Michelle Kim is the co-founder and CEO of Awaken, a leading provider of modern and interactive diversity, inclusion, and leadership workshops. Prior to Awaken, Michelle had a successful career in both tech and management consulting, working with C- and VP-level executives to build high-performing organizations around the world. She’s also been a lifelong social justice activist and served on a variety of organizations, such as the LGBTQ Speakers Bureau, San Francisco Human Rights Commissions, Advisory Committee, and LYRIC nonprofit’s Board of Directors.





In This Episode

Diversity and inclusion in the workplace is a hot topic in today’s social networks, and Michelle Kim of Awaken aims to educate businesses on how to practice it with ease and grace. She talks about actions a CEO can take to reduce unconscious biases or microaggressions, how to deal with uncomfortable conversations, and the social impacts that a business can face today based on their behaviors handling certain situations.

Topic Timeline:

1:54 The Bottom Line(s)

People are putting pressure on big brand names, so the impacts are trickling down to small businesses.

3:17 The Heart of the Issue

There are a lot of well-intentioned people who might be missing the issues due to blind spots.

5:55 The Action Steps of a Modern CEO

Ask current employees, check the hiring process, and ensure there are no unconscious biases or microaggressions.

8:05 Stay Charged

Advice from future Michelle: avoid cynicism; stay hopeful and charged to continue the work needed.

8:51 Telling It Like It Is

Having real conversations with people and speaking truth in these conversations.

9:35 Uncomfortable Conversations

How can someone who doesn’t like uncomfortable conversations handle it?

11:47 Scaling Issues

Taking intimate, in-person workshops to the masses.

14:17 Paving the Way for the Younger Generation

Allow the new workforce to feel like they are doing the work they are meant to do and want to do.

15:02 Social Impact of Business Behavior

Organizations are being held accountable for their behavior when it comes to social issues.

Our own identities are the lenses through which we see the world.

– Michelle Kim

Show Transcript:

LR: Welcome to Modern Ontrapreneur. Today we have Michelle Kim, who is the co-founder and CEO of Awaken, a leading provider of modern and interactive diversity, inclusion, and leadership workshops. Prior to Awaken, Michelle had a successful career in both tech and management consulting, working with C and VP level executives to build high-performing organizations around the world. She’s also been a lifelong social justice activist and served in a variety of organizations, such as the LGBTQ Speakers Bureau, San Francisco Human Rights Commissions, Advisory Committee, and LYRIC non-profit’s Board of Directors. Thank you so much for being here.

MK: You’re welcome.

LR: Tell us about Awaken. What is it that you do there, and tell us about starting that organization.

MK: Awaken provides modern interactive workshops. We like to call it a very experiential learning. For companies of all sizes, we go in and we create a compassionate space for uncomfortable conversations. The reason why the company got started is because I got really frustrated by the level of conversation that was being had in companies, in different organizations, around diversity and inclusion. That felt very surface level to me. As you read in my bio, I worked at different types of industries and different companies before, and the conversations around diversity and inclusion, or D and I for short, it just kept feeling very surface level and shallow, and nothing was really changing. I wanted to bridge that gap by having some real talk and meeting people where they are with compassion, but also with credibility.

LR: What is the real talk that needed to happen? The people that are watching today here are small businesses. They’re not the kind of businesses that you’re seeing in the news, that are getting a lot of heat for not having their house in order in this regard. At the same time, small business owners employ 60% of American workers, so it’s important that this conversation get had. What is the bottom line here?

MK: I think there are multiple bottom lines. I think that no one really has it in order. I think the big companies that are getting more publicized for their mistakes and they’re getting the spotlight, and having to take accountability publicly, I think we’re in a very unique time when those things are being brought up and people are actually putting more pressure onto these companies. I think some of the smaller companies or smaller businesses can get away with certain mistakes because there’s not much public scrutiny. But the impact of not having a diverse or inclusive workplace, I think could be seen in many different ways, even for small companies and small businesses that operate, especially if their consumer base is increasingly more diverse and they are paying attention to how small companies, small businesses, are operating as well.

LR: Let’s just say, for those of us who agree, that this needs to be addressed. I still think that there’s a blind spot in terms of how to even begin to think about, look, I’m a white dude running a …

MK: (jokingly) I didn’t know this.

LR: You didn’t? Of course you wouldn’t. It’s your job not to.

MK: Actually it’s my job to notice the differences.

LR: So I think that it’s extremely likely, and it’s actually even been, I’ve even had blind spots pointed out in my own business. Look, I’m not somebody who discriminates. And yet I’ve had people say things to me about stuff that happens in our business that would not have ever come up on my radar. You know what I mean? And I was like, “Whoa.” Even after these things were said, I’m like, really? Okay, cool.
So how do you address that? ‘Cause I think there’s a lot of well intentioned people who just can’t even imagine what life is like to not feel included.

