MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship. Here we have deep, real conversations about how we can be more inclusive leaders in our workplaces and communities. I am Melinda Briana Epler, your host, and the Founder of Change Catalyst, where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, coaching, and events.
This is a safe space to learn to lead the change, build empathy for one another, understand tangible actions we can all take to build a better world for friends, colleagues, and neighbors.
This is episode 56 where I will be in conversation with Wayne Sutton who is my husband, my co-founder at Change Catalyst, a great ally and my best friend. He is the founder of Icon Project which is focused on wellness and leadership development for Black and Brown men in tech.
Today we’re going to have an honest conversation about mental health, our own interracial marriage, some motorcycle riding in there, and of course we will talk about allyship as well. And then Wayne is about to embark on a solo cross-country motorcycle ride to raise awareness for mental health and raise funds for the Icon Project Fund. We will talk about that too.
WAYNE: Hi, Melinda. [Laughter] You are literally right around the corner. In the same apartment.
MELINDA: [Laughter] Yes. He is right there. This is going to be fun.
So, Wayne. We always start with telling your story and I think it would be great for people to learn more about you, where you grew up, and how you came to do the work that you do and really focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and also mental health.
WAYNE: Thanks for having me. Great to be on episode 56. It is awesome to see these shows throughout the last year and a half throughout the pandemic and congrats on the book that I have nicely displayed in the backgrounds. Congrats on the book, too!
Well, my story. Trying to see what version to give. Short, long, or medium version. Here we go. I used to say I am a geek, nerd, introvert, and I developed those skills unconsciously as I grew up in the South – in North Carolina, a small town called Teachey. In the year 2000 it had a population of 200, and the closest town had a population of 50,000.
Growing up, I was into art and used to draw and paint, and then got into computers. My mom used to work for HUD, had a furlough, and brought a computer home. I gravitated towards it. I used to work with my father, working on go-karts, the engines and things like that, so I was used to tinkering.
At the intersection of all that growing up – art, computers, engines, racing – I eventually got into computer graphic design as a trade school right out of high school which is equivalent to a code school. From there I got into IT and spent four years at a newspaper, first computer graphic design and then IT. That was really my foray into computers and networking and infrastructure and IT. So my geek nerd increased with age.
Also, I used to go to people’s houses with a floppy disk to connect and help them get dial-up internet service. That’s showing my age there but that’s what I used to do.
I was like part of the internet 1.0, helping people get online and helping create community with forums and those things back then. Then eventually I moved to Raleigh, the NC state capitol, and just fell in love with the internet and connecting people and humans with the 1.0 and web 2.0 movement.
I was following everything happening in Silicon Valley, and Raleigh-Durham was called the Silicon Valley East. I used to be jealous of everything happening in Silicon Valley and tried to replicate that whether it was Meetups, conferences – I did the very first Black – no, no. Let me start over. I did the very first social media conference at a historically Black college back maybe in 2009. I was doing that back then.
I also was one of the very first Twitter users in 2000, when they started to exist. I’m into tech, I am into IT, using the internet and helping people get online and social media.
In North Carolina, I would be the only Black person, or maybe one or two. I would host conferences, tweet, and have 200 to 300 people and maybe only five people would be Black and people of color. Then you combine that with oppression and racism in the South, it got heavy really quick.
Then the startup movement and web 2.0 started happening. I co-founded a startup with someone who moved from Silicon Valley to North Carolina. We co-founded a mobile location startup called TriOut. We tried to raise angel funding and couldn’t do it. Eventually, during that time frame, I joined the newspaper for work as well, and a television station, and did some other blogs and so forth.
At the television station eventually I got laid off because they were early to social and nobody believed social was going to be a thing back then.
I go back to the startup and launched a co-working space. That doesn’t do well – but I am an entrepreneur trying do stuff. 1% of entrepreneurs who raised venture capital were Black and Latino, and that was skewed because it is 2011.
Here I am being an entrepreneur, doing my own thing in North Carolina, people coming to me and asking to get drinks at my own events I was hosting because I was the only Black person there. I had people, you know, just say some rude stuff to me.
When that data came out in 2011, I wanted to change the number of underrepresented people in venture capital and eventually in tech. I partnered with colleagues and we created an incubator and moved to Silicon Valley in 2011. We got featured in a documentary called Silicon Valley: The New Promised Land.
