Intersectionality At Work; A Virtual Event Hosted by Cogo Labs

This week Cogo Labs hosted "Intersectionality At Work" a virtual event to create space for intersectional experiences, encourage tough conversations, amplify diverse voices. This event was an opportunity to both learn and partake in a discussion surrounding actionable inclusive practices, understand intersectionality, and empower everyone to feel comfortable bringing their identities to work. We hosted an incredible panel of four speakers, with an introduction by Megan Smith, 3rd U.S Chief Technology Officer and Assistant to the President (Obama) CEO & Co-Founder, shift7, and moderation by Lauren Kuntz, CEO & Co-Founder, Gaiascope.

In addition to opening remarks from Megan Smith, we began the panel with Lauren Kuntz posing the question of "when did you first come in contact or understand of the intersectionality framework?"

Joy Ladin, in 2007, became the first (and still only) openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution. She approached the question of coming to understand intersectionality through the derivative of the intersectionality framework.

"Intersectionality was originally invented as a sociological tool of analysis to try to provide a language for understanding the situation of people that belong to multiple groups that are structurally oppressed. It’s not about how people identify themselves, but how people are structurally identified from the outside based on fixed characteristics of their identity. When you have more than 1 of these external characteristics that’s built into a structure of oppression, what you experience at a given moment can become quite complicated. When we talk about diversity, we often talk about asking people to point to one defining character of themselves. When I’m hiring it’s like “do I have one of these, do I have one of those”. That’s the way institutions work, but the reality of human beings is we’re multiple. We occupy multiple cultures, multiple situations, and we all keep changing. My problem wasn’t that there were multiple intersecting ways that I was being oppressed from the outside, the problem was that there was no box for me at all. There wasn’t anything that was like me." -Joy Ladin
Joy Ladin, Professor and David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in English, Yeshiva University

Joy Ladin: Joy Ladin holds the Gottesman Chair in English at Yeshiva University, and, in 2007, became the first (and still only) openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution. Her memoir, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, was a finalist for a National Jewish Book Award; her recent book, The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective, was a Lambda Literary Award and Triangle Award finalist. She has also published nine books of poetry, including, most recently, The Future is Trying to Tell Us Something: New and Selected Poems. A nationally recognized speaker on trans and Jewish identity, she has been featured on NPR's “On Being” with Krista Tippett her TEDxBeaconStreet talk, “Ain't I a Woman?,” has over 18,000 views. She serves on the Board of Keshet, an organization devoted to full inclusion of LGTBQ Jews in the Jewish world. Episodes of her online conversation series, “Containing Multitudes,” are available at; links to her writing are available at

As Joy reflected on her personal experience with intersectionality, she addressed identity erasure as a blindspot in appreciating someones overlapping identities.

"I originally thought of it like “either the whole world has to see gender in a way that includes me, or I get completely erased.” But I’ve learned that we all live among multiple, overlapping systems and cultural codes that make meaning of these things." -Joy Ladin

As the panelists explored ways for organizations to be inclusive to intersectional identities, Joy implored us to dig deeper and check our own biases.

"As somebody involved in the hiring process [At Yeshiva University], it took me a long time to realize I wasn’t hiring anyone that wasn’t White and Jewish. I had a set of assumptions of what kind of person would work well with our students. Our students were white people. I didn’t even realize that I was part of systematic oppression. I wasn’t aware of this in my own practice. I wasn’t asking myself, “who isn’t here”? If you’re a workplace that wants access to perspectives that are marginalized, ask yourself, ‘who isn’t here that we want to be here?’ And when they’re here, how do we want to create a culture that invites them to share aspects of themselves and their own experiences. How do we create a space for that?" -Joy Ladin

Joy closed the panel with a final statement on navigating a world where "most people see sex and gender in ways that don’t have room for me."

"It's important to realize that we tend to think of identity as a zero-sum game, in which recognition of people who are traditional marginalized means diminishing those who have traditionally been central; then recognize the anxieties created by this zero-sum approach; and create a work environment in which identity is not zero sum, both to reduce those anxieties and to encourage everyone to value one another's different perspectives and experiences. What I’ve found is there is nobody that doesn’t have feelings of feeling estranged or marginalized." -Joy Ladin

When posed with the question on how she came to first understand intersectionality, panelist Mary Lou Jepsen considered that "there’s advantage to intersectionality because the low hanging fruit is seeing things that other people can’t see. You’re then able to see unique things that others can’t."

Mary Lou Jepsen, Founder & CEO, Openwater

Mary Lou Jepsen: Dr. Jepsen is the CEO and Founder of Openwater, a company creating MRI-quality medical imaging at 1000x lower price. Previously she was an engineering executive at Facebook, Oculus, Google, and Intel. She has designed and shipped billions of dollars worth of consumer electronics at the edge of what physics allows. She has also founded four startups, including One Laptop per Child where she was CTO, chief architect, and delivered to mass production the $100 laptop. She was a professor at MIT and is an inventor of over 250 published or issued patents, She has been recognized with many awards including TIME magazine’s “Time 100” as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, as a CNN top 10 thinker, and in the Forbes 2018 inaugural listing of the Top 50 Women in Tech.

