Hi, I’m Wing Sze Tang and you’re reading The Knowhow, a weekly newsletter about ambitious women doing noteworthy things, and other stuff I find fascinating. If this issue was forwarded to you, add your email below to join the list.
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BLOOM FOUNDER AVERY FRANCIS IS BUILDING BETTER PLACES TO WORK
In her LinkedIn headline, Avery Francis calls herself an HR and talent advisor, but that doesn’t fully capture her rather atypical skill set. She’s the founder/CEO/bootstrapping entrepreneur behind Bloom, a Toronto-based workplace design consultancy that’s so successful, it hit $1 million in revenue this year (yes, this most hellish of years).
She’s known for championing diversity, inclusion and belonging, and was a founder of Bridge School, which she conceptualized as a way to bridge the gender gap in tech. And though she might not describe herself as an Instagram influencer, her viral infographics on race and racism have—to quote The Washington Post—turned her into “a public figure overnight.” Recently I caught up with Francis to talk about being her own boss, how she educates companies on taking meaningful action, and why Ariana Grande stans keep sliding into her DMs.
Interview has been edited for length, clarity and flow.
What inspired you to start Bloom and be your own boss?
I always knew I was going to be an entrepreneur because I wanted more freedom and flexibility. I wanted to be creative, and I didn’t want to be held back. But it’s a very daunting thought to have, and a really scary move to make. For me, the inspiration came from working closely with another woman who founded an organization very similar to what we do at Bloom, and seeing her do it made me believe I could do it.
Also, if I’m being completely honest, what inspired me to get into entrepreneurship was survival. I was put into a position where I didn’t have a job, and I had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that I’d have to work at another company and put myself at risk of a really awful workplace experience. So I was just like, I need to do something. My first sale for Bloom came from a tweet.
What was the tweet?
So, I was out of work for five or six months—this was January 2018—and I was getting down to my last dollar. I needed to make cash. A friend reached out to me, saying he was looking for a new job. And I was like, “Awesome, I wish I had clients to put you in front of.” And I had this aha moment, so I asked, “Would you be okay with me tweeting about you, and seeing if I have a network out there who might be interested?” So I did it—and that led to my first three sales for Bloom.
I read the Washington Post article about Instagram activism and your posts on race. I’m curious what that experience has been like, since I’m sure the attention has come with a dark side and criticism.
I’ve realized I have a thicker skin than I thought. Sometimes it sucks seeing some of the responses I get on posts, and sometimes I’ve received threats, but I know the content, if you want to call it that, and the messages are coming from my heart and from a place of awareness. I don’t usually share my thoughts or opinions on stuff I don’t really know a lot about. I feel quite confident with what I share, so I’m okay with being criticized for it.
The weird thing that’s come with becoming a “public figure” is I have a lot of celebrities following me, one of them being Ariana Grande. As a result, I get hundreds of messages a week from people sending me heart-wrenching stories and asking me to put them in contact with Ariana. And I’m just like, We’re not friends. I sent her a message and she liked it once. That’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to being acknowledged by Ariana.
Part of what you do at Bloom is educating companies on diversity, equity and inclusion. What do you think are the crucial knowledge gaps?
There are two big knowledge gaps we’ve come across. One is understanding the nuances, the small and in some cases almost passable comments, the microaggressions. That’s actually what inspired a lot of the posts I’ve been sharing on my Instagram. Collectively, as a community and society, we’re having lots of conversations about systemic oppression, systemic racism and big, big things, but what I find is that oftentimes, within the workplace, it’s the microaggressions, the not overtly harmful or aggressive comments, and the indiscretions that tend to make the biggest impact. Microaggressions about race or gender or ability are so deeply ingrained in the way we exist, and the things we say and do, that we don’t even know.
The second gap is the assumption that people who identify as a part of these marginalized or underrepresented communities can be the specialists and do this work. There’s an assumption that if you identify as being Black, you’re the best person in the company to lead the charge in this work. But what’s happening is we have folks who are thinking about their own experiences and own identity. And they’re not thinking about the identities, and the intersections of unique identities, of others.
