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Embracing Diverse Cultural Experiences, with Naomi Hattaway

Embracing Diverse Cultural Experiences, with Naomi Hattaway

Episode 73: Embracing Diverse Cultural Experiences, with Naomi Hattaway

Naomi Hattaway, founder of I Am a Triangle, is no stranger to change. Having moved all over the world (14 times to be exact), she knows what it feels like to assimilate to different cultures and bring those experiences to new places. In this week's podcast, Naomi discusses the difference between belonging and fitting in, the importance of embracing cultures different from your own and why we need to learn from each other other's experiences as opposed to being critical.

Episode Transcript

00:12 Kristy Wallace: Hi, and welcome to the Ellevate Podcast. This is your host, Kristy Wallace, here with my amazing co-host, Maricella, and we're having fun today. We are on a sugar high.

00:24 Maricella Herrera: Yes. We had some delicious cake from Milk Bar.

00:27 KW: Yes. Oh, check it out. I'm sure you can get them shipped if you're not in New York. I don't know where they have stores, but it's...

00:33 MH: I don't know, actually.

00:35 KW: They have a thing called Crack Pie. We had some chocolate cake that had 20 different layers of chocolate.

00:42 MH: It was amazing.

00:43 KW: But it was pretty good.

00:45 MH: Yeah. There's a Milk Bar by my apartment, and I recently discovered that Postmates can deliver from Milk Bar. It was not a good discovery.


00:54 KW: Technology innovation is really a secret plot to keep us from walking places and keep us eating things we shouldn't be eating.

01:05 MH: Absolutely. [chuckle]

01:05 KW: Yeah. I don't know, this is... I gotta knock it off.

01:10 MH: Yeah, me too. I've been really bad about it, but the cake was great. We were celebrating that Hoa, our engineer, is having her baby.

01:19 KW: Yes.

01:20 MH: The Ellevate family is growing.

01:21 KW: Yeah, it is growing. This is gonna be... Let me think about this. Three, four, five, six, seven, baby number seven in the Ellevate crew, right? Sally, Allison, me, and now Hoa. Oh, eight, 'cause Hoa has one, so it'll be eight.

01:42 MH: Oh, her too, and Rachel. [01:44] ____.

01:44 KW: Yes. Okay.

01:45 MH: So many babies. [chuckle]

01:47 KW: So many babies, so many babies. All good stuff.

01:48 MH: And children. Anyway, so I'm really excited about our interview today. I got the chance to speak to Naomi Hattaway. She's the founder of I Am A Triangle. She and I had a great conversation about living different places and embracing different cultures and really immersing yourself in a culture that's not your own and how it enriches your life, which for me, it's really been how I've lived, I think, my entire adult life. It was really cool.

02:21 KW: Well, you and I have talked about this before, when you go back to El Salvador and it becomes starker, a culture you grew up in that's your culture, and then once you spend some time in the US and you go back, and the nuances and the differences there.

02:36 MH: Yeah. And Naomi talks about this and this is where her idea and the name of her community, I Am A Triangle, comes from, but about how you change from, if by taking all of these things in, how you really change who you are and can have a different influence in people. For me, as you said, we talk about this, but every time I go to El Salvador, I'm seeing things very differently, which helps me have those conversations with people back home who are a little bit... Still just don't see the things that I see being outside.

03:15 KW: Yeah. Well, that's exciting. I cannot wait to hear your interview.

03:19 MH: It's fun.

03:20 KW: And I love it when you do the interviews because then I learn so much from the way... We all do it differently, we ask different questions, and so it's always a learning experience for me, but a great one because that's... We talk about diversity here quite a bit, but I think that this is one of those core examples about our personalities and our experiences and our insights, all define the way we look at situations, the questions we ask, the bonds and relationships we form. So it's fun when you're on the other end of the mic.

03:56 MH: Yay. [chuckle]

03:56 KW: Yay. Do we have any questions or data today?

