Maya Jairam – Founded in FoCo Podcast
Maya Jairam, owner of Equity Works, LLC joins us to discuss the power of JEDI (no, not those JEDI) in the workplace and how businesses of any size can get started on work to bring every voice to the table.
You can also check out Maya’s panel live at Founded in FoCo here: https://foundedinfoco2023.sched.com/event/1GKm0/creating-community-and-safer-spaces-through-jedi-work?iframe=no
The Founded in FoCo Podcast is hosted by Nick Armstrong, Lead Organizer of Founded in FoCo and Geek-in-Chief of WTF Marketing. Hear more great interviews with founders in and around Fort Collins at: https://foundedinfoco.com
*automated with minimal editing, may contain errors or typos
Maya Jairam 0:00
It’s very important for the culture of an organization big or small to really thrive. And I don’t mean output necessarily, it can often lead to innovation, and can often lead to expansion and development. But the organization itself, the health of the organization, then also becomes a priority to those individuals within it. They want to be at work, you know, it’s not I HAVE to be at work.
Nick Armstrong 0:28
It’s Nick Armstrong, and this is the Founded in FoCo podcast, we get to talk with amazing business owners in our community and hear from them about what they’re doing, what they’re working on, and what they’re inspired by. And today, I have Maya Jairam with me, and she is from Equity Works, LLC. Maya, tell us about your business.
Maya Jairam 0:47
Hi, everyone, I am Maya Jairam. I’m the owner, founder and consultant at Equity Works LLC. Although my experience and focuses art spaces, I am primarily interested in working with people and organizations with a strong commitment to continued growth and learning regardless of the industry, they may be in or representing. My goal, actually, is to make myself obsolete, and in this particular role by empowering clients to develop and enhance their own knowledge and continued pursuit of these principles. Now, what are these principles? What is JEDI? We’ve probably especially in recent years heard of DEI, EDI, DIE, DI, EI, just a whole bunch of acronyms. Really, it’s E-I-E-I-OH, at this point, all referring to justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. So I prefer JEDI as an acronym, not only because it’s really cool. But also because it does incorporate that principle of justice, which is an important component. Very often, you find that it becomes window dressing: someone in the role of DEI or EDI, whatever you prefer, it becomes window dressing. And I kind of feel like incorporating that component of justice really does push back and push forward a bit with regards to making sustainable long range efforts to to kind of make these achieve these things of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. Hopefully that makes sense.
Nick Armstrong 2:18
It does. And it’s work that’s necessary. You said you started your business out of necessity, can you tell me about some of the — what was the thing? Was there an inciting incident or something that occurred that made you just jump up and say, “I must start a business in this space right now”?
Maya Jairam 2:36
It was a few things that kind of bubbled up over time, I’d say probably the year after the George Floyd murder, and the discussions that kind of bubbled up surrounding that, and a lot of what I would say the performative and virtue signaling I saw, I myself became curious. And interestingly enough, I do improv is one of my hobbies. And I took a class that was ostensibly called social satire, but I would argue it was anti-depression through the lens of satire, sketch, comedy and improv. And that really opened my eyes to a lot of things that I was completely oblivious to. And that triggered also a burning desire to learn and understand more. I’ve always been service minded ever since childhood, and this kind of gave me direction in that particular space. And as I started to happen, I also started to recognize a lot of the and I’m going to borrow terms from the industry that maybe some of our listeners, slash viewers haven’t necessarily come across yet, but like weathering and emotional labor, that not only I have undergone, but my fellow multi marginalized community members have, and I found people and understandably, people think, just asking a question, it’s harmless, but it takes you down a rabbit hole, inevitably, that puts a lot of burden on people. And I realized, you know, my energy is valuable to me. I have limited energy stores, I have limited time and my time is valuable. It’s important. And so that kind of started to spark a little like, Okay, well, if people are anyway going to be asking me these things, I can go ahead and turn this into a business. And then as it happened, one of my best friends has a dance school and she used to be an HR specifically in DEI and she has since left it but we long have had these conversations and discussions and especially as she’s been growing her business, one of the very important things has been to incorporate these principles from the jump into her business. So it just made sense for me to present myself especially as I’m entering these spaces as a business and not just you know, “I’m family neighborhood Maya, ask questions.”
Nick Armstrong 5:02
You brought up a form of externalities, right? When you are expected to educate the community on the issue that’s coming forth and not doing their own homework, right, that can get really frustrating. And I would assume that that as a business owner, would be the case as well if you’re going into a space and trying to teach somebody about JEDI work, and you’re not really getting paid for that, that’s another form of externality, right?