A big challenge I come across daily is people who think they know what they’re doing causing a lot of really negative impacts within organizations—and even a resistance to partnering with people who know how to do this work in a strategic way. There’s so much great information out there that makes a lot of sense if you’re at a dinner party or at the mall or at the grocery store, in terms of how you handle a microaggression. But at work, there are power dynamics at play, and you know, you’re looking to earn money to pay your rent or mortgage. You can’t just go in and draw a group of people and take down the system. So there are sensitivities that need to be considered.
I’ve been thinking about how when people pursue careers in places that aren’t inclusive, they internalize being undervalued. For example, in an interview with The Cut, Sohla El-Waylly talks about how the situation at Bon Appétit got into her soul and she began to believe she was worthless. How do we begin to untangle that psychology?
It’s really challenging. We facilitate sharing circles within companies where BIPOC-identified people can talk openly about past, sometimes hard-lived experiences, and you wouldn’t believe how many people carry these types of situations with them. Women in particular and women of colour who have been told not to ask for more because they’re not ready yet—these experiences shape how people view themselves.
If you’re not in an inclusive space, it’s oftentimes an exclusive one. So, that has an impact on your self-esteem; it leads to things like imposter syndrome and depression. And because people are human, and they take their lived experiences with them wherever they go, this doesn’t necessarily stop when they walk through the office doors and go home. That’s why it’s incredibly important that organizations—I see it as a moral obligation—foster inclusive workplaces, where people are managing their folks with care and empathy.
Some workplaces are just toxic environments, and people don’t always have the freedom to leave. So how can someone deal with that?
Being able to quit your job and go somewhere else or start a company is a privilege; not everyone has an opportunity to do those things. I’ve always been big on putting energy into my personal brand, because the more people know about you and the more you become a voice in a specific domain, the more options you have. And I’m big on keeping my network going; when I was working full-time, I was constantly having conversations with people and keeping lines of different opportunities open. I always say, “Don’t say no to new opportunities”—like, I’m a serial opportunist. So even when you’re not looking for a job, maybe be open, just in case.
What advice do you have for people pursuing a career in an industry where they’re underrepresented, like women in tech, for example?
Build connections or relationships with folks that you have a high degree of trust with. It helps you feel less alone. And it could be people who identify the same as you do, or people you consider allies. So if you’re a Black woman in tech, it doesn’t have to just be other Black women in tech, though those groups exist. There’s a huge wave of community-led programs and organizations bringing people together to support each other. It just requires a bit of work to find them because they’re not going to find you.
WHAT I’M READING
“Our Shared Unsharing” (The Cut): I really relate to Stella Bugbee’s piece on why Instagramming has felt extra-weird and awkward this year.
“It’s Time to Stop Looking to Brands to Save Us” (Fashionista): Whitney Bauck talks about the limits of conscious consumerism.
“How Civilization Broke Our Brains” (The Atlantic): Feeling unproductive and aimless in my free time stresses me out, and this story helps explain why.
While I work on my own, I’ve been taking inspiration from my little circle of fellow Toronto newsletter founders. Check them out!
Minimum Viable Planet (how clever is that name?) is an undepressing take on fighting the climate crisis, written by creative director/journalist Sarah Lazarovic.
Friday Things is a smart spin on pop culture, written by Stacy Lee Kong, previously an editor at FLARE, Canadian Living and other major magazines.
At the End of the Day is all about news through a people-first lens, written by media veteran Hannah Sung. TV, print, podcasting—she does it all.
And tell me, what are you reading right now?
LAST BUT NOT LEAST
If you’re wondering who’s writing this:
My name is Wing Sze Tang, and I’m a freelance journalist. I’ve spent my career telling stories for some of Canada’s biggest magazines. (Find some of my articles here.)
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Thanks for reading, and see you next week!