My DataStory: Getting even with the odds
Only 4% of all C level execs are women of color. Hear about the journey of one C-level Latina. She’ll share her perspective on how she overcame the challenges that surrounded her, taking away key learnings that are universal to anyone who wants to advance in their career.
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I am so happy to be here to share what is possible when you apply some of the training we teach at Duarte.
You probably have heard that learning how you can shape your talk in multiple ways as well as how to deliver it well can be the difference in how your audience receives, responds, and moves into action. And I’m not just saying that. I KNOW this first-hand.
I’m here to share how I overcame challenges throughout my life and used Duarte’s communication techniques throughout my career to reach a level of influence I never thought I could achieve.
We’ve all had challenges at some point in our careers. Some of us may remember times where you competed against the odds… Where the odds were stacked against you. Where the stats were collected, research was done, reports published, and it all concluded it was a sure thing you would fail even before trying! That type of data challenges your innermost thoughts, the research confirms what you are up against, and can cripple your hope and ideas about a bright future, one that’s sifting away like sand trickling through your fingers.
Statistics can bring doubt, fear, and detachment, but they can also bring hope, insight, and awareness.
You can look at statistics and see the despair or the same stats may show a small window of opportunity to defy the odds, depending on your personal context and what you’ve lived.
If you focus on the cant’s, or the haven’t-been- done’s, you won’t- live- a- life- worth- remembering.
You can let data dictate your life if you let it.
Holding you down
Stats like this…
“….only 4% of people like me ever reach that level in their career…it’s impossible.”
“only 1% end up with the love of their life for 30 years. It’ll never happen.”
My story is one where I could have fallen into the expected outcomes of women who were like me. But what about the smaller percent who saw an insurmountable mountain in front of them, yes, people shouted, “just turn back” “maybe it wasn’t meant to be”
And instead, chose to climb that beast and own that sliver of possibility.
After all, data is historical. Each data point is someone else’s decision that you can let define you or not. I get to choose what to do with it and tell the story I want for my life.
Back in 1991, there were over one million teen pregnancies in the US (1,002,460).
Of those, only 50% of them earned a high school diploma,
And, only about 10% of those completed a 2- or 4-year college program.
So, for every hundred pregnant teens, 5 would get more than a high school degree.
Imagine being one of those teens, staring down this future of uphill battles, competing against the stats that are laid out in front of you.
That was me…and these data points? They were mine, my data, my story, and for me they meant <long pause here>- I still had a chance…
A chance for what, though.
I was raised in a large family with 4 brothers, and for those that know, you learn how to quickly survive or get left behind. So, let’s just say having a fighting spirit was always part of my MO.
The day I told my parents I was pregnant, was a turning point in my life. Still a teen, about to be a mom, the dreams my family had for me were narrowing, quickly being swallowed by fog and nothingness.
It would have been easy to choose the path that had been carved out by so many… remember the pitiful stats of 90% of all pregnant teens? the grooves were deep and worn… the trail most traveled.
Could I defy the odds and nail that 10% life? Would I let this frightening uncertainty sway me from who I was planning to become?
My passion has always been art. And btw, passions never die, they may dim or flicker, and for some, maybe smolder, but that fire inside you never fully dies out. All you need to stoke that fire is a possibility.
While I was pregnant, I had a dream. Like, a literal dream. I saw myself standing in front of a large audience sharing my story. Not virtual of course. It wasn’t something I was wishing for as I don’t love speaking in front of large groups, it was a visual planted into my mind’s eye at the time. A dream. A snapshot of my future if you will.
That vision was a firestarter. It was my possibility, that one day, my story could be shared. One of overcoming, one of a path less traveled, one that would encourage others to do the same…
I am a passionate Latina, and my fighting spirit combined with my love for art and design inspired me to complete my college education, with a baby on my hip and a mouse in hand… I persevered and eventually landed on Duarte’s doorstep over 27 years ago.
Today, I’m Duarte’s Chief Creative Officer, responsible for leading multiple cross functional departments on our consultancy side of the business and managing a $20M P&L, but I haven’t forgotten that young teen mom who worked fearlessly into the C-suite.
