Michaela Ayers, Diversity & Inclusion Advocate, PayScale
Michaela Ayers is a customer education lead at compensation research firm PayScale Inc. She is also a training lead in Payscale’s Diversity Task Force that works across departments to create engaging opportunities for employees and to foster a healthy work environment. Michaela is the founder of Nourish, a series of monthly events that foster a sense of community through the lens of diversity and inclusion. Nourish offers a community of change agents, artists, activists and executives – who are willing to engage in courageous conversations in support of a growth mindset.
Bringing meaning to diversity and inclusion at work and in community
Michaela Ayers shares her experiences on diversity and inclusion as a lead with the Diversity Task Force at Payscale, a compensation research company. Goals include teaching people the language needed to talk about inequities and ensuring everyone feels safe to bring their whole selves to the workplace. As a Millennial leader, Michaela blends work and community inclusion initiatives through Nourish, her social impact organization. Nourish brings people into a community conversation about race.
Listen to more: Activate World
Bringing meaning to diversity and inclusion at work and in community
Michaela Ayers, Diversity & Inclusion Advocate, PayScale, and Founder, Nourish
Jon Mertz: 00:03 Welcome to the Activate World Podcast. A series on how business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than any elected official. We explore business activism with substance and depth of thought. We’re excited today to have Michaela Ayers with us. She’s a diversity advocate as well as a business strategist and social justice facilitator. Michaela, welcome to Activate World. Give us a glimpse into your background and experience and how you relate that to diversity and inclusion?
Michaela Ayers: 00:37 Absolutely. Thanks Jon for having me on. In terms of my background, I’ve been a facilitator for probably over four years now working primarily in the HR tech space. A lot of my role in the past had been focusing on coaching, and really helping executives and HR leaders make strategic decisions around compensation. A few years ago I took a detour into diversity inclusion just partially out of passion. As a woman of color just feeling really affected by policies and procedures and practices of organizations, and then also having the ear of an HR VP and an HR manager hearing some of the languages and struggles that cultures have, so that gave me a lot of interest into joining the Diversity Task Force at my organization PayScale. That has been a really eye opening journey in terms of what does it truly take to change a corporate culture? What are some of the really key differentiators in terms of making a culture shift?
Michaela Ayers: 01:44 Outside of my work I have been starting an organization, or building an organization called Nourish, which has the same mission of building an inclusive culture, but with community. Nourish is really focusing on individuals, people who maybe their organization can’t afford to put them through diversity training, or people who just want to have a conversation with someone around our differences. And so, that’s what led me to create a space for people to come together. And a little bit deeper into my background I have worked in service for my whole life and have always been a person who finds joy in taking care of other people.
Michaela Ayers: 02:28 And so, for me it really came down to after the 2016 election like a lot of folks I was just like, wow, we’re not talking to each other. People are really feeling isolated. How can I create a space where people can feel connected? What does it mean to connect people? It just led to more and more questions. It really centered for me around my own family’s history of coming together over a meal, having conversations together, and really building trust and connection. And so, that was the spark that led to Nourish, and then has led to also in my professional career really wanting to explore what does belonging mean in the corporate space and in a community space?
Jon Mertz: 03:15 After you graduated from college you started working at PayScale and had an opportunity to get involved with their Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce. Was there something that really inspired you to get more involved in that initiative?
Michaela Ayers: 03:27 I think for me it wasn’t necessarily a single moment, but it’s a lifetime of experience. As a Black woman it’s just something that I live every day in terms of knowing what it feels like to be the other, knowing what it feels like to be the only person of color in a room in a corporate setting, in a class setting, in a community setting on a pretty regular basis. And so, just noticing the inequities and noticing that some people have the language to talk about it. Some people don’t have the language to talk about it.
Michaela Ayers: 04:02 I am a really big fan of the writer Eula Biss who she says, “If you can’t talk about something you can’t think about something.” I feel like that’s really true. If you don’t have the language to really coach people through how to really empower people who are oppressed, and really lift up the communities who are often not thought of, or not invited in, I think that’s the only way that you can actually shift a culture.
Jon Mertz: 04:31 Do you feel that college was an open environment to have those conversations around race, diversity, and inclusion?
Michaela Ayers: 04:37 When I was in school it was not something that was a … There was not an open forum around diversity and inclusion. I did go to school in the Midwest. I went to school in Kansas in KU. It’s a liberal arts college. I got my degree in art history. The dialogue was more so around art and the history of art for me. The context of it was never about otherness. It was always centering Western culture and whiteness. And so, because that’s the norm in terms of education and what we learn in school. And so, there was no questioning of it. There was never an acknowledgement of the lack of diversity in my classes, or in the environments that I was in. And so, it was just that cultural assimilation that so many people do who are other when they come into an institution.
