An Exclusive Interview with Vessy Tasheva, Diversity and Inclusion Consultant
It’s Monday and you’re at work.
Your colleague asks “How was your weekend?”
You think about your weekend, carefully filtering the details before you speak.
You don’t feel entirely comfortable sharing honestly.
This is the reality for many LGBTQ+ people, according to diversity and inclusion consultant Vessy Tasheva.
In this interview, we spoke with Vessy where she shared her insight into how companies can get inclusion right by taking action, getting senior buy-in and mixing culture and business to create a space where everyone – and in particular, members of LGBTQ+ communities, feel like they belong.
In this interview, you’ll discover:
- How culture and business go hand-in-hand
- The unique challenges LGBT individuals face in the workplace and also in society
- How an inclusive culture can support and even amplify creativity in innovation
FIONA: Our guest today is Vessy Tasheva, who runs Vessy.com, an inclusion consultancy in Ireland and Bulgaria. Vessy’s coming out story in the 2007 American University in Bulgaria Magazine blazed a trail for others, and she also founded the university’s first gay-straight alliance in 2009. Since then, she’s worked at a number of fast-growth companies in strategy and marketing, notably as CMO at Enhancive.
VESSY: Thanks for having me Fiona.
FIONA: Thank you. Vessy, can you start by giving us a quick overview of the work you’re currently doing in your consultancy and what you’re trying to achieve?
VESSY: Sure. Well, I work with companies in a number of articles to help them identify and remove the obstacles to Inclusion and their business so they can really innovate at full capacity. So, in the past ten years I’ve been working in healthcare, in tech, banking, so these are the three areas that I’m focusing on in my day-to-day practices Inclusion Consultant. I’m also focused on Bulgaria and Ireland. The reason for that is that originally I’m Bulgarian, so I believe I understand, like I can read between the lines when I talk to employees, and I need to understand what’s really affecting the set of inclusion in those companies. And similarly in Ireland. I live in Ireland, I’ve been here for over four years now. I’ve read lots of books on how the Irish think, why they buy rounds of pints and all kinds of stuff. I started the consultancy last year. And I’m the founder of Vessy.com. I recently published a report (it’s 2019 Diversity In The Workplace report) where covered ten companies from ten countries. So it’s an independent report, it’s international, and the idea for that was to show, to give a platform in the sense to the companies who are genuinely working in the field of diversity and inclusion, to give them a platform to tell their stories, to show the good work that they’re doing and regardless of where they are on this journey, because it’s a long journey, it has a start it doesn’t necessarily have an end and all of us are somewhere on that journey. So I want that it should be opportunity for others who might not be on that journey yet. To hear about those stories and reflect on your own values in their own companies. And you’re probably thinking, “OK, but why did you decide to do that?” I’ve been in companies where whenever I have address issues related to diversity and inclusion, they were kind of like labeled as ‘not real problems’ and not as business priorities.
If you want to have a sustainable business today and the future.
FIONA: I love that bit about ‘All of us are on this journey’, and it is a journey, right? So many of the people I speak to are kind of shy about talking about the work they’re doing and inclusion, because they feel like they haven’t figured it all out yet and actually we’re all on this journey together.
VESSY: Absolutely. Yeah.
FIONA: So, I want to ask you something, which we ask all of our guests on Inclusion Works. Can you tell us, what personal experiences made you aware of inclusion and diversity issues? And lead you to found your own consultancy?
VESSY: Well, professionally, there have been situations, where there were not bad intentions, but well intention jokes at work that were quite divisive in a way, because they did not make me feel like I belong. There have been jokes that have been racist, homophobic or sexist and I’ve experienced situations where the leadership hasn’t been able to respond or manage those in an appropriate way. And I think whenever an organization plans to be inclusive and encourages you to bring your whole self to work, but you have a negative experience of some sort and the organization fails to protect you and support you. In such a situation, it can snap, it can easily have a change of heart. So it’s easy to leave such companies. Unfortunately, even in- I don’t think- There is very few companies that would intentionally be against diversity or inclusion or belonging. That’s quite extreme.