From a young age, I realized that stats do not define me, I can design a different story than data would project as my future…and it’s an insight that continues to inform the way I live my life.
My path to the C-suite is unique, but every step along this journey I had to overcome– which is the very thing that makes a story have an impact.
I started at Duarte as a designer. I was tasked with taking the brilliant ideas of the brightest minds in Silicon Valley and transforming them visually. Some of the world’s best strategies would fly across my screen on the daily!
To make the complex simple, I needed to understand the content , know who the audience was, and what visuals gave the audience more clarity than words alone. And the more projects I took on, the more strategies I digested.
I’ve designed visuals for the launch of that little computer we all carry in our pockets,— helping investors understand the power of a tiny little chip, —synthesizing and visualizing financial data into clear recommendations for top government decision-makers. You know, just a typical workday for someone here at Duarte.
Solving these problems taught me so much…and not just about how to be a better presentation designer…they helped me build empathy for our clients, for their audiences, and gain an understanding of what type of story resonates best.
It’s amaaaaaazing to get a front-row seat at the impact of story firsthand. I am reminded of this story… I was working with the CEO of a wood flooring company, he was hoping to influence key investors to support his dream of donating a percent of their product and labor to orphanages and disabled children in China. He came to us with data, financials, interviews, and research. With our writers, we shaped a visual story that brought their global impact to life.
I remember the pitch vividly. We presented back to him the story with our visuals and in that moment I felt the power of story. I had all the feels right there sharing it in the room with a CEO! I could feel the power even without the audience. I felt the impact it would eventually have on the investors AND the orphaned children whose lives would forever be changed… it was beautiful and yes… there were many tears of joy shed in the room that day.
I walked away with this key insight…. <big pause> Never underestimate the power of Story. I consistently employ that profound insight over and over when communicating our vision and gaining traction. I began leading by using story to bring people into a shared purpose. Instead of pulling people along, I use story to help them take the leap with me on their own.
Fast forward nine years into my career at Duarte. I was about to have my fourth child, yes, I said fourth, and the fear was real. Not about giving birth, or whether I made enough money to feed and care for four kids, but it was whether I was making the right decision to return to work and leave my kids in the care of someone else. And of course, there was data saying only HALF of women return to the office after having their first child, let alone their fourth…. Yet another statistic that was trying to tell my story before I could. It was a difficult choice to make, but with my husband’s encouragement and support, I made the decision that was right for me… and my family.
To be honest, I’d learned so much about business and how to run a business that starting my own seemed exciting, not to mention the ability to raise my kids personally, which is the hardest job of all. But the call to be back at Duarte where I had the incredible opportunity to help these brilliant minds, our clients, who had amazing ideas to share…stories to tell…stories that would change the world and continue to impact how we live today. This was me… choosing to follow my passion.
I knew that I had a lot to offer. So many of our clients spend loads of money on research, on product development, on advertising, I mean, they did all this work to take it so far…but then when they finally get in person with an audience, they didn’t know how to translate their ideas in a way that sticks.
Leveraging my creativity to bring clarity and express our client’s most crucial messages visually was inspiring, and it brought purpose to what we are doing at Duarte.
Throughout my journey, I continued finding ways to translate complex concepts and large amounts of data into simple and digestible communication. The tremendous amount of research and user studies being done around our client work, was so valuable, however if they weren’t broken down into terms your audience could receive, they would never amount to the change you were seeking.
I remember working on a project for a government organization who was trying to engage community leaders to make informed decisions about the future of their regional community. But after decades of sharing reports with exhaustive data, their hope to drive action to make the future better hadn’t seen much traction.
We took the challenge. We digested, synthesized, and visualized the data into a story that utilized the presentations form, contrasting what existed, what could be, what existed and what could be. The story focused on a future they could have of human flourishing but conveyed the ramifications if they didn’t act with a sense of urgency.
