🚀 Breathe.



"Understand where biases and microaggressions get in the way of success for somebody and how they can hurt people, and then interrupt them in yourself and in others."

In this episode

In episode 18, Melinda Briana Epler defines the concept of allyship and what it means and looks like to be a good ally in the workplace. 

Tune in to learn why it is necessary to be and feel uncomfortable when doing anti-racist work and how to have conversations that promote safety and equality, and interrupt one’s that don’t, so you can make changes and create more equal spaces at work. 

Melinda is the founder and CEO of Change Catalyst, a San-Francisco-based advising company with the mission to build inclusive ecosystems. She is also a startup advisor and TED speaker who speaks actively about privilege, diversity and inclusion in tech, and how to lead with empathy as an ally. 

Melinda has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies and global NGOs. Since the launch of Change Catalyst, she has worked with more than 340 community partners and 450 tech companies – and her work has been featured in Bloomberg, Forbes, Black Enterprise, The Times, and many other publications.

Listen to this episode to learn how as a manager, you have the power to build diverse and inclusive teams and how doing so will elevate your organization’s health, productivity and profitability.

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Melinda’s start in the film industry.


Melinda’s first company that set out to create change through community building, technology and storytelling.


The power of stretch projects to propel people in their careers.


Working within parameters and collaborating to make decisions.


What does it mean to be an ally in the workplace?


If you aren’t getting uncomfortable, you are probably not a good ally, yet.


Taking personal and professional risks to make a difference for somebody else.


The importance of unlearning and then relearning to correct and change our behaviour.


How to use your power to create change in your organization, as a manager.


Understanding bias, identifying microaggressions and creating a culture that normalizes interruption and change.


Calling out hurtful behaviour, so we can change it in our organizations.


Privilege and a lack of diversity in the tech ecosystem.


You aren’t ‘lowering the bar’, you are being exclusive.


If you diversify your team, you will elevate your team.


The different access points to help build empathy and understanding so change can happen.


Episode Transcript

Aydin Mirzaee  2:24  

Melinda, welcome to the show.

Melinda Epler 2:26  

Thank you. I appreciate it. I appreciate being here.

Aydin Mirzaee  2:29  

Yeah. So you’re currently located in San Francisco, right? Yeah. And is that where you live? Or I know everybody’s kind of displaced during this time.

Melinda Epler 2:38  

Yeah, that’s where I live. That’s where I live. I’ve been here for seven, or eight years now, something like that. 

Aydin Mirzaee  2:46  

Where did you move from? before that.

Melinda Epler  2:48  

So I grew up in Oakland, and then in Seattle, and then from Seattle, I went to college at the University of Washington and moved to New York for a couple of years. I kind of became an artist for a bit and then moved back from there. I really fell in love with film as a medium and so I moved to LA, went to USC film school and worked, lived and worked in the film industry for about 10 years. Then Ibriefly went back to San Francisco, I mean, sorry, back to Seattle, and then spent a couple years there and then, and then came to San Francisco kind of full circle.

Aydin Mirzaee  3:25  

Cool. That’s awesome. So you know, you mentioned film and I know, you’ve been involved in a lot of documentaries. But you’ve also had 25 years of experience, developing businesses, innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, fortune 500, NGOs, and basically from all walks of life, for all intensive purposes. So before we dig into that, and we’ll spend most of our time talking about, I guess, but I wanted to start at the beginning and ask you Who is your favorite and most memorable boss? Like, at any point in your career, like if you were to look back?

