e041. Starting from Scratch with Brittani Brown

Brittani Brown (they/them) is a DEI Leader in the digital health space, having launched a diversity office from scratch. Starting with 250-employee company, they created support for a 4-pillar DEI council, 11 ERGs, and programming that scaled with the company’s growth to 1,200 employees.

Including You Interview with Brittani Brown

e041. Starting from Scratch with Brittani Brown

[00:00:00] [00:00:48] Amy: Welcome back to Including You. I’m your host, Amy C. Waninger: the inclusion catalyst. My guest today is Brittany Brown. They’re a DEI leader in the digital health space, having launched a diversity [00:01:00] office from scratch.

Starting with 250 employee company, they created support for a four Pillar DEI council, 11 ERGs, and programming that scaled to meet the company’s needs as it grew to 1200 employees.

Please welcome to the show, Brittani. Hi, Brittani. How are you?

[00:01:19] Brittani: Hey, I’m doing well, Amy. How are you?

[00:01:21] Amy: I am so excited to talk to you today, because it’s rare that anyone these days has actually had the experience of standing something up from scratch with the level of scale and the level of success that you did.

So I’m excited to talk to you about that.

[00:01:39] Amy: Can we start with why is having inclusion as a focus so important in the digital healthcare space?

[00:01:47] Brittani: Sure. And thank you for saying that. Let me just start by saying it was not easy and it was not something that I necessarily sought out to do.

It was something more so that I landed in [00:02:00] and I’m glad and I’m better for it. So, to start: why is it important in the digital health space? I think in any space, in every industry, I think DEI should be a priority. And specifically, within digital health. I had been working in digital health prior to the pandemic, and it was more so on the horizon for what was next in terms of the healthcare industry.

And when the pandemic happened, clearly everything shifted to the digital space. So it really accelerated the growth and the popularity and the demand for digital health. But we saw that it was, there were a lot of benefits from healthcare being digitized and being more accessible in that way, specifically around DEI and digital health.

When you’re dealing with health, you have to deal with the person. In DEI, you’re dealing with the person. By not including DEI when you’re dealing with people, specifically health, you miss a lot. Health equity is something that is becoming more popular and more [00:03:00] talked about, especially now that we’re stepping into really embracing and understanding what it means to be an inclusive business industry, et cetera. And health equity is becoming more of a conversation.

So, I think specifically being able to treat clients, users the best that you can, having the largest impact in reaching as many people as you can, you need to really look at your DEI approach, looking at how you’re interacting with folks and tailoring that to people’s specific needs as they are individuals and not monolith.

[00:03:33] Amy: Thank you for sharing that, and I think it’s an important conversation to have now as the public conversation has transitioned to talking about post pandemic, even while we’re seeing huge, soaring hospitalization rates for flu, RSV and covid, even as we’re seeing death tolls, stack up.

And, right now we’re recording this in December of 2022. So, we’ve moved the narrative even though the circumstances haven’t [00:04:00] changed a whole lot and there. The pullback on some of this health equity in digital health, telehealth and telemedicine especially has started to happen already.

I think I heard the other day that, know, they’re pulling away from telemedicine in the Medicare space, which is going to leave healthcare inaccessible for a lot of people. So, I think this conversation remains especially relevant in this point in time that we’re in right now. So, thank you so much for covering some of this with us.

I wanted to start with, you’re at this 250 person company, which I’m guessing since it was in the tech space and the healthcare space was in a startup mode with 250 employees. And somebody said, “Hey, we need to do something about DEI,” and the person- the somebody that needed to do something was you.

Can you talk about what the ask was in a 250-person company at the time, and how that- how the needs of the company evolved over time? [00:05:00] And then I wanna go back to how you built it.

[00:05:03] Brittani: Sure. So taking a step back the person that said there needed to be a  DI space was me. So I joined the company at a time when the George Floyd riots were happening, and I lived in Baltimore previously.

I live in Philadelphia now. But it was during that time that I was actually onboarding that the George Floyd riots were happening in Baltimore. And where I lived, you could hear helicopters. I actually missed a day of orientation, an hour of orientation because I had overslept because the power went out from everything that was happening right outside of my door.

And prior to that, I was not somebody who was really immersed in marching, advocating, things like that because I am biracial and really didn’t see a place in that for me, and was really intimidated by it. And that changed drastically when these things were happening right outside of my door.

And ironically, when I was being onboarded, I also had people in my cohort who [00:06:00] lived in Minneapolis who were white. And so you were saying that everyone was being impacted by this; not just black folks, not just people in Baltimore, not just anywhere. It was happening everywhere, and everyone was impacted.

And at that time, I wasn’t hired to do anything DEI related, but it was so pressing and the social unrest was something that everyone was talking about. That’s one of the benefits that I will say, from my opinion, was of the pandemic was when things happened, we had to pay attention. We were all sitting at home. We were all being impacted.

