Professional Development

How I Got Here: Vanessa Paige became the DEI-focused people ops pro her younger self needed

A racist incident at the start of her career pushed the diversity, inclusion and belonging expert to pursue a career in people operations, most recently via HubSpot: "Especially in situations like the one I was in, I wanted to make sure that wouldn't happen again in any circumstance."

Vanessa Paige.

(Courtesy photo)

When Vanessa Paige was just starting her career, she went through an experience that shook her career trajectory.

Paige was 23 years old, and had been at Callowhill tech company Azavea for a few months as a product specialist when she and other members of her team raised concerns about possible biases in the company’s hiring process. In a May 2016 meeting, the then-VP allegedly used the n-word multiple times, shocking Paige and fellow employees. What followed was a series of disappointing reactions from the company, and news of the six-year-old incident wouldn’t become public knowledge until a Billy Penn report was released last month.

In an interview with Technical.ly, Paige said the jarring incident was a prime example of the importance of having a strong people operations team. It’s part of the reason she’s now a diversity, inclusion and belonging program manager at marketing software maker HubSpot. It’s a turn from the product and business market work she first started her career in, but it feels like a natural fit, after years of realizing she was contributing to company culture in non-related roles, she said.

Paige joined the Venture for America program after starting her own social media marketing company in college, hungry to learn from other leaders — “You don’t really know what you don’t know,” she said. She wanted to learn about taking something from its ideation phase to scale, and first worked as an operations manager for a private foundation in San Antonio, Texas before transferring to Azavea in Philadelphia in early 2016. As a Black woman who grew up outside of DC in Northern Virginia, Paige was in search of a city with more people who looked like her in a burgeoning tech sector.

She eventually left Azavea in 2018, first working at the Philly chapter of Hungry Harvest, and now at HubSpot, shaping its inclusion work. Last week, Paige talked with Technical.ly about that career pivot, why shaping a company’s culture must be intentional, and why she believes she would have found diversity, inclusion and belonging work regardless of her experience at Azavea years ago. This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

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Technical.ly: What were your first few months like at Azavea?

Vanessa Paige: It was an adjustment. It was the first time worked at a predominantly white institution. Like, there were more redheads in the office than people of color. I worked in a coworking space in San Antonio, and it was so diverse and so it was different from what I experienced joining Azavea. So I think it was a lot of me wondering how I should assimilate or code switch to be a lesser version of myself to fit in and understand the culture because I didn’t see myself in it. There are a lot of really kind people at the company — it’s not to say that I didn’t have had coworkers I was friends with — but it was just really feeling, “how will I fit in here, how will I thrive here,” while also learning the job.

The incident in 2016 happened really early on in your career. How has that affected what you’ve decided to do since?

That experience was so jarring and really showed me the importance of having a strong people ops or HR team. And a lot of startups lack that, and think it’s not an essential role, when in fact is is. There’s so much happening in a culture that’s moving really quickly or that is shooting from the hip, or is a lot of young leaders, though Azavea wasn’t.

"There's probably a problem with HR as a concept."
Vanessa Paige

There’s so much that HR can help with, and I think people are hesitant to invest there, because it’s not essential to the business functions or the scarcity mindset of a startup. And I think that impacts the culture, because the culture often is from the top down. If you start with the first few employees, and they aren’t focused on culture, it’s happening whether or not you are prioritizing. Your culture still exists even if you haven’t thought of it.

So people operations can help start out thinking through things like, “How are we thinking about culture?” “How are we thinking about how or if our employees are happy here?” “What does growth look like here?” All of that comes with solid HR and being in this situation, I realized that HR department was sparse, and was very pro-company rather than pro-employee. Which I took as, there’s probably a problem with HR as a concept, and I realized diversity, equity and inclusion — one, I didn’t know that was a job until this situation, but that’s the arm of HR that’s for the people of the company. Especially in situations like the one I was in, I wanted to make sure that wouldn’t happen again in any circumstance. But how do you do that in partnership with HR, who should be responsible for things like discrimination or retaliation?

[Related reading: Check out this perspective from a CEO who did prioritize an HR hire early on.]

You moved on from Azavea to Hungry Harvest, and eventually into a DEI role there. How do you transition into this type of role?

I started out as the Philadelphia market manager, directing the marketing and business development effort. Early on in my time there, I was often working with communities of color, and Philadelphia being a Black city and hungriest city in America, with a company with white leadership, I realized there was likely gaps in the way we were doing food access work. I wanted to make sure we weren’t being white savior-y, weren’t mirroring volunteerism, so we started talking more about DI&B and talking about how this is important for the company and the longevity of the mission. I pitched the role about a year in, and did it part time, then moved into the role full-time.

My brain was the happiest it’s ever been. I love problem solving, and for me, it wasn’t so much about the product, but about the people. For me, I’d love northing more than to help people grow and develop and thrive in a workplace. Especially with DI&B, theres so many people who come to work everyday with a variety of experiences, and hardships and things they’re overcoming. So how do you make a space that’s inclusive, and safer and braver for people who might be carrying more?

Where can companies start their own DEI work?

I think the easiest place to start is hiring. If you look at the leadership team and makeup of your company by race and gender, you’ll see very clearly where you’re stacked in one direction. There’s a bunch of resources out there for people to start diversifying your pipeline, making your practices and policies inclusive and thoughtful and mitigating as much bias as you can.

"You can't bring people into the fold who are different, and then not manage differently."
Vanessa Paige

But I would say, you can’t bring people into the fold who are different, and then not manage differently — not bring inclusive parenting practices, or [not] have trans-inclusive healthcare. It’s incredibly important, and probably even more essential to create policies to ensure that people will thrive at your workplace. Ask, “How would I start based on my lived experience and what I can learn?”

Even though it feels like this is newer work, there are companies that have been doing this a long time. Chevron has an amazing trans inclusive workplace policy. Looking at DE&B, you also want to look at elements of equity, like pay equity, promotion rates — there’s bunch of ways to assess the data you have. So, when you bring someone new into the fold, make sure you’re being consistent and thoughtful.

And now you’re now doing DI&B work with HubSpot. If you could, what would you now tell your 23-year-old self about your future career?

I would say growth isn’t linear. Oftentimes, we are told that if we do X, it will equal Y, and that your career is oftentimes this very clear trajectory of events. But really, you do one thing that piques your interest there and takes you in a completely other direction. So understanding that it’s ok if you don’t know where it’s going to go. Because more than likely you’ll find a place that feels really good to you eventually eventually.

Do you feel you would have found DI&B work without this incident at the start of your career?

I think so. I’ve always been someone who wants to make people feel included, and even at Azavea, there were silly things [that made a difference]. For instance, they ordered a lot of fresh fruit from Amazon Prime at the time, and the bananas were always coming in bruised. So I was like, I’m going to take them home and make banana bread. So, from there, it was like, we’re just going to do a banana bread baking competition. So, something so silly and small ended up having this really fun, huge, impact. That’s something I would do because that’s just how I would want to get people included. Another example was Slack statuses — highlighting someone through Black history month on my Slack status everyday.

Another thing was Buzzfeed quizzes I did at Hungry Harvest. You would never think that the CEO would talk about what kind of cupcake he is, but he did and now everyone’s kind of bonding. And I’m someone who’s typically optimized for that — like, how can I make this team jive in a way that feels good and you want to show up for work? By doing that, I would have found this eventually, but I would not have found it this quickly. I love working with people, so I think people ops is the right place for me to be and eventually I would have found that, too.

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