194 See It to Be It : Public Accountant (w/ Uso Sayers)

On the eighth installment of our See It to Be It series, our amazing host Amy C. Waninger sits down to chat with Uso Sayers, CISA, an IT Audit Professional with over 14 years of public accounting experience who currently works as a managing director at Johnson Lambert LLP. Uso graciously shares a bit about how she got involved in public accounting and what about it appealed to her, and she names a couple organizations that help people of color feel supported and connected within the public accounting and IT audit field. She also discusses what surprised her about this work that she didn’t expect going in, and she and Amy emphasize the importance of finding the place where you’re different and going to listen.

Connect with Uso on LinkedIn.

Learn more about the National Association of Black Accountants.


Ade: What’s up, y’all? This is Ade. Before we get into Amy’s episode, I wanted to share some advice on working remotely. For those of us who are impacted by COVID-19, more commonly known as coronavirus–or if you’re not at all impacted by COVID-19 but you are working and transitioning into a more remote lifestyle–I just wanted to share six quick tips that you want to try out to work for you. I do want to say that I don’t necessarily abide by all of these rules. I simply know that they are good things to follow based off of me implementing them at some point or another or folks who are better, smarter than me offering these things up as advice. So first and foremost, I would set up a strict calendar. By that I mean I would accept every invite for every meeting. I would have any break times that I wanted to schedule. If there’s a point when you’re working remotely where you have a cleaner or a plumber or you have a doctor’s appointment, keep an updated calendar and make sure that you are updating your team, because it helps you work asynchronously across your team. If folks know that you’re not gonna be available between the hours of 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. Eastern time because you’re asleep, or some psychos are in the gym, it gives them an opportunity to not pester you while you’re away but also think through some questions of how they may better utilize your time when you do get back online. My second tip would be to use check-ins with your co-workers. By that, I mean use your daily stand-ups [?]. Use your Slack team channels if that’s a thing. Use those things to keep in contact with your teams, because it’s very easy to lose perspective in a sense and lose empathy for your friends or for your coworkers if they’re not constantly top of mind. So in that sense, I would remember, you know, team birthdays. Maybe establishing a Slack reminder that it’s someone’s birthday [and] you all should go drop a Happy Birthday gift in their messages. All of that to say [laughs] that if you can remember to treat your teammates as teammates, as people, not just, you know, an avatar on the other side of the conversation you’re having about poorly deployed code, it makes for a better work environment, as distributed as it may be. Thirdly–and these also sort of go hand-in-hand, but I would say that you should over-communicate. This also kind of ties into your strict calendar. Over-communicate. Ensure that any time away from your desk, any planned work that you’re gonna be working on, any roadblocks that you’re having, you say those things before they become problems, because it’s so much easier to kind of get ahead of the horse before it gets out of the table. I don’t know if that’s an idiom that people actually use anymore, [laughs] but I do think that it’s important to ensure that folks aren’t caught blindsided, that if you’ve been working on something and you’re stuck on it, give people an opportunity to help you out, and give others the grace to see you where you are so that you don’t foster resentment. It’s much easier to get something done if you speak up about it sooner rather than later, and it’s difficult. I know, for one, it’s something that I’ve had my issues with, especially in situations where you are, you know, bound to your home. Reduce your stress levels and just ask for help. Actually there was one thing that I didn’t mention at the top when I said “Set up a strict calendar.” On your calendars, I also recommend that you put your self-cues. If you’re someone like me who–I drink a lot of caffeine over the course of the day, and I recently spoke to a nutritionist who kind of reminded me that when you work asynchronously and when you consume a lot of caffeine, caffeine suppresses your appetite, and it causes you to fall into really unhealthy eating patterns. More often than not, when you find yourself at home throughout the day you get really comfortable–too comfortable sometimes–so I kind of encourage that you set up your calendar so that you have a routine, so that you’re not just, you know, at home and not separating what is home from what is official work time. So when you’re working from home, set up your calendar so that you have a routine. Have, you know, time for a shower, time for breakfast, time for the gym if that’s something you do in the morning, so that you have a much more regimented schedule. And on your calendar as well, put in your hunger cues. If you’re gonna eat at, I don’t know, 7:00 a.m., if you’re gonna eat breakfast or drink a smoothie at 7:00 a.m., it stands to reason that by maybe 11:00 you might need a small snack, so put a snack cue in your calendar. Maybe at 12:30 you’re going to need your larger lunch. Put your lunch on your calendar. These things are important to help you establish a routine around your new lifestyle. Okay, we skipped back up to one, so I’m just gonna finish up with five and six. #5 is to protect your space. Whether it’s that you need a physical demarcation of where work happens versus where life happens or if you’re the sort of person who is able to, you know, keep up with the simultaneous demands of your work life and your home life, then it doesn’t really matter where you work as long as work gets done. Just make sure you’re protecting your space. Make sure that, if your close of business is 5:00 p.m., you’re not allowing the fact that you work from home to have you check, you know, e-mails at 11:30 p.m. when you’re supposed to be asleep. Ensure that you’re protecting your space and establishing boundaries in that way, and help others understand and protect those things by communicating what your boundaries are. Just because we’re working from home and we’re mandated to work from home doesn’t mean that my time after, you know, 5:30 p.m. is available to you, and if you see me online, mind your business. As far as you are concerned I am off work, unless it is a dire emergency. And then the sixth thing is don’t forget to move. It’s very easy, I know. I fell into the trap of eating inconsistently, over-indulging, under-indulging, such that after I had worked remotely for a while I realized that it was getting harder for me to, like, move physically, and it’s easier to get ahead of that by simply incorporating movement into your day so that you don’t develop back problems or spine problems or anything like that as far as your abilities may allow, but I also think that it’s a good way to get out of the monotony and to inject some freshness and a fresh perspective into your day. If you just incorporate a quick 10-minute walk or maybe do some squats or, you know, whatever it may be that you can incorporate into your life to make your life easier, that is helpful and beneficial to you and obviously doesn’t take away from you enjoying your day, I would say you should incorporate those things. I’ve been blathering on for a while. I hope these tips helped you out. Please let us know if there are any tips that work for you when you work remotely or asynchronously with your teams. That’s it for now from me. Thank you so much for listening in. Next up you have Amy.

