Karen Penn credits her career evolution with her lack of patience.
The former government lawyer found herself appreciative of the chance to shape DEI policy at a Department of Defense component agency. But it was slow going.
“My analogy is trying to turn an aircraft carrier around on a lake. Or now I can say, trying to get the container ship that got stuck in the Suez canal out,” she says, smiling. “It’s hard for me to wait years and years to see change. Particularly when, in the tech industry, there’s opportunity with the right leadership support to make meaningful, quick changes that set the framework for longer-term impact.”
Now, as the Head of DEI at Elastic, a distributed company that powers search solutions, Karen is able to make lasting changes supported by an internal culture of openness, growth, and a commitment to inclusion. With employees in 40 countries and with 100-plus different nationalities, building a DEI approach that scales globally has been an exciting challenge.
We sat down with Karen to hear more about her career path and about how she’s helping to support and evolve organic DEI efforts to serve Elasticians around the world.
A “Recovering Lawyer”
Like many kids, Karen used to love sitting around the dinner table and listening to her dad’s stories from work. Especially since her dad was a judge.
“I was so enthralled by not only his lived experiences as a Black man, but from what he saw happening in the courtroom every day,” she says. “I wanted to be a lawyer because I wanted to be just like my dad.”
That passion took Karen to law school, where she enjoyed honing her skills in logical analysis, but realized she didn’t want to be taking cases to court as a criminal or corporate lawyer. So after serving as a judicial law clerk, she took a job working for the Office of Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Justice, where she was responsible for ensuring that grant recipients had equal opportunity plans in place and weren’t being discriminatory.
“That really opened my perspective to what happens to folks who face inequality,” she reflects.
After 4 years, she was ready for something with a faster pace. She applied for an in-house role that grew into becoming the Head of HR for a small company.
“I quickly realized that this thing called HR is what I was supposed to be doing,” she says. “HR is really the cultural heartbeat of an organization, where you’re able to create and implement policy and processes that have influence.”
Volunteering during the 2008 election inspired Karen to get back into government work, though, so that’s when she joined the Department of Defense to stand up their DEI recruitment function in the Defense Contract Management Agency.
When her bureaucracy meter had tapped out again, she started working as an HR consultant, embedding in companies that needed short-term help. Her last placement was with Endgame, a cybersecurity firm acquired by Elastic two years ago.
Because of Elastic’s fast-paced growth, says Karen, there was a need for HR talent that understood the tech space and how to support an inclusive culture in a distributed company. She stepped up and joined the company’s senior HR leadership team, where she currently runs the company’s DEI efforts and their CSR program, Elastic Cares.
“My experiences growing up as a Black woman, hearing stories about inequality and discrimination and experiencing my own, learning about it in undergrad and law school studies, and seeing it at the justice department, it fueled everything I do,” says Karen of her path. “It’s all about equality.”
Solidifying Organic Efforts
Shortly after Karen became part of the Elastic team, George Floyd’s murder sent shockwaves across the U.S. and also across the globe.
At that point in time, Karen describes Elastic’s DEI efforts as “good folks being good, but no cohesive approach.” Organic communities had formed on Slack, bringing together Black employees, LGBTQIA+ employees, and women who worked at Elastic to talk about their shared experiences.
Karen’s first step was to reshape the conversation around DEI as a company. She launched a newsletter that explored the nuance of representation at work, leaning on her lawyer background to explain the difference between quotas (illegal!) and good-faith hiring targets, for instance.She also helped expand Elastic Cares, Elastic’s approach to CSR, to include direct links to DEI efforts. For example, Elastic Cares hosts quarterly sessions featuring nonprofits (NPOs), sourced in collaboration with 7 employee resource groups (ERGs), that have explored intersectional anti-discrimination, underrepresentation in tech, among others. Employees are encouraged to use 40 hours of volunteer time off to support NPOs of their choosing (Karen herself works with a nonprofit that helps resettle refugees); they are also encouraged to utilize a $1,500 (or the equivalent in local currency) gift matching budget to causes they care about, and/or nominate charities for free Elastic cloud clusters through the NPO Granting Program.
“Rolling Elastic Cares under the broader DEI effort gave us a vehicle for when folks say, ‘What can I do to help be part of the solution?’” says Karen.
A Global, Distributed Approach to DEI
The Elastic community responded well to Karen’s early DEI efforts. But Karen realized that what resonated with the U.S. team might not translate perfectly to employees in other countries.
“When you have a global organization, it’s really important that you’re not talking only about representation of African Americans, because that’s not going to translate to someone in Poland or Israel,” she says.
To help with that, Karen has focused on a broad definition of what diversity means. “It’s cognitive, it’s language, it’s learning style; it’s limitless,” she says.
