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  • JJ Rorie

Getting More Women of Color in Product Management

Episode 012: Amber Hall:

"In many instances in my career, I've been one of few or the only Black female product manager at my company. But I think what I've come to understand and learn about being in the space is not only does my identity play a major role in how I show up. As a product leader, it also plays a major role in the types of products I help create because I bring a different point of view."



JJ: Hello and welcome to Product Voices. This is a really important discussion we're going to have on this episode. Getting more Women of Color in product Management We have a diversity problem in product, in my opinion, and I think most people's opinion. I think that the way that the systems have worked, probably intentionally over the years, have set us up for a certain type of person, usually male, a lot of times white, to be the default. And that has caused a lot of homogeneous looking product teams and technology teams. And I think that makes for an environment that while those individuals may be very talented, certainly smart and capable, it allows for a type of groupthink and an inability to truly create great products that are inclusive, that bring every perspective into the room while they're being built, that manifests itself in several different ways.

So I am really honored, frankly, to be talking about this topic with my guest. She's been a previous guest of mine, and it's one that's important to me as a white woman. I want to make sure that the world of product looks like the world and not like some subset of the world. And so I'm really excited about this topic, and I thank my guest immensely for being here.

Amber Hall leads the bathroom, faucets and accessories product category for Kohler. She previously has worked at Ford Motor Company, Wolverine Worldwide, and Whirlpool, and she's also a lecturer at Northwestern University. Amber, thank you so much for joining me and talking about this today.

AMBER: Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be back.

JJ: Absolutely. You're one of my favorite guests. Okay. So just tell me tell me about your experience as a woman of color in business and in product management.

AMBER: Yeah. The short answer is I'm the only one. In many instances in my career, I've been one of few or the only. And I'm currently the only Black female product manager at my company. So, you know, it's an experience that is not I should say it's familiar. For what it's worth, even in College, I was one of a handful in engineering. So I don't want to say weird, but it's so familiar to me. I don't know. It's super interesting.

But I think what I've come to understand and learn about being in the space is not only does my identity play a major role in how I show up. As a product leader, but it also plays a major role in the types of products I help create because I bring a different point of view. And so I think that my own personal mission is to get more of us at the table, for sure, but to also push on the systems at large to critically think through that it isn't just about representation, it literally impacts the actual products that we create.

JJ: Yes, absolutely. So what advice would you give to women of color who are trying to get into products, or who, as you said, your mission is to get a more inclusive room, and so you're not the only Black woman sitting around that table. So tell me, what advice do you give to women of color trying to get into product? Yes, I think first take a deep breath, realize that or maybe acknowledge. I think it's likely that you already realize it, but it's okay to feel some type of way about being in a space where it is just you or very few that identify the way you identify in this space. But your presence is needed. It's important, it's valued. And so I think it's important to take a deep breath.

But my next piece of advice is about action. I firmly believe that the success of women of color in product spaces, predominantly male spaces, has a lot to do with creating a support system around you that can give you the literal and figurative hug you need when you need it.

So to me, that means mentorship, advocacy, and sponsorship at all levels of the organization, ensuring that you've got what I like to call your personal board of directors around you that you can help, that can help you navigate circumstances that you find yourself in, advocate for you when you don't have access to the room or there's just too big of a gap between the conversation, where is the conversation happening in the organization and where you are, and then sponsorship. You need executive level. Support as well to ensure that you are continuing to create upward momentum in your career.

So I have long let go of the idea that I can do it all by myself. I certainly am proud of my accomplishments, but it has often been that support system when I've needed to sort through a difficult circumstance or navigate a difficult conversation or just build the confidence and courage to go ask for the money, whatever it is, it's often been that support system that has helped me navigate those circumstances and situations. And I think that is so much of the secret sauce to any woman's success, but particularly a woman of color success.

JJ: I want to double click on that a little bit. How do you go about finding those mentors and those sponsors and the folks who really are going to be there for you and not just on the surface, but really go to bat for you and really talk about you when you're not in the room and make sure you get a seat at that table at some point.

