9 mins

In 2017, my colleague, Stephanie Stattel, and I decided to kick off a grassroots allyship initiative for Bloomberg’s Women In Tech (BWIT) community.

April 13 – June 22, 2021 Event series
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I remember questioning what I had gotten myself into as I walked into that first meeting. It felt wrong to call myself a leader for an allyship initiative when I had only just started to learn about the problems of underrepresentation in tech, and when there were many other people in the company better equipped and more knowledgeable to be doing this. Three years later, our initiative is something I've been really lucky and proud to lead.

Before I share our journey, a few principles:

  • ‘Allyship’ is the work to understand and eliminate barriers faced by underrepresented groups. 
  • By ‘grassroots’ we mean that this is not a top-down program mandated by HR or senior management. A group like this can be started by anyone – especially you.
  • Our initiative is currently scoped at being better allies to women, but the strategies and principles here can be applied to allyship for any underrepresented group(s).

Let’s walk through what I think are the three big phases in the lifecycle of a grassroots initiative: 

  1. Prepare. Answer Why, What, Who, and Where.
  2. Plant. Next, plant the ‘seeds’.
  3. Grow. Finally, scale.

Phase 1: Prepare

Let's look at the early days of our journey to answer the following core questions:

  • Why start an allyship movement in a grassroots fashion? 
  • What do you need to know before getting started? 
  • Who else needs to be involved?
  • Where does this fit in your organization?

Back to that nervous meeting room with Steph, where we were trying to figure out a good way to kick off the initiative. We decided to create a 90-minute workshop that would cover various angles of allyship, be full of information, and have interactive roundtable discussions. Sounds like a good idea, right? Wrong. Bad idea (more on this later).

Next, we tried to figure out the audience. The group we were trying to mobilize was men, and we wanted to create a safe space where they could be vulnerable and honest. So we decided to restrict our attendees to men only. Another reasonable idea, right? Wrong (again, more later).

We then thought, what do we do about HR? We wanted to be independent, but they were probably going to find out. Should we proactively inform them about this initiative before we even know what we're doing? Does that seem like a good idea? 

That actually turned out to be a really good idea. We were trying to run a grassroots initiative, not a rogue anti-establishment unit. The support from HR turned out to be crucial, and they ended up being early stakeholders. 

With a plan in place, we started preparing for the workshop. I began with online research, as it quickly became apparent how little I knew about the cultural and systemic issues women in tech face. We also spoke to colleagues who trusted us in order to learn what problems were most common in our workplace. We found that a lack of awareness and unconscious bias were two major themes, and so, we looked to incorporate them directly into our workshops. This was another good idea.

Despite the initial excitement, progress was really slow for the first few months: we both had day jobs as engineers; we had no experience designing and organizing workshops; we wanted to look for help, but we didn't know who else in the company even cared. Then a colleague suggested doing a low-effort, roundtable-discussion-style kickoff event with other members of BWIT to share our goals, get input from the community, and find more help. And we thought: that is a good idea. Right? Wrong. Great idea!

Not only did we find our next team member, but we also discovered how much enthusiasm already existed in the company for something like this. Most importantly, we realized that working on the workshop in a silo all this time was a rookie mistake. If we had started engaging with the community earlier, we would’ve gotten further by this point (in the next phase, we’ll see how).

Now, let’s put on our hindsight glasses and answer the questions we laid out at the start.

Why start an allyship movement in a grassroots fashion? 

  • To have organizational impact, no matter your role.
  • Starting small means the flexibility to experiment until you find what works.

What do you need to know before getting started? 

  • When it comes to content, not much. Starting the conversation is enough to get you going. You can learn as you go.

Who else needs to be involved?

  • You just need one-to-three others to get started. Our mistake wasn't that our team had too few people. Our mistake was that we were trying to do too much too soon.
  • Start identifying champions for your initiative. For us, this group included HR, managers across various levels of the organization that were passionate about diversity and inclusion, and our immediate managers. While it’s good to start doing this early in the process, this is something you can do as you grow.

Where does this fit in your organization?

  • If Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) exist in your organization, talk to their leaders to understand how your efforts can fit in.
  • Start as small as you want – possibly with just your own group or department.

