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Driving Diversity and Inclusion, with Nithya Das

Driving Diversity and Inclusion, with Nithya Das


Episode 92: Driving Diversity and Inclusion, with Nithya Das

Not many companies have a single individual as their Chief People and Legal Officer; however, AppNexus is setting a trend and changing the game with diversity in tech. After 4 years as their General Counsel, Nithya Das now serves as the Chief People and Legal Officer at AppNexus. This hybrid role allows her to help drive diversity and inclusion while working closely with both the legal and people teams. In this episode Nithya discusses how she transitioned from working at a firm to working at AppNexus, the importance of corporate culture and why she’s not afraid of people saying, “No.”


Episode Transcript

00:00 Speaker 1: Welcome to the Ellevate Podcast Conversations With Women Changing the Face of Business, and now, your hosts, Kristy Wallace and Maricella Herrera.

00:13 Speaker 2: Hello, and welcome to the Ellevate podcast this is your host Kristy Wallace here with my co-host Maricella Herrera.

00:20 Speaker 3: Hey, Christy.

00:21 S2: Hi, we're freezing right? It's freezing.

00:23 S3: It's so cold. I should have just stayed home.

00:26 S2: Yes, you should have. You just came back from El Salvador.

00:29 S3: I did. Barely made it, but I did.

00:32 S2: Lots of flight problems as I'm sure many of our listeners experienced as well, but we're glad you're back. It's exciting to have you here.

00:39 S3: It's good to be back, it's nice.

00:41 S2: And you're coming back right into the thick of it, because this is quite a month for us.

00:47 S3: It's our biggest month, every year. January. [chuckle] It's funny, I always make the joke that we are like a gym in many ways. It's when everyone is thinking about their goals or new year resolutions, and for us, it's everyone's thinking about their careers and what they're doing this year, so it's a good time.

01:06 S2: And we know that 2018 is the year of women.

01:09 S3: 2018 is the year of women.

01:10 S2: Yes, so what are the details for our promo?

01:13 S3: So if you are looking for whatever it is you are looking for, defining success in your own terms, finding the career you love, finding a group of supportive, understanding, smart, ambitious women, who can help you reach whatever your goal is, you should join Ellevate. And if you do join in January, and use code "my year", you'll get 20% off membership, 'cause this should be your year. It should be all of our years. [chuckle]

01:45 S2: It will be our year. It will be. That's great, so we're excited, we hope you join the network. We would love to have you as part of our community and we've got some great reasons to join, we've got some really fantastic things coming up in the future for Ellevate and one of them is an event we have this week, actually, this Thursday, the 11th and it's in New York City, but do not fret, it is also live stream, so you can access it, be it your computer or phone or TV even. It's an event with myself, Sally Crochet, Jen Glance who was previously on the podcast. So we have some other really phenomenal women talking about defining success, and finding success on your own terms. So it's gonna be a great way to kick off the year and I'll be hosted in New York City, in person at our sponsor AppNexus, who's just a phenomenal supporter of Ellevate and of Women in Business, and that's a great lead into who our guest is today because it's Nithya Das who's the Chief People and legal officer at AppNexus. Many of you might know her from the Ellevate Action Summit that we had this past June, Nithya was one of our speakers and just did a phenomenal job interviewing Craig Newmark from Craigslist, and now she is on the podcast to talk about her career and why having a title Chief People Officer and legal officer is a must have for companies.

03:15 S3: I love this interview, and I love Nithya and I love AppNexus, it's great working with them, they're a great company, who support us quite a bit and who really do walk the talk. They actually do a lot of stuff for equality in their business and it's exciting 'cause Nithya's career is not necessarily standard. Legal officer, chief people officer, she's pretty great. So it's exciting to see that we're having her on the podcast today, and then we'll be at AppNexus for the event in a few days.

03:52 S2: So if you want more information on our event, please visit ellevatenetwork.com, and you can check out the event on our New York chapter, page. Also, follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, where we'll be posting the link to the live stream that you can register to for free. As we hope you join us this week at our event and before we get to my interview with Nithya I know we love to incorporate some of our data that we call from our community. And what is this poll for this week?