We all had to watch it. We weren’t out our heartbeat as one or a moment in time, and I think that was significant. And one day I was talking to my manager and I was saying, “Hey, this is something that’s really weighing on me that’s impacting me, and I think it’s impacting a lot of people and we don’t have a space for people to come together.”

And so she encouraged me to speak to HR to see what I could do. if they would be open to a group employee resource group. I didn’t know what that was at the time. And so I reached out and they responded saying that they had been [00:07:00] thinking about it too, and that they welcome any grassroots ERGs to be stood up.

And me being somebody who is black and gay, I thought, “Hey, let me start those two ERGs.” So I stood up the black ERG and the LGBTQ ERG, the first two ERGs at the company, and then by the end of the year, I was creating documentation and laying down the foundation of how to start ERGs, so that the people who had expressed wanting to start other ERGs could then follow the footsteps that I took.

[00:07:34] Amy: That’s amazing that you started two ERGs at the same time, from scratch, never having done this work before. That’s really amazing. And so where did you go? What resources did you use? Because somewhere, right, in 2022, 2023, as we’re recording and this is being aired, somebody somewhere sitting in the company going, “I need to do something.

I feel a calling to do this. I need to speak up and advocate. But I don’t know where to [00:08:00] start.” Where did you start? What resources did you rely on? Who did you follow? Who did you talk to? Did you just brainstorm it and sketch it out a napkin and implement? Or did you rely on, other experts or other people in your industry to help you?

[00:08:12] Brittani: Sure. I spent a great deal on LinkedIn. In my spare time I would reach out to people who I saw had anything, DEI in their title. I spoke to people who worked as program managers, people who were ERG leaders, and really just asked the question, “Hey, do you have time to speak to me? I’m at this company, I’m looking to stand up some ERGs and do some DEI work.

There is not a formal department. Can you help me in terms of how to create this?” My manager at the time was very instrumental in understanding. She was someone who was passionate about DE and I and had been at the company for, I think, two years prior and was trying to do things and she wasn’t able to really create much.

And so she supported me because she saw that I had a fire and I was actually getting some traction. So, I bounced some ideas off of [00:09:00] her to see what her thoughts were. And then honestly, there was a lot of literature online. DEI has been around for a long time. It has looked different than it does.

But it did exist and ERGs is something that had been created in the past, and so I looked at some of the frameworks that existed as well as those conversations that I had with people who were already working in the space.

[00:09:24] Amy: Okay. You mentioned that you set up the ERGs, the two ERGs. Did you start with the diversity council first and then the ERGs, or did the ERGs come first and then you implemented the diversity?

[00:09:33] Brittani: Sure. So the DEI council actually was a, another grassroots volunteer group of employees. And it was around maybe like 20 to 30 employees working in that space from all over the company. And so that was something that existed and was- It actually was formed when I was hired, so it was around the same time.

And so I joined and became a part of [00:10:00] that. So it was, they didn’t work together. The ERGs and the DEI council at that time, they were more so two groups. And the DEI council primarily focused on the business. So looking at how DEI is impacting employee retention and recruiting, how we’re partnering with other companies.

Even looking at how our product is impacting our clients whereas the ERGs was more so focused on these specific populations providing a safe space, providing a sense of inclusion at the company and working on initiatives.

[00:10:34] Amy: Very good. So, then you used that template that, prototyped the ERGs with the two and then expanded to 11.

Is that correct? Over time? And helped other people spin up their own?

[00:10:44] Brittani: Yeah, so I was I was working two jobs essentially. I was working full-time job doing coaching, and then I was doing a full-time job building, DEI, ERGs. And it was in the next year that I proposed having a new role. [00:11:00] And so at that time, I fully transitioned to being a DEI program manager.

And at that time, I spent so much time really building out and thinking about the foundation of ERGs how to run successful events, how to get engagements creating trainings for er g leaders, as well as running the DEI council, making sure that we had biweekly meetings, or sorry, bimonthly meetings.

And making sure that we were making an impact with the business. But yes, by the time that I left, which was two years later, I had helped stand up 11 ERGs.

[00:11:34] Amy: So, what was the difference when you started, you had, 250 employees and you’re talking about what you doubled 500, almost what?

Five times or six times the number of employees? How did the needs of the organization change with the growth and what did you need to do aside from the additional ERGs? What did the DEI office need to do to keep pace with those demands?

[00:11:56] Brittani: Great question. I think one [00:12:00] of the biggest things was, of course, looking at, as you grow, that you’re reaching more people.

Your employee base includes more people, which is why we expanded from two to 11 ERGs. Additionally, you start to see other problems. You start to see DEI in other areas, so one of the go-to trainings for all DEI departments is unconscious bias,.