That’s how we feel as employees. But actually my journey starts way back prior to graduating. You mentioned my university and the student magazine, but I realized I was gay, let’s say somewhat late, compared to other people I was 20 at the time and it was a very sudden realization. I felt like finally my life made sense, because there were a lot of experiences those 20 years before that, that didn’t quite fit in. It was a shock. It was relieving but it was also very very overwhelming. The other thing that I felt at that moment was…
Just for some context, I am originally from Bulgaria, that’s what’s taking place in the American University in Bulgaria. I studied there in 2005-2009. There was no single person on campus who was openly gay. So it was up the the point where you say, statistics says maybe eight to ten percent, but you don’t know a single person so maybe those people weren’t out there, or they are there but they’re afraid or who knows. So I felt like, by not coming out, I’m lying or pretending and I felt like an alien. I was like, I want you to break this feeling. I want you to face all of this, so I approached it in a very organized manner. Whenever I tell people, they are like “Oh my God, you’re so funny.” I did like a whole list of people who I wanted to speak to, like my closest friends, some acquaintances who I wanted to tell personally, then my family. I approached the student magazine, and I told them that I wanted to ‘come out’ to everyone publicly. I just wanted to get on top of this. I followed the checklist, one by one. When the story came out, I didn’t have any negative experiences. I think part of it was that I was owning it. In Bulgaria, at the time was quite quin phobic. In certain regards it still is. Although it is a very international group of students on campus. But it felt very empowering. I was very proud of myself to approach it in a bright way.
FIONA: Can you tell me a little bit more about what it was like coming out? Did that change your relationship with any of the people around you at University?
VESSY: So not necessarily immediately. There were certain people who were like “OK, why are you telling me this?” It sounded weird. Some of those friendships fell apart. Other people who were worried that hanging out with me would mean that they were gay. I think there was some kind of gossips at the time.
FIONA: So when you initially left your career in tech, you first became a career coach, before establishing your DNI consultancy. You’ve said that career coaching and Diversity/Inclusion are different sides of the same coin. Could you tell me a bit more about that?
VESSY: At the least feel like they don’t belong. They cannot feel fulfilled. I’d say it’s the same thing, because when I work with individuals, I help them in their own journey, to realize what they need. They need to find a specific job that fits their own desires ad skills and strengths. When I work with companies, I help them to[inaudible 00:09:33] the state of their culture today.So they can understand what’s the experience that those individuals have. So they can come closer to, what motivates them. In the one case I was working with individuals and in the other one I was like, you know what? I can have a much bigger impact and work with the party that has the resources. That’s ready to invest. We can reach many more employees that way.
Get people closer to their purpose and happiness and be successful in their job. Much easier in a sense.
Like the Complex, but I thought it’s worth the challenge.
FIONA: What are some of the unique challenges LGBT individuals face in the workplace and also in society, more broadly?
VESSY: LGBT people go back to the closet after graduation. I think around 45-50 percent, some of them say in financial services like Fintech. In our own specific, it’s close to 50 percent, and that’s really high. I haven’t personally experienced the situation of going back to the closet and then having to come out again.
It’s a challenging experience, I don’t think anyone has to go through something like that, It’s enough to have it once in your lifetime.
I think. So that’s quite a struggle, but knowing that when people ask you, “How was your weekend?” And you have to hold back some information, you’re trying to hide something because you don’t think it will be accepted.
You are really experiencing it every time you are in that situation. It’s like if you are walking in the street, and you are holding your partners hand and you are thinking will someone attack me? Even if you don’t get physically or verbally attacked, in that moment, the thought of it considering it, it’s already abusive, and it’s shaped by the expectations that society has, what you see in the news, and all of that. It means, as an employee that you are not able to give your whole self because your energy goes into holding something back, hiding something. You are trying to protect yourself, instead of being creative, contributing. Not wasting time and energy on something different from work. Try to do your best.
FIONA: I’ve seen some data from Stonewall to that effect, actually, that the cost of not being your true self at work, that the real cost to your happiness, of course, but also to productivity and relationships with others in the workplace. With your background in tech, I know you are passionate about innovation, how can an inclusive culture support or even amplify creativity in innovation?
