Diverse hiring in tech & preventing Tokenism, with Strava’s Shailvi Wakhlu

Shailvi Wakhlu was in technology from the beginning. At two, her mom brought home a computer that she would play with. At eight, she started coding and found her passion. But as she got older, she started to realize that most of the coders didn’t look like her, and she was working in a very homogenous field. Now she’s on a mission to change that.

Shailvi Wakhlu is the Senior Director of Data at Strava.

Transcript

Jackie Ferguson: Hi, and welcome to season four of the Diversity Beyond the Checkbox Podcast sponsored by The Diversity Movement. I’m your host, Jackie Ferguson equality advocate and certified diversity executive. On this show, we discuss how diversity, equity and inclusion benefit our workplaces, schools, and communities by sharing the stories, insights, and best practices of game changers, leaders, and glass ceiling breakers that are doing the work to make our world a more understanding, welcoming and supportive place for us all.

Jackie: Welcome, and thank you for tuning in, my guest is Shailvi Wakhlu. Shailvi is the Senior Director of Data at Strava. As an analytics professor and a former software engineer, she has been involved in shaping great products for companies of all sizes for the last 14 years. Shelby is also a motivating keynote speaker. Shailvi, thank you so much for being on the podcast today.

Shailvi: Thank you so much for having me, Jackie.

Jackie: Shailvi, can you start by telling our listeners a little bit about your background, your upbringing, your identity?

Shailvi: absolutely. So I go by the she, her pronouns. I grew up in India. I lived all over the country and had a really wonderful childhood with my parents and my elder sister. When I was in my late teens, I ended up moving to the US for college, where I studied computer engineering in Illinois Tech. And after that I moved around a bunch back to India, a little stint in Europe, and now I’m back in San Francisco, but I’ve been living for the last seven years. 

Jackie: Awesome, awesome. And Shailvi, you worked for some really cool companies from Monster to Fitbit, Prezi, and Salesforce. Tell us a little about where the love of technology came from and how you rose through the ranks of those companies.

Shailvi: Yeah, it’s been interesting for me to have worked with a lot of these companies. I really enjoyed all the companies that I’ve worked at, and I think I’ve gained a lot by having been in a position to tackle many different problem spaces and, you know, they all had some differences in some pieces in common, but my love for technology started at a really young age. I always enjoyed coding. I started coding when I was eight years old and it was so exciting for me to be able to solve exciting puzzles, as I call them. And so I always knew that I wanted to grow up and work in technology because it was a space that resonated with me. 

As far as the rising through the ranks goes, I think it’s very specific to each company. Every company has their own ways of measuring success of rewarding good talent. And I do think that there are some general principles that cut across all of these areas. You know, working hard is important, but then also working hard and advocating for yourself is extremely important because some companies are good at just noticing that you’re doing a good job, whereas other companies and other roles, other situations, you have to explicitly point out to them that you’re doing a good job and that you’d like to be rewarded. 

Jackie: Absolutely. So Shailvi, you said you started coding at eight years old. How, how did that start? 

Shailvi: Yeah, I am super grateful to have been brought up in a household where everybody loved computers. My mother was a computer teacher. She got herself a little computer when I was two years old, I think. And so I’d seen her working on it and she used to find these little programs for me.

I mean, when I was, when I was really young, it was just for entertainment. Like I’d press the, A button and an apple would show up. I know. So just, just little things like that. I think my exposure is something that helped me be more aligned with that side. And then at some point she actually taught me how to code and I was just so fascinated by it. my sister loved to code as well. So before. Geeked out on those types of things. 

Jackie: I love that your mother like, introduced that to you so early on and you know, and you’ve used it as, you know, the catalyst to your career, and I think that is really fantastic. We need to really begin to expose more people, and especially young women, to technology early on, because very often what happens is, if you’re not exposed to it, you don’t consider it as a career. Right, and it’s something that, that makes you nervous because you don’t have someone to answer those questions for you. 