What does that mean? How do you put that into Praxis? How does this inform hiring and raises and salary? And so, getting into the weeds of looking at data, looking at employee feedback and trying to implement change. And I think that’s where a lot of companies go, so I, one thing that I used to do was meet with leaders across all industries that ran ERGs or worked in DEI.

It was a quarterly meeting and we would talk and there was this model that basically showed how DEI grows with the company and where, what are the challenges, where [00:13:00] they get stuck, what you should be measuring at certain points.

And being a company that went through hypergrowth, I saw it all. And that was a lot for someone who was not doing DEI, I saw a lot. I grew and I was exposed to a lot. So I think one of the things that happens is you implement DEI, you have this mission, people are fired up. You’re showing up, you’re doing trainings, and then you hit a point where people are like, “Okay, now we see there’s a problem.

How are we changing policy? How are we restructuring our company? How are we implementing something new? How are we addressing this?” We say that it’s an open door company or we say we wanna address unconscious bias and be able to have conversations. What happens when there’s a shooting? Are we really gonna talk about it?

And so there’s a, a moment where I think companies are faced with having to walk the talk versus just talk the talk And that’s hard. I think that then becomes the moment where you see if DEI is real. And not a lot of companies are able to do that, especially when they’re [00:14:00] competing interests.

DEI is its own line item in terms of having goals and OKRs and, but so is making sales. So is standing up this new product. So is all of these things. And unfortunately, I think sometimes DEI also the wayside across all industries, not just one. I think this is something that I’m seeing as a DEI practitioner.

But in order to meet the needs and to change to, to change course in terms of goals, like from year one to year two; year one was standing up ERGs and actually developing DEI, year two was actually measuring and seeing outcomes; being able to say, “Hey, we had this percentage, now we have this percentage.”

And I think what it took was having to get really honest around numbers, having to have more conversations around like how employees felt about what we were doing in terms of DEI and what they felt we could be doing better, and then having to meet with stakeholders and have a conversation around that and try to find a happy medium between business goals and people [00:15:00] goals, employee goals.

[00:15:03] Amy: And you know, that’s always an a difficult balance, for DEI practitioners to say, “look, I wanna push a little harder. I wanna do the next thing I want to, but that’s not a hill I can die on because the next one’s bigger.” Or that’s- I don’t want that fight to be my last fight because I’ve got another fight that I need to do, or I don’t, I can’t advocate for one group at the expense of advocating for another group.

There’s always these trade offs. But it sounds like in the work that you did, you saw real progress in the organization, that you were creating an awareness that made people reengage, want more, want to take the work further and want to have a broader impact even during growth, which can be a hard time to get people to focus on anything other than the endless to-do list of the growth.

What kinds of results, what kinds of business results did you see and what kinds of culture results did you see from the work that you did?

[00:15:54] Brittani: Sure. In terms of business results, I was seeing the company actually start to think about this from [00:16:00] a product standpoint. How can we infuse or take what we’re doing in terms of DEI and apply it to our product and the people the people who are trying to touch our clients, our users? So that was something that was huge.

Going from only measuring- not only, but primarily focusing on employee retention, hiring feedback, surveys, those type of things to looking at, “Okay, what populations are we working with? What are the populations that we aren’t touching? What are the things that we’re not understanding about our clientele?”

And I thought that was huge. And-

[00:16:34] Amy: Yeah, in the health, if you look, forgive me the interruption for a second, I just wanna put a point on this, because in the healthcare space, when we’re serving clients better, that means we’re saving lives. That means we’re improving quality of life. It means that we’re impacting families and communities.

These are not small. They might feel like small, incremental moves, but these are life changing improvements that you’re making in the lives of your patients and your clients. [00:17:00] [00:17:00] Brittani: Yes. And that’s, that is for me, I actually stepped away to learn more about products because- I’m- I believe tech is the future.

I believe that it’s here to stay. And I think digital health is also the future, and that’s really what I’m passionate about. But I actually have this book, A building for Everyone, is written by Annie Jean Baptist. She works at Google, and she helped to stand up the product inclusion department, which is essentially looking at how are we building products?

We need to make sure when we’re building products, that we’re looking at diverse sets of people, including them in the process of building and designing and testing, so that we are able to actually reach these people and have a broader impact on people’s lives on the world. And so I think that is the future of DEI. I don’t think DEI is just gonna be an internal focus where we’re looking at if employees are happy or if they belong. That matters.

And companies are built to serve people. And if we can have a two-pronged approach of looking [00:18:00] internally and looking externally and looking at who we’re reaching, DEI is going to transform, evolve to something greater. It has evolved from what DEI was 10 years ago, with this, with what has happened since being in the pandemic and all the uproar and all the energy.

