What Allyship Means to Netflix Executives
Introduction from Verna Myers:
When we’re talking about being an ally towards someone, it’s not a new idea. Allyship has been happening forever. If you think of any group of people who have been excluded or marginalized in some way - when they are able to make progress, to break free, to actually have rights and so forth, it’s not just because they’ve been valiant, and great, and competent, and courageous. It is also because someone else from a group that was not marginalized, stepped up, spoke out, fought for, in some cases died for those individuals in that group to have the opportunities and the equity, and the respect, dignity, and freedom that they deserved. What we’re talking about is not a new concept, but it’s gotten much more popularity. The word allyship is just one way to refer to this idea that you truly believe in equity, opportunity, and dignity for all people.
What I know from being in the company for the last year, is that when we came here, there was an enormous amount of curiosity. But there was also a lot of interest and a lot of excitement about really making a difference when it came to increasing the representation of groups that had been underrepresented maybe historically, maybe just in our organization, or in an industry. We also saw uneven awareness. But people have been working to raise their awareness, to talk more about the issues. We have talked about unconscious bias. We have talked more about privilege. This is our next step, which is how we move from awareness and talking to doing. The thing that I want you to be thinking about when we hear from our colleagues today is this idea of what it means to be an ally.
The main thing we want people to pay attention to around allyship is the idea that all of us are in an interconnected world. That means that every step we take to make equality and equity more available to all groups, we are helping ourselves. Every time we are allowing, or being neutral, or being complacent about the kind of exclusion we might see, or the marginalization that’s happening, we also are being hurt by that. In other words, we need to be in solidarity with each other to make this happen, not because we feel sorry for someone. Or not because we think we’re better than they are. But because we realize we are them, that we are all connected.By far when allies fail, it’s because they actually think they’re doing something for someone else. They don’t understand that they are doing it for themselves and all of us.
We have some fabulous folks from our wonderful company to come in and talk about their own experience with understanding allyship, what would make sense to them, where they’ve experienced it, where they haven’t, what they would like to see.
Fouad Fallah: Director, Marketing: Middle East and Africa, 3 years at Netflix, Amsterdam Office, Pronouns: He, Him, His.
Maya Banks: Director, Brand and Editorial: U.S. and Canada. 2 years at Netflix, Los Angeles Office. Pronouns: She, Her, Hers.
Katie Davies-Perez: Director, Business Development. 3.5 years at Netflix, Los Gatos Office. Pronouns: She, Her, Hers.
Thiago Lopes: Vice President, Marketing: Brazil. 5.5 years at Netflix, Alphaville Office. Pronouns: He, Him, His.
Yayoi Aoki: Director, Marketing and Business Development, Legal. 4 years at Netflix, Tokyo Office. Pronouns: She, Her, Hers.
Vernā: what does it mean for someone to be an ally to you?
Fouad: The first thing that you want from an ally is to be heard and to have someone who can come to you and be like, I get you. I grew up in France and as an Arab, it was a weird place to be after 9/11. Basically, my world was flipped upside down. People looked at me and were like “oh we don’t share the same values.”
Maya: I think for me, the allies that I feel closest to feel comfortable being uncomfortable. Because this work is not easy, it’s very awkward. We haven’t been taught how to really do this. I think it’s really about establishing trust first and making sure that I feel like people really understand my experience, and are curious about my experience. And they aren’t doing it for themselves, but are really doing it out of the goodness of their hearts because they feel really intentional about “we all can’t be free until everybody is free.” It’s very awkward though sometimes. It requires more than just good intentions. For the people who I feel like really show up for me, I feel that from them.
Vernā: You had a funny story to tell about our fearless leader.