In 2012, I moved to San Francisco. Quickly realized the tech industry was not ready to do work on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Diversity was like a bad word. We were trying to bring awareness to the lack of Black and Brown people. Everybody was saying, ‘tech is a meritocracy and how dare you come out here trying to change things? This is a level playing field.’
This was 2011; I moved in 2012 to San Francisco and hit rock bottom in then because I realized tech wasn’t ready to talk about diversity and inclusion. It was a hard fight. No. It was like blacklisting yourself.
MELINDA: Yeah, so then from there, it was a couple years before we met. From 2012-2014, you kept working on startups, right?
WAYNE: Yeah, yeah. Eventually, in 2012, I launched the accelerator incubator I founded. I started another one that was too early, like an EventBrite. Didn’t do well and closed that. Worked with friends and did food tech hackathons.
I realize my passion was around underrepresented funders, and tried to raise a venture fund in 2013 – and failed at that, and learned a lot.
Also, I did create a nonprofit called BUILDUP, and did a fellows program and pre-accelerator. We helped 5 out of 6 companies raise a million, or go onto other incubators or accelerators, which was the goal.
In 2012, I hit rock bottom. I went through a serious episode of depression. I was told not to write about it or share. I was a heavy blogger. I used to blog a lot. I was told not to write about depression, don’t share what I am going through, don’t write about Impostor Syndrome and I was hurting. I was in therapy every week from 2012 to 2013, and nobody knew.
My coaches, friends, mentors were like, ‘don’t share. You will get even more black listed than talking about diversity.’ I kept that quiet for a while.
Then, in 2014, two things happened that changed my life.
One, I met Melinda. [Laughter] On February 8, 2014. And two, the tech industry released diversity numbers. I knew they were working on it. People started reaching out and were like, ‘Who is that Black guy talking about diversity?’ People started contacting me, we went through roundtables, and everybody had data.
Before, everybody had said, ‘tech was a meritocracy,’ and the data I mentioned was just talking about entrepreneurship and VC funding. We knew the number was low, but the tech industry was like, ‘we need data.’ In 2014 they released the numbers – and it was bad. It was worse than people thought it would be. That changed everything. We started Change Catalyst and Tech Inclusion conferences.
MELINDA: We have been working on Tech Inclusion and driving diversity and equity through our events and consulting and training and coaching. And then I think we did the first Icon Summit in the Fall of 2019, really focused on mental health and professional development for Black and Brown men.
Can you talk about why that shift and why focus on mental health?
WAYNE: Yeah. Throughout the years, the shift happened because there were moments where I was hurting. I was hurting not to say what hurt me emotionally. You know?
Our marriage is fine, and we good, but the things of the world; it’s like hurting mostly because you want to change. In the tech industry, you’re hurting mostly because of the lifestyle.
I do have a 10-year-old son that when I went through that rock bottom part. He lives in North Carolina with his mom – and I was hurting because I miss him, hurting because the tech industry is not as diverse, and I knew I wasn’t alone hurting. I knew other people, particularly Black and Brown men, were shamed for being vulnerable, didn’t know how to be vulnerable, or were hurting and didn’t have a community.
We created a group that has brought a thousand Black and Brown men in there and we share stories. I talk with or Black and Brown men in tech and hear their stories.
I knew that I wanted to, just like we did with Tech Inclusion; and focus on solutions, whether that’s focusing on also community or not. I wanted to create an experience that would help provide a safe space for people who look like me, who could learn about vulnerability, who could have the same free experience, who could talk about wellness, mental health, emotional intelligence, physical health, and learn with like-minded colleagues with an environment for growth where they haven’t necessarily experienced that before do it a little different.
That was one of the reasons why we shared the Icon Project. In 2019 when we first did it, I was afraid to talk about mental health still. I didn’t want to talk about it because there is still this shame around talking about it. We did this summit in 2019 at Instagram headquarters and we had 300 plus Black and Brown men there, 30 speakers, the keynote, and we had Jonathan Hero there speaking. A lot of great colleagues and Black and Brown men sharing stories from their first time meeting their fathers, to raising capital, to being engineering leaders, to designers.
