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What Allyship Looks & Feels Like

In Episode 57, Melinda Briana Epler is joined by four inspiring DEI experts: Ritu Bhasin, Wayne Sutton, Rachel Williams, and Tiffany Yu. They explore what allyship means to each of them, specific examples of how allies have impacted them, and how they think about being allies for others. This conversation was originally recorded during the launch event for How to Be an Ally, Melinda’s book. 

Additional Resources

Learn more about Melinda’s work:

Learn more about Ritu’s work on: 

Learn more about Tiffany’s work on: 

Learn more about Wayne’s work on: 

Learn more about Rachel’s work on: 

The live show is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now and White Coat Captioning. Learn more about our show sponsor Interpreter-Now at www.interpreter-now.com

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Rachel: “Allyship means safety. When I feel safe, I can be authentic. I can give the brilliance that’s rumbling in my head. The Impostor Syndrome decreases and companies get the best out of me.”

Tiffany: “Allyship is the idea of what truly feels like to be seen. I can feel validated in my experience – even if you don’t understand it – without fear of retribution. Can I just be who I am without fear?”

Ritu: “When I’m experiencing allyship, I feel seen, I feel heard, I feel honored. I feel like you see the humanity in me because you understand the humanity in you, and the importance of creating a world where we can all honor each other.”

Wayne: “Allyship is super simple. It’s how you’re doing the right thing to correct injustice or support someone, whether it is with the workplace environment, police violence, racial injustice. How can you be mindful of your own wellbeing and safety, and be an ally and mindful and even taking a risk for someone in the moment.”
Headshot of Tiffany Yu, an Asian woman with brown hair and beige shawl
Guest Speaker

Tiffany Yu

CEO & Founder of Diversability

Tiffany Yu is the CEO & Founder of Diversability, an award-winning social enterprise to rebrand disability through the power of community and the Founder of the Awesome Foundation Disability Chapter, a monthly micro-grant for disability projects that has awarded $37.5k to 38 projects in 8 countries. She was appointed to the San Francisco Mayor’s Disability Council by San Francisco Mayor London Breed in 2019. 

Headshot of Rachel Williams, a Black woman with long black hair and glasses
Guest Speaker

Rachel Williams

Head of Equity Inclusion & Diversity Talent Acquisition at X – the moonshot factory

Rachel Williams is a Bay Area native with more than 20 years of experience in Silicon Valley. Her experience spans human resources – recruiting, strategic employee relations and engagement, organizational change, culture & learning development, inclusion programming and implementation. Rachel is currently the Head of Equity Inclusion & Diversity Talent Acquisition for X – the moonshot factory.

Professional photo of Wayne, a bald Black man with glasses, a goatee, and charcoal button-down leaning forward on a table in front of a white wall
Guest Speaker

Wayne Sutton

Co-Founder of Change Catalyst & Founder of Icon Project

Wayne Sutton is a serial entrepreneur and founder of the Icon Project (501c3 non-profit). The Icon Project mission is to address Black and Brown Men’s mental health and professional development needs in Tech. Wayne is also the co-founder of Change Catalyst. Change Catalyst builds inclusive tech ecosystems through strategic advising, startup programs, and resources. Sutton’s experience includes years of establishing partnerships with large brands to early-stage startups. As a leading voice in diversity and inclusion in tech, Sutton has been featured in TechCrunch, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal. In addition to mentoring and advising entrepreneurs, Sutton’s life goal is to advocate for the awareness of humans to address their mental health.

Wayne is a past TED attendee in 2012. With a passion for education and storytelling, Wayne has spoken at several universities and major internet and technology-focused conferences such as Stanford, UC Berkeley, Duke, UNC, NC State, TEDx, World Wide Web(WWW) Conference, O’Reilly Web 2.0 Expo, South By South West (SXSW), DockerCon 2015 and for the U.S. Embassy Jamaica during Global Entrepreneurship Week 2015.

