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Episode 27: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at OST

Ten Thousand Feet Podcast Episode 27

At OST, we often talk about being a people-first organization. We value our employees and our families so much that it’s our foremost company value: Honor our people and their families first, clients second, and the rest will fall into place.

OST’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee exists to help OST deliver on that mission for all employees, especially those who haven’t traditionally been well represented in the technology industry.

In this episode of the podcast, we talk with Kiran Sood Patel, Hannah Staal and David VandeWaa (core members of the DEI Committee) about what initiatives they have underway and how they’re contributing to the growing movement toward racial justice in our country.

In the episode, Kiran reads OST’s Statement on Diversity that appears on all of OST’s job postings and on our company page. Here it is in entirety:

You matter! Your experiences matter, your journey with OST matters, and your success matters. People drive all our achievements, and we know that taking care of each other takes care of everything else. This is why we strive to promote diversity, equity and inclusion within our company, the work we do and our communities. We’ll surely face challenges along the way. And we’ll all continually learn from them to build a caring culture true to our guiding principles: honor, delight, serve, embrace, and learn.

We don’t take this commitment lightly, and we will continue to share more about how OST continues to grow and evolve.

Thanks for listening!


Andrew: Hey, everybody. Today, we’ll hear from the team behind OST’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee, including Kiran Sood Patel, Dave VandeWaa and Hannah Staal. You know, the software industry has a historic lack of representation when it comes to gender, race and economic background. This team, and all of OST, look forward to doing our part to change that. As a start, we will continue to share initiatives related to diversity, equity and inclusion and bring awareness to invite collaboration. Enjoy.

So diversity, equity, and inclusion is very important to OST, so important that we started a committee. Why don’t you talk me through what the purpose of the committee is, how it got created? Tell me about that.

Hannah: Yeah, I’ll start with how it got created. So back in 2019, we had the opportunity to invite our OST employees to a DEI summit held by the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce. From there, it was an opportunity for us to gauge who was interested in DEI and really bring everyone together after the event to talk about it but also talk about what OST was doing and what we could do better. So from that initial meeting, we took notes. We decided what the best way to move forward was, and that was by bringing together a smaller group of individuals, just a core group of three, to really push this forward, look at the initiative deeper, see what were already doing, making sure that we’re communicating those things out,and then [finding] ways that we could make a bigger impact moving forward into FY 2020

Andrew: That’s great. That’s great. Thank you very much, Hannah. Can I ask a question for some of our listeners who might not know? When you say DEI, what do you mean?

Hannah: Diversity, equity and inclusion at OST.

Andrew: So can I break that down a little bit more, too? What’s diversity versus equity versus inclusion?

Kiran: Quite simply, diversity is the presence of difference (so whether that’s socioeconomic status, race, education, gender) any type of quality that defines who you are that’s different from the next person, I categorize that as being diversity. When we talk about inclusion, that’s the opportunity for everyone to get involved. So if we’re having events or hosting seminars, each and every individual employee receives an invitation but more than that is felt like they’re welcome and that they’re included and that their contributions matter. Equity, more broadly, is the fact that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.

Andrew: Kira, that’s great. Thank you so much. So what kinds of things does the DEI committee at OST do?

Kiran: We’ve already been off and running in the few short months that we’ve been formed. We’ve come together and had our first committee meeting, of course, virtually as everything else has been held recently, where we took an opportunity to get to know one another better. And we did an exercise that asked us to think about the seven people that we spend the most time with, and then we broke that down to describe the characteristics and traits of those particular people and ask people to draw conclusions from that exercise. And we’ve all, I think, heard the saying that you’re the product of the people that you spend the most time with. So this exercise helped us to sort of understand who are the people that we spend the most time with, and are they like us or are they different than us? That was a good exercise.

And we’ve decided we wanted to pursue a book club, so we are going to be reading “White Fragility,” which is a must-read from what I’m told, in conversations about race, inclusion and identity. So we’re reading that and having a small group discussion.