The reaction? This is what the client said: For seven years, we have produced many reports filled with facts and figures that told people how poorly our region was faring. When we shifted to telling the story visually, the reaction was ELECTRIC. The information was the same, but the new format communicated the issues with an emotional urgency. The visual story moved citizens and elected officials to address the problems with an understanding that there was no more time to lose.
These types of projects, start off as just another fun challenge, but the immediate effect following the completion is a reminder that we were positively impacting people, informing policy makers, transforming data into stories and gaining traction to move communities forward. And the insights were always there but it was lost in the vast sea of data that needed a visual story for an audience to take action. Communicating data in a way that opens eyes and ignites ideas into action, fueled our mission to teach this practice to all.
I learned to Communicate with Empathy by observing when audiences were moved to action and when it failed. I saw this work in our presentations for Apple and An Inconvenient Truth to move massive amounts of people. Being empathetic doesn’t always mean you have to share an emotionally charged story, it simply requires you to deeply consider the audience first and build your communication in a way that <touch heart> connects to the hearts and minds of who you are speaking with. If they can’t see themselves in your story, or imagine themselves working with you to change the future, your message will fall on deaf ears. Empathizing with your audience and understanding their fears, desires, and needs will escalate your influence and establish you as a thought leader in their eyes.
From the beginning of my journey, I realized learning is not something you add to a checklist, but growth is a way of life. As a designer, I always devoured the latest creative trends and tools, and as a manger, I applied communication best-practices, and now as a leader, I am running a large business unit where I continue to stretch my knowledge. Having a learner mindset is necessary to grow, evolve and advance in the world around you, as well as helping to keep an open mind to learning things beyond your job description.
Having roots in creative problem solving gave me the ability to apply that skill in each role I took on. And when you couple that with sitting in the room with top CEOs and visualizing the business strategies of successful F100 companies, this combination gave me knowledge in business practices, financial acumen, and creative storytelling.
I took on the Chief Creative Officer role in July of 2020. I’d historically been the head of the Design Dept. So when I was asked to manage 4 cross functional departments, I thought many would consider me out of my lane. This wasn’t what I went to school for. This wasn’t what I had spent the last 26 years doing. This role had a big analytical component to it. You know, folks who work in excel, review P&Ls, build reports and work methodically, basically, not me.
I felt very comfortable bringing creative skills to the table plus I could swizzle data with the best of them from having run my department.
But again, there was the data, looking back at me, telling me the probability of my success.
Only 10% of design professionals consider themselves to be experts in business acumen
Again, that 10%.
And what are the stats for C-level position?
Only 29% of C-suite execs are women, and this has come a long way in recent years. But this one…. of all C-suite, only 4% are women of color, including Latina, Black, Asian.
4 out of 100 C-level execs are people like me. Four.
So, only 10% of creatives think they can be business savvy, and only 4% of all women of color can reach the C-suite.
So what the data is saying…is….it’s possible! If there’s even a small window of probability, it’s time for me to seize it.
Taking on this role required me to overcome my fears. I mean, you saw the data…mountains….My qualifications weren’t stamped with a gold seal on parchment paper, they were received through the years of coming up through the underbelly of this ship and learning how it works, what makes it tick, and what the employees, like myself, needed to hear and feel to keep pushing it forward.
I was qualified. I just needed to believe it. I had been operating at the exec table for years. Nancy valued my opinions, ideas, objections, and desires for this company (I confess, I’m a bit of an excel nerd too). She saw it in me before I saw it in myself. I hadn’t seen myself as the business-minded thinker that I was. But she let me get there on my own. #bestbossever.
Now, instead of doing creative thinking for my customers, I am up to my eyeballs in data, reports, numbers, trends…all the things. Managing this business requires daily insights on our key performance indicators for effective decision-making as well as my creative problem solving I learned as a designer. My curiosity gets piqued when things don’t make sense and I put on that explorer hat and use my analytical mind to solve the problems.
I have sat in the employee’s shoes. I have wanted information and insights at many times throughout my career, and now I sit in the seat where I can help translate those insights into usable data and bring a healthier and more profitable business.