Headshot of Ritu Bhasin, a Punjabi Indian-Canadian woman with long, black hair and a black and white floral dress.
Guest Speaker

Ritu Bhasin

President of bhasin consulting inc. & Author of The Authenticity Principle

Ritu Bhasin, LL.B. MBA, President of bhasin consulting inc., is an award-winning speaker, author, and expert in diversity and inclusion, women’s advancement, and authentic leadership. Her Amazon bestselling book, The Authenticity Principle: Resist Conformity, Embrace Differences, and Transform How You Live, Work, and Lead, was released in Fall 2017.

Learn more about the host and creator of Leading With Empathy & Allyship, Melinda Briana Epler.


Ritu: Hi everyone. I am Ritu Bhasin.She, Her hers, I’m President and Founder of the bhasin consulting inc. – BCI for short, which is a diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting firm. That’s focused on building more inclusive, authentic, and empowered workplaces.

Ritu: Today, we will have a panel discussion to learn more about the concept of allyship.

And it is my pleasure to be the host of the launch party for Melinda Briana Epler’s new book, How to Be an Ally: Actions You Can Take for a Stronger, Happier Workplace.” 

I also wanted to mention that I am a Brown woman. My parents are from India. I have long black hair and beautiful brown skin. Lastly, I finally wanted to mention that I am joining you today from my home in Toronto, Canada. And I wanted to take a moment to just honor the fact that Toronto is in the dish with one spoon territory. The dish with one spoon is a treaty between the Haudenosaunee, The Anishinaabeg,and the Mississaugas, a treaty that brought these communities together to serve and to honor, and protect these lands.  And we have all been invited into this treaty with the same spirit. And I share this with you as part of my personal commitment to truth and reconciliation. And healing with the Indigenous peoples of this land. We now know to be Canada. I hope that all of the work that I do, all of my actions are in furtherance of this, including my participation in this launch party this evening.

Ritu:This is your day, Melinda. So, okay. Let me just take a pause here. And I just want to say a few things about you professionally. I’m sure that everyone here knows who you are. As you know, Melinda is known for being a prominent TED speaker.

Ritu: I just looked this up just like earlier this afternoon, two and a half million hits almost on your TED Talk on allyship, which is amazing. You’ll know Melinda as being a DEI expert, you’ll know her as a global speaker storyteller advocate for change. She is been in the innovation and strategy game for twenty-five years. But most of all, Melinda is a beautiful human being. She’s beautiful inside and out. She is kind, she is empathetic. She is authentic. She is a beautiful soul. And now she’s also officially an author. So it is an honor to work with her, to know her, to introduce her and to join her today for this launch event.

Ritu: So, hi, Melinda. 

Melinda: Hello, thank you for that lovely introduction. 

Ritu: So with that being said, Melinda, I’m going to turn it over to you to kick off our panel.. 

2.Panel Starts

MELINDA: I want to invite Rachel and Tiffany to join me as well as Wayne. Hi. 

So Tiffany and I met – well, I think we met via social media and/or email and then we finally met in person maybe a year after that because you were in New York and I was here. Tiffany runs an amazing organization called Diversability and you need to check it out. She does amazing activist work in that space, in the space of creating change and creating inclusion for people with disabilities. I have learned a ton from her. 

These are all dear friends of mine. Rachel Williams is – we go back to early, early 2015, I think. Maybe late 2014/early 2015 where we sat in a booth at Yelp and had discussions about the state of tech and how we were going to solve them together. I think when we had that conversation we would have solved it by this point. We had it in our heads solved it, but there’s all the people that need to change in order to make that happen. 

RACHEL: So good to be here. 

MELINDA: And then Wayne Sutton who is my husband, partner, best friend, greatest ally, all of the things. And is my Co-Founder at Change Catalyst and creator of the Icon Project and has done incredible things his entire life. 

Thank you all for being here and celebrating with me. 