We have opportunities for people to learn and to train. We offered an unconscious bias seminar that people could attend virtually, and we had really great interest in that, so we offer that opportunity. And there’s going to be a lot more coming on the rest of the year.

Andrew: So I want to ask you a little bit about the seven people experiment. The takeaway from there in general is that the seven people we spend the most time with are like us, and therefore we don’t see outside of that window. Is that — did I get that right?

Kiran: It’s sort of that. We all recognize there are benefits to being exposed to people who are different than us because people who are different and diverse bring their own thoughts and their own backgrounds and their own learnings to us and to the people that we work with. But if we are to closely look at who actually makes up the people that we spend the most time with, quite often they are people that are already like you. So we could all do with broadening our own inner circle and intentionally spending time with people that are diverse and different because we can only grow and learn from that.

Hannah: And that activity we were able to then talk about, okay, well, we’ve noticed that our circles are all very similar, so what are some ways that we can broaden our circles? So that was really meaningful for many to be able to say, okay, even following a new account on Twitter that you wouldn’t normally follow or reaching out to someone over social media, because we’re in this virtual age right now, were just a couple of the opportunities to broaden that circle, build new relationships and see outside of our circles.

David: We also have an automated meetup program here at OST that was started as part of the response to everyone being at home for the stay at home stuff. And so, yeah, I know Kiran’s been doing that with me as well, and it just randomly pairs you with somebody else who opted into the service, and so you get to meet brand new people who you may or may not have ever met before at OST, so that’s kind of been fun, too.

Andrew: Cool. So that sort of encourages building relationships with people other than the people you sit next to or the people who you work with on a daily basis. How many people at OST are involved in that?

Hannah: I think around 11 are in the committee.

Andrew: So if an OSTer were listening and they wanted to be involved in that, that’s something they can go to the DEI Slack channel to learn more about?

David: Yeah.

Andrew: Excellent. Excellent. Okay. Can I — I’m going to ask a stupid question, because I feel like one of our jobs here is to be able to talk about things that people might not be sure of and might not understand. So we sort of take for granted that diversity is a good thing. What are some of the benefits we’ll get out of a more diverse workplace, a more diverse environment?

Kiran: So there are so many benefits to being a part of a diverse work environment. First and foremost, this aligns perfectly with OST’s guiding principles already. We already seek to be a place where people can learn and honor one another and embrace serving and just growing principles of diversity and inclusion fit into this perfectly. We want OST to be a place that people of all backgrounds, faiths, socioeconomic statuses and abilities can thrive and be themselves every day, so that is a benefit because people can bring their whole selves to work and feel like they can share their background and offer it authentically to other people and feel comfortable doing so.

We also know that the community is looking to us to see how we’re putting our money where our mouth is and supporting these efforts, so this will help us to be looked at as a place in the community that cares about this and wants to support diverse and inclusive work environments and employees.

And then, finally, period, having a diverse employee base helps your business’s bottom line. There’s just no way around it. When you have new ideas and you’re operating as a place that encourages innovation, you are going to be more successful as a business.

David: Yeah. If you want to get into some of the super nitty-gritty, I think another thing that probably Hannah can talk to as well as — on the recruiting side, that 80% of people who are job searching right now say that inclusion is an important factor for choosing an employer and 72% say they would leave an organization for one they believe is more inclusive, and that’s from a study by Deloitte and the US Chamber of Commerce.

Andrew: That’s great. That’s great. I think, speaking specifically in the sort of product development space or in the software development space, too, we see lots of good data to suggest that more diverse teams make better products, that more perspectives actually helps you see a wider user base for the product and a better understanding for how they might use it, which in our business, anyway, it seems like it’s a win, win, win, win.

So do we have goals for the DEI committee? Do we have things we’re hoping to accomplish?

Hannah: We do. We have goals for FY ’21 [fiscal year 2021] and we wanted to take this year to say, “Here we are. We’re taking our baby steps. We are really trying to do the best we can, knowing that we’re going to make mistakes, knowing that we can do better.” So our goals for FY ’21 are really to continue to foster that highly inclusive environment and culture at OST that we’re known for but increasing the hiring and retention of diverse employees, so we have some measurements in place to do that. We have some goals in place on the talent experience team to make sure that happens.