AMBER: For sure. That's a great question. So I'll give you two perspectives, one of which is tell you a story as to how I achieved that in the company I met, where I've been less than a year. And then I'll also share some tips and tricks. Even if you've been at your company quite some time and you haven't found your place yet, here are some ways I think you can navigate that for yourself. So one of the first things I did as a part of accepting the offer at Kohler was I, for lack of a better word, demanded a list of people in leadership that I needed to talk to.

JJ: Awesome.

AMBER: And I asked my leadership to set up those one on one as a part of my onboarding process. So I had a list of about five different leaders across the organization. I leveraged my direct manager to set up the meeting, the one on one he introduced to me. And then I carried the conversation from there. And that process allowed me to start to kind of parse out who could be right.

And I was looking for a couple of different things. I was looking for someone that could be a Navigator, someone that was equal in title or role or experience that could help me just simply navigate the company. Not every question you want to ask your boss, because whatever. And so someone that I could kind of really latch onto as a peer to help legitimately just navigate the organization. I was also looking for someone several levels ahead of me that could really kind of serve as that potential advocate, not in my direct chain of command, but was in my function that I could leverage for hey, I have this idea. I'm thinking about the strategy. What do you think or provide perspective of what's going on in the broader organization in different categories that I didn't have access to help build context.

And then I was looking for an executive leader as well. And so I just asked my hiring manager, I need these things. This is really important to me. I have it in my existing organization. I'm not joining without it. And so within a week of joining, I was able to meet folks and start that process of relationship building. And that turned into, depending upon the relationship, weekly or monthly or quarterly one on one with those people. And I'm happy to say a year later, I still have those people in my network. And those relationships have helped me stretch out into the organization to build more relationships. But that's how I did it in my current role.

Beyond that, I would say that if you're looking for a mentor somebody, and I define a mentor as someone who they're not the Vice President or the C Suite executive, they're the person that may be at your level or just one step above that knows, probably has been there longer than you they're knows more of the organization at large culturally than you kind of like that. Big sister. Big brother. Big non binary person. That can just help assist. Right. Like, I don't know where to go for this thing. Do you know who to go talk to? And I would just think about who in meetings tends to be personable and have some answers. Right. They seem to kind of know what's going on, not in a gossipy way, but definitely in an informed way. And the first thing I would do is send them an email or if you actually are in a physical office or you have Slack or whatever chat software you're using, reach out and say, hey, send them a compliment. Hey, I noticed in this last meeting you had a lot to say. Really love what you provided to the conversation. I'd love to just connect with you for 15 minutes, one on one.

Start small. Don't over commit to a lunch. Just start small and see how that goes. And you can reach out to a couple of people that make you feel that way where you perceive that they know enough, they can add value to your life, your career, and just reach out for a 15 minutes chat. The advocate is going to be the person that's probably several levels, depending on where you are, maybe the director or maybe even the Vice President. And that's really going to be a person that should be not in your direct chain of command, but definitely has influence.

So they might be in a different product category, they might be in a different business unit. They understand your role, but they're not in your direct line of management. And that person, I would honestly start with your boss. If you have trust with your boss, ask that person. Ask your boss if you can help make the connection. If you haven't already had a chance to meet that person or meet them in a more intimate setting, I would start there.

If that doesn't work, send a cold email. Don't be scared of the cold email. Say, hey, I'd like to reach out again, 15 minutes, no big deal. It's enough time to say hello, get to know one another, chit chat a little bit, but not committing to an hour where you got to figure out how to build fill in all that time, and then the executive sponsor can come typically comes a little bit later. With time, it just organically happens that way, and that's far more of a mutual relationship.

Oftentimes the executive tends to reach out to you and then maybe you follow up and then they reach out again and then you ask for a little bit more time. Then eventually maybe you're having a quarterly meeting or something like that. And my best advice there is again, start with your boss. If you have trust there, or if you build that relationship with an advocate, you can also leverage that person as well. A lot of this is about political equity, too. Sometimes getting access to that person or getting in that room has a lot of who else you know, that has access to that room.

