Ep 87: Sonja Gittens-Ottley: Remember Your Power and Worth

Diva Tech Talk enjoyed interviewing  Sonja Gittens-Ottley, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Asana, a leading work management platform designed to help teams organize, track, and manage work, for team clarity and collaboration.. (Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook, is also co-founder of Asana, which undoubtedly elevates the company’s standing amongst  Silicon Valley startups. Sonja’s major mission is setting standards to drive inclusivity and equity in the workplace. As a first generation transplant to the United States, she immigrated in 2004 from The West Indies. “I am the married mother of a 4-year old boy,” Sonja said. “That has shaped my work and my approach to diversity, because I am bringing up a child in this society. How can what I do today, impact his life, and shape his opportunities for the future?”

Growing up in The Republic of Trinidad/Tobago, Sonja did not have aspirational limits placed upon her. Growing up “we had really structured expectations of what were ‘cool’ jobs. Good jobs were being an educator or lawyer or perhaps an engineer. But the idea of being a technologist did not exist.”  Sonja became an attorney, earning a bachelor’s of law degree from The University of the West Indies in Barbados, and a graduate degree from The Hugh Wooding Law School. As a lawyer, she worked at both the Ministry of  Legal Affairs/Office of the Attorney General in her home country, and the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago. Now she is adamant that “Inclusion is defined by thinking about all the opportunities; ensuring that everyone has access; not being confined to what society says you should be doing.” 

Sonja’s transition from law to the tech industry was prompted by her marriage and move to the U.S. for what was originally planned as a two-year stint. “But I got the option to work at a company called Yahoo.” There she implemented project management and did legal internal consulting: “an opportunity too good to pass up!” When Yahoo established a human rights program, Sonja played a significant role. That naturally led to working with Yahoo’s corporate policy making team for diversity and inclusion. “Multinational groups and organizations, and human rights activists were using the company’s tools in a really different way,” Sonja explained. To better understand customer product needs and motivations, she emphasized that  “The company has to look like their diverse customer base to really be representative of how products are being used and the potential products that they might use. Imagine the products we could build if people inside companies reflected all users!”

From Yahoo, Sonja moved to Facebook as the company’s Global Diversity Program Manager, and then to Asana as Head of Diversity/Inclusion, where “I get to work across the entire company.”  To empower Asana’s diversity, she focused on two strategic pillars: recruiting candidates (“how do we get the best people from everywhere”) and employee evaluation and growth (“how do we ensure they are assessed in a fair manner.”) She stressed that “the culture is really supportive” and that neither pillar can exist without the other; diverse recruitment and accommodating a nurturing culture must work in tandem.  She works closely with the company’s University Recruiting team and targets other events that attract diverse attendees and potential talent. To expand inclusion and diverse thinking she works with a variety of supportive initiatives like ERGs (Employee Resource Groups) for internal communities where, “making space for the community, and space for allies to learn more is paramount…”. Today, there are three groups:  Asana Women, Asana Gradient (for people of color), and Asana Team Rainbow (for LGBTQ employees). According to Sonja, “They are open to people who identify in those communities and also to employee allies of these groups.” Each group autonomously sets its objectives, but all three are aligned, overall, to the greater Asana mission. One practical approach that Asana initiated to support inclusion is the Asana Real Talk series where people can engage in honest, authentic discussions about overcoming challenges, communicating purpose and driving change, individually and in the greater world/workplace. Sonja also does onboarding sessions with all Asana team members ensuring , “ what is important to us,” is emphasized and they understand how vital inclusion is to the company. Additionally, Sonja concentrates on initiating and strengthening policies such as the liberal Family Leave policy (“this is something open to everyone --- all genders”) to support a diverse, inclusive culture.  When speaking about feedback on programs and innovations in this area, Sonja proudly exclaimed: “The beauty of Asana is that it is really transparent,” so any question asked about progress is answered with data. She added, “People are not shy, they ask the questions.”