So Shailvi, being a culturally diverse woman in tech, you’re certainly one of a few, right. We just talked about that. Can you talk about how you navigated that, and what advice you have for organizations that are expanding their workforce to include more diverse hires? 

Shailvi: Yeah, that’s a, that’s a great question. I’m so happy right now to see that in tech, there is this intention of trying to be more inclusive in the workforce and in who we hire. And I think the biggest piece of advice that I have for companies that are actively thinking of doing that is to set very clear goals you know, actively consider what is your vision and what does it look like for you when you think about, oh, I want, I want my workforce to be diverse. What does, what does that look like? Because I think how you set that vision and how you define it ends up being an important way of measuring how you define success. 

If your vision ends at that I want to see a bunch of people from different backgrounds working at my company, then that pretty much means that you’re saying the vision ends at the hiring. Like I just want to hire, I just want to hire different people. I don’t think that should be the end. I think you shouldn’t just stop at hiring. I think you should make sure that people from different backgrounds can actually thrive in your organization and can actually be successful, that they can be promoted, that they can get raises that they can have opportunities that they wouldn’t have otherwise. 

And I think that’s why it’s very important to define those goals, to measure your progress, that 1 am I even seeking talent in different places, and then I’m actually hiring them. And then if they’re being hired, are they actually being successful? Are they retaining at the same rates as other people that are more used to working with?

And, I say that from my own experience, because I have been in this field for a long time and I have had my ups and downs, and there have been places where I felt celebrated for my unique skills, and there have been other places where I felt tokenized. Making sure that people don’t have that experience where they feel tokenized, where they feel they’re being hired or promoted or anything like that, just for the sake of a checkbox, I think is very important.

Jackie: You know, I love that you talked about being intentional, not just getting a diverse hire through the door, but how do you nurture their career in your organization? And, you know, that’s a mistake that a lot of organizations make. They have these good intentions about let’s hire more diverse professionals, but have you already laid the foundation for success for them through creating cultures of inclusion and understanding, you know, that it’s more than just, getting them to sign the offer letter. You’ve got to really nurture them through their entire career at your organization.

And if you do that, you have a better retention rate, but at that’s an important point, as you know, it doesn’t just stop, Shailvi, as you said, when, when they’re coming in the door, you’ve, you’ve got to really look out for them make sure that they have the same opportunities to excel and thrive and take on challenge projects as everyone else.

Shailvi: Absolutely. Yep. 

Jackie: Love that. Shailvi tell us more about Strava and what you do. 

Shailvi: Yeah. So I have now been at Strava for almost nine months. It’s a wonderful company and Strava for those who are not familiar with the platform. It’s the leading social platform for athletes and the largest sports community in the world.

We have the privilege of having over 86 million athletes in 195 different countries. And it’s a very exciting space I think, So at Strava I, myself, I lead the data org, which is made up of a bunch of wonderful analysts and machine learning engineers. I have a really, really nice team. I feel very lucky to have the team that I do, and our mission within Strava is essentially to work for the Strava athletes. And our main charter is to enable data informed product improvements. And how we do that is we work with internal decision makers and make sure they are empowered with key insights that can be used for the benefit of our Strava athletes, for them to have a good experience on our platform. So yeah, it’s a great space. I, there we’re hiring also. 

Jackie: So that’s awesome. And Shailvi why is data and measurement important in business? I know that’s a big part of what you do, but why does data and measurement matter for business?

Shailvi: One way that I think about it is and, you know, whether it’s an individual or a company having goals as important, and then defining what success looks like for you to have considered having met that goal is extremely important because if you don’t have an easy way to understand how you’ll be successful, then do you even really know what you’re doing?

Because you know, success can look like a lot of different ways. If you, if you only define the direction, you’re heading that, hey, I want to reach the top of that mountain, you can reach that mountain in two days or two hours. What does, what does, what does success actually look like for you? And so that’s why I think there’s a discipline that comes about when you actually define those sorts of milestones that you think are important for you to feel that you’ve achieved your goal and you have to measure it. It’s not, it’s not just the end point. It’s also sort of milestones along the way that make you feel that you’re, you’re on track for your goal.