Melinda Epler  4:07  

I’ve had several, you know, I’ve worked with a lot of folks both, you know, as bosses and also in consulting, my bosses there. One very memorable one was when I worked on my first film when I lived in Austin. I skipped that part of my journey. I lived in Austin for a year and worked on my first film there. And my boss was Catherine Hardwicke, She’s now the Director, she directed Twilight and 13 and some others, lots of other things before she was a director. She was a production designer. And so that was back on a Richard Linklater film, suburbia. She gave me my first big break. I was living in Austin and had friends that were working on that film, and they gave me the address of the film, the production office address, which is like a no no, but they did it for me, and I literally walked in with my resume in hand. And for whatever reason the person at the front desk, said just go on back to the art department, which never happen, right? It never happens in the film industry or in any industry, right. But they did. They told me where to go. I went back to the production design office and she wasn’t, Catherine wasn’t there at the time, but Steve Carpenter was the prop master and he put my resume on her desk where he knew she would find it. And two weeks later, I got a call. She asked me to be a full time unpaid intern. And I was like, Yeah, I can’t afford to do that. I was waitressing at the time, and it was you know, I had to, I had to pay rent, I had to eat and so I said no, which was a really hard thing to do. But two weeks later, I got another call from her. And she said I have a job for you. One of the characters in the movie was an artist and I was about to go to art school, so she knew I was an artist and the way I designed my resume was I put art on my resume. And so she wanted me to create art that would appear in the film. As, as if the character had created the art. And I could do it on my own time, it couldn’t pay me, but I could do it on my own time, and it would give me my arts art supplies for free. They gave me a budget for it. So she invited me into her office and kind of explained a lot. She told me so much about the work that she did and how she did it. And all of that I still use actually today, she introduced me to the rest of the art department, the costume department as well. And I ended up kind of doing a lot of different things on that show that really kind of built my experience and expertise in a way that most most of the times you don’t you would take years to kind of build that expertise but she really Gave me access that I would never have had and that that one job actually propelled me to multiple jobs in the future when I moved to LA a few years later, and worked in the film industry, having that job on my resume and her on my resume made a big difference.

Aydin Mirzaee 7:15  

Very cool. Yeah, that is a good sorry. And like you said, it doesn’t sound like it happens all the time. So that’s very good.

Melinda Epler  7:23  

No, it doesn’t, it doesn’t. But uh, you know, it was a lesson to me that, you know, break the rules, right? If you really want something, break the rules, figure out how to do it and I continuously broke the rules on that show and continue to.

Aydin Mirzaee  7:37  

So I have to ask then and obviously, you know, you went on and not just in film, but through all your other work, you have done a lot of leadership. And, you know, led a bunch of teams. I’m just curious, like, When was the first time that you kind of led a team and how would you say one of the ways that you’re leading style changed from those early days to where you are today? Or what was one of like the bigger transformations over the course of time.

Melinda Epler 8:09  

Hmm, interesting. Yeah. The first time I led a team was actually at one of my first jobs at a bakery. I think I might skip that one, it was so long ago and I but I’m gonna, I think I’ll skip that one. Because, you know, I was young and working in sales, selling wedding cakes and training people to sell wedding cakes, but then later, you know, when I moved back to Seattle, after the film industry, I started a company, it was in 2008. So it was like, one of the worst times maybe now is the worst time, I’m not sure. But 2008 was not a good time to start a startup. In the Great Recession, I started it with eight other founders. And I think that was one of my first mistakes is eight founders is too many. There were two of us. And then it kind of expanded and expanded. And I think the original team, you know, we had some kind of imposter syndrome that we couldn’t do it alone, we had to have this bigger, bigger group of founders. And I have learned a lot since then. And I’ve learned that, you know, I can found my own company and be a leader and a very effective one. But yeah, so we were a startup during the recession, and we couldn’t pay anybody. But we were focused on changing the world using the power of community building and technology and storytelling to really create change. And because we were in an economic downturn at the time, there were a lot of young people out of work, who couldn’t get jobs. And so we were able to build an incredible team of 25 people with no promise of a future paycheck and pay equity. I learned a ton from that, I learned the power of giving people stretch assignments and kind of giving them experiences that would help propel their careers and that being a motivation in and of itself to do great work. And then even for free and motivating through impact and also through that professional development and I still use a lot of the tools that I kind of gain from that experience now. We have interns and I’ve consistently had internship programs with the with Change Catalyst because I really feel that we get a lot out of it, but also we’re giving a lot but yeah, that’s the biggest mistake or the biggest learning there was the combination of, you know, just giving people a chance and really being okay with asking people to work for free if you’re giving them something really big in return. And also, don’t start a company with eight founders. We had this dream of being a flat organization with it. So basically, we had eight CEOs and leadership where everybody has equal power over everything and kind of has purview over everything, it just doesn’t work. Love them all personally, but also professionally, some people just aren’t, you know, better leaders than others and, and need more concrete things to grab onto then just this whole of leadership.

