Tali Lavarry – Author of Confessions From Your Token Black Colleague
Kara Goldin: Hi everyone. It’s Kara Goldin and I’m so excited to have our next guest here. Tali Lavvary. She is the author of a brand new book, Confessions From Your Token Black Colleague, and she’s also the founder of Yum Yum Morale. So welcome, welcome.
Tali Lavvary: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for having me here. Hi everybody. I’m so excited.
Kara Goldin: Very excited to have you here. So just a little bit of background on who we have here today. Really, really notable on so many levels. So she’s a former collaborator with Haas’s, that’s the Berkeley Center for Equality, Gender and Leadership, and a member of Washington State University’s Foster School of Business alumni. She actually lives up in Seattle and she’s also the founder, as I mentioned of Yum Yum Morale, diversity and inclusion consultancy that works with leaders and their employees to promote a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace. We know that that is on everybody’s mind at the moment as well. So can’t wait to dig in there a lot more.
Before devoting her life to workplace race relations, she worked as an events manager, planning and producing events in government, education, pharmaceutical, lots of different tech as well, lots of different sectors. And she’s had the honor of working with Marianne Williamson, the Golden State Warriors and of course the Barack Obama, very exciting, among other illuminaries and she’s truly a fearless leader, as many of you know, launching my book as we speak called Undaunted Leadership. Can’t wait to hear more about our journey on today’s show. So very, very excited. Welcome. And I can’t wait to dig in here. So take us back to the beginning. Did you always know that you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
Tali Lavvary: Yeah, I think so. No one’s asked me that. It reminds me of when I was young and I would say, “Oh, I’m so stressed.” And my mom would say, “How else do you even want to be?” [inaudible 00:02:32] all over the place? And if you want to be an entrepreneur, you better enjoy some level of being stressed. So, yeah, I think so. However, I think life and circumstances makes entrepreneurship hard, challenging, especially for someone like myself with no backing or having an example of that. And so I did go into the corporate world and found myself being a token all the time. Here we are.
Kara Goldin: Let’s talk about Barack. So what did you end up doing for Barack Obama?
Tali Lavvary: Well, that’s funny because Barack Obama is, I always say pushed me into entrepreneurship. The Barack Obama event was the very last event that I ever worked in corporate America, the one that pushed me to my breaking point. And it wasn’t because of Barack, just put that out there. However, that event was accidentally placed upon me through a company that I had recently started to work for. And when I got this event, what happens is they assigned different managers to different events. When I got it, it was just a simple, small 300 person event. No speaker in mind, no big deal. Just give it to her, whatever.
So about three months goes by and I’ve done all the planning I’ve taken ownership of the event, and then it pops up, the client goes, Oh yeah. So Barack Obama’s going to be the speaker. And so no surprise drama, drama, drama. A lot of the event space is very coveted because in that event space, there’s not a lot of minorities, first of all, there’s lots of perks that come with that travel fine dining, nice restaurants, working with celebrities. So I’d already gone through about a decade of just lots of microaggressions, lots of biases, lots of just blatant racism and discrimination. And I was not surprised when it was announced that Barack Obama would be the speaker at this event, I went through hell for probably another three months that led up to it. I didn’t sleep, I wasn’t eating properly. I was working around the clock so hard. It’s just a hard thing to do because I mean, the level of the people that are coming to see Barack, it is Barack. You want to give it your best.
Kara Goldin: And you have the secret service. [crosstalk 00:05:13]
Tali Lavvary: That is a whole other thing and all the [inaudible 00:05:16] and all the nuances and the permits and just all the things. And so long story short that event, they tried to hijack it for me time and time and time again. And so I had to go through so many mental gymnastics and just suck up so much abuse until the day of the event. I found myself here, the clients are happy. I’m running around. I remember I tracked over 20,000 steps that day. My legs were sore. I mean, I worked. So the first thing that happened was me, the lead of the event, you will not be getting a picture with Barack Obama. Okay, fine. In fact, put your phone down. You’re not even taking a picture on the cell phone. Wow. And there’s just like all this abuse happening. People just challenging me. People creating issues where there were none. It’s all I’m up from 5:00 AM until it was like 6:00, 7:00 PM and finally, my manager who had been extremely racist up to this point decides to text me, and the client’s happy. I didn’t even get to see Barack Obama. I saw him like on the stage, saw like his arm pass by. Secret service, the way they work, it’s like magic. You’ll see him, you’ll see his car. And then next thing he’s like up on the stage.
