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“I Think I’m Broken!” - A Story in The Life of Ellen Bailey

In a world too often divided and contentious, many special women—such as our guest, Ellen Bailey—spend their careers integrating concepts of Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion in the fabric of their organizations. Here, Ellen shares her journey in an exclusive interview.




Part One of Five


Introduction



In a world that is too often divided and contentious, many incredible women pioneers are fighting to make the world a better place. Ellen Bailey is one of those people. Ellen’s story below will give you a fresh insight into seeing and believing in a new vision for this world, one benefiting from advancements in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Through her vision, she has created a ripple effect for so many following in the wake of the change she is creating. I am confident you will find inspiration to create change in your world after reading this story, according to your own passions and purpose.


Ellen’s motivation comes from personal experiences and the values instilled in her at a young age. Despite much adversity and many roadblocks, Ellen shows us the value of not hiding or giving up when times get tough. Instead, after a life-changing experience, she has dedicated much of her career to promoting real impact in advancing DEI concepts into the fabric of her organization. Here she shares her continued journey of creating impact and provides hope for those wanting to see change in this world by sharing what is possible.


Now, join me in hearing Ellen’s touching story in her own words of going from telling her husband “I think I’m broken,” to living her purpose.



Ellen Bailey: What Fuels Her!


When I was growing up, my parents always told us we were valuable and worthy. We were taught our lives were meaningful. We were advised not to pass judgement. Even if it was pretty clear at times that other people, outside our household, weren’t raised the same.


One of the ways they did this was by asking us to describe people in a way that didn’t rely on skin color. So, instead of saying “that Black man” or “that White woman,” for instance, we would say “the person in the red shirt” or “the person in the purple hat” to get us to think a little bit differently.

Exercises like that created a belief in me that everyone should be treated in a non-discriminatory sort of way—and eventually got me to the work I do now, which is centered in the Diversity and Inclusion space. I feel like I’m paying it forward. Because I honestly believe there should be justice in the world.


If I have been told once, I have been told a million times: life is not fair. My response has always been that I’m going to try to make it as fair as I possibly can. Honestly, I don’t know why it’s not. And, for whatever reason, I believe strongly in the scales of justice and fairness. It came from a very young age when I was not treated fairly. I just have that fight in me to not only prove that I am worthy myself but then to make things fair for everybody else around me as well.”


In Conclusion


Even with the world not so accepting, Ellen knows how important it is to treat others with respect and kindness. She quickly learned strategies to overcome discrimination by playing a role in creating change in this chaotic world we live in. She did not accept defeat but used the negative experiences in her life to persevere in creating more inclusive and equitable workplace environments across her industry. Her challenges only fueled her passion to work tirelessly to educate herself and not accept “no” for an answer when advancing her ideas for change.


Read on to learn just how she did it in Part 2 of “I Think I’m Broken!”



 

Part Two of Five


"Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world." – Howard Zinn.


As we continue to dive deeper into the work of Ellen Bailey, you may wish to ask yourself, “What’s a specific example of a time I overcame a significant challenge, and how did I do it?” This is the question that I had the honor of asking Ellen in our recent chat. She answered with the following story…




Ellen’s Story


“There were two times in my professional life that shaped the course of my career. The first was back in 2018, when I was working for an organization that I absolutely loved. Up until then, I had recruited people to join the company. I even planned to retire from there. And then, one day I experienced an event that changed the way I looked at things. I'm not even going to say what happened was a microaggression, because it was really more of a macroaggression that was racially motivated by two colleagues.


We were at an in-person event when racial comments were made to me. It was devastating. It hurt even more that they thought it was okay to do so. It hurt me to my core. Coming from colleagues made it even more hurtful. As people of color, especially women of color, we experience microaggressions every day we step outside the house—even on Zoom calls. So that's normal to me. But having this done to me by people I worked with made the experience so much worse. I was like, “This stinks!”


I cried the whole flight home from that event. The next night, when sitting at the dinner table with my husband, I shared what happened with him. I told him that I think I have to say something because enough is enough, and our organization should be better than this. I knew in my heart that if I didn't step up, then all of the work in the civil rights movement was for nothing. On the other hand, in standing up to this injustice, I had the opportunity to make things better for myself and other people in this organization.


I was the breadwinner in the family, so the thought of taking action against this felt risky. I knew that if I said something to my manager, they’d have to act on it—which, in turn, could endanger my career. But my husband responded by telling me, "Well, you have to do what is right."


So, what happened was, my boss was rightfully horrified by the examples. And while my intention was never to get anyone in trouble, I wanted to use this as a learning experience to drive positive change in our organization. My boss responded by telling me, “Well, you know you have to give them feedback. That's the first step.” I was like, “Ah.”