Aydin Mirzaee 11:50  

You know, there’s a lot to unpack there. You know, it’s interesting, you know, we talked about 2008 a good time to start a company or is now a good time to start a company and you know, ultimately, I mean, there’s a lot of opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be available, right? The very fact that you were able to hire people that maybe otherwise wouldn’t have been available. I mean, that’s a huge lesson. But also, you know, when you talk about, you know, the eight co founders, and you know, everybody was kind of the CEO. Of course, we’re talking about this right now and in the sense of the startup, but it actually applies to so much more in the organization, I find that a lot of times we are hesitant to choose who the decision maker is, even if it’s not like, at the corporate level, it could be in a team. And when there isn’t one clear decision maker, all those same problems continuously happen. So I think there’s, there’s a lot of value in what you said that applies to not just startups but all sorts of orgs. 

Melinda Epler 12:49  

Yeah, and I think that, you know, most people work better when they have some constraints, when they have some kind of like, this is my realm and this is where I lead and This is you, we may overlap but this is essentially your realm and where you lead, and then we collaborate when we need to make decisions together, but it’s not us making decisions over everything together, you know, those, those? I do think that people need it, most people need parameters.

Aydin Mirzaee   13:19  

Yeah, definitely. So one of the things that I wanted to ask you about, and I think, you know, for people who haven’t seen it yet, you know, highly, highly recommend you go on to the TED website or on YouTube and search for ‘Three Ways to Be a Better Ally in the workplace’. This video has gotten many, many, many views for the audience, who doesn’t yet know what an ally is. Maybe you could just walk us through what your definition of an ally in a workplace is.

Melinda Epler 13:49  

In most workplaces, there are a lot of people you know, a lot of people who are underrepresented. So whether that’s in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, disability, religious minorities. In the tech industry where I am usually working, anybody over age 35 is underrepresented and you know, LGBTQIA a lot, a lot of folks are underrepresented. And there’s intersectionality within that, where people have multiple of those identities and, and so allyship is really recognizing that there is an imbalance of opportunity in the world and that there are inequitable structures and systems and processes that make it harder for some people to get to the same place as other people. And so there’s imbalance and opportunity to live, to love, to lead, to thrive, using your power and your privilege to change it. So really prioritizing somebody whose health or safety or well being over your own comfort, because ally ship is often uncomfortable, you have to go outside of your comfort zone and take a risk to really step up and be there and advocate for somebody to really work to create change and correct the systemic inequities. Correct that imbalance in opportunity. 

Aydin Mirzaee 15:02  

You know, it’s really interesting. And I think, you know, obviously we were talking right before we started recording. And you talked about how  today is a particularly interesting time because a lot of attention and spotlight is on not just allyship, but also making sure  that companies are anti racist. This is I think there’s a lot of interest in, in people out there, you know, learning what they can do to be good allies in the workplace and promote equity across the board. One of the questions, you know, that I wanted to ask you is how do you know if you are a good ally? So starting at the grassroots level, so you’re, you’re just a manager of a team, you know, first line type manager, how do you know if like, you’re actually a good ally or not to Start with just like from a self diagnosis perspective.