Maya Jairam 5:29
100%. And I would say also, it’s an entitlement that people often feel, and they don’t necessarily recognize that that’s what’s happening. But because especially, at least the communities I’ve gone through, and then I, you know, move through, people tend to be very individualistic. So they have a very narrow lens through which they view a topic, and very rarely see the implications in the immediate surroundings be at the person who’s trying to help them, and seeing the kind of effect it’s having on them, in addition to more long-range issues, and how it kind of permeates other aspects of their life and community that they interact with. So I would say yes, to answer your question, in short,
Nick Armstrong 6:19
I’ve gone through this process, there is definitely a lot of intensity and a lot of value add to the effort. And having gone through a hiring process like this, and assisting on a recruitment committee, at Front Range Community College, I’ve seen what it looks like when it goes really well. Are there really good examples in Fort Collins of folks that are doing it well, or places that have done this right?
Maya Jairam 6:44
You know, I would like to say that Full Expression, a Dance Collective, is one. One thing that I think a lot of businesses when they want to hire someone in this thing, you know, they create a dedicated role is that they, it becomes a feather in their cap, it becomes a virtue signal. And it also puts all of the burden of change on that person. And so if things go wrong, inevitably falls on them. And so I find organizations that are more successful, are willing to make mistakes, they’re willing to grow and learn from those mistakes as an organization, as opposed to letting all of that nonsense roll downhill and fall into one person’s lap, which is why I’m statistically I can’t remember what it is. But I know that there have been some papers coming out that have been a little bit more longitudinal, about the lack of success with this. And you know, people often leave the roles or they’re taken out of the roles because it comes down to one person as opposed to understanding it starts at the top, a person, the person at at the top must feel the necessity and the desire to grow as an individual and in turn grow their organization. Because what happens when someone goes to HR with a complaint, and HR goes to the top? And they’re like, “Well, I don’t see it.” Then you have an immediate conflict, and it becomes a problem. And I, you know, off the top of my head, I don’t know, specifics, but I do know that there are there are multiple larger organizations that are trying, there are smaller ones that are starting to have these conversations. And, you know, yeah, I the only one I can think of is Full Expression. But that’s because I work directly with them. I do know that Playcrafter Kids is making an effort with, you know, integrating it into their curriculum. And again, these are very small companies that I’ve interacted with. There is an organization that I’m on the board of and it’s called IDEAS or Idea Stages. And it stands for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity Access Stages, and it’s focused specifically on theater, and how [DEI work] can be integrated into you know, different theaters. So I do know of different theaters that are making efforts in Colorado and some with greater or lesser success. So I do know, for them, some of it and again, my background is somewhat in the arts but I am interacting with other organizations. For Collins Running Club, actually they are making a concerted effort as well from what I’ve seen and interacted with them. So just to kind of throw a lot of information out there.
Nick Armstrong 9:37
We commonly hear about this in terms of large organizations like CSU, Front Range, UCH. What you are describing is a much more focused approach from the arts, from a small business perspective, from you know, smaller employers. What are the toolkits look like and is it different approach when you’re a small business versus a larger entity? [Larger entities have] room for boards and room for things like big committees and can recruit actively, versus like a smaller business or a midsize business that might not have all of those resources, and might be a smaller team of just one person is the HR person instead of an entire team.
Maya Jairam 10:16
Mm hmm. Um, I guess, and I know, I’ve, I’ve spoken with and consulted briefly with a variety of sizes of organizations and choosing the example of a single HR person, I would encourage that organization to, at the very least send their HR person and one of the executive, if not all of the executive team, to allyship trainings. If you can’t afford to onboard someone fully, that’s why you have consultants, you know, and because my objective is obsolescence, it’s to give people the tools to find the answers themselves, because this is an ever-evolving and ever-changing landscape. You so while having a team of people in a large organization, they can take it upon themselves to go find those resources and recreate it or you know, implement it, however, is needed in a large organization. Ultimately, it does come down to the individuals, you know, you can even look at large organizations as microcosms. I have some friends at some Fortune 50 companies who I’ve consulted with, and they’ve created affinity groups, which are great from an inclusion standpoint, but they ultimately don’t necessarily function to create a much more integrative collective equitable experience. And the people at the top are like, here’s money, or here’s permission, or here are parameters, which makes them look and feel great. But there’s no accountability at the top. So I honestly think that larger organizations would have a harder time to implement and execute compared to mid and small-sized organizations, because you have the ability to pivot much more easily and adapt much more easily. That’s not to say, it’s easy this work is in no way, shape, or form easy, you will make mistakes, and the sooner people acknowledge and understand that. Like, let’s take Odell Brewery, I know for a fact that they have someone and I’m friends with the person who is there working in DEI and I forgot to mention them earlier. But they’re being very intentional from what I’ve seen, even in their branding and in their execution. But they’re able to, when you look at Coors or Anheuser Busch, much bigger organizations, it would be it’s easy to send out a branding change and make it look good. But as an actual functional organization, that’s extremely hard, especially since a lot of the burden often falls on those at the bottom of the food chain. So yeah, that I think my first and foremost go to would be for either hire consultant who’s willing to work with you. And or find those resources where you can train yourself or get your people trained. And, you know, there are often depending on the size of your organizations, there are different pricing structures, and different options and opportunities available. You know, so that I think makes it easier. But one of the big things I think, is allyship, because a lot of times people jump headlong into I’m going to revamp everything and we’re going to be equitable. But who needs to be included? How do you understand how to interact with marginalized communities you’re not a member of or that you didn’t realize were represented in your, you know, your workforce. So I really think that that’s a very big and important early step.
