SXSW / Interview / Manpreet Dhillon

Interview with Manpreet Dhillon, Founder of Veza

. 9 min read . Written by Lindsay Pugh
Interview with Manpreet Dhillon, Founder of Veza

My primary job (the one that pays me) is at an NYC tech company called Something Digital. When I started working there 4 years ago, I think we had less than 40 employees; now, it's very possible that we'll finish the year close to 100. As we grow, I've been thinking a lot about how we'll a) maintain company culture and b) increase diversity. I asked one of our interns last summer to give me her candid thoughts on SD and the first thing she said was, "Almost everyone here is white." (She's not wrong.) At a tech company, this lack of diversity isn't exactly shocking. Reveal reports,

Ten large technology companies in Silicon Valley did not employ a single black woman in 2016. Three had no black employees at all. Six did not have a single female executive.

The film industry suffers from a similar problem – just look at UCLA's 2019 Hollywood Diversity report. It's hard not to see those numbers and become massively depressed. Less than 1 out of 10 film writers are people of color? Well, fuck ... how are we going to ever fix that? Instead of Googling around and trying to come up with some answers, I decided to talk to an expert. Manpreet Dhillon is the founder and CEO of veza, "a community of women who are changing the face of leadership." This is how Manpreet describes the organization's mission:

Veza seeks to equalize pay gaps and increase diversity around the boardroom through training, workshops, international trade missions, executive and career coaching.

I sat down with Manpreet at Houndstooth Coffee during SXSW and peppered her with my most hard-hitting questions about representation, diversity, and salary negotiations. I wish I had the money to hire her for personal consultation services because she is fantastic. I walked away from the conversation feeling like yes, the situation is dire (less so for me because I'm a cis white lady), but at least I have some new tools to help me navigate the landscape.


Isn't reading an interview much nicer when you can picture the person? This is Manpreet.

Interview with Manpreet Dhillon:

WiR: The tech company that I work for is not a start-up, but has experienced unprecedented growth over the past year and isn't exactly the most diverse environment. Explain to me how veza could help a company in this situation.

MD: Companies that size are actually my sweet spot. What we find is that during the scaling process, it's important to work with hiring managers to teach them about their unconscious biases and make sure they have diverse candidates. A lot of times with start-ups, people end up hiring from a familiar pool via employee recommendations, so they all end up being very similar. It's important to find mentors, advisors, or other people who can help tap into those candidate pools that are outside of your regular circle.

A lot of people think that culture is built by going out for drinks and playing games, but it's actually more about how people belong in an organization. In order to prevent burnout, it's crucial to cultivate what's important to employees, to give them time for outside relationships that in turn, make them more productive and positive when they're at work.

Creating safe environments is also important. There was this one organization that decided to rent a house for everyone (two women and ten guys) to stay at during a retreat ... but none of the rooms had locks on them. This creates an uncomfortable situation for everyone. People need to feel like they can express their opinions without fear of backlash and feel safe in their physical space.

I can thankfully say that I've never worked for an organization that made me feel unsafe in any way. My biggest career challenge is definitely negotiating salary. Do you offer any coaching to help women with this process?

I work with both sides. I coach CEOs and help them examine their issues with women, which often go much deeper than just the workplace. I coach women on how to negotiate salary and secure a voice at the table, not just a place. It's all about being vocal ... learning how to prevent mansplaining in the moment and finding champions within organizations. We help women uncover their cultural biases, unburden themselves from generations of learned behavior, and fully step into their power. It's not just a candidate or organization problem. The first step to breaking free of these behaviors is acknowledging them and learning why they exist.

I almost choked when I saw this

What you're doing sounds kind of like therapy to me.

I focus a lot on positive psychology and emotional intelligence. It's about uncovering what you're born with and how you're going to adapt. I'm not a therapist, but the coaching does focus a lot on releasing the past. You can only move forward once you're aware of historical patterns. Otherwise, you keep wondering why things aren't progressing the way you envision. Take the tech industry, for example. It's basically become synonymous with bro culture. Even if there is gender equality in the workplace, it's not going to seem that way because of all of the stereotypes surrounding it. It's hard to create systematic change until we start talking about industries in a different way and first recognizing those stereotypes.

I'm going to ask you a bunch of questions that pertain directly to me because I'm selfish. Do you have any tips for introverts? In brainstorming discussions that involve a bunch of people, I often have a hard time inserting myself into the conversation. I'm not the type to fight to be heard by talking over other people, which I think is often detrimental.

One thing I recommend for introverts is finding someone in the room who can help bring you into the conversation. This helps get you into the practice of speaking up and eventually, will get you to a place where you no longer have to rely on someone else. It's not just about talking over someone, either. When I'm in a meeting and don't have a good natural speaking opportunity, I actually raise my hand and wait for the speaker to finish. It also helps me command the room and make everyone aware of my presence. You have to carve out that space for yourself and force people to acknowledge that you have something to say.

