Episode 12: The InclusionHub Podcast Founding Partner Spotlight — Salesforce

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Episode 12: The InclusionHub Podcast Founding Partner Spotlight — Salesforce

In this episode of our Founding Partner Series, Morey Creative’s Jeffrey Howard talks accessibility, inclusion, community, and much more with Catherine Nichols, Vice President of the Office of Accessibility at Salesforce.

Jeffrey Howard 00:01 | Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of The InclusionHub Podcast. I'm Jeffrey Howard at HubSpot partner agency Morey Creative Studios, and I'm thrilled you can join us for another insightful interview with one of InclusionHub[dot]com's Founding Partners. In this segment, I'll be speaking with Catherine Nichols, Vice President of the Office of Accessibility at leading customer relationship management software provider Salesforce

Jeffrey Howard 00:27 | I really must state at the top of this episode, Salesforce has proven itself to be a true leader across a wide range of important causes both in and out of the workplace. This includes their 1-1-1 model for giving back, the fact that they're a co-founder of the global movement Pledge 1%. Salesforce is involved in a wide variety of internal programs and initiatives, each aimed at improving accessibility, disability inclusion, and DEI in the workplace. I really can't say enough about what they're doing to create positive and meaningful social change in the world. In this conversation, Catherine and I covered a lot, and then includes the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the progress they're making on that front, we discussed the InclusionHub Founding Partner program, which Salesforce has been with us since the beginning. And, of course, we discussed the importance of supporting people living with disabilities and improving accessibility and equality, for all.

Jeffrey Howard 01:32 | In this episode, we discuss collaboration and partnership a lot. Salesforce has been central to building out this massive ecosystem that is dedicated to creating social change, and that includes the Workforce Navigators Program with the Blind Institute of Technology, which involves Mike Hess and the incredible crew he has over there. And naturally, we spent a lot of time talking about the importance of diversity and accessible and inclusive design. Heck, we even talked about blueberry muffins. Yeah, we'll explain that concept in just a few moments. But before we do, here's a quick reminder to go ahead and subscribe to The InclusionHub Podcast, rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. It means a lot to us. And it helps a lot to grow the community and to advance the cause. So without further ado, here's my conversation with Catherine Nichols, Vice President of the Office of Accessibility at Salesforce.

Jeffrey Howard 02:35 | Catherine, welcome to the InclusionHub Podcast.

Catherine Nichols 02:38 | Thank you. Happy to be here.

Jeffrey Howard 02:40 | Now, Salesforce is involved with so many social initiatives. Many of them are connected to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. How does inclusion and accessibility relate to all these efforts?

Catherine Nichols 02:57 | One thing is, I like with the UN sustainable goals that it has an anchor point for people with disabilities. So I feel that people with disabilities [are] a lot of times left off of those data points and ways that companies or governments or systems are held accountable. And I think it's fantastic when there are goals and data and ways to measure ourselves and be held accountable, that are put out there that include people with disabilities. And the development goals are all about equality of humans, and our ability to work, to have access to health care, to clean water, to education, to all the things that we need to be able to survive and thrive as human beings. And what's more human than having a disability? That's what brings us all together. We're all human beings, and we all have disabilities, whether they're situational, permanent, temporary, or part of our family, or our culture, or workplace. We are all connected through disability. So it's a very human experience. And that's what these Sustainable Development Goals are anchored on, is our humanity. The way that we like to tie into those are not only just which is very important, but the protection of our Earth for all human beings, but also how we are supporting people with disabilities and their human experience. We have partnered with the UN as well to provide resources, tools, education, support on how to also make their digital experiences and their in-person, their office experiences accessible for everyone. And so there's a lot of tie-in points that we take with these Sustainable Goals. And I would love to see more goals out there that we can anchor to as companies where we need to report on data and progress when it comes to accessibility and disability inclusion.

Jeffrey Howard 05:25 | Catherine, I get the sense that the disabilities community is too often a bit of an afterthought in conversations and discussions about the UN Sustainability Development Goals. Does that match your experience as well?

Catherine Nichols 05:42 | Definitely. And I think what we've talked about at Salesforce is really you can't have equality without accessibility. So if we're all going to work from equal ground, and all be a part of the workforce and the system, then there needs to be access. So if we're not going to have the access, we really can't have the equality.

Jeffrey Howard 06:06 | Absolutely. I'm looking at Salesforce's history with a lot of these social initiatives, and they all kind of—you can find common threads and it's been inspiring in looking at Salesforce for the last several years, and how y'all have really amped up your dedication to, as you talked about the inclusion and equality and accessibility and all this connecting to the disabilities community. Were there any particular events or stories that inspired Salesforce leadership to make this transformation?

