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Tech-enabled Mentorship as the Pathway to an Inclusive Workplace

When Hayley Sudbury started her career, she was working in finance. It was rewarding and challenging in many ways, but she reached a point where she saw fewer and fewer people that looked like her, a gay woman, at the top. She struggled to find mentors and role models who could help her see what true career progression could look like in the C-suite.

So she left finance to try something new. After dipping her hands into product development, particularly around building a network for thought leaders within a large company, she and her business partner got very clear around what needs to structurally change in large organizations for employees to feel supported. They wanted to close the gaps around who has access to mentors, starting with women. If they could change women’s experience, specifically around mentoring, then they could help them progress through the levels of the organization.

In the UK, where Sudbury is based, this could help address challenges like the gender pay gap. Women were leaving workplaces and not getting the top paying executive positions for many reasons related to workplace cultures.

By answering the question “what do we care about?”, WERKIN was born. A tech platform that focuses on mentorship as a driver of inclusivity, at the heart of it, it’s an effort to change the profile of who’s running a global organization. And it’s not only about women. Sudbury knows a more diverse mix of individuals who are in senior leadership positions leads to more inclusive workplaces, which can also support political, social and economic change.

We got to talk with Sudbury about her company, mentorship, diversity and inclusion in today’s workplaces, and her experience as a gay woman in the predominantly male industries she’s been in.

First things first. Why is mentorship so important?

Mentoring is important because you don’t know what you don’t know. In life and in business, we need those helping hands. We need people who are guiding us. We also need to throw ourselves out there and see what happens, but it’s really mentors that help you navigate those major life choices.

For us, it’s not just about mentoring, it’s about this idea of sponsorship. By sponsorship, I mean what mentors can do for you to fundamentally change your trajectory, it’s the connections they make, it’s the doors they open, it’s the visibility and the access that sponsors can help with, beyond mentorship.

That’s where we are focused as a tech company. It’s about those actions that help mentors not just mentor, but be active sponsors. The sponsorship piece makes a real difference. We want to encourage those good intentions that so many managers and leaders have, and turn it into real action by giving them a little nudge through our mentoring technology.

Mentoring is often seen as a very human-centric action. Talk to us about adding tech to it. Does it work? What do you say to naysayers who might think you can’t do this through tech?

You can absolutely do it without technology. That’s where all this started. We just have a fundamental belief that mentorship and sponsorship can be improved with technology.

WERKIN can help companies manage, measure and scale their technology programs. The reality is, the idea of being a mentor or an active sponsor doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Sometimes people are very busy in their lives and the jobs that they do they don’t get around to mentoring or being an active sponsor of an individual.

That’s where the technology comes in, by helping you more effectively build connections and follow through on commitments. Our mentoring app also helps managers see people beyond their immediate line of sight, to raise the visibility of a wider expanse of employees. They can then play a role in raising the visibility of underrepresented groups who aren’t getting support from leadership, management or even peers. We believe that technology can help change who senior leaders, managers and peers are seeing, and then what they’re doing to really to make very broad change.

We want to do that for more people, not just very small groups. The technology is really a fundamental thing that allows you to scale more of this. We know there’s lots of great stuff happening, and it’s happening in small pockets.

Technology helps us take that activity and scale it across organizations, networks so that there are more stories and more opportunities for individuals to have better experience and better access to people who have been there and done it.

Supporting mentoring and sponsorship means raising the visibility of better role models too. Role models help to show, “this is what good looks like,” an inspiration for young professionals coming from underrepresented groups. Role models can help create a real vision of opportunity for these groups

You’ve talked before about the ‘energy’ that comes with having diversity in the workplace. What does this mean to you, and why is it a better energy for other business leaders and workplaces to consider?

Energy is an interesting word. I consider myself a pretty high energy person, but the reality is, when you walk into the room and you’re the only woman, there’s a different energy. When you have a homogenous group, it feels very different than when you have a diverse group with different backgrounds and different identities.

When you encourage workplaces to be more inclusive, you create a positive energy. Through inclusion, you normalize acceptance and encourage a more diverse workforce. A diverse workforce leads to innovation as research has shown. You’re getting different voices and thoughts and concerns and ideas. More people are being heard. Energy is an interesting way to describe it. For me, the energy is really about inclusivity.

You have a lot of great experience behind you. What sorts of valuable career and leadership traits have you picked up along the way?

It’s important to have a strong vision and to give your people autonomy in what they’re building and creating. That’s what allows a business to move forward and I’ve certainly seen that both in corporates, but also in early-stage businesses. We know micromanagement doesn’t work. Having a clear vision and actually creating real excitement and buy-ins so everyone feels like they are owning in that success, really does allow for that autonomy.

Not only do you have to be the one who is engaging in hearts and minds, you have to be able to listen to what’s coming back through from your team. If people aren’t lined up with the values we have as an organisation, even the mission, then it’s probably not going to work. Everyone needs to find that thing that is important to them.