< Pause> So let me tell you one more story of what I mean. As I said, it took guts to accept responsibility for all these new departments. There was a lot at stake.
And the timing of the promotion set me up to have to defy odds again…to lead during a global pandemic. Business was down. We needed to rely on data and Nancy was about to deliver crucial information to our organization. She was transparent with employees so they’d understand a bigger picture, so they could wrap their heads around how and why decisions were being made. And then they could watch the data in real-time.
Nancy ran the data by me she wanted to publish, and it was puzzling to say the least. The productivity numbers were much lower than I expected, and it had me spinning because that data didn’t match up to what it felt like in “real life”. We’d all been killing it and yet Nancy’s numbers didn’t reflect that.
This is another example of data telling a one-dimensional story. I had to figure out, what is OUR story. You can choose to run with a slice of data or dig a little deeper to provide context of why the numbers are the way they are. Now, I wasn’t denying the hard data, but I’d walked in the shoes of those about to hear these stats and I felt the need to address the concerns they’d have before it even reached their ears. That’s Empathy.
I needed to know WHY these numbers were so low. WHY did it not match up to what we were feeling in reality? There goes that curiosity.
I dug deep and collected more data to provide rationale for the numbers and broke down the explanation in a data story built just for Nancy. She loves these by the way, in PowerPoint as you can imagine.
So, instead of showing a large report with rows of data, I showed her the essential points on three tight slides, and shared context around each number so that Nancy could gain a clearer picture of why our numbers initially appeared low. The reality was…turns out we weren’t comparing apples to apples year-over-year. We’d migrated systems the year before and the deeper dive, told a different story. One that encouraged the team because it confirmed the resilience and tenacity I knew I’d seen in them. Nancy relies on an exec team that can bring insights to the table especially if it is contrary to what she has laid out in front of us. It takes bravery to speak up in a situation like this but we’d not be a healthy exec team without that safety and candor.
What I learned is how important it is to Be brave and find your voice…. This moment for me took bravery. My boss, some of you may know of her, is very passionate for data stories and action. And to challenge her to slow down, dig deeper and deliver a data story in a way that would be transparent but resonate with her…was brave.
But my intuition told me to go deeper in the data. I felt a responsibility to make sure we kept the team encouraged, even while delivering not so great news. The intention was to provide transparency so breaking the data down into a three-act-structure and wrapping context around it with a clear strategy to turn the numbers around was what we needed most in that moment. And we were able to do just that! In spectacular fashion.
So, who’d have thought that this Latina, teen mom, who grew up too quick, could complete a college education, follow her dream to be a creative, lead a large communication consultancy, and stand in front of you today to share how to defy the odds and see what’s possible. And that it always was.
I sure didn’t. But here we are.
This is in no way a common path to the C-Suite. But it was my path and mine alone. Your career roadmap is unique to you. But the skills needed to overcome any obstacle in your way to reach your desired future are the same.
I have shared three key learnings that may help you, like me, write your own story. They all utilize communication skills to overcome the roadblocks that will no doubt come your way.
Number one, Never underestimate the power of story…. You can have the slickest, cutting edge, trend setting visuals ever…but without a good story, it’s just eye candy.
You can speak in the largest of venues, with beautiful surroundings and celebrity guests, but without a story, it’s just spectacle.
A good story captivates, illuminates, and resonates time and time again. Whether on a stage, in a conference room or across a desk, story helps others get unstuck.
Number two, Communicate with Empathy…understand deeply who you are communicating to. Before you write that story and design your presentation, think about what your audience is thinking or feeling before they enter the room, and what you want them to think or feel after. What do you want them to do and become? Do you want to encourage, change their thinking, spark ideas? Communicating with empathy connects your message to their hearts and minds.
Number three, Be brave and find your voice… you have something to offer. There will come a time in each of your careers where it feels like the odds are stacked against you. But you are in the driver’s seat and have the power to write your story and choose your own path. Don’t let the stats dictate your future. Believe in the sliver of data that shows a window of possibility, take a leap and persevere.
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