Leading Diversity & Inclusion
Based on an episode with Pamela Burga 🇵🇪🇲🇽
Welcome to Latinx in Power, a podcast which aims to help to demystify tech, the way we do that is by interviewing Latinx leaders all over the world to hear their perspective and insights.
We talked with Pamela Burga, a Senior D&I, Diversity & Inclusion, Partner at Tesla and leads D&I talent development strategy. Fun fact: Pamela is also a classical trained lyrical soprano.
In this episode we talked more about transitioning careers and industries since Pamela has driven individual and organizational performance in a variety of industries. We also talked more about her work as Diversity & Inclusion leader.
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How did everything start?
I will share a little bit about my early life here and then catch you up further in the chat as to where things are at today. I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles called Pomona, California. In that experience, I share this because it was very formative. It drove a lot of the decisions from anywhere from my major to my current career, in the inequity that I saw between school systems. So, I grew up in a neighborhood that was under-resourced and in a low-income neighborhood. I went to high school in a neighborhood that was 10 minutes away. It was quite affluent, over 80% of the students went to college.
I was very confused at a young age as to why my peers in Pomona had different access to or limited access to some resources compared to my peers in my new school. In college, I took a psychology class, actually the class was called Psychology of the Chicano. In that class, I learned that my experience wasn’t isolated to just me. It was symptomatic of something that was prevalent throughout the US, the concept of educational inequity. That’s what really changed a lot of my thinking and shaped my life thereafter. I switched my majors from music. Yes, I am a lyrical soprano, and I continue to sing. I minored in it. But I changed my majors to public policy analysis and then wrote my thesis on charter schools in California and how they serviced students of color. And then thereafter, I pursued education for the first half of my career, and got my Master’s in Education.
After my MBA, however, I found a way to bridge that passion for social impact with fighting from within the belly of the beast, so to speak, in corporate America and different industries to make sure that there’s a level playing field for employees too.
How was your process navigating different industries like tech, government, entertainment, education, aerospace, automotive, and healthcare?
Whoever said that success is linear, that doesn’t resonate with me, and it doesn’t resonate with a lot of other people whom I know. For me, it was quite nonlinear. In hindsight, people might see my career progression and think it makes sense. But at various times in my career, I felt some insecurity behind having been in so many industries. The truth is that I always had that North Star, which was to help underrepresented communities have access, be that to education be that to equity in the workplace. So, in that, I think it was the common thread through teaching in the Bronx for two years through Teach for America, working on political campaigns in Los Angeles and ultimately joining the second largest district in the country, LAUSD, to work on public policy. And then, in business school, just falling in love with my organizational behavior course and deciding that I wanted to try HR as a career for a stretch of time and it’s afforded me a lot of experiences that I think can enable one to be the gatekeeper, can enable one to drive talent and equity throughout an organization.
In that, I would say it’s important to know your function, be the subject matter expert, but it also for me has highlighted the importance of building relationships, because it’s through relationships that you can navigate in different spaces. Learning a new business, that’s, I think, the least hard part. So, yes, I’ve been through aerospace, entertainment, automotive, but there’s some fundamentals in your job and then the rest, you learn on the job, and it’s by making those relationships that you can be successful.
What does it mean to be a Latina for you?
I love this question. I was reflecting on it, and it’s important to say that we come in all shapes, sizes, colors, but I think that there’s a common bond that includes a profound love for family, celebrating your culture, a pride of where you came from, and your ancestors who paved the way for you to be here in this very moment. I reflect a lot on a group of coauthors. During the pandemic, I was a coauthor to a book that’s first of its kind called Latinas Rising Up in HR, alongside 19 other women who were all from different countries, different parts of HR as well. But it was an interesting point in time. We came together, we had the book launch in October of last year. We hadn’t met one another, most of us had never met in person. It was only like last month, actually, that we launched a Spanish version of our book that many of us were able to meet in person.
It’s available now on our site, LatinasRisingUpInHR.com. I mentioned that despite not having met in person, we formed these incredible relationships over this virtual world of the pandemic. It speaks to, I think, this immediate feeling of sisterhood, we really supported one another. And finally, spending time in person, there’s this familiarity. It felt like spending time with my primas, my cousins. I think parts of my earlier comments that there’s just this bond sometimes that you connect with people, that it transcends across country lines.