And all of that is powered by data. All of that is powered by adding little pieces of data along that path so that if there’s something that’s going not according to plan, you have a way of identifying it. And if you can identify it, you can actually brainstorm solutions to fix it. You can figure out whether you need to pivot in your direction.

And all of that I think is, very important, and you know, this is something that shows up whether you’re making a product or whether you’re implementing DEI goals, all of that. Like, I think it’s part of that same thing that if you have true intentions of making an impact, then you’ll have to measure success, you have to have data and you have to be disciplined in that process. 

Jackie: That’s exactly right. I couldn’t agree more. That was so well said, you know, because you’ve, you’ve got to determine in anything that you want to accomplish, what does success look like? And you’ve got to ask yourself that question and then, you know, create those parameters. Like I want to achieve this, you know, get to this point, whatever it is, whatever that goal is, what does success look like? And, you know, sometimes the goal is big, so then what are the smaller milestones along the way that you can achieve, because celebrating the small successes is also important, as you said, in celebrating those successes, you can also see where you’re getting off track and course correct.

So you’re a hundred percent right there, I love that, so important and no matter what you’re doing, and you mentioned DEI as well, you know, but with any corporate initiative, you’ve got to really understand what success looks like. So you can, you can measure against it and see how you’re trending.

Shailvi: Exactly, and you can also measure it against what other people are doing and see how you compare, how your trends have changed, because if it’s all in your head, then at some point you’re going to miss out on some key signal that is just not there. 

Jackie: Exactly right. Shailvi as a woman of color and a senior leader in tech, what is your responsibility, both in your company and among underrepresented professionals in tech? 

Shailvi: I have often, I think, especially over the last, maybe one or two years, really grappled with that, what is my responsibility as I perceive it? What is my responsibility as others perceive it?

And I think I’ll start with myself first that I definitely feel, feel a great sense of responsibility to making sure, you know, as someone who has reached a little bit of the senior level, I’m in a very good position to advocate for sort of the next batch of people who are entering this field, for them to have a better experience than I did.

You know, don’t get me wrong, there’s many people who’ve struggled way more than I have, but even, even then I have seen myself, the various issues that I encountered because of just various pieces, and I don’t want, I don’t want other underrepresented groups to go through that same experience. And I am in a leadership role. I do have the ability to try and change a lot of things for everybody else who’s entering that field, and so I really do try to use my position to the best of my ability to try to advocate for those people.

And I think part of it is also, you know, I don’t just want to focus on the activism and change piece. I also want to, you know, I I’m, I’m very active as a mentor. So I want people to have access to that, to anything that I can share as a resource which makes it easier, which makes which normalizes for them to see senior women and women in tech who are also women of color.

It’s, it’s very important, you know, you had mentioned that earlier that if you can’t see something it’s very different, difficult to visualize what that goal would look like. So I hope that people feel that I can provide some of that to them. And you know, I, I tried to do my best and with that space.

Jackie: That’s so great, but Shailvi, you know, you’re, you’re so right. I’ve talked to hundreds and hundreds of different individuals in the workforce, and one of the things that they often share is I don’t see someone who looks like me in senior leadership, right. And so they don’t strive for that sometimes because they don’t believe they can attain that because that’s not what they see.

And so having people like you who say, yes, you can get here. You can, you know, I can help you even go further. That’s so important because it helps those of us who are culturally diverse to be able to say, you know, if, if she can do it, if they can do it, I can do it, right. And so that’s important. 

Now, Shelby, you mentioned mentoring and I know you’ve mentored over 200 people. Did I get that right? 

Yes. 

Tell me how professionals can engage in mentoring and what that structure looks like. 

Shailvi: Yeah, so I, I really love mentoring people. I think I gain so much out of it as well. So the 200 number is actually from last year, I’m hoping to try to exceed that number possible and it, it is, it is something that I think is very valuable when I was earlier on in the field. I didn’t know where to find a mentor. I didn’t know who to look for and who actually make that kind of time investment. So I think I got lucky that I had at least a couple of my managers where, you know, they seem that they were invested in my, in my career.

