Lauren Fitzpatrick Shanks Of KeepWOL On How Diversity Can Increase a Company’s Bottom Line
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Diversity of thought, upbringing, abilities, and experience play a huge factor in the lengths one’s imagination can go. When you bring together individuals with a more comprehensive perspective of the world, you’re much more likely to find common problems that affect multiple communities and provide a solution that meets each of their needs.
As a part of our series about “How Diversity Can Increase a Company’s Bottom Line”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lauren Fitzpatrick Shanks.
Lauren is no stranger to feeling like an “outsider” in the workplace. While many well-meaning leaders have promised programs and cultural initiatives, they have often fallen short of genuinely fostering connection and diversity in the workplace. With a degree in aerospace engineering, an MBA, a background in software program management, and over a decade of experience in corporate America, Lauren developed a better solution. Using her finely tuned skill of conversation, experience working at five Fortune 500 companies, and determination to make things fun, she founded Keep Wondering Out Loud (KeepWOL), which creates experiential talent development technology that subtly uncovers connections and overcomes vulnerability to nurture inclusion and team bonding.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into the main part of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you share a bit of your “backstory” with us?
Being an “outsider” was pretty much the norm for me. From grade school through high school, I was the only person who looked like me in my classes and on sports teams. Once I got to college and majored in aerospace engineering, that didn’t change. I was the only minority and one of only two women in my graduating class. I am the first Black woman to graduate from The University of Kansas’ Aerospace Engineering Department. The feeling of differentness I felt while an undergrad was at an all-time high for me.
When I entered corporate America in engineering and tech, being the “only” and feeling like an “outsider” remained the same.
Over 25 years of noticeably feeling displaced gave me the superpower to find and make deep connections with colleagues, especially those I seemed to have nothing in common with on the surface. This skill didn’t come naturally. I crafted a technique, and it worked well for me.
I then tested the methodology with others by creating a physical game. It was geared towards people new to jobs, relationships, locations, etc., and looking to make meaningful connections quickly. I sold over 1,000 games across three continents. Once I knew the methodology worked, I looked for ways I could scale what I had created.
I created a digital prototype of the game and methodology. At this point, I still intended for it to be for personal relationships. I tested this digital prototype with over 100 users in August 2020 during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the feedback I repeatedly heard was, “We need this in the workplace.” I kept hearing, “This is what real inclusion feels like,” and “I learned so much about myself and others that I could have never learned without this game.” This user feedback set me on the path to B2B SaaS in the HR Tech industry, emphasizing Talent Development and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB).
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
Let’s call this story “The Whip Cracker.” Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve always been the “only” in some way. One of the best and most senior engineering teams I’d ever worked on, I was the youngest by almost a decade, the only woman, and the only Black person on the team. It took a while for me to become a trusted member of the team. I came in from another department and assumed a leadership role on a team in its infant stage.
We were implementing the Agile SAFe methodology across a global team located in seven different countries across five different time zones, and I was the agile expert. In the days before COVID, we would do one-week product release planning sessions where the entire team would travel to the US, and we’d crank out a sixteen-week detailed release plan. It was intense, it was dynamic, and it was productive. My job as the program manager and chief scrum master was to ensure that we accomplished what we were supposed to accomplish each day. I soon became known, endearingly, as “The Whip Cracker.”
I was the only one who could get the team to regain focus, remain on track, and complete the daily goals. They would always say, “We better focus before Lauren cracks the whip on us again!” What is so interesting about this story is that it didn’t require me to be their direct manager or responsible for their performance reviews. I was a servant leader, which means I focused on helping people achieve their performance goals and coached them to make it happen. I built relationships with every individual. Because of the way I lead, my teammates chose to see me as an authoritative figure and give me respect rather than doing so because I had “power.” I was tenacious but energetic, and we would complete everything in each planning session and have fun doing it. There were constant laughs, innovative thinking, and excitement for what we were doing.