As it turned out, I found it very difficult to give those two colleagues feedback. I realized I did not have a standard for the appropriate response. The thing is, when you don't have expected behaviors in your organization, it's hard to give feedback on a concept. The bottom line was that the company needed to implement certain behavioral standards, so employees could be held accountable for their actions. And that's what drove my work. At the time, we had very different leadership. Unfortunately, we couldn't get a response from leaders within the organization, not even to have a conversation about what needed to be done. So, as a side hustle, I took on creating change—starting with myself. I got a formal education in Diversity and Inclusion.



Fast forward from the summer of 2018 to February of 2020: I went straight to a couple of our executives, and I had a one-page business case on what we need to be doing to address racism and why. It was low-hanging fruit for the organization. But, after presenting my proposal in February, everything shut down due to the pandemic two weeks later. Then, two months after that, George Floyd was murdered. We did not hear a word from our leadership even a week after the murder of George Floyd. At that point, a colleague of mine and I fired off an email to our President to tell him that we need to hear from him. We also shared some things he could do.


Jumping a bit ahead, now… I was then asked to take on a one-year tour of duty reporting to the President. This tour of duty would include me leading these initiatives that I had called out a couple of months prior. They gave me an inch, but I knew I was going to take a yard. At the time, it never occurred to me that I would get pushback from executives, one in particular. The response I received was a general response of “None of this is necessary.” I was proposing strategy, goals, and initiatives that included simple training and development. Even so, I was told, “No.” I couldn’t believe it.


While all this was happening in 2020, my husband lost his job because he was in the hospitality industry when COVID hit. My dad, who has a pacemaker, also got COVID. He needed additional surgery but lived three hours away from me. At the same time, our country was in complete social chaos due to police brutality. And I was being told not to advocate for equity in this organization! It was devastating. Absolutely devastating.



2020 was the first time in my entire life when I sat down with my husband and said, "I think I'm broken."


I was and always have been a fighter to the core, but I thought that I'd run out of fight. I’d run out of energy. No matter what I was dealing with at work, I was also trying to make sure that he stayed positive. And I was trying to manage the parental thing. Because my parents were around eighty years old.

Being Black during this time, I was also very scared; the cultural tension affected every aspect of my life… Like, I was trying not to get pulled over when I went to the grocery store. All this, while trying to drive equity in my organization, just to be told no, was just too much.


The conversation with my husband was the week before Thanksgiving. I decided I would just get to Thanksgiving because I had a long weekend. I was talking to someone in my social network, and I was like, ‘I just don't think I can do this anymore.” And he said, “You give yourself the week of Thanksgiving, Ellen, and then you pull back on your big girl pants and you get back into that fight because if it's not you, then who? And we owe it to our Black community to fight the good fight.”


I remember thinking, "Ugh. Okay." So that is exactly what I did. That was the first time in my entire life that I was about ready to give up. You need people surrounding you and helping you say, “You got this.”


The second life-changing experience was on June 6th. I was powering through and then June 6th happened. I couldn’t understand how, as a country, we allowed that to happen. And so, I was broken yet again because I was like, "Does the impact I'm having at my organization even matter if the country is falling apart?" And then I thought, yep, it mattered—because of all the people I touched at the organization and all the people they touched, too.


Those were the two times in my entire life when I almost didn’t keep going, and I'm about to turn fifty-four in a couple of weeks. But I got through it anyhow. Because if it's not me standing up, then who?


A quote that drives me in my personal life and my work is from Martin Luther King. It is, “The time is always right to do what’s right.” And that is the motto that I live by, regardless of how hard.


I've lost friends, I've lost people that I thought were good colleagues because I will always do what's right. I won't back down regardless of how hard it is. Because Martin Luther King didn't lose his life for me to sit here and say, "Hmm, it's hard."


So, when things get tough, I timebox the pain and I allow myself time to feel sorry for myself or to allow my feelings to come out for a day, a week, or whatever it is, and then I get right back on it. Because how hard is it really when I don't have to march?


And those leaders, by the way, are no longer at my organization. And so, one of the main reasons that we've been able to make such strides in such a short time is because now all of our leaders see the need and the value of Diversity and Inclusion practices. Not only do they want what's right but also to play catch up. They want us to move even faster.


I wouldn't be able to sleep at night if I didn't fight. Could I have potentially lost my job? Sure. But how can you live with yourself or sleep at night not knowing that you didn't do every single thing you could? I'm always looking for justice. I need those scales. I want those scales to level.



In Conclusion


When repairing a broken system, the weight of multiple impediments scares even the well-intentioned among us from seeking justice. Happily, in Ellen’s experience, her fears were to bring her to a place of clarity and understanding.

Among the many lessons from her struggles, Ellen Bailey learned to consider the experiences of those who came before her in the fight for justice—and to remind herself that suffering and feelings of helplessness were not individual to her journey.