I think meaning and purpose is becoming increasingly more important. There’s a shift in the idea of work: people want to be signed up for something that they value. They want to feel like they’re making a real difference. Yes, the financial rewards are there and still important, but it’s that other piece around meaning and purpose. That’s at the heart of creating a great culture, when that meaning and purpose is there and the team is really on the same page as you. It allows you to give them as much leeway to deliver on that while being really clear around where we’re all going as a team. That creates great energy.

Excitement, purpose and passion, and as founders we really have that. We really want the whole team to have that too. The mix of corporate backgrounds has brought that together for me in a clear way. And I’m having a good time while on this journey with my team.

There was a point in your career where you were struggling personally with presenting yourself as a gay women the male-dominated workplaces you were in. Could you tell us how you worked through this, and where you are now?

It’s pretty clear where I am now, very open and out in the world and it’s part of who I am. I’m extremely public about that. But it took me a while to get to this point, and be really comfortable and feel like that wasn’t something that I was going to be judged on.

I made a decision to leave banking that was very much about my journey and what I wanted next. I’ve been part of some great teams, and done some great work. And I was coming to terms with who I was and who I wanted to be with, personally. I found that hard to reconcile with the environment that I was in. There were few role models that I could see myself in, it was hard to find a successful gay woman in finance, for me to see a path forward. I couldn’t see those role models in my line of sight. I certainly wasn’t hearing about them publicly.

I’m very happy to say that’s an environment that has been changing rapidly now, and we’re celebrating role models in all industries. I couldn’t see it at that time, and I was also wanting to do different things in my life, surround myself with different people, and I made that decision to leave. There were a number of things happening at the same time, just to freely explore what was next for me. What did the next job look like? What did the next industry look like? What are the things that I really care about, what should I want to change, and how did I want to navigate that? And I wanted to do that outside the environment.

Today, in financial services I think certainly it would be easier to point to more gay female role models. That has been more normalised. We always can think and grow and change and get better, but for me it was always about the next step in my career. A lot of these changes were coming at the same time and I think you have those points in life where you’re looking at career, you’re looking at relationships and you’re bringing together that meaning and purpose, and you want to be in an environment that you choose to explore.

When you think about people from underrepresented groups in the tech industry, what are the biggest problems you see, and how can we take steps to solve them?

It’s about the role model piece that is hugely important and it continues to be. Today I was working from a coworking space in New York. When I walked in, there were about a hundred people, and just four were women. I just thought, wow maybe the women just don’t know about this space? But you can’t help but notice how few women are working in these technology spaces. I think it is important for women to get support and connect to groups, and that this is available and accessible for everyone. It’s about making these groups more visible and supported.

This is the support that individuals can see, they can do, they can be. It’s important for large companies to commit to supporting these individuals for a more diverse workforce. Do I think it’s an easy thing to solve underrepresentation in these spaces? No, I don’t. Legislation is hugely important. I’ve loved the progress we’ve seen in the UK around reporting the gender pay gap, the ethnicity pay gap. We still need to look at the source of these gaps, what do they mean? And that’s really where real change happens.

Transparency is a first step and allows us to have some very honest conversations. Even in the US, we’re seeing companies reporting on gender and diversity stats. But the next level is what we see coming from consumers, pushing back and starting to demand that their companies look and feel like them. There’s definitely a lot of work being done in the media sector to make sure that the content is being created by individuals that represent the audiences. It’s more of that across all industries where people also push back.

We use our media, we use our governments, we get the legislation in play, and we push back. We make choices that actually are in line with what we believe in because, at the end of the day, money does talk. The way consumers are taking to social media, and then actually making different buying decisions…that’s really when it radically starts to change. When companies understand that the people they serve want to see themselves and their values reflected in company culture.

What are a few things mentees can think about in their mentorship relationships? And mentors?

It’s really not just thinking about what you can get out of it, but it’s also what you can give, whether you’re a mentee or a mentor. Whatever your role is, I would encourage you to reflect on the two or three small things you can do that you know make a difference to that person that you’re supporting if you’re a mentee. It can be about reverse mentoring. What are the things you’re seeing, how do you understand your friends, your peers, how are they buying products? How can you feed that back to the person that’s mentoring you to better understand that market segment. Or, if you’re a mentor – you’ve been there, you’ve done it – what are two or three immediate things that you can do that are going to make a real difference? Someone that you can connect your mentee to. Maybe it’s an event you could take that mentee along to with you. To help promote them and their work to your networks.

Ultimately, it does come down to building relationships. Building the right ones, and improving visibility and access. That can be done with technology or without technology. We want to encourage more of it to happen using technology, and then having all those data points to share and celebrate the small actions and making it a real partnership, rather than just a chat or an email.

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