How Zuora’s first Chief Diversity Officer stays inspired

Zuora’s first Chief Diversity Officer, Valerie Jackson, comes from a family of firsts.

Her mother integrated her high school, was the first in her family to go to college, and was one of the first Black women to earn an MBA from Wharton. Her father was the first Black mayor of Atlanta (where she grew up), and he was the youngest in the city’s history. She says she learned servant-leadership, perseverance, and resilience from her family of trailblazers.

Jackson majored in Government at Harvard University before attending Georgetown University for law school. She started her career as a finance lawyer but found it to be less fulfilling than she was comfortable with.

When she was recruited by Stacey Abrams in 2007, she left the firm to make a more direct impact on people’s experience at work, and help Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP (now Eversheds Sutherland) formalize its diversity efforts.

After Sutherland and K&L Gates where she led their global D&I initiatives for eight years, she entered the tech industry and became Senior Director of Global Inclusion and Diversity at Procore Technologies.

For Jackson, who lives in Los Angeles, her new job at Zuora not only provides a critical optimization engine for the organization, but her role is to optimize the culture: empowering each and every one of Zuora’s employees to bring their true selves to work. “This is how we unlock the true value of high-performing diverse teams,” she says, describing her position as a bridge-builder.

“We’re building bridges between people and new perspectives and behaviors, which creates opportunities for building bridges between people themselves, as well as between companies and customers,” Jacksons said. “By leveraging the power of an inclusive culture, we’re empowering and engaging our employees to do their best work. Inclusion and belonging in the workplace allow people to speak up and voice their ideas. This leads to greater innovation and, ultimately, increased profitability.”

Read on to find out what inspires this Chief Diversity Officer, why representation is vital, and the best career advice she’s received.

What inspires you to resolve conflicts?

Observing and experiencing the world around me. Seeing how interpersonal conflict impacts people and, in a sense, robs them of joy and opportunities has played a huge role in how I approach my work. Throughout my life and career, I’ve seen the negative and challenging effects of conflict — both large and small — and I want to help minimize those challenges.

When we feel like we belong at work and we know our contributions are valued, having our ideas challenged feels more like an ideological debate instead of a personal attack. This kind of debate is crucial for guarding against groupthink and promoting innovation, and if our teams aren’t inclusive enough for it to happen, then we’re losing a tremendous opportunity.

Why is building a diverse workforce and an inclusive culture such a high priority for Zuora, and other companies?

My role at Zuora is an evolution of the inclusive practices and processes that the company has been living and breathing for years, and is another way that Zuora is investing in its employees, customers, and overarching business.

Zuora has long understood the importance of empowering employees and encourages them to be the “ZEO” (CEO) of their own career, growing authentically. The company also has employee interest groups, a commitment to channel 1% of profits back into the local community, and sponsors volunteer hours.

Zuora operates around furthering easy and equitable access to products through subscriptions and believes subscriptions help democratize experiences and services, lowering barriers to entry and ensuring anyone can access any service they want no matter where they live. But in order to lead the world to create these sustainable, inclusive economies, advancing inclusivity in-house is essential and is where my leadership will focus.

In terms of measuring our progress, good data drives great decision making. Diving into data around hiring, retention, promotion, and more, and setting actionable goals, will be imperative for us to get from where we are to where we want to be.

What does a typical day in your shoes look like, if there was one?

I don’t have a typical day as a CDO, but these days my shoes are cozy slippers! I think it’s important to use my first few weeks to focus on asking a lot of questions, listening, and thinking so I can develop a custom approach that fits the company and employees. This is especially critical this year, with all of the social, political, and economic volatility — it’s essential we can think on our feet and adapt to changing employee needs and concerns.

I plan to first use Zoom to create a cultural audit. Then, I will work on building new frameworks, initiatives, and healthy habits within the company. But it’s important to remember that the work of a CDO is never over.

What is the best career advice you’ve received?

