5 Questions: Rajkumari Neogy (6/10/18)

Because Health Equity Partners works with a network of expert consultants, we wanted to introduce you to the brilliant minds who make us who we are. “5 Questions” is a new, ongoing series that highlights each of our practitioners –our team– and their diverse talents and compassion. They know their game.

First up: Rajkumari Neogy. We met Rajkumari a few months ago after an HR executive friend told us: “What you’re doing with Health Equity Partners is totally in line with what Rajkumari is doing with organizational epigenetics. You need to meet her.”

We then replied, “What the heck is organizational epigenetics? And uhm, yes, please make the introduction.”

Rajkumari is a popular speaker and executive coach who directly links neurobiology (a.k.a. the nervous system) to how people can live better lives. The workplace is definitely a big part of that experience. Rajkumari is a featured speaker at CultureAmp’s Culture First conference, happening this week (6/12–6/13) in San Francisco.


HEP: You spent a few decades in Silicon Valley working in startups and big orgs like Facebook before starting your own consultancy. Why did you decide to get into the people business?

RN: I started my career as a technologist, training clients on cutting edge technology: MPEG2 compression (Zapex), DVD authoring software (Daikin) and Dynamic Imaging (Adobe). I LOVED conducting trainings because I loved connecting with the people in the room and getting them to laugh and feel at ease at some pretty complex technology. I quickly realized in my career that technology bored me immensely, even though I was “good at it”. I stayed way longer in a field I didn’t enjoy as the Bay Area salaries kept me ensnared and committed. In 2006, I started a 2-year coaching program at NLP Marin. And in 2008, I started graduate school while working full-time at Adobe. While there, I began asking peers and managers if I could coach them or lead workshops on better team engagement. On a case by case basis, a few agreed and that’s when the hunger became insatiable and I eventually quit Adobe to start my very first consulting firm in 2009.

HEP: Exclusion is something we all feel at one time or another, but often times we don’t always know we’re doing it. Do you think it starts with the individual being more aware of how he/she/they processes their own exclusion before he/she/they can re-teach themselves to be more inclusive and mindful to others?

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RN: This is a very tricky question. Without a doubt, becoming more aware of one’s own experiences affords the luxury of compassion and empathy for those around us. But like the Rubik’s cube, which has infinite ways of getting to the solution, so does exclusion. It’s impossible to be aware of every single way I might cause another person to feel excluded. Luckily, there is an incredibly easy fix to this. Simply ask the person or persons with whom you’re engaged for feedback on how you showed up, or how your behavior or words may have impacted them. This starts the beautiful cycle of vulnerability and trust, which begins to secrete oxytocin. If you’re too afraid to ask that person, then exploring the fear in asking for feedback is exactly the place to start.

HEP: We really like how you talk about trauma because, well, you don’t really use the word. Why is that?

RN: Trauma is simply an experience or an amalgamation of experiences that triggered the nervous system into a Fight, Flight or Freeze state. Each of those states are associated with feelings. And each of those feelings are rooted in unmet needs. Focusing on the unmet needs and feelings allows greater traction in gaining clarity and understanding of the experience (or experiences) and accelerates us into a positive and engaged state. I am always focused on honoring the past experience (because that was a truth for them) and providing options of possibility (a new truth). As humans, we can easily hold multiple truths. It’s one of our superpowers. 😊

HEP: It’s timely that we’re hearing and reading about more and more research pointing to how workplace stress is a serious topic in America. It’s clear that leadership teams have to be more accountable, that it’s not just “you’re on your own” or “talk to HR”. What’s your take on this? Is it real progress or just a trend?

RN: We need to revolutionize how we build companies, period. We need to disrupt our ways of engaging at the workplace and start incorporating play, joy and sadness into our everyday experiences.

First, we need to make it okay to be express ourselves based on situations. Feeling sad about coworkers being fired or laid off, missing a deadline or not getting a promotion is a natural human experience. Being able to express those states appropriately is key to staying connected to not only ourselves, but to our team and the organization. We stay engaged when we trust others around us and feel safe to express ourselves. I teach executives all day long how to give themselves permission to feel their feelings, learn what their needs are, communicate their experiences from an accountable stance and set boundaries.