04:25 S3: So I thought this was very relevant. We asked our community if they believe their company has an inclusive culture. It's interesting, 44% of them said, somewhat. So I guess that's better than no. 36% said yes, which is nice to see, and 20% said No. So there's still a lot of work to be done. And to be honest, one of the things with this poll that I wanted to point out is we're not asking if your company is diverse or has a diverse team or a diverse workforce. We're moving from the notion of just diversity to a notion of more inclusiveness and actually having that be part of a company's DNA.

05:12 S2: It's not just checking a box, but really making it part of your culture.

05:15 S3: So for those of you who believe your company is like that, great. And for all the rest, if you need help, call us, we'll help.

05:23 S2: Yep. We're here in your squad 'cause this is our year.

05:27 S3: Yes, this is our year.

05:29 S2: And this is your year.

05:30 S3: And hers, and hers, and hers.

05:33 S2: Alright, let's get to my interview with Nithya and thanks for joining us on the Ellevate podcast this week.

[music]

05:48 S2: Nithya thanks so much for joining us here today on the Ellevate Podcast. You hold a tremendous role at AppNexus, and I love seeing you. You spoke at the Ellevate Summit that AppNexus hosted last summer. I also just saw you at the AppNexus Women's Leadership Summit that you just had, but you wield a lot of power in terms of advising the board, really thinking about diversity and strategic growth and so can you tell us a little bit more about your role there?

06:16 Speaker 4: So I've been with AppNexus for about six years, and I've spent the last four years or so as the company's General Counsel. I'm really excited to have moved into a new role this past July as the company's Chief People and Legal Officer. And so now I'm working closely with our people team as well as our legal team, which to me, part of what I'm so excited about is the opportunity to really help drive some of the culture and diversity and inclusion and talent management for the company, which I think is gonna be really important to our long-term success.

06:51 S2: I haven't really heard of a Chief Legal and People Officer, that type of hybrid role in the past, how did that come about and why does that make sense for AppNexus?

07:02 S4: Well, I think that we might be starting a little bit of a trend, so we'll see. I've definitely heard from a few more colleagues since we made the change, that they're taking on hybrid roles between those two organization. And actually smaller companies, it's not that unusual to see either the legal department rolling up into the head of HR or vice versa, HR rolling up into the head of legal. I think for us, part of the reason why we felt like this was the right decision for AppNexus was based on my tenure at the company, the fact that I am so closely ingrained in the culture as well as having a leadership position on our AppNexus Women's Network and our Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee combined with my relationship with the board, felt as though it made sense for me to take on the role of being the steward for our people organization.

07:52 S2: Nithya I love that you are so active with the DNI initiatives, particularly with the Women's Network and it's come up recently in the news and in commentary around providing a space for women to really thrive and grow within organizations and particularly deal with conflicts that may arise and an organization and a culture that really can support that and give those voices the recognition that they warrant. So do you think that this intersection of People Officer and Legal Officer is supporting that?

08:28 S4: I think... I would say yes, I think it definitely supports the effort of creating a safe space for women and also helping to drive some of the policy within companies, the policies as well as the training and bending of culture curves and behavior within companies to create an environment that's inclusive for all employees. And I think you're actually seeing a lot more general counsel starting to take on almost more of an advocacy or a policy social justice position within their companies. Over the course of the last year, the number of amicus briefs that companies like AppNexus and other technology companies have joined, much of which is driving or advocating for policies that are beneficial for their employees. And a lot of this is coming out of the office of the general council as opposed to HR. And so we're already starting to see this combination, a shift towards a combination of legal and HR and policy. And I think at some companies, you see legal and HR come together after there's been some sort of terrible litigation or complaint that's faced the company. And obviously, we've been fortunate that type of thing hasn't happened at AppNexus, but what we're saying is an attempt to get out ahead of it, and really use the legal background as well as the HR background as a force for good for employees.

09:53 S2: I love that and I do think that you're gonna start a trend, because it's really important to think about the evolution of companies in that way. So what I also love about your role is that you are tapped into the board and we hear so much about, obviously gender diversion in boards, but kind of the role that boards can play within advocating for culture, for change and so, you playing that role, like the advocate for the employees and having such a close connection with the board, I think can really help to accelerate that change and to get the different voices out there.

