Sarah Reynolds is the new chief marketing officer at Udacity, a growing company in the digital education field which brands itself as a “a digital talent transformation platform.” It’s registered more than 20 million users in 195 countries.
There’s something rare in today’s announcement press release, among the buzzwords one might expect from a technology business headquartered in Mountain View, Calif.. Sure, you’ll find that Udacity is “pleased to announce” the hiring of this marketing veteran and diversity, equity, and inclusion advocate, based on these 10 qualities: expertise, modern marketing, inclusive, people-centric, diverse, success, strategy, value-driven messaging, marketing operations excellence and mission-driven.
But what’s different about the announcement of Reynolds is what’s before all those superlatives: their pronouns, which are “they/them.” Reynolds is nonbinary, a rarity not just in the C-suite, but in any leadership role outside the Showtime television drama, Billions, in which nonbinary actor Asia Kate Dillon stars as Taylor Mason, the first nonbinary main character in a North American television program.
Like Dillon, Reynolds is real, flesh and blood, and calls Lexington, Massachusetts. home. They told me in a Zoom interview on Tuesday they truly aren’t the first or only nonbinary executive in their industry.
“I’ve had the genuine pleasure of being introduced to a couple of leaders in tech, especially in the Boston area, who identify as trans or nonbinary. But I would say, yeah, it’s like a lonely island sometimes,” said Reynolds. “When I talk about this with my teams, I typically cite two stats from McKinsey. One is that 68% of trans and nonbinary people say that they don’t feel comfortable being fully out at work, and they cite concerns about harassment or discrimination in hiring and promotional practices or even their physical safety. And 86% of them say that they’ve never seen a leader who looks or seems like them.”
Reynolds calls that finding “sad,” but also relatable to their own experience since graduating Summa Cum Laude from Hamilton College in 2011.
“It was hard enough to find someone who was presenting in technology, let alone someone who identified as trans, nonbinary, even LGBTQIA+,” they said. “So for me, reaching a certain point in my career, I realized that I had a platform and I could change that for someone who was coming up behind me. And that’s why I’m so passionate.”
There is a lot going on to generate passion among people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, nonbinary, queer, intersex, asexual and pansexual, from so-called “Don’t Say Trans or Gay” laws in Florida and beyond, to Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and efforts in Texas to brand gender-affirming healthcare as “child abuse.”
All this and more is why Reynolds says they’re open about being nonbinary.
“You know, especially with everything that’s going on in the news right now about the LGBTQ community, I am someone who’s openly non-binary in tech as an executive, making a difference and hopefully demonstrating this is a kind of leadership and this is a type of diversity that we should all want to have in our teams, and on our teams specifically,” they said.
Since oppression, hatred and bias is a given for LGBTQ+ Americans like Reynolds, I asked them to tell me something that brings them joy.
“Living as my true, authentic self enables me to fully engage in all aspects of my life, without having to constantly worry about what I’m hiding vs. what I’m showing to the world. It allows me to fully connect with what I’m doing at any given moment, without the distracting noise and self-doubt that comes with self-censure.”
Prior to joining Udacity, Reynolds served as interim head of commercial marketing at PTC, after serving as vice president of enterprise marketing and leading global marketing strategy and execution for the digital transformation software solutions provider, focusing on pipeline generation, value-driven messaging, marketing operations excellence, and talent development. Before PTC, Reynolds was vice president of marketing for salary.com, where they ran global marketing for the employee compensation data, software, and analytics company.
“It’s not just enough to have somebody in leadership who represents a certain population. It’s about really making sure that everyone at every level of the organization feels that inclusion and belonging that you want to create for your company.”
The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
We began our conversation with a discussion of what people should do if (or more likely, when) they made a mistake with pronouns.
Sarah Reynolds: I always joke that I’m the person who messes it up the most. My best friend came out as nonbinary, uses “they/them” pronouns. I’m the person who has the hardest time with it. My family and friends make me play on what we call “hard mode,” which is if you get it wrong, you owe the person a dollar or a compliment.
Dawn Ennis: I just reported today our Forbes 2022 list of America’s Best Employers for Women. Tell me a little bit about why you think your company should be on that list in terms of people who are both nonbinary and identify as women and who are cisgender women?