After each release planning session, I would receive multiple recognitions thanking me for my leadership and execution style. These experiences showed me that building relationships is the foundation for getting the most and best out of people. Appointed power doesn’t translate to good leadership. And hierarchy doesn’t mean people will listen to you. (Just ask my kids!)
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you tell us a story about how that was relevant in your own life?
“You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” — Wayne Gretzky
This is actually my husband’s favorite quote, and it’s probably because we say it to each other so much. But it’s been the story of my life. For as long as I can remember, my mother would put me into activities I had zero interest in being a part of. One is pilot lessons. Pilot lessons are what led me to major in aerospace engineering. During my senior year of college, I felt burnt out and just wanted to be done. My senior design professor told the class we’d automatically receive a B in the course if we didn’t submit our project for the design competition. I was so over school, and I was content with getting a B and closing the door on that chapter of my life. But my professor wouldn’t let me. He told me that if I didn’t submit for the competition, he’d give me a C in the class.
I was not ok with a C. I walked across the graduation stage and then spent an extra two weeks in the lab completing my design project and submitting it for competition. And I’m glad I did because I became the first Black woman to win the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) International Aircraft Design Competition. Winning this competition changed the entire trajectory of my early career. It allowed me to enter Boeing’s Phantom Works, the advanced prototyping arm of Boeing’s defense and security side.
Throughout my corporate career, I applied for jobs I was underqualified for on paper, and I got hired. I asked for salaries that hiring managers initially told were way too high, and they paid it to me. I went for opportunities that many people thought I had no business going for.
With the exception of being a mother, entrepreneurship is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve faced a considerable amount of self-doubt and imposter syndrome. But, whenever I think about not doing something because I’m tired, burnt out, or think my chances are slim, I remember winning that competition. I remember how it changed my life and how I had to be threatened into “taking the shot,” and it was nothing but net.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
Ms. Boldridge was the University of Kansas School of Engineering’s Diversity Coordinator. But for me, she was my trusted counselor who got me through my four years of undergrad.
At the end of my first semester of freshman year, I spoke to her about switching my major. Despite having a 4.0 GPA at the time, I had zero interest in aerospace and didn’t want to be pigeonholed into the field. She said she completely understood and assured me that it was common for freshmen to change majors. I remember her saying, “Especially in your major … Actually, no Black woman has ever graduated from that department.” I took that statement as a challenge to be accepted.
Engineering was hard enough without the added burden of being an outsider. I dealt with racism, sexism, misogyny, and stereotypes day in and day out. Ms. Boldrige was there for it all. She was my listening ear. Her office was my place of retreat. Her wisdom and support were compasses. Her compassion and understanding were the nurturing elements I needed to keep going.
I always say that If I were to do undergrad all over again, I’m confident I would do it differently and major in something else. However, I truly believe everything happens for a reason. My college experience definitely prepared me for the not-so-pleasant experiences I’ve encountered in corporate America. And, although I’d rather not have had them, they helped shape and mold me to build technology that is changing higher education and the workplace for the better. What Ms. Boldridge did for me, KeepWOL, is now doing for others at scale.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
KeepWOL builds experiential talent development technology that maximizes cultural intelligence in the workplace. If we think about the fundamentals of learning, it all starts with play. Developing a skill or changing behavior first requires an engagement that captures and keeps our attention. Using a digital library of live multiplayer games, KeepWOL enables guided, immersive team experiences powered by software but driven by humans to build and revitalize corporate culture.
Realness and the unfiltered ability to be curious and courageous is what makes KeepWOL stand out. Everyone on the team cares about the problem KeepWOL is solving because it personally affects them too. Being able to truly relate to an issue you’re solving everyday breeds motivation. We care about people and thrive to provide them with solutions that allow them and the people around them to be authentic while bettering themselves. The methodology that powers KeepWOL’s technology is grounded in communication and psychological theories. It is all about being open, honest, and vulnerable with enough humor to keep everyone engaged. This approach uses deep personal work to address the human factors of many workplace issues.