This is probably a super unfair question to ask, but do you have any ideas about how to fix large-scale diversity issues? Looking at the top-grossing 250 films of 2018, only 8% were directed by women. How do we improve that number?

Ohhhh, such a fun question [laughs]. It's a multi-pronged approached. I run a women's organization but throughout my career, I've often found that men are my biggest champions. They're the ones who open doors and give me access to spaces I couldn't otherwise reach. It's about finding those types of people, bringing them together, and helping them understand what spaces women need to access and what they can do to help. That's one approach.

The second is more focused on the candidates. Starting early to foster those talents and help give the right people the opportunity to enter the field is huge. One of the issue I've found is that people don't know how to get funding. There is money out there, but everything is built on relationships. This is my bias, but I think the attitude is sometimes like, "If I put together a good pitch, I'll get funding." That's not the case. You need to foster relationships with people in the industry who are useful and can potentially offer up good advice and open those doors.

We need a shift in mindset AND opportunity.

As women, we sell ourselves short quite often. Imposter syndrome is a real thing and overcoming it is important. I had this situation where someone who is very prominent in my industry said, "If you ever need anything, let me know." I replied with something like, "I don't want you to feel like I need anything from you." She said, "I just offered you access to my entire network. Why wouldn't you want to take advantage of that?!" It was interesting because it made me realize that this is what women do all the time. We feel like we're not worthy and need more time to figure things out, whereas a man would approach the situation with confidence ... sometimes too much. From the candidate side, there's the mindset work to do. From the system side, it's about getting the people who have access to open doors.

Funders could also do a better job cutting back on red tape. If a small grant requires a 30-page proposal or something, think about how many people are going to be barred from applying.

The road to equality is not a short one.

According to the Huffington Post, it's going to take 217 years for women to achieve economic equality.

Yikes.

The whole article is filled with stats like that ... it's a lot.

“If it was like this for me, a white woman in a glamorized industry, how were my sisters suffering across their professions?”

Tell me a little bit about your background before veza. How did you decide to go out on a limb and start your own company?

I grew up with immigrant parents from India. My dad had something like $7 in his pocket when he first got to America. My mom was 17 when she got married. We lived in a white area in Washington (outside of Vancouver) and had a pretty comfortable lifestyle. My parents purposely decided to keep us away from the South Asian community because they thought we would be more successful. It was interesting because growing up, I always had this feeling of being second class. We would always have to look at what everyone else was doing to be considered "normal." I never felt like I belonged until I moved to Vancouver and made friends with other brown people. I always wanted to be white because I thought their lives were easier than mine.

I started working at a university in middle management and I noticed that there weren't many women of color above me. I was one of the few people of color at my level. I wanted to focus my Ph.D. research on that lack of diversity and they said no because it made them look bad. I was volunteering for this not-for-profit and sort of acting as a pseudo executive director. I would often walk into meetings and the people there would tell me that we should wait for the men to arrive before starting the meeting. Like ... I'm the one who is running the organization! They always assumed I was an assistant.

This shit happens all the time. A former Google CEO mistook Erica Joy Baker, an engineer, as her male peer's assistant.

There really were never any people of color and barely any women. Everyone would hang out together and I felt like I was a single person representing an entire culture, which was exhausting. I ended up being on a committee about women and equality and ran a round table discussion focused on ethnic women. About 30 women came to it and all of it was about a lack of role models, pay equity, and other similar issues. At that point I knew that I needed to do more work in this area.

One thing I commonly hear immigrants say is that they feel like they have to work extra hard to get ahead. I imagine this leads to situations where people put insane amounts of pressure on themselves.

Definitely. It can also lead to imposter syndrome and ultimately, burnout. I was just talking with a few friends about how we feel like we owe it to our parents because they worked so hard to get us here. A lot of them have kind of realized that it's too hard to live up to those standards and deal with that amount of pressure. They've taken a bit of a "fuck it" approach.

So many men and women who deal with corporate burnout and lack of work/life balance don't know how to escape it. Again, this is why workplace culture is so important. Creating a sense of connectedness, empathy, and cooperation where people feel they can be their whole selves does make it easier to unplug and recharge during time away from work.

If I constantly feel like Ines Conradi, then we have a problem.

Are there any damning stats you use to convey to higher ups that workplace diversity is necessary/smart ?

Having just one woman at the executive board level leads to 30% more revenue.

If that doesn't convince decision-makers to push for female career advancement, nothing will.


This conversation was incredibly helpful and gave me tons of ideas about how I can push for change in my own organization. I wish I could have a tiny pocket Manpreet to take with me during my next salary negotiation or difficult conference call. If you work for a company that is scaling or just want some career advice, consider hiring veza.

Here's how you can learn more about veza:
Official website
Instagram
Facebook
Manpreet's Twitter
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This post's header image is from PURL, Kristen Lester's Pixar SparkShorts film 🧶