It was one of the proudest events that I have ever done in my life. We have done hundreds of events. That was the proudest event because it was a vulnerable space for Black men in 2019, before we knew the world was going to change.
MELINDA: Yeah, I remember the first time we even had a panel at Tech Inclusion with all Black men on the panel, and that was a powerful time. That didn’t happen back then. It was powerful for Black men in the audience and anybody in the audience to see that.
So I have talked about this subject some, if anybody wants to go back and listen to episode 25 with Dr. Kevin Simon; we talked about understanding the effects of racism on Black boys and men. Great episode.
And also with Dr. Angel Acosta in episode 14. One of the privileges of being in an interracial relationship is that Wayne and I share a lot and I get to learn a lot about his experiences as a Black man and one that is important to talk about.
We will circle back on our marriage a little more later. What I learned is the incredible stigma in the Black community around mental health, specifically for Black men. You want to talk about that a little bit? What is that?
WAYNE: I don’t want to say this is how it is for every Black person or the entire Black community, but my experience as Black man growing up – we talk about being ‘Mandigo.’ That’s what people want: a strong Black man.
We talk about that in the Black community. When going to work, you deal with it. You deal with it and get your job done. You just deal with it, or you are weak if you cry or a ‘mama’s boy.’ Things like that. Stereotypes and biases towards me as a Black man.
And then – because of the oppression in this country in particular – there’s reasons why there’s a saying that you need to be hard, you need to be strong and tough and never let your guard down, because of oppression or racism. If you have weakness about some aspect, people could take advantage of you or be physically harmful to you. So you combine all of that – oppression, stereotypes, and biases – and what’s happening in music and TV and the shame that comes with any type of person who is not strong all of the time. Black men must be strong all of the time.
They might say ‘OK, you struggle with mental health or deal with oppression? Something is wrong with you. It’s a weakness.’
That’s some of the biases and stereotypes that people have, when you say ‘mental health,’ or often what happens – and we talk about this, Melinda, with racism and biases in general – that idea, ‘it’s not me, it’s them.’
When you can say ‘mental health,’ what happens for the other person is their relationship with what mental health means comes to their mind, and they’re not aware of the broad range of stigmas.
When we say ‘mental health,’ it could mean physical health on the outside; or we know movies that portray people with mental health issues in the psych ward with the vest on. That’s what images come to their mind. That’s their own biases projected on you.
You combine all of that with being a Black person, being a Black man, and you say you got mental health and struggles in the community, people are like: go get help.
Religion plays a role in it also. It is like, ‘Just go pray about it or seek a higher power,’ or things like that – and for some, that could help, but there could be a neurology where you need someone to talk to or other resources.
In the Black community, that hasn’t been a normalized thing – to communicate and talk about. It has been shamed upon.
MELINDA: Yeah, you know, we were watching Sex Education last night. Eric was a victim of a hate crime, came home, and his dad – the first thing he said – was, ‘Well, if you are going to live that lifestyle you have to toughen up.’
We see it in the stories all of the time as kind of reinforced. Intergenerational trauma is a part of that, too, and that kind of coping can happen.
Michael Thomas talked about this a little bit, and how you have to break that cycle in order to really heal from the trauma – and it does take courage to kind of break out of that.
WAYNE: I agree. For me, I’m more self-aware now of my relationship and lack thereof with my father. We don’t chat and text all of the time, but I know he is there. He raised me and him and my mom did the best job they could, but we didn’t communicate our feelings growing up.
Our love language was quality time. It was working on go-karts or teaching me how to play basketball, or building engines together and taking transmissions out, or helping farm, or building a go-kart track. He did those things for me because he loved me, but it wasn’t a communicated, ‘I love you,’ or hug, or ‘how am I feeling?’ type relationship – and that’s how I am. I do love those things as well, but my brain needed that communication.
He is two generations away from slavery, right? And we are living brothers and sisters. He did the best he could. And as you talk about Michael Thomas, I inherently have some generational trauma from this experience of growing up with Jim Crow and that era and the oppression of living in the South as a Black man.
Micah, my son, is on the East Coast and I talk with him and ask him how he is feeling. It’s OK to share your feelings. My father and I didn’t have that type of relationship growing up.