We’re wired to belong and form relationships, so when we experience someone not listening to us, or not taking the time to connect, it registers in the brain as physical injury, lowers oxytocin and increases adrenaline and/or cortisol. Reconnecting to ourselves and others is about becoming fluid and fluent in both hemispheres so that we are fully resourced in our lives. How we build relationships with ourselves and with others is by hanging out in our right hemisphere way more. This results in smiling, being nice, holding open a door, not interrupting, asking if someone needs something, saying “I am sorry”, saying “thank you”, letting someone in front you while driving. The basics go a LONG way, because we’re human, not robots. Well, at least not, yet.

Secondly, there is a growing body of research that talks about how supporting ourselves and others positively impact the nervous system. When people believe they have support, the pain centers in the brain are activated at a significantly reduced capacity or even in some case, not at all, depending on the closeness of the relationship. And the closeness we feel toward others is directly related to the levels of oxytocin in our bloodstream.

When we motivate ourselves or others from fear, we create a culture of hopelessness. When we motivate ourselves or others from engagement, we create a culture of hope. Shifting the internal narrative from “I better not…” to “I wonder if I could…” changes the state of our nervous system.

By teaching humans how to be even more human, we can redesign ourselves, our relationships and our world. Also, TEQuitable is a great resource. To learn more, contact Lisa Gelobter for information.

HEP: You’re going to be a featured speaker at Culture Amp’s Culture Firstconference, any other events coming up?

RN: Nothing publicly beyond that now.

HEP: Final question: your most favorite place for noodles in the world?

RN: This is the most difficult question, being that I am a self-proclaimed foodie. But here goes:

  1. San Francisco: Cotogna

  2. Rome: any place, right?

  3. Thailand (Koh Mak Island): a tiny thatched roof place that served mind blowing green curry for $2. I was there for two weeks and ate there every day. And yes, I had the same dish each time.

  4. Laos (Luangprabang): Le Petit Nid: phenomenal coconut soup with noodles

5 Questions: Anna Vo (6/14/18)

Welcome back to 5 Questions, a series of enlightening profiles on exceptional people who are part of the Health Equity Partners’ team.

In our second installment, we introduce the very multi-faceted Anna Vo. We met Anna late last year at a dinner party honoring local filmmaker Cassie Goodluck Johnson here in Portland. We immediately recognized their talents in teaching how inclusion, race, social justice and organizational change intersect. They have lived and worked across four continents, and in Oregon alone, Anna has trained staff from over 100 organizations in Trauma-Informed Care, Restorative Justice, Inter-cultural Communication, STEM and Art Practices. Anna is also a youth worker who advocates for putting power into the hearts, hands and minds of young people. Oh, and they’re an artist. And a musician. We weren’t kidding when we said they’re multi-faceted!


HEP: We met here in Portland at a small dinner for a local filmmaker initially. As an artist yourself, how do you bring this talent into the work you do around organizational and institutional change?

AV: I think most artists are lateral thinkers and if they are *good* artists then they have considered societal patterns, flaws, and strategically have worked to interrupt them or bring them to light. I can’t imagine being an artist and not considering and playing with institutional power.

HEP: Share with us your childhood. You’ve lived in many countries and cultures.

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AV: I am kid of refugees from the war in Vietnam, and my life up to the age of 25 was characterized by displacement and a promise of imminent immigration. We were on a waiting list to be reunited with family here in the States. I finally received my green card four years ago.

Through the “luck” or experience of having diasporic family members –in Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam and the US– meant I was accustomed to flitting between vastly different societies from the age of five. As an analytical kid, this allowed me to make observations of how westernization, capitalism and “Third World” racism directly resulted in certain types of economies and lifestyles/environments.

HEP: When you provide trainings in Intercultural Communication, what does that mean? Is it something that can applied in any workplace?

AV: This is one of almost 20 trainings I give, and this particular one brings to light that there is no cultural norm or default identity. As a result, one (anyone) might benefit from expanding their perspective enough to understand the different frameworks and cultural influences that each individual has that then results in their particular type of interaction and communication style. The training defines and contextualizes, and also offers strategies to bridge these gaps. It applies to any place or practice.