Amy: Hi, Uso. Thank you for joining me.

Uso: Hello, Amy. Good evening. It’s my pleasure.

Amy: Thank you. So I was wondering if you can tell me a little bit about your job as a tech auditor and how you got into that work.

Uso: Okay, sure. So being in public accounting, I guess you could say I happened upon it. So I had an undergrad in accounting, and I was in grad school studying finance. Given that I had accounting background I figured, “Hey, finance will be a good thing that can, you know, supplement and complement my accounting degree.” So I started doing that and I realized I really didn’t like finance, so I added information systems as a second major. But doing that opened up–because this was back in 2002 to 2004 when Enron was happening, [?] was going down, so SOX became a big thing. I graduated in ’04, and SOX–you know, filers had to be compliant with SOX in 2004, and–

Amy: And SOX is the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation that sought to put some protections in place for consumers because companies were behaving very badly.

Uso: Exactly. [laughs] I could not have said that better. And so most companies, especially large companies, were required to have IT audits performed. They had controls that they had implemented, and these controls needed to be validated. So that’s kind of how I got into the [?] realm. Now, fast-forward 15 years, I’m still doing it because I absolutely love it. I love learning about companies and understanding their control structure so I, you know, can figure out how we can help them, how we can give them recommendations that they can implement.

Amy: And when you talk about control structures, you mean things like separation of duties or checks on security so that the people who are accessing the system only have certain rights, the minimum rights that they need to do what they need to do and not extra stuff, right?

Uso: Yes, exactly. So, you know, most of the company’s financials come from one of the systems, and what was happening back in the day, one person can take a transaction through the system without anyone else touching that transaction. So I can create a vendor, I can pay that vendor. I can then determine where that check goes where that vendor, which leads to fraud or could lead to fraud–errors too, but fraud is one of the bigger reasons, because one [?] could pretend to be a vendor and the company never get any products or services, but I’m also the receiving clerk, so I can check off that this item that we’ve ordered has been received, and then I send the payment. Or I can even do it for myself, you know? Create some type of a dummy company with my address and then pay myself that way, and a number of companies actually lost money that way. But then there are also other ways outside of just fraud. You can have errors. You can also just have things that are–when you are developing code, and I know we’re kind of getting into the technical realm, but when you’re–and that’s where a lot of errors could potentially happen, but when you’re developing code you have the ability to determine how things are being calculated. So you can determine that 1 times 1 is equal to 100 versus 1, and if there aren’t checks and balances in place to validate that 1 times 1 is 1, then, you know, the company could be losing money and not realize it. I always remember when I was in college, one of the things they always talked about was the [Lloyd fraudware?]. I think the guy changed one of the configurations by, like, a penny, and he was siphoning that to his own account, and I think he ended up getting millions of dollars.