We are going to increase the availability of learning opportunities to all of our employees in areas of diversity, equity and inclusion. And that was one of the main goals this year: how do we help educate our internal employees on diversity? How do we support these learning opportunities and make sure that they’re more available to our employees. And then we’ll also increase the understanding about the work that we’re currently doing. So how are we communicating that out to employees?

And then lastly, this year was really to determine an effective way to measure the impact of diversity, equity and inclusion from the projects that are happening this year.

Andrew: I’m with you. So those are the goals we initially set, on May 25th, everything’s sort of changed, right? In Minneapolis, George Floyd was killed. To what extent did that make the DEI community say, oh geez, what does this mean to us? What is our call to action here? Is that something that you all talked about?

Hannah: Absolutely. It was something that everyone on the committee instantly jumped to support, jumped to help. What can I do? Everyone played a role in brainstorming ideas on how to support our people, what can we do for the community, what is our role in this, and so that where we came up with listening sessions.

So we’ve been able to facilitate internal — almost like peer round tables for our OST employees to listen, to talk. There’s confusion. There’s sadness and pain. And this is just an opportunity to support our peers. Our committee really felt that they wanted to take that responsibility on themselves and really be there for our people. And so that’s just one of the things that we’re doing right now, but I think it really kickstarted this committee in a way that we were never even imagining. Our responsibility grew to really support our people in the pain that they’re feeling because of these current events.

Andrew: So maybe part of what’s going on in this year is figuring out what the DEI committee’s role is in our organization, because that’s evolving, right? That’s changing from day to day and week to week, just as the world around us is changing from day to day and week to week. So far, you’ve had a pandemic, which changed the way you communicate. And then we’ve got a re-examination of justice for people of color that’s happening in our country today. Both of those things play directly into what you’re trying to accomplish, what diversity looks like, what inclusion looks like.

Hannah: Absolutely.

Andrew: So let me ask this question. Does it make sense for businesses to be involved in politics? Is this a political thing in your minds?

David: This is absolutely not political on one level, right? In thinking that there’s nothing political about supporting diversity. There’s nothing political about supporting inclusion. There’s nothing political about supporting equity. Those things are apolitical ideas that everyone should be on board with.

Andrew: And I’ll just go a step further and say there’s nothing political about supporting justice either. The notion that people are entitled, that Americans are entitled, to justice is not a political notion. It’s a notion at the core of who we are as Americans. Just as Kiran talked about our values at OST and how core those are to who we are and what we’re trying to do as a company, so it’s true for our American-based business with offices in Minneapolis and Grand Rapids. We have to ask those questions not because they’re political, but because they’re human.

So let me ask you this question — let’s take a step away from the serious and talk broadly about what you’re trying to do and why. I did a little research in preparation for our conversation, and I found that just six Fortune 500 CEOs are women and just 26 of 500 are people of color. Is that a problem? Is that the problem? Is the problem that there isn’t enough diversity in leadership or is that a part of the problem? What are your thoughts on that?

Kiran: Yes. That is a problem. People of color should be represented in ranks throughout an organization. They bring invaluable experience and perspective, ideas for innovation and success. And, again, you don’t know what you don’t know unless you’re exposed to it, and if you don’t give yourself a chance to be around others who think differently than you and who see differently than you and learn differently than you, then you won’t grow, you won’t push yourself to grow, and your organization will not succeed. I’m proud that OST has a female CEO who rocks and is awesome. We have women in leadership positions, but we can always do better, and that’s certainly a goal to strive for.

Andrew: So let’s talk about that. Tech is predominantly white and predominantly male, and most people in leadership positions in the tech industry will say, “That’s something we want to fix. That’s something we want to change.” What does that change look like? What does that fix look like? How do we do that? How do we do that at OST and how are we trying to figure out what we should do next?