Catherine Nichols 06:41 | Yeah, and I love this story. I've been at Salesforce for 16 years now. And this is one of my favorite stories of the company. We have an Employee Resource Group, or 'Equality Group,' as we call them at Salesforce called Abilityforce. And it is for people with disabilities as well as our allies and caregivers. And we have many different subgroups of Abilityforce us as well that are based on particular disabilities, whether it's d/Deaf and hard of hearing, the neurodivergent community, blind and low vision, we have a bunch of our parents of children with disabilities, and we have a bunch of subgroups as well as international-based groups as well.

Jeffrey Howard 07:32 | Is Abilityforce connected or like under the Office of Accessibility, or what's kind of the relationship there?

Catherine Nichols 07:40 | Yeah, that's a great question. It's separate, it's part of the Office of Equality. So the office of equality manages all of our Equality Groups. And we have many that are offered for however one identifies or allies across Salesforce. So that particular area is managed by the Office of Equality. But we partner all the time with Abilityforce from the Office of Accessibility, with the concept of 'say nothing about us without us.' So that is our community of people with disabilities at Salesforce. And so we rely on their lived experiences and their feedback to us to better set our priorities and our work as an Office of Accessibility. And that is exactly what happened in this case, too. So Abilityforce, and the leadership of Abilityforce, came to our executives at Salesforce, including [Salesforce CEO and co-founder] Marc Benioff, and Amy Weaver, who is our CFO, and said, 'We really need to have a centralized office for the work of accessibility and disability inclusion at Salesforce. Right now it's being done—the work is being done by people with disabilities, volunteers, and there's no centralized ownership over all that needs to be done to make Salesforce and more accessible company.' There were a lot of initiatives happening, but there was just no centralized function to oversee all of the things that needed to be done or that were going on. And the executives saw this initiative and agreed that it was not only the right thing to do, but also saw that it was the best for our business, for our customers, for our partners, for employees, and for our entire Salesforce ecosystem. So they put the money and the power behind creating this Office of Accessibility, which is a hub and spoke model. So we don't own all of the accessibility at Salesforce. We rely on every employee, every department, every executive to own accessibility for Salesforce. But we make sure that they're enabled to do so, that they're held accountable for it, and that we're sharing the message and resources and the tools for everyone to hold those pieces of accessibility and embed them in their work. And we also have a concept of shift left. So really trying to put in accessibility at the very beginning of design, and program, and product, and digital development, and our workspaces, and our events, rather than trying to plug it in or bake it in at the end of a process. And we've had some amazing employees at Salesforce who have also come up with this idea of blueberry muffin. And the concept was that you can bake a muffin, and then later start to kind of stuff the blueberries into it. And it's not going to look very good, it's not going to be very appetizing, it's going to cause you more time, more effort, and probably not sell very well. Not going to be a big hit at the bake sale. And you're really just going to be better at actually baking those blueberries into the mix beforehand, rather than trying to stuff them in at the end. So that's kind of the concept that we have of this shift left.

Jeffrey Howard 11:28 | Yeah, I think it's a wonderful analogy, when you think of this sort of cottage industry that's popped up of adding these overlays onto websites, this kind of after the fact as you described it so wonderfully.

Catherine Nichols 11:42 | Yeah, it does not work.

Jeffrey Howard 11:45 | Yeah, so as the Office of Accessibility, Abilityforce, all these different teams and efforts at Salesforce, a lot of goals that are happening. You look at the next five, 10 years for Salesforce, what are some of those goals for inclusion and accessibility? And how close are you to achieving some of these goals?

Catherine Nichols 12:08 | Yeah, I think our previous CFO Mark Hawkins once said, 'Better, Better, Never Done.' And I would say that that's where we are, we're progressing, we are not perfection, there is a lot more for us to do. There's a lot for us to each learn, and grow upon. And we are making headway every day and learning more every day. And really trying to reach all of our employees and our partners and our customers to teach the concept of accessibility, and the process, and the know-how, and the tools, and the technology, and the how-to for accessibility. So I would say our goals for the years are prioritization, what is it that we mostly need to get done, because there's so much to do and we will never be able to get started if we get overwhelmed with how much there is to do. So we need to make sure that we're focused and prioritize on the key things that we need to do this year, and next year, and the year after that. And then also really growing and learning with the community. Things change all the time, terminology changes, technology changes, experiences change. And so staying on top of all of those changes and those growth that we have as humans. And always just knowing that there is more to do. There's never this end goal, we just have to try to get better each time and bring as many people with us along the way. Because that's the only way we're going to get better is if we bring everyone along with us. And not just think that we can do it as one Office of Accessibility. And when I say bringing everyone along with us, I don't even just mean Salesforce. I mean other companies, government entities, nonprofits, partnerships, individual contributors, really sharing as a community what we're doing well, where we need help, and relying on one another to get there.