Much of Sonja’s leadership is enabled through wielding influence and her tips for doing that include: “Be clear about what you are trying to achieve. Be honest. If you are not sure what the results are going to be, say so. People want clarity on an objective --- possible issues, risks involved, and probable results.”  For those who want to work at a company with strong diversity and inclusion orientation, she advised, “You have power. You have a brand. You can ask for what you want the company to reflect to both internal and external audiences. It can be as easy as asking in an all-hands: ‘You say you care about diversity and inclusion; what are the actions we’re taking? How welcoming is our workplace? For companies initially adopting diversity and inclusion programs, Sonja recommends conducting a company-wide engagement survey with questions about “belonging” to gauge employee’s perspectives. “There are great online resources,” Sonja said, to create the surveys. (Diva Note: SHRM, Society for Human Resource Management, has created one, and evaluated a series of others).  “Think of it as an audit to see where you are.”  Sonja cautioned that acting NOW is more prudent than waiting. “The longer you take to do this, the harder it is.  If you have an HR team, someone needs to carve out time to think about culture, and employee engagement. And you should be thinking about policies.  Are they inclusive and welcoming to everyone?” She pointed to some of the mundane but vital questions a company can ask itself: “What is our restroom situation? Should we have ‘all gender’ restrooms?  Are we thinking about ‘mother’s rooms’? You should be thinking about these questions in terms of creating company policy.” For recruiting in companies without a dedicated diversity expert, she suggested: “You should be thinking about interview skills and training.”  At Asana, the company has reviewed and addressed bias in interviewing and concentrates on skill-sets rather than a candidate’s former companies.  

To measure diversity and inclusion success, Sonja said: “At Asana, we look at it as we would any other objective, in terms of both qualitative and quantitative data. What’s our new hire rate? How is it mapping to our goals? Through surveys, tracking employee engagement as well as monitoring  sense of belonging in terms of the overall company, and how are specific groups doing, and the intersectionality of these groups.” The intersectionality data can offer “very different pictures,” according to Sonja. 

To keep goals on track, Sonja and Asana do several things:

  1. Monthly “All Hands” company-wide meeting with topics focused on diversity and inclusion progress;

  2. Use of company-wide Slack communication channel and Asana to consistently, transparently share diversity and cultural data; 

  3. “Office Hours” and “Ask Me Anything” sessions dedicated to diversity/inclusion/culture, “where people can ask questions” or propose new approaches.

In addition to Asana Real Talk series, Sonja is very proud of the recent apprenticeship program the company launched, AsanaUp. “It was about a year in the making,” she said. “We were thoughtful and intentional about widening that funnel of great candidates coming from non-traditional backgrounds.”  In the AsanaUP apprenticeship, the company welcomes candidates from all backgrounds and without university computer science degrees (with other degrees, from coding schools, or parents returning to the workforce) to join the company for 6-9 months and work alongside software engineers.  The apprentices “are engineers at Asana. I am really proud of the teams I worked with to get this done,” Sonja said, , “It was a cross-collaborative effort, in the best sense.” Asana plans to expand the program in the immediate future.

Sonja characterized herself as “an eternal optimist.”  In her view, “everyone can make a difference. Children are the future, and they have no limits.”  She loves to laugh, and “see the humor in every situation.” That attitude helps her make progress on challenges that can appear, at times, to be challenging.  “There are people out there who don’t have access to the opportunities,” she said. “I plan to be working on lengthening that pipeline. This has to be done with really great partners like the Grace Hopper Celebration conference”. “Part of the work is reminding people that this is really important. We, often, forget that this is new and uncomfortable for a lot of people: to talk about race or gender or any of the other identities that people possess. Getting people to a place of comfort is how you change things.”  Sonja emphatically believes that to overcome diversity challenges, everyone must develop “a real sense of empathy; people might look different than you, might sound different, but we are all trying to do the same thing. Be respectful to others.” The most important thing Sonja would like to do is “remind people of their own power and their own worth.  It makes a difference in what you can achieve!”

Sonja Gittens-Ottley can be reached via LinkedIn and Asana can be viewed via the web at https://asana.com/.

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