MK: Yeah. I think really that’s the heart of the issue, that there are many, many well-intentioned people out there. And I think since maybe the Presidential election in 2016 …

LR: Which one?

MK: Yeah, yeah. When Donald Trump got elected, to be really specific. I think a lot of people finally woke up to this reality that many people have been living in for many, many years. That we are not post-racial; that we’re not past all these issues that we talk about today. And these issues have been in existence for a long time. But many people who don’t live it, like you said, have blind spots, because our own identities are the lenses through which we see the world. And it’s also how the world perceives us. So when we haven’t lived those experiences, it’s really hard for us to be proactive in addressing what those are, unless we’re very intentional about wanting to learn.
So, my recommendation always is to start with your own introspection. Who are you, what do you believe in, what are your identities? So that you understand what are the privileges and the power that you get, that other people don’t have. And then you can start the journey of learning about all the other things that you don’t know about, and just being really curious about what are the issues that are out there that are impacting people that may not be your own experience, but nonetheless super important, as we develop as a community and try to empower everybody.

LR: Just action oriented, if I’m somebody who wants to A, make sure that the people in my organization feel comfortable; B, make sure that potential employees feel welcome and attracted; and C, not get sued; what is the action step that I take as a CEO of a tech company today?

MK: I think there are multiple different things that you can do, first by having a review of your processes. That’s one thing that you can do. Look at your hiring processes and see if there are any biases there that are at play in hiring certain types of people. How are you actually recruiting; what is some of the language that you use to recruit the right people into the place? When you look at your current employee base, what does the demographic look like? Is it as diverse as you want it to be? And if it’s not, then question why, why is that? So then you can start there.
You can also survey your existing employee base and see how are they feeling? Do they feel like inclusion is an issue? If not, who’s saying that it’s not an issue and who’s saying that it is? ‘Cause who says that the culture is already great or not also matters. If all the white guys say, “Yeah, work culture’s great”…

LR: Perfect, yeah.

MK: That’s not saying a lot, right? Versus if there are marginalized people in the community or in the workplace that are saying that “Actually, we have a issue with microaggressions, or we have an issue with unconscious biases that people have that are being brought up.” There’s an issue that you can start to address.
So you need to survey and understand, where does it hurt the most right now, that we need to focus on? Is it the lack of diversity part? Or is it that people in the company already are feeling something that feels alienating or excluding? I think there are multiple ways that you can start the conversation and then, based on where the problem is, you can start to proactively address some of the concerns.

LR: Cool, let’s switch to talking about your business and your experience becoming an entrepreneur and growing things. So how long has it been since you founded?

MK: It’s a really new company.

LR: Brand new?

MK: Yeah. We’ve been around for about a year now, little over a year.

LR: Interesting. And this is your first company?

MK: This is my first company.

LR: Okay, well shoot. This is gonna be a bit of a weird first question, but if you could go back to the beginning of your career and give yourself a piece of advice, what would it be that would help you achieve the goals that you’ve set out for yourself more quickly?

MK: In order for me to continue doing this work, and for people to actually do all the important things that we need to do to make change, we need to not give in to cynicism and stay hopeful, and stay charged, so we can continue to work.

LR: And how do you do that?

MK: Well, I have a list of 51 things that I have, that literally says “Self-care toolkit.”

LR: Oh my gosh.

MK: I blogged about it ’cause I think this is so important, and people doing any type of labor intensive, emotional labor intensive work, for them to care for themselves. Also connecting with the right people.

LR: Cool, so what do you feel like your unique skill set is?

MK: Telling it like it is.

LR: That’s interesting ’cause you built a whole business around basically, uncomfortable conversations.

MK: Yeah. I think over time I’ve been really able to find my voice and, whether that is talking in front of an audience or writing or in a workshop setting where I help facilitate that process for other people, and helping them have real conversations with each other, in a very authentic and direct way. I pride myself on being able to do that, and sometimes it’s really scary to speak truth. But for me, that’s been the fuel that keeps me going.

LR: Interesting. That’s a challenging one. I’ll honestly say that I hate uncomfortable conversations. I think probably most people do, right? And I can see how valuable it is to be able to get beyond that. For me, I’ve just pretty much not, so I don’t manage people in my business. I’ve basically delegated the management of the entire company to somebody who seems to have no problem whatsoever having uncomfortable conversations.

MK: Uncomfortable conversations.

LR: So there’s a real power in being able to, and not just about diversity, about anything. About performance issues, or about behavior issues, about whatever really comes up. So as somebody who may naturally be good at this, what’s your recommendation about how to get over it, for somebody like me?