10:29 S4: I agree, I think so much of this is about... The relationship between boards and their management team really hinges on trust and so, I think that's one area where my having served as the general counsel and the company's corporate secretary for the last four years has really helped to foster that level of trust both with the full board but as well as with our compensation committee. And so I would think that when I'm in the room advocating for policies or benefits like enhanced maternity or parental leave or family leave policies or other things around compensation, that that's gonna carry a certain level of weight, with our board. I will tell you this is something that we talk about very regularly with our full board, we report every quarter when we meet with our board, we report on our diversity statistics, we report on how those statistics have changed since the last time that we met and we have an active dialogue with the board around what the company is doing on its diversity and inclusion strategy. And in fact my very first board meeting after I moved into this role, I spent a significant portion of the meeting presenting to the board on my vision and strategy for the people team and a big component of that was around diversity and inclusion.

11:48 S2: Have you set goals around diversity and inclusion?

11:51 S4: We have, we actually... Earlier this year, we set some really specific goals that we wanted to meet, and then we shared them, within the company, so they're known company wide. And then we went a step further and we posted them on our AppNexus blog. I do believe that in order for companies to make meaningful change on diversity and inclusion, you have to be highly intentional. And by that, I mean you have to be very specific. And so we set some specific goals that we wanted to reach around the demographics of our employee base. We also set a goal to train 30% of our employees and 30% of our people managers on ally skills training. And so we decided not only is it enough to change the numbers, but we need to also make sure that we have the right conditions internally to support women and other members of under represented groups in order to feel included and able to be set up for success within the company. And so that's why we landed on ally skills. And then we also set some really specific goals around having each of our different functions have diversity and inclusion goals within their own teams, because we wanted to make sure that it wasn't just something that HR or a small subset of people were accountable for accomplishing.

13:05 S4: I think so often what happens with the diversity and inclusion strategy is that it's the women or the other under represented groups who have to bear the burden of doing the work, and that's not really fair because they have a day job as well. And so we wanted to make sure we were spreading it out across the organization. The reason we decided to post it on our blog was really because we hoped that other companies would follow suit. Pinterest had done this in the past. We thought it was a fantastic idea. It was bold to put it out there. I'm not sure we're gonna meet all of those goals by the end of the year. In fact, I know that we won't meet all of them. But we've been doing a lot of work over the course of the year, we've learned a lot. We've done some things right, we've done some things wrong and we're gonna adjust next year and try to do even better.

13:46 S2: Everything you said I love, it resonates with me. I think it's so important when companies are setting clear goals. Clear goals that the entire company is behind that managers and penal leaders are really engaged around it. Because it takes a village, and oftentimes I think it falls on the shoulders of one person or a small group of people to change culture, to change hiring practices, to change measurements for success. And when everyone is engaged around that it becomes really much more about the company and part of the company versus this out-side initiative.

14:26 S4: Yeah, first it's a separate thing that's an add on that has to be done or that people grown over. At AppNexus, we've started talking about... We're calling it diversity and inclusion by default. How do we just create the condition so that these things just happen? That's sort of the ultimate nirvana state and hopefully we'll get there one day, but that's the direction that we're trying to go in.

14:47 S2: How did you get to where you are today? We hear that question quite a bit from our community, and how you make those choices in your career that take you from high school or college through to very influential and very successful, which you are, but how did that happen?

15:07 S4: I don't think it happened by design. I suppose you could say that it happened by luck. I think for me the circumstances in which I was raised created very much a pound the pavement mentality for me. I went to a state school in South Carolina, the Gamecock. Go Gamecocks. I went to Brooklyn Law School, which is not one of the top ten law schools. Frankly, I did not graduate in the top 10% of my law school class. And everybody said, If you want a job at a top law firm, you have to graduate in the top 10% of your law school class. I think I missed it by a few decimals. It actually counts when you're in law school, it's beyond belief. But I worked my butt off and it paid off. I always did the extra work, the extra assignment, I went to the extra Career Fair and I just wasn't scared of people saying "No." My mentality has always been, "What's the worst that can happen?". Somebody could say no to me. So when I showed up at a law firm and there was a deal that I wanted to work on, I reached out to the partner and said, "Hey this deal sounds really interesting. Do you think you could staff me to it?". Because what were they were gonna do? The worst that was gonna happen is they would say, "No. I'm sorry, somebody else is staffed to this." And so I just did that.