How was the process of being a coauthor of a book, how was it for you?
It was an interesting time, and I’ll tell you a story. I had moved back in with my elderly parents, they’re in their 90s and in their 80s to Pomona. I went in, there was a lot of uncertainty at the time. And then immediately from the same day I moved back, I came to find that my brother had cancer, pancreatic cancer, and my world changed. I had just started my new job. I was two weeks in at Tesla. The intensity behind so much of that time is even hard to reflect on. But I had seen that Latinas Rising Up in HR had a Facebook group and I had joined because I thought, “How great that there’s a space like this?” There was an opportunity to be an author. I think a couple folks might have fallen off and they were interviewing for some new authors. As in life, I just lead with my curiosity a lot. So, I raised my hand not thinking much of it, interviewed, and I was accepted.
So, that became a major decision point for me. I had a lot that I was juggling, but at the same time, I just felt like I had a lot to say. I just felt inside me that I wanted to put some words and feelings to paper. It was a cathartic process for me. Part of it, I wrote in the lobby of the emergency room waiting with my brother, and it was a compressed time for me. I joined later in the process than others. I had like a week to write it. It was my very first experience. Think of it like clay, it was a big mound of clay at first and then it started to take some shape. This is where I give a lot of thanks and credit to my friends whom I emailed a couple of them my chapter and asked them for their feedback. Each time I got feedback, the clay took better shape, to the point where it finally felt like it was representative of what I needed to express of my story.
I’m really happy that with the Spanish version of the book, hopefully, we can reach wider audiences as well across the globe. It was also named Amazon Bestseller in six categories. I think the book can be helpful for those who are in the fields of HR, but even outside of the field of HR, there’s points of connection in every one of the author’s stories.
Some people might have some questions. Do you mind sharing with us what are the responsibilities and goals of a diversity practitioner?
I think that this role is an interesting one. I have been in diversity & inclusion. Some companies have had it for several decades, and some only had it in the last decade and others have just started in the last year and a half. But ultimately, there’s some similar fundamentals across some D&I teams. There’s a saying that diversity is the equivalent of getting an invitation to a party, and inclusion is feeling so welcome that you can dance on the dance floor like nobody’s watching. I always like to think of it that way, because in a team, in an organization, you want to look to see who’s gotten that invitation. So, this work involves looking at the representation of an organization at all levels, and analyzing movements and hires, promotions, attrition, in addition to employee engagement information. So, there’s a lot of quantitative and qualitative work that goes towards this, but it’s important to analyze, and in order to be able to address any issues that may be interfering with, making sure that teams are representative of the communities and customers that they are serving. It’s important that employees feel like they can bring their whole selves to work. That’s something that a lot of companies really strive for, and there’s different strategies to support this. But it all first starts with taking inventory of what the needs are to develop a customized approach.
There’s the aspirational goal being a sense of belonging at an organization. In that analogy, we think about who’s picking up the music? Who’s at the table there? Who’s customizing that? Who’s making decisions at an organization too? I think that’s an important part of the discussion as well.
How can an IC, individual contributor, help to foster a diverse and ethical work environment?
At many companies, not all, but many companies have what are called Employee Resource Groups. Sometimes, they’re referred to as Business Resource Groups. So, if you’re at a company where this exists, I encourage you to research how to get involved. It’s a group of people and allies who have common interest towards a mission. In tech, sometimes we see in ERGs that are called Women in Tech or an equivalent name that might be customized for that company. So, there’s programming that you can see related to career development, to helping with recruiting efforts, to building community partnerships. Also, just to build a network internally with one another. So, those are great places to channel your energy, get to know new people, and make an impact internally. If you don’t have employee resource groups at your company, I would say it’s an opportunity to connect with your HR team and ask if that’s something that may be a possibility in the future. That’s one piece of advice.
Another connection to building that relationship with HR, sometimes I think HR gets a bad rap where like HR in TV is represented as being stoic. But it’s important to have, I think, those relationships and conversations with your HR team so you can share with them what opportunity areas you’re seeing, or what things are going well. In addition, go to your recruiting teams and say, “Hey, I went to this college and there’s a Latinx club on site that would be great for you to connect with.” Or, if you have a mid-career association, there’s the Society of Hispanic Professionals and Engineering, SHPE, it’s called. There’s a big conference that they have annually. So, it could be that your HR team or your recruiting team is looking for organizations to connect with and that may be a great opportunity for you to share that feedback with them.