VESSY: The most important part is to speak up, and sometimes we don’t have to think about it in the sense that there’s a set of other percentage groups. If people don’t feel comfortable to speak up, to challenge their manager, to share their opinion. That’s inclusion, and the end game. We are not trying our opinions, which means there is a model coach that is being protected. By management, or a group of employees like a clique. That’s a very high cost for innovation and creativity because if we don’t speak in those occasions, we are just being consistent, in a way that doesn’t get us very far. We need to, if I cannot speak up, and you and I are doing a customer interview. You and I will hear different things in that customer interview. That’s very powerful, because the insides that we can extract from it, will allow us to enter a new market much faster, much better. Create better products, market the benefits of our products better. If we feel like, if you or I feel like we cannot speak up, share our words, talk, then we’re not really getting there. The cost is very high. Something that I do with companies, and they are not really aware of, is when they talk about inclusion, it is usually, I think about different initiatives, so let’s say, we will record just a few days the eighth of March, International Women’s Day. Most companies have Twitter, Facebook, the panels that they are doing trying to make the women in their companies, celebrating them. Which is great, but the thing is, it actually doesn’t, how does a panel relate to the challenges that those women face in the workplace? And how about the transgender, or the non-binary women, or the LGBT women, the women of color. We need to think about the problems, identify those obstacles, so that whatever activities we do in our organization, for the client that we work with. Those activities are tied to those obstacles, so we are starting to remove them. It’s a complicated process, it’s a long process. Throwing in a few initiatives, like sponsoring a pride and doing a panel here and there doesn’t get us anywhere.
FIONA: So what is, just thinking about inclusion, and to your point that you’re not going to fix the problem of culture really through hosting a panel session, or through these one off initiatives. Would you share what’s one simple thing, or more than one even, that anyone could do this week to build inclusion in their workplace?
VESSY: I always say the first thing is go to the leadership team, and try to understand why they think that inclusion is important to them. In many organizations, let’s say the CEO, or someone else gives a call to the Talent team or the LND that says, “This is a priority, you work on this. Here is a budget. And that’s it.” And there the communication stops. Those people who are given to work on it, but they don’t necessarily understand what the business is trying to achieve. Is it important for the CEO, because they see it as a competitive advantage. Do they want it embedded in the business strategy? Do they see it solely, as related to the employer strategy? Do they see it as important for internal innovation, do they see it as a way to acquire markets? What’s the case? Why is it very important? Without understanding the why, regardless of your role in the company. You don’t know what resources you can ask for. Can you grow your DNI team? Can you invest more in the ERG groups? Or whatever it is. The second thing is, understanding what the definition for the leadership team is. Of diversity, of inclusion and belonging. I’ve spoken to organizations where diversity is only gender. That’s related and that doesn’t include not binary people. So it’s binary. In other cases, they are saying that we have a lot of people from so may nationalities. For example, especially in Dubin, we have so many multi-nationals, in the headquarters here. They are automatically, better than first on the level of nationality, and ethnicity. However, that doesn’t mean they are really diverse, but that’s subjective, so what does the leadership think, define as diverse? Is it gender, is it nationality, is it people with physical disabilities, is it generational diversity, is it newer diversity, is it public diversity and so on. If you are on the recruitment team and they are telling you, “We need a more diverse. What do you focus on? How do you structure your strategy? Your understanding of diversity might be broader or more narrow than the one they are actually referring to. But we don’t need to make the conversation. We don’t know if we are talking about the same thing.
FIONA: What would you say to individuals who are listening to this podcast, whose senior leadership team are not totally bought in? To why diversity and why inclusion and belonging matter to business.
VESSY: You need to show them the business case. That’s the main thing, it could be tied to the cost of talent, the size of the current talent pool that you’re working with.
Engaging with new communities will increase the talent pool by this much or that much.
There are so many things, but it has to be tied to specifics. The more you can quantify it, you need to intergrade it with specific numbers.
FIONA: Just to shift gears a little bit, with your background in tech, I know you are passionate about data as well. Can you tell us, how organizations use data effectively to build both diversity and inclusiveness?