One thing we should do really quickly for anybody who is Blind or Low Vision or on the phone and can’t see us, if we can really quickly go around and describe ourselves. I am a White woman with long red hair, black and white glasses and I have a turquoise sleeveless shirt on. Ritu already did, so, Rachel?

RACHEL: Dark chocolate brown woman with long black hair, glasses on and a cute pink Oxford shirt so I can pop my collar. Tiffany? 

TIFFANY: Hi, everyone. Tiffany Yu. Pronouns she/her. I am a Taiwanese American woman with long black hair that I have learned to curl with one hand because one of my hands is paralyzed that you can’t see. I am wearing a blue sweatshirt and it says “disability.’ repeated a lot of times, ‘is not a bad word’. We are doing a small fundraising campaign with this message. 

WAYNE: Hi, humans. Wayne Sutton. I am a pecan brown skin Black African man wearing black glasses, a black t-shirt with brown eyes and white Airpods in my ear, standing up on the Zoom. 

MELINDA: Awesome. I just have a few questions. The first is: what does allyship mean to you? Why is it important? 

RACHEL: You going to call on us? 

MELINDA: This is a community conversation where you all take initiative and say it when you feel it. 

RACHEL: Since I opened my big mouth – allyship to me means safety, it means amplification, it means that I have a partner or someone looking out for me in the room when I am not in the room. It has been so important in my life. I didn’t even have the word for it before. 

I was calling it a sponsor, which I think on some levels there is a sponsorship, but I think the action of sponsorship is allyship. I think the two go hand-in-hand and I am so grateful to the allies who have stepped up to correct someone or to defend me or to amplify something I said. Or just make a path and create a path for me. It means safety. When I feel safe, then I can be authentic. I can give the brilliance that’s rumbling in my head. The Impostor Syndrome decreases and companies get the best out of me. Allyship means a lot. 

TIFFANY: This is Tiffany. I will amplify what Melinda said and what Rachel said in terms of safety. But I will also add for me it is the idea of what truly feels like to be seen and I think that can mean a lot of different things to people. For me, it can be validated in my experience even if you don’t understand it. Without – and this is where the safety comes in – without fear of retribution. Can I just be who I am without fear? 

RITU: I would say what Tiffany said resonates with me. I was thinking about allyship from the perspective of how do I make others feel based on how I act and what I say and what might non-verbal communication is like in your midst and the words I use. But on the receiving end, when I am experiencing allyship it goes back to I feel seen, I feel heard, I feel honored, I feel like you see the humanity in me because you understand the humanity in you and the importance of creating a world where we can all honor each other. I think that that is so important and really stands out to me as it relates to what allyship is about. 

TIFFANY: This is Tiffany. I just wanted to add one other thing. All of us are on this learning journey and actually, Ritu, what came up when you reflected back to me what I said is that I think many of us are moving to understand that it is really not about the intention but it is about the impact and focusing on that impact and how do other people feel when they are around you. That is that active allyship. 

RITU: Yes. You know, it is interesting because as human beings we are animals and we forget that, because we are sophisticated and have Zoom and iPhone and Uber – but we are animals and governed by our nervous systems. Melinda, you would know this from all your yoga and mindfulness work as well, that our nervous systems deeply desire to co-regulate with other people, and we want to feel good in people’s midst. We want to feel safe, as has been shared, and allyship. 

Through our actions, we help other people’s nervous systems calm and settle and feel and flow so that they can best — we can best think and share and be authentic and we can synthesize information more accurately and we can exercise compassion and empathy. All of this goes back to our nervous systems and how we feel and others feel based on the acts of allyship that are around us. 

WAYNE: Yeah, I am going to say allyship means to me like – first, what does the book say? But plus one what everyone has said and to me it is like allyship means like it is something super simple but it is doing the right thing but doing the right thing being mindful of your own safety, your own mind and how you are doing the right thing trying to correct injustice, trying to support someone, trying to, you know, going back to what Melinda said about empathy, whether it is workplace environment, police violence, racial injustice, how can you, in that moment, be a mindful of your own wellbeing and safety as others have said be an ally even being mindful and taking a risk for someone in that moment. 