Mary Lou encouraged organizations to "map our cultures, our intersectionality, and then we figure out and define what the culture of the company should be. Women are penalized for very direct feedback, so you create a slider bar for how you persuade, how you lead, and how you make decisions."

"The key thing is; the best idea should win, not the person that screams the loudest." -Mary Lou Jepsen

When addressing systemic issues of stereotyping and microaggressions, Mary Lou approaches these issues pragmatically, as if they were an engineering problem to solve.

"When was doing my PHD it was 2% women in Physics. What I did that was the most effective thing through this pain. I tried to figure out what they didn’t think I was good at. Then number one thing they didn’t think I was good at was; math. So when I presented the first slide was really heavy on the math. I demonstrated math competence. In the last year I’ve been called naïve, inexperienced, “bad at tech”, and even a “fraud”, by people that are actually more junior than me and my accomplishment level. They look at me and they perceive that. So the challenge is, how can I make it into an engineering problem so that I don’t feel that. If you can understand how they see you, you can change the view of them, if you can just understand how they see you." -Mary Lou Jepsen

In her closing statement, she reflected on the benefits of holding intersecting, marginalized identities in and out of the workplace.

"There’s advantage to intersectionality because the low hanging fruit is seeing things that other people can’t see. You’re then able to see unique things that others can’t." -Mary Lou Jepsen

Cogo Labs is grateful to create spaces to have these conversations, elevate others voices, and provide employees with access to thought leaders across various industries. While we recognize there's much more work to be done, we hope you enjoyed learning more about the experiences, knowledge, and advice from today’s panelists to continue to build more equitable, inclusive, and affirming workplaces.

Before we reflect on the conversations that took place, we want to define Intersectionality, and how that framework is critical in creating a diverse and inclusive work environment.

Intersectionality is a term coined 30 years ago by American Lawyer, Kimberlé Crenshaw. Intersectionality is a framework for conceptualizing a person, group of people, or social problem as affected by a number of discriminations and disadvantages. It takes into account people’s overlapping identities and experiences in order to understand the complexity of prejudices they face. Intersectional theory asserts that people are often disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression: their race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and other identity markers.

The dialogue began with opening remarks from Megan Smith, who implored us to think of intersectionality as "both topical as well as human."

Megan Smith, 3rd U.S Chief Technology Officer and Assistant to the President (Obama) CEO & CO-FOUNDER, sHIFT7

Megan Smith: Megan Smith was the third Chief Technology Officer of the United States (U.S. CTO) and Assistant to the President, serving under President Barack Obama. She was previously a vice president at Google, leading new business development and early-stage partnerships across Google's global engineering and product teams at Google for nine years, was general manager of, a vice president at Google and the former CEO of Planet Out. She serves on the boards of MIT and Vital Voices, was a member of the USAID Advisory Committee on Voluntary Aid and co-founded the Malala Fund. Today Smith is the CEO and Founder of shift7. On September 4, 2014, she was named as the third (and first female) U.S. CTO, succeeding Todd Park, and serving until January, 2017.

Opening the conversation with a call to action, Megan emphasized one of the challenges of intersectionality is "it’s not prioritized enough with leaders. We have huge challenges with how leaders and teams have decided one method is the way and this group is in and others have to act accordingly rather than creating a climate that’s deeply welcoming to everybody."

When organizations consider "diversity", Megan discussed the idea that "diversity is also about diversity of topics and diversity of what’s worthy of our treasure. Not only who’s on my team and what’s my climate like for inclusion, but also what do we think is worthy?"

Panel Moderator, Lauern Kuntz began the panel by asking how panelists have each been introduced to the idea of intersectionality either personally or conceptually. Lauren emphasized that she's "still on my journey of being more inclusive, being more cognizant of all of the different ways that in my work and in my life, the decisions we’re making and who we’re including impact the world around me."

Lauren Kuntz, Co-Founder and CEO of Gaiascope, Inc

Lauren Kuntz: Lauren Kuntz is Co-Founder and CEO of Gaiascope, Inc, a Y Cominator-backed company working to harness the power of AI for electric grid applications and accelerate our energy transition. Previously, she was a NOAA Climate and Global Change Fellow at the University of Washington and received her PhD in earth and planetary science from Harvard University and SB in physics and mechanical engineering from MIT. Lauren is also an advocate for equity in athletics and continues to compete in the women's decathlon at the national level.