And so start to figure out who in your company has the political equity and start to build relationships with those folks. And then I think over time, you demonstrate your great work and your role. They take notice. Sometimes these things are happening organically. You just have to leverage that moment to have a call to action. Say, hey, thank you so much for the acknowledgement. I would love to talk to you for 15 minutes or next time if you're a remote employee and you're flying into the company for that week. I'd love to get coffee one day while I'm physically at headquarters or whatever it is.

And I think those are the ways starting small, but being really strategic, I think are the great steps that you can take to gain the mentorship, advocacy and sponsorship that you desire in an organization, organization.

JJ: That's amazing. And I honestly believe that your advice and your story about saying if I'm going to join this organization, if I'm going to join Kohler, I'm not joining without out you telling me who these people are and setting me up for the success. I think that's probably one of the best career advice I've ever heard. That's really amazing.

I am in awe of you because I think that is so awesome. And it's so hard to really figure out if an organization is going to be the right place for you, especially in your situation. Right. That's one of the ways just by asking and having them respond in the right way is a good indicator that it may be a culture that you can build upon and you can help. So I think that's awesome. That's really amazing.

So this next question and I hesitate to ask it because, frankly, I don't believe that it's people of color's responsibility to teach white people how to knock down the systems that white people set up in the first place. But I'm going to ask because I want to know your perspective.

So how can white people help to start to knock down some of the walls that exist in business and in product management and have caused the kind of environment that, frankly, make you be the only Black woman sitting in that room. What can we do.

AMBER: Yeah. So first I would like to say, for what it's worth, my own personal opinion is I don't think that any change, transformational, change at a company, community, culture, country level happens without everybody. So while we may not be in the driver's seat from a minority perspective, we have to be in the car because I just don't think that you can go forward if you leave people behind. Right. Literally and figuratively. So I welcome the conversation.

That said, I think what's really important is that people of power, again, no matter if it's a predominantly male, predominantly white space, it doesn't matter how we define the majority. I think what's really important is recognizing that the work to break down conventional norms and systems that we've created is innately uncomfortable, literally, because we as humans will always do the things that are comfortable to us. That's just human behavior. That's the College one on one. That's a fact, no matter what the concept is that we're talking about. And so recognizing that fact and acknowledging that you will be just really uncomfortable, I think allows for all of us to give grace.

But then also, I think it allows us to step into our power literally to make the change and to demand the things that we need to. And so I think that first comes with listening. I think Black stories, Black woman stories, minority stories of the like need to be heard and shown and represented big, small, no matter how, but they need to be shown. But then two, I think we have to also it's hard, right? But realizing and this is like the therapy session and all realizing that even if you physically weren't responsible for instituting the system, you are a part of it and you continue to uphold it by your bias. And so realizing your role in that as an individual becomes the tipping point for willing to do something different, right? Willing to be open, willing to listen, willing to just. Not do the thing you've always done. Change looks different for different people. But I think it's funny because I was having a conversation just the other day.

We literally all of us default to what we define as our normal. Normal. Right. So if you grew up in a community that was incredibly diverse, that's your normal. And so anything other than that is going to be abnormal to you. Similarly, if you grew up in a predominantly white or predominantly male community, that's your normal. So anything other than that is going to feel weird to you. And so that discomfort needs to be like your bestie your best friend that you sit with and be with such that you are not afraid of it. And I think that breaking down that fear is such a critical step to be willing to have a conversation and then do something about it. And that's part of what I try to do in the day to day jobs I have is pushing my white male counterparts to understand with empathy that. Listen, you may not understand what I'm saying because it's not. We don't have the same perspective. We didn't grow up the same way. We literally don't identify the same way. So it's going to be impossible. So I try to build context.

I mean, honestly, I think of transforming diversity, equity, inclusion in a lot of ways in the same way that I do think about product strategy. If I'm trying to pitch an idea to a leader about why we should do something, I don't just show the PowerPoint deck. I build context. I literally like build the room, show the scenario, put them in the situation so they can understand what I'm saying. And I'm far more successful in getting a yes when I do it that way than just saying, here's my idea and here's why I think you should give me 10 million or whatever it is to go invest. I think the same is true for diversity, equity and inclusion. Putting people in the space to experience some of the things I think helps build bridges and knock down those walls.