HEP: There’s a growing number of orgs and independents advising companies on equity and inclusion (also known as diversity and inclusion or D&I) across the country. Do you think overall it’s a good thing or that it may be perceived as a trend? What should business leaders be considering when finding the right equity and inclusion consultant to help them?

AV: The effort to create equity is a response to a society and system that continually creates conditions that are inequitable. Personally I am interested in not only lip service but shedding light on those systems, how not to perpetuate them, and strategies to institutionally and procedurally break down barriers for marginalized communities. My consultations are about pragmatically following through with rhetoric or dogma regarding “Diversity” or “Equity”.

HEP: Final question: who are some of your favorite local and/or non-local filmmakers and/or artists?

AV: Melanie Stevens and Tyler J White are two of my favorite local artists. My favorite filmmakers are [Andrei] Tarkovsky[Chris] Marker and early Polanski.

5 Questions: Stephanie Preston, Ph.D. (8/14/18)

Welcome back to 5 Questions, a series of enlightening profiles with exceptional people who make Health Equity Partners so unique. Today: Stephanie Preston.

Stephanie has studied the evolution and neural basis of human behavior for the past 25 years, with a particular interest in how people develop and use empathy. Stephanie is doing the work that Kristy dreamed of doing when she was in middle school: understand why people are kind, and why people are mean.

An Associate Professor of Psychology with the University of Michigan, Stephanie has an MA and Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience from the University of California at Berkeley, and a post-doctoral fellowship at the Department of Neurology at the University of Iowa College of Medicine. Yeah, she’s all that and then some. We’re thrilled to have her as one of our research leads at HEP.

A special thanks to Stephanie for humoring Kristy during this interview when her cat barged in during the interview and would not shut up. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


HEP: You’re a professor of psychology at University of Michigan. Tell us a bit about how you ended up in this field.

SP: I have always been interested in the mind, like how people think, what motivates people, the nature of consciousness. That includes the philosophical side of the issue, like the philosophy and neuroscience of consciousness and awareness. Recently, I’ve become more focused on the practical side.

HEP: What do you mean by the practical side?

SP: In the philosophical sense, what is the nature of consciousness? Can you really know what you know, and to what degree are you aware of what motivates you? On the practical side, it’s things like, why don’t we apply this knowledge directly to real-world challenges to improve people’s lives at work, at the hospital, in our interactions with patients and altruistic fundraising, in environmental domains, etc. How can we improve problems that are relevant to today’s society given the knowledge we already possess and bridge the gap between academia and what we call the real world?

HEP: Your teaching takes an interdisciplinary approach. Thinking about the business environment: are you encouraged or discouraged by what you hear from people in the business community? What are things you’re picking up on in terms of people embracing the reality of expressing emotion in the workplace?

Stephanie P: Well, in business, in the history of psychology and in medicine there’s a dominant historical theme that emotions are bad. Emotions are going to cause faulty decision-making. A person is going to become so wrapped up in their emotions that they’re not going to be thinking rationally. However, modern emotional science now tells us that there’s no such thing as decision-making void of emotion. The very act of a decision requires that you value one thing more than another. The pros and cons in reality are emotionally instantiated, so you would say, “I fear this outcome, and I’m very pleased imagining this other outcome.” When you balance them out, is it more scary or is it more desirable? Which one is winning out is the nature of a decision, which is inherently emotional. So it’s a mistake to think of emotions as bad or not as part of decisions. If somebody says, “Oh, but we want to make the decision rationally.” Well, rational decision-making is an emotional process.

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The word “emotion” has so many different levels, from, “Okay, in my mind I’m imagining these scenarios, and I’m letting my gut instincts about the pros and the cons and the likely outcomes direct my choices.” This all the way to, “I’m crying at work or I’m yelling at people during a meeting.” Those are really different ends of the spectrum. As an analogy, you need your emotional system to exhibit compassion and empathy or sympathy for, say, patients, to understand where they’re coming from, to be able to tailor the advice you give them to what you observe as their preferences and fears and distress. But nobody would ever advise you to go around crying during your interview with the patient because you’re so upset about their diagnosis.