04:00 MH: Yeah, we do have a poll. We asked our community members, "Where do you do most of your work?" Naomi and I talked a little bit about this in our chat and the virtual and digital nomads out there and where they work. It seems like our community still is mostly in the office. 67% of Ellevate members say they do their work in their office, 23% work virtually from home, which is still a pretty sizable percentage, 4% on-site at their clients' offices, 3% travel a lot for work, so airplanes and hotel rooms, and 1% virtually from a coffee shop. Where do you... Well, you are pretty much all around. [chuckle]

04:46 KW: In the office. But I bet you that that question, the 67% that say that they do work in an office could still be... Because now with co-working spaces and such accessibility to offices, many people like being part of that community or having the set... Out-of-the-home place to go to, so it could be you with your room in a WeWork or something like that...

05:11 MH: That's true.

05:11 KW: Or a big, huge corporate office. Next time we ask that question, we'll have to drill into that. That doesn't surprise me. I love working from home, but on specific days when I've got specific tasks that I'm trying to get done, but you can't beat just the camaraderie in the office.

05:32 MH: No. That's true, that is true. It's fun.

05:37 KW: Yeah.

05:37 MH: And cake.

05:38 KW: Great. Well, I cannot wait to hear your interview with Naomi.

05:41 MH: Thanks.


05:55 MH: Great to meet you.

05:57 Naomi Hattaway: Well, and I know your voice because I listen to the podcast.

06:00 MH: Aw, thanks.

06:00 NH: So I feel like we've talked.

06:01 MH: [chuckle] Thank you for getting on Skype with us today, Naomi. Where are you based?

06:08 NH: Currently, I am talking to you from Columbus, Ohio, in United States. I say "currently" because that always can change at any moment, but that's [chuckle] where I currently am.

06:19 MH: Yeah. And I love that, I love your story. And I thought about starting this with... I was gonna ask you where you were, because I know... We were trying to figure out who you were on Skype. It said Ohio, and I'm like, "That's her." [chuckle] But also, how many times have you moved?

06:35 NH: This last time, when we found ourselves in Ohio, was move number 14. So it's a little crazy. [laughter]

06:42 MH: Why... Going back from that, tell me a little bit about your idea of I Am A Triangle and how you started that, and your journey to get to that point.

06:53 NH: Yeah. The I Am A Triangle community started because we had lived overseas with our family. We took our three kids and moved to New Delhi, India, and we were there for three years, and then Singapore for one year. And then, without planning it or being ready for it, we found ourselves back in the United States. And the crazy feeling of knowing how to prepare yourself to move to a developing country, and then think that you've got it all covered when it comes to moving back to the US, it's the same thing. I should've prepared, and I didn't. And I found myself in this really big [07:29] ____, and so I wrote a blog post. It's all about figuring out how to belong, instead of fitting in in the places that you live.

07:35 MH: You moved to India with three kids. [chuckle]

07:37 NH: Yup.

07:39 MH: What was going through your head? [laughter]

07:42 NH: Well, it's crazy, actually, because when my husband came home and asked what I thought about it, my immediate response was, "Why not?" I was so super excited about the adventure part of it. And then I think because I was so excited, I let the reality of it sink in weeks after we actually landed. One of the stories that we tell often, 'cause India is such a crazy thing that's an opposite from what our life was like in the United States, our three kids, when we moved, were three, six, and 14. And the first couple of weeks, I was just... It was so much in my face, India, the smells and the sights and the sounds, everything. All of my senses were assaulted. And I kept looking at my two youngest kids and thinking, "They are handling this so amazingly well." And then, about a month later, our shipment of goods arrived, and with that came their car seats. And I realized that the reason they were handling it well is 'cause they couldn't see out of the windows. All of the things that I had been taking in and absorbing, they hadn't seen yet. [chuckle] So it was definitely something... Yeah, ain't that crazy? It's...

08:48 MH: Wow.

08:50 NH: They had to see it to be able to start processing it, so yeah. But it's something I wouldn't ever... I would do it again in a heartbeat. I loved it.

08:57 MH: What was your... How did you help them get immersed in this, or not immersed, but deal with this big change? Because it is huge.