One of the most significant challenges with startups is finding people who believe in the problem enough to be a part of the founding team, pre-revenue, and funding. But KeepWOL’s leadership team happened serendipitously. I didn’t recruit or go out searching for them. I was meeting with Suzi Hammond, an organizational development expert. She provided me with customer insight and feedback on KeepWOL’s prototype. She was impressed with KeepWOL and hadn’t seen anything like it in her more than fifteen years in the industry. She later called me and said she’d like to invest. I told her I wasn’t raising yet, and then she said, “Well, let me help you.” It started with her being an advisor, but she quickly became a full-fledged member of the team. She then reached out to Stephanie Barron Hall, her former grad school classmate.
Steph is an author, organizational communication and leadership expert, and influencer with years of startup experience. Steph found value in how KeepWOL’s technology was scaling a solution that seemed unscalable. She joined the team and hit the ground running. One of the first things we did as a team was put together a Masterclass to educate others on “Experiential Connectedness.” Kristen Edwards reached out to me three months later after attending and asked to join the KeepWOL team. She had been following our journey via social media. I wasn’t searching for new team members. However, I couldn’t deny Kristen’s directness and passion for the work. She rounds out the founding team with her Masters in Applied Psychology for Leadership Development and over a decade of experience in higher education and corporate America.
KeepWOL’s impact brought this team together. We use KeepWOL’s technology to build and strengthen the dynamics of our internal team. We practice what we preach with every bit of work we do. We’ve built our culture on values, strategies, and behaviors that keep us grounded in putting people first. That’s what makes our company stand out.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
We are constantly diversifying at KeepWOL. We have five new games in the works to add to our digital library. One of my upcoming favorites is about risk taking. Improvements, creativity, and innovation only happen when we are willing to step outside of our comfort zone and take a less traveled path. But for many of us, we don’t even fully understand the root of our risk aversion. Some of us want to be risk tolerant but don’t fundamentally know what’s holding us back. This game will open our eyes to both ends of the spectrum, bringing out the most in each individual and a team.
KeepWOL collects data and insights on areas participants want to see self and team development in. These areas of enlightenment come from playing KeepWOL games. We are expanding the KeepWOL platform to use AI and machine learning to provide personalized recommendations for resources. Personalized developmental resources make it simple to stick to long-term goals and support lasting behavioral changes.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
If I’m completely honest, I just looked up the word success because I know what I define it as, but I wanted to see the dictionary definition. I don’t look at myself as successful. But from dictionary standards, I guess I am. I feel like success is only possible if you have opportunities to be successful. So I use my success, which really is a privilege, to help others get their opportunity.
Success for me will be when I’m living in a world where curiosity is encouraged, vulnerability is considered a strength, diversity, equity, and inclusion are the norm, and empathy and compassion are second nature.
But I’m doing all I can with the strides I’ve taken and the milestones I’ve hit to pay things forward the best ways I know how. I joined my alma mater’s DEIB advisory council. I want to do my part in making sure no other student ever feels like I did while I was an undergrad. Since high school, I’ve enjoyed being a mentor. I mentor Black students, engineers, and founders every opportunity I get, especially Black women and girls. I’m all about action, which means giving my time in ways that impact me most. What allows me to soar is when I feel supported. For me, support is someone freely giving their time, resources, and network without expecting to receive something in return. Mentoring is how I bring goodness into the world. It brings me so much joy to know I’m using my means to help another person get into their dream school, get a pay raise, get a better-fitting job, or meet a major milestone. I recognize that I would not have made it this far without all the support I continue to receive. If my experiences, listening ear, network, or resources can help someone else, I’m all for it.