MK: Well, in the context of doing diversity and inclusion work, when people get into a situation where they feel a little bit uncomfortable engaging in a topic, it’s usually because something about themselves, or they feel like something about themselves is being challenged. For me, the way that we shift the perspectives is, you’re in an hour, two hour, three hour long conversation about a topic that you feel uncomfortable about, because you feel like your own perspective is being challenged, or your identity is being challenged. Imagine what it would be like if you felt that way your entire life, and that’s not an option for you to walk away from.
If you frame it that way, and to really think about what I’m actually gonna be able to learn from this moment of discomfort, and in terms of the culture development, how much more inclusive culture we can develop if we can actually see each other in a very human way, and understand each other’s struggles in a way that builds empathy so we can all work together to create an environment that’s inclusive for everybody. That, I think is a goal worth exploring and committing to, especially as a leader of a company.

LR: So tell me about what you’re learning. What is the next mountain for you to climb?

MK: Right now, most of our workshops are done in person with a small group of people. Because of the nature of the conversation we like to keep it pretty intimate so people can be really real with each other and share some of the things that might feel a little scary to share, and people need to be a little bit more vulnerable in the setting. That poses a lot of challenges when we’re working with much larger companies with thousands of employees. Our workshop size is what, 25, 35, 40 people max. And when people have thousands of employees that they wanna launch our content to, it’s just impossible.

LR: It’s like a year. Years.

Michelle Kim: Right. We can’t just keep throwing bodies at the problem. So a lot of folks are asking for trainer to trainer model, which we have considered. But we have since said we’re not gonna do this.

LR: Why aren’t you doing it?

MK: Because the quality of the conversation depends on the quality of the facilitators. If people are not skilled at navigating through these nuanced conversations, that could sometimes feel really tense. The whole workshop hinges on that. So we can’t just give our content to your HR manager, and have them lead this conversation around #MeToo, for example. It’s hard to scale that way, so we’ve said “Not now,” for the trainer to trainer model.
And a lot of people ask us about “What about online, can we do something online?” That again, for me, it’s a hard thing to say yes to, because sometimes when you’re having a direct, very honest conversation, there’s a lot that goes unsaid, but is said through your body language. Or I like to say, I need to feel the texture of the room, and the tension that’s there, for me to be able to swiftly navigate through that.
But, I think there are things that we could potentially do in the future that would compliment the in-person experience with something online. Because right now, what’s online is so shitty. What I see as the compliance-driven training online is not the kind of experience that gets people to say “Aha,” the light bulb’s going off in people’s heads. So I think there’s a lot of opportunity there.

LR: It’s like, I could just pause, “I don’t like this conversation anymore.”

MK: Exactly, fast forward. Check the vase or walk away, do some dishes, come back. Exactly.

LR: So what’s it all for? If you think about the legacy that you’re building with this work, what do you hope to look back on and see when you look at your career?

MK: I want my legacy to be that we’re somehow paving the way for our own young people to be able to feel like they can thrive, they can have a fair chance, at actually doing stuff that they wanna be doing, versus doing the additional emotional labor of not having to think about microaggressions, or educating other people about these issues that are so important and critical for their lives, so they could just do the work that they’re meant to do. That’s the legacy I want to leave, and all the while, empowering today’s leaders to start that conversation and to build that culture for the long term.

LR: So what do you feel like it means to be an entrepreneur today, a modern entrepreneur? What is unique about this moment?

MK: People are paying attention to more than just the bottom line of a company. Employees and consumers are looking and paying attention to how companies are behaving, and with the social impact in mind. Maybe you see what happened with Starbucks. Is it really their job to address the Black Lives Matter movement? Some would say yes, some would say no. But the interesting thing is that it’s being discussed today.

LR: It’s happening, yeah.

Michelle Kim: It’s happening. They are closing down 8000 stores to host an unconscious bias training on May 29th.

LR: Wow.

MK: It’s a big deal. So companies and organizations are being held accountable for how they operate as a business, and it’s no longer about just the profitability. I think leaders and entrepreneurs have to really broaden their scope of concern, beyond the product that they’re building, and how that actually impacts the broader society of the world.
It’s a much larger task at hand, but I think if you get it, you’ll get so much more success as a result of it. And I think a part of that is also finding the authentic voice of the business. If you’re an entrepreneur, you need to be able to connect with your audience in a very authentic way and show your values and real essence of the business, ’cause I think that’s what people are inspired by and that’s what they’re looking for.

LR: Beautiful. Thank you so much for taking the time. This is a great conversation.

MK: Absolutely. Thank you.

LR: Would you sign our wall?

MK: Oh, yeah.

LR: Thank you


Want more Modern Ontrapreneur Podcast?

Check out the previous episode featuring women’s business coach Amy Applebaum.

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