Hannah: I think one of the things we do at OST that isn’t internal just yet, but we take part in bitcamps, we take part in infinity camps, which are middle school camps for girls that are interested in IT and encoding, and so we’re helping the next generation in moving forward into IT, and we have a handful of different organizations like that. So how do we help the next generation in having more access and more education in this space is just one area that we’re doing. But another idea in that, too, is it’s continuing to develop our own people, developing more females, developing more people of color so that they’re ready to take on those leadership positions within our own organizations.

David: I would say to that, and maybe you can speak more of this as well, Hannah, but — that our recruitment strategy is broader. You know, we’re looking at places where can we get plugged into, places where people aren’t typically looking for tech candidates, right? And thinking about how we can broaden our pool of applicants for jobs that we’re posting.

Hannah: Yeah. I would agree with that too, Dave. I think that in our recruitment strategy we’ve really developed partnerships with different organizations, organizations of color, veteran organizations, female organizations. So we’re really trying to make sure that our postings and our opportunities are seen by everyone and that they are inclusive, that the language is inclusive and that we educate our managers on transferable skills so that not every resume needs to look the same.

Andrew: That’s great. I want to circle back around to something you touched on though, Hannah. So OST is trying to get a more diverse population of candidates to hire, but let’s go one step before that, what’s OST doing to try and create a more diverse population of people who want to pursue tech? ‘Cause it seems to me, and maybe just true in my head, that that’s as big a problem as who we’re hiring. We need people coming out of high school and college who are excited and passionate about tech, who aren’t all white dudes. What does that look like?

Kiran: At the risk of reading from a list here, I know we have a handful of ways that we are directly involved in sponsoring programs and volunteering at camps, so we’ve hosted bitcamp, I think it was mentioned. We sponsored and volunteered at Camp Infinity through the Michigan Council of Women in Technology. We provide financial support to the YWCA West Central Michigan, which works to create leadership programs for girls. We’ve worked with a student advancement foundation. We sponsored girls on the run. You get the idea. We are out there where people are directly getting exposed to technology in the field and making sure that we’re connecting and backing them up so they can succeed.

Hannah: It also reminds me of what John Vancil is heavily a part of and that’s Hour of Code, and so we actually go out to schools [and] educate teachers on how to bring curriculum to elementary schools, so that’s huge, too.

Andrew: So that’s great. That’s super exciting, but is it enough?

Kiran: The place that you go into work every day, the feel that you get when you walk in the door and you’re spending time there, that is something that is intangible. It’s not something that I can write a document for and that everyone can read and just magically snap their fingers and it becomes that. It sort of has to just be that. It’s just something that you feel. It’s something that you know is there. It’s when you walk in your first week and you’re around the kitchen looking to get coffee and you don’t want to annoy or bother anyone, but people take the time to help you and ask who you are and where you’re from, what department you work in. And that makes you feel special, it makes you feel like you matter, it makes you feel like people care, and then you can go do that for the next person. So it’s a responsibility that falls on each individual that makes this place where we work. And I think it’s why OST is special — because it is. We care, we treat people like they matter and it’s just something you feel. It’s hard to describe.

Andrew: Kiran, that’s great though. That naturally makes me think of how that has changed in a world where we don’t all go to the office every morning anymore, right? Like that sort of social interaction that helps to breed more understanding and breed closer relationships changed a lot in less 90 days.

Kiran: Yes, it really did. I don’t get that fun back and forth to catch up on our weekends that you just — you count on and you rely on with the team. But we’ve found ways to recreate some of that magic. We’ve had company-wide happy hours on Thursdays. I’ve seen handfuls of people’s children, and people’s pets, and people’s basements, and bedrooms, and all sorts of different things. So I think we’ve still spread that culture and that defining characteristic that makes up OST. It’s not as easy, but I think we’re doing a good job of it.

David: Yeah. In many ways, I feel like, yeah, like being remote has very suddenly made you more intimately connected to people because you are very suddenly in their homes, and you’re seeing the environment around them, you’re seeing their cats walk across the screen, or their kids jump on them, or things like that, and so, you know, there’s this immediate connection to everyone’s humanity that I think shows through in these sort of remote meetings and video sessions, and I don’t know, that’s been kind of an interesting window into everybody’s lives that you immediately are now closer to people, even though you’re doing something formal.