 

Part Three of Five


Through our first two articles on Ellen Bailey, we learned about the personal values that guide her career and the challenges she confronted while trying to create racial equity in her workplace.


Now, as the vice president of Business and Culture Transformation at her company, Ellen actively pursues her goal of inclusivity. This doesn’t mean her journey was easy or seamless, however.


In Part Three, we will explore what Ellen wishes she knew sooner, and what she would have done differently before embarking on her pursuit of justice.




Introduction


When working to accomplish a big goal, like redressing a culture of racism in the office, it’s important to be transparent about the challenges we face, especially as women. What we learn on the road to becoming leaders is not just valuable for our own gain; oftentimes, thousands of women in a similar position are looking for the answer to a problem that bars them from reaching their fullest potential.


Ellen has achieved a lot since embarking on her journey to address racism, both in her workplace and in the world around her.


She is also a woman who overcome many obstacles while pursuing her goals—obstacles such as imposter syndrome, racism, and rejection by corporate executives. This led me to ask her, “What would you have done differently when you were first starting?”


Ellen’s Story


As shared by Ellen… “That is the easiest question to answer: I didn't know I didn’t have to fight alone. On athletic teams or in the band, or in the corporate world, I've been the only person of color. And, having been the only one, I assumed I had to go it alone.


Nobody ever mentored me or sponsored me. It was a long time before anyone took me under their wing. What I realized through my wonderful boss at the time was that there were many facets to success: I needed to build a personal board of directors; I needed to reach out and expand my network in a way that supported my personal growth and development.


So when I started reaching out to people, I was like, “Oh, my goodness. No wonder I struggled! Not any one person can go it alone.” Everyone needs a support group, so to speak. And so I built my board of directors.


I was never taught these unspoken rules. I was never taught that hallway conversation mattered. I was never taught about self-promotion. I wasn’t coached on reaching out to people who could help prepare me for executive meetings. I was just never taught that leveraging the village could help me succeed.


And the second piece of advice I got from a different person was, "I'm going to be completely candid with you. Not only are you a woman, but you're a person of color, so you have to be twice as good." That's when I learned that hallway conversations were important.


She said "Every opportunity you are interacting with a leader in your organization, even if it's at the water cooler, you should say something strategic. Whatever comes out of your mouth has to be bigger than the role that you’re in. They need to see your potential." I thought that was brilliant. Those are the two things I took away. And they were invaluable.”



Conclusion


It is safe to say the value of community is immeasurable. What Ellen has shown us is that something as simple as asking for help can make the difference between a successful endeavor and failed pursuit.


Being a person uncoached in the soft skills necessary to succeed in professional environments, Ellen learned to seek advice from her trusted community of colleagues.


 

Part Four of Five


In Part Three of “I Think I’m Broken,” we learned more about the significance of community, especially when it comes to boosting self-confidence and grounding ourselves in our abilities.


However, while the value of a reliable support system is immeasurable there’s still something to be said about the power of ideas that are born from a place of self-confidence and self-assurance.


Throughout this series, Ellen has taught us that true success comes from tapping into our superpowers. In Part Four, we will learn about Ellen’s unique superpower — that special quality, which makes Ellen, Ellen.




Introduction


We all have something —a characteristic or trait— that we individually bring to the table, something that makes us stand out from the crowd. But, as women in the workplace, we oftentimes feel pressure to conform to expectations or make ourselves seem smaller. A 2019 study on 1,500 Amazon Mechanical Turk workers conducted by Harvard Business Review showed that, during self-assessments, men rated their performance 33% higher than equally performing women.


Ellen had to learn over time that it was necessary to tap into her ideas and ambitions, even if they went against the grain of her company’s culture. Because, generally speaking, it takes a strong person—a self-assured and very grounded person—to make any sort of substantial change, especially when given limited support from others.



In other words, Ellen chose to bet on herself; and this is something we, as women, could benefit from doing more often. Learning about Ellen’s unwavering tenacity led me to ask her this: “As you reflect on your career, what's the most enduring part of your identity that keeps emerging for you even today?”


Ellen’s Story


As shared by Ellen… “I didn't go to a fancy Ivy League school. I'm not the best writer, but it doesn't mean that I don't have other strengths. My down-to-earth personality, my authenticity, is probably the biggest piece of my identity that I embrace.

I don't try to pretend that I'm smarter or better than I am. I don't try to be super polished. I just think that a good leader can be authentic. And what you can always count on me for is that.


I pride myself on doing what’s right even when it's hard. You will always get transparency from me at every crossroads to the level that I can share. And I say that because that impacts the other two points, I want to make…


I am judged the minute people see me on video or in person because of my color. That's the first thing that people see, so that is how I identify most. I’m a Black woman first. That's who I'm going to be.