09:11 NH: It is huge, but I think that it's... There wasn't really a magic answer, except to just talk a lot about it, and I think that comes into play even today. You have to talk about what makes us different and why that's okay, and to learn respect and acceptance. It set them up in a major way for the rest of their lives, to be able to have that awareness around diversity and cultural differences.

09:34 MH: And that's so important. Given the state of everything that's going on right now, how important it is to be able to have that sense of, we don't need to be all the same and we... In fact, we bring more to the table if we are different and if we have that. And I was reading, actually, I wrote this down, because I was reading some of your stuff on belonging. And I... One of the big things we talk about at Ellevate is that part. For quite a bit of time, I had in my computer, actually, above my computer, a big sign that just said, "We all need to belong." Because that was the inspiration of everything that we are doing here, it's that feeling of community and engagement and getting that to bring us to be the best version of ourselves and also help everyone else. Tell me a little bit about that, about your work on the subject and some of what you talk about. How can we get there and why does it matter so much?

10:37 NH: And it's interesting because Brené Brown does a lot of work around belonging. And she made a comment once that has always stuck with me, that belonging is what we should strive for, and instead human nature is to try and fit in, and when you try and fit in, you're changing the person that you are to match the people that you're around. And that, just by definition, is not a safe, healthy, sane way to live. Instead, we should be striving for belonging, where we're accepted just the way we are. And that's something that, as I've grown the I Am A Triangle community over the last four years, it's just been so evident to me that that is what we need in our lives, is to have people around us that say, "I see you and I'm giving time to your stories and I wanna learn more from you."

11:25 NH: And that's going back to, again, what's so crucial right now. It's everything to me. And belonging is a place where you can really go out into the world and give your best self to others, whether that's in business, whether it's at school, in your home, just inside of your neighborhood, it's important. Going back to the whole stories piece of it, we all have stories to tell, and I think that when we try and fit in, often what happens is we squish our stories and we hold them down and suppress them because it only takes a couple of times for someone to not be interested in your story to stop wanting to tell it. And so that's one of the big things that I think belonging does bring out, and it's one of the things in the I Am A Triangle community, is that we hold space for each other's stories, because if no one's listening to your story, we can't grow from each other.

12:15 MH: The power of storytelling is huge, it really is. It's the way you connect, it's the way you see what the opportunities are out there and everything that you can go, be, or do, and learn from.

12:27 NH: Yeah, absolutely. I feel like... We just recently had this pretty big thing happen where we moved our community off of Facebook and onto a new platform called Mighty Networks, and one of the reasons for it was because we were seeing our community being forced into algorithms that said, "Here, hang out with people that are just like you." And that's against everything that our community believes in that until we are, like you said at the beginning, around people that are different and learning from each other, we're never gonna get anywhere as a race, as a human race.

12:58 MH: I love that you did that. I had never thought about it. Since we have our community outside and not on Facebook, I'd never thought about that fact that it's like, "Oh, hang out with the people just like you."

13:08 NH: It is, and we watched it happen. And it's a known fact that engineers at Facebook are given carte blanche to experiment and see what happens if they make subtle changes. I'd been watching that happen and I would see a member say, "I didn't even see that post of that person who really needed my support. I wonder why?" And it's because she had never engaged with him inside of our group, and so it wasn't shown to her. There's tons of examples, but... Yeah, we need to be around people that are not like us and intentionally learn from each other.

13:45 MH: Yes, intentionally learn from each other. But going back to stories, so tell me a story, tell me your story.

13:52 NH: Oh, goodness. Okay. My very short story, when you look in terms of the definition of community, I was born to a black father and a white mother, in the mid '70s, in rural Nebraska, where it wasn't okay [chuckle] to be a biracial child. And then add to that that my mother decided to homeschool us before it was legal in the state of Nebraska. I kind of, as a child, I didn't realize this until my mid-30s, but I was being shown how important it was to have community around you, people that accepted you for your decisions and people that accepted the reasons that you show up and how you show up in life.

