Name Dropping is a Q&A series that aims to elevate the stories of leaders who identify as women or nonbinary leading in the tech space. The idea came from Angela DeFranco, a former VP of Product at HubSpot, who said one way to be better allies is to name drop underrepresented voices in discussions of achievement, inspiration, and disruptors in tech, instead of referencing, time and again, the same set of (often male) leaders.
What are three words you would use to describe your role at Nationwide?
Experience, collaboration, and associate.
Could you expand on why you chose those specific three words?
In my role as AVP of Workforce & Legal Technology, I am responsible for ensuring that the technology portfolios of both the office of the Chief Human Resources Officer and the office of the Chief Legal Officer match and enable their unit strategies. I chose experience because it's always about the experience that technology provides for associates. The way I like to work with my team and with our business partners to implement technology is to ensure that the experience is seamless, and that they can do the things that they need to do to serve their customers, easy and frictionless. The second word was collaboration, because I believe it takes all of us not only in my team, but also across the business partners that we serve, and then really across the enterprise, to achieve the other two words of the associate experience.
What are some goals (either personal or professional) that you would like to achieve or have achieved this year?
One of the personal goals that I would like to achieve is completing my studies for my 500 hour yoga teacher training. I have already completed 200 hours, so I'm currently in the middle of a 300 hour certification to achieve the full 500 hours. I definitely would like to finish that this year, and move on to another 300 hours next year, because clearly I love this.
A professional goal that I would like to accomplish is to continue to move collaboration forward at Nationwide to continue to break down silos, as it relates to my two areas, and to drive technology through strategy. So although that's not a specific goal, it's really a collection or compilation of a lot of mini goals, to help me to more tightly couple strategy to technology in the delivery of the application suite for our internal customers.
What inspired you and your passion for yoga?
I've been practicing yoga myself for about 16 years, and have really been able to reap the benefits of the mind, body, and soul throughout my career. It's helped me in so many ways to really determine and bring forth my authentic self. It's also helped me to learn how to manage stress as I continue on my quest for work-life balance. I am a mom as well as an executive, so it's helped me there. I decided during the pandemic to learn how to teach it, not because I want to go teach in the studio, but because I've seen all the benefits that I've been able to meet and receive from it.
I wanted to use yoga and mindfulness when I'm helping people, just at any stage of their life. I use it in professional coaching. I use it with my friends, my family, strangers or people that I meet in a store. Really, I'm just on a quest to help people wherever they are.
I found that there are so many ways that yoga can really help people meet their goals. People always ask me, how do you do it? I get that question a lot, and it really always goes back to everything I learned in yoga.
What do you value in your job?
I value the relationships that I'm able to build, the relationships that I'm able to nurture, that I'm able to sustain and create. I just value the people — the people on my team, the people on the teams that I encounter, the people whom I meet every day. I think that's the best part. I'm so intrigued by how people fit in, how people work, and how people feel, more than anything.
Going back to the earlier question — I think in technology, we don’t talk about people enough. We tend to focus on the hardware, the software, the data of it all. But, behind all of those technical components are the people, the people who design, the people who create, the people who enable. So when you build relationships with people, I think it helps me to better understand how to deliver for them, and what they need. Understanding people and loving people the way that I do has definitely made me a better technologist.
Your LinkedIn biography states that you are passionate about “increasing socioeconomic mobility by providing career access to the technology industry, with a keen interest in creating pathways for women and traditionally underrepresented groups.” What advice can you provide to other leaders on how they can become involved in and initiate such efforts?
You're correct, that is truly my passion because it is not only the path that I lead, but it is the path that I've lived and that I've walked, so it's very near and dear to me.
I would definitely recommend that leaders begin to learn more about other cultures. Not just in the superficial way of “these are the celebrations or the traditions or the languages or the cuisines,” but more so how can we take our corporate and organizational cultures and make that culture more inclusive? How can we eliminate the lack of understanding of cultural norms in underrepresented cultures to better understand how we identify and handle conflict in the workplace? I would definitely implore leaders to take a deep dive and try to understand people.
I would also invite leaders to just look in different places for talent. A lot of times, we're under these hiring pressures, especially as we have the war on talent, and now the ‘Great Resignation,’ and you just want to get people in the door. So, it's easy to go to the same places that you've always been because you have established relationships. I would encourage and challenge leaders to establish new relationships, in new places, because there are so many talented people who are invisible to the industry simply because they're not used as a source. They're not sourced where they are. So I think of a lot of the minority-serving institutions like historically black colleges and universities, or Hispanic-serving institutions that have thousands of deserving, budding technologists who are ready for an opportunity to fill some of the seats. However, because leaders have not done the research to know that these universities exist, they don't go there to recruit, and so there's an entire population that's missed.