Amy: Oh, my gosh.

Uso: You know, so now having–ensuring that the same person who is creating and developing the configuration is not the person who is making that configuration the final configuration in the system, or at least having somebody inserted to check it and make sure it’s doing what the company thinks it’s doing, you know? That’s kind of what we call the control structure.

Amy: Got you.

Uso: Now, with cybersecurity, the security piece is getting focus. I think with SOX, this change management piece was the big deal then. Security was important, but now with cybersecurity and personal information and protecting that personal information, security is being put on the map so to speak.

Amy: Mm-hmm, very good. So I know you got into this kind of a little by accident, because you were down the accounting path and then you just got interested in the IT side of things, but what surprised you about this work that you didn’t expect before you got into it?

Uso: It is interesting. You know, when you–at least I when I thought of accounting, I thought “boring.” And, you know, finance to some extent, but then even though IT audit is not truly core IT, you have the ability to learn a lot about the technical side of what companies do, because before you can offer a company recommendation you have to understand what they have configured and what they have in place, what systems they have, what infrastructure those systems sit on, and then how they’re securing their environment, how they’re ensuring that, you know, they’re protecting–another big area in the IT control realm is that [?] recovery. If we remember 9/11, a number of companies went under because all of their operations were in that building. You know, Tower 1 or Tower 2. They did not have any of that information backed up to a different location. Now we all have phones, and you’d be surprised to know how many people do not back up their pictures and their contact information outside of their phones. So the phone falls in some water, and that’s all of their information. And so, you know, that’s also one of the areas that we look at, because in 2018, 2019, there’s still companies that do not back up data or do not back up frequently, which may sound surprising. [laughs] But it is true. And helping them understand why it’s important, or understand why it’s important to back it up to something other than the machine where you have the information or outside of the building where you have your information so that you can access it if something happened. You know, you might have people say, “Well, we’re not in a [?] plane.” Okay, but a pipe could burst. You know? So [laughs] the risks are still there, and, you know, we help companies understand what their risks are so that they can design controls, they can help them make [?] those risks.

Amy: That’s terrific. So a lot of computing is moving to the cloud, and how are you managing those same risks when the companies don’t own the servers and the computers that the work is really being done on?

Uso: So two things. The company now has to hold their service provider, that cloud provider, accountable, and they also are still accountable, because at the end of the day it’s their data. It’s their information. As a client of theirs, I gave them my information. I did not give the cloud my information. So when something happens, I go to the company that I gave my information to. So what companies are doing, there’s something called a SOC report, Service Organization Controls report. So the cloud service providers have auditors come in and review their controls, and one of the reasons why the cloud service providers are so successful [is] because they’re doing such a large-scale operation. They can afford to have, you know, the best auditors come in, validate their controls, and they can afford to put robust controls in place. So a lot of these companies–the larger cloud providers I guess I should say, because some of the smaller ones are not as sophisticated, but the larger ones, they have very robust controls in place, and they love to have auditors come in and look at it and try to tear it apart so that they can demonstrate that their controls are robust. And even those large companies have incidents happen, you know? That’s why the Amazons of the world, they have data centers on both coasts and different places, because things happen, and for companies that do not have the infrastructure in place to support that in house, putting it on the cloud is probably the next best thing because it’s going into a secure infrastructure. Now, where some companies think, “Oh, I just put it in the cloud. It’s okay.” You have to ensure–the cloud companies, in those SOC reports there’s something called complementary user entity controls, and what that says is I have this gate, but you design the lock, and you design who has access to that lock. And companies don’t realize that, so they think “Oh, it’s in the cloud. It’s okay,” but no, there are those complementary user controls. If you are not doing those things, then the cloud service provider can say, “Well, we did what we’re supposed to do, but they came in through the gate. We put up the fence of the infrastructure, but the people came through the gate because they didn’t put a lock on the gate like they were supposed to.” They will tell you what are the things–you know, they may say, you know, “You must authorize all users that are granted access,” or for firewalls, the firewall is kind of the router, I guess, so to speak. I’m trying to find a good way to explain it, but the firewalls protect the network. So, you know, if you have internet traffic, it has to flow through the firewall. The firewall validates that this traffic is coming from a computer that’s authorized before it can view your information. But you have to set up the firewall to do that. The cloud service provider is not configuring your firewall to tell which of your people can come in and view your information, and sometimes companies don’t realize that. So it’s easier, but you have to take the steps to also ensure that you’re doing those things that you need to do.

