Stephanie Hollingshead, CEO of HR Tech Group, based in Vancouver BC, joined Cascadia Report to talk about her experiences as a leader in the tech industry and whether companies in the region have been doing enough to address the gender pay gap. She has worked her entire career in the technology sector and is keenly aware of the opportunities and challenges faced by tech-focused HR professionals.
Previously the Chair of HR Tech Group's Steering Committee from 2007 - 2009, she has worked on various committees and conferences for the association. In addition to her professional experience, Hollingshead has extensive experience working with not-for-profit organizations, including currently serving as the Board Secretary for The Eastside Cultural Centre and previously serving as Chair of the Board for Big Brothers of Greater Vancouver and as a Board Director for Chartered Professionals in Human Resources, British Columbia, and Yukon.
It’s not every day that you get to speak to an experienced CEO with a background not only in tech but a long-running association with non-profits. As 2020 marks Hollingshead’s second year as CEO at HR Tech Group, an association supporting Western Canada’s tech sector, we asked her what she has enjoyed about the role so far, and what the day-to-day of a CEO looks like.
“I'm having a lot of fun with it. I enjoy the breadth of exposure across the tech sector and across British Columbia and Alberta as well. I came to this role from working with just one tech company, where I had a narrow focus on that one company and the sub-sector they're in. Seeing the whole sector, being a part of that bigger ecosystem and getting to know people and different companies across it all, I'm loving that. And I’m loving having the freedom to shape things; it's a lot of fun.
My day-to-day is quite a mix. It's a lot of hosting events, meeting with people and responsiveness to our members. It’s looking at new ways to provide for their needs, whether it's data, channels for collaboration and networking, bringing in experts, rolling out programs and events or partnering with other groups. It's quite a bit of marketing as well. I'm proud of the growth that our association has had since I took over the role. We grew 16% in membership last year and we're on track to grow 12% this year.
We're also running a substantial diversity and inclusion project right now. A fair bit of my day to day is working with stakeholders, consultants and partners, making sure the project initiatives are moving along. And of course, there's days when I delve more into strategic conversations, planning, and forecasting, or have my nose in a spreadsheet, creating budgets and forecasts. I love that work. I could do the strategy and forecasting stuff for days. My days really vary.”
With a rich and varied career taking in everything from speaking roles at the Conference Board of Canada and the Women and Leadership conference, to her work in the private sector for companies such as Kodak and Sierra Systems, Hollingshead is clearly passionate about her work.
We wanted to find out what got her started on the path to becoming a CEO and business leader, and what the journey has looked like so far.
“I got a business degree, specializing in human resources and started in junior roles in human resources. One of my early jobs was with a high growth global tech company, and I had the opportunity to take on an incredible variety of roles and progress very quickly within a high growth team. I had an opportunity to join a non-profit board and I leapt at that opportunity because I was looking to volunteer and give back to the community with both my time and my capabilities. After a couple of decades of human resources work, I started looking more broadly at business and wondering what could that look like for me? I wanted to do something broader than HR and to make that switch out of a very specific profession into a broader leadership role. This opportunity [HR Tech Group] came along and I thought, well, who better to take a risk on an HR person for a leadership role than a HR professional group.
It's a fantastic fit because I was a member for almost 20 years. I was heavily involved in the association for a number of those years and obviously understand the member experience. So that's how I got to where I am today.”
Giving something back to her community is a long-running theme in Hollingshead’s career and combining both non-profit volunteer work and her own job is something that she has done seamlessly. I was eager to find out, from the non-profit side, how rewarding the work is, supporting organisations like Big Brothers of Greater Vancouver.
“The role with Big Brothers was a volunteer role on top of my day job. I was fortunate to have employers that were very open to the flexibility to meet those board commitments, and of course I had to balance those commitments with my family time as well. I was with that board and that organization for eleven years and spent the last four years as the chair of the board.
I was very proud of the success Big Brothers had with increasing the number of kids served each year and with earning revenue and fundraising to support this increase. Another big focus during my time there was decreasing the wait times. You have these young kids looking for a big brother in their life, and in some communities they were waiting almost two years. For a young kid in need of a role model and friend, that's a hard couple of years. I'm proud of the work we did around reducing some of those wait times and increasing the number of kids that we were able to serve, but I really can't take credit for it.
