Erin Dertouzos of strongDM: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society
We have to acknowledge our biases. We know that every person has them. It’s scientifically proven. The amygdala’s responsibility in the brain is to make snap judgments with very little information within seconds — that’s what the fight or flight response is. We have to acknowledge biases exist, because within seconds of meeting someone for the first time, you have already formed a first impression of them based on things like their physical appearance, their behavior, what they’re wearing, and so much more. Once we acknowledge our biases, we can start to work against them.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Erin Dertouzos.
Erin Dertouzos currently serves as the Vice President of People Strategy at strongDM, where she applies over 15 years of experience in recruitment strategy and culture development. Erin believes recruitment is all about having the right people in the right roles at the right time, and leaders are responsible for creating a North Star with clear goals. By removing barriers that exist, offering quick and actionable feedback and ensuring teams have appropriate resources magic can happen.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in New Jersey until I was about 10 years-old, then I moved to South Florida. Suffering the unexpected loss of my father when I was three, I grew up in a single parent household, raised by my mom. And on top of that, we had the added weight of mental health challenges in my family. I was a first generation college student — it was always understood that I would go to college somehow, and my major was geared towards being a forensics psychologist. Back in the 90’s, there was a TV show that inspired me,” The Profiler.” A life of fighting crime didn’t go as planned once I realized I’d have to take a lot of science courses. Eventually, I discovered that I really enjoyed working with people after keeping up with my psychology major. When I graduated and moved to New York, I got a job at the New York Public Library and my career really kicked off from there.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
“The Baby-Sitter’s Club” by Ann M. Martin! I remember reading under the covers in my bed with a flashlight. I wanted to be Karen, the little sister. The story, and imagining myself in her shoes allowed me a bit of escapism. The rest of my family was in New Jersey, so I felt isolated not being around my cousins and extended family, especially my grandmother. I could escape the challenges of making new friends through their adventures. It was a big part of my life growing up.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Stay true to your values. What I mean by that is work will come and go, jobs will come and go, but knowing that you stayed true to who you are, for me, is very important. I will live and die by my integrity. One situation in particular comes to mind where I made very difficult decisions and the cost was high. It was devastating, and it took me months to get over it. But at the time I knew I was doing the right thing. Knowing what I know now and the experiences I’ve gained since, I might approach the situation a little differently, but I rest assured knowing I was led by integrity.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
For me, I believe leadership is being willing to make difficult decisions and stand by them, owning the outcomes, good or bad. Most importantly, it’s about being willing to explain the ‘why’s.’ There’s not always a great solution, and in fact, especially in startups, there’s not usually a great solution. There’s not a playbook, and there are a lot of mediocre solutions. Owning up to choosing not-great solutions, mitigating the outcomes, and living with it keeping you up at night means being a strong leader. At the toughest times in companies I’ve been at, the strongest leaders I’ve worked alongside knew that there were hundreds of families relying on them to make the right decisions. Being a true leader is not forgetting that, and being humbled by the knowledge that your decision-making impacts real lives and real families.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
One thing I tell my team and the folks I work with is that I am a complete open book. If I don’t want to answer the question or can’t, I will let you know. With that in mind, I am a lifelong thumbsucker. Not during the day or in a meeting, of course, but at night when I’m asleep or falling asleep, because it’s self-soothing. I remember my grandmother used to joke that I would suck my thumb walking down the aisle. My husband knows when I’ve had a rough day because I’ll sit in front of the T.V., sucking my thumb.
I also fall asleep to true crime podcasts (perhaps I never truly let go of those early dreams of forensic psychology!). Things that are not generally calming tend to get my mind out of the stress of right now and let me disconnect a bit.
One last thing is “Antiques Roadshow.” It’s an all-time favorite and Britain’s best export in my opinion. I love learning the history behind the goodies people bring in.
Those are three things that allow me to put my mind completely at rest. A lot of people probably exercise, but I hate sweating — it actually causes me anxiety!
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. In the summer of 2020, the United States faced a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on what made the events of 2020 different from racial reckonings in the past?
From my perspective, which to be clear is one of privilege, I think that there were a number of factors that went into why the summer of 2020 felt so different.
In part, Covid turned everything on its head, so the support systems that a lot of people had were no longer available in ways that they once were. By that, I mean activities like the physical in-person meetings that people were used to and able to count on, such as church groups and meetings with friends were suddenly gone. These everyday occurrences suddenly didn’t feel as safe and weren’t able to be counted on. I suspect that had something to do with the turmoil people experienced.
From a psychological perspective, I also think people felt more powerless given everything that was happening. People were working remotely and were experiencing fewer interactions. People were getting laid off, too. Economic stability took a hit. Things that were once stable, were not.
On top of that, there were so many additional stressors and brutalities going on. It wasn’t surprising to me that people were reacting differently or demanding that politicians react and do something, or even just acknowledge it wasn’t okay. It makes perfect sense to me that 2020 felt different.
From a work perspective, strongDM has acknowledged a lot of the challenges we faced here. We reached out to employees and let them know to take the time that they needed. We continue to try to give people a safe space and to not bombard them with what’s going on outside of work, which can cause problems.
But we have to recognize that sometimes all people have to escape what’s going on in the world is work. We have offered support if they need it, but we try to avoid discussion of what’s going on outside in the world so they can turn it off if they need to.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
I have been the only woman on an executive team more than once. I’ve also educated leaders on how important diversity is, and there are plenty of studies on how including different groups of people impacts companies in positive ways.