Melinda Epler  16:03  

One is, you know if you’re good if people tell you, right? That’s one big one. And another is, you know if you’re getting somewhere if  you’re getting really uncomfortable and taking personal and professional risks to make a difference for somebody else. If you’re not getting uncomfortable, you’re probably not a good ally yet. Because it really does take putting yourself out there in a way that is, you know, uncomfortable and yeah, you’re taking your own personal and maybe professional risks and usually making some mistakes. And you know, when you make those mistakes, apologize, and, and then keep going. Keep learning, keep going. Allyship though is not something where you should be doing it for a reward. The only reward is really knowing that you’re helping somebody that you may care about helping somebody and working to make corrections that are much needed in the world because there are some people that have much more privilege. In this world unearned privilege in this world and that’s unfair, and you know, so a lot of this is about making those corrections. There’s a lot of pieces of ally ship. But the other piece that you kind of that self calibration and understanding that you’re working to be a good ally is making sure that you’re unlearning because we all have learned a certain history, a certain way of doing things that is not right is not correct, is not equitable. So we need to work on ourselves and work on kind of unlearning and relearning. It’s kind of eye opening once you become a good ally. So there should be a constant kind of barrage of oh my gosh, aha, aha, aha, lots of aha moments of, of, Oh, I didn’t know that. I have been in the dark about that. And I can’t believe I didn’t know that and sometimes there’s shame in and we need to get over those that shame for sure. And often, there’s fear. We definitely need to get over that. Fear and sometimes that fear is really about discomfort and we kind of need to get uncomfortable and be okay with discomfort and kind of get comfortable with uncomfort discomfort.

Aydin Mirzaee  18:10  

I love that, you know, if you’re a good ally, someone will tell you, if no one’s told you that, then, you know. But also just the concept of being uncomfortable. You know, I never thought about it in that way. And so that is actually a very interesting way to look at it as well. So, you know, we talked about the, you know, at the grassroots level, so if you’re a manager of a team, you know, how do you know if you’re a good ally, what can you know, people at the, you know, the leadership levels of the entire organization. So, you know, CEOs and heads of HR and like for the organization as a whole, what are the things that you’ve seen companies do that promote ally-ship?

Melinda Epler 19:04  

Yeah. And actually, and let me circle back a little bit on the other question to the managers and what managers can do. If you’re a manager, you have the power to promote people to make sure that they have pay equity to assign people to certain projects that might be stretched projects, and all of those things can either make or break a career can really change somebody’s career trajectory. And so you can actually measure if you’re, you know, really being successful, then you should have a diverse group of people going through promotions at regular at the same rate and being paid the same and so there’s ways you can actually measure if you’re doing a job there in terms of leadership and and how leaders can really create change. And how they can change their companies is to model it yourself, encourage ally ship and really develop a culture that normalizes it. And so that often means that you need to do some training with your team and so they better understand what are the actual steps you can take to be an ally and a part of our job is doing no harm. So understanding where biases and microaggressions and things can kind of get in get in the way of success for somebody and and can really hurt people and and so understanding those biases and microaggressions in yourself interrupting them in yourself and then also interrupting them and others and and really creating a culture that normalizes that interruption that that that makes it okay for anybody to call each other out and say Wait, that was not inclusive language we haven’t heard from this person in the entire meeting. Let’s give them the floor to really talk and or you’re you’re consistently interrupting that person. Listen, I want to hear what that person has to say, you know, normalizing that culture of ally ship.

Aydin Mirzaee  21:06  

That makes a lot of sense. I mean, you know, a couple of things you talked about making sure that you at the leadership level, represent and show that you care about these things. So that might mean at the executive team level, that there should be a diversity in your team, you know, from the get go. And, you know, the other thing, which is really interesting is, and I know, we’re going to talk a talk about hiring next because you can’t, you know, talk about, diversity without also talking about hiring in companies. And so, you know, one of the things that happens, obviously, a lot in tech, tech companies especially is you know, there’s obviously a gender imbalance and, you know, diversity imbalance. But I think that a lot of tech companies, you know, bring up all of these excuses and so before going into that, I was wondering what why do you think that this is all so pronounced in technology to begin with?