MELINDA: You all are amazing. We have so many people who are doing this work here on this call. Would you please drop in the chat, I mean, Karen, what does allyship mean to you? Jennifer, what does allyship mean to you. Julie, Cynthia, Natalia, all of you are doing amazing work. Max, I see you. What does allyship mean to each of you? I would love to know. I think it would be powerful to know. Anybody else chime in? I just called out my colleagues. 

As you are thinking, so many folks are doing this work, yeah, Cynthia, having somebody’s back especially when they are not around. Social and personal capital building out for the greater equity. Using our position of privilege to take action and open career doors. Disrupt the status quo of racism and other ‘-isms’ happening in the workplace. Empathy in action, Lisa, thank you. And Tookie I see you. Natalia, honoring, centering and building up marginalized people. Brian taking on the struggle as our own and standing up and speaking up even when it is hard. Steve helping make connections and endorsing. Awesome. Continue them. I am going to ask the next question. But yeah. Love it. Thank you for sharing. 

Tiffany, I know you have one in your head. When has an ally stepped up for you? Give us a story. How did an ally impact your life? 

TIFFANY: Yeah, this is Tiffany. I will share two big examples so one doesn’t have a resolution yet, and then the other is a fun story I will share. 

We experience microaggressions, but I think we also have microinclusions. When I think about allyship and how it is manifesting or the way it is most prevalent for me right now, it is this empathy in action for people understanding that when I step outside and someone says ‘go back to where you came from,’ that pattern is interrupted.

I see Karen here, and she has this question: ‘what makes you think that?’ Being able to witness something microaggressive and being able to step in and do something about it. But having that empathy to understand that when I walk outside I feel a level of, a lack of safety, that maybe Wayne, when Wayne steps outside may feel a lack of safety but in a different way, and it is kind of like, being able to distinguish that. That’s kind of the first thing I was thinking about when I thought about the answer to the question. 

The other one, I wanted to share – and I am just smiling because it might be relevant or it might not be relevant – so for people who are new to my work, I do a lot of work in the disability space, and I come into this work based on my own lived experience of having acquired a disability at the age of nine as a result of a car accident, so one of my arms is paralyzed. 

Pre-pandemic we always had these dinner events and my background was in finance. Networking dinners were a big thing. For me, what I actually found the most difficult about is that environment is I didn’t know how to pick my bread from the bread basket when it came out. I didn’t know how to cut my chicken or steak – and apologize to the vegetarians or vegans. I would think more about the logistics of how to eat my food rather than engage in the actual conversation that was happening. 

I wanted to bring that up, because one of the bigger professional opportunities that I have had in this work is I had the opportunity to go to Davos a couple years ago. You have a lot of CEOs and Presidents and leaders in academia and civil society. I was at this dinner called I think human by design and it was talking about human-centered design. I happened to be sitting at a table that was being facilitated by will.i.am of the Black-Eyed Peas. I am sitting next to him by accident. 

The chicken comes out, or whatever the meat dish is, and I am literally just sitting there like looking at it, holding a knife to try and just look like I am trying to navigate it. will.i.am sees what’s happening and pulls my plate over to his, cuts my meat, and then pushes the plate back over to me, the conversation still going. I have shared this story publicly so if anyone knows him I did tell him thank you. He probably doesn’t even remember. 

It is something so small like that – for him, cutting meat during an entire course doesn’t mean that much. But for someone like me who has had to go to so many dinner events, even thinking about a buffet event where there is not enough table space to hold my plate. For me, that was such a beautiful display of – and Melinda and I have talked about what non-performative allyship look like – and for me it is no one is looking for an award. He’s not going around telling people he cut my meat. I am going around as the recipient telling everyone how something so small like that can be meaningful. I want to bring it up because I think one day we will return to dinners and that’s a part of my own professional journey and this networking environment. Even though it didn’t happen in a workplace environment, but I wanted to bring that up as an example because it is all still part of this like one life that I am experiencing. 