Hannah: It’s also been an opportunity to share on the challenges, to say, “Hey, I’m where you’re at right now, too,” “childcare is hard,” “this is hard,” “balancing is hard,” and so you’ve been able to connect with people that maybe you didn’t before, you didn’t share those challenges before, but now you are looking at their living room and they’re struggling and you’re struggling and you can be in that together.

Andrew: Yeah. That’s so great listening to you guys talk. I’m suddenly thinking that what we’ve done is unlocked a whole different dimension of connecting as human beings, as people. When you step into someone’s home and look at a video of them that way, instead of sitting across from them, you gain an understanding for them that is beyond just chit-chatting in the kitchen at OST the way we had been connecting. It’s kind of a, in some cases, an opportunity for a deeper connection.

So let’s talk about diversity training. There’s a lot of people writing about how what businesses need is diversity training and what law enforcement organizations need is diversity training. Is what OST needs diversity of training? Is that something on our horizon?

Hannah: When everyone is hired, we do have a diversity module that is a video training that people will take within their first couple months, I believe. However, for us right now, after looking at the requests from folks and looking at the themes that are coming up, we aren’t quite there to diversity training. That doesn’t mean that it won’t be something in our goals for next year, but this year has really focused on education and opportunities and support.

David: I think one of the things we’ve seen coming up during these listening sessions that we’ve been hosting recently has been just a real hunger for taking action, a real hunger for wanting to know what people can do to make a difference in tangible ways, and so, that’s really changed kind of our thought. Out thought, you know, originally it was, “hey, let’s try and make it easier for people to have these conversations. Let’s kind of open this up.” But now I think we’re really shifting gears to focus in on: what are the things we can actually do and get people plugged into to make an actual difference in our communities.

Andrew: Ahh that’s so great to hear the two of you say that because I think that so many OSTers, and so many people in general right now, are trying to figure out what to do. Like, what should I do? What can I do? What’s right for me to do? And those are tough questions to answer sometimes.

David: And we’re coming out of a situation where the right thing to do was to do nothing, right? So there’s this very sharp clash between where we were two months ago, where it would be important — the most important thing to do was to stay inside, stay home, stay put — and now, you know, that’s shifting because now we do have to take action. People really want to do something.

Andrew: And Dave, that’s great to hear you say, because I think that’s part of, you’re right, part of why people are so motivated to figure out what to do now that — having come from 60 or 90 days in lockdown, you have this desire to do something, and now we have this cultural phenomenon going on, this very real justice-based situation going on, and people are like, “Oh my gosh, I need to do something, and I needed to do something about that.” How do we help our employees figure out what to do beyond work? Do we have a role in that?

Kiran: So the one thing that’s safe to say is that it’s not enough to be silent. You must be vocal about what is right, and that starts with learning about the history of this country, the way that people behave the way that they do. Again, we are hoping to set that foundation with some of the education we’re doing with trainings about unconscious bias with the reading of “White Fragility” that we offered to all employees. You have to have a common knowledge base to get started to have this conversation. I think that that’s what we’re working on right now.

David: Yeah, I think [we’re] helping people understand where they are in relation to everybody else, giving people opportunities for introspection, and then being able to leverage that in their lives for good. Whether that’s when a tough conversation comes up and being confident in their ability to speak about it or when they see something that isn’t just and they can intervene. Those are the kinds of things that we’re hoping to foster introspection, to foster education, to provide those opportunities for people to learn, to plug into volunteer opportunities and things like that so that they can then leverage that in their lives in ways that’ll make a difference.

Hannah: And a lot of those resources are being shared on our diversity, equity and inclusion Slack channel. I know just the other day I saw a couple links on how to educate your children, how to share with your children, whether it’s through the “Sesame Street” opportunity that just came out on TV or whether it’s different books that you can read to them that are light. And so, there are a lot of great opportunities to learn on that channel that have been shared, and also just links to current events to stay up to date. And I just want to echo what Dave said: everyone is starting at a different place, so as long as we can keep pushing everyone a little bit forward in this journey, I think that’s helping.