Reynolds: That’s a great question. Udacity has this mission that we’re training the workforce of tomorrow in these critical technology skills that are going to be so relevant to businesses as they go forward. And one of the things that we think about is how do we use education and specifically education and technology to really democratize not just opportunity, but also access to these positions. Because if you ever spend time thinking about implicit bias and how that plays a role in hiring or how inclusion and belonging is a lot more important sometimes than just diversity, I think what you bump into is that people sometimes use a lack of traditional education as an easy out.
They say, “Oh, you know, that person’s not a cultural fit.” That’s one you hear all the time, but also “Oh, they don’t have the traditional Ivy League education to be able to be a data scientist in my organization.” Udacity seeks to change that. We want to make sure that we’re giving people job ready skills for the careers of tomorrow, where they can increase their own earning potential or help their company succeed. But we want to make those available to everyone, regardless of where they live or how they identify or what their background was, and we want to make sure that you come out of the program and you’re ready to go. You can add value to an organization.
Ennis: Tell me about your job search to get to Udacity.
Reynolds: I’m really lucky to work with a diverse executive team. When I went out to look for my next job, I put my pronouns on my resume, and I talked about my identity in every single interview. Because there’s one thing that I’ve learned, which is that if you hide yourself away when you’re interviewing and then later you join the company and they’re surprised about the person that you were? You did yourself a disservice because you didn’t get that reaction right away.
There were companies I talked to where the first couple of conversations I had with their leadership team, it was clear that [being nonbinary] wasn’t something they embraced with open arms. It was something that made them uncomfortable or it was something they felt they had to overcome, as opposed to something they felt was an asset to their organization. And that’s really sad. But it’s also good for me to know, to protect myself as someone who comes from a very specific point of view, in terms of the way that I hire and the way that I interview and the way that I look to build teams. I don’t want to work at a place that doesn’t think that this is a tremendous asset to the organization and I’m really lucky that I found someplace that really, truly believes that.
Ennis: I recently interviewed someone nonbinary and they said that on their job interview, the hiring manager greeted them in the lobby, then before going to the conference room and having the interview and all that stuff, they took a tour that stopped specifically at the bathrooms to show them they’d be accommodated. Let’s talk about that in terms of interviews and different opportunities in the corporate world.
Reynolds: I did most of my interviewing remote, so I’m very lucky that the bathrooms in my house are in use by all genders. So it was not an issue at my personal house where I was interviewing! However, going and visiting offices, I’ve been lucky to work at companies who embrace having a men’s and a women’s and unisex bathrooms. I’ve worked in companies where that’s not available because the facilities that they’re in are older. I personally would love to see us embrace a world where it doesn’t matter. To your point, where every bathroom is built in new buildings to be, as my husband calls it, a single shot with no gender attached to it.
I came out of the restaurant industry in Boston, where pretty much all the new construction you see in restaurants and bars, that’s the way that they’re building facilities going forward. You’re able to get more people in and out that way. You don’t have a queue in front of the femme-presenting washroom versus the masculine-presenting washroom. But also, it’s just easier. It’s one set of facilities and it means that you don’t have to overcome some of those challenging conversations that are in the news these days, even though that’s not necessarily something that all of us are really fixated on in our everyday life, because our bathrooms at home are open to everyone.
Ennis: Something that’s in the news, of course, right now is reproductive rights. There’s a lot of division over questions about people who don’t identify as women and their reproductive rights and reproductive freedom. I was wondering f you had a take on this or if it’s something that, in your work, this comes up at all.
Reynolds: I certainly personally have a take on it, which is that lots of people can get pregnant and a lot of those people don’t identify as women. And if you disagree with that statement, I’d really challenge you as to why you think a ten year old in Ohio should be categorized as a woman. That’s really disappointing to me that that’s the state of the conversation in this country. I think that women and the LGBTQ community at large, but especially, you know, women and trans women or people in the nonbinary community, we’ve always been paired-up in many of these activist causes to make sure that all of us are getting our due. And I think the folks who seek to separate us, it’s genuinely very disappointing, because we’re all trying to push for a better, more inclusive society that allows us the choice that we should be given and doesn’t let somebody who doesn’t identify the way that we do, or doesn’t understand the parts that we have, or doesn’t understand how any of this works, govern the way that we make choices about our own bodies. It’s really sad to see that this isn’t even a talking point in the conversation,.