Jon Mertz: 05:31 Fast forward to going to work at PayScale, and having that opportunity to get involved in the task force. I believe you said on LinkedIn that you viewed the task force as an opportunity to address how individuals can bring their whole self to work. Tell us a little bit about what that means to you and how your task force approached that?
Michaela Ayers: 05:49 Absolutely. There’s typically more risk in being your true self if you’re in a room full of the majority. And so, from my perspective it’s giving people who are typically on the outside the chance to come to the inside, and really be honest about their experience to feel psychologically safe, to feel seen and heard, and not feel challenged by being the only person, and not also being accountable to say … Of course, I can’t speak for all brown people, so it’s that balance, right, where they are individuals. They’re speaking from their true experience. They feel safe to speak up in the moments where they are potentially being challenged by a bias, so that to me is how I would describe it.
Michaela Ayers: 06:37 And then from the taskforce perspective, when we started it I asked everyone to answer that question because I think that the intention behind it is different for every person. But really there was just that common theme across everyone on the team in terms of wanting to feel safe and heard, and really seen by their peers. And so, we went about that in a few different initiatives. I’m focusing on training, which is the project that I led. I’m focusing also on metrics. And then we have a program called Championship, which is really a mentorship program.
Michaela Ayers: 07:13 Giving people the education they need I think is the very first step. And then being able to measure what is the impact of that. And also what is the sentiment of the company when it comes to pursuing an inclusive culture? How does that make certain people feel? And then with the Championship Program I’m really trying to connect with people who wouldn’t typically be connected. I’m really trying to give people allies and champions for advancement professionally. Those were our pillars over the first year. It was really a great experiment. We saw a lot of really positive outcomes, so I was really proud of the work that we did in the first year.
Jon Mertz: 07:52 As the program rolled out what were some of the aha moments both for you personally and for some of the other members of your company?
Michaela Ayers: 07:59 I think the biggest aha moments are that it really has to start with the executives. It really has to be a top down approach in order for it to be successful. People really want to see their leaders modeling and embodying these principles of inclusion. They want to see what it looks like. And so, that was one of the big lessons for me, getting the executives bought in and really trying to understand what does inclusive leadership look like? We’re living in a world where we’re really defining that right now. And so, I think that gives every company a very unique opportunity to coach their leaders into being better. That was the very first thing.
Michaela Ayers: 08:41 And then I think the data piece is always really interesting. I have one of those brains that I’m always interested in what are the numbers saying. And so, to be able to capture that in a sentiment survey and do it on a regular basis to really see if you’re moving the needle I think is impactful. But then the other side of that is not being too reliant on the data, not feeling like you have to produce a number because there are going to be times when you’re experimenting and you can’t rely on a science when it comes to a human connection. I think there’s always that balance. Those were my really big takeaways after this year when it comes to the projects that we launched.
Jon Mertz: 09:23 I know in a panel that you recently were involved in you mentioned that it covered two of your famous topics, which were intersectionality and inclusion. How do you put these into practice?
Michaela Ayers: 09:34 Right. Well I think another way to say inclusion is just including people. Whenever I am seeing a movie, or listening to a song, or I’m thinking about who is not being centered? Who is the other in this situation? How can we include those people? And so, that comes into play with intersectionality because we all have so many layers of our identities and really trying to give that lens to especially things like politics, or education, or professional development. The statistics are just showing us how important representation is. And so, intersecting that idea with people who are typically uninvited I think that is a way for corporations and communities to really actually start to build inclusion. I think that mindset those two things are so interconnected. There’s no way to pull them apart.
Jon Mertz: 10:33 What do you think some companies get wrong about diversity and inclusion?
Michaela Ayers: 10:36 I think the most common theme that I see especially in technology is the need to get people in the door for recruiting. The trope of not finding the diverse talent. The talent pool is not diverse enough. And then that leading to a more … That’s just continuing a homogenous culture. That’s something that I see a lot. And so, trying to, at least from my perspective, I think the error in that is sure, you’re going to find someone who is diverse and does have the skill set that you want and you’re going to get that person in the door. But what’s going to make them stay? Now that you’ve got them here they are going to walk in the door and look around and realize really quickly what kind of environment that they’re in. And so, that’s why I think it’s putting the cart before the horse to really go from that recruiting perspective. Maybe it’s for quotas. Maybe it’s for to really serve a purpose because we know that diverse teams perform higher than homogenous teams.