When illustrating how she came to understand intersectionality, Panelist, LaNell Williams, examined her personal experiences with the framework:

"Intersectionality wasn’t necessarily a choice for me, it was a piece of language I learned along my journey that helped describe the complexities or intersection of being a black person and also being a woman. It was something I was personally born into. Something I’ve had to learn in my journey is we not only have to think about them separately, but also in the way that they overlap. It’s important to think of them not only as identities, but the various ways that those identities impact us." - LaNell Williams
LaNell Williams, Ph.D. student at Harvard University studying soft condensed matter physics

Lanell Williams: LaNell A. Williams is a current Ph.D. student at Harvard University studying soft condensed matter physics. Born and raised in Memphis, TN, LaNell graduated high school from City University School of Liberal Arts in 2011 and in 2015, she graduated with her Bachelors of Arts Degree in Physics at Wesleyan University. While at Wesleyan, she performed research under the guidance of Professor Christina Othon on further understanding the dynamics of the lipid membrane. As the founding member and chair of the Society of Underrepresented Students in STEM, she passionately advocates for creating meaningful resources to support underrepresented researchers in pursuit of physics. After Wesleyan, LaNell went on to finish her Masters of Arts Degree from Fisk University and continued on to Harvard University to pursue her Ph.D. Her current research interest includes an in-depth analysis of the physics of self-assembled systems by studying the assembly pathway of viruses. She is a current member of the Equity and Inclusion committee in Harvard’s Physics Department. She is also the co- founder of the Women of Color Project (WOCP), an initiative geared towards providing women of color resources on graduate school. As of January 2020, she was elected as Councilor of the Forum on Graduate Student Affairs (FGSA) and the Forum on Early Careers (FECS). As of August 2020, she has also joined the APS IDEA – Steering committee.

When addressing intersectionality in the workplace, LaNell talked through the consequences of having marginalized intersectional identities in certain workplaces. '

"I think for me I’ve found that there are just a lot of consequences to me coming into an environment as my authentic self. But then there’s this question of; “what is my authentic self?”, the self that people want to project on me in particular. In general, in physics, Women only make up 20% of the field, Black Women in particular make up less than .01% of the field, in terms of PHDs in physics. So being a Black Woman in physics is like seeing a unicorn. Often times, I’ve been subjected to other people’s expectations of who I’m supposed to be because of their perceptions of what it means to be both Black and a Woman. I often have to deal with people having very low expectations when I walk into a room." -LaNell Williams

While organizations continue to make strides towards more inclusive work environments, LaNell stated that "a good start would be reevaluating the people that are already in your network, and thinking about ways you can be conscious about who is in those networks so that you are reaching more people."

As the dialogue came to a close, LaNell gave attendees some tangible advice to take to their organizations and personal lives.

"I want to encourage everyone that when we think about what’s important and not; to understand that racism can range from “I touched your hair”, to “a huge issue with certain folks being targeted and killed”. I want to move away from focusing on specific targets and recognizing these targets come from different issues. I want to encourage people to be aware that we’re all trying to have these conversations and move towards the same goals. We have to keep a balance between not erasing people but focus on the very important things that are happening too." -LaNell Williams

Panelist Juan Enriquez reviewed his introduction to intersectionality through being "very interested in how we got so polarized. Why can’t people see right from wrong? It’s hard to listen from somebody from the position of 'I’m right and they’re wrong'."

Juan Enriquez, Managing Director, Excel Venture Management, LLC

Juan Enriquez: Juan Enriquez thinks and writes about the profound changes that genomics and brain research will bring about in business, technology, politics and society. A broad thinker, he bridges disciplines to build a coherent look ahead. He is the managing director of Excel Venture Management, a life sciences VC firm. He cofounded the company that made the world's first synthetic life form and seed funded a company that may allow portable brain reading. Enriquez's  book, Right/Wong: How Technology Transforms Our Ethics, shows why we should be a little less harsh in judging our peers and ancestors and more careful in being dead certain that what we do today will be regarded as ethical tomorrow. In 2015, he published Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation Are Shaping Life on Earth with Steve Gullans. The book describes a world where humans increasingly shape their environment, themselves and other species.

When approaching the conversation of intersectionality, Juan emphasized:

"The ability to see and speak to people different from you and the ability to identify with people who are different from you. This has lead the US to go from 2/3 against gay marriage in 1997 to 2/3 for it in 2017. It’s a time for humility and a time for forgiveness as our understand of right and wrong change faster and faster over time." -Juan Enriquez

Juan examined his own intersecting identities in his final thoughts on the panel stating; "The reaction I get when I bring up certain issues is; 'well you don’t look Mexican', because there’s a stereotype about Mexican people. I think that stereotype of who has the right to speak and who looks like 'x' and who looks like 'y'."

Cogo Labs is grateful to create spaces to have these conversations, elevate others voices, and provide employees with access to thought leaders across various industries. While we recognize there's much more work to be done, we hope you enjoyed learning more about the experiences, knowledge, and advice from today’s panelists to continue to build more equitable, inclusive, and affirming workplaces.

Continue reading