On the other hand, its troubling that so many of us don't feel we can be authentic. Instead, we try to show up for work in a way that aligns with what other people expect. And I don't think that's going to get us where we need to be, as women.


So, I am unapologetically Ellen. And I'm going to be authentic. And I like to have fun. From now on, I'm probably going to insert humor every opportunity I get, and it's not even preconceived.


During my very first board meeting, I had to rehearse. It was scripted. And then, when I went into that meeting, I threw away the script and I was authentic: I shared what was hard, I shared what was easy. I made them laugh. I made them cry. I was super candid. That worked to my advantage because, after the meeting two of our board members said, “I will meet with you monthly to help you.”


Conclusion


In the workplace, it can be very easy to equate your value as a person or team member to external factors that are oftentimes a reflection of access and exposure, such as higher education or networking skills. Many of us are led to believe that the secret to being an impactful leader requires something we weren’t born with, such as money—or else qualities we’ll never have, such as being a white man.


While these factors do oftentimes show up as hurdles for women and people of color in the workplace, it is important to remember they do not have to define us—or anyone else’s—story. As a Black woman, Ellen had to uncover how to find power in herself and what she brings to the table, unapologetically.


 

Part Five of Five


In our final entry of “I Think I’m Broken,” the five-part series on Ellen Bailey, a trailblazer in the world of organizational diversity and inclusion, we get to the root of what we focus on here at Unapologetically Harpreet: how women can tap into their best, authentic selves. In doing so, we’ll delve deeper into the values that make Ellen who she is, and how she expresses them unapologetically.



Introduction


Ellen Bailey is a woman who embodies perseverance and resilience. Her story of opposing workplace discrimination at her revered company—despite the pushback she received from executives and higher-ups—exemplifies the highs, lows, and self-discoveries that came with the pursuit of justice and equality.


Ellen took the first step on what would be a long journey to creating a larger change within her corporation’s approach to diversity and equality in 2018. And, while liberating, this experience has been accompanied by its fair share of hardships. By way of persistence, dedication, and community, however, she was to eventually discover that her propensity for remaining authentic to her values was her superpower.


Since experiencing racism from colleagues in 2018, Ellen has continued to push for justice: not only in her company but in those around her and within society altogether. It is this unwavering commitment to the ideologies of inclusion and equity, and to the actions of authenticity and realness, that make her “unapologetically Ellen.”


In this last chapter, we will be digging deeper into what being unapologetic means to her.


Ellen’s story


As shared by Ellen… “The time is always right to do what's right. And you do what's right even when it's hard. That's when I think authenticity comes in because we can challenge people and give candid feedback in a way that brings people in. We can be unapologetic and do what's right and do what's hard in a way that benefits all.


It's easier said than done, but having executive presence and being able to do what's right doesn't mean you have to be this particularly polished white man. You can be authentic to yourself and continue to drive for what is right, for equitable opportunities for everybody in your organization, in your circle outside of work, and then ideally for society.


I think what I learned from building that personal board of directors was that I didn't realize the power that I had in driving my career. I thought that promotions were something done to me. Or for me. I thought that if I worked hard, people would recognize me for my efforts. I didn't realize this was false until my board of directors told me otherwise. “If you have an idea, take it to someone,” they said. “Don't keep it to yourself.”


So, don’t be afraid to approach folks and say, “I see a gap. Here's an opportunity for us to close this gap and grow. And then, here's how I can help with that work.” That helped me become the Vice President of Diversity and Culture. And it got me from Vice President of Diversity and Culture to Vice President of Business and Culture Transformation.


I’m not waiting for somebody to say this is what needs to be done. I am going to our most senior leaders and saying, “We can be better. Here is the purpose of that. Here's the process that we would go through. And then here's the payoff to the individuals and the organization.” And that's part of the self-promotion piece.


When you see a gap, by golly, go for it. And don't wait. Go on and leverage your personal board of directors to help prep you for that conversation. Leverage people inside and outside of your own company to help you think things through.


It would've been great if I would've known that before I was fifty. So I share this with the women who come to me for advice so that they too feel empowered to take ownership of their career and make some things happen.”



Conclusion


Ellen has put in the work to get to where she is. She has, of course, years of training and experience that qualify her to receive promotions and acclaim within her company and field—but what sets her apart is simply what makes her who she is.


Ellen brings her authentic self into every room she enters… She doesn’t wait for permission. And, when Ellen sees a problem, she seeks the steps to fix it and works toward achieving what she wants: true, unadulterated equality for all.


The qualities she’s expressed in Unapologetic Voices are the making of a strong, reputable leader. And it is these qualities she hopes to instill in aspiring women leaders by sharing her story.


 

Harpreet Ghumman
Award Winning Consultant & Executive Coach

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