We’re all human beings. Occasionally somebody might cry at work or be upset or mad. Is that a bad thing? It’s not inherently a bad thing. It’s only a bad thing if it’s culturally frowned upon such that now you are at a disadvantage. To the extent that your business is a culture, you get to decide whether that puts somebody at a disadvantage because they cried at work or they got upset about something during a meeting.

HEP: So you’re saying emotion is what it is, that it’s up to us as a community or culture to show support in a range of ways? Often emotion is a symptom of a not great behavior that hurts others. It can also be a sign of vulnerability that is not meant to hurt others, is that right?

SP: Emotion is not inherently bad. For example, someone who is upset about a product at work is signaling their investment in the project, since they would not get emotional if they didn’t care. He/she/they is a great employee who is/are working hard to ensure a quality product.

Emotion is typically appropriate within peer groups at work. Emotion can also be a powerful tool in negotiation; for example, informing others about the strength of your convictions. It’s complex; cues and subtle nudges in how we talk to one another is a big part. The point is that emotion is where you hold trust with others.

The ways we reveal our rules about displaying emotion differ a lot by situation and audience. We intuit these rules through a lifetime of experiences within our culture. But we don’t all come from the same culture. People have different emotional tendencies. And layering on that, workplaces differ in the permissibility of displaying emotion: a good example is how negative emotions show a lot of variation across groups and cultures.

If those in power [managers, executives, C-suites] can be more open to emotion, then their teams can feel more comfortable being themselves. This extra openness — paired with an understanding of how emotions can be good, informative, and culturally-relative — can create a work environment that accommodates our natural tendencies and needs, creating a more productive environment.

HEP: That segues into culture and building more positive than more negative culture in a workplace. So often fear and intimidation is used as a tactic to keep people from wanting to speak their voice. Through various forms of research and whatnot, workplace stress is running high these days. How can we talk more openly and teach MBAs, those students who are interested in becoming the next generation of business leaders, about how important behavior and emotional intelligence is?

SP: It’s important to point out that a company with a good climate, with a leader that people appreciate, benefit more in the long-term. They have millions of experiments in game theory showing that, for example, cooperation yields higher decision heuristics than tit for tat, or, “I’ll only do something good for you if you do something nice for me.” If we act collaboratively and I sometimes trust you and I give to you and later you give back to me, these environments we end up all having more money, even in these strict economic games, than if we are stricter, untrusting, or selfish.

To me, there’s an important analogy between organization and employee and parent and offspring. We also have 150 years of research or something on developmental psychology showing that the highly strict parent actually ends up having a child with more behavioral issues than the one that has clear boundaries but tons of loving, bonding, rewarding feedback and this lack of extreme strictness. And just letting everybody do whatever they want isn’t actually as good as having some boundaries.

HEP: The parent comparison definitely makes sense, particularly when you’re a young company with a lot of people who are fresh out of school and still learning who they are. What are some important factors that play into good leadership, like good parenting?

SP: Showing people what the expectations are. Creating boundaries that are really clear. Understanding the consequences of not meeting the expectations. This doesn’t have to require any negativity. We all want and kind of expect this. You have to properly support someone in being able to achieve that goal, and if they don’t meet it, then the consequence is shared, but it’s not a surprise and no one should be getting yelled at.

(Obnoxious cat walks in and starts meowing)

Can’t have an interview without a cat!

HEP: Hold on…Cal! Going to kick you out…OK continue.

SP: When people are feeling like they have the authoritarian figure who’s yelling at them or creating an environment of stress or using threats to get work done, that environment is just going to get a lower yield of success overall. You’re going to have employees who turn over more frequently, you’re going to have a lot more mental health issues affecting the day to day, and that’s going to cycle back into lost productivity. So it’s not actually to anyone’s benefit to use a strategy of intimidation or stress.

HEP: I think you just added some great parenting words of wisdom here for me. Just in time for back to school! Thanks Stephanie.

5 Questions: Stempathy (8/27/18)

Welcome back to 5 Questions, a series of enlightening profiles on exceptional people who make Health Equity Partners so unique.