Another initiative we did while I was there was work on the diversity and inclusion within the organization. Some staff members in particular did a wonderful job of increasing our collective awareness and education around Indigenous peoples’ experiences. They also working to build relationships with Indigenous communities and increase the number of Indigenous children served through the program. So, to me, that was quite meaningful.”
Hollingshead goes on to say how being able to bring that experience into her own work has been hugely valuable and has helped to inform how she approaches her role as CEO for HR Tech Group.
“With Big Brothers, I brought a human resource perspective and expertise to the organization. Being on that board provided me with the opportunity to hear perspectives from and make decisions with accountants and lawyers, police officers, educators, a child psychologist and a retired school principal from an inner-city school. The incredible learning that I received just by participating in those conversations very much informs my role now, and it also informed my HR roles.
I think that not-for-profit board work is incredibly valuable. Working with charities enabled me to learn about the not-for-profit sector; it’s something that I really appreciate and understand more now. HR Tech Group is a not-for-profit association, and while it's different from a charity, I am still able to draw from that experience.”
While setbacks and disappointments are part of every person's career, diversity of experience is a great source of strength for Hollingshead. I asked her about some of the obstacles she faced in her life from both a personal and professional point of view, and how they’d shaped both her career and perspective on life in general.
“Being a parent, and a mom in particular, has been a challenge. I had the foot right down on the career gas pedal and I was pushing as hard as I can and loving it. Getting pregnant and going on a maternity leave meant losing that traction, losing that time, and coming back and having to regain credibility. You've lost a year and you're juggling a kid at home with trying to be that same person you were before in the workplace. It is an obstacle, even in a workplace where there’s a lot of understanding and acceptance for it. It's still very challenging, but I faced it one week at a time.
There were a lot of late nights and a lot of long hours. But also, I got very, very efficient with my time. Someone once said to me, ‘there's nobody more efficient than a working mom.’ Yeah, we don't have long lunches.
Another setback I faced was when I wanted a broader role, outside HR. I was with a company that was shrinking at the time and didn't have leadership openings. I had a supportive boss who was willing to mentor me and find project work for me, but she really didn't have a role for me. I spent a fair bit of time thinking it through and planting seeds. Probably the best thing I did was be open with my leader and with some external people and admit my desire for a next step in my career. And then be open to different paths for getting there.”
It’s a refreshingly honest answer that will resonate with many people pursuing a career in leadership positions. When Hollingshead encountered a block, her tenacity, and willingness to look in different avenues for those opportunities paid dividends.
“Going out of my comfort zone and saying yes to opportunities that looked a little different from what I was expecting was at times hard. At one point I competed for a vice-chair role on a board. That was a bit uncomfortable because there were two of us and it was set up as a competition during one of the board meetings. I thought about stepping back, but I didn't. I followed it through and I didn't get the role. To then be back in the room with all those same people right away was hard, but I pushed through it and treated it like a learning opportunity.
I’ve learned to be open to a path not looking exactly what you first think it might look like. The role I'm in now is exactly what I was looking for; I just didn't know how to get there for a couple of years.”
As a respected figure in business here in the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, and BC in particular, Hollingshead was invited to write a piece for Business in Vancouver Magazine’s Women in Business special. In it, she addressed a number of issues affecting women in the workplace, and particularly the gender pay gap, saying that ‘undervaluing 50% of our potential workforce undermines all of our efforts to attract and retain talent’. It’s a vital issue to companies in the Pacific Northwest and beyond, and I asked Hollingshead what progress she has seen in the region to address the imbalance since that article was published in the Fall of 2019.
“In the past year or two we’re seeing this starting to be addressed, particularly in British Columbia but through the Cascadia Corridor as well, in ways that we have not seen before. Of course, my lens is the tech industry. Back in 2018, in my second week on the job, BC’s provincial government put out a call for proposals for diversity and inclusion implementation projects. I didn't know the ecosystem, didn’t have the right network, but I’m a doer and this was right up my alley.
I knew what I wanted to do but had no idea how to pull together industry and ecosystem support. Thankfully I did know a fabulous contractor with the right network and experience and we built the bid together. We won the contract in May 2019 and our D&I Tech Project was born. At the time, there was definitely some momentum in the tech sector around equity, diversity and inclusion and it was building. But fast forward to today, and it’s a whole different ball game. It’s incredible what we're seeing companies do today.