14:34 NH: My parents got divorced when I was a child, and we found ourselves moving around, that was the start of the moving. Since I was little, I think that showing up and being kind has been something that my mom has really instilled in me, and so it's something I really wanna instill on my kids. And add to that a little bit of a crazy sense of adventure, and I find myself [chuckle] sitting here today waiting to see where we go next. I think, again, timeliness of this discussion and the message around acceptance, and part of my big thing that I'm learning to find my voice around is what it is to have an opinion on racism, when you're not quite white enough for one side and not quite black enough for another. It's a pretty big thing that I'm working my way through, how to add a voice to that.

15:29 MH: And that's great that you're doing that because there are a lot of need for those voices. Nothing is, I would say... The conversation has to be inclusive of every single person, and the more voices that we can have in it, the better. As a Latina, I have that conversation quite a bit, actually, and the podcasts usually end up going that route because I usually don't know where to... How, but...

15:55 NH: I know, and I think that struggle with the how is important to, I think, give a little bit of acknowledgement to, because sometimes I can have an opinion behind my words, say, if I blog them, because no one knows my back story. But if I show up with my face and how I look, people... We all do it, we judge and we assume things, and I think that there's... It's really hard to figure out. How do you start having a conversation that says, "Don't look at what I look at, just listen to what I'm saying and see if we can have, again, some learning from each other." It's hard, it's hard stuff.

16:31 MH: It's hard. But I think what you're doing, what we're doing, the fact of bringing all these voices together, we're just louder and that helps. And it's also within yourself, doing the best you can do in your world and helping other people up and knowing that it's your responsibility to do whatever it is you can do, even if it's not much, but something.

16:53 NH: Yeah. And then showing up the next day to do it again.

16:56 MH: Exactly, showing up. But let's talk about something a little bit lighter. I'm A Triangle. I Am A Triangle. I read that blog post and I am a triangle. But for people who don't know what that is, why don't you tell us a little about that.

17:13 NH: Sure. My mother is a missionary in Kenya, and she often comes back to the United States for debriefs, where they just let everything sink in on what they've been doing. And Missions International Training did a debrief where they shared this concept, she then shared it with me and it totally resonated. The concept is that, when you are inside of your passport or home country, which I know is not easily definable for some people, so I'm using that with a grain of salt, but you are a circle and everything inside of that circle is known to you. Culture, politics, food, celebrations, the way, just your life is comfortable, and then you move to another country and that is like a square and nothing makes sense.

18:01 NH: Language doesn't make sense, the culture, the way people dress, the way people behave. And after a time of being in that other culture or that other country, you can't stay a circle and you'll never become a square, and so instead, you become a triangle. And that's fine and good, except that when you try and assimilate either back to your home country or to the next one, you realize that the shapes don't necessarily make sense and you're left with this feeling of being a misfit. You feel like you're the only one that has ever experienced this. And so what we've done with creating this community is having a warm space where everyone truly does belong and all of our edges fit.

18:42 MH: I feel that every time I go back home to El Salvador. It's just so much in my way of thinking and way of living and way of seeing things has changed that it just doesn't fit anymore. But at the same time, a lot of what I know and have seen and have lived doesn't necessarily fit in the US.

19:04 NH: I think going back to the whole showing up as our best selves, until we recognize and know that that's an okay way of being to live in this kind of, "I'm not sure if I'm here or there," when someone finally says, "That's an okay way, being a triangle is perfectly legit," then you can start to go, "Oh, okay," and start to see the benefits that you bring to your work environment, to the businesses you start, to the people that you surround yourself with.

19:29 MH: Yeah. Again, the power of diversity. [chuckle]

19:32 NH: Yeah. Yeah.

19:33 MH: When we were connected, I was traveling, working from Paris, and I got so excited because I'm like, "This is exactly what I love. This is what I love to talk about, and this is what I love to do." Have you seen that at the people in the community, that they're doing more nomad, I call them digital nomads, but that type of just going out for a while and having this experience and working remotely and then changing?

20:01 NH: We do. We have a lot of digital nomads in our community. It's so crazy, 'cause we are filled with people from all walks of life. We've got military, diplomatic, foreign service, Mercy Ship volunteers.