Nick Armstrong 13:50
We’ve talked a lot about education. We’ve talked about accountability. Buy in from upper management and the folks that are leading the charge and making sure that too much responsibility doesn’t fall on the folks who are being recruited to drive those efforts as well. Tell me about the business case behind some of this. There’s, you know, obviously, a wider audience and accessibility, a wider pool of hires that you can pull from. What else?
Maya Jairam 14:17
The short and sweet answer is everybody wins. A rising tide lifts all boats, it’s not just you know, that those are not just cute idioms, they are in fact the case because what often happens, especially when you come to multi-marginalized individuals or marginalized individuals who are in a workforce, the environment becomes oppressive and enough, you know, either through weathering or microaggressions, or just everyday not having a resource to prevail upon if struggling in their marginalization. And by you know, and it is a it’s not a short, it’s not a short term gain, to be quite honest in one of the organizations who I’ve had The opportunity to continue to learn from, they’re saying at least five to seven years. So it is a long term project and it needs to be sustained. You know, people lose more out, when you start something, and then they think, Oh, great, I’m finally not just going to have a seat at the table, I’m gonna have a voice. Because what often happens, and you know, this is not the be all end all this is, you know, a short, you know, little vignette. But what often happens is if someone is shut down in some way, shape, or form, be it in it or be it in, you know, HR, whatever, if they feel like they’re not being heard, it often is a result of internalized biases, be it, you know, misogyny, you know, or any I can, you know, enumerate and listen, but I’m not going to, it also creates seeds of doubt, it creates seeds of competence, it which, as many people who aren’t in marginalized identities know, when you have that seed of self-doubt, that can destroy a person, it destroys your confidence, but it will you wonder about your own competence and capabilities. And you often don’t make those big leaps and those big attempts, I mean, I know that one of the big things that have come out recently is how men who, and I’ll be specific white men who only meet 60% of our criteria for job will apply for it, whereas women can have 110%. And they won’t, because they still have doubt. And so that’s just a more obvious representation of it, but in it creates a very oppressive environment and morale of the group starts to be brought down, it can create divisions within groups as far as like being marginalized socially within the group or that person has not gone to, and they don’t have the opportunity to advance within the company, because people have doubt about their their capabilities and their competencies, because they feel they don’t take those risks. And I think an organization that is willing to fail and learn from failure is also as an organization, more likely to allow risk taking and allow growth from those risks. Take Thomas Edison, who said, you know, and I’m paraphrasing, because I’m really bad with quotes, how he learned 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb, you know, so they really, it’s very important for the culture of an organization big or small to really thrive. And I don’t mean output necessarily, it can often lead to innovation, it can often lead to expansion and development, but the organization itself, the health of the organization, then also becomes a priority to those individuals within it. They want to be at work, you know, it’s not I HAVE to be at work.
Nick Armstrong 17:57
Yeah, and one of the things we’ve been seeing from this economy that’s coming through is an a flat economy, it’s very risky for small businesses, because a lot of the bigger businesses can offer more benefits or other [intangibles] that can go along with those things. But for small businesses, it’s very much what is the day in day out look like? If you feel supported, if you feel celebrated, if you feel empowered, you’re going to do a lot better work than otherwise. And you’re going to have more things to contribute to that, you know, bring you up as a person and bring the company up as a whole. One of the things that we focus on in particular for Startup Week, for Founded in FoCo, for FoCo Comic Con, even, is representation because being able to see yourself in a position and being able to see yourself as a creator or a creative or an artist, whatever it is a speaker, a business owner, those things are important for the audience, and for the next generation that’s coming up as well, because they’re always watching. And being able to see themselves in those positions is critical. Do you feel like the Jedi work that is being done locally is creating a sustainable model for future businesses to come through and start in on their own things? Are you seeing a growth from businesses that have done this well done this right, and their workers are moving on to start up their own gigs or start up a new company or taking those things that they’ve learned from those companies and bringing them to new places?