Amy: Thank you for that. So, you know, I think it’s fascinating the way this role is changing in terms of IT and just all of the technology that’s available and the way our platforms are changing. I grew up in IT back in the day, and it seems like this is a place that is ripe with opportunity for people just coming out of college or maybe even looking for a career change. What would you say to someone who’s interested in learning more about whether or not they might be a fit for this industry? What kinds of resources are available to them to learn more?

Uso: And this is tricky, ’cause I wish schools–and I think some schools are getting there, ’cause ideally the colleges will be providing guidance in this area because there’s so many career opportunities in the IT field, even in public accounting. So even the traditional–you know, even the traditional accountant or auditor is different now. For the financial audit teams, they’re adding data scientists and they’re adding data analysts, so those are fields that maybe five to ten years ago, it wasn’t a thing, and people may not know that. Even four years ago, some people entered school and that was not a career path, and now in your graduating years it’s an opportunity. Project manager, you know? You know, if you’re on the company side, project managers are in great demand. Certified information systems security professionals, you know? They’re in great demand. It can be intimidating, but Google’s probably the best place to start because that usually has the most updated information. I can tell you a number of universities, and, you know, when you look up careers in auditing or careers in IT auditing, you’ll see that it’s no longer traditional just control management. There are risk management roles, security roles, the data roles like I said, and the data roles are becoming more and more important because of big data. You know, companies have all this data. Somebody has to analyze that data and assess it and determine, you know, how can we use it. Even for auditors, you’re getting information from a company, you want to know if there’s all of the information that I need. So let’s say you’re auditing an insurance company [and] you get a list of claims. You have to performance procedures to ensure that that list of claims has all of the claims that you wanted to see for the period of time that you wanted to see it. So you may see “I need to see all claims for 2018 over a million dollars.” Well, how do you know that this report that they gave you has all this information on it? You have to do some type of validation procedures to get comfortable that the information on the report is complete and then do your auditing procedures to, you know, understand and test the accuracy of it. A lot of times also the bigger firms–so in public accounting the big four firms and some of the larger public accounting firms, they also have a lot of info on their website that can potentially help. But again, that may be skewed to their company. So I would say start with just, you know, a broad search on Google depending on what aspect of IT you’re interested in and then kind of use–you know, I always go for a known site. So, like, if I’m Googling something and I see Harvard is in the top six, I probably will click on the Harvard Business Review’s point of view and read there first before going to the next thing, ’cause there’s some things that make you go like, “Hm, I don’t know.” [both laugh]

Amy: So what about for people of color in this industry? I would imagine that there’s a predominance, especially in management ranks and probably in some of the bigger companies–I know a lot of the bigger companies are really committed to diversity initiatives, but I would imagine that it’s common for a person of color who goes into this work to be the only on their team or the only in their department. What resources or organizations are available in this industry so that people can feel supported, feel like they have a community in this space?

Uso: Right, yeah. And it’s interesting. So public accounting generally, yes, is still pretty traditional, all white male, but I noticed the IT audit side is very diverse. It’s very interesting, because I think it’s one of those areas where your skill–yes, politics play a part, but your skill set is needed and your skill set is valued and respected. And there are an number of resources. Most of the bigger firms have affinity groups that, you know, they’re either women’s groups, groups that are by race, and then even for sexual and gender-type diversity, there are groups for that. And then outside of the firms there are also various groups. You know, there’s Women in Technology. There’s the National Association of Black Accountants. There’s the National Society of Black Engineers. There are a number of affinity groups that are out there that focus on helping minorities 1. connect with each other and 2. be exposed to the resources and development that they need in order to progress in their organizations, and it’s one of those things where I personally feel like it’s–when I started in public accounting, I was a member of the National Association of Black Accountants, and I felt like that really helped me to 1. understand what it takes to be a professional. It helped me to expand my network, because I got to meet not only people in my firm, but also people in other firms. I got to meet professionals at my level, professionals that were higher than me, professionals that were my gender, my race also outside of that, and that really helped me to have a wider view, a wider point of view and different points of view, as I progressed through my career. Some people feel as though these groups sometimes hinder your career, and I say it only does that if you’re not being smart about how you’re using your time. Because sometimes I think people only use this opportunity for social networking. They don’t use it for any technical development. They don’t use it to help auditors–like, one of the errors I have focused on as I was coming up in my career was the development of [?] students. So things that I learned, I would go back and present on campus or, you know, in that I was director of student [?] services, so, you know, help them build some of the governance documents, and even talk to some of the professors about some of the things that I’m seeing and things that they should be implementing and instilling in their students. So I’m a firm believer in it. Now, I can tell you that my white counterparts will always be like, “Well, why do we need a group for black people? What would happen if we had a group for white people?” It’s like, “Kind of technically we do.” [laughs]