Andrew: For sure. I want to circle back around something Kiran said, ‘cause I wrote it down as she said it, because I thought it was so powerful: “It’s not enough to say nothing.” If that’s the one change that all of us walk away from this experience with, it’s not enough to just stand idly by when we see injustice. We have an obligation to do something about it. It’s not enough to say nothing when we think something’s unfair, we have an obligation to clarify it. That’s such a powerful pivot that requires almost nothing from anyone and can change the course of our future.

So what didn’t I ask you about that you want to share with me? What other things are you doing, thinking about, exploring, pursuing as you think through this challenge for OST?

Hannah: I think just to kind of put a plug in here, too — we definitely have current events that are happening, but diversity comes in all different forms, shapes, sizes, and this month is Pride Month, and so we are offering an opportunity on sensitivity training next week, that we haven’t announced yet internally, but it is coming to all of our employees offered by the GR Pride Center. So we’re partnering with some pretty great organizations locally to support our employees in different areas.

We’re also sharing out an allyship webinar through one of our partners, AG Collaborative, this month as well, so just more opportunities to come. And we have quite a few different themes that people have brought up as areas that they have interest in, so we plan to really make sure that we’re supporting those areas and touching on those areas throughout the year.

Kiran: The act of learning and growing involves a lot of active listening, so we can all take that as a tiny tip that, you know, can sit somewhere in our heads, but the next time that someone’s talking to you, just simply listen and ask questions without agenda, and get to know someone. I think that’s incredibly valuable.

Andrew: That’s such great advice and that’s something everyone can do. Listening is a learned skill. And Hannah, you’ve given us a bunch of thoughts for ways that people can stick their toe in or get sort of involved or explore other things that they can do across the month of June, which is a month set aside to celebrate one kind of diversity, and now we’re going to use to celebrate a whole bunch of kinds of diversity, which is really, really exciting — exciting for us as we figure out how to tiptoe back into the real world, but also for us as we figure out how to be the best versions of ourselves we can be.

So I’m going to ask this question again then, is there more to do? We’re doing so much, but is it enough? Will it ever be enough?

Hannah: Well, there’s definitely more to do, and honestly, I’m not sure if it’ll ever be enough, but I feel like we will continue to build upon this. And this opportunity to jump head first into this this month, this past month, it has now sparked a fire in everyone to keep going, to keep building on this, to keep supporting people of color, to keep supporting every diverse employee that we have and continuing on the journey for everyone. So it’s not enough, but we’ll keep going, and we’ll keep working to be the best that we can, and hopefully that will make an impact.

Andrew: Hannah, that’s such an honest answer and I appreciate it so much. I think that, as I reflect on that, I have to recognize that I’m not doing enough to figure out how to do more, and that’s, I think, that’s the challenge for all of us, because it requires some humility, it requires you’re saying, “Gosh, there’s gotta be more I can do to find that more, to find those other things to do.”

Wow. You guys have given us so much to think about. Hannah, Kiran, Dave, I’m so appreciative of the time you took to talk to us. If my notes are right, I understand OST’s prepared a statement, sort of an external statement, that we can use in job search and beyond to help say what it is we believe we’re searching for, what it is we believe is our mission and vision. Can you share that with us as we wrap up?

Kiran: I sure can.

You matter. Your experiences matter, your journey with OST matters and your success matters. People drive all our achievements and we know that taking care of each other takes care of everything else. This is why we strive to promote diversity, equity and inclusion within our company, the work we do and our communities. We’ll surely face challenges along the way, and we’ll all continually learn from them to build a caring culture true to our guiding principles: honor, delight, serve, embrace and learn.

Andrew: That’s really great. I’m so appreciative of your time today, and I just want to say the risk of it sounding like I’m making a joke: you matter. The work you guys are doing matters and you’re changing the course of, not just OST, but of technology, and I’m so excited to watch that happen, so excited to do what I can to support it. Thank you.

Hannah: Thanks, Andrew.

Lizzie Williams: OST, changing how the world connects together. For more information, go to

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