MELINDA: What would you say to yourself 10 to 15 years ago? There’s a lot of men out there now experiencing that same feeling of maybe feeling shame around seeking therapy or feeling like something is wrong with them when they experience depression and anxiety. What would you say to them?
WAYNE: Good question. I’m working on talks for mental health for companies and some of that is coming up. What I go back to normally is asking myself why.
Ten years ago, I’m coming up on making the decision. I am in Mountain View ten years ago working on an accelerator, and I am dealing with a lot of shit. I’m depressed. I am going through this divorce. My son is one. I am at a new company that I co-founded that I am about to be cut out of and I have a TV crew following me around that’s going to be displayed on a documentary, a TV show around the world. I am trying to get right mentally.
Ten years ago, I ask myself why am I doing this and why am I sad and what am I going to do about it? You know, the why helps you get present in the moment. Like, what’s going on? Ask yourself why.
Also question your choices; are you in a good state of mind? Why is this happening? It helps you take responsibility of what am I in control of, or not in control of.
Then it goes to, what can I do about it? What can I change? What is in my power to change? If I can’t change it now, how can I make a plan to change it in the future? And then how can I set myself up for success?
I will ask the question why, but I will also ask the question, am I OK? I always go back to that today: am I OK mentally, physically, and do I need help?
Then I’d ask the question, who do I need to share with, who do I need to talk to, who do I need to ask for help or talk to for help or advice? As humans, we are supposed to be part of communities and we are not meant to hold things in, right? Who do I need to share with what’s happening in my life? I would ask those questions ten years ago.
MELINDA: And how can allies better show up in those situations? How can allies show up for you now, but also back then? How could allies have shown up for you?
WAYNE: Yeah, yeah. Looking back, I had an ally and didn’t know he was an ally. I didn’t call him an ally but he was. I had a couple, but this one particular was an ally to me.
You wrote the book on allyship, so you know what we are talking about all of the time, and an ally can be anyone. People could think it has to be someone who doesn’t look like me but actually in this case ten years ago, an ally was Hank Williams – he is no longer with us, rest in peace – but he was a Black man in tech that raised $40 million before it was cool and all that. He was my ally, giving me advice and mentoring me and asking me, am I OK? He was my ally back then.
Allies can show up for people who we don’t know are struggling with mental health or just want to check in on people. They could just be having a bad day. It’s literally just asking, ‘How are you really doing? Is there anything I can do to help? Is there anyone I can connect you with? Do we need an ear to talk to? Or a hug – well, before COVID – but, ‘Do you need a hug with a mask on? Do I need to call someone for you? How can I advocate on your behalf?’
It’s simple. It is like the DEI work we did over the years. It’s not that hard. That comes with a lot of self-awareness of your own self and trying to make a good assumption with empathy, like you said, for others.
MELINDA: It’s also challenging around our own biases. We are all shaped by the media and how Black and Brown men are portrayed, so we all have to challenge those biases we might learn inside our heads too to get over those. Move past those and challenge them as well when we see them.
I am going to switch subjects to motorcycle riding. How does this relate to mental health? Why don’t you say what you are going to do first: talk about the cross-country trip.
WAYNE: I’m leaving next week to go on a solo cross-country trip and back on a motorcycle to North Carolina to see my son and family, and then ride back. Riding to raise awareness for mental health for the Icon Project and Icon Therapy Fund, and my own mental health. There are places I want to go. I have never been through the Grand Canyon and I want to go through there if it isn’t too cold.
I want to take this time to reflect and share, you know, the journey, and advocate for mental health.
MELINDA: Talk a little bit more about how mental health intersects with motorcycle riding?
WAYNE: You know the answer, because you do it.
MELINDA: I do know the answer very intimately.
WAYNE: With everything I have had to endure as a human – and we have endured a lot as humans during the past year and a half of the pandemic – I am an introvert, and I learned I struggle with ADHD, and I am hypersensitive. (Please excuse me, if this is triggering to anyone.) I am hypersensitive, deal with dyslexia, and deal with a lot mentally. It is just who I am. I am always thinking; it is hard to turn off. My brain is always thinking and trying to solve problems.
When you get on a motorcycle, you have to focus so much. It’s freeing and your mind is free from all the distractions, from all the wildness in the world, from all the things you wish you could change but you can’t.
