Translating Concept to Culture: How Zendesk’s Khalida Ali is Humanizing Diversity and Inclusion

Khalida Ali is the Senior Manager of Diversity & Inclusion at Zendesk. She is a member of the Advisory Council for the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership.

Amberlyn Saw is a 4th year undergraduate at UC Berkeley studying Business Administration and Molecular Environmental Biology. She is a member of the Student Advisory Board for the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership.

Khalida Ali and students from UGBA 192T

This interview is the second, in a multi-part series, featuring DEI leaders who spoke to undergraduate students enrolled in UBGA 192T: Equity Fluent Leadership.

Amberlyn Saw: Thank you so much for coming into our Equity Fluent Leadership class today! It was super interesting to have an interactive project from Zendesk to spark ideas around diversity and inclusion. What was that experience like for you?

Khalida Ali: I felt super inspired. The questions going through my head were wondering about all of the stories of the students in class. The class is self-selecting, so they volunteered to go through this experience that is not necessarily on the frontlines just yet. This topic is ahead of the curve, and thus I was super inspired to see a full class of individuals showing up to learn about what it means to be an equity fluent leader. It feels very progressive and it was very exciting!

AS: In class, we were able to brainstorm ideas on how to create a more inclusive culture among all employees. What are your thoughts around those ideas and hearing student input?

KA: It was awesome! It was great because from my vantage point, it’s so valuable to get other perspectives, especially for things we are building from the ground up. It’s a true business case that we are currently working on. For the outcome, we want it to be relevant, we want people to connect to it, similar to the class. Being able to rip it apart and identify the core components of what we are trying to achieve and the ways to deliver it in order to get the outcome we want; having those perspectives and ideas and that feedback is tremendous because it is something that we are currently working on.

AS: Just to reinforce that, it was eye-opening from the student perspective, as well, because it was an opportunity to apply all of the important concepts from class to a tangible, real-world case. It brings key points, such as, the importance of being an ally, placing yourself in a position of empathy, and practicing active listening to lived experiences, and translates them into a corporate setting.

KA: Yea! And that’s the cool thing about it. We learn what we should be learning, but how does it manifest in a corporate context? It’s crucial to know all of the context behind the idea, but what is the application of it? Yes we want equity fluent leaders and to build and equip them with those skills, but how do we get there? The project we did in class is an example of what a company can do, but all the thought behind the scenes is critical: how to frame it, how to scope it, and how to achieve and deliver.

AS: That segways perfectly into my next question, which is, what are those top skills that you hope to teach in order to build equity fluent leaders?

KA: Similar to a lot that was raised in class, there has to be a certain level of self-awareness, there has to be empathy, there has to be openness, and a certain level of care and consideration. It can be very easy to become bogged down in an individual’s actual role or solely focused on a pure business objective. But, having equity fluent leaders impacts the experience one has at a company and on a team that can help to deliver all of those business objectives. To me, it helps move the culture of a company forward and it helps bolster a strong environment where teams care about one another. However, there must be that awareness to care, grow, and take it to heart. It’s not only about the awareness and the motivation, but also the ability to translate and demonstrate it.

AS: How can students start learning those skills to be equity fluent leaders, beyond taking this class?

KA: This class is a great start! Last semester, Zendesk sponsored a case competition, that was so much fun for us — we actually still talk about it. The outcome from that case competition is one that we are moving forward with currently, which is super exciting. Being able to participate in events that help you understand the importance of equity, but apply it in a business context is critical. A big question nowadays is: what is the future of work? All of the students in your class are the ones who are defining what the future of work will be and what experience they have. Another thing I consistently talk about is starting with yourself. Put yourself in the driver seat and think about how I can, as an individual, either engage more or learn more, whether it be reading, podcasts, student organizations, going out of the country, in order to broaden your perspective.

AS: Diversity and inclusion is very dynamic, constantly evolving and changing. I know that along my personal EFL journey, I have had to constantly reintroduce myself to new concepts in diversity and inclusion and I have not been perfect. How do we make space for people to make mistakes and take that as an opportunity to learn?

KA: It’s rooted in an understanding that no one is perfect. We are all on this journey. There are things that I don’t fully know, too. Everyone is going through this together and as much as we can, recognize that it is a continuum versus something that is fixed and defined. When you get to the end of the block, you realize there is no end. The other piece is removing blame. Sometimes when you talk about D&I, individuals can move to a defensive point. So, we need to identify ways to reinforce that efforts are proactive, not reactive. This course (UGBA 192T) is proactive because it’s intentional in building thoughtful leaders who will go out and shape industry, as they are equipped to be equity fluent. That’s a very proactive stance and will shift how people come to the table and interact with the team and materials. It’s similar within D&I: being able to showcase that it is journey, and identify where we are starting from versus where we want to move and go, is very proactive and beneficial.

AS: When being proactive leaders, how do we know what language to use when it is constantly evolving, as well? An example we discussed in class is how Tinder now allows its users to pick from 37 different gender options. What does this mean for future business interactions?

KA: Language itself is fluid and evolves. So much of it is dependent on who is present within the space. Think of who is on the different teams in the business, because that influences how decisions get made and what issues are raised. That’s a very internal lens, but externally, society really pushes and moves us forward as well. It’s important to stay active and engaged to remain on the forefront when so many things are going to shift. So much of it starts at a personal level, and then it bubbles and manifests in business. One thing we always talk about is the importance of humanizing D&I. At the end of the day, we are talking about how we can connect and engage with other humans and how we can genuinely care.

AS: A large percentage of students in this class are super passionate about equity but are entering career fields not specifically focused on DE&I. How can they infuse their passion and EFL learnings into their work?

KA: It’s the embodiment of everything you’ve learned through this class. A student earlier raised a question around being able to demonstrate behaviors, mindsets, and attitudes from the lessons learned this semester. To me, that’s when it goes into practice. It’s fine if individuals aren’t going into DE&I because they will still encounter these issues in business. There are answers such as: “Get involved with company resource groups.” However, take it a step further by taking a look at your actual work. Have those questions at the back of your mind, in terms of, how we can make sure we are representing the breadth of individuals, and the breadth of experiences, for whom we are actually marketing to. How are we telling our stories and how are the narratives we are putting out in the world anchored? We need to bring that lens into all of the work we do.

AS: On behalf of my entire class, thank you again for coming in and speaking! It was truly a pleasure chatting with you!

KA: Oh thank you so much! I was so excited and had a lot of fun.

At the heart of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership (EGAL) educates equity fluent leaders to ignite and accelerate change. Equity fluent leaders understand the value of different lived experiences and courageously use their power to address barriers, increase access, and drive change for positive impact. Be the first to know about EGAL news and events by subscribing to our newsletter.

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