Ennis: Let’s talk about marketing. As a marketer, I would think that one of the goals of people like yourself, and myself, have, is representation matters. We want to see more people who are not just the average white couple with two kids, a boy and a girl. And we want to see more representation of different kinds of people, different kinds of customers. How is that going and what are you doing to make that happen?
Reynolds: I think that’s definitely true. And I think you want to see, and this is important, not just tokenism. It’s not like you see one person who looks a certain way or you feature one person who looks a certain way. That’s not what diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging is about. It’s about making the images that we see representative of the beautiful textured society that we live in. And I think that for for us as marketers, there are ways that we can embrace that step forward, that I think help us communicate and honestly resonate better with the audiences that we’re trying to sell and market to. Whether it’s people of color or LGBTQIA+ people in the United States, these are groups that have tremendous amounts of buying power. So, catering everything in your worldview to a very specific type of person just excludes people, maybe even without meaning to.
Reynolds, continued: I joked earlier that it’s hard enough to find someone who’s femme-presenting in technology and leadership. You go to these tech conferences, and oftentimes male executives are invited to speak. My marketing teams have always embraced the policy that we don’t participate in all white, cisgender male tech panels because it doesn’t represent the beauty and diversity of the tech industry out to the market. And it certainly doesn’t represent the depth of diverse leadership or the depth of a speaking bench that we might have here at Udacity.
And it’s not that I’m swapping someone in because it’s a token. I’m swapping someone in because they genuinely bring a really interesting point of view to a conversation that otherwise would be lacking it entirely.
Ennis: But isn’t the problem that the people who are in charge or are hiring are themselves the issue? They are white men, white women, cisgender people, straight people. And I often think of “Keep it Gay” from The Producers, with the flamboyant gay man, a guy in drag and the butch lesbian, and so on. To many white, cisgender straight people, that’s the LGBT community.
Where are the beautiful, Black queer dykes? Why don’t we see those people in hiring positions, or getting hired?
Reynolds: I think it’s a tremendous challenge to overcome, because even people who approach it with the best of intentions bump into implicit biases. I think it’s one of the reasons that things like implicit bias training for hiring managers or for executives more broadly should be required as part of the organizational curriculum that we all take. You know, you have to take your compliance training and your security training and your sexual harassment training. Right? Let’s also include implicit bias in there. Let’s also make sure that we’re evaluating candidates fairly and we’re using the same rubric for every candidate. And when someone pushes back because they’re not a cultural fit, you understand exactly what they mean by that. And you unpack those words to make sure that we’re not creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I also think it’s genuinely important that there’s folks who talk about this topic from the perspective of, “It’s good for society for us to have diverse businesses.” But it’s also good economics. Pretty much every study in the world shows that if you have a diverse team, they don’t gel as quickly, but they tend to not plateau as they reach for innovation or as they reach for growth. Whereas if you have a really homogenous team, they gel quickly, they read each other’s minds, they’re all the same person, but they only come up with so many ideas and that’s not good for economics.
Ennis: So what is Udacity doing in terms of implicit bias training and C-suite level training? Is that something that happens at Udacity?
Reynolds: I think it’s something that we’re talking about more actively, especially with my appointment. So one thing that I do in every organization that I join is, I talk about inclusive language. Gender sneaks into our language a lot of different ways at work. You say, “Hi, guys!” Right? And you mean a group of people of all genders. And there is a gap between what you meant and what other people might perceive you to mean. Inclusive language is all about closing that gap between what you meant and what someone perceived. It’s not just about gender. Inclusive language can cross many different categories. It can be about removing ableist language. It can be removing hurtful stereotypes from your language. It can be a lot of different things.
I think for us, inclusive language training is something that I’ve already rolled out in a month at Udacity to my marketing organization and is on our agenda for our C-level discussion with the CEO and staff about how do we embrace inclusive language. We’ve had a request from the sales enablement organization to talk about inclusive language. For me, it’s about starting the conversation and pushing people out of their comfort zone a little bit, because it’s not just enough to to have somebody in leadership who represents a certain population. It’s about really making sure that everyone at every level of the organization feels that inclusion and belonging that you want to create for your company.
