How to start an affinity group at your office

Women’s groups are becoming more popular at companies, but unfortunately like many diversity initiatives — they favor straight, white women. I’m fortunate to work for a large enough company with a variety of diversity groups for Black, Latinx, LGBTQ, Veterans, people with disabilities, But being located in a satellite office, we don’t always have the capacity for programs like this. So, a year and a half ago I started an Amazon Women in Engineering chapter in our Boston office.

Amazon Women In Engineering Global at Grace Hopper (I’m somewhere in the back…)

Though a year later it may sound impressive, truthfully I started Amazon Women in Engineering (AWE) out of necessity. At the time I had a lot of micro-aggressions bottled up and needed a way to express them. I’ve always been action-focused person, preferring to fix things rather than simply staying angry. So AWE was a natural progression. Through the group I’ve found a community to connect with and collaborate on incremental organizational change. Reflecting on the last year, it’s amazing what we’ve done: from attracting several women to the office, to engaging office leadership about the issues, to hosting several public and dozens of internal events.

Here are my tips for starting your own group, though my experience is with a Women in Tech group, I hope these general guidelines can apply to whatever group you’re looking to start.

  1. Find some initial stakeholders — Maybe it’s the only other person who looks like you on your floor, maybe it’s your manager, maybe it’s someone who seems to have a baseline understanding of topics that baffle most of your coworkers. Invite anyone you think would be interested and schedule a brainstorming meeting.
  2. Come up with a vision — What do you want out of your group? Are you looking for a mentorship group? A support group / LeanIn Circle? Do want to band together to enact organizational change in the name of diversity? There’s no right or wrong answer — every office has different needs — but what you decide will change how you market and conduct your group.
  3. Include majority voices when appropriate — Sure, you don’t want your sexist coworker who read a summary of Lean In to show up and tell everyone to solve their own problems by taking a seat at the table. But, your group is more likely to be successful if you engage members of the majority at times. Affinity groups can take up a lot of time, encourage the majority group to volunteer and help out as well. The people most likely to learn from a “How to Attract and Retain Women” panel are the allies, particularly senior leadership, so invite them as often as you can. For best results, your manager should value your affinity group as real work, not as a hobby or timewaster, so start dropping hints about that early on.
  4. Promote, Promote, Promote — Over a year in, this is still our biggest issue. Email office listservs, put up posters, pass around stickers and tshirts, whatever you have to do to get the word out. If you want allies to attend, clearly state that on every single promotional material. Practice summarizing your group’s mission and in 30 seconds so you can pitch it to anyone. Work with HR to see if they can email a certain demographic when they join the company (this may be problematic or challenging in some cases, which is why you should collaborate with HR or perhaps avoid this all together). Try to integrate your group into New Hire Orientation, even just a mention of your listserv can make a big difference. Engage recruiters, make sure they’re telling candidates about your group.
  5. Stand On The Shoulders of Giants — Don’t feel like you have to do everything yourselves. Are there community organizations working towards the same mission that you could partner with? Is there a video your group could watch and discuss together instead of you preparing original content? Does your company have leaders you could meet with? Are there other companies in your area with similar groups? I’ve had a lot of success meeting 1:1 with people running similar groups and learning event ideas from them. One of the most rewarding things are group has done is reaching out to the community, whether that’s partnering with Women Who Code meetup group for tech talks and career development events, hosting a local Girls Who Code group for a morning, or partnering with local area high schools and robotics clubs. Attend Diversity conferences like Grace Hopper, Lesbians Who Tech Summit, and AlterConf, if possible.
  6. Funding — Asking for funding can be daunting, but money is important for the success of your group — whether that’s providing lunch at an event to encourage attendance, asking for conference sponsorship. Write up a simple pitch for your event, explain where the money is needed, and how the event benefits your company, the team, etc. Reach out to your Director/VP, recruiting, or organizations already focusing on diversity within your company.
  7. Step Back — Once your group starts to gain momentum, let other members take the reins. Ensure that the group direction is solving the major problems of the community as a whole, not your personal issues. Request feedback from the group and your leaders on a regular basis to make sure the group is an open and welcoming environment and that members agree with the group’s direction. Establish a leadership team and encourage members to take on projects that they’re passionate about.
  8. Celebrate. Founding an affinity group is hard work and a noble cause. Though some days it may seem like there is no end in sight, celebrate the small victories. Maybe that’s a successful event, a new person who showed up, a diverse referral, a thank you message, etc. Track attendance, number of events, and other data-based metrics of success and share them with anyone who will listen.

Have you started something similar at your office/university? What are your suggestions for success?

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