20:13 MH: Oh, wow.

20:15 NH: It runs the gamut. But the fun thing is that we've got subgroups, and so we have one for portable careers. And it's fascinating to learn what they're doing and creating, and the fact that they're doing it literally on the road, like location specific, and they can pick, maybe it's going to be Mexico, and then maybe they're gonna go to Peru, and it's like they can just have the freedom to pick up and move, which is really cool. And it's funny because the biggest thing we talk about is the best WiFi places, where [20:44] ____ guaranteed to be able to get on WiFi and how cheap is the beer.


20:50 MH: The beer, the WiFi, for me, it would have been the wine. And then in Paris, I got so... I had been away for three weeks and I have a cat who was being taken care of by a digital nomad, by the way, because I found her through a site called TrustedHousesitters, where basically people who are traveling around can just stay and take care of the pets. The other thing I was...

21:12 NH: Yep. I actually heard the founder of that on... She was talking with Amy Scott, who's this amazing digital nomad, the other day, so that's funny. Yeah, worlds collide.

21:22 MH: Oh. I have to go connect with her. But I was so pet deprived that it was, "Where could I find beer? Where could I find WiFi? And is there a cat cafe?" And I actually went to a cat cafe.


21:37 NH: They also have owl cafes. Did you know that?

21:38 MH: No. [chuckle]

21:40 NH: I know. I don't [21:40] ____.

[overlapping conversation]

21:40 MH: I don't know if I'd go to one of that.

21:42 NH: Yeah, I think that kind of crosses the line. I think it's a big thing in Japan, owl cafes, yeah.

21:47 MH: Interesting.

21:49 NH: But, no, we have a lot of digital nomads, and I think that it's one of those things that our market says, you can run a business from anywhere. And why not do it from somewhere that you choose, instead of feeling like you're stuck in the place that your ZIP code says you have to be in?

22:07 MH: You were home schooled when it wasn't even legal.

22:11 NH: I was.

22:12 MH: And now, you're a community builder, so it's kind of the two ends of the spectrum.


22:18 NH: That's funny. Actually, I've never thought about it that way, [laughter] but we're kind of isolated to lots of people. Yeah.

22:25 MH: How did you... Did you think it affected you in any way, that sort of... You were like, "Oh, I just wanna meet more people."

22:35 NH: When we were homeschooling, we literally lived out in the country. There was a cattle farm to one side, a horse farm to another. We lived out in the middle of nowhere, so my mom had to intentionally seek out people so that it wasn't an isolating experience. And I think watching her do that was part of probably what instilled this love of community. I think that, 'cause I'm not an extrovert, I'm totally introverted, but I love people, I love being out, but I still recharge in my office with no noise and the door shut. I've learned over the course of the last four years how to come in and give myself to the community, and then pull back out and let them engage and churn and dialogue and all of that. Plus, it's been crazy to watch, the less I speak in our community, the more it gives everyone else the freedom to speak. I've learned that in the last year to just... I'll engage, I'll show up and ask the question, or ask them to dialogue around something, and then I pull way back and let them have the relationship-building. That's been a lesson learned.

23:45 MH: I wanted to ask you about coming home. How is that process? Whenever I think... Everyone asks me if I'm ever going back to El Salvador. Probably not, but when I start thinking about it, I'm like, "I wouldn't even know how to get there or what to do or how to adapt." How was your experience?

24:09 NH: I think because I thought it was going to be easy and because I didn't prepare, I think I was a little bit more slapped in the face with the process. Repatriation is a word that I think gets a bad rap. It's almost like it's the end of the adventure or you've been sent back home. So there's a couple of us inside of our community that want to start reframing the discussion around the going home, and I think that the better way that I could have done it, looking back and what we encourage in our community, is to look at it as though it's another assignment, another posting, another adventure. Place attachment is a really big thing. Belonging to and respecting the place where you live, is hugely important for your day-to-day well-being. And when you land in a place and you haven't adequately prepared for it, it takes you longer to have that place attachment start, which then impacts everything. Impacts your job, your ability to show up at work, your kids, school, relationships, all of it. And when we came home, we landed in Florida, which we had never lived in as a family, and so I just thought really naively, "This will be no big deal."