But even then, I think outside of your immediate management chain, it is very important to be able to find people who can give you good advice and who can give you unbiased advice who are not. You know, not your mother, not your, not your family member, not, not someone who is directly in your, in your management chain.

And, I think the structure that I think is helpful is for people to first start thinking about their own goals, what are their goals, in their career that someone else who is more experienced or who has specific experience with that piece can actually help them because I do encounter a lot of people who, who’ve heard that, hey, it’s good to have a mentor. And so they just reach out and say, hey, will you mentor me? And I asked them what would you like to be mentored on? And they don’t really have a clear goal defined. 

And then it becomes harder because I think for a mentor, mentee relationship to work, they have to be some clear goals. The mentee has to also be sort of invested in figuring out that part, working with their mentor to actually say that this is what progress would look like for me, this is where I could use the most help, and this is how I plan to approach it, and where can you help me? Or who can you connect me with, who might be able to actually guide me getting to my goals? So I think if you’re structured about that, you can, you can get a lot out of it. And I think it’s interesting for the mentor too to see folks who are you know, who are navigating things that are, that are interesting. 

Jackie: Absolutely. And you know, again, your point is setting goals, right. That’s important in achieving anything. I love that thread. Shailvi, you described yourself as an analyst and activist and a happiness seeker. Tell me what that means. 

Shailvi: Yeah, so by profession, I’m an analyst. I’m in data. I love data. I really derive a lot of joy from being structured, from being someone who measure stuff from someone who tries to understand what all that data adds up to.

On my passion side, I’m an activist. I’m very motivated and moved by things that I think are things in the world around me that I can help influence, that I can help move forward in a positive way. You know, so with, with both of those things, I think my, like, that’s my strive, like from my profession and from my passion, that’s what I’m trying to do.

But in both of these cases, I like to underpin that with my value of prioritizing happiness, that in either of those cases, whether it’s activism or analytics, I feel that activism should, should be driven by joy and hope, and not just rage at the injustice. And similarly, I feel analytics should be driven by joy and adventure and not just the clinical need for clarity, because ultimately whether it’s your profession, whether it’s your passion, if you’re not happy doing it, or if it feels like a burden or if it feels like something that actually pulls you down, because you think there’s so much to do, you’ll get overwhelmed and it’ll, it’s harder to then make, make progress because it, you know, things shouldn’t feel like work. They should almost feel like a second nature to you 

and I think that’s something that’s something I’ve worked very hard at prioritizing because I’ve definitely been in those situations where my work or my passion almost got overwhelming where I was just, I felt like oh no, there’s so many things to do and I’m not making progress fast enough. But now if I think about it you know, I feel like I’m doing it for my own joy, and as long as I’m making progress, as long as I feel I’m having an impact, that’s great. 

Jackie: That’s fantastic. You know, I love happiness seeker because that’s something that I always advocate that we have to really take by the reins and make sure that we’re doing that for ourselves because nobody else knows what that means for us, right? So often we put our happiness and joy on the back burner because of the things that we’re responsible for, the things we have to do, but we need to pull that back to the front and say, you know, what are the things that that make me happy? And there are certainly lots of things that, that keep us from that happiness.

Right, and sometimes that can be just, you know, lack of setting the goal, right. As you were saying with some other things or, or fear, or, you know, A lot of other things, but it’s an important that, you know, life is short for all of us, right. When we have to be sure that we’re prioritizing our own happiness because we’re the only ones that can do that.

Yes, I love that. Shailvi your website, shailvi.com and for our audience, that’s shailvi.com, is really great. I love the menu. It’s analytics, knowledge, career growth, prioritize happiness, life hacks, and my artsy projects, tell us more about your website and how you expect visitors to use it.

Shailvi: Thank you. Thank you. Yes, I’m happy with how my website turned out. It was a project that was in my task list for a very long time, and I finally got it launched a year or so ago. So I’m, I’m very passionate about sharing my knowledge. I really get energized by people who are also hungry for that knowledge. And I’ve had a lot of people write in about various pieces that I’ve shared.