I wanted to add one last point. I met up with a friend recently who was having a hard time thinking about what does allyship look like on the accomplice level. What I said to him is we can spend time talking about those larger issues, but what I am hoping you take away from this is maybe I will not convince you what that road map looks like, but can you understand when we are having dinner together, I might need someone to help me cut my meat. 

MELINDA: Thank you for sharing that. 

WAYNE: Melinda, we were talking about Steve from Goodreads. Steve was one of my very first allies when I moved to San Francisco or came to Silicon Valley first in 2011. I was running an accelerator and we had some conflict; found the conflict and we needed a different coworking space to work out of for our founders. 

You know, Steve had heard of us. He saw what we were doing on social media. He was like, ‘y’all need a place to work for founders? Come use our space where we are at.’ It was about 10 or 15 of us. This is back in 2011 back, you know, and you think there is a lack of diversity in tech now? In 2011 there was really a lack of diversity in tech! 

Opened the door, and 10-15 Black and Brown founders were in the office space in downtown San Francisco, and that was a thing of allyship and support that I will just never forget.

The other thing about allyship, something that happened more recently, we have seen a lot of people step up and I say become – I don’t want to use the word and what the word is in slang that people are using – people developed more empathy, or became more aware or decided they wanted to impact and help work in diversity and inclusion and underrepresented people in tech. 

Last year, Brad Feld reached out and said, ‘I have seen the work you have been doing and I want to support your work with a grant for your Icon Project around mental health.’ We talk about allyship in terms of actions. Money is action also. That was a great, great support and helped us out in getting the Icon Project we wanted. Appreciate you Steve. 

Hey, Wayne. Awesome meeting you in the early days and we had a lot of fun. 

Yes. Yes. It is great to be here. No, that’s where Steve is now. 

What about you, Rachel? 

RACHEL: I think you have probably heard this story, so hopefully someone out there hasn’t. 

The COO of Yelp showed me early in my work what allyship was. When I got their call to rejoin and to be their first head of diversity and inclusion, I was holding meetings with executives – no idea what we were going to talk about. It ended up being helpful. We were talking about demographic numbers and we were talking about the latest research from Harvard or Stanford or somewhere, and then I would also share story time. 

In the beginning, this is 2014, folks were not knocking at my DEI door. It felt punitive for folks. I will leave it there. 

I had a chat with him about kind of my difficulties in getting executives to show up. I didn’t want to make it mandatory because I knew the challenges and backlash that happens. He knew the power he had and I think that’s a part of allyship. He knew his privilege in the context that he was the COO of the company. People feared him and loved him. He had this weird energy about that. 

He told me, ‘I’m going to show up to your meetings and I am not going to say anything, and I am just going to be present.’ I was like, ‘you need to say something, but I understand.’ Him showing up and being present, it drew all of the leaders because they were like, ‘Jeff is in that meeting.’ 

Over time, every single leader was coming to that meeting and having a rich discussion around DEI, and Jeff really never said a word, honestly. He lent me his presence and influence and that level of allyship; I hope to lend to someone else someday. 

RITU: Melinda, would you like me to share? 

MELINDA: I would love for you to share. 

RITU: Rachel, your story resonates with me because I had something similar but different happen when I started my business 11 years ago. I am actually a lawyer by training and practiced law for a few years and hated it for a myriad of reasons, which I am sure you have heard all about as it relates to the practice of law. 

Then I did HR for lawyers and worked for a large international firm where I was the HR leader on the lawyer side and did that for several years. Along the journey of doing that HR work and having a front row seat to how inequities manifest in the lawyer profession, I became interested in the legal world and I decided to do an executive MBA. At the tail end I left my firm to start my own consulting firm. 