25:20 NH: But then what happened was that I would go to the grocery store and I started... It sounds so silly to say out loud. I started making myself boring so that I didn't feel like I stood out. I stopped wearing all of my beautiful India bangles, I stopped wearing colorful clothes, hair went in a ponytail, I was in... I just washed all of what I had just lived off of me, so that I didn't stand out, I guess. Home is a place that's defined differently for everybody, and I think that if I could say anything about the repatriation or going back home, it would be to reframe the whole experience so that there's no undue pressure and to really look at it as... Like if you were to, say, go back to El Salvador, don't look at it as going back home, look at it as the next step in your journey. It's a different place than you left it. Your friends and family that are still there, even though it might feel like they haven't evolved, they have, they are different people. So it's this big... It's a big picture that has to just be taken step by step and like a puzzle piece.

26:24 MH: Yeah, that's interesting, 'cause I don't think a lot of people see that or prepare that in that way, and then they get that shock. A lot of my friends, after business school, went back to their respective places and I know had a very hard time because they thought it was gonna be the same. It was just two years, it was just business school, but a lot can happen. And when you are coming to something like that experience of going to school where you're with a bunch of different really weird people from all over the world, you change quite a bit too. [chuckle]

27:00 NH: Well, and that's another really good point too to bring up. There's no timeframe where you automatically become a triangle. You could go on a two-week trip to go be of service somewhere and that can have a deep enough impact on you that you come back home, I'm saying it in air quotes, that it affects you. Or you can be gone for 10 years and have it affect you. There's no... You don't have to get into the club by having been overseas or in a different culture for an extended period of time, and you don't even have to cross the pond. You can be in a country and go to the opposite coast and have that traumatic or impactful of an experience that feels the same way as if you went overseas.

27:38 MH: How did you get back to... 'Cause you were saying, your hair pulled in a ponytail, no colors. I'm looking at your beautiful colored top or dress, 'cause I only see the top of it, your hair is awesome because it's curly and I also have big, curly hair. [chuckle] How did you get back to that? To putting yourself out there in the authentic way after muting it for a little bit.

28:03 NH: That took a couple of moves after we landed back in the United States, and it took me a little bit of realizing that that's part of who I am. It's not just about going into my closet every day. Putting on what I wear every day is really a part of the expression of who I am. I did... This is gonna sound silly, but it really was so meaningful. I did a course with this woman named Cindy Porter and she did a top-to-bottom, like, "What is it about you? What words do you want people to say about you? What do you want people to think of you when you left the room?" And we went down to even silly body shape stuff, and that has really helped me bring back the essence of just showing up with crazy curly hair and I normally have big earrings on. And it was a cool thing to go through an experience, that it's not vain, it's not egotistical, it's just figuring out how you can, going back to showing up, doing it with enough confidence and expressing yourself from the inside out.

29:06 NH: And going back to when we were talking earlier about activism and the part that we all have to play, every one of us is a leader, and every one of us has an audience. You don't have to be what we all call an influencer to have people that are listening to you. It could be your family, it could be your neighbors, it could be... It's all sorts of different definitions. And so we all have a brand and we all have a responsibility to start the process to learn what it is that makes us the best leader we can be to the people that we show up for every day.

29:38 MH: Well, thank you so much. It's been great getting to know you and listening to your story and everything you're doing with I Am A Triangle.

29:46 NH: Thank you for having me. I am such a huge fan of Ellevate and the meaning behind the work that you guys do. It's really important. So this was a true pleasure.

29:55 MH: Oh, that's great. And hopefully, if you're ever in New York, let us know, stop by. And everyone can go to You actually do have the website now, right?

30:06 NH: Yeah. We have the website, And if you're interested in the community aspect of what we've got going on, which is the day-to-day engagement, you can just navigate to join our community and you'll find us there.

30:18 MH: Cool, for all those triangles.


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