16:22 S4: I think by being willing to raise my hand, by being willing to take a chance those things really helped me along the way. And I finally got to a point in my career where I was at a law firm. And I recognize that there were a lot of things that I was good at, aside from just being a lawyer. I felt like I was very business minded, social media savvy, I really loved doing a lot of the business development work. And as an associate at a law firm, I wasn't necessarily getting valued and compensated for that work and I didn't want to be in that situation anymore. And so I just decided that I was gonna go, I wanted to go in-house. I was very specific about what I wanted to do. I wanted to work at a private ventured back tech company that was on the precipice of transitioning to enterprise republic. And I started applying off the website.

17:11 S4: And that's literally how I got my job at AppNexus, I applied off the website. And I just decided, I didn't necessarily know what the next step was, and I was gonna be okay with that. And I had actually just read this really great article by Whitney Johnson, about personal disruption. And she talks about how disruption doesn't just apply to products. It also applies to your life. And sometimes just being willing to put yourself out there, sort of take a leap, not necessarily know what's on the other side, and go for it. And so I did. And when I left the law firm people said to me, "Oh, this is so great. Are you gonna have a better lifestyle?" And I said, "I don't think so" and I said, "in fact, I think I might make less." [chuckle] People just sort of assumed that that's why I was leaving. But to me it felt like this opportunity to go work on really exciting and fun legal issues and who knows where things would take me.

18:12 S2: So in a prior life, I worked at an organization called Val.com that did a lot around law firm diversity and it was always interesting to me because, today, I believe women represent about 18% of equity partnership within law firms, I could be off on that, but that's about what it is. And we would hear from law firms, time and time again, we're committed to diversity, we really want to diversify, we really wanna get more women into positions of leadership.

18:41 S2: At the same time, they would also say, "But we only hire from these top ten schools, and we only hire the top 10% of those top ten schools. And so it's hard to, when you're thinking about diversity, to start when it's so narrowly defined and in many ways not inclusive of others. Students who may go to different schools, due to socio-economic opportunity, due to location, due to many different factors. How do you see, coming from that industry where you even said, "I missed the top 10% by a few decimal points, and it mattered." Like, coming from that to really creating a culture where it's looking outside of the box, and it's not just the... Where did you go to school and what is your rank? But what are you bringing to the table, what are these other qualities and skills. How important has that been for you? Just that transition between the two cultures.

19:38 S4: The transition for me hasn't actually been that difficult. I think at AppNexus when we hire, for example, onto the legal team, those are just not things that are relevant to... Like your GPA in law school is not necessarily relevant to whether you can come in and be somebody who's a successful in-house lawyer on our team. And so we don't have those same type of hiring dynamics internally. I would say I think law firms have definitely dedicated a lot of resources to trying to move the needle on the diversity front.

20:15 S4: I actually disagree that even with that narrow set of requirements that they have in terms of looking at just a handful of schools or limiting it to the GPA, I mean I don't actually think that law firms have a pipeline problem. Where I see more of the issue with law firms is in the ability to create an inclusive environment within a law firm that creates conditions for women to be able to be successful.

20:43 S4: Given the billing requirements that law firms have, even just thinking about, as a woman if you take maternity leave and then come back mid-year, think about how that impacts your compensation when you're billed using hourly billing requirements, how it impacts your ability to be promoted. And then, God forbid you decide to have a second child, then what happens? By that point, if you've started having kids earlier in your career at a law firm and then by the time you decide to have a second child, maybe you're on the cusp of that transition from associate to partner, and you know the reality is, at most law firms that'll set you back. Even if they say that they don't want to discriminate against women, I do think that it ends up setting women back. And for me as a woman, I also tried to look up and see were there women partners who were sort of proof points for me that I would be able to make it and be successful. And I couldn't find anyone who looked like me that was successful.