Kara Goldin: Yeah. How did this all happen? That’s so … So that was when you decided, after doing that event [crosstalk 00:06:42]
Tali Lavvary: … contact me, and this is the point where there should be champagne bottles popping, right. This is a great event. You’ve worked hard. The clients are happy. Everything went smoothly. Instead, she said, “Let’s get something on the calendar so we can have a meeting with someone to see what you could’ve done better.” And it was just the breaking point for me, because that had been her behavior leading up to up to this. And I’m just like, “Okay, this is impossible.” It’s really just impossible at this point. So at that point, it took some time, but I ended up, it took some, took a fight because what happened was I got to the point where I was like, “I can no longer handle this. We need to have a discussion about it.” And obviously they don’t want to hear about it. And I ended up leaving.
And I ended up leaving … I was dating the guy at the time and he was talking to me. “You should leave. Just forget it. Just take care. We’re going to be fine.” And then, so I leave the job and I’m already feeling really shaky. And I’m sad about it. I’m grieving my career at this point. Right. And about five days later, he comes and says, “I’m leaving. I’m going back to my ex. Good bye.” I just lost it.
Kara Goldin: It was coming from everywhere.
Tali Lavvary: There’s all kinds of other things that I was dealing with, but it was just like, that was just too much for me. And I found myself not wanting to live anymore and almost lost my life and thanks to my friends that were in Texas and Louisiana down in the South where I’m from, ended up calling and having someone to come and get me.
And I spent nine days, nine days, in a psychiatric hospital. And that’s where I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote in all of this came to me. Because what was happening was I’m in this hospital and I’m trying to talk to people I’m trying, and they’re just treating me like I’m delusional. And I had to check myself and I said, “Well, I’m thinking I was just on a plane going to do an event with Barack. And I had the company laptop and I had … How dare, do you know who you’re talking to?” And then it hit me. It’s like, “Yeah, you’re a woman in a psych ward.” That’s who they’re talking to. And I’m thinking, I’ve been running circles around you. And they’re, with all this authority, and I said, God, this is so much like corporate. This is so much like corporate. I have so much to say and they don’t even realize who I am, what’s within me, what my [crosstalk 00:09:00]
And I quickly learned, and it was down to the water cooler talk and the people that did it so well, and some of the people that really liked being there, but it was better than home. And I just was like, “Oh my god.” And I remember just writing over and over. “You don’t belong here. You don’t belong here, you don’t belong here.” And it was the [inaudible 00:09:16] And I said, “They’re not going to talk to me. They see me as a delusional psych patient. That’s where you put yourself.” I’m like, “You don’t belong here.” And so I said, “I’ve got to position myself, if I’m trying to go and talk to leaders, business leaders, CEOs, and I’m positioning myself as a token employee, they see me as a token employee.”
What they want to hear from me is have you pleased my client? How are you saving me money? How are you making me money? Are you getting along well with the rest of the team? They don’t want to hear about microaggressions or how this wasn’t fair or who didn’t do what. So I said, “What if you were to position yourself in a place where they would listen to you?” Being that token employee isn’t working for you, they’re not listening to you. As I walked out, I learned to be able play politics within the psych ward, because here’s the thing. They want to keep you in there. They want to keep saying, “Oh, she’s crazy. She’s this, she’s that.” And I had to learn to play the game, just like in corporate America. I had to get some allies. I had to get people and I had to get them to see that who I really am. And I remember I was walking out and the guy said, “Don’t you ever come back here. You don’t belong here.” And I just had chills. I just had chills.
And I was like, “That’s it. I’m not coming back here. I’m not going back into a setting where I am the token black.” And one thing I’ll tell you, within the black community, and I told them straight up, it’s not that I’m … “We have glamorized tokenism.” You are a big shot when you are that black girl that can go in and be the one that is accepted. It just works against us, and I just wasn’t good at it anyway. So that is how we landed in this space. And that literally will be a year ago that I left this loft apartment where my friends and I was so pissed. How did I get here? Who called on me? But it would be November 6th, one year.
Kara Goldin: Wow. Amazing. Well, congratulations.
Tali Lavvary: Thank you.
Kara Goldin: That was really … I mean, I think it’s great that you talk about it too, and that’s amazing. So you start this company, Yum Yum Morale. And talk to me a little bit more about that.