Jeffrey Howard 14:20 | Catherine, you mentioned partnerships, so I have to jump in here from one partner to another. I work with Morey Creative Studios as a partner for InclusionHub. Salesforce is a Founding Partner for InclusionHub. What is it about the InclusionHub project that motivated Salesforce to become a Founding Partner?

Catherine Nichols 14:44 | Absolutely. I love InclusionHub so much. And I just had a meeting with Be My Eyes and we're talking about various partnerships, and they're a Founding Partner as well and it's all intertwined, right? One of my favorite things about the work that I get to do is the partnerships with all of these other companies and organizations and nonprofits. And it isn't really accessibility is only mine at Salesforce, and I'm not going to tell you how I'm doing it, and it's a secret, and we can't work together, and we can't share. It's actually a really open field. Because we know that Salesforce alone can't solve for accessibility and disability inclusion for the whole world. That's impossible. We need all the companies, we need all the governments, we need all the partnerships working together. And so I have team meetings with the other tech companies all the time where we share what we're up to. We utilize our partnerships with Disability:IN, Valuable 500, Business Disability Forum, to network across other companies and find out who's doing what and how we can work together to get an initiative going forward, whether it's better procurement of accessible technology, supplier diversity, digital technology, self ID programs, all trying to work together to figure out what is it that you're doing that's working? What are we doing that's working? And how can we leverage each other's expertise. So I love that concept. And with InclusionHub, that's another way for us to be able to share our story out into the world and help other companies follow along and engage with us, and ask questions, or learn from us, or for us to network with them and learn from them. And another powerful part of it—InclusionHub—is our employees can go and share their experiences and their stories with the world. So what it's like to have a lived experience of a person with a disability going through an interview process, working day to day, being remote or being in person, or what it's like to be implementing Salesforce as an accessible platform to be used by a company to run their business and also for people with disabilities to be the administrators of that Salesforce platform. So it's really a great way for us to get our story out there in a very authentic way, coming directly from the people who are telling those stories and have lived those experiences.

Jeffrey Howard 17:31 | I want to say thank you, Catherine. Salesforce has connected lots of us at InclusionHub with professionals living with disabilities to help share their stories. And so many of these stories have come from people at Salesforce. So I want to say thank you so much for giving a lot of us a chance to help elevate and amplify their stories.

Catherine Nichols 17:56 | Yeah, thanks for giving us a platform to do that. I mean, it's amazing to be able to share those out and then amplify them via Twitter, and really just get a lot of people getting to hear those stories and read those stories. So thank you.

Jeffrey Howard 18:11 | Yeah, and there's, we get stories from a lot of different professionals with disabilities from different companies. You describe this really expansive ecosystem that Salesforce operates in with partnerships related to a lot of these equality initiatives, especially around accessibility and inclusion. I'd love it if you could share another story or two of what this ecosystem looks like and the impact it's having.

Catherine Nichols 18:38 | Yeah, and this is one of my kind of exciting opportunities that we get to work on within the Office of Accessibility. I mean, there's a lot internal, but this is one of our really amazing external-facing programs, and it's called Workforce Navigators. And our workforce navigators program has a key partnership with Blind Institute of Technology. And they're a certified Salesforce trainer. So they train individuals to become Salesforce administrators, Salesforce developers. And the people that they're training, specifically, are usually blind, low vision and utilize screen readers. And they have specific training for how to become a Salesforce admin and developer and work towards passing those Salesforce admin and developer tests, utilizing a screen reader. And what's really unique about this partnership is that Salesforce offers funding to BIT, Blind Institute of Technology, to help support internships, and paid work experience for these individuals who are working towards their certifications. And then they can go out to our nonprofit customers, who sometimes struggle with finding the funding to hire someone to run their Salesforce systems. And they can go and help those nonprofit customers with the development, implementation, changes to their Salesforce systems. And get that on-the-job experience to then put on the resume and network and find a full-time career within the Salesforce ecosystem as a Salesforce admin or Salesforce developer. And the way that we get great benefit from that too, at Salesforce, is we get the feedback from the individuals who are going through this certification, all the way to doing the work for our customer, telling us what is working, what is not working, where's their accessibility, where is there a lack of accessibility. So we can bring that data back and make our products better. So really, it's a win-win for the whole ecosystem, when we're talking about the person who is a job seeker, from our nonprofits, to our training partners, and to our product teams who are trying to develop better products for everyone.

Jeffrey Howard 21:08 | Catherine, you mentioned the Blind Institute of Technology. InclusionHub, we're a big fan of their work, when or how did you get connected with them?

Catherine Nichols 21:17 | I just have to thank my person who's in charge of our partnerships and Workforce Navigators Program, Sarah Mark. It's a connection she made very early on when we started the Office of Accessibility. It's just been a tremendous partnership ever since they have been doing this work for a long time. But I don't think