It begins with the basics when looking for people for your team. Requiring certain degrees or how you write your job description can eliminate who applies. I have encouraged recruiters to push hiring managers to think whether or not degrees are required for the jobs they are advertising. Many studies show that women are less likely to apply to roles if they don’t think they fulfill each and every required aspect of a role. This can be a barrier to bringing on underrepresented talent to your team. Things like industry experience — is that required, especially in security and infrastructure spaces? We need to start there.
We also need to think about how people experience interviewing. When people see folks that look like them, they’re more likely to want to be a part of that team. But when a POC is interviewing with a bunch of white people, or a woman is interviewing with all men, they may not feel as comfortable in that space, and you could be missing out on great people because your current team isn’t designed with them in mind.
I once worked somewhere where women weren’t passing whiteboard engineering exercise tests at the same rate men were. One day I understood why, after I noticed a group of male interviewers standing in the doorway while the candidate worked on the coding problem. I immediately shifted how the test was physically taking place, because I suspected the physical setup might be impacting the performance of women in the interview process.
It’s intimidating enough being watched while you’re concentrating or trying to perform your best. In my personal life, my husband can’t even stand in the doorway when I’m brushing my teeth! I asked him to move because it makes me uncomfortable, and we noticed improvements on that engineering test once we applied the same logic.
I believe we need to think about the things we are able to change at every point in the interview process. In strongDM’s own experience, our executive team includes three women, multiple POC, and we’ve doubled representation of diversity in our company by being thoughtful of who was showing up to our company interviews. It matters.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
It saddens me that in 2022 we are still asking this question. My counter would be, “Who on Earth would argue against it, and why would you not want different perspectives? Wouldn’t you want a variety of people represented at every level of your company?”
The best solutions often come from questioning each other and pushing beyond what our own experiences show. Having a team with diverse backgrounds in work, culture, and personal experiences really helps to bring creative solutions to the table.
I once worked with a team with a number of traditionally underrepresented people in technology, and someone from a different team asked me, “How did you manage to hire so diversely?”
The simple answer: the director was a POC, and people wanted to work for him because they saw themselves in him. If you care about diversity and want your company to reflect the world, then you have to have that representation at the top.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
First, we have to acknowledge our biases. We know that every person has them. It’s scientifically proven. The amygdala’s responsibility in the brain is to make snap judgments with very little information within seconds — that’s what the fight or flight response is. We have to acknowledge biases exist, because within seconds of meeting someone for the first time, you have already formed a first impression of them based on things like their physical appearance, their behavior, what they’re wearing, and so much more. Once we acknowledge our biases, we can start to work against them.
Second, we have to revisit how we hire and what is actually required within our roles. It’s not about labeling something as part of your company’s Diversity, Equality and Inclusion division. It’s about understanding what is really needed in these roles and making the adjustments necessary to recruit the best. What can be trained once someone is on the job? This immediately widens the pool of candidates you can hire into your company.
Third, we need to acknowledge the societal barriers people face. I once worked at a company that put a ton of value on Ivy League schools. Executives would almost immediately fast track someone with a degree they considered top-tier, and it took a lot of education to convince them otherwise. There are a lot of socioeconomic barriers to even getting accepted into those Ivy League schools, let alone graduating.
Fourth, we have to be comfortable talking about these things, while also knowing that it’s uncomfortable and people are going to misspeak. When I do bias training, I open with a set of goals and rules for engagement. The final rule is to agree that we’re operating with good intent. We’re all there for a reason, and we’re all trying to learn and be better. Sometimes questions or statements may come out wrong, and there may be an education process afterward, but there may have been good and honest intent to learn. When we assume good intent, the question can be clarified, and this has a more forward-moving approach.
And finally, those coming from a place of privilege also need to become more comfortable speaking up when they see things that are wrong or unfair. Male leaders should call out peers when they see misogynistic behaviors. White people need to call out behaviors that feel biased or discriminatory, or calling out leadership when they notice there’s very little diversity represented on their teams or the Boards at their companies. Straight people must learn to be better allies to the LGBTQIA+ community.
In general, it’s important that we are all being an ally for those underrepresented. And socioeconomics aren’t something we talk about as much. Those in technology spaces often, especially in leadership, don’t always see people who come from a lower socioeconomic status and recognize the challenges of breaking into technology. This can result in some difficult situations where there’s a disconnect between co-workers and someone can feel looked down upon. One thing that strongDM does to combat this is we’ve instituted “No Assholes” rules, which can be difficult, but requires employees to think through how they interact with each other — something everyone should do.
We are going through a rough period now. What makes you optimistic about the future of the US? Can you please explain?
I think that there are some very smart people working on disruptive technologies that have the ability to shift how we’re thinking of energy consumption. It gives me hope, especially around climate change. I spoke to someone who works at a startup that’s creating community solar instead of individual solar. It gives me hope because there’s less of a socioeconomic barrier to achieving greener consumption of energy that will hopefully make the right impacts for our future.
I also believe that deep down humans innately are good. There are individuals who may not be, but as a whole, I believe humanity is good. And that gives me hope, otherwise I wouldn’t be in this line of work.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
I’m going to take a slightly different approach here. I’d actually love to have lunch with Elon Musk because I’d like to question him about a few things. He’s been vocal about requiring his teams to come back to in-office, about requiring more productivity in the process, and he’s been very clear that if they aren’t down with those requirements, then they can find somewhere else to work.
He appears to believe that, in order to hold people accountable, he needs to watch them work. I’d be curious to learn more about why he thinks this and how he’s reached these conclusions. Studies show people working remotely have better mental health and productivity, so from that viewpoint it really doesn’t make sense.
And he’s made no mention about holding leadership accountable for his perceived lack of productivity. What gives?
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!