Amy: [laughs] Kind of all the groups are for white people unless they’re saying specifically that they’re not.

Uso: Yeah, ’cause I think sometimes you get discriminated against. You know, people don’t want to do it because they don’t want to say that “I’m in this group,” that, you know–and the group may be, you know, black or Latino or whatever in the name. There’s alpha. There’s also the [?] for the Asians, but even though the groups have that in their name, we welcome everyone, because we realize that we need that perspective from, you know, the white male manager, the white female manager, because they’re the ones that can help us understand what their points of view are, and then we can also help them, because sometimes they realize, “Oh, wait. My view might be skewed,” or “I was never exposed to anyone outside of my town, my city, my race,” you know? So usually it’s a two-way learning experience.

Amy: So I want to put a really fine point on that, because I always tell people, “Go to the conference that’s not for you. Show up at the meeting that’s not for you. If you’re at a conference, go to the breakout where you’re not on the menu.” Right? Like, find the place where you’re different and go listen, because I think it’s important for people–you know, the same person who says, “Why do we need an association of black accountants?” That’s the person that needs to go to the meeting to listen, to learn why they need associations of black accountants, right? They have no ideas what kinds of barriers are in place for people who don’t look like them, and so, you know, I always challenge people and they say, “Well, yeah, but, you know, how do I even learn about this?” Go sit down in the back of the room, don’t raise your hand, take notes, pay attention, and–“What if someone asks me what I’m doing there?” And I say, “Tell them you’re there to learn, and then zip it.” [Uso laughs] Like, nobody’s going to ever get mad at you because you want to learn more about their experience, right? So thank you for being on that train with me.

Uso: And I’ve had people who have said being in that room where they were the only really opened their eyes, because they’re sitting there and they’re like, “Oh, my goodness. I’m so uncomfortable.” And then they start realizing, like, “This is so-and-so from my group who is the only. This is probably how they feel.” And I think sometimes that’s such good advice to give, because going out there and experiencing, there’s nothing that compares to that. Hearing second-hand about it, I don’t think you could fully appreciate it. I also liken it to parenthood, you know? Before you have a child, you have all of these things that you know exactly how to raise a child, how a child should behave, everything, and then you have yours and you’re like, “Oh, my goodness. This is not anything like I thought it would be. I can’t control my child. My child runs wherever.” You know, you can’t keep up, and you start to appreciate parents more because you realize how difficult it is to be a parent. So sometimes you do have to sit in that person’s shoes so you can understand what they experienced.

Amy: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s so funny because I–yeah, I think my kids–on that point, I think each one of my kids exists for the sole purpose of proving me wrong on something I said before I had children. [both laugh] I don’t want to get off-topic, but yes, you are right about that. It is so much easier to be a good parent before you have kids. But I think for a lot of people, you know, that self-awareness and that self-consciousness that they feel for the first time, you know, people can go a long way through their lives with never having that kind of moment where they have to be self-aware and they feel very self-conscious, and when they realize in that moment that other people have felt that way for, you know, 25, 30, 45, 50 years, right, in their careers, and, you know, I think there’s just an amazing amount of empathy that can happen in those epiphanies. So I’m so glad to hear someone else say, “Come to the meeting.”