Tali Lavvary: Yeah, so I come home just before Thanksgiving. So it’s nine days after November 6th. And I’ve got this notebook that, and the book talks about me getting this red notebook and how, I don’t know, it was just how everything played, how everything lined up. It just feels magical, but I’ve got the notebook and I’m like, “Okay, what am I doing?” And I didn’t have the full picture. And a lot of people understand in business you don’t have the full picture, you just kind of know what you want to do. And I just started working and I just started typing and I just started putting things in place. By mid December, I formalized the business. So sometime, it’s the end of the year. In January, I hit the ground running, just going out, meeting people, talking to people, networking, understanding how to get bids and how to [inaudible 00:12:16] clients.
Around March is when I started getting work. A lot of it wasn’t quite what I wanted. People wanted to tell me what they needed in the diversity, equity and inclusion space at that time. They weren’t willing to listen and when I think back on it, they just want it to do a checkbox. They just want it to check off and just come in and talk about it and we can say that we did it. So I actually won a scholarship to one of the largest diversity, equity, and inclusion conferences. And I went there. It was March 11th through March 13th. Got there on March 11th. It was amazing. I’m like, “My book is coming out.” I met all these people, more money opportunities coming. By the 13th coronavirus has hit. I don’t even know if I’m going to be able to fly back into Seattle. So I come back and I’m like, “Why is my life like this? I wasted all my time and my money investing in a business. Nobody’s going to care. It’s all about this stupid virus now.”
So I’m just defeated. I’ve kind of started on the book. I’m just like, I don’t know what to do. For about a week. I let myself kind of sulk and then I said, “No, get up, keep writing the book, keep moving forward. Just act like everything’s fine.: And within maybe, I don’t know, it was a week or so then the George Floyd thing happens and my phone is ringing off the hook and I can’t even move fast enough.
Kara Goldin: That’s amazing.
Tali Lavvary: And I had planned to shop the book to maybe a publisher, but I’m like, it was such a long time frame with them and so much uncertainty. I said, “You know what, I’m going to go for it. I just want the message out there now.” And I worked hard and got it out there. And here we are.
Kara Goldin: That’s amazing. And so when you’re, so what’s the most important message that you really want readers to take from the book?
Tali Lavvary: Yeah. So my book is broken into three phases. There’s three sorts of chapters that you’ll find in the book and they’re all kind of mixed up. They are my [inaudible 00:14:04] stories and accounts, which people find extremely interesting. There are these professionals, white professionals, allies. I call the wind beneath the books of wings that come in and kind of vouch for it. They either have worked on affirmative action cases, they are white people that admit that they’ve messed up, white people in leadership positions that have tried to be equitable, try to have the conversation, messed up and they’ve come back around. And so I really liked that too. And then the third part is the actual confessions. And those confessions are me talking to each group or kind of person that I’ve worked with. And that is white women in particular, who I believe are 99% of the time, the offenders for lack of a better word. And then there are other token blacks, there’s other marginalized groups.
And then I spoke to white male CEOs, and there’s a big call to action for them because I believe that a lot of the books and the content, and a lot of people assume when I see my book, it’s got my face on it. And I’m like, “I’m the token.” They’re like, “Oh, I’m a black woman. And it’s for me, it’s going to be all about these stories where you’re complaining, or you’re going to tell us like how to be good or how to get a seat at the table.” And here’s my thing. We need all of that. That’s fine. A lot of us are there. We need all that. But black women are the most educated women in the United States. We are well-spoken, we are smart. We are hard workers. I feel like that message is there. That’s not my message.
I am placing the onus on the white male CEO who has the power to make the change. And what this book does is it allows him to step out of that ROI mindset, because when I’m the token, he doesn’t want to hear that the group did something that made it impossible for me to work. He wants to know, are you making me my money? Am I getting a return on the investment that I placed in you when I hired you. Well, now this book challenges that person in charge, ideally the white male CEO.
It challenges that person in charge to take a moment and live through my eyes, see what it is that black women, marginalized people in general, are dealing with while working inside of their companies. And it challenges them to stop for a moment and have empathy regarding the person and to acknowledge the systemic racism that is piled on top of people, such as myself, but intersectionality that a black woman deals with on the gender front, on the wage front, all of that, to really, really [inaudible 00:16:45] that up and understand that there needs to be a different level of understanding and that there needs to be more questions asked when this particular person is presented as anything other than great or a great return on your investment.