Phase 2: Plant

In this phase, you plant the seeds and kick things off. The three main things you need to figure out in this phase are:

  1. Content
  2. Audience
  3. Metrics

Let’s turn the calendar to 2018. We had learned a lot from our kickoff and started developing a shorter training (which required less preparation). We also discovered that trying to restrict the audience to just men, even though it was driven by good intentions, wasn’t a great idea. When we began to invite everyone to our events, the diversity of experiences and personal stories we heard turned out to be the most impactful parts of the training. We also found that our ‘male’ allyship branding was unintentionally alienating gender-diverse colleagues who wanted to get involved.

We did have some good ideas though: right from the start, we focused on measuring and sharing our impact. For example, after our first few events, we sent a report saying, ‘In the last 6 months, we've held 6 events that were attended by 75 people: 19 of them were managers and came from 10 different departments.’ 

We also sent surveys after each event, which included rating-style, as well as free-form feedback. We received powerful responses, like, ‘Hearing women's personal experiences directly resonated with me the most. It's easy to forget the impact of your actions and behavior.’ That valuable feedback was the most direct way for us to gauge which parts of our program were most impactful.

Let’s put our hindsight glasses back on and see what we learned from the second phase.

  1. Content:
    1. Together with our initial research, the conversations initiated through our kickoff event shaped our initiative’s goals, resulting in training materials that now speak to our organization’s biggest allyship needs.
    2. Statistics are essential to set the ground truth in our presentations, but they won’t do much to change perspectives and behavior if they aren’t paired with story-telling.
  2. Audience:
    1. Don't restrict participation to just one demographic. Anyone who wants to improve allyship at your organization can be a valuable contributor.
    2. Take an intersectional approach. People at the intersections of different identities, like women of color or trans women, face additional challenges and bring unique perspectives.
  3. Metrics:
    1. Measure whatever you can: number of attendees, where in the organization they come from, the number who open your emails, and more. It will be hard, if not impossible, to draw a straight line from the work you’re doing to your organization’s retention metrics, so gather individual feedback to demonstrate your efforts’ impact.
    2. Review your metrics and feedback often to find ways to improve.
    3. Share the data periodically with your stakeholders.

Phase 3: Grow

This is the phase we're in right now. After about a dozen workshops, word of our initiative had started to spread across the company. We sensed a change in the dynamic. Previously, we had to advertise our workshops. Now, our colleagues were coming to us and requesting we conduct them for their departments. This signaled that we were ready to move into our growth phase.

Moving from Phase 2 to Phase 3 has been all about applying everything we’ve learned in our previous phases, getting more organized, and scaling out and up to reach more people and have even more impact.

The previous phases have taught us a lot about how our organization works, what people want to learn more about, how to operate and push forward within the boundaries of the organization, as well as when and where to seek help.

In terms of getting better organized, we are getting better at documenting the processes, contacts, and learnings that were only in our heads. We are learning what each of our strengths and passion areas are, and we are trying to optimize our team around those.

In order to scale, we are growing our content, audience, and team. Here’s how we are using what we've learned in our previous phases:

  1. Content:
    1. We are using feedback from previous attendees to learn what our colleagues find most helpful.
    2. We are constantly iterating on our materials based on that feedback.
  2. Audience:
    1. We are asking previous attendees to reach out to their networks and send them to our events – spreading the word in a truly grassroots manner.
    2. We are working with managers to train entire teams and departments, giving us access to colleagues who aren’t as plugged-in to our diversity communities.
  3. Team:
    1. We are continuing to recruit participants from our events to become trainers and moderators.
    2. We continue to make sure we always have a diverse team that represents all genders.

Conclusion

Can you start something like this? Yes, you absolutely can. Three years ago, this started with two engineers brainstorming in a meeting room. Excited but clueless, we had no idea where to begin. Since then, over 500 colleagues, including 200 managers, have attended in-person events; over 1,000 have been reached via newsletters; we have sibling teams in our San Francisco and London offices, and we're still in the early days of Phase 3. If someone like me can generate this much progress, you definitely can too.

Will there be challenges? Yes. We have found them surmountable with a little bit of time, the right people, and a supportive organization.

Finally, is it worth doing? You know the answer to that. It is worth doing! We cannot continue to expect underrepresented groups to do all the work of improving our culture. You can be a leader of that change.

Ready to start your own initiative? Here are some additional resources.