we get the opportunity to express ourselves, the better our environment will be.

I do think that if you cannot be thoughtful and put resources behind celebrating BHM properly, then you should not participate at all. Companies that wish to celebrate should be considerate and not sloppy. Companies should pull in the right people and resources to showcase a great narrative. If you are in a role in which you are making company plans to celebrate black employees, black voices, and black excellence, do it as if you were celebrating yourself. DO NOT HALF STEP. Give 100% not 20% effort. 

Ben: In our conversations and on your podcast, you’ve spoken about the importance of “giving back.” What do you mean by that? 

Kalina: We all have a duty to give back. I went to a private liberal arts college and their motto was “You enter to learn and leave to serve.” We all have some level of privilege in America and I believe we have a duty to help others. One of my favorite quotes by MLK is “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” When I think about this idea, I think about how I can make the world a better place. I think about my strengths and I know I am able to help others by using my voice and using my ability to connect with people and design safe spaces for people to be themselves. 

When we spoke, even about the blog, I highlighted the importance of our partnership. Being able to tell you my perspective of the world and have you genuinely listen and seek to help is progress. We live in a world where people don’t listen, people are eager to just always be seen in the best light but don’t genuinely care about giving back. Can you genuinely say at the end of each day that you helped someone out of the kindness of your heart? 

Give back and see how it makes you feel. It’s rewarding for you and it’s beneficial for a better world. We must come together if we want to see change.  

Ben: I consider myself an ally, however my interpretation of what that means and how it manifests is likely very different from the next person’s interpretation. What does being an ally mean to you?

Kalina: An ally is someone who genuinely wants to help and use their privilege to help the underrepresented. You should know why you want to be an ally and be committed to taking action. People of color and women in the workplace most likely have experienced trauma in some form at work. Make sure you are dedicated to making a safer space for them. As an ally, you must speak up to see change. If you see something, do something. Take action. 

Ben: When it comes to the individual level, people generally want it to be known that they are an ally, which can be problematic. What are some ways in your view that people can be good allies and provide support without making it about themselves?

Kalina: Speaking highly of someone in their absence is a great place to start. Reputation is big, and speaking highly of someone to someone else can make a huge difference. Helping someone scale a passion project is also extremely helpful. This could mean providing introductions from your network, helping with sponsorship, and/or providing resources—financial or otherwise. Also, standing up when you see something may be the most important thing. Allies at times have a certain amount of privilege the underrepresented group doesn’t have, so as an ally you have a duty to stand up and be a part of the change you wish to see.

The worst thing you can do is be a part-time ally. As an ally you should be all-in and you need to be committed to facilitating change and not turning a blind eye. As an ally, people should be able to trust you. Remember that. 

Ben: How has the idea of being an ally changed in this remote work environment?

Kalina: The same principles apply, but the tactics are a bit different. It’s not possible to meet in person or host live events, but people are online now more than ever and sharing your platform with others is a great way to be a remote ally.

A great example of this is the leadership team at Drift. Tricia Gellman, their CMO, shared my podcast on her Linkedin, which was then seen by Drift CEO, David Cancel, who reshared it to his over 52,000 followers. 

As an ally in a remote environment, just realize the reach you have, try to amplify underrepresented voices through your platform, and proactively look for opportunities to help others, perhaps through making introductions or offering helpful advice. 

Ben: Black History Month is obviously an important month for discussing these issues, but they don’t begin and end in February. This might be a catalyst (see what I did there?) to get the conversation going, but how can companies continue the push for equality year-round? 

Kalina: Continue to amplify black voices and present opportunities for black women in tech. In many ways, black women are change agents behind the scene breaking barriers. Showcase them more. Allow black people to be seen as human beings and give them an opportunity to narrate their own story and truth. Participate in diversity and inclusion training, learn to be better. Ignorance is bliss but if you educate yourself you can do better. Focus on hiring more diverse team members and providing training so that those team members can elevate themselves. The wealth gap is the biggest issue in underrepresented communities, and it can be changed if the right opportunities present themselves. Continue to create a safe environment for black people to be authentic and thrive.

Ben: Alexandra Bolhack, our People & Places Manager at Catalyst, put together an amazing deck for Black History Month that explains all the initiatives we’ve been doing internally. We’ve included the link to that deck below for companies who are interested, but what other resources would you point companies to?

Kalina:

  • Tune in to my monthly podcast UnapologeTECH and take away life-changing tips.
  • One of my favorite books right now is How to be Anti Racist by Ibram X. Kendi and I think everyone should read it.

Ben: Last question - who are your top 3 dream podcast guests and why?

Kalina:

  • Bozoma Saint John - Super badass - I have watched her since her days at Uber. I love her authenticity and confidence. Seeing her thrive within her career is inspirational.
  • Kerry Washington - She is a phenomenal ally and partners with so many people to ensure change is taking place in different industries. 
  • Serena Williams - She’s sharp and groundbreaking. Not only is she an athlete but she's a board member of Survey Monkey and a CEO. She's a mom and a wife and an African American woman who holds herself exceptionally well.  

Ben: Kalina, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. I don’t know how you fit in all the amazing things you do, but I’m grateful for all the support and advice you give selflessly to myself and others, and I look forward to collaborating with you again in the future.

Better relationships. Less churn.

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