A Vice President, Customer Operations & HR at Lightbend, Sushila Sahay is a Peruvian born Canadian of Indian heritage with a passion for business, technology, and human connection. Striving to have a positive impact on everyone with whom she interacts, she has spent over 25 years with tech companies and forged a successful career leading global teams and initiatives for Silicon Valley startups. Currently she leads all Customer and Employee Success teams globally, as VP, Customer Operations and HR at Lightbend, Inc. A classically trained singer, she holds an MBA with Honors in Strategic Management from the University of Alberta.
At Reactive Summit in Montreal, Sushila is hosting a panel discussion “Diversity and Inclusion: Bring the Thunder” with Naomi Davidson (CEO at Trybe), Mona Eldam (Managing Director/Global Head of Transactional Data team at Morgan Stanley), Tara Hernandez (Senior Engineering Manager at Google), and Hywel Evans (Senior Director, Global Solutions Architect at Lightbend) sharing personal stories along with research knowledge to provide insight into how to create an inclusive environment in day to day work.
In advance of this highly anticipated panel discussion, we spoke to Sushila about what diversity and inclusion mean to her personally, how Lightbend makes Reactive Summit an inclusive space and what companies can do to propel their diversity and inclusion effort.
There are many things said and done about diversity and inclusion in the tech space. What do diversity and inclusion mean to you personally and to Lightbend?
Diversity and Inclusion have always been at the forefront of my experience and thinking since I’m a minority, a minority woman, and a minority woman in technology. Throughout my life, it hasn’t been at all unusual for me to be the only non-white person in a room, or the only woman in the room, or the only non-white woman in the room! But, my own experience aside, I strongly believe that diversity and inclusion are complex topics that are important for organizations. At Lightbend, and in my own life, I distil my thinking down to three primary areas: building empathy, testing our biases to challenge the status quo, and treating all people with respect and dignity.
Without empathy, we apply our own cognitive frameworks to understanding concepts and people. It’s a practical and efficient approach. But, if we haven’t experienced the prejudices, the discrimination, the harassment, and the multitude of challenges that those of us that aren’t part of the mainstream do, how can we address them? I found the best way to expand your cognitive framework is to be empathetic and strive to understand the experience of others. Once we start doing that, we can test our own biases.
Again, a practical and efficient approach that we have relied upon through the ages, is to be able to quickly identify ‘those who are like us’ and ‘those who are different than us’. Not surprisingly, we are favourably biased to those who are like us. That served us well when we were fighting enemies but it is highly unproductive in building effective teams and making optimal decisions in the workplace. (There are some fascinating studies on the positive impact of a diverse team make-up, which we’ll share at the Diversity and Inclusion Panel at the Reactive Summit in Montreal in October.) If we can expand our thinking beyond traditional, we can really start to make strides in benefiting from diversity and inclusivity.
Finally, it’s great to start building a diverse team, but inclusivity is an essential part of the equation. Again, those inherent biases can lead us to behaviours that are disrespectful and undermining. Much of these behaviours are unintentional so we must always be thinking about how we can personally ensure that we are allowing people to have a voice. If we don’t do that, we may as well not attempt to have a diverse team. To me, this is as simple as treating people with the respect and dignity they deserve, as fellow human beings, and holding each other accountable to this principle.
What is the biggest challenge in making the Reactive community diverse and inclusive?
The challenge is no different for the Reactive community than for the broader tech community. We’re at what I consider a pretty critical phase in this regard, in which people are recognizing that diversity and inclusion are important, and they want to do something. But the conversations can be really difficult because you don’t want to offend someone, or you’re nervous about the legal aspects of addressing certain topics. There’s also the fact that the tech communities can be like echo chambers since minority representation is low. That means the voices of the underrepresented people are missing from the conversation. My goal with the Reactive Summit Diversity and Inclusion Panel is to change that and to begin to amplify the voices of the underrepresented groups.
How does Reactive Summit make the conference inclusive?
There are three high impact approaches that we’re taking for this conference:
The first is the Diversity and Inclusion Panel, in which we will talk about:
- The Science: Why are Diversity and Inclusion important and what does the science say?
- The Human Aspect: Panelists will share individual experiences and what they do to try to make an impact.
- The Company Responsibility: What are some effective organization strategies to improve diversity and inclusion in your company?
- The Individual Responsibility: Ideas from the panellists around the Daily Acts of Inclusion that we can all implement to make a difference.
Another approach we’ve taken is to offer scholarships to encourage the attendance from underrepresented groups. The response to this was overwhelming and we look forward to continuing and growing these types of programs across all our conferences.
Lastly, the speaker selection committee also specifically challenged their biases around ‘what makes an effective speaker’. It is important to ensure that we’re being fair and inclusive in our speaker selections to provide attendees with the highest impact and the most well-rounded conference experience possible.
What is the main objective of the diversity and inclusion panel discussion that you’re hosting at Reactive Summit? What do you plan to achieve?
The goal of the panel is to amplify the voice of the underrepresented so we can build empathy for their experiences. I’m really hoping that attendees walk out of the session with the goal of challenging traditional thinking and gaining some tips for building diverse and inclusive environments, that they can act upon easily!
Who should join the discussion?
I truly believe these discussions are important for everyone. Whether you have an interest in these topics, or you roll your eyes at them for being too ‘touchy-feely’, you will get something out of this discussion. I actually think that the eye rollers bring an important perspective to the discussion and part of being inclusive means feeling safe to express contradictory thoughts, so I’d love for everyone to attend and engage in discussions with others throughout the conference so that we could all expand our thinking.
Finally, do you have any words of wisdom for companies and communities that are improving diversity and inclusion?
The 5 panellists in the session will share some wisdom so I encourage those who are interested to attend!