Uso: Yes, it’s so important. And you can never, never not benefit from being there. It will be uncomfortable. I cannot promise you that it won’t be uncomfortable, because people will probably look at you like, “Hm. Is she [?]?” “Do I have to be careful what I say?” Because sometimes, you know, people do–in some of these meetings, people do get a level of comfort where they share openly, and sometimes when there’s somebody in the group that’s of that group that they’re talking about they may not share as comfortably, but you need to be there. You need to understand some other things that people see. And I always, even to my colleagues and black friends, I’m like, “You have to also look on the other side.” So some of them, you know, yes, at work we’re usually only, but sometimes going to some of these other conferences and understanding the expectations can help us also. So I have always tried to go to my NABA conference, but I also go to my ISACA conference, which is, you know, the Information Systems Audit and Control Association, which governs the work I do, and now that I’m in the insurance industry I go to the, you know, insurance accounting and systems association conference because I want to develop the technical knowledge and the technical skills so that I can have those conversations and be comfortable. I mean, you start to realize there are some people who are just idiots and that’s just who they are, but more and more when you go out and meet other people, you realize that getting people and having them learn a little about you and you learn about them breaks down some of those barriers, because a lot of things are just perception. They’re not reality. They don’t really just hate you because you’re a black woman, you know? Sometimes they just–they don’t know what to say to you, and for me it’s a little harder because am I a black woman, I’m a black woman from a different country. [laughs] So some of the things that are culturally acceptable and expected, I don’t always know about it, and my friends always–you know, they gave me the whole “Bless your heart” kind of thing [laughs]. There’s some things that I just don’t know, but I am not afraid to learn. I am not afraid to learn, and I’m always going out there so that I can learn and develop and become a better person.

Amy: I think that’s fantastic. So you and I had talked before about–I’m gonna switch gears a little bit on you, but you and I had talked before about how each of us, you know, people in general, we kind of contribute to the de facto segregation and the narrowing of our own professional networks and our own communities and, you know, only hanging out with people who are just like us until we had that moment when we realized, “Oh, my gosh. I’ve done this to myself and I didn’t even realize it,” and I was wondering if you could share a little bit about your experience with that.

Uso: Sure. So when I moved to the U.S. and I started my public accounting career I was in New York, and I remember my first time going to training. It was, let’s say, 2,000 professionals, and the black professionals were a very small group there. We were there for two weeks. The first few days, I would always go find my friends and, you know, go sit at that table, and I don’t remember if somebody said something to me, I don’t remember what it was, but one day I decided, “You know what? Let me just go sit at one of these tables,” and I can tell you, I mean, of those 2,000 people, if we had 100 people who were not white, that probably was a large amount. So, you know, I’ll go a little bit off-topic for a second. I always hear people say, you know, “Oh, is that so-and-so?” And they may take you for somebody else, and then black folks will be like, “Why do they think we all look alike?” Being in that room, like, there were, like, so many guys that, to me, I couldn’t tell who was Joe from Jim from Bob. [That] made me, like, really understand how it is that we can all look alike, but side-note. But being in there and looking around and seeing all of these different people, you know, I thought “Let me go sit from people who are not from New York, who are not black, who I’ve never met before.” So I started, for lunch and dinner breaks, just going to sit at random tables with people that I had not met before. You know, I developed relationships. I met people who I was so similar to that, you know, it was very interesting. And after that, even at work, you know, I started having conversations, and I remember I was on a team once, and then–you know, I always said that if you heard the conversations and the things we talked about as a team or the shows that we watch, the music we listen to, and people just told you the thing and you had to map it to the person, you would get it wrong, because the person who could quote the movie Friday was not the black girl on the team, and the person whose favorite movie was Pretty Woman was not the white girl on the team, you know? And that’s when I started realizing that we have a lot more similarities than differences, and the only way I got to know that was to step out of my comfort zone and go meet people that I had not met before and be uncomfortable. And it wasn’t even–I mean, yes, at first, you know, it takes a little [?], but once you sit there, people are pretty friendly. There are some who are not as friendly, but for the most part people were friendly and willing to, you know, open up.

Amy: Thank you for sharing that. You know, I think if we all start with just being a little uncomfortable at first, and then what used to be a little uncomfortable becomes comfortable, and then we start to be a little uncomfortable again, and pretty soon you build that muscle memory to where it’s not all that uncomfortable anymore.

