Humans of HR is a bi-monthly blog series featuring human resources thought leaders committed to making work more human.
Natalie Egan (pronouns: she/her/hers) is the openly transgender CEO and founder of Translator, a startup that builds diversity and inclusion software for corporations, schools, and nonprofits. As a serial entrepreneur who jokes she has started more than 200 businesses (most of which, she says, “didn’t have any customers … at all”), Natalie describes herself as a “fail fast kind of girl,” and Translator is her second major startup. Her first “real” tech startup was a company called PeopleLinx (which was acquired by a sales acceleration company) that she founded prior to her transition, when she had a very different identity and life. She describes PeopleLinx as having embodied “toxic masculinity” and “bro culture” – which contributed to the company’s eventual downfall.
Here we discuss what changed for her, her vision for the future of work and HR, and how we can all make small changes that will lead to a better, more inclusive, and more humane world.
Workhuman: Can you talk us through your journey from PeopleLinx to Translator?
Natalie: Sure. PeopleLinx came crashing down because of a partnership issue, and my identity came crashing down with it. My marriage fell apart at the same time, too. When I thought my life could get no worse, I finally was able to look in the mirror and I figured out my truth – that I was transgender – and that realization was not something that I celebrated. The next morning reality hit, like, ‘I can't be transgender, I can't do this.’
I thought no one would accept me and that I’d never work again. There's a reason people aren't their authentic selves – it's because it is harder and it often comes down to survival. But at this point I had basically lived my whole life for other people, fulfilling their expectations of what I needed to be, and I had even convinced myself that I was someone else. I've been reflecting a lot on that lately: How stupid was I that I could be tricked for 39 years into thinking I was somebody else?
I started the journey of becoming Natalie almost four years ago to the day, and what surprised me most was that it would also become my journey to empathy.
I had been living my life in a bubble of white male privilege with access and resources, and all of a sudden, I was an overnight minority – a misunderstood and heavily marginalized minority. I experienced bias, discrimination, and hatred for the first time in my life at age 39. Prior to that, I never had to think about my identity. I'd never been not accepted for who I was. I'd never been denied access or not gotten someone to look me in the eyes.
About a month or two into my transition, I had this really nasty incident with another customer at Starbucks. I remember watching them walk out of the store and thinking to myself, ‘If they only knew my story, then they wouldn't judge me this way,’ and this lightbulb went off: I need to build technology to help people understand themselves and each other better, to help us share our stories – to create empathy at scale.
Inequality comes from miscommunication and imbalances in resources, but humanity comes down to understanding that we're all really just one.
There are all these hierarchies and privilege, and the idea that some people are better than others. And I don't think that's true; I think that's what we've been taught. So I'm trying to use technology to help us unlearn a lot of the things that we've learned and really become conscious of our equal humanity.
Workhuman: How does Translator work?
Natalie: We've built a set of tools designed to amplify and measure any diversity and inclusion learning experience. We call it SafeSpace Interactive Technology. Internal or third-party trainers use Translator when they deliver their trainings, and employee resource groups (ERGs) use our tools for meetings and events. One of the top payroll and HR solution providers in the world recently published a case study with us, stating that, ‘Translator finally helps us measure the effectiveness of our diversity and inclusion trainings.’ We're able to take data from a D&I training and the customer can convert it into ROI, which, traditionally, you haven't been able to do.
Workhuman: Why do you think D&I and working more human is becoming a movement now, or in the last three or four years?
Natalie: With the smartphone revolution, our work started following us home – and we accepted it. You're at your kid’s soccer game on a Saturday, you get an email, and all of a sudden you're not really at the soccer game anymore, you're thinking about this deliverable.
So, if my work life is going to come home with me, I should be able to bring my home life to work, right?
And the irony is that there’s this call in corporate America to bring your authentic self to work, but we don’t have ways or safe spaces to talk and learn about our or others’ identities in the workplace. And both people and companies are struggling as a result. There are issues with engagement and retention, and a lot of it is work-life balance.
Employers are starting to realize they have to have a culture that allows people to really be themselves, or they’re going to lose out. So they're making the shift, but it's an awkward time. Culture is not this thing we can ignore anymore. You have to nurture it and maintain it and manage it, and it has to be measurable, because if it's not measurable, you can't improve it.