I would also look at if we really have to have a university degree. When we think of the dimensions of diversity, it is not always just gender and ethnicity. There's also socioeconomic diversity, and there are many economic barriers to prevent people from even reaching a university-level education. How can we partner more closely with the boot camps and with the on-ramp programs and find value there and begin to add value? I think once more leaders do it, then other leaders will. We just need some to be trailblazers to say, “Hey, I can teach you this technology” because — here's the reality I don't think a lot of people really sit and think on. Yes, you may go to a university that has a four year degree in some part of the tech field. Generally what they've learned four years ago, by the time they're graduating, is already obsolete. So might not it be better to have somebody who learned the same concepts in 16 weeks? Starting to find value in those alternative entry points into tech will automatically provide insight into women and other underrepresented groups having options.
Also, being flexible. I think having flexible work structures is extremely important. Because again, some women and some other underrepresented groups have additional challenges that may need them to have more flexible work structures. There may be family obligations, there may be other obligations that many people face. Having a flexible work structure, not just having, but truly believing in it. There's a lot of companies that say, “Oh, we’ll offer remote work, but I still expect you to be on from eight to five.” Well, what's really the flexibility in that? What's the difference, if I'm sitting at my desk at home or at my desk at work? As long as we are an outcomes-based society, does it matter if someone gets their eight hours, from eight to five, or, ten to whenever?
How can leaders remove the pressure from women to do the “glue work,” aka always scheduling the meeting, taking the notes, or ordering the food for an event?
I'm not sure if it's only incumbent upon the leader or also upon the women to just redirect and assert herself and advocate for herself to say, “Okay, I have more value to add to the team than to be the glue person.” Taking a step back, I think that it is somewhat of a positive that people believe that women can be the glue for a team. I think we don't want to lose sight of that because I think that is a very important role.
I don't necessarily see it always as a negative thing, maybe you are the strongest planner or maybe you are the strongest in whatever they're asking you to do. So that's not a negative thing. But I do think that it's up to the women, for us to delegate and bring people in. An example would be if someone says to me, ‘Tonjia — would love for you to plan our next strategic offsite.’ I say, ‘Okay, thank you for the honor, I'm glad that you have confidence in my ability, I'd like to bring in him, him, him, him and her.’
So bring in more people to help and not carry all of the burden. Because again, it can be a way to differentiate yourself as a team member. As a team member, we always want to find a way to add value beyond the work. So that could be a way. But you don't want that to be the value that you bring to the team only. So that's for associates. For the leader, again, I think it's about not always going to the same person. So really being aware and not always taxing the same person with the burden of doing the work.
What was your dream job as a child and why?
I love that question so much. I think if you would have told me that I was going to be sitting here talking to you as a Fortune 100 technology executive, I would have laughed. It definitely was not on my radar. But there were two paths I wanted to take. I wanted to be a university professor and president. So as you can see, I've almost done that. I also wanted to be a rock star. I mean, full blown, Beyoncé-like status. I was going to be a Disney kid. So those are my two paths.
I sing, I dance, I act, I model. I do all of those things. I grew up in New York City, so we really felt like we could do it. However, it was more of, parents and family who have a traditional path for you to say, ‘I think you need to go with your university professor and president route. So that's what it is.’
But I tell you, if Beyoncé called me to go on her tour tomorrow, I'm gone.
What is a piece of advice that you would give to the next generation of female and nonbinary leaders?
Find yourself early and never lose yourself. A lot of times, especially as younger professionals, we are still trying to figure out how we define ourselves. We either define ourselves by our family definition, or societal definition, or organizational definition. And we work so hard expending energy to live up to the definition that other people have given us, and really neglecting our true selves. I believe it's so important to maintain your true self, because that's from whence your light will shine. When you put on the veil of everyone else's definition, you're really just muting your inner light that was uniquely given to you to glow and to illuminate your path. And so when you start to do that, like a car in a fog, you can't really see where you're going. And so once we darken our inner light and that light grows dimmer, it is going to prevent us from really seeing where we're supposed to go and it can lead to us going the wrong way and getting lost. Eventually, you'll find yourself and your light will go on and you'll go back, but I would try to avoid that and just be you. You are you for a reason — you were uniquely made you because the world uniquely needs you. The world doesn't need a carbon copy of someone else because they already have that person. We need your light.
Who’s one woman or nonbinary person in technology you’d like to name drop and why?
I am completely in awe of her lately. Her name is Unathi Mtya. She is the group CIO at African Bank. She was recently named to this position. She is an African woman CIO. Why I want to name drop her is because I think she defies every stereotype that one would think of in relation to what a CIO would be. A) She's a woman, B) she's from the continent. As an African-American, I have great respect for the birthplace of my ancestors and I wish I had greater connectivity to it. I love that she is in technology as an African woman as the CIO. I love that she is the CIO of a bank, because finance is another area where you think you won't see a lot of women executives, and you would not think that you will see a lot of African women executives. I would love to name drop her and for people to learn more about her.
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