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Creating Safe Spaces for Peers: Q&A with ChartHop’s ERG Leaders

Jun 22, 2022| Reading time: 10min

BY Kate Super

Content Writer

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) have been around since the 1970s and are once again becoming a priority – for good reason. People want to feel a sense of belonging at work, and developing these volunteer-led networks of employees (who share characteristics or backgrounds) allows for a deeper level of connection. 

Instead of simply acknowledging a diverse workforce, modern ERGs focus on creating safe spaces for employees and demanding change if need be. They also give employees the opportunity to build community with each other and allies, have discussions about meaningful topics, and share resources. 

ChartHop’s first two ERGs – the Asian Alliance and IRIS (Include, Respect, Individuality, Safety) for the LGBTQ+ community and allies – were created in Spring 2022.

We sat down with ERG leaders Siena Villegas and Ai-Mei Zhu of the Asian Alliance and Cory Baig and Olivia Stapp of IRIS to discuss the importance of these communities in the workplace. 

What qualities make a strong ERG leader?

Cory Baig: They have to be a good influencer. They should be caring, thoughtful, and passionate about helping people. But this care isn’t just about their specific ERG; it extends to others as well. They should be passionate about diversity, period.

Why do you think it’s important to have ERGs in the workplace?

Ai-Mei Zhu: I think it’s really important to create a safe space for folks, and also provide people a space in which they can connect on a different level. ERGs provide the education piece as well. When I started at ChartHop, it was when many Asian hate crimes were happening, and I felt like no one understood me except my Asian peers. It’s therefore really important to raise awareness, and it’s nice when people have the resources to learn. Sometimes people aren’t aware of what’s going on in the world besides what’s on social media, and you want to take it deeper than that.

Olivia Stapp: Yes, that safe space is so important. It’s also having people around you that have the same kind of grief that you do. When you’re in a community with that common understanding and empathy, it helps you feel heard and seen in the complicated world we live in.

Siena Villegas: For me, having an Asian Alliance is about decolonizing the workplace and not feeding into the typical corporate environment. It’s about standing up and showing that we’re also here and can have just as much contribution as the traditional businessman stereotype.

Part of the education piece you spoke of is securing monthly speakers. Why is this important? Do you have any advice in finding and securing these speakers?

Zhu: There’s so many great folks out there – being connected in Slack channels or Linkedin will help your search. You have to dig deeper and do your research. For Asian Heritage month, I interviewed three different public speakers before choosing one for our monthly company DEIB Speaker Series. I was looking for someone influential and someone who could engage the audience. You want your guest to speak about content that’s relevant, bring in outside knowledge, and shed light on issues people are facing. 

What helped accelerate the creation of your ERG?

Villegas: At ChartHop, we have a Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) – Ivori Johnson. She’s been so central in the creation of our ERGs. And we have a lot of opportunities for creating connections, even though our company is totally remote, so you can meet different people that you wouldn’t otherwise. Because of these conversations, I was comfortable reaching out and expressing my interest in leading an ERG. 

Baig: We have a super supportive leadership team. What’s more, we have a bunch of allies. I didn’t realize how many allies we had until our company had off-site retreats. To be honest, this realization was inspiring. I took a piece of each conversation I had with people and determined we could make an ERG. The support was there. 

Stapp: ChartHop’s drive to be more inclusive, as well as their willingness to put financial backing behind it, definitely helped streamline our ERG creation. Like Cory mentioned, everybody goes out of their way to be supportive. And it’s from the top-down. Hearing our CEO talk about the importance of diversity and constantly making sure the company is acting on it is reassuring.

How did you name your ERG?

Stapp: The process was fun and hilarious. Some ideas were really bad and really funny. We went to our executive sponsor and discussed different ones. Luckily, we already had a pre-existing LGBTQ+ group, so we used that to collect the voices of our community. Cory’s suggestion, IRIS, won in the community vote, and it’s perfect for us. 

Baig: When we were creating names, I wanted to be as inclusive as possible – not just for the LGBTQ+ community, but for our allies as well. I thought, “What’s a name or an acronym that would make sense?” I was jotting down all these ideas like a mad scientist, and then it came to me.  

Zhu: For the Asian Alliance, we wanted something that was easy to speak to. We went back and forth as we considered Asian-American Alliance, but Siena made the great point that the purpose of our ERG was to promote diversity and be inclusive. We therefore wanted to be open to all peers from Asia, as well as our allies. 

What are some cost-effective ways to help further ERG initiatives?

Zhu: It’s all about getting creative. Leaders should come up with creative ideas: more happy hours, company social events, or local happenings that are free or cost-effective to drive attention to the DEIB efforts.

Stapp: A time of economic volatility is really when companies show their true colors when it comes to DEIB. A lot of this stuff doesn’t have to cost more. It comes down to: How are we supporting our people in our company? How are we making sure our people have the correct resources and we have people working for them or toward a goal? You can still encourage community and celebrate certain months if you don’t have a budget. And remember – you can still hear from the voices within your organization. It’s all about prioritization. 

Do you have additional advice for someone interested in creating an ERG?

Villegas: Not to plug ChartHop, but our employee directory in the org chart was the main way I was able to help create an Asian community. Because our employee profiles have an editable “About Me section”, I was able to find Asians, specifically those originally from Southeast Asia, at our company. This helps whenever we have new hires join our company as well. It gives you the ability to get to know people, invite them into your space, and further establish your ERG. 

Baig: Being a leader for our LGBTQ+ ERG, I’ve realized my work as a Senior BDR has increased so much because I have a safe space to just be me. I get to focus on things that I’m passionate about, and I get to do my job, too. So if you’re passionate about creating a specific ERG, and can get a couple of people to join you, why not try to do it, especially if you have the resources? It’s an amazing opportunity. 

More Lessons on DEIB

Interested in learning more about prioritizing your DEIB efforts? Check out our DEIB content on the blog, as well as the fireside chat below, for inspiration on how to approach critical initiatives that embed DEIB into company culture and help support your people. 

Join an intimate conversation between four People leaders about their DEIB practices, how they initiated the process, and the impact they’ve had on their workforce.

Watch the fireside chat here

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