VESSY: So usually when I start with a client, and we do like a role map and section, and we focus on, first we look at the hiring pipeline. So we can see which areas we have significant drop offs in the specific profile. So we can then investigate what the reasons for that are. We similarly look at the [inaudible 00:20:02], so who gets more investments in terms of, I’d say learning and development, budgets, who gets promoted, who leaves the company after a shorter period of time with the company, what’s the percentage of women and middle managerial roles for higher leadership and so on. We treat all of this as a funnel. This shows us where the red flags are, in the funnel, then we can look for the complex around this. Cause just seeing the red flag doesn’t give you the why. Usually companies panic when they do this for the first time. But understanding how complex this is is critical. The thing is, the company usually comes to me or another consultant with one or two problems that they have spotted. But all of those problems are extremely connected, because it is one pipeline. It’s from the beginning, where someone considers joining the company, to the moment they leave the company. The factors can be so, so many. It’s great to do an engagement survey. Some companies do them every couple of weeks, or they do them once a quarter. Some of them are just a few questions, others are lets say intense questions. The thing is, even when companies do those, and they give them a warm, fuzzy feeling of, Yeah, we know things are good. There is rarely more than a couple of questions, specifically on diversity and inclusion. This is where it becomes important to understand that it doesn’t mean yo understand what’s happening in your company. I mean, how we really feel. It’s great to look at how many people were leaving the company, the turnover is a very strong indicator. But then, what other experiences . It has to be a very severe situation, that people share that in a fully engaged service. I always, I encourage companies to go and investigate on what those experiences are. The way I approach it is, it’s a culmination of service specifically focused around diversity needs of the company, and what their objectives are in that area, as well as employee interviews. So, that allows me to talk to employee and understand the specifics, to identify the patterns. It could be policies, it could be individuals, it could be practices or processes or whatever, policies that create a stricter environment that affects the state of inclusion and belonging. It becomes more actionable in this way. For example, with [inaudible 00:22:53], and I’ve covered them in the report, that I published in January, they take this data approach, so, so seriously. They even audit their own performance for the process. Which I think is amazing, imagine they have taken a lot of steps to promote unconscious bias as much as possible. Even after applying all of those things, they know humans are still part of the process. People still can make a mistake, we are still open to biases, with as many trainings as we go through. So, they look up the results after that. The percentage of people being promoted. And they compare them as different cohorts. Depending on their profile. And this tells them how successful or how objective their performance review process actually is.
FIONA: That’s fascinating, I’m curious to know the talent pipeline that you were talking about and also the employee journey that are important to analyze for these red flags. Performance that you just mentioned with the lasting example in my mind must be one of the top biggest areas where bias is influencing decision making. What would you say are the top kind of two or three areas that businesses need to be particularly aware about?
VESSY: I hear a lot of companies working on their hiring process and when they do hiring recruitments, to have people from different backgrounds sitting on the panel. But the thing is, often we forget about the software that we use and the biases that come with that software. So let’s say, whatever application tracking system that we’re using or anything else that’s part of managing, if the AI is trying on a somewhat homogeneous group of candidates, which is usually the case. So if you as a company have predominantly white, gender, male engineers who have developed the algorithm that they have used a sample of Africans who have very mogeneous profile, then it’s more a fact that your algorithm, not intentionally, will be giving priority to one type of candidates that’s against another.
FIONA: So just one final question for you, Thinking about the 80/20 rule, what’s the 20% of stuff that you’ve done to build inclusion with clients that’s yielded 80% of the value?
VESSY: It will be their role mapping session where we looked at the pipeline. The idea when we did those sessions is that they don’t necessarily need me after that session, they can decide that they want to work with someone else, or if they want to do start up bets with me or if they want to do everything else on their own. The role mapping session is where we look at where the red flags are. We identify what type of projects will help us get the context to them. We have those insights. We can create a strategy and then it can begin the implementation. Think about it as up to twelve months plan for the DNI department or the RG’s or whoever I am working with, that organization. It’ probably even less than 20% of the time spent, It’s the 80% of the volume, because everything else. Like focusing on the problem, then working on the solutions, is what really matters.
VESSY: I think it is funny, in tech we are so, we talk so much about validating, doing your research, talking to your customers, validating the problems that you are trying to create solutions for, etc. In D&I, we jump on the solutions, a few initiatives, we don’t really do our homework around what are the problems, what are the challenges, why is that the case, not only that, start to work on trying to solve them.
FIONA: Thank you so much for sharing those insights with us. I’m sure
VESSY: Thanks for having me.
FIONA: Thank you. If anyone listening wants to stay connected with you Vessy, what’s the best way for them to do that?
VESSY: My website is vessy.com. That’s v-e-s-s-y.com. My twitter is vessytash. So v-e-s-s-y-t-a-s-h. Media, you can go to my website vessy.com or vessytash on twitter and you will be able to find all of the other ones.
FIONA: Wonderful. Thank you so much.
Be sure to follow Vessy as @vessytash.
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