Why I’m doing “unsexy” services work

I always shuddered at the thought of building a services company. I had always envisioned starting my own company one day, perhaps a product company with a rapidly growing recurring annual revenue and a kickass margin. Super scalable. All the sexy buzzwords, throw them in there, I wanted them.

Never did I imagine myself becoming a workshop provider (or a career coach, for that matter).

Well, life happens. And like Oprah said, you just have to lean in to life.

Ever since I was a student, I wanted to start my own business. Not because I wanted to be “my own boss” or because I wanted to build the next billion dollar unicorn (btw, did you hear unicorns are falling?).

I wanted to build a company I can be proud of. A company with my values and principles deeply embedded throughout. I wanted to create an alternative reality. I wanted to build a company that:

  • Treats all people with respect and dignity
  • Is radically transparent
  • Pays people well unapologetically and equitably
  • Hires and rewards people with integrity, grit, and empathy
  • Fires jerks and bros (or don’t hire them to begin with)
  • Is truly diverse (not some “diversity of thought” bs)
  • Allows people to be their whole selves
  • Is unafraid to take a stand on political issues no matter how risky
  • Roots for the underdog
  • Wants to do good, for the sake of doing good, not for ROI
  • Cares about social justice

When I imagine my perfect “company,” I remember the time I co-led a queer student organization at UC Berkeley. We were made up of majority queer people of color, and had members from all identities and intersections. Our mission was to create an inclusive space for all queer people — folks of color, folks with disabilities, undocumented folks, truly.. all people on the margin who wanted to come together and build community, participate in developing youth leaders and empowering ourselves.

I thought I could one day achieve this vision by starting a sexy, scalable product company. Well, maybe I still could one day. But for now, I’m doing workshops.

So why did I decide to start a company providing “D&I” workshops?

I got tired.

I got tired of sitting in so-called “diversity workshops” that barely scratched the surface.

I got tired of seeing old white people dominate conversations around race and gender, “diversity,” and what it means to be an inclusive leader.

I got tired of corporate-bred D&I workshop facilitators (again, most of them old white people) diluting critical social justice concepts into palatable talking points for straight white men.

I got tired of seeing white, cis, hetero people never once feeling uncomfortable when being educated on D&I, but feeling absolved after having “checked the box.”

I got tired of seeing my friends and mentors not get paid for their social justice work. Being discounted to “soft skills” facilitators, not warriors, activists, and mission-critical educators.

I got tired of feeling the only reason why companies tolerated my outspokenness was because I was a high performer (and that I was a less threatening East Asian woman) and I had to continue to earn my right to call shit out .

I got tired of seeing companies using “Diversity and Inclusion” as marketing catchphrases to gain public validation, yet never wanting to dig deeper or put money where their mouth is.

I got tired of talking about metrics I didn’t care bout, I got tired of losing myself, I got tired of covering.

I got tired of doing extra emotional labor around D&I issues because no one else would.

I got tired of dealing with “brilliant jerks.”

I got tired of feeling like dying a slow death by a million paper cuts made by daily microaggressions.

I got tired of seeing my peers be mistreated.

I got tired of being let down by people.

I got tired of losing faith in humanity.

I got tired of never feeling free.

Every time I sat through a divershitty training (yeah I just made that up), I wished someone would come in and do a REAL workshop. Encourage REAL TALK. Make me and others feel uncomfortable, because without discomfort there is no real learning when it comes to understanding systemic and institutional oppression.

I wished someone would bring in critical social justice concepts into the workplace, and not be afraid to talk about structural racism, misogyny, and homophobia, and how unconscious bias stems from our deeply socialized identities that are perpetuated systematically.

I wished someone would actually name white privilege, misogyny, heterosexism, ableism, and gender binary. I wished someone would actually say the word queer or trans. I wished someone would acknowledge the mass incarceration and killings of black people by the criminal justice system.

When the time came when I no longer could stay in the toxic tech industry as an employee, I, along with thousands of women who have left before me, left.

So now I’m trying to make my distant dream and wishes a reality. I’m trying to unlearn the toxic shit I had to pick up in the corporate world, and bring back the old, authentic me. The old me who was unafraid to call shit out, who was passionate about building solidarity and coalition, who took risks and used privileges to provide access to others.

Awaken Team facilitating a workshop at General Assembly SF

I’m rolling up my sleeves and applying everything I’ve learned from my social justice activism and surviving the corporate / tech world to redefine “D&I workshops.”

I’m working to bridge the gap between “Diversity and Inclusion” and social justice activism. I’m working my ass off to get well-deserving, non-corporate-bred folks paid.

In order to create change, we need to embrace discomfort. We need to create a compassionate space for uncomfortable dialogues, where we allow each other to fuck up, but also hold each other accountable. We need to acknowledge that change doesn’t happen overnight, but it can happen incrementally.

While I would never claim “D&I Workshops” will solve all your companies’ toxic culture problems, it can help begin the conversation. It’s a starting point.

There are so many amazing people trying to do different things to move the needle a smidge on creating a truly inclusive culture. And we need all of them. We need all of the process changes, policies, culture shifts, engagement surveys, ERGs, D&I consulting, anti-sexual harassment training, offsites, Artificial Intelligence based recruiting, VR training, VC accountability… we need everyone and we need all of them.

The problems we are trying to solve are so massive and so ingrained. We need all the help we can get to have a fighting chance at moving the needle.

So here’s me, choosing to do “unsexy” work (but you just wait). And you can help me by spreading the word about Awaken (and our upcoming workshop series).

Come on, let’s wake people up.

Originally published at himichellekim.com on July 14, 2017.