Melinda Epler 22:08  

A lot of it has to do with privilege. When a company is started by a young, white man that generally is middle to upper class, you know, economically has the ability to create a startup and not make any revenue for a few years, right? That all is privileged. And so then, you know, that happens and, you know, maybe you started in your parent’s garage. And you start to build a company of people, you start to grow that company. People tend to hire people that are like them. And we have networks and our networks generally are people that are like us. We continue to use those networks to hire more people and suddenly there’s a company that all looks the same that has very similar backgrounds and experiences and identities. So that’s kind of where it started. And then what’s happened is that, that is the signal of success in Silicon Valley and in the tech industry. And so everybody’s replicating, it doesn’t matter. Now, if you’re in Silicon Valley, you could be in India, you could be in, in Europe, it could be in Africa. And, and and still, there are those same indicators of what success looks like and that is perpetuated through venture capital. And you see that only less than 5% of all venture capital goes to anybody except white and Asian men. Right. And that is not indicative of all the startups out there. You know, 35% of startups are founded by women. 14% of startups are founded by Black founders. venture capital is not aligning with that. We have this kind of pattern matching and venture capital. Right. So even even when you’re starting companies, there’s a certain amount of privilege there and a certain amount of discrimination frankly. That gets perpetuated and then companies are even more successful. And then on top of that, we have done the same thing in our hiring processes, and our promotion processes. And so when we’re hiring in tech, most companies are still profiling, they’re still looking at the same patterns, they’re still looking for the same schools on people’s resumes, the same kind of experiences from the same few companies. And when those companies are not inclusive in our hiring processes, then that just continues to perpetuate if everybody’s looking as an indicator on resumes for Google and Facebook and, and a few other companies then, if those companies aren’t diverse, then it just can continue to replicate across the industry.

Aydin Mirzaee  25:01  

So one of the things, you know, that I wonder is that, you know, just going back to your garage example. If you have a garage big enough that can be a company office, you know, from the get go, that obviously precludes a lot of folks. So, but I’m just thinking that, you know, at what point does the process become easier, like in the sunset, I find that, you know, it’s probably easy in the beginning to just look around and hire people that you know, and you start with all those problems. But if you actually did a little bit more work in the beginning and not fall into that trap, I feel like eventually your company starts to be recognized as a place where there is diversity and so you’ll just naturally get more candidates. And I hear a lot of people in my circles complain about, you know, but we’re just not getting a diverse candidate pool. To me that’s, you know, obviously, it requires more work in the beginning. You know, one of the things that you say which I really enjoyed reading was when it comes to hiring people are like, yeah totally,  I want to commit to diversity but I just don’t want to lower the bar.

Melinda Epler  26:13  

I’m gonna say this in a way that I have not said this much publicly, but now we’re in kind of a different time because, you know, after George Ford was murdered, there was a big aha moment in the tech industry and a lot of folks are kind of waking up maybe for the first time to this imbalance and to racism and are really looking to address that. And so when you say I don’t want to lower the bar, it can be racist and sexist, and ableist because what you’re actually saying is that you believe that people who aren’t like you are lesser than you. That’s not okay. That’s not okay. And, and when you’re saying it to somebody who may be from an underrepresented group in tech, it’s a micro aggression, at the very least.  And a microaggression is an everyday kind of insult whether it’s intentional or not that can keep somebody from doing their work as well, because that is internalized. You know, what you’re saying in that moment is that people like me are not as successful, just fundamentally in your mind. Instead, flip it,  because so much of the data shows that diverse and inclusive teams are more innovative, they’re more productive, they’re more profitable. And they also in the long term, teams that are more diverse and inclusive are happier and healthier. Instead of lowering the bar by bringing more underrepresented candidates with more diverse talent to your team, it is raising the bar,  it is! The data shows that it will raise the bar right. It will make your team better,  really look into  investigating that yourself. If you have that instinct, rethink it, rethink it and raise the bar by diversifying your team.

Aydin Mirzaee  28:07  

Yeah, yeah, no, definitely, I think now’s the time. I mean, it’s always been the time. But I think now it’s not excusable, but like you mentioned. Yeah. You know, switching gears for a second, I also wanted to chat with you about, you know, some of the work that you did when you were producing documentaries. And you’ve, you know, you’re obviously a writer, you have a conference, which I’ll ask you about shortly. And one of the things that I think that you focus a lot on is this concept of just helping people change behavior. And over the course of time, and you’ve just been able to have so many different mediums to actually do this work, which one in your opinion, has had the most impact and like what has been in your experience the best way to incite change in behavior?

