Despite the best of intentions, women in leadership and diversity programs are often difficult to get off the ground or gain traction within travel organizations, for any number of reasons.
At ATPCO, Beth Taylor, director, head of marketing, took an employee-led approach to launching the company’s Lead From the Front women in technology program, which aims to include more diverse perspectives in leadership and technology roles.
Taylor, whose background includes stints at IBM, Booz Allen and Deutsche Bank, says the idea was far beyond a marketing ploy; she wanted the program to serve employees from all levels of the company - not just those on a management track - and help inspire them to become more vocal as technology experts within the Big Data and aviation space.
Since launching in 2018, Lead From the Front has seen impressive engagement: More than half of the company attended the launch event, and one in four employees are actively participating in the program (of all participants, 16% of are male).
Below, Taylor shares the steps she took to get the program off the ground and what she hopes to accomplish with the initiative.
Tell me about how ATPCO’s Lead From the Front initiative started and what you've tried to do with it.
I joined ATPCO a little under three years ago from tech, from IBM, where there's no shortage of programs tied to women who code. Our CEO Ginni Rometty, very amazing woman. I came into ATPCO and started poking around - where are our data scientists, where’s our developers?
Forget the C-suite; I want to find the right talented architects, developers and see how I can think about them as part of our brand expression. I couldn’t find anyone who was excited talk about it. There weren't any that had thought of themselves in the way that the market talked about how cool their job was.
Forget the C-suite; I want to find the right talented architects, developers and see how I can think about them as part of our brand expression.
Beth Taylor - ATPCO
There are absolutely data scientists, but they weren't thinking of themselves as that. And I started to see that more broadly within the industry as well, which is to say, there's so many people in tech and in this industry that don't know, or they're not given credit for, how cool their job is.
ATPCO runs massive amounts of data that keeps the entire global industry running. There are some incredibly talented women in this organization that come to work, do their job, they do an amazing job, but they've never had the cover taken off of it to kind of expose how cool it is.
When I was going through that, ATPCO did a huge rebrand, and part of that transformation was Elevate, which was the first time we created a global conference. I kind of snuck in a women's leadership lunch into that first event, and I did it again the second year.
The second year is when I started to get the sense that there was something broader happening. That same summer, I was a guest judge for the IATA Air Hackathon in D.C., and there was a focus on women who code.
I took the opportunity to do some on-the-side interviews to basically test the idea out. I said, “We're launching a program for our women technologists to help raise their profile, give them an access to leadership opportunities.”
Then I went and set up a meeting with [ATPCO CEO] Rolf Purzer and said, “Listen, Rolf, we've done this lunch the last two years. It's packed every year; now's the right time. I'm happy to lead this, to drive this. I'm passionate about it. We’ve got really strong numbers in ATPCO in terms of women in management.”
He immediately was like, “You got it. I wouldn't stand in the way of this.” So that's great. He endorsed it immediately.
How did you approach it from there?
There are different ways to run these kinds of programs. There's the marketing, PR way, where you throw a bunch of money at it and you do things that are kind of flashy but aren't necessarily of substance.
What I wanted to do, part of the goal is to get some women who have been wanting these opportunities for years but haven't seen enough space to maneuver their way in, get them in charge. So immediately I knew I wanted it to be employee-led. The program team that's running this now is eight women. I said to them, “I got the funding for it. Rolf is behind it. We've got the folks engaged on the senior leadership side of things. What are you going to do?”
For certain women who have never had a chance to walk through the door of leading a program or initiating something from the ground up, they had each other to work with.
At the launch event [for the program], over half the company came. Afterwards, I was really impressed with what the team had done for half the company to show up and a substantial number of men. It just shows you what kind of appetite there is.
In this industry there are a lot of really amazing leaders, but it's not a huge industry, which means there's not never-ending space to rise. So I was taken aback by how many people showed up.
Then that same kind of thing ended up in our participant list [for the program]. Those actively participating in the program is a quarter of the company. Pretty big. Again, I've seen these programs run in tech companies. I worked in consulting before that. Usually, there's a really small community, and you almost feel scared to join it because there's these strong female leaders leading the community.
