Leading the change she wants to see

With the launch of Pride at the Intersections, a three-part series, Rachel Zakariasen takes Q+ organization-wide.

Over the course of her career, Rachel Zakariasen has seen — and overseen — a lot of change. She’s architected culture transformation at WebMD and Nike. Presided over pharma and biotech transitions as an Accenture consultant. Led change communications during Medtronic’s $3B global transformation. And today, as senior vice president at United Minds, part of The Weber Shandwick Collective (TWSC), she’s equipping clients with the communications and engagement strategies crucial to navigating tectonic global shifts.

But it’s at the helm of Q+, TWSC’s business resource group (BRG) for LGBTQ+ employees, that Rachel foresees having soul-satisfying impact. As Q+ programs launch throughout Pride Month, we sat down with her to get a glimpse of her vision.

You’ve belonged to Pride Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) throughout your career. How is Q+ different?

In addition to BRGs offered by our parent company, The Weber Shandwick Collective launched several new BRGs in the past two years with the premise that marginalized and underrepresented employees need safe spaces that center their experiences. The first one to launch, NOIR, came on the heels of George Floyd’s murder and offered Black employees a space to process and connect.

Similarly, with over 300 anti-LGBTQ+ laws being proposed across the country right now, LGBTQ+ people need safe places to gather and connect. The fact that the agency recognizes this as the foundational purpose for a BRG is something I haven’t seen before, as a lot of Pride groups’ focus is on educating and engaging people outside of our community. In addition to that core purpose, Q+’s remit also includes having an impact on the business, which we are actively doing by weighing in on business pitches, supporting client work centered on the LGBTQ+ community and helping to build a brand that is known for being an advocate for and ally to LGBTQ+ people.

But what really stands out about TWSC’s approach is the financial support. This includes a healthy budget to support our activities, making financial commitments to LGBTQ+ partners and providing BRG leaders with a stipend to compensate them for the extra work they do. Even though our BRGs are relatively new, we operate at a maturity level that surpasses many organizations I have worked for in the past.

What’s your vision for Q+?

In one word, it’s intersectional. The LGBTQ+ community brings the widest range of overlapping and intersecting identities to the table — starting with the intersection of sexual orientation and gender identity. We identify as LGBTQ+, but we are also BIPOC, immigrants, members of faith communities, veterans, parents, people who are neurodivergent, and so much more. That intersectionality is still not well reflected in how the media represents members of our community. We want to change that. The future of Q+, like the future of DE&I (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion), is all about how our intersecting identities creates different experiences related to both oppression and privilege.

What changes do you want Q+ to drive for Weber Shandwick?

Inside and outside the organization, I want us to educate people on the ways that others experience the world. As a cisgendered woman who is femme presenting, I have privilege that my masculine-of-center partner doesn’t have. I can safely walk into a “women’s” restroom and not worry that my presence will be questioned or unwelcome. She does not have this guarantee. And we both have much more privilege and safety than a transgender woman of color in our society. It’s important that people understand this, that they connect with others whose lived experience is unlike their own and come to feel empathy. Providing opportunities for that to happen is what I see as our priority.

How does your Q+ role inform the counsel you give your clients?

It depends on the culture of the organization and where they are on their DE&I journey. For those considering launching ERGs, I tell them don’t do it unless you’re willing to adequately fund them. It’s been a radically different experience for me to have budget, to not be working with just sticks and glue. For others, I might stress the need for safe spaces where people can talk about issues related to their experience or identity in and outside of work. Because if they can’t, and if they don’t feel safe, it undermines their sense of belonging and well-being — which in turn impacts the business. An organization that doesn’t foster inclusion for everyone is not going to win the talent war.

What advice would you give resource group leaders across organizations?

First, get the buy-in of executive leaders. If they’re not engaged, your ability to drive any change will be limited — both in and outside of the organization. To secure and retain their involvement, make the business case for yourselves as a resource group. Remind them that as a built-in focus group, you can advise on workforce education and training, consult on client presentations and projects, evaluate new product offerings and help grow the client base. That should get you the budget you need to pay speakers, create quality programs, invest in professional development and deepen members’ contribution to the mission.

What do you most wish your straight colleagues understood?

An important thing we talk about, when we talk about the LGBTQ+ experience at work, is that you don’t just come out once — you have to come out over and over again. If you don’t feel safe enough to take that risk, you’ll just let people assume what they will, until you’re closeted all over again. This is why I urge everyone –not just my straight colleagues — to not make any assumptions about others’ identity. About their gender, their orientation, their race, their anything. Ask open questions. And if you assume too much? If you make a mistake and the other person calls you on it? Understand that you feeling bad is not the other person’s responsibility. That defensive feeling is a signal to pay attention. It’s a reminder that there is something here for you to learn.

How might companies best support LGBTQ+ employees during Pride month — and every day?

Go public with your support: Sign on to initiatives and coalitions that are advancing the civil rights of LGBTQ+ people. Educate your managers and clearly outline what behaviors are expected of them. Create safe spaces for LGBTQ+ people (and ALL marginalized and underrepresented groups) to share their experiences. Make sure your benefits, policies and practices do not unintentionally harm your LGBTQ+ employees. Regularly pulse your LGBTQ+ employees — with focus groups, not just surveys — to learn how you are doing in supporting them. And act on what you learn.

What is your perception of United Minds’ culture?

Even before United Minds coined its mission phrase — “Making business more human” — every person I spoke to during my interviewing process made this business feel more human to me. I was very out, very relaxed in those interviews. Not that I thought being a lesbian would hinder my career prospects at the company, but I’d been in plenty of rooms where, if I said something about my wife, there would be this uncomfortable pause during which I could hear everyone thinking to themselves, “Ok, don’t be weird about this.” At United Minds, literally no one batted an eye. I felt people saw me and valued all of me: My knowledge. My experience. My approach to leading, which is done with empathy. My passion for equity. And my commitment to justice. I felt, These are my people.

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