Uso: Yep. And I’ll share another story. I have two kids. I have an almost 9-year-old and a 6-year-old, and I remember when my son, who’s the older one, was in preschool and we had to look for an elementary school, we looked at a number of schools. Private schools, public schools, charter schools, and one of the things that–I think he was in pre-K, and he was telling us about a friend in his class and something that he said, but he wanted to–so he told us the boy’s name, but we didn’t know–we didn’t recognize the name, so we were like, “Oh, which one is this?” And he’s like, “Well, the one that looks like people on TV,” and we realized he didn’t have, you know–’cause he had just started his new preschool, but before that, all of the years that he was in preschool, it was a predominantly black preschool. So he didn’t have any white boys in his school, and then we started looking around and realizing that that was our network. So we made a concerted effort that wherever he goes to real school is going to be a diverse place, because he really shouldn’t have to describe somebody based on what they look like on TV. He should know them, be able to relate to them, and have relationships with them, and it’s so great now to see that he has such a diverse network and that I feel like I can’t wait to see kind of what their future looks like, ’cause I think they will have a different perspective on diversity than we do, ’cause to them it’s like, “That’s just my friend.” “That’s not my white friend, that’s not my black friend. That’s my friend.”

Amy: Oh, I sure hope so. And I think there’s another angle to that too, which is that it’s sad that the representation that he sees on TV is so predominantly white.

Uso: Different story, but yes. [both laugh]

Amy: I didn’t want to let that moment pass. I think that there’s another lesson in there about media and representation and those sorts of things, but, you know, I’m grateful. I’m grateful for other parents out there who can, you know, self-reflect on the kinds of experiences and exposure that their kids are getting and say, “Oh, we need to be intentional about this. We need to be intentional about bringing more diversity and exposing our children to different types of people.” I was wondering. I know that you have experience as a volunteer leader within some of the companies that you’ve worked in around bringing together diverse employees and their allies, and I was wondering if you could share a little bit about what drove you, what motivated you to do that work–which can be exhausting and thankless and on your own time and in addition to your day job–and also just a little bit about what you got out of that experience?

Uso: Yep, sure. I think I’ve always had a servant/leader-type mentality, because growing up my dad always, for birthdays and holidays, took us to places where we could volunteer to help others. He was a baker, so we would bake, and then we would serve–you know, he’d take us to different homes. One was a children’s home for children who had polio and then one was an old people’s home. When I moved to the U.S., I first started volunteering at the library for people who couldn’t read, and I realized–the thing that attracted me was this flier that said, “If you can read this you can help, because there are people who can’t read this.” And I was like, “Really?” And I met people who were over 21, all the way up to, like, 60, who couldn’t read, and I’m talking about don’t know that t-o-i-l-e-t is toilet. They just use the picture of the door to know that that’s where they go to use the bathroom. In school I volunteered. [?] I used to help kids with homework, but once I got into the profession and I realized that there are opportunities 1. to network with others like myself, but also to help others in the firms, I loved it. I jumped at that opportunity. So I moved from New York to Indiana in my second year as a professional, and being in Indiana, I did not have a lot of others that looked like me in the firm. We didn’t have enough to have, like, a black employees network, so we ended up in a multi-cultural circle, which was great because we had people from different parts of the world, different genders, different thought processes, and because we didn’t have, like, black partners or Indian partners, our leaders were the white partners. So that really helped us 1. we got the support we needed, but 2. we were able to have conversations and understand what it took to grow in the firm. One of the things that I did was to organize these many–what did we call them? It was, like, Breakfast with a Leader. So each partner would meet with three to four professionals from the group for either lunch or breakfast and just get to know each other. That was so powerful, and I still have relationships with some of those people today even though I’m no longer with that firm. And, you know, one of my partners was always telling me about this client contact that he wanted me to meet, and, you know, people always tell you they want you to meet people, but when I finally met the person he wanted me to meet, the first thing the person said to me is “This guy really respects you. He has been telling me about you for the past year.” And that–sometimes you don’t realize that. You don’t have that. You don’t get that. You know, people will say whatever, but they don’t follow up with their actions and match it, and so I think that whole experience, I still say that I think 1. if I stayed in Indiana I probably would still be with that firm, but that just really helped me to grow as a person, helped me understand my weaknesses, things I need to develop, helped me educate others on us as a group and help them see, you know, us as we are high-performing professionals just like everybody else. We just have differences, but those differences are not hindrances. So, you know, educating them and then educating ourselves. It was just a really powerful experience.

Amy: That’s breaking down the walls between you, right? And I think so many times people look–when they look mentor, they look for people who are just like them because that’s what’s the most comfortable. Not because there’s any animosity, right, between them and another group or not because they harbor any ill will, just because they don’t want to be uncomfortable with that first minute either, and so what you really did was you took away that discomfort and opened up–you know, opened up the channel for people to be mentored and, you know, for executives to find mentors that didn’t look just like them, and that’s powerful.