The pain you experience as a kid or as an adult, or walking down the street sometimes when someone does something inappropriately to you; some good or bad image you are seeing that may make you upset, or dealing with our own things you need to fix. When you get on a motorcycle and you ride, see the sunset or ride through the desert and see the mountains, or ride over the Golden Gate Bridge, and I’m like, ‘Never in my life as a child I would have thought I would be living in San Francisco, married to Melinda, riding a motorcycle over the Golden Gate Bridge with a headset talking to each other.’
Motorcycle riding is mental freedom. You have to be in the moment to live and survive, and it’s a sense of peace and joy.
MELINDA: Yep. I feel that. It has brought us closer together, too.
You know, talking into each other’s ears because we have headsets for hours and hours as we go on these motorcycle rides and through peaceful, beautiful – we are so lucky to be in this Bay Area, with so many beautiful places to go visit along the coast, the vineyards, the mountains. We have just this amazing area to explore and do it together. Sometimes we will spend a whole day together and over the weekend, too.
Let’s talk about interracial marriage. We get asked about this a lot, and I think people make assumptions a lot, too. Maybe we can talk about that as well. When we first started dating, we did not announce it right away. And I think it was you more than me that was a little bit more resistant to that. Let’s talk about that.
WAYNE: [Laughter] Yeah, I was nervous as hell, to be honest. I grew up in the South. I mentioned that before, in North Carolina. I am very aware of the biases and stereotypes of interracial marriage.
I heard the saying growing up in high school, ‘Don’t bring a non-Black girl home,’ right? I heard that. We have seen that on TV. I don’t want to misquote my parents. Maybe I am lying, but I am not sure they told me that – so I take that back.
MELINDA: [Laughter] You heard it in your community.
WAYNE: I heard it in my community. I’m not sure my parents actually told me that.
MELINDA: I will say, there was a little skepticism at first.
WAYNE: I know my parents said, ‘don’t bring that girl here,’ but I am not sure if it was related to race. I think it was a different situation. [Laughter] I am keeping it real.
We heard the stereotype about interracial couples and how it could be looked down on in the community, especially Black men and White woman. Melinda and I are both on our second marriage. I have never dated a White woman before, like never.
So I went through a separation one year, then a divorce, and moved to San Francisco in 2012. I had a relationship one time after that, and then I was pretty much not dating anyone for about a whole year and working on my mental health therapy, and getting in shape.
I met Melinda in 2014 and we started dating. We were like, ‘We should go on Facebook. Once you put it on Facebook it is real, right?’ I put it on Facebook. It was a photo of us, and we had a picture on our bookshelf – and I was nervous.
MELINDA: He was so nervous. [Laughter]
WAYNE: And it’s unfortunate, because… you know? I am aware of stereotypes and aware they go both ways. There’s a lot of other interracial stereotypes. I am aware of it. It sucks.
I know where I was at mentally when we met, and I wanted to be a good human and to fall in love with a good human who had empathy – and I didn’t care what color they were. Melinda happened to show up. We were sitting in a coffee shop, met, fell in love and the rest is history. That really should be all that matters.
MELINDA: It should. I will say that, for those of you who are not in interracial relationships, it comes with a lot of benefits. We have had some really amazing conversations and I have learned so much, and – speaking of allyship – I have definitely learned how to be a better ally because of our relationship.
And it can be really hard. I mean, people assume that we want separate checks, people assume that we are not together. You get on a subway and they will divide you and go in between you. There’s a lot of little things and a lot of little ways you can feel it.
I remember when we first traveled to Paris, I think the second year we were dating, and we were sitting in a restaurant a few days in and I said, ‘you know, something is different. It feels different here.’ There isn’t that little bit of friction here like there is in the U.S. And of course, we are on the West Coast and it is different. Much more friction in the South than on the West Coast, but it is still here and palpable. We didn’t realize it until we left and went somewhere it wasn’t so much.
What do you think it will take to make more than incremental changes in terms of the relationship of mental health and wellness in Black and Brown men?
WAYNE: Great question. I am not advocating on any rapper and who they are, but Meek Mill did a tweet a couple months ago. To me, that’s it. We need everyone to talk about mental health and that’s how we remove the stigma from the community.