Ok. Thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. This may be obvious to you, but it is not intuitive to many people. Can you articulate to our readers five ways that increased diversity can help a company’s bottom line. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Increased productivity, urgency, and willingness to go above and beyond: When a person feels like their uniqueness is valued, they are likely to give more for less in return. However, when someone feels like an outsider, they shield and protect themselves, which stifles their desire to do more. I’ve regularly been in positions where I was the “only,” and I felt like my insights and experiences weren’t being appreciated. So, you know what I did? I looked for a place where I would be appreciated. My leaving cost the company double my yearly salary and a very talented employee. Bringing diversity into the workplace isn’t just about having people who look different from each other but also think differently. Adhering to the status quo is a top-down and grassroots issue.
- Increased innovation and creativity: Diversity of thought, upbringing, abilities, and experience play a huge factor in the lengths one’s imagination can go. When you bring together individuals with a more comprehensive perspective of the world, you’re much more likely to find common problems that affect multiple communities and provide a solution that meets each of their needs.
- Access to new markets: When you’re able to think outside the proverbial box of what diversity means, you’re able to tap into talent pools that provide diamonds in the rough ready and transform the trajectory of your product, marketing, and sales efforts with novel ways of approaching new customer segments. People don’t want to buy what they can’t relate to.
- Fewer chances of offending entire communities: When your employees, at all company levels, look like the communities you are servicing, you’re less likely to make easily avoidable mistakes that cause lawsuits or PR nightmares. Having diverse personnel can save you money and goodwill.
- Increased customer satisfaction: Happy customers are repeat customers, and they refer their friends. Sales can be lost if people don’t feel like a company’s employees, especially those in executive/senior-level positions, represent them. Representation is also essential when it comes to AI and machine learning. A computer can only learn from the datasets you feed it. If those datasets don’t represent the demographics of your buyers/users, how do you provide the best customer experience?
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive?
Don’t lose your humanity and relate to your employees on a personal level. Show that you care about each of your employees as people first, and recognize that all of them are different. This seems simple when stated, but interpersonal skills are highly undervalued, especially in leadership positions. We tend to interchange the terms leader and manager. Many people would say they don’t need management. They’d rather have a leader that provides support, allyship, and someone that cares about what inherently motivates them to have their best work experience. They need someone who will be forthcoming, fight for them, and guide them to greener pastures.
I had a conversation with a recent grad. He’s working at one of the top companies in the world as a software developer, and he told me that the company lacks transparency. I asked him what he meant by that, and he said that he doesn’t understand the importance of his role and its value to the overall organization. He said he asked his manager and his skip-level manager, and neither of them could provide him with a clear answer. He told me that he’s driven by delivering value at a substantial level. Because he doesn’t understand what value he’s providing, he’s making assumptions that already have him thinking about his exit.
Performance management and talent development have to take on a more prevalent role than bi-annually checking a box. We need to develop employees based on what drives them and makes them excited about their work. But the only way to do that is really getting to know them and their desired areas of development. KeepWOL makes that part easy.
What advice would you give to other business leaders about how to manage a large team?
Remember that every individual has something to contribute, so be sure that no one ever feels like “just a number.” Be relatable, be vulnerable, and show that you have flaws. Let the team know you don’t have all the answers and you value their ideas and input. Regularly solicit feedback. Asking and receiving feedback can be awkward for managers and teams alike, but that’s one reason why KeepWOL was created, to make these types of conversations comfortable and fun. KeepWOL games allow for regular “temperature checks,” which will enable you to be proactive to potential workplace issues instead of reactive. You should be servicing the team. When a team feels like you have their back, they’ll have yours. Make sure you’re regularly engaging the group as a team. Good team dynamics make your job easier. The best type of leader is a servant leader who adapts to their team’s needs to bring out the best in them. If your team is extensive, it probably makes sense to create sub-teams. This way, you’re able to have more intimate interactions that provide a more significant impact on everyone.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
I’d love to sit and speak with Adam Silver. I like to talk about how he, the team owners, and coaches build up team dynamics across the entire NBA with the influx of new players rotating in and out every season.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Please check out www.keepwol.com and sign up for our mailing list to get all our latest tips to maximize cultural intelligence in your workplace! You can also follow KeepWOL on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
Thank you for these excellent insights. We wish you continued success in your great work.