Ennis: Let’s talk a little bit about your advice to young people reading this who say, “I might be able to do what Sarah did. What should I do?” What’s your advice?
Reynolds: I genuinely believe strongly in being myself and I totally recognize that my title and my position affords me a level of protection that isn’t available to everyone based on where they live, the type of company they work in, the type of level that they’re at. But I recently had a mentoring conversation with someone who was debating whether they should come out at work, and they told me, “This isn’t something that threatens my physical safety, but this is something where the organization may not have anyone who looks like me, or maybe I’d be the first person who identifies as trans or nonbinary or LGBTQ, that would be visible in the organization. And I don’t know how they’re going to react.”
And I joked that, well, if you have to be uncomfortable, then maybe they have to be uncomfortable. Genuinely, you’re going to find the right career opportunity for you. When you move past some of that discomfort about being yourself, you embrace that person that you really are, and you find a group of people who really jump in with both feet and support you. I think that if you’re if you’re in a space where you feel like you can be physically safe to do that and you feel like you want to take that step, it can really open up a lot of doors. Suddenly, it can open up conversations with the types of people you might never have interacted with.
I’ve had conversations with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and I’ve had conversations with the GM’s of business units who I didn’t know. I’ve had conversations with, folks at every level of an organization, up and down from me, and it’s really opened a lot of doors. It makes me very visible. It is something that you have to be willing to be on the front lines for.
But something I think about is, there’s a lot of discourse right now about women in technology. I think about the people who pioneered that, who said, “I’m willing to put myself in an uncomfortable position to change the future of this discussion for someone down the road.”
For me, when I look to embrace my own self, or I look to be more visible, or I feel scared, I have that feeling, like my stomach wants to fall out of my butt! Like, “Okay, even if it makes me uncomfortable, this isn’t necessarily for me.” This is for the next person who comes down the line, or the Sarah who was 21 and graduating from university and had never seen or met a person who identified as nonbinary who was successful in their career.
I want to change it for the next person, even if I’m going to be in an uncomfortable situation. But I also recognize that’s not for everyone and it’s not for every situation. It’s something that only you can decide whether it’s right for you or it’s wrong for you. It’s about, “What do you believe in, and where do you want to make your mark?” And that might be a mark that you make within the four walls of your house. There might be a mark that you make in your company, or it might be a mark that you want to make on society as a whole. But everyone can approach that at a different rate, at the rates that make sense for them.
Ennis: Do you have a “coming out story” that you want to share?
Reynolds: For a very long time, I put on my resume or in my email signature, even as I started living authentically as someone who was nonbinary, the pronouns “they/she.” I was at “they/them” in my personal life, and I had been for awhile. But I thought that by mandating that pronoun usage in the work environment, that that would distract people from the words I was saying or the content of my character. I thought they would fixate on that as opposed to listening to what I was saying or listening to the thought or idea I was bringing to life. What I learned over time was that you can’t separate the content of your character from your identity in the way that I had tried to for a long time.
I actually had a negative experience that showed me that this is something that I need to embrace and live authentically as myself, even more than just being open about being nonbinary, but actually talking about the pronoun part of the discussion.
I would ask people, when I worked with them more closely, “Hey, I use ‘they/them’ pronouns in my personal life. I’d like for you to use ‘they/them’ pronouns for me at work. I know it says ‘they/she’ in my email signature.” At that time, I would say, “Those are the pronouns I ‘prefer.’” One executive said, “No,” and laughed at me. That was basically saying, “I’m old. I don’t see the world that way. I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to learn it. I’m not even going to try. No.”
It was in that moment that I realized, I actually can’t divorce the person that I am at home and the identity that I have and the pronouns that I don’t prefer, the pronouns I use, my pronouns, from the person that I bring to the office. The person who shows up at work, the conversation I want to have at work, and the way that identity impacts or affects the things that I talk about at work. It was in that moment that I had this realization, this is not optional; This isn’t a preference.