Kara Goldin: Interesting. And so what do you think is … When you get called into these companies, what is kind of the number one thing that they’re trying to fix? Do you still believe it’s like a checkbox or do you think that there really are leaders … I mean, my opinion is that there are leaders that are trying to fix things. I think that they just don’t really know how
Tali Lavvary: You took the words right out of my mouth. Yeah. Not only do they not know how, I think that they have become dependent on stating that they don’t know how. I think that that is a bit of a crutch. And I say this almost everyday when I’m talking, every day. I understand that … It’s not know how, a lot of people are like, “Oh my god, I didn’t know that racism was like this, I didn’t know that these things were really going on.” And okay, that’s fine. But we’re at a point now where I need to see that you care. And a lot of leaders are still trying to do the checkbox of course, more than ever they want the checkbox, but surprisingly, I am so raw. And so real, I believe strongly that I am able to make change. I believe strongly. Matter of fact, they tell me that I’m able to make change, that I’m able to …
Yeah. That’s the message that I give. And I think the boldness of calling out the white man that is in charge and to say that, “Hey, the onus is on you.” Some part of them, they like, they like that. It is challenging. It feels uncomfortable. I told a guy the other day, he was talking about how he … What did he say? He said that he was afraid to say certain things because of, he didn’t want to put politics on his business. And I said, “Those days are over.” The days of trying to … Politics is now just a completely different ball game. It used to be a day where we could say, “Hey, I get along with you and I understand your views …” Policy and views. Sure. We can disagree on those all day long, but politics now have become so deep rooted in racism that the days of you saying I’m going to hide from that, and I’m not going to do that.
That makes you a person that’s trying to hold onto your comfort and your privilege. I told him that. He’s like cringing, it’s uncomfortable. But he ended up buying a hundred books because he wants that message to get out. And although it’s cringey and it’s hard to hear, the people that really want to do better and be better, they appreciate my candor and me being honest. I have a chapter in the book, chapter eight. I always warn the white women. I said, “That’s the chapter where I confess to white women.” And they’re like, “Oh, I brace myself.” And some of them just went straight to it and read it. They are always so grateful. They’re like, “It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. I had to stop. I had to go breathe. I had to, it hurt.” And they say, “I get it. I’m that woman I’ve been that person I’ve been that person.”
I talk about white solidarity, which Dr. D’Angelo who wrote the book, White Fragility. Talks a lot about white solidarity. When I tell you that that is, again, it goes back to like 99.9%. It was white women that formed that white solidarity to work against me. And then they had the ear of the white man. And once they say it, it doesn’t matter. Facts don’t matter. Videos don’t matter. What the client said doesn’t matter when they formed that white solidarity and they comes one agreement that this is how we’re going to say we feel, or this is how we feel. And a lot of that, and just to explain for anybody who doesn’t understand it, what happens is if a white woman A has a problem with the token, and she mentions it to white woman B, subconsciously white woman B doesn’t even need to know the facts.
So consciously white woman B sides with white woman A because there’s this unspoken solidarity of like, “I can imagine how that just made you so uncomfortable. Oh and I know you. I know you.” And they even had to have had the nerve to say to me, “I know her, I know her. I don’t know you.” And it’s sort of, that’s not what this is about. What about the facts? What about the truth? And so it doesn’t matter a lot of times when you are a marginalized person in a work group. So.
Kara Goldin: Interesting. So what if you are a, I mean, you talked a little bit about this earlier, so what if you are a token individual in a workplace now, I often feel that … I’ve certainly worked in environments where I’ve been one of the only women in tech early on. I mean, it’s certainly gotten better, but I feel also like it’s a huge uphill battle and climb to actually constantly be trying to change environments. Right? It’s a lot, right? It’s a lot of energy, along the way. What advice would you give to yourself back in working in some of your environments where you felt that way?
Tali Lavvary: I spent years banging my head against the wall, trying to figure out what advice I needed to give myself.
I went and paid for therapists and coaches. And they kept trying to tell me, it’s not you. It’s not you. It’s not you. And I think that I’m at a space now, while I’m holding firm to, there’s nothing I could have told myself. I could have told myself to hold on. One day you’re going to be in a position where you can alarm from this and to be an advocate for others. But those that are there now, what advice would they need from me? Don’t glamorize tokenism. One of the ways that they can stop glamorizing tokenism is we have this thing where if it’s two of us at the workplace, when it’s time to go to lunch, Hey, meet me at the restaurant because we don’t want them to see us going together. We got to stop.