We’re seeing some real progress with pay equity in particular. A company in Vancouver, Unbounce, recently put a pledge forward for companies to commit to taking steps towards pay equity. HR Tech Group has been a partner with them supporting this work and helping with the initiative. They were thinking that maybe they’d get 10 companies to join them in working to reduce the pay gap and that would be a wonderful success. They paused their launch when COVID-19 hit, and kept it on pause as the anti-racism activity heightened. It just wasn’t the right time; they didn’t want to take HR resources away from important anti-racism conversations and actions. Unbounce finally launched the initiative last month and there are currently 51 companies that have pledged. It's unbelievable.”
If you are reading this as a company owner or leader please follow this link to find out more about Unbounce’s pay parity pledge. Hollingshead is deeply passionate about diversity and inclusion work, saying she could ‘talk for hours’ about the D&I Tech Project they are leading, and so I asked what she hopes will be achieved by the project, and what more can be done.
“One of the initiatives the diversity and inclusion project has funded is measuring diversity in the sector. That requires asking employees to self-report on their diversity and that's just not the norm in tech. A few tech companies are accustomed to doing this, like Canadian federal contractors or subsidiaries of California parent companies, but in most small tech companies, certainly in British Columbia, this is just not done.
With project funding we created tools and resources for companies to use, to ask employees to self-report. We then asked our member companies to do this and hoped enough of them would, and that they'd give us the data confidentially via our salary survey so that Mercer could analyze it all for us. It was a big ask, even before COVID-19; we thought ‘no-one's going to do it’. It’s incredible how many companies took that step to ask their employees to self-identify. And now they have data on not just gender diversity and pay equity, but also data on how many of their employees identify as being Indigenous, as being a visible minority, as being a person with a disability, and as being part of the LGBTQ/2S community.
Having this data is important for our sector. We now have a benchmark against which we can track progress. We have a coalition of hundreds of people who are interested in our project work, and we just released the Diversity in Tech Dashboard results yesterday.
The numbers haven’t changed yet on pay equity but I'm pretty excited for next year’s data because we're seeing real actions being taken by companies. The majority of tech companies that have pledged as part of Unbounce’s pay parity initiative speaks to that. I think we’re going to see a shift in our 2021 compensation data.
Whether it's pay parity or diversity hiring targets, companies have been setting goals and targets. Some of the most progressive companies are now announcing they've met gender parity targets. Up until 2020, most tech companies have been saying diversity and inclusion is important, but they haven't been doing much about it beyond writing policy statements. Now there's a lot of money being put where mouths are. The number one question I’m getting from our members right now is ‘can you refer me to a diversity and inclusion consultant?’ It’s not the norm yet, but the momentum is huge and there are some pretty exciting, tangible examples.”
As a vocal business leader and an advocate for diversity and equality in the workplace, I was curious to find out how Hollingshead would define her own leadership style, and what advice she could give to other aspiring business leaders looking to follow in her footsteps.
“I would describe my leadership style as collaborative, results oriented, and resourceful. I like when people come together and work as a high functioning team. I think colleagues view me as a trustworthy leader. I don’t play games. My style is to determine goals, develop strategies and then identify what needs to be done to meet the goals. And yes, there's always a laundry list, but I prioritize, whittle it down and say ‘these are the things I am going to do this year’. And then I do them, versus looking at a long list and not really getting any of it done. I’m a doer.
“Advice for aspiring business leaders? Get curious about people. So many leaders, as they're starting out, go into ‘tell mode’ and are afraid to show vulnerability by not knowing something or not providing the answer. I think a confident leader will acknowledge when they don't know something and will also understand that there's a lot of collective wisdom in whatever room they're in or whatever team they're on. Your role as leader is to not to know everything, but to draw out that collective knowledge and the ideas and creativity and get the team humming.”
While we were on the topic of leadership and providing advice, I couldn’t let Hollingshead go without asking her what three takeaways she has from her journey so far. Having worked her way up the ladder and experienced boardroom life from the private and public sector perspective, I wanted to know what tips and tricks she had for carving out a successful career.
“Be curious. If you disagree with something get curious. Take time to pause and ask people for more information to better understand the situation.
Choose what to accomplish. You can't do everything, and you certainly won't do it all well. So, choose the one, two or three things you're going to accomplish today, this week and this month and this year, and focus on those accomplishments.
Seek diverse perspectives. Diversity of thought and experience brings you to a better solution. Instead of just churning through something on your own and going from A to B, take the time to hear from and collect diverse perspectives. The result will be way better than what you would have come up with on your own.”
You can find out more about HR Tech Group’s D&I Resource HUB here - https://diversity.hrtechgroup.com.