Maya: It’s a good story. It’s a little awkward. when you start at Netflix as a director, everyone gets a one on one with Reed. It’s a very nerve-wracking thing. You don’t get a ton of lead up to it. It just comes up on your calendar. You’re like, okay oh my god. I’m meeting with the CEO. I just got hired. I’m going to prepare. I want him to think, wow, this was a great hire. So we go into the one on one and he stops me in the middle of our conversation and he says, “Can I ask you a question?” Sure, yes. I’m ready. He says, “What does it feel like to be a black leader?” So, right? How all of you were just like, huh? That’s exactly how I felt. So many things were running through my mind. One: why is the CEO asking me about my blackness at our first meeting? Two: nobody has ever asked me this question, I don’t know how to respond. Three: say something, say something, say something. I just burst out laughing because I was so uncomfortable. I said, “Why are you asking me this?” He said, “We had just added inclusion to the culture memo literally the day before.” He was like, “I’m curious about what your experience is because if I don’t ask you, I know you won’t tell me.” I was like, wow. Nobody has ever asked me this question before. To think, wow the CEO thinks enough about it. Now granted, I didn’t know Reed very well. I did walk out being like, this is a little weird. The next day I went to my first meeting with the black employee resource group. They were asking, “So new employees, does anybody want to talk about your experience at work?” I said, “Well I had one yesterday.” It was interesting because some of the OGs who have been a part of the black employee group were like, “No that’s Reed. He really, really cares. He wouldn’t ask something that he really didn’t mean. And he wouldn’t say something that he didn’t really want to say.” As I got to understand who he was and build a rapport over time, I felt like I had space to really talk to him about what my experience was. I just wanted to reinforce - this stuff is very uncomfortable. It wasn’t smooth by any means from my perspective, but that’s what it requires. It requires people to get uncomfortable.
Thiago: I would say that the big surprise here is that even if you’re part of a minority group, you may be uncomfortable with the topic as well. Lots of this is uncharted territory for us. The first big story that came to mind when I was thinking of allyship was a situation where I failed to be an ally, which happened two years ago. Long story short, I was in a meeting with a network executive that was coming to meet us at the office in Brazil for the first time. Even though we started the meeting by saying our female colleague was the leader of the project, he would only speak to me. It haunts me to this day because it was one of those situations where I was fully conscious about what was happening, but it was so uncomfortable and so egregious that I did not know exactly what to do at that point. I compared this with trying to silently dismantle a bomb and divert things in a separate way. The reality is, I should have intervened more directly in that situation. It was a lesson on privilege because I did not know anything about that project in particular and he was talking to me only. It was quite shocking and it speaks of two things. First - Even if we are doing this work within Netflix, we have to be very mindful and vigilant about how we interact with the outside world in that space. Second - One of my biggest fears in that situation was that by taking action, I would disempower her because I know she is super talented. That was a conflict in my mind that kept me from doing anything. What advice would you have for Thiago two years ago?
Katy: I recently I had a similar situation where we’ve had external partners who actually wouldn’t take a meeting with me and another female colleague at the director level. It could be a hierarchical thing. It’s hard not to view it through the lens of the fact that we happen to be two women and the two people above us happen to be two guys. The way we handled it has been really great learning experience. My manager, who is male, specifically chose to be almost silent in the room in that scenario. I think one of the things you could’ve done maybe at the time is to literally redirect the question to your female colleague . Say, “Actually, what would you say to that?” If the question is coming from the executive, you would say, “Well, actually what do you think about that?” Then just stay silent and hold. It’s really hard to hold.
Vernā: What you’re saying Katy is, you don’t talk until they recognize the other person in the room or you ask the person, “What do you think?”. So you aren’t taking over. It constantly goes back to the person who should be talking, but it’s awkward.
Thiago: It was a miss on me for not taking action. For us collectively as leaders, I think we have to reinforce that card for everyone out there. To tell everyone that they are allowed to take action on these things without fearing necessarily losing a partnership or missing a partner as well.
Yayoi: As a woman, I often encounter that kind of situation. The common reaction is to freeze, but we wish that we knew about these things beforehand and have some kind of practice. Another common reaction is to get outraged and go to the partner and say, “We’re not going to deal with you unless you deal with my colleague.” Which is also a little bit of disempowerment.
Katy: I just want to underscore that we need everyone to participate. I think we collectively have to understand that there is no easy path for this, for us all to be in a selfless, equal world. We all just have to get in there and figure it out ourselves. And understand that no one on this panel has the answers. No one has exactly the right answers. But if you can listen, if you can learn, if you can try to work with someone who is in a different experience to you, and has a different life experience, then it changes you. When you change, your conversations with your family will change. Your conversations with your community will change. That’s where real shift starts to happen in the world. When you can get rid of the fear of the unknown, which is the biggest thing - the biggest obstacle to understanding - then you can start moving forward to understanding and acceptance. That’s where everyone in this room can be an ally to somebody else.