21:46 S4: And I have an 8 year old daughter who was two at the time and I'm a very involved mom and that just did not appear within the law firm and that was a big driver for me in leaving. And so I think that's why for me, one thing about being at AppNexus that's really important is being able to show and model for other women that they can have a life, they can be a mother if that's the path that they choose and still be successful within a company like ours.

22:18 S2: Thank you, that is great. What are the ways in which an individual employee could advocate for herself and for others within her organization for a more inclusive culture for policies like maternity leave policy or parental leave? And then the second question is, for our listeners that are maybe running smaller businesses, and often times the early stages of a business culture and people policies are not top of mind, you're thinking about revenue and product, but are there some key steps that those business owners and leaders can take to set the right framework?

23:00 S4: So at an individual employee level, I think one of the most effective things that you could do is just to be vocal. So we have a very vocal, outspoken group of AppNexians and it's one of the things that I think makes AppNexus a really fun place to work. It's also one of the things that's really driven our leadership to be so aggressive and to set such aspirational goals on diversity and inclusion. Because our employees have communicated that this is a priority for them and it's therefore a priority for our leadership team as well. For small business owners who are maybe earlier on the corporate life cycle curve than AppNexus... I guess maybe two pieces of advice. One is, you don't need a lot of policies and expensive programs and head count to create an inclusive culture.

24:00 S4: A lot of this is just about what type of leader are you, in terms of the leadership team that's there. What type of people are you hiring? What's the type of behavior that you're rewarding or not rewarding? That you're maybe... You see a certain behavior within the company and you tell a person to see themselves to the door because that's not the type of behavior that's acceptable there. And these are all just, these are choices that no matter what the size of your business is, that you make every day. I think the second piece of advice that I would give these business owners, though, is to really think about how are they prioritizing and resourcing either or both HR and legal.

24:40 S4: Because when companies are going through their corporate evolution, those tend to be two areas that are de-prioritized and sort of funded and filled with head count last. Once you've started to see some of the revenue growth and proof points from a product perspective. And while I understand that rationale, I also think what ends up happening is that companies get so far out ahead of their skis on making sure that they have the right policies and training in place for their employees, and it can be very expensive and challenging to play catch up after the fact. And so, think about prioritizing those earlier in a companies life cycle. Because I do think that's really important to long term sustainable growth. And there's a ton of studies out there that show that corporate culture is actually tied to positive long term growth. And so starting to recognize that it's a business imperative sooner rather than later, will go a long way.

25:40 S2: Who are some of your female role models?

25:42 S4: Well, I think myself included, a lot of women at the company who are big Ruth Bader Ginsburg fans. Not just for her wonderful wardrobe, but obviously also, her stellar legal mind. Another role model for me is my mom. She's somebody who came here in the '70s. She actually ended up, so she came here about a year after my dad came from India. She had dropped out of school when they got married. And so she moved here with my sister who was a year old at the time. And with somebody who I think had a lot of educational and career aspirations that she put on hold for my dad when they moved here, and it was, I think, extremely brave that she came so far away from her family, was not... English was not her first language. She had never flown on an airplane before.

26:43 S4: She came all the way here and then actually when I was in high school, she ended up going back to college to finish her degree. She, at one point in time, was going to University of South Carolina while my brother was there. They actually were in class together. [chuckle] Which I think was pretty mortifying for him, but kind of amazing. He would borrow her notes every now and then. And she ended up getting her Master's Degree and becoming a teacher. And I just thought it was so amazingly courageous of her to go back to school and do that. I think a lot of the mindset that I've shared with you about being fearless and just being willing to take a risk and put myself out there are lessons that I've learned from my mom along the way.

[music]

27:31 S2: Thank you for sharing that story. She sounds like a wonderful woman. Well, thanks so much for being on the Ellevate podcast. We've really enjoyed talking to you today.

27:39 S4: You're welcome.

27:43 S2: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out. Subscribe to the Ellevate podcast on iTunes, give us five stars and share your review. Also, don't forget to follow us on Twitter @ellevatentwk, that's Ellevate network, and become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate network is doing at our website, www.ellevatenetwork.com, that's ellevatenetwork.com. And special thanks to our producer, Katharine Heller, she rocks. And to our voice-over artist, Rachel Griesinger. Thanks so much and join us next week.


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