The third piece of advice would be, if you have the availability and they have the opportunity to extend invitations to you to go to those conferences, you can go to those recruiting events and share your story with other candidates so that they can see that there are people with similar life experiences that are working at a company and you can invite them to come and join your teams.
Employee referrals is another point I would mention. We want to make sure that we’re casting a wide net. When you see those opportunities pop up, those job descriptions, post them on your LinkedIn, post them on in your networks, post them in that club, maybe find a way to forward it to that Latinx club at your university, because the more eyes that we can get on those internal opportunities, the better odds are the talent pipeline will be more diversified.
And then just lastly, find ways in which you can influence upward. So, it may be that on your team, you’re seeing opportunities to drive inclusion, and maybe it’s celebrating a certain heritage month on your team, whatever that may be for your group. Make that heard with your manager and your peers so that there’s a progression of inclusion at your organization.
Where you can find allies and your peers, but also in decision makers too. So, if you have an executive sponsor, and then we get the person, that manager, director, VP level that sees your vision, supports you, and you get HR involved, that’s going to help you be successful in that venture.
I’ve worked with various employee resource groups throughout my career, and I think that’s one of the big draws is that you may not be leading a team, for example, in your day-to-day job, but you’re all of a sudden leading a group of volunteers. You have to influence without authority, and that, in some ways, is the skill that is more important. If not more important, but it’ll prove beneficial for the rest of your life in and outside of your jobs.
Pamela, what’s your superpower?
I’m going to say empathy. It’s the ability to empathize with vastly different people that empowers me to communicate and influence widely. It enables me to build relationships and connect with various employees, customers, and leaders. Part of that comes from my diverse set of life experiences and having to adapt to vastly different spaces and languages from my home, to so many moments in my life. I grew up first-generation American, first-generation college student. There was this constant like, I was a — what’s the saying? Like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole all the time. Whether that was at home or in academic settings. I grew up in a predominantly Latinx neighborhood, and was often the only Latina in my AP classes. So, it was these sets of experiences that put me out of my comfort zone often, and I had to adapt to whatever my surrounding was, whatever the community was, and then built this empathy and ability to really authentically connect with a wide range of audiences. And I got to say, not everybody can do that.
This year, we have been enjoying asking our guests about the resources that helped them in their journey. I’m curious, what are the resources you recommend us checking?
I actually have a quote for you if that’s okay. College students and people who are early in their career will reach out to me often and ask for a coffee chat or an informational chat. I sometimes can hear in their story, underlying hints of imposter syndrome. I think being oh, gosh, almost 20 years out of college, it’s a refresher each time I think like, “Oh, right,” like, stepping into their shoes. Early into venturing out in their career, it makes me reflect on something that really helped me. A mentor once told me imposter syndrome is a widespread phenomenon that many people experience, but that nobody talks about. I share with these mentees a quote by Marianne Williamson. It was a quote that I put on my desk out of business school and when I was early in my HR career. I see it every once in a while, and it reignites inspiration for me.
It goes, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make, manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Those last couple lines really hit home for me. When you get out of your own head and you let your own light shine, without even knowing it, you’re making other people feel safe to do the same. There’s a selflessness about it that I really like, that I extract from that.
I have an Instagram I created during the pandemic. It’s @pamela.burga. So, pretty easy to find. Feel free to add me, message me. If you have any ideas about content that you’d like to see more of, I’m always open to that too. I’m just very grateful to be here with you and to be able to connect with your audiences. It’s a privilege to be here, and thank you very much.
Where can people buy the book?
The book LatinasRisingUpInHR.com net proceeds go to scholarships for students or recent college grads who are going into the fields of HR, so it’s great. It’s available on the website, in addition to Amazon and online at Walmart, Target, I think, Barnes & Noble now as well.
I hope you enjoyed the podcast. We will have more interviews with amazing Latinx leaders the first Tuesday of every month. Check out our website Latinx In Power to hear more. Don’t forget to share comments and feedback, always with kindness. See you soon.
Additional Reading Mentioned in the Interview
Latinas Rising Up in HR
Latinas Rising Up In HR created by Priscilla Guasso proudly showcases inspirational stories of aspiring human resources…