So for the most part, my website is a collection of resources for underrepresented groups in tech and maybe there’s things that other people can use as well. But anything that I have, whether it’s a talk or an article or a resource, I try to put it on there. And, I’m very passionate, as I mentioned about sharing my knowledge.

So, I give a lot of talks. I speak at a lot of different events and various panels and things like that. And all of those videos I compile, they’re available on my website for free, if anybody would like to access it. And besides that, I also offer multiple ways that people can contact me, especially if they are seeking mentorship.

So I offer free as well as paid mentorship based on my availability and I have weekly availability for both. So people can reach out if there’s something specific that they’d like to discuss, and as I mentioned earlier, I do ask what people’s goals are so that I try to verify if I’m actually in a position, to help them and people have reached out to me, it’s great for me at least, and hopefully they get some value out of it as well. So definitely encourage folks to check out the website and see if there’s something that might be of interest. 

Jackie: That’s so awesome. Yeah, I love it. There’s so many great articles and pieces of information that I think can help business leaders who are leading culturally diverse employees, and for everyone, just the blog around names right. And pronouncing names, is, that so for everyone? Right? So I, I, I love it. Such a great value.

Shailvi, you mentioned, you know, your talks and I know one of your keynotes is on the humble brag, right, and self-advocacy. Why is that so important for underrepresented people in business to advocate for themselves, and how do we begin to put that in practice? 

Shailvi: Ooh, self-advocacy is so important. I have often wondered why it’s not a skill that we were taught in college, it seems like one of those skills that you’re, that you’re just expected to pick up along the way, you know, which, which seems it feels like it should be something that people are intentionally taught for their success of the career, because, you know, I’m South Asian and almost culturally for me, self-advocacy is hard because culturally for us  you know, if you grew up in South Asia, it’s being seen as bragging is maybe the worst thing that you can do, that people are like, wait, that’s weird.

Why is this person talking about themselves? Why are they highlighting their achievements? That’s so bad. It’s, it’s seen as a terrible thing that you, that you do, and so it’s unfortunate because I think in the corporate world, it really sets you back. If you’re not able to tell your manager, hey, here’s all the good things that I did, well then if they didn’t notice, then you’re two steps behind because they don’t, they don’t even know you did something good. And you can keep expecting them to understand every single thing that you’re doing and then reward you for it and then advocate for you to get more opportunities. It’s very hard. 

So I personally think that self-advocacy is the most important thing that you can hone as a skill. And I definitely learned it the hard way, where I had a lot of discomfort talking about these things. And so for myself, I, you know, reframed it in a little funny way that I’m, I’m just humble bragging I’m, you know, I just, I tried to make it lighthearted because that’s what works for me.

And for me, it began with just reframing my own narrative that, hey, I’m not bragging. I am advocating for me. I’m making sure that my efforts are seen and appreciated and heard and that people, and then I’m also helping other people’s learning by sharing how my experience was with something. And I think that’s the first step of just reframing your own mental narrative so that you don’t look at it as something that you are trying to brag, but rather you’re, you’re, you’re trying to improve the knowledge around the world. And there’s a lot of other pieces to it as well, like just reframing the external narrative and practicing as much as you can, but I truly think it’s the biggest investment you can make for yourself.

Jackie: So, Shailvi just to dig into that a little more, we talked about, or you talked, about reframing the, the mental narrative and how you’re thinking about what that means, self-advocacy. Let’s talk a little more about the external narrative. You know, when I think about that, I’m thinking about just the bias of, of people in business, right. And bias is something that we all struggle with. We all have unconscious bias to some extent, right? Some of us are, are navigating it, managing it intentionally would you have to do, some not so much, right. But what is the external narrative and then how do we mitigate that? 

Shailvi: I think what happens is that when we are talking about something that’s important, that’s something that we considered an achievement for us. How others perceive it, like there are some limitations. We can’t stop people from thinking that, why is this person telling me about this? Like, yeah, of course it’s their job. They did their job. What’s the big deal. 