Maya Jairam 18:55
I’m speaking on two things. First, the representation part when you talk about ComiCon when Miss Marvel came out, I’m not Pakistani, but I am South Asian. And I have to say watching the trailer brought me to tears. I didn’t realize how important it was to see someone like me as a superhero. So thank you for bringing that up. I appreciate that. And the second thing is I I’ll be honest, I haven’t interacted with many people the in the JEDI space in Fort Collins, it seems to be quite siloed from my experience. That said, um, like I said, I have, you know, one friend, the friend who’s over Odell, and he and I collaborate, and I do know, and I can’t speak to his experience, because we haven’t really gotten in depth. But I do know that he is. I’m encouraged by what I see, oftentimes, what you see is not the truth. It’s just a version of the truth, or it’s an aspect of it for him. That said, I don’t know if I’m especially encouraged. And I will tell you why I have been to at least one larger organization gathering of multiple resources with a lot of big names in the room. And it was conducted by someone who doesn’t necessarily call themselves a JEDI consultant, but they work in JEDI. And, and myself, and a couple of other people in the room left rolling our eyes. And I’ll, you know, one of the reasons was because they didn’t want to confront the reality of this work. When it when failure and accountability were brought up. People were baffled. They were confused. They were not happy. What, you know, accountability, they’re like, yes, but they don’t know what that means. And then it was followed up with failure. People didn’t want to fail. No one was no one wants to fail. But it’s a reality of this job. And I find a lot of people get this starry-eyed, you know, for lack of better terms, Kumbaya, idealistic view of the work they’re going to do, it’s very much a savior complex. And it is frustrating because going in with a savior complex: first of all, there’s a lot of ego affiliated with that. There’s a lot of, and what that does is it puts it means people are ignorant of what’s going on around them, they have a very single-minded vision. And if you want to do this work, aside from being willing, being willing to fail, you also have to be empathetic, you have to listen. And you have to learn. And people don’t want to do that. And that’s, that’s the ugly reality. I know, one organization I was consulting with, and it went up not working was because when they came to me, they were like, you know, truth be told, we’re having a lot of pushback about even the necessity of anything. And I’m like, this doesn’t surprise me. I would say also, we’re talking about regional concerns. There are very clear political divisions. And so you know, Colorado, even though in a lot of ways we are, for lack of better terms blue, we’re a purple state. And so we have some very deep ideological and political divisions that can permeate and prevent an organization from even considering it. And when it does come to consideration. There’s a lot of pushback, from basic to more complicated discussions. So I would, I would say, I’m not, I’m not going to be idealistic about it. The reality is, it is incredibly difficult to to have adoption in organizations.
Nick Armstrong 23:20
It seems like there’s a lot more work to be done. Because it gives it gives business owners like you an opportunity to shine and thrive. So that brings the entire community up and forward. Tell me about where we can find out more about you and your business. And tell us about your panel at Founded in FoCo.
Maya Jairam 23:44
Wonderful, thank you. Yes. So I’m going to be on the Friday morning panel at 10am. At the meeting room at Harmony library – it’s 45 minutes: on the schedule, it says we might talk about these things, it depends ultimately on who’s there and you know, who would be best served by the topic at hand. So I will, you know, I’m and as I was telling you, I am word of mouth at this point. As I mentioned, I’m multi-marginalized. And that also puts a huge physical strain on me. So I haven’t had the bandwidth yet to put together a website or a Facebook page. And I mentioned I’m working with Full Expression: A Dance Collective and so you’re putting together Tik Tok and some of the TikToks coming out will be as it pertains to JEDI so if you follow them on on Instagram, that will be coming up in the next you know the next couple of weeks. My talk on March 3 is Creating Community and Safer Spaces Through JEDI Work. So, really it is it, I’m not going to guarantee that we’re going to come away being able to sit to say, I’m going to create a safe space. That’s, that’s like an end game. It’s about getting safer, more inclusive. And as you know, I think I touched upon it as we grow and learn and evolve in this. And as more marginalized voices are being given purchase and opportunity to speak, we’re learning more, and we’re adapting and we’re pivoting. So we will move towards more safety and more equity. So, but yes, the best way to find me is at the panel, otherwise, I can be reached by email, if that’s okay to share: [email protected]. So those are the best places to find me or get a hold of me. And thank you so much, Nick, for having me on. I really appreciate it.
Nick Armstrong 25:53
You’re very welcome. And thank you for all the work that you’re doing in our community. It’s important work to be sure. And it’s a great first step if you’re interested in integrating JEDI into your small business, your your consultancy, come to this panel, it’s a great way to learn about the first steps and additional resources you can take. Hey, thanks for listening. I’m Nick Armstrong, and this is a Founded in FoCo podcast. For more great interviews like this one, join us at FoundedinFoCo.com
Transcribed by https://otter.ai