But I think because ATPCO’s has been employee-run, there aren’t a lot of barriers to it. I'm not standing at the front of the room every time, doing the cheerleading. The actual women who are participating are women in tech who are like deep coders that have never spoken in front of people. We make them start the meetings, and we make them kind of take their leadership opportunities.
These actively participating members - walk me through what they do, what this program looks like in action.
There are a few different pieces to it. There are four parts. There’s a mentorship component, where we’re matching people that wanted to be mentored - not just based on who wants to become a senior leader. It was based on technical expertise. It was based on functional expertise, career advice.
I think the team actually sat in a room and did physical matchmaking of this person and this person looking to do and talk about the same thing. Not a computer algorithm, not an intranet board.
We’re also getting folks connected to the market. We funded 10 women to participate in Women in Technology, a program that helps them with public speaking and helps connect them with mentors and other industries. The WIT program said back to us, “We never have companies that sponsor 10 people.” I said, “Well, the appetite's there, and we were on such a starvation cycle tied to this topic. Let's go big.”
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There's also a community component, which is more internal, but it's like community events that bring outside speakers and allow people to tell stories. Those are always are a hit because they're easy to go to. You don't have to work too hard to get connected.
The last is resources. If there are other things outside of [everything else] that people want to do, like high performers, we're sending two to a women in engineering event in a couple of months. There’s also the International Women in Travel & Tourism Forum, and we’re selecting the highly motivated, highly engaged participants to have these kinds of growth opportunities to get them into the market, which they've never had before, quite frankly.
I think you might be the first person I’ve spoken to in this series who’s brought up this idea of funding women to go to these other events and become part of the market.
It’s funny because at every industry event, we send the same C-level titles, the same senior titles every time. And if there are not currently women there, then by design, the same male figureheads, which doesn't lend itself to a diversity of perspective.
The other thing I’ve noticed is there are just so many of them that are not going to be the managers of huge people teams. But they're incredible technical experts, and they have a voice tied to that expertise.
There was one woman who said, “I had no idea that there were programs like Women Who Code,” and she went and put her daughter in Girls Who Code the next day. And her daughter ended up on the news. It made her so proud of her family. There's a halo effect, you know.
One thing that seems to have benefited you in this endeavor is that ATPCO was very receptive to it and willing to help you get this off the ground. What advice do you have to others trying to start something similar in their organizations?
For one, you lead by example. If you have a strong will to lead, at whatever level you're at, do it. It helps set a tone for women around you that they don't need to be afraid to speak up. It's okay to be wrong. Don't be swayed if someone thinks you're opinionated. I mean, opinionated is not a term that means anything to me.
As far as real things that people can do, I think data-driven approaches to making decisions is a real thing. When I went into Rolf’s office, I didn't go in saying, “Oh, I want to do this, can you give me some money?” I went in with the number of employees of the company, the number of women in management, senior management team lead technical roles, the number of open positions in technology and product and strategy. This tells a story, right?
And we're a global industry. The same reason that ATPCO is not made up of just U.S.-based people is the same reason you don't want just one type of person representing who you are. So I use a lot of data to drive that.
Then there’s galvanizing the community around you, giving them opportunity to grow into something that they may actually really enjoy. The employee-led piece is just a critical part of it. These eight women [leading the program], it's not their day job. They’re taking their time to galvanize a quarter of our employee base. They should be rewarded for it.
Anyone that's looking to do this kind of thing can do it from any part of the organization. It shouldn't be a marketing thing or a CTO, CIO thing or HR thing. I think if it was driven out of HR, it may even have greater challenges to that crowdsourced element.
[For me], after I spoke with Rolf, the next conversation was with our HR department, it was with our CTO. It was not like I'm going to go into a vacuum and tinker away with these employees and build something. But it should be employee-led; we should not take this over as a corporate-run program.
It can be corporate sponsored and endorsed, but that partnership I think is important for anyone looking to do this. It needs to be done delicately so that it doesn't become a marketing program or a program for the sake of a program. Which I think is the big risk that a lot of these parallel efforts have. It needs to really be focused on the employees and actual, tangible results tied to the value they see.
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The Women's Leadership Initiative continues this November at The Phocuswright Conference in Florida.