Michaela Ayers: 11:39 We know that people who have different ideas, really intersecting people who think differently together, those teams perform best. There’s just so much data out there that proves that. I understand the incentive and drive to say let’s try to recruit a really diverse talent pool, but you have to start with the intention of inclusion because those people are not going to stay, so really thinking about what are our policies? What are our practices? How are people making decisions in interviews? How are we writing our job descriptions? Really thinking about internal policies that you can change first because it really shines from the inside out when it comes to attracting that talent to your actual organization.
Jon Mertz: 12:22 If I’m a prospect going in to a company and I want a culture of diversity and inclusion, what should I be looking for?
Michaela Ayers: 12:28 I would be looking at who is on their executive board? Who are their directors? Who are their managers? What are the demographics of those groups because traditionally people of color are not in leadership positions just as a fact in terms of representation. And so, that’s what I would look at first is who is actually making the decisions at this company? Have they made any commitments individually outside of their company to actually promote inclusion? How bought in are they? Because that’s going to tell you exactly the type of environment that you’re walking into because if the executives don’t care then the company is not going to actually make a difference. The person who is leading the company has to embody the principles in order for it to actually be an effective culture.
Jon Mertz: 13:18 Where should business leaders begin on addressing diversity and inclusion if they haven’t already?
Michaela Ayers: 13:23 I would say start with what is your intention? What do you want to learn? What are the obstacles for you when it comes to coming to a place where you might have to give up some of your power, right. I think that’s the challenge for a lot of people is realizing that inclusion means you might have to give up your seat to make room for someone else. I think that’s uncomfortable for some people. But the whole idea is to get uncomfortable because that’s what will need to happen in order for inequities to become equalities, so that I think would be the very first step. Just center yourself around your intention and be aware of your discomforts, but then also be willing to step into it as a leader and really be willing to transform your culture.
Jon Mertz: 14:14 I wanted to switch gears a little bit and talk about your community venture called Nourish. What is Nourish and its intent?
Michaela Ayers: 14:23 Yeah. Nourish is a social impact organization who the goal of Nourish is really to bring people into a community conversation about race and other forms of difference. It’s facilitated over a dinner party, so bringing different people in, total strangers, to come together and really just get curious about each other and their other experiences. What does it mean to be White, or Black? How does that feel? What are some of the stories around race that you’ve heard? Who is with you? It’s really about creating a space for people to come. And then really opening up that space for that type of vulnerability. That has been the focus of Nourish. It’s really for me it came from a realization that a lot of diversity and inclusion training doesn’t feel good. You’re in a conference room. It feels robotic in a way. It’s such a tender topic that I realize that in order to do it really right we need to be super human together.
Michaela Ayers: 15:33 Everybody has a connection to food. Everyone has a memory of a meal that someone they love made for them. That’s one of the memories that we can call on when we smell something. It can take us back to that moment. And so, I was really thinking about that psychology. I was really thinking about what does safety mean? How can I create that? What does bravery mean? How can I challenge people. Those are some of the things that were coming to me when I was starting to just launch this project over the last year. And since then it’s just been such an incredible journey meeting so many amazing people. Finding people in the community who are really, really inspiring, and willing to dive into the topic because I think people want to talk about it, right. We’ve been socialized not to and it’s time to give people the language to do it.
Jon Mertz: 16:23 I believe you started Nourish in 2017. How many dinners have you hosted so far, and how do you find a different mix of people each time?
Michaela Ayers: 16:31 I’ve done 11 dinners so far. People find me through the community, so they register on my site. And then through that community there’s around 150 people, and I post in that community when I’m doing events, and how they can buy tickets. That is how the model is working right now.
Jon Mertz: 16:52 Assuming most people coming to the dinner don’t know each other, how do you get those conversations started?
Michaela Ayers: 16:59 Absolutely. I think like any good party it starts off with a happy hour. I mean a few cocktails definitely help take the edge off for everybody. I think that I’m a really playful person, and so I try to in that happy hour infuse elements of play. How can we for that very first hour relax and think about the day, but take some of that off and not talk about work? Let’s talk about something that brings you joy. It usually starts there. I really put a lot of intention into greeting each guest with my authentic self. And then from there, after the happy hour we sit down for dinner. I do a lot to ground the space and make sure people feel safe. And so, that’s typically I think most connecting to our bodies, so doing a little bit of a breathing exercise giving people a moment to really settle in. And then it’s just a series of questions from there.