So I think those are some of the things that are really, really necessary for us to truly move this conversation forward. And all down to the other stuff, too. Right. Like making sure that there's a diverse slate of candidates when you're hiring, don't just fill the job because, well, this was the only person who applied really do your due diligence. I think our recruiting mechanisms need to change. I think even down to the questions we ask and the types of backgrounds we look for, there's a lot of bias in that stuff because HR will say, that's how we've always done it, or the company will say, this is how we've always done it. There's a lot of space in there to challenge. And I think through being thoughtful, and certainly if you're in a position of power, you just have the ability to challenge and people are going to be willing to listen.

JJ: Yeah, those are really powerful words and embrace that being uncomfortable. I think we all have to get used to that because that's where growth happens. And I think that's really important.

So just the final thing. And you've talked a little bit about that there. But tell me a little bit about kind of where you think or what you think are going to be the drivers of real change.

AMBER: Yeah, I think. Some of the big drivers are changed, are definitely D&I as an activity is emerging in a lot of spaces. But I think what's important, I believe I don't know if the D&I experts would agree with me, but I think it has to be embodied by all levels of the organization and all functions. And that's why I try to translate D&I from a product perspective as well, because I've literally been in industries where the group of guys is making the decision about a job to be done. That tends to be done by a target audience of women. You can't possibly feel confident in making a decision for a group of people you don't identify with. You never had the experience of a woman. And I've watched women push on them to say, listen, you guys are coming at this at a completely different angle and how a woman would actually do the task we're talking about. So I think that there has to be a shared accountability to that, and that has to equate to dollars. Right. Revenue unit sold. Right. All the metrics at the organizational level to really drive change. I think in addition to that, I've already mentioned the talent component of this. Right. Recruiting and attracting talent has to be different. It just has to be because different communities need different things, and compensation and benefits can be defined differently depending upon who you're talking to. Some people are definitely more I don't think anybody would say no to more money, but there are plenty of other benefits that are important even for women. Right. Paid family leave, postpartum care, those types of things. When added to the benefits and compensation, it says, you've seen me down to business, resource groups and those sorts of things for all types of minorities.

But Additionally, I think we have to stop. Saying to ourselves, well, because we did it this way in the past or it always worked for us up until this point. We have to keep doing it that way. I think it's time to put the design thinking process on how we do business and let go of some of those conventional norms. I think that's really important in this conversation of bringing representation and for what it's worth, right? Let's just call it what it is. If any company wants to sell more of the thing they make, they're going to have to reach those audiences. And I don't know how you can authentically reach those audiences. If you don't have people in those companies that represent those audiences, it comes off inauthentic for what it's worth, and you're probably going to miss the Mark. I'm just calling it for what it is. So I think it's really important to recognize that. And then lastly, I think that even at our state, local legislative levels, we need to do the things that. Require for more. Right. If we demand that it's necessary to do good business, if we demand that this is a key enabler or driver change for growing an economy, and if we're rewarded for it, we'll do it for what it's worth. And so there are several States, some States, I should say, that have started to ask for 50 50% representation of women on boards and things like that.

We could translate that down to other groups and minorities and start doing things at all levels, I think, to help really mobilize the narrative so it doesn't fall back on the minority to do the work.

JJ: Yes, absolutely. Amber, this has been just a tremendous conversation. And thank you so much for your perspectives and for sharing your wisdom. I think it's one of if maybe not the most important episode that I certainly have done. And I just appreciate your candor and your approach to this.

And I think I'll just kind of end the episode by saying embrace the uncomfortable. And for those of us who come from a place of privilege, whether that's male, white, whatever that kind of norm is in your world, embrace that, know that we're going to grow from it, and that's what we're going to do together. And the world tomorrow is going to look better than it does today if we all do that.

So, Amber Hall, thank you again so much for being here.

AMBER: My pleasure. I appreciate it. Thank you so much.

JJ: And again, thank you all for listening to Product Voices. See you on the next episode.



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