Workhuman: In your role, do you find you are often called to coach people through personal challenges?
Natalie: Yes. Like many marginalized individuals and identities, I often deal with intense, unpredictable variables just by walking around in the world, and I've become a beacon for a lot of people who are drawn to me because I am able to be my most authentic self in such a public-facing role. And it's often not always about their gender or their sexuality. People just feel like they can talk to me.
For example, a lot of our customers come out to me. I’ll be on a sales call with them and at the end they'll say, ‘I'm secretly transgender and I am really struggling.’ A few weeks ago, a third-party elevator repairman at my office told me he was closeted gay and while he himself was an ally and supportive, the rest of his team had issues with me. He told me stands up for me, though, and I remember thinking ‘phew’ – but I can’t believe I have to deal with this in the background of my daily professional life.
Just yesterday, somebody was telling me about their twins – both assigned male at birth – and one of them is clearly showing signs of being gender non-conforming. They're just trying to be loving parents, and they don't have a lot of people like me to talk to. I can give them some unique perspectives on it – and so can any transperson, by the way – but my ability to talk about my experience as a fellow parent and working professional navigating these spaces helps people feel comfortable coming to me
Workhuman: It’s awesome you can do that.
Natalie: It's part of humanity – taking a break from work to allow for that connection, because there are deep relationships being formed here that even our investors have said are abnormal. And it's not just because I'm trans.
The D&I space is saturated with people who are super passionate. It's their life’s work.
The chief diversity officers who we're seeing getting put into their positions are not necessarily from HR, they're from all over the company.
Workhuman: What do you feel is the greatest need in terms of making work a better place for the most people?
Natalie: We all need access to better resources. Resources are different for everyone – the resources you need versus somebody else are different, and not everybody has all the resources they need to be the best version of themselves. It comes down to education, it comes down to the conversation, it comes down to language.
Nothing happens without language. There's the spoken language, but there's also a million versions of language that all define our reality, so we need to be more careful about our language so we can promote humanity and authenticity.
If people don't feel like they can be themselves because of the language and constructs around them, then they're going to continue to be repressed.
They're going to continue to not bring their full selves to work.
An example of this is using gendered language at work. And while it’s super important, I'm not just talking about written language, like eradicating words from job descriptions. I'm talking about the whole corporate language. Imagine a company, and the CEO steps out on stage and says, ‘Hey, guys. We need rockstars, we need ninjas, we need chest bumps.’ These are microaggressions, and you're excluding so many people. That language, to me, is PTSD-level stuff. And people are like, ‘Get over it, you're being too sensitive.’ And I'm like, ‘Hey – you're not being sensitive enough.’ If you want the best out of me every day at work, don't use that language.
And, by the way, I'm just another transperson who finally has the courage to say this. Forty percent of the rest of this audience doesn't like to be categorized or labeled as things like ‘ladies’ or ‘gentlemen’ or ‘guys.’ There are people in that room who would rather be referred to as something neutral. If we can start to make changes there, it's going to have a big impact on our corporate cultures and our cultural identities as organizations, which, ultimately, is a reflection of our people.
Companies are the net sum of all their people, and you can’t fake that because it's crowdsourced.
You can only influence it, and you influence it through language. And language is a resource.
Workhuman: How do companies get to a place where they can talk about this?
Natalie: We have to create a culture of feedback where I can just quickly and easily say, ‘Hey, can you not say that?’ And not have it be a big deal. Let's not derail everything. It’s important if you want to move the needle on employee engagement, create fewer microaggressions – spoken, written, in body language, in all languages – in your organization.
We also need our boards of directors, the heads of venture capital firms, and our C-level executives to force this issue of not just language, but diversity and inclusion at large. They need to make it a mandate and make their companies make it a metric. If they don't, then their leadership teams are going to behave the way they're incentivized, which is short-term financial gains.
We could also have a conversation about allyship, but I talked about that for Workhuman® Radio, so we can send people there instead. (Listen to Natalie’s episode, “Diversity Hedges Risk.”)
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