Vernā: Katy I’d love to know what your experience has been as a lesbian, and where you could use an ally.
Katy: Yeah, sure. It’s funny when you ask that because I think when you’re gay, you’re just living your life. I’m a mom and I’m a partner. You’re not really thinking about it in your day to day. I call this the Uber driver syndrome. So I’ll explain what that means. When you’re gay, you’re constantly coming out in your life, it feels like you are coming out all the time. Let me explain the Uber driver thing. You get off a flight, you’re tired, you get in the Uber. Because I have an accent usually people will say, “Oh, where are you from?” I’m from the UK. Oh, how long have you been in the states? Oh about 20 years. Oh do you have kids? Yeah. Oh, where’s your husband from?” Ding! It’s like this moment you have a decision to make where you either say, I actually have a wife of 18 years, and we have two kids, and blah, blah, blah. Then that invariably leads to, oh you have kids? How did you have kids? Who carried?
Vernā: They’re all in your business in a way that they would not be …
Katy: It’s so up in my business. Sometimes you just don’t want to have that conversation. You’re just like I’m tired dude. I don’t want to. I just got off a flight. That can be applied to a lot of different other situations in business, in social situations.
Yayoi: So Katy, if I were in the Uber with you in that situation. How could I be a good ally?
Katy: That’s a good question. How would you be a good ally in that situation? I suppose you would help deflect. Where you help deflect from that person a little bit. That constant need to reaffirm who they are and what their identity is. For example, perhaps you would say, “Oh it’s interesting that you assume that she’s married. There’s a lot of people who are actually don’t have a husband or identify in a different way.” Just being that deflection point where you as the person are not constantly repping for your own community. Just having an ally being that awareness trigger can be really empowering sometimes.
Vernā: Because it can get very exhausting. It’s not that you can’t do it. You’re totally capable, but when someone comes around and does that diversion, or interruption, or whatever, you’re just like thank you.
Yayoi: I must admit it’s scary to be an ally there… I’d wonder if I’m doing it right, right? Am I saying the right thing? Am I doing too much? I must admit if I am not prepared, I would freeze sometimes.
Maya: But that requires that you have a good understanding of her life - the fact that she deals with this often. If you didn’t know that, you wouldn’t even know to say anything. So it requires that you take time to get to know people and what their experience is, so that in the moment you know. Katy deals with this all the time, I’m going to say something.
Thiago: That reminded me of something that I see happening all the time. When you visit an international office and I’m usually on the other end of this experience. I’m there in Brazil hosting visitors. The impression I have is that everyone is expected to go back home with a headline that describes what you saw there in this office. The reality is that the headline can be an oversimplification.
Thiago: I would say, refrain from doing that. I understand where it comes from because when we enter this world that we don’t know completely, I think our brains go immediately in that space of okay so how do I box this? What labels do I put on this? I like to compare this with our idea of assuming good intent when you’re giving feedback. I would say if you see something different, assume diversity. Then investigate further, understand where that’s coming from. Sometimes the value is not there, but you can be surprised. Most of the cases it will be there, it’s just a different version of it that you’re not fully familiarized with at that point.
Vernā: If you have an idea that is really very simplistic about a group, or about a place, you’re probably wrong. You want to keep being curious and get more information. And resist concluding, especially about something that you know very little about.
Yayoi: I think people underestimate barriers created by language, because language is not only language. It’s a cultural thing. It’s very different. As a person who speaks English but was brought up in a Japanese culture, and also being a Japanese woman, and it’s probably similar to many Asian people who were brought up in Asia. For instance, we don’t understand American colloquialisms. I did not know what it meant to be a Lebron James of something. I was like, what’s that? Is it a sports analogy or is it a celebrity? I didn’t know.