But I think. That is, you know, to, to your point about bias. A lot of those things are biased that people, for example, when women talk about an achievement that they had, it is more likely to be perceived that they are bragging, and if a man talks about the exact same thing, people are like, wow, that’s so cool. I’m so glad he shared it. 

So I think reframing that, you know, the way we talk about it again, I don’t, I don’t mean it in the sense of we should pander to all the people who have, who have biases, but find effective ways of making sure your point comes across crystal clear, that this is an important thing for the business, for your team, for your you know, for your company that you were able to navigate and here are all the problems you encountered, and if it’s framed as that, Hey, I want to make sure nobody else encounters these problems, or I want to propose a solution that worked for me which can help the next person going through the same problem, you know, it’s likely that people then anchor to that part that, oh, this was a sharing their learning.

It’s something useful to me, but the subtext of it remains the same. It is you who did it. It is you who navigated that challenge and you are positioning yourself as a person who can navigate tough challenges, come up with interesting solutions, and then you’re not even insecure about sharing that out. You are rather making sure that other people are helped by it as well, and that everybody’s succeeding as, as you succeeded in some endeavor. 

Jackie: Shelby. This is the part of the podcast where I just talk about something that I’d love to find out about my guests. Tell us something about you that not a lot of people know.

Shailvi: yeah, so I think that most people don’t realize that I am actually a pretty shy person. And that’s because I I’m a little bit of a mixed ball. I, I am really shy, but I also consider myself an extrovert. So I think I’m a shy, extrovert, if that’s a thing. And how I break that down is that, you know, I am an extra word because I am energized by people.

I am energized by human interaction, and I really liked that. But I am also shy because it is difficult for me to introduce myself to new people, new things, and I’m a little awkward around it, especially, especially in the beginning. And, you know, until I find my comfort spot, it’s a little hard for me to do that.

But then again, I very intentionally put myself out there. You know, I realized there was some time that I think it’s better for me and I am energized by it, so I should try to do it more intentionally. So most people don’t realize that I’m actually really shy beneath that. but, I, I enjoy that so it’s good.

Jackie: That’s awesome, thanks for sharing that. Yeah, I mean, considering you’re, you’re doing public speaking, you’re mentoring so many people, you wouldn’t assume that you’re also shy. So thanks for sharing that. Shailvi, what’s the message that you want to leave our listeners today? 

Shailvi: Yeah, I would say that it, you know, go after what you want and find the help that you need to get there. If you have clear goals, if you have something that you want to go after, even if you haven’t seen enough people who look like you do it, there are a lot of people who can help you and you don’t have to go about it alone. You can find the resources that you need, and I’m very grateful that we now have an ecosystem that supports, people who are, you know, who are looking to achieve big things.

And I really think that, you know, our first responsibility at the end of the day is to invest in ourself and in our success, then we are in a better position to help everybody else who can also benefit from the fact that we have been successful and that we are now in a position to help others. And they’re just so many ways that you can prioritize doing that today, that investment in yourself, if you, if you choose to do that. So I hope people feel energized by that. 

Jackie: That’s fantastic. Shailvi thank you so much for spending some time with me. This has been so fun, so many amazing insights that you shared. I love, you know, the mentorship piece and love the self-advocacy piece, you know, finding your happiness and prioritizing that. So important to think about, so thank you Shailvi for being with us today.

Shailvi: Thank you so much, Jackie, for having me. 

Full Episode Transcript

Diversity Beyond the Checkbox is brought to you by The Diversity Movement, hosted by Head of Content Jackie Ferguson, and is a production of Earfluence.  For sponsorship options, email info@earfluence.com.

Amplify Your Expertise
About the Author
At Earfluence, we are proud to produce this podcast. We believe in sharing amazing stories, providing knowledge to the world, and celebrating diverse voices. Through podcasting, our clients are amplifying their expertise, expanding their networks, building a content engine, and growing their influence. If you're interested in podcasting, we'd love to hear from you! Schedule your free 15 minute podcast consult today.