As Elastic’s DEI efforts scale globally, Karen leans on the company’s Source Code, or a set of shared ideas that all employees are building towards. Part of the Source Code reads as follows:
Our products are distributed by design, our company is distributed by intention. With many languages, perspectives, and cultures, it’s easy to lose something in translation. Over email and chat, doubly so. Until we get a perpetual empathy machine, don’t assume malice.
A distributed Elastic makes for a diverse Elastic, which makes for a better Elastic.
That idea, says Karen, is manifested in a new practice called “Respect the Pause, and Pause and Explain.” It describes an approach to dealing with awkward interactions around the topic of DEI that can be partially attributed to cultural differences, and gives employees a procedure for exploring those topics while still assuming positive intent.
Karen is also leveraging ERGs to better support employees around the globe, including efforts to offer more expansive options for self-identification and ensuring that every ERG has cross-regional representation and diverse executive sponsorship.
Commitment to Evolution
Elastic hosts an annual global conference called Elasticon. At the last two events, Karen was pleased to see managers around the globe talking about managing within a DEI framework, unprompted.
“Before it was always HR talking about it, and now I’ve seen more leadership and senior management incorporating this into their day-to-day,” she says. “Employees are asking more, and the asks are more complex and they’re more frequent, which is great.”
Karen and her HR peers know that Elastic isn’t done addressing DEI—they’re just getting started.
But she’s excited to keep building.
“We’ve got a long way to go. We have some managers who are already doing this, and others that aren’t yet, that say, ‘Oh, I don’t have time for that,’” she says. “But it’s our position that you have to make time, because we cannot achieve the performance that we desire without incorporating this into everything we say and do.”
On a given weekday afternoon, you can find Cindy Batang working from the parking lot of a golf course while her younger daughter practices her swing.
She did the same thing for her older daughter. That dedication paid off not just for that daughter, who now plays college golf, but also for Cindy's career. She rose through the ranks of Zynga while raising two children, and is now the Manager of Governance, Risk, and Compliance at the gaming company.
"You learn how to multitask," says Cindy of managing both her work and her home life over the last decade at Zynga. "You find a way to get everything done."
Cindy started her career at Zynga in IT, then transitioned into security and then into management. Over the years, her daughters have worked on her lap while she fixed computers, begged to come into the office to play the arcade games, and "grown up at Zynga," says Cindy.
We sat down with her to learn more about that path, as well as how she juggles being a working parent—and what parts of Zynga's culture, including their flexible work policies and their parent-focused ERG, zParents, have supported her throughout the years.
Finding Fulfillment in Tech
Cindy and her husband have been married for 22 years and together for even longer. She credits him with a lot of what she loves about her life—including getting her into tech.
While she was still in college, he suggested that Cindy take a Windows certification course. Even though Cindy had been exposed to computers from an early age—her dad built them at home (and, when he lived in Nicaragua, also had his own shop where he would rebuild radios and TVs)—it wasn't something she considered exploring as a kid. "It's kind of funny to me that his hobby became my job," says Cindy of her dad's influence.
Cindy took the course and ended up getting a contract IT job, then leaving school to enter the workforce full-time. This was right as the dot-com bubble was heating up, she says, and when the economy crashed a few years later, right as Cindy and her husband welcomed their first daughter, Cindy decided to leave tech for a bit and become a real estate agent.
"I felt like I needed more time with her, and I couldn't do that with a nine-to-five," she explains.
In that job, Cindy recognized how much she loved working with people. But when the real estate market crashed, too, she decided she'd go back into tech—but ideally in a more flexible, more people-facing role.
She got started in a contract tech support role, then worked for a small gaming company where she really enjoyed the more laid-back culture. As a big Words With Friends fan, she'd heard of Zynga, and when someone in her husband's network said Zynga was looking for IT support analysts, she applied.
Because she'd been at a much smaller company where she wore a lot of hats, Cindy quickly took on a management role on Zynga's team. She worked in access control, which gave her exposure to Zynga's security team. She knew the company's CSO and told him she was interested in learning more about cybersecurity—and had another new role a few weeks later.
"He fast-tracked things and created a position for me as a security analyst," she says. "I wasn't expecting that!"
Cindy credits her diversity of experiences at Zynga with the long-lasting career fulfillment she's found there. "One of the reasons I've been here for so long is that I haven't been doing the same thing for ten years," she says. "I've been able to grow and expand. Now I'm in management, I'm able to take what I've learned and work with my team to give them that same kind of flexibility."
Experiencing a Family-Friendly Work Environment
Cindy's daughters were three and nine when she joined Zynga, and now they're in high school and college, respectively. As her career evolved, Cindy says she always felt like her family was welcome at work.