And it will change again. And my prediction is that it will be external facing as well. But yes, it is huge and especially when it comes to health, healthcare in terms of access, in terms of really looking to say- okay, we know in a traditional healthcare setting, it’s a one-on-one conversation, it’s a pharmaceutical drug.

It’s more of a broader generic, “You have this, take that. Whereas digital health, Who has access to a smartphone, who has access to the internet? Where are they getting this information? Is this in information, something that they can read and understand?

Is this an actual useful product to them? What does this product need to look like?” Things like that. I think it can be more tailored and more able to be modified in a way [00:19:00] that more people use it. And so I agree with you. It is huge that digital health company is looking at.

[00:19:07] Amy: And I’m sorry I cut you off.

I just, it’s, I get passionate about a few things and one of them is health equity. But you were gonna talk a little bit about, I think you were getting ready to transition into the kind of the cultural impacts internally of the work that you were doing. And I don’t wanna miss out on that.

[00:19:19] Brittani: Yeah. So internally really seeing the culture, the company culture embraced DEI. So having a DEI calendar on everyone, every employee’s calendar where they could see what was going on, cultural holidays and celebrations as well as ways that they can get involved in the company from ERG meetings, guest speaker, series on trainings, all of that.

One of the things that I feel, I was most proud, of was creating a companywide 5K run for Pride month. At the time it was around 500 employees and 300 employees participated. [00:20:00] So great turnout, first companywide event that we ever did and really had a great turnout with that. Beyond that, had virtual potlucks so of bonds and working on scholarships.

Trying to make sure that we were providing access for more diverse talent to enter into the career space that then can be chosen and hired from there on. And I think in the later years, or the latter, my latter time at the company.

One of the impacts that I would say that we were able to have with actually having conversations and learning more about pay equity and kind of the ability to move within the company and what that looks like how to help people move, how to understand transferring departments and changing your careers within a company.

And how did that impact you? So, if you start doing this job and you get paid this, and then you move over here [00:21:00] and the salary is this, how do we account for that? How do we make sure that you are equipped and how do we put help to facilitate safe, facilitate change?

How do we enable you to grow in these ways. And so looking at apprenticeship programs and internal like, internship programs where you are able to make shifts into the career field or the department of your interests and giving you a chance to develop those skills while on the job. Yeah.

[00:21:31] Amy: It’s just amazing what you were able to accomplish in such a short time there, and in the context that you were able to do it right in the healthcare space, in digital health, in a pandemic during unprecedented growth, unprecedented in demand for what you were doing, but also, exponential growth of your company.

It’s just amazing what you’ve accomplished in just such a compressed timeline. And I understand necessity, breeds I think I think I’m gonna butcher this, but in my mind, necessity breeds productivity.

We get it done because we have to get it done. And it sounded like [00:22:00] you really had to. What’s next for you, Brittani?

[00:22:02] Brittani: Great question. I am really noticing a shift in myself. And I have become obsessed with this idea of product inclusion, inclusive design and not wanting to necessarily step into design or product alone but wanting to infuse that within DEI.

I think my experience is unique. I, like I said, I don’t traditionally come from a DEI background. I was a health coach and so I come from a people side of really wanting to connect and understand and create personable relationships and unique solutions for each individual and merging that with the concept of DEI.

So I bring that really understanding that no two people are a monolith no community is a monolith. And so we have to really get in the weeds and nitty gritty in terms of understanding what people’s needs are how they really are diverse. And creating [00:23:00] equitable and inclusive solutions for them.

And now from being in that space, seeing that DEI is not just an internal focus. It is not just about resource groups and councils and events and initiatives that are internal, that is important and companies are created in touching millions of lives.

How do we take it a step further and look at the products that we’re using, the products that we’re creating and being critical about how it can be more inclusive for you and touch more diverse folks lives.

So I think what’s next for me is really focusing on how to land in a place where I’ll be able to do this work. Working with product, working with DEI, using my coaching skills to make sure that I am understanding the person that I’m building for, working with and trying to serve.

[00:23:53] Amy: Wonderful. I wish you all the best, and I hope that you will follow back up and we can learn more when you get into [00:24:00] that space and learn how you’re adapting and how you’re using what you’ve learned to advance in that space as well.

Brittani: Thank you.

Amy: Thank you, Brittani.

[00:24:56] Amy: That’s it for this week’s episode of Including You. Join me next week [00:25:00] when my guest will be Shannon Pope from Sony Electronics North America.

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Amy C. Waninger Author Bio

Amy C. Waninger is the Founder & CEO of Lead at Any Level, where she improves employee engagement and retention for companies that promote from within. Amy offers assessments, advisory services, and training on essential skills for inclusive leaders. She is the author of eight books. Learn more at www.LeadAtAnyLevel.com

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