Melinda Epler  29:00  

Yeah I have over the years you know, I started in cultural anthropology to really better understand culture and how cultures change over time and then kind of learned behavior change strategies and through communication campaigns, through public health communication campaigns and I was able to take that into my documentary filmmaking. And then from there, from documentary filmmaking, I used storytelling and behavioral change strategies to help companies create change. And stories can help you know, build empathy and compassion and really understand in a way that very little else can. I mean, some people are, you know, there’s different access points from what I’ve learned and working on different diversity and inclusion issues, there are different reasons that people are motivated, different access points to this. Some people are motivated by the data and so on. Data is important and it’s really important too for companies to generate their data so that they can see what’s really happening and you know, where are we losing money by having this high turnover or these high turnover rates, for example, and so on. So data and the economic or financial reasons for diversity and inclusion is kind of another access point. For some people, if you do a good business case for it, and then others are motivated by some kind of aha moment that from their family, you know, a lot of men have daughters and kind of have an aha moment that I want to create a world where my daughter has the same opportunities I had, right. Or my wife or my partner has the same opportunities that I have and, or I’ve seen the struggle of this colleague and I didn’t really realize it until I personally saw that struggle. And I think my primary motivation is because it’s the right thing to do, because, you know, it’s not, it’s not okay to have an inequitable world and it’s not fair. And it’s not just and I want to change that dynamic in the world and decrease the suffering and increase the overall wealth, health and well being of folks. So we all have our own access points into this. And then there is science behind actually creating that change. So there’s a lot of years, years and years of behavioral science studies and models that should be used to create change most of the time. It’s not most of the time that companies will just kind of focus on you know, training to create change and when training doesn’t create change, it can help start it,  it can catalyze that change that could also be really powerful when you’re looking at specifics. Like if you want to change your hiring process and you need your team to better understand what can happen in a hiring process to be excluding  people and what can we do differently, what are other companies doing differently? That kind of training is really powerful. But  unconscious bias training, one of unconscious bias training isn’t going to fundamentally change anything. So it’s really using behavior change strategies and systems change strategies over time that fundamentally shifts cultures as well as really understanding that individual behavior changes and how that works. And people go through a series of stages of change. And then also companies have that kind of macro level of organizational behavior change, and that science is really important when you’re creating change.

Aydin Mirzaee 32:59  

Yeah, it’s interesting, I mean, a couple of takeaways from what you just said. One is that obviously people have different access points. So for everyone, it’s different. And earlier in our conversation you talked about it also has a lot to do with being able to unlearn. And I find that, you know, unlearning is not easy. And it takes time and it’s a thing that you can’t like what you said, just go to one unconscious bias course and then expect that to solve everything. It’s a persistent thing through multiple channels over the course of time.  Melinda, this has been excellent, we are running up against time. So I did want to ask you one last question, which is just on any parting advice that you would have for managers and leaders out there looking to better their craft, become better leaders in general, I know that you have your own podcast, which is called Leading with Empathy and Leadership and Ally ship, so people check that out. But you also have a conference, I’d love for you to tell us about that. And also just any other resources or things that you would recommend.

Melinda Epler 34:09  

My podcast is also a live event series, so every Tuesday except for the month of August, we’ll start back up the beginning of September. You can tune in live and there is a Q and A as well. And then it turns into a podcast so that’s leading with empathy and ally ship and  this fall, we have our sixth annual tech Inclusion Conference and career fair, we’ll be discussing diversity, equity and inclusion, how to be anti racist leaders, how to lead with empathy and ally ship and designing ethical products. And just in 2020, there’s so much that’s changed in terms of work, you know, how is work changed? How can you develop inclusive remote cultures and AR and VR is becoming a bigger thing now, because we’re all, well  not all –  I have to be careful about my language. We’re not all working remotely, it’s a privilege to work remotely. In 2020, but a lot of tech companies and a lot of companies are working remotely right now and so technology is changing our lives in different ways. And so we’ll be talking about all of that. And you can go to just tech inclusion dot co to learn more about that and for my podcast,  ChangeCatalyst.co slash ally ship series. We have some Online Toolkits also, you can download some free toolkits to create change, and yeah I would start there. 

Aydin Mirzaee 35:37  

Melinda, this has been a great conversation, so many insights. Thank you so much for being on the show.

Melinda Epler  35:42  

Yeah, I appreciate you having me.

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