Uso: Yep, it was very powerful, and it’s really helpful because a lot of times you really do try to go to people who look like you, and one of the things that I’ve learned is you need people as mentors who have had similar experiences to you, but it doesn’t matter what they look like. If you are a high-performing individual who is on the fast track in your company, it is very helpful for you to have a high-performing mentor, because having a mentor that may take, you know, three or five years less than you would take to get to a level, they may not understand what you need to do to get there because they didn’t do that, but having a white mentor versus a black mentor probably won’t make a difference to you, because what you need more is someone who has the technical capabilities and the connections to get you where you need to go, and I think people undervalue the need to have advocates, ’cause the advocates are the people who have the power to connect you and also sell you and get you to where you aspire to go. Having a mentor is great, but if your mentor does not advocate for you, you know, then you may not be getting the best out of that relationship, and I think sometimes why people try to build the relationship, the mentor-type relationship, with people who look like them is because they may have tried to develop a trusting relationship with someone who broke that trust, and then they associated that, breaking that relationship, with the person’s race. No, that person is probably a person who would have broken somebody’s trust regardless of who it is that they’re mentoring. And yes, I do, you know, accept that there are people who haven’t [?] somebody different. They may have acted differently, but I’m learning now that it’s a smaller group of people. It’s not as large a group of people as we think, and sometimes we generalize that one-off experience and kind of take the brush and paint the whole wall with it to say, you know, “All white men, you can’t trust them because this is what happened to me,” but you’ll learn that sometimes you can trust people more than you think and a lot of the people who have helped me in my career have not looked like me. A lot of them were not my same gender, and, you know, they were very honest with me, and I think what was helpful was for me to be open-minded and receive information, ’cause what I’ve learned is sometimes we’re not receptive to constructive feedback, and because of that we are not given the truth, so we don’t really know the reason why we didn’t make it to the next level. And a lot of times it’s not just because of what we look like, but it’s because of what our work output looks like. Which, you know, as we all know, there is no color there, you know? But if you don’t know if your work is not of the quality that is, you know, expected of you, you may not know that you need to improve your work quality.

Amy: That is true, and a lot of times we have to have trusting relationships to get good feedback. You have to build that relationship first so that people know that they can trust you with their feedback. How you receive feedback is so important as to whether you will get it a second time, and I tell people, don’t punish the people who praise you, because if somebody’s giving you a compliment, if somebody’s telling you you did a good job and you belittle that praise, they’re not gonna tell you next time, and you’re not gonna know when you’re on the right track, and you may hear something constructive that you don’t want to hear, but if you can say, “Thank you for making me better. I’d like to think about that,” even if you do nothing with it–if all you say is, “Thank you. I’d like to think about that,” that goes so far in building a relationship with someone. And then if you do actually think about it and come back to them with questions later, even better, right? Because they know that you really have a desire to improve. So spot on. Oh, I love talking to you. [both laugh]

Uso: And it is hard, ’cause you do not want to hear that you suck. [both laugh] You know? You don’t, and I can tell you that I have received feedback that hurt me to my core, and I’m sure my facial expression and my reaction was not the most receptive, but I went away and realized, “Oh, my goodness. This is true,” and one of the things that I had to realize–there is this one person who I had one shot to work with her, and I had come to her with a lot of praise and, you know, all of this stuff surrounding me, and I screwed up, and, you know, she had a lot of influence in what happened to my career that year, and I was mad, but then, you know–it took a while, but then I realized she only had one shot at me, and I screwed that shot up, you know? She didn’t find all of the errors in my work. I put the errors there. I missed the stuff. But at the time it was happening it was not easy for me to realize that, you know? You have to really sometimes, like you said, just say, “Thank you for making me better,” and go away and think about it and not just be like, “What? When? Where? How? What? I didn’t–” You know? “Thank you for making me better.” I like that. I think I’m gonna use that. [both laugh]

Amy: So in the time that we have left, I’d love for you to answer–like, finish two of my sentences. The first one is, “I feel included when _______.”

Uso: I feel included when my opinions are asked and respected.

Amy: And the second sentence is, “When I feel included, I ________.”

Uso: When I feel included, I am happy, and I’m usually looking for ways to help include others.

Amy: Thank you so much, Uso.

Uso: My pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity.

Amy: This was so much fun, and I hope we get to talk again soon.

Uso: I’m sure we will.

Amy: All right.

Uso: All right, take care.

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