This week, with back to school in full motion, we thought introducing our friends at Stempathy was in order. Rene Martinez-Johnson, Jill Craven, and Jane Ni are women passionate about educating and advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace. What makes them different is they take a very rigorous approach to what data they collect, how they collect it and how it informs coaching clients. By demonstrating the value of why DEI is so critical to any organization, Stempathy then provides program-building guidance to improve all facets of DEI: recruiting, hiring, on-boarding, engagement, professional development, etc. As working scientists and engineers who happen to be women, they know what makes a STEM brain tick.


Stempathy co-founders Rene Martinez-Johnson, Jill Craven and Jane Ni

Stempathy co-founders Rene Martinez-Johnson, Jill Craven and Jane Ni

HEP: Why did you start Stempathy?

Stempathy: Working as engineers, we had firsthand experience of the importance of ‘soft skills’ to the success of projects that are, on the surface, purely technical endeavors. We started facilitating diversity workshops for our colleagues using material provided by the company, but found that it did not resonate with a technical audience (poorly labeled graphs, little data to support conclusions, etc.). Simply put, we thought we could do a better job. Now, our vision for Stempathy goes beyond diversity-as-headcount; we know that a workforce in which each individual is seen, heard, and valued is critical to the success of an organization.

HEP: These days, it seems like there are hundreds, if not thousands, of diversity and inclusion trainers out there. Which is great, but it also creates concern around who is truly intentional and holds a deeper vision beyond say, an anti-bias training workshop. What makes Stempathy different?

Stempathy: Our education and experience allows us to address the specific concerns of scientists and engineers. There is a common belief that science is objective and value-neutral and therefore the work of scientists is not susceptible to the biases that exist in society. We shine a light on the power inequalities inherent in science in order to reveal blind spots and cognitive biases. For example, the vast majority of lab mice used in experiments are male due to the mistaken belief that female mice are more hormonal and result in more experimental variability. At the same time, we know that using data to change minds is relatively ineffective; instead, Stempathy utilizes the latest findings in psychology to change intuitive reasoning.

HEP: We’re big fans of orgs like Kapor Center in Oakland and their Leaky Tech Pipeline platform. What are other orgs and/or individuals besides Stempathy doing similar efforts to bring more data and science into DEI work?

Stempathy: We recently read this paper [summarized in The New York Times here] in which the authors conducted a randomized controlled trial to study the effects of workplace wellness programs such as health screenings and fitness activities. Most interventions had little effect on health expenditures or absenteeism. But surprisingly, when the authors also analyzed their data as if it were an observational study — simply comparing employees who participated in the programs with those who didn’t — they found statistically significant effects! This is likely due to selection bias: those who participate in wellness programs are different to start with than those who don’t participate.

This result is an important reminder that the nitty-gritty details of experimental design and statistical analysis require careful consideration and should not be overlooked when designing a study or reading published results.

HEP: As a HEP partner, you know the value of understanding how behavior impacts the day to day workplace. Can you share a more personal story that led to you starting Stempathy?

Jill: Sure, I can share mine. I’ve worked in several intense environments in my career, and in my most recent job as a development engineer in a semiconductor factory, I became pregnant with my first child. My manager and teammates were supportive and caring as soon as I announced the news. Over the course of the pregnancy, I modified my hours and tasks — I switched from 12 hours shifts to 8 hours, reduced my on-call work, and modified many of the physical tasks normally required by my job. One might think a team could become resentful of a teammate not able to carry out all of their functions, but my team was the exact opposite. They brought me chairs to encourage me to sit, and carried heavy components that I was no longer able to carry. No one hesitated or was annoyed. It was not what I had expected at all. This support and kindness made me want to return to work 6 months after having my daughter. Had my team behaved differently, perhaps I would not have wanted to come back.

HEP: Thanks for sharing this, Jill. For all of you: if you were to pick one dream client, who/what would it be?

Stempathy: Our goal is to work with companies who are passionate about Stempathy and are committed to doing the work of improving equity and inclusion. So it’s hard to pick a dream client without having a conversation first! That being said, a company like Boeing would be pretty high on the list. They have made great strides recently: in 2018, they made DiversityInc’s list of top 50 companies for diversity for first time. There is still lots of work to be done, however. For example, their executives are still overwhelmingly male. Technology is constantly changing the nature of jobs, and making many aspects of work easier, but the challenges of managing a team that is cohesive and dedicated to a common goal without stifling creativity and originality remain the same.