Yayoi: Also, there’s also this rhythm of conversation where we won’t interrupt people. We will wait until somebody would finish. We miss that moment. Our American colleagues would continue and move on with a different conversation. You’re like, oh, okay. I had a thought but, yeah. Let it go. That also happens. Also, language is not translatable word by word. If that were the case, Google translate would do the job. That’s why we’re on the ground. We’re on the ground to interpret not only the language, but the culture, behavior, and the business practices. I cannot emphasize enough how it is underestimated. Just because we come across as not assertive, doesn’t mean that we don’t have a point of view. If a good ally could help us amplify our point of view, or sometimes it’s even just nodding across the meeting room. That would give people the confidence. Give me the confidence to speak up, and speak up my point of view. That is a good ally. If you can’t do anything else, be an ally by affirming, hey I hear what you’re saying. I’m trying to understand. I’m trying to be curious.
Fouad: Being an ally is also about allowing that conversation to happen, even though it is so awkward. For example, I started to manage South Africa about a year ago and I was looking for a new agency. South Africa has such a complex history - where companies can receive a certificate by hiring Black South African employees. They kept on mentioning their BEE certificate, but there were onlywhite people. It was hard to bring this up, especially when I was meeting them for the first time. By the time we visited a second agency, I was like “Eff it.” I’m going to say it. “Where are your black employees? They represent our future consumers.” He says, “We have the certificate.” I didn’t care about a certificate, I needed the right representation around the table.
Verna: That’s an incredible point because the people you are advocating for are not in the room.
Verna: Yes, yet. Your advocacy is what could get them to that room.
Maya: I wanted to personally shout out some people, including my managers. I feel like they’ve both created such a safe space for me where I can really show up and be like, “I’m tired of being black today.” I want to go home. I feel like I can say that and it’s totally okay. They’re like, “Go home girl.” For me in my personal experience, you carry a lot into work every day when you come from a group that’s underrepresented. There are things that are happening every day in the world that just affect you, even if it didn’t happen to you. In America for instance, the onslaught of police killing black people is something that I feel, even though I’m not personally affected by it. It’s like, my people are affected by this. You come into work with that every day. Or just walking down the street and walking my dog and somebody locks their car as soon as I walk by. Those things happen every single day. Sometimes you just get tired. Like you said, I’m so tired of dealing with this stuff. But you still have to show up at work and be a delightful person.
Vernā: And you are.
Maya: One of the things that I try to do with people on my team is create that space, and be conscious of what’s happening in their world. In particular, a very easy thing to do is just turn on the news. Look at what’s happening in the world and proactively reach out to them to let them know, I saw this thing happened. I just want you to know if you need a day, take the day. Making sure that somebody is bringing 100% of themselves is one way you get the best out of them. Sometimes people just can’t bring that every day, but they don’t necessarily know that it’s okay. I think as leaders, just the very simple thing you can do is just give people permission. It means being conscious of what’s happening in the world. A good example is when the Pulse Night Club shooting happened. I reached out to every single person on my team who I knew was from the community and just said, first of all I’m sorry that this happened. Also, I just want you to know that I’m here for you if you need anything. If you need space, that’s okay. One of them actually broke down in tears because I don’t think that’s ever happened to them. The more that we can do that, I know that I really value it with the people who’ve created a space for me. So just try to pay that forward.
Vernā: What if you say, “I’m here for you and I heard about this [thing], and I want to talk to you about it.” And you’re like, “Not today”.
Fouad: I’ve been in this situation before. Something was upsetting me in the office and I didn’t say anything about it. My manager pinged me at some point and she was like, “I’m here if you want to talk about it. I would love to get your point of view.” I just replied okay and I closed Gmail just to make sure I appeared offline. I just needed 24 hours and then we got to talk. I think just knowing that she’s here for me is something that’s extremely valuable. This is for me the true initiative of allyship for me.\
Vernā: Sometimes even though you’re saying that you’re there and you’re an ally, if people aren’t ready to talk, or if they’re upset or whatever, you have to accept that. Sometimes allies get quite pushy about their allyship. The people who you’re trying to help and support, they’re the ones that figure out or determine how you help. It’s important not to get overly focused on your job in a way that isn’t about trust and being collective, and working together with the person who you’re trying to help.