I was new, fresh, green. I needed to build a profile and name for myself. There was an executive program at the University of Toronto. I wanted to teach in that executive program because I knew it would be great for my brand and profile. 

One of my professors was connected with the program. A White man. I was quite vocal in the classes I had with him, but I approached him and I said, ‘I would love to figure out how I can teach in the executive program.’ He created a spot for me. He never said, ‘I am creating this because you are a woman of color from a minority religious group and we need you.’ He created the spot to bring an external nobody in the program to teach. 

I taught in the program three years and all of the way along he was an ally for me, and it had a profound impact on my career. As soon as I said, ‘I am teaching at the school,’ they said, ‘she must know what she is doing!’ Never mind everything else I was doing to show my excellence. Never mind. I am going to throw out there. 

I am mindful of how I have internalized racism and racial trauma lives in my body. I do a lot of work around it. In the work I teach and all the stuff I do online I am constantly talking about healing the racial trauma we all possess as people of color and people who are Indigenous in the face of White supremacy. 

I would say to you, clear as a bell moments of allyship stand out for me but also what continues to stand out are the moments where I needed an ally and I didn’t have one. Like those moments haunt me, they continue with me and despite the work they are always there. I am able to use those moments to exercise empathy for others, to understand how can I help other people feel safe and at ease. 

Tiffany, your example of will.i.am is beautiful. They are mindfully paying attention to the whole environment. He is leading a conversation, taking in information, guiding, but has his eyes an everyone in the room and empathetically taking in people’s energy to know to do this. When we have enough lived experience with lack of allyship it helps us tune in and put ourselves in so we can see I should be cutting other people’s chub chicken. Let the takeaway be. That’s the sound bite of this launch party. Start cutting people’s chicken. 

MELINDA: We could talk for hours. We are over time. I want to ask one final question. If you could just share three words in this one. I know that’s a challenge. We all do this work and we are in it. What do you think about when you are working to be a good ally for each other? And we have established chicken. What else? Three words. What do you think about when you are working to be a good ally? 

RACHEL: Recognize my privilege. 

MELINDA: Oh! Yes. 

RITU: I am going to throw out there. I am love, and the reason being I cannot love others unless I love myself. 

MELINDA: Yes, I think about that often. Love is one of mine too. 

TIFFANY: This is Tiffany. Those are not my three words. LAVR — [Laughter] I can’t put it down to three words. Or yes, I can. Mistakes equal growth. 

MELINDA: That’s awesome. 

RACHEL: Good one. Wayne? Earth to Wayne. 

WAYNE: Introvert mind over here is thinking. 

RACHEL: I saw it like a little computer going. 

WAYNE: Wait. What’s the question? You know, plus one what Melinda was saying earlier. I think of empathy. I think of — you know. Safety is a big one for me. 

And I will say the other word is a hyphen, but it is two words. Self-awareness. I think that’s my three words. You have to be self-aware of what’s happening, the why in the moment, what’s going on, processing that if you can – and in that moment – am I safe to operate, and am I safe to take action here for me or the other person? Other people you’re trying to have empathy toward. Try to have empathy, and then from there take action. 

We can talk for hours. Each of you have been an ally for me in lots of different ways throughout knowing you. I deeply appreciate all of you. All of you being here today, doing what you do, being an ally and helping make the world a better place. Yeah. 

RITU: Bless Melinda. Thank you. Yes, the book, the book. Yes, Rachel. So good. Thank you. In fact, let’s take a moment and all throw it up. Throw up our books. Buy a copy. Gift a copy. Review the book. Spread the good word. Most about the book. Everything you can to support Melinda in this moment and this great work. Thank you, Tiffany. Thank you, Rachel. Thank you, Wayne so much for joining Melinda and myself for this panel. We are very grateful. Thank you all for your beautiful comments in the chat board.