Yes, they believe that we’re up to no good, but guess what? That’s their problem. That’s their problem. We fight against each other. There’s this one coveted position where that one token can be friends with all of them, but the other one has to be an outsider. We have to stop. That’s my advice to people in that position. That in order for us to change, and we’re putting this onus on them to change, we have to change that actual belief about ourselves. We are people, we are human beings, educated, well-spoken, hard workers going into a job, doing a job. There is no reason that we should be walking around tiptoeing and trying to appease people that see us as something dark and that would be my opinion. And in the meantime, be honest, speak out about what’s going on as much as you can.
A lot of times you can’t. When you’re at work, you have to try to play the game. And a lot of the games that black women in particular are being taught to play in the workplace further damage us. So yeah, my advice is to those that are empowered to stop for a minute, to be comfortable enough, to hear this message and to put some things in place. And you talked about the energy, you talked about the investment. There’s $8 billion a year spent on diversity, equity, and inclusion training. However, there’s $64 billion a year spent on discrimination cases. Something’s off here. We need to be proactive and strategic. And that’s what my company does.
But the biggest thing that stops companies from doing that is the unconscious biases, the cultures that they have created, and then expect an outsider, we’ll call them to come in and feed into this culture, the different codes and secret languages that it’s like you need to figure out how to do that. The passive aggressiveness, all of those things have to be addressed and the time and the money has to be put in to making that change. And if you ask me, $64 billion in lawsuits, I think it’s worth it. I think it’s worth figuring out what the heck is going on and why does this continue to happen? Is it worth it from a financial standpoint? Ethically, ethically it’s worth it. It’s worth it.
Kara Goldin: Definitely. You know what I love just listening to talk more about this. I love the fact that you had a problem and you wanted to … and you basically took control of that and started your own thing. And really took everything that challenged you in the past with your great experience that you had and rolled that into a company, right. And so I think that, I mean, that’s just really noble, I mean, on a lot of … It’s great. And I really think that a lot of your advice and you talked a little bit about just different cultures. And I mean, I talk about this actually in my book coming out how my first job after college was working in New York City. I was an executive assistant and I was working at Time Magazine and the culture. I went to a state university in Arizona, I went to Arizona State University.
I never really realized that there was anything wrong with my education until I got into this culture. And so, and I don’t know what their culture is like today, but I think even though I was doing a great job and was sort of noted for doing a great job and people kind of highlighted the fact that like, “Oh, you went to a state school?” And, “How’d you get the job here?” And that sort of stuff after a while, I kind of looked at the fact that everybody was saying that I was doing a great job and that it was like not really my place that I wanted to hang out necessarily. And so I decided to go and take all of that great experience and those great reviews of me and go and take it.
And so in my next role, I ended up going to CNN and I worked at CNN. And that was a different type of culture where people were screaming in the hallways at each other when you did something wrong where I’m like, ah, like I don’t want that either, but what I’ve noticed, and ultimately when I went and built my own company, Hint, was that I could take all of these different cultures and bring them into the culture that I really loved, right. And I think that that’s … your company is still early, but I think that’s what you’ll find, and I bet with employees too, you’ll, I think understanding cultures and understanding … Ultimately I bet with your own employees, they’ll have things that they liked about their roles that they’ve been in and things that they didn’t like about the roles that they’ve been in.
And I just think that that’s really valuable because those lessons ultimately will be really, really important. So you started this company during the pandemic. You can still do your training through Zoom and so it’s been going super well. And obviously you’ve got this book out, where’s the best place for people to buy Confessions From Your Token Black Colleague?
Tali Lavvary: Yep. Just go to Amazon, put it in, it’s there. It’s also, you can do it at a Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million just do a search for it and it’ll pop right up and we’re waiting on the audio one, but they’re backed up apparently a lot of people are doing audio books right now, so, but it’ll be here I hope any day now.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome. So this is awesome. Where do people find you on social?
Tali Lavvary: So typically on all platforms, I’m at Your Token Black Colleague. So find me there.
Kara Goldin: Awesome. So what’s your favorite? Instagram or?
Tali Lavvary: You know, probably, it’s all of them. I do different things. I talk a lot on Facebook. I have seen a lot of friendly banter on Instagram and on Twitter. It’s just random, off the cuff, everything over there on Twitter, so it’s all good.
Kara Goldin: Awesome. That’s super great. So, well thank you so much for coming and really, really great. And if everybody would definitely, after you’ve listened to this great episode, definitely give high marks. And as you know, we’re here every Monday and Wednesday, and we’re really, really excited to have you here, so thank you everybody. And enjoy the rest of your week, everyone. Thanks so much.
Tali Lavvary: Bye.
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