Natalie Egan was already in an emotionally raw place when an altercation forever changed the course of her life.
Her marriage had recently fallen apart and she had just gotten fired by the CEO she had put in charge of running the company she founded, PeopleLinx, when she came out as transgender. Only a few weeks after her transition Egan was in line at a Starbucks when someone she had tried to make small talk with whispered, according to Egan, “something very nasty” under their breath. When Egan asked the woman to repeat herself she turned to her and said, rather aggressively, “you heard me.”
“That may not sound like a big deal, but for me it was really traumatic,” Egan says. “As they walked out I remember thinking to myself, ‘if they only knew my story; if they only knew what I had been through and what I have done to try and fit in for the last forty years, and how I’ve hurt other people trying to fit in—if they knew all of that they wouldn’t judge me that way.’ That was the ‘ah-ha’ moment.”
After that altercation, in the fall of 2015, Egan set out to create software that could facilitate empathy at scale. Today her company Translator LLC offers diversity and inclusion training tools that provide perspective, as well as a safe space to have difficult conversations. The programming is not unlike typical diversity and inclusion exercises with the added advantage of anonymity, allowing participants to ask questions and interact more freely.
Measuring (and increasing) return on investment
Digitizing what has historically been a very analog process not only enables remote participation, but also provides a layer of data to facilitators based on anonymous surveys and questionnaires. As a result companies can now measure the effectiveness of their diversity and inclusion programs, and target interventions based on employee sentiment.
“Almost 90% of the Fortune 500 companies that we’re talking to, there’s people inside the company that are literally flying around the world to different offices and facilitating 90-minute conversations on microaggressions, or unconscious bias, and they have nothing to show for it,” says Egan. “Now after the meeting we can say ‘here’s the data,’ and that’s revolutionary for our clients.”
Such clients include Fortune 500 companies like NBCUniversal and cloud-based human capital management software provider Ultimate Software.
“It allows us to capture real-time data to help us understand the dynamics of particular groups,” explains Ultimate Software’s director of diversity, equality, and belonging, Cara Pelletier. “We can use it to see if there are locations or groups of employees who are experiencing distinct challenges related to inclusion and belonging, and focus our efforts on supporting those groups.”
Pelletier, who began deploying Translator’s software to the company’s 5,000 staff in January, says the ability to measure the effectiveness of training is game-changing.
“One of the things that’s challenging for a lot of organizations is measuring the impact of training; it’s really difficult to pin down the ROI,” she says. “We’ve been using the survey features and the ‘I will’ statement module, which demonstrates what our participants learned, and how they intend to use that knowledge in a meaningful way.”
For example, Pelletier says she can survey participants about a particular topic at the beginning and end of a training session to gain a better understanding of how their perspective changed as a result.
A canary in the coal mine
Not only can companies now measure the effectiveness of their diversity and inclusion training programs, but those metrics can also provide early warning signals of potential conflicts, and help improve retention rates among minority employees.
“Our tools are designed to create an entire data layer over that experience so that they not only help you understand if the training is working, but they also provide a canary in the coal mine for understanding issues inside these diverse communities before they become much bigger employee retention and engagement problems,” says Egan. “If you can move the needle a fraction of a percent across those metrics, you’d be saving companies billions in some cases.”
Egan explains that the primary metric for measuring diversity and inclusion has historically been head count—that is, how many members of which minority group the company employs—without taking into account whether those employees feel welcome.
Avoiding training fatigue
Retention of women and minority employees remains a significant problem for many organizations, but the solution has typically been increasing diversity and inclusion training. The additional training, however, can have unintentional consequences, like fatigue and further disengagement. Egan says that companies can now use data to better target potential problem areas without overwhelming their staff (or budgets) with more training programs.
“Because we can give you specifics on what stereotypes are affecting your business, you can create programmatic content to support the individuals that are victimized by it,” she says. “On top of that it allows you to really, specifically understand your reasoning and investment in unconscious bias or microaggression training.”
Only two and a half years after that altercation at Starbucks Egan says the company is in the process of closing a significant investment round that will help them achieve even loftier goals, and make her one of (if not the only) entrepreneur to successfully raise venture capital as both a male and female founder.
“Our vision is to own the D&I stack,” she says. “We want to own anti-harassment technology, unconscious bias technology; the core is focused on diversity and inclusion training, but over time it will expand across the entire D&I spectrum.”