"I'd bring them to the office, especially when I was working in support and didn't have somebody to watch them," she says. "Zynga was a big playground for them, with the pool table and the snacks. My managers never had any issue with me bringing them to work as long as I got the job done."
"[My kids] would ask me, 'Mom, can I go to work with you?'" remembers Cindy, smiling.
Beyond an open and kid-friendly office, Cindy enjoyed getting to set her own hours. If she needed to take an hour off to do school pick-up, she was able to finish her day at home later in the evening. "I liked that they let me step out and understood that at the end of the day, I'd get the job done," she says.
She also took full advantage of zParents, Zynga's ERG for working parents.
"zParents events were the highlight of [my kids'] day," says Cindy. "When the opportunity came up for volunteers, I immediately jumped on board." She currently plays a leadership role for the ERG, which includes putting on family friendly events and supporting employees by sharing available company resources.
Over the pandemic, zParents expanded to Zynga's global offices with virtual resource-sharing and events. "In our Slack channel, you'll find a very active parent support group," says Cindy. "From new parents asking for advice on how to get babies to sleep through the night to parents asking for help with complicated math homework!"
It's the community that Cindy values most when it comes to finding support at work. "When you have your first child, you don't know what to expect. You don't know what's going to happen. You have this life that relies on you heavily, and it kind of stresses you out," she says. "But you know what? It's okay. We've all been new parents and you figure it out."
4 Tips for Paying it Forward as a Manager of Working Parents
Now that Cindy's own children are older, her day-to-day is a little easier to manage (golf practice parking lot laptop sessions aside).
She knows that's not the case for her whole team, though.
"I know that things come up at the last minute, so I focus on giving [employees] the flexibility that I also received," says Cindy. "I encourage people to take the time with their kids, because they're only young for so long. Work will always be here, you know? It's important to spend time with your family."
Cindy also shares advice with working parents on her team, including:
- The importance of communication. Cindy highlights that this should go two ways: communicating with your kids, and letting them know you're there to support them and that they come first even if work responsibilities need to be worked around; and communicating with your management, to set expectations upfront around schedules and flexibility.
- Spend time wisely. There will always be more work than there are hours in the day, says Cindy, who suggests making daily and weekly priority lists and tracking project deadlines against them.
- Don't compare yourself to other working parents. "It may seem that other parents have everything under control. But don't compare yourself. Everybody has different circumstances and a different style of how they manage things. What works for them may not work for you."
- Take care of yourself, too. "People struggle with trying to take care of everybody else and then they fail to take care of themselves," she says. "If you need downtime, take a nap, read a book, go for a walk, do something just for yourself. Something as simple as that can change your perspective for the rest of the day."
She would add one more tip: apply for a role at Zynga! "This is a great company to be at for raising kids," she says. "I can't speak highly enough about the ways that Zynga enables you to be able to manage your work-life balance."
Part of PowerToFly's Employer Conversations Series: DEI All Year Long
Being your authentic self at work can be a struggle. That's where Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) come in. An ERG builds connections between teams that go beyond simple work relationships. Whether the focus is on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or being a parent, an ERG can be a powerful growth tool for both the individual and the company; and they go a long way in creating more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces.
Join PowerToFly and its partner APCO Worldwide, as we break down the ABCs of ERGs. Whether you are looking to start your own ERG, grow your membership, receive stakeholder buy-in, or take your group to the next level, we hope you'll join and participate in this interactive discussion with your fellow leaders. There's no need to prepare anything in advance, but we hope you'll lend your voice to the conversation. Questions are welcome!
This interactive discussion, part of PowerToFly's Employer Conversation Series: DEI All Year Long, will take place on October 7th from 12pm to 1pm ET.
Our subject matter experts will include:
- Dominique Scott, Associate Director, APCO Worldwide
- Grace Boyle, Senior Designer, Co-Chair, Asian and Pacific Islander (API) Employee Resource Group, Co-Chair, North America DEI Council Co-Chair, APCO Worldwide
- Clarence Clayton, Manager, Data Privacy, D&I Community Chair, Founding Member of Blacks United in Leadership and Diversity (B.U.I.L.D), Red Hat
- Michael Russo, Senior Talent Acquisition Partner at Dassault Systèmes
Some topics this talk will discuss include:
- The dos and don'ts of starting an Employee Resource Group
- What types of ERGs can you have
- Events and initiatives that your ERG can participate in
- Maintaining an ERG in a hybrid or remote workplace
- Securing executive buy-in to take your ERG to the next level
- Finding a balance between your "day job" and being involved in an ERG
- And much more.
Can't make the live session? Be sure to RSVP anyway and we will send you a recording.
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