We don’t need just rappers, we don’t need just athletes like DeRozan in the NBA and then Kevin Love. We need the athletes and rappers but we also need other community leaders. We need religious leaders talking about mental health, right? We need being aware of what you’re doing wrong in mental awareness. You know, people in tech. It needs to be also something that works for us, more advocated for among managers and executives.
We all experience burnout. I don’t get how we have all these smart people in tech and when I came out here in 2012, the big movement was mindfulness and wellness; and, correct me if I am wrong, but that whole thing is about being able to perform or be productive at work.
But if we want the best people to do a great job, you should ask your teammates, and your employees, how they are doing mentally. In a legal way, of course. They can show up and be a good human to work with others and be productive.
I think all those things are what it takes to remove the stigma in the Black community – and all communities – around mental health. We have to make it more of a thing that’s cool, and we have to make it like where it is OK to ask and take your time and continue to provide resources.
MELINDA: I will say every place has its own issues around race. Nobody has got it all figured out. And there are varying degrees of what I have experienced, just in terms of our interracial relationship. We go to the South and we have one experience. We go to Australia, we have another experience. We go to the West, Northwest, we have a different experience, and go to London or Paris, and different as well. There are different histories in each of those regions that play a role in how people see and interact with each other.
WAYNE: I would say, just looking back, if we think about America, I am working on my own empathy towards people and location where I am biased with my own negative experiences. I grew up in the South. I had a lot of negative experiences. I want to have grace, I want to have empathy, I want to forgive – but it is hard. Even with parents. It’s hard.
Something I had to learn with my own parents is I had to work on giving them grace and forgive them because I know that for most of my young life, they did the best they could with what education and experiences they had. I think about my parents and all our parents, they are pre-internet generation. A lot of them were doing the best they could with what they got.
But I do question one line I heard growing up throughout the world – and I kind of wonder what the hell happened to it – and it was the saying of, ‘treat people like you want to be treated.’ It was a basic saying. What happened to that, with fighting against racism or exclusion? What happened?
MELINDA: We have one more question I think we can get to here from Larissa: ‘Have you found good supportive spaces for neurodivergent people who are Black or BIPOC folks? One of my family is looking for this. She is a woman or I would send her the Icon Project. As a White, Jewish, autistic woman I have been searching and haven’t found it.’ If you know any for Black women, Wayne?
WAYNE: HealHaus is a community in New York: https://www.healhaus.com/.:
MELINDA: I will answer the other question, which is not specifically for Black or BIPOC folks, but run by an Asian woman: Diverseability is a good community. Mydiversability.com. You might find members of that community who are doing other things that maybe are more specific. Tiffany Yu runs it and she is amazing and may know the answer to this question.
WAYNE: Different communities, entrepreneur groups, and programs – whether it’s for women or people of color in tech – are adding mental health and wellness programs to their educational experiences or their community experiences.
Again, going back to the stigma, I feel like there is still a huge stigma around we have a mental health and mental wellness program, and things of that nature. I think we will see more of the add-on versus a sole program on mental wealth and mental awareness.
MELINDA: So where can people follow your ride and learn more about Icon Project and support the Icon Project? Allies, support the Icon Project.
WAYNE: Yes. For now, you can go to https://theiconproject.org and there’s a link called the Icon Ride, and when that’s there you can follow the ride real-time and see where I am at. We will post photos on Instagram and YouTube and Twitter and so I am nervous. I am scared but mostly excited. It is going to be a fun adventure.
MELINDA: I am nervous and excited, too, for you to be out there all by yourself. [Laughter] But you will be meeting community along the way and I am excited for you.
WAYNE: Thank you. Thank you. If there’s one question that I have been receiving when I tell people about the ride, it is about, ‘are you scared because you are Black man in 2021?’ We are dealing with all these things happening in the country last year, and we know the situations. It is one thing we have been showing with the shows we watch and we can’t let fear block us. That’s where I am in life. We deal with a lot of stuff doing this DEI work for so long.
Like my therapist said, ‘hope for the best, prepare for the worst.’ I have a GPS tracker in real-time. You want to be a good ally, of course, you can donate and support the cause, and you can also check on me – so there you go.
MELINDA: Awesome. Wayne, thank you for this awesome discussion. I have enjoyed it.
WAYNE: Thank you.