Chief Chat: Sonja Gittens Ottley

Asana’s head of diversity and inclusion says training workshops are not the solution to everything.
article cover

6 min read

Sonja Gittens Ottley has led the diversity and inclusion efforts at the San Francisco–based work-management software company Asana since 2015. As part of our series of conversations with top HR leaders, we recently connected with Gittens Ottley by phone for a wide-ranging conversation that covered how she found her calling in DE&I, how the work has changed over time, and her hopes for the year to come. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You began your career as a lawyer. How did you transition to working in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I)? Is this something you always saw yourself doing?

In 2012, I was living in Miami and was pregnant with my first child. I didn’t know what I was having. This was the summer of the trial of George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin. I was following the trial. I remember really thinking, If I have a son, what would it be like to bring him up in this country, where he will have challenges to face because people are seeing him as a Black boy who they are afraid of? And how can I change that? I remember being vividly, vividly scared of having a son.

I have a son. He’s nine now. He’s the reason that I do this work and can continue to do this work.

You’ve worked mainly at tech companies: Yahoo, Facebook, and now Asana. Why have you chosen DE&I roles at tech firms?

I know what tech companies are capable of. I know the type of people who work in these companies who want to think critically, who want to make changes to the world, but who sometimes aren’t even aware of the impact their decisions have on others outside the room or the company. My job is to help them understand how they can have an impact. I help them ask, “Is this right?”

Another benefit of the tech industry is the speed at which they create change. We see it in the products we’re building and the way we approach problems. So why not take that approach to DE&I?

Speaking of change, you’ve been with Asana since 2015 and working in the field for even longer. How has the field changed since you began your career in DE&I?

I approach this as, what tools have we added?

When I first started at Asana, what was top of mind was, How diverse is our employee base in terms of recruiting? But that’s foundational, meaning, it’s the first step of the equation. Now, we think a lot about building an inclusive culture throughout our policies and procedures, even weaving a DE&I perspective into the products we put to market.

Also, maybe five, six years ago, people thought training was the thing—for example, we had a lot of talk around bias training. Trainings are all great tools, but I think they’re the foundational tools. There has to be more. They’re not the solution to everything.

What is a specific program at Asana you are particularly proud of that our readers could learn from?

One of the reasons I stay at Asana is our Real Talk series. It started back in 2016. I wanted to create a space where we can have really honest, authentic discussions where people can understand, “‘Hey, here’s someone who comes from a community. They are not speaking for the entire community, but they’re sharing their perspectives as a member of that community.” The idea being that it allows us to understand each other and create this sense of empathy, not just for the sake of compassion, but also for the sake of initiating change. These help our employees understand what someone is facing, and how they can show up in their interactions with them to support them.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.

So since 2016, we’ve hosted a number of these events for employees, leadership, and individual contributors on race, on elections, on being a Muslim or being an immigrant. We’ve had conversations about politics, about mental health, about LGBTQIA+ issues. We run the gamut of conversations. And the reason that I'm so proud of this event and this series is that we’re seeing real change happen, we’re seeing people say, “I understand, I have a better understanding of someone’s experience and how can I help.” It ties into this idea of allyship, and advocacy, and that has been a big focus of ours.

What are some of your goals for DE&I at Asana in 2022 and the years beyond?

First, I’m really focused on ensuring that we have a global lens. We have offices across the world. I want to ensure how we approach DE&I, in our offices in Dublin or London, focus on the issues that matter to those regions. Second, is this idea of fostering belonging. Belonging is ensuring that we are all co-creating spaces and structures so that we can all coexist. To do so, we need to continue to focus on allyship, and that’s a muscle you have to build. I’m working to give managers and leadership the tools and resources to do that. We are also investing in anti-racist training.

Do you get any pushback from employees, either direct feedback or internal grumbling, saying work isn’t the space for anti-racist training? If so, how do you deal with that?

We haven’t gotten much grumbling, but I’ve made the assumption that there must be people who don’t agree. I kind of prefer to face it head on and say, “This is why we’re focused on this.” So even if people don’t agree, they have clarity on why DE&I is important: it’s something that’s impacting how their coworkers are showing up, how they’re able to work, how they’re able to exist. But I do want to hear employee concerns. We offer employment engagement surveys twice a year for employees to give feedback and comments.

As you think about your work, what’s the most rewarding part of your job?

What makes me happy when an employee reaches out and says that this work made a difference for them. Sometimes, the work motivated them to join the company, but it’s even more important when they say, “I heard Asana was dedicated to diversity before I joined, and then I saw that it was true.” That is what keeps me going frankly, to know that you’re making a difference or that this work is making a difference in someone’s life. That I think that is the best reward that you could ask for.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.