Shame on me. I made this. I made you think this was optional. And I don’t want to live as someone whose identity is optional to consider. I like my identity full in your face. I show up with a undercut mohawk and I am me, all day. And that includes this set of pronouns and those are the ones that I use. And so I actually went through a process of “coming out,” and having [my boss] send a company-wide email, to let folks know, “These are the pronouns that Sarah will be using going forward. This is this is how our company policy aligns with Sarah’s decision,” blah, blah, blah, corporate sort of stuff.
But it was really important for me to go around and talk to people who’d known me for a long time as a “she/her,” “she/they” and talk to them about why 86% of people not seeing a leader who looks or seems like them was something I personally felt, and why I wanted to make this change, and why it was important to me to be so visible. And I think that putting a face to the issue helped a lot of people connect to it, maybe in a way that they hadn’t connected before. And I was really pleased to see that at the organization where I worked, I went from being the only out nonbinary person that I knew of in the company, to having two or three people come out as nonbinary in the months that followed that announcement.
Ennis: Students at the university where I teach tell me that when they get an email with someone’s pronouns in the email signature, it’s like a Bat Signal that says, “I accept you.” And when they don’t see pronouns there, they wonder, “Is that person accepting or not?” So if someone were to come to you, as you just mentioned, and they say, “My boss won’t let me use ‘they/them” pronouns,” or “My company tells me that it’s disruptive for me to be nonbinary at work, and they need me to present more feminine or more masculine,” or “I can’t use my pronouns in my email signature,” What would you tell them?
Reynolds: There’s two things I tell them. First, I jokingly remind them that we’re in The Great Resignation, baby. There’s lots of companies where that is not going to be an issue, especially in a remote first work environment. If you live someplace where that discussion is not a safe discussion to be having, whether it’s at work, at home, you might find a company that’s based someplace else that might be more open minded. I think that’s a great beauty of the future of work being remote first, is that we can engage with companies or we can choose the companies that we want to engage with, based on the career that you choose if you’re a knowledge worker, especially.
If you don’t feel safe being out at work, or you don’t see that discussion happening in a positive light at work, you can always choose to be out in other parts of your life, or you can choose to to send the Bat Signal in a different way.
I have a friend who lives in, for lack of a better way of describing it, the middle of the country, and flies a little rainbow flag in the background of her Zoom window. It’s very small on camera. It’s not obtrusive. It’s not something that everyone’s going to see. They’re looking at your face. They’re not necessarily looking at your backdrop. But she’s had people engage with her and say, “Oh, my gosh, I saw your rainbow flag. What are you doing for Pride this weekend?” Or, “I’ve never shared this before, but I want to tell you about my partner and our kids.”
And, you know, that’s like flying the Bat Signal, I guess, in a little bit of a different way. It’s really about what you feel comfortable with, and you should never feel obligated to share a part of your identity that creates a safety issue just because other people tell you it’s the right thing to do. It’s about the comfort level that you are ready to take on. And it’s about the the discussion point that you want to have, because to some degree, especially if you are on one of these lonely islands, you are going to have to be the face of it. And that’s something that you have to come to terms with because it’s it can be a lot of work sometimes.
We’re in a scary time to talk about LGBTQIA+ issues. Whether it’s about criminalization or the rising tide of violence or even the discussion around Monkeypox, we’re in a time when not everyone has this comfort level with these topics, when not everyone thinks about these things as being a positive.
If there’s one thing that I can bring to this discussion, it is to address that idea that you can “put a face to the name,” like nonbinary people.
Trans people are not an amorphous mass that you hear about on J.K. Rowling’s Twitter as something that’s very scary and divisive. We are human beings and we exist just like each one of you. And we make jokes just like everyone else. And we have leadership positions or positions on factory floors across America. We exist in all different walks of life. You might meet people all the time who are out as trans and nonbinary. You might meet people who are not out as trans and nonbinary.
If there’s one thing that readers can take away from this, it’s not just the idea that there is “a face to the name.” We’re not an amorphous group. But also, you may or may not know when you interact with people who identify a certain way, and that’s why it’s so important to embrace things like inclusive language and implicit bias training. This broader discussion about how do we leverage diversity to improve society, but also economics? This is the reason why these things are so important, because not every identity is something that you wear on your face or on your sleeve.
Connect with Sarah Reynolds on LinkedIn by clicking here.