This week I’m very happy to chat with Zuora’s new Chief Diversity Officer, Valerie Jackson. Valerie has been leading inclusion and talent initiatives in global companies for nearly 15 years. She most recently ran Global Inclusion and Diversity at Procore Technologies, and got her start leading D&I initiatives at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP in 2007, after she was recruited by former Georgia state representative and candidate for governor, Stacey Abrams. Earlier in her career, Valerie practiced corporate finance law and served as an international policy advisor and negotiator for the U.S. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board. A proud Atlanta native, Valerie earned her undergraduate degree in Government and International Relations with honors from Harvard University and her law degree from Georgetown University Law Center.
Welcome Valerie! We’re all very excited to have you on board here at Zuora. We’ve talked a lot over the last few months about the intersections between the Subscription Economy and D&I. But before we go there, let’s talk about how you got into this role. When your friend Stacey Abrams asked you to join her old law firm as Director of Diversity back in 2007, what was that call like?
Thanks, Tien. The CDO role today is more prevalent, but back then, it was a completely new job. There were no parallels, no comparables. I think that Stacey and her firm called me for several reasons. They knew that I came from a family of people who are dedicated to this work — my mother integrated her high school, and was one of the first Black women to earn her MBA from Wharton, while my father was the first Black mayor of Atlanta and served multiple terms. They knew that I was passionate and that I knew the industry, being a lawyer myself. So a lot of barriers to success were already removed, which actually kind of made sense because that was a big part of my job. Removing barriers to success for people.
And your career since has spanned both the legal profession and technology industry, including your recent role at Procore Technologies, a great company that makes software for the construction industry. How would you compare the two industries?
They are very different. It’s like comparing cream puffs to pop rocks! The technology industry is like a loose collection of rocket ships that are all shooting off to the moon. And the legal industry, which refers to itself as a “profession,” is very focused on historical context and stability and precedent. It’s a bit of an oversimplification obviously, but in many ways law is about conforming to precedent and technology is about breaking precedent. Despite these differences, both industries are made of companies that need smart, dedicated, resilient people, and healthy cultures. And that’s what I’ve been focused on building for almost 15 years.
And what would you say is the state of D&I at companies today?
I actually believe great progress is being made. But it just means the task gets harder. So with the focus on diversity in recent years, in most companies, you’ll see more demographic diversity in the junior to mid-level ranks. But then you see less and less as you move up toward the senior decision-making table, and that’s been consistent in every industry I’ve ever worked in. So it’s not just about increasing diversity of the workforce or the talent pool, it’s also about looking critically at the systems, processes, and structures that enable (or don’t enable) people to grow and thrive at all levels within our companies.
And guess what? The systems part is actually harder than the hiring part. There are so many talented people from so many different backgrounds out there. The hard part isn’t finding them, the hard part is working to ensure that all of these talented people have equal opportunities to thrive, which of course benefits the business. And that starts with understanding the systems that may or may not be perpetuating biases of some kind. Which is important, because if you have a brain, you have biases! Building inclusive systems to help mitigate human biases is crucial.
What I loved about your work at Procore was that D&I wasn’t just limited to what was going on inside the company, but also the industry the company operates in. I mean, if you look at the construction industry, the old stereotype of white guys in hardhats doesn’t really apply anymore.
You’re right. There’s a huge amount of diversification happening in construction right now, particularly in terms of age, race, and gender, not to mention all kinds of technological innovation. Which is right up Procore’s alley! Procore is innovating an entire industry. However, whether you’re in construction, tech, law, or another industry, you’re always going to need good people to work hard, make tough decisions, and build amazing things. It always comes back to the people!
We’re pretty results-oriented here in Silicon Valley. Given that many of us are stuck at home on Zoom calls, what are some things that we can do right now to help with D&I efforts? How long do you think it will take for us to see meaningful change in our workplaces?
It’s often the case that when we’re confronted with a big challenge or problem, there’s a tendency to throw an action at it — a new tactic, plan, or position, etc. The proposed solution always seems to involve doing something, often in a reactionary way. And it reminds me of a wise saying I’ve heard before: “Don’t just do something, sit there.” Because sometimes the solution is not to dive into action (or reaction). Sometimes, the right next step is to stop, assess, and begin building self- (or situational) awareness, and then act decisively with clarity and confidence.
You know, that really resonates. Our company like so many others is filled with hard chargers who want to get things done, and we’ve had to say, when it comes to D&I you have to slow down and be more thoughtful
That’s right! And, if there’s anything that 2020 has taught us, it’s that time is not linear! I have my progress plans and metrics platforms just like everyone else, but all that information is just an indicator of work, not an indicator of the speed of work. Progress in this work occurs at the speed of change: changing thinking and behavioral patterns, systems and processes, and at the end of the day, lives. So whether it takes a week or a year, if companies center the employee and customer experiences in their building and decision-making, every second spent in the effort will be worth it.
When we were discussing this new CDO role at Zuora, we were excited about the potential of the Subscription Economy to become a truly inclusive economy as well. It’s a very powerful concept, but how can we realize it?
Fortunately, I think we’re starting with some significant structural alignments. The Rockefeller Center, for example, says that inclusive economies depend on five things: participation, equity, growth, stability, and sustainability. In subscription models, you’re trying to lower the barriers to access, right? You’re trying to bring more transparency and accountability into the relationship. And obviously, you’re trying to build a stable platform of growth.
But while the Subscription Economy certainly has the potential to be an inclusive economy, we all know that technology can be used for good or ill, however well intentioned. It’s not a given. So how do we get there? I like to think about this challenge in terms of access and inclusiveness.
Greater access by definition diversifies and democratizes the pool of participants. So that’s a positive. But there’s access and then there’s inclusiveness, and I believe that’s where the real work lies: how we treat customers, how we handle their data, how we keep them engaged, whether they feel like equitable partners, whether we treat them fairly or not. (And although we’re talking about customers here, I know you agree that equitable and inclusive experiences are just as important for employees, too!)
Inclusion refers to how we feel we’re being treated inside a particular ecosystem: a business relationship, a workplace, a relationship. Do we feel respected and valued? Do we have psychological safety on our teams and feel like we belong? That work is hard, and it’s not very glamorous, and we all know it’s never over. But when we get it right, there is nothing better — because we’re improving people’s lives! And because we’re all worth it.
I’m really excited to see what we can do. Welcome to the Subscription Economy, Valerie!
Thank you, Tien! Excited to be part of the team.
For more insights from Zuora CEO Tien Tzuo, sign up to receive the Subscribed Weekly here. The opinions expressed in the Subscribed Weekly are his own, not those of the company. The companies mentioned in this newsletter are not necessarily Zuora customers.
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