Jon Mertz: 18:03 In these settings do you get to a point where some of those barriers start to disappear and people begin to get grounded in some better understanding?
Michaela Ayers: 18:11 Absolutely. I mean my approach is I just rip the band aid off right from the beginning and talk about what race is. Race is a social category. It’s not a biological category. I break down what that means in terms of what we’ve been told is there’s five classes of humans, White, Yellow, Red, Brown, Black. This was created in 1776 by a social … He was an anthropologist, Johann Blumenbach. He created the concept. And then its exploded and created this social construct that we’re living in today.
Michaela Ayers: 18:46 I start from a historical perspective grounding people in a few historical facts, and then talking about the Human Genome Project and how that essentially debunked race. Humans are 99.9% the same. There’s more genetic difference between a flock of penguins than there is between humans, so starting from the biology. But then also talking a lot about the psychology, right. We’ve been conditioned to essentially hold up these hierarchies based off of the culture that we live in and that is real, so while it’s not biologically real it is a social construct.
Jon Mertz: 19:26 And as you see the dinners unfold towards the latter half of the evening what transformation do you see around the table?
Michaela Ayers: 19:32 I see a lot of when people come in the body language is different. People are a little bit more guarded. People are a little bit more … Typically what I see honestly whenever I talk about this, or whenever I’m around people, people are holding themselves, or you can just tell that they’re physically uncomfortable. But once we start getting into it a little bit more people are laughing. People are letting themselves let their guards down. There’s a lot more vulnerability. I think that is such a distinct difference that I can tell like an extreme before and after, the difference between how they walk in and how they walk out. That’s just a confidence to know I did it. I did this thing that I know has been really hard for me, and that gives people the confidence to do it again with someone else in their life whether it’s their family or friends. I think that’s the tangible thing that I always look forward to at the end, just having people laugh, and smile, and hug each other, and make connections as a kind of great tangible outcome.
Jon Mertz: 20:42 Yeah, coming back to the point of being their whole self.
Michaela Ayers: 20:45 Right, yeah, exactly. That’s something I feel is … We don’t have enough opportunities in our culture to really let our guards down. I was listening to this Ted Talk the other day and they were talking about how humans we essentially have four different ways that we communicate, right. We can read. We can write. We listen, and we can talk. Throughout the majority of our education we’re learning how to read and we’re learning how to write. There’s not a lot of focus on speaking and listening. And so, I do a lot of work too to make sure that people are listening to each other that everyone has a chance to talk, and that also feels like a really great accomplishment at the end of a dinner with 10 people that you don’t know. You get to hear from every single person and you get to be heard. That’s again just something that in our culture it doesn’t happen enough.
Jon Mertz: 21:39 What’s your hope for Nourish and for the people after they leave those dinners?
Michaela Ayers: 21:43 I mean my hope for Nourish is to change the world, just a minor goal. But I mean my hope for Nourish is to really see what it looks like to have a inclusive culture. I’ve been doing my own personal study into the history of social movements. What does it take to really empower a group of people to make change? That’s really my ultimate goal is to have a community of educated people who can speak about their experience and feel active in their communities because that I think truly could change our society.
Michaela Ayers: 22:19 What I hope people will do after they leave the dinner is tell someone about it, and then change one thing about their behavior. What I mean by that is again, we’ve all been conditioned to behave in a certain way implicitly and explicitly. If you realize that you have some of these behaviors how can you go about unlearning them? And so, really trying to shift those behaviors and patterns into an inclusive behavior that’s my ultimate goal for individuals after they leave.
Jon Mertz: 22:51 Well Michaela, thank you so much. Your joyful personality comes through as well as your curiosity and your steeliness in trying to make a big change in the world. Thank you for taking the time to let us get a peek into that here at Activate World, and hopefully inspire some of our audience to either get involved with Nourish, or try to do some of those things in their own communities.
Michaela Ayers: 23:11 Well thank you for inviting me into the conversation and putting this series of diversity and inclusion on. I think a lot of people are curious about it right now. It’s one of those things that is going to keep coming to the surface. And so, as much as we can learn about it right now is I think the thing that we can do to really shift the culture that we’re in.
Jon Mertz: 23:37 Listeners, we’d love to hear from you.
What is the key leadership trait to promote diversity in your workplace and community?
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Activate World is a team endeavor. Special thanks to Kaela Waldstein and Kent Nutt. Music by Jason Goodyear. For Activate World I’m Jon Mertz.