“Never ‘should’ on yourself.” That advice was given to me by my mother. It’s important for us not to get wrapped up in the past or what could have been, and focus on what we can do in the now. A lot of things have changed in the past year for most people, and it’s not helpful to think through how we should have done things differently. Hindsight is always 2020. Instead, we need to keep moving and think about what we can do to improve things from here on out.

What advice do you have for anyone looking to break into this industry or follow in your footsteps?

Time is not linear — progress will occur at the speed of change. Some things may take a day, others years. However, in the end, every second spent working toward improving culture and employee’s lives will be worth it.

Do you have a role model in the industry or a mentor?

Someone I respect immensely is Brené Brown, who serves as the Founder and CEO of the Brené Brown Education and Research Group, as well as a professor at both the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Houston.

Brené emphasizes authenticity in her work, and the importance and beauty of building and analyzing the whole story, even the painful parts. In a role that focuses on people and culture, it’s absolutely critical to acknowledge and hold space for all the parts of one’s journey, not only the ones that look good on paper.

Who is part of your support system?

My family is my number one support system. They’re always there to listen and experience the work I help build awareness around and drive me to bring my true self to work every day. However, I’m also blessed to be a part of an empowering and strong group of D&I professionals who understand the opportunities and challenges associated with this work.

What’s the biggest misconception about working in diversity initiatives and practices?

The biggest misconception is that this work is just about hiring. Actually, our greatest successes will come from focusing intently on employee engagement, development, and retention. When a company feels like an employer of choice to its current employees, then people stay, thrive, and become our strongest recruiting tool. That’s when we’ll be successful both recruiting and retaining amazing people from all backgrounds. And when we do that, we will have better work experiences, build better products, deliver more value, and win!

What obstacles have you faced in your career?

Being a Black woman in corporate America is rife with challenges. I’ve learned, however, that there are challenges and roadblocks created by others, and then there are those that I create myself. It’s important to remember that some of our greatest obstacles aren’t always created by external parties — that was huge learning throughout my career, and it was empowering to realize that I can directly overcome any personal barriers. It might not be easy, but it’s really important work!

As for the obstacles that are created by others, chances are I’ve seen them before and have a game plan to address them. Whether I overcome them or not, I know I’ll learn a lot along the way.

How can businesses become more inclusive and supportive for all backgrounds, and what’s something you’re proactively doing to propel inclusivity or bring awareness?

We’ve made great strides in recent years for diversity within companies. However, much of this is at the lower levels with junior employees. Businesses need to focus more on integration at more senior levels. We must do more than look at talent pools, and be more critical of our processes, systems, and structures that enable people to grow and thrive at all levels.

Representation is so important. Feeling seen, heard, and valued is a human right, but it’s important to understand that we don’t always need to see what is possible for it to be possible. Muriel Strode once wrote, “I will not follow where the path may lead, but I will go where there is no path, and I will leave a trail.” We pave our own paths in our lives and careers, and the unknown or previously unattainable shouldn’t prevent us from striving to be who we dream to be and to live our passions.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I love to read in my spare time and often lean toward fiction. I’ve found that it’s a great way to escape and drive my imagination. During the early months of the COVID pandemic, I read the entire “Harry Potter” series! Now I’m reading lots of mystery novels set in 18th and 19th century England.

One nonfiction book that I often return to is “The Art of Happiness” by the Dalai Lama and Dr. Howard Cutler. It’s great for reading in happy times and in hard times. I also enjoy traveling with my family. Most recently, prior to the pandemic, my family and I rang in the new year in Abu Dhabi. I look forward to embarking on new adventures in a post-COVID world.

Hilary Sheinbaum is an author, journalist, and speaker in New York City. Her book The Dry Challenge: How to Lose the Booze for Dry January, Sober October, and Any Other Alcohol-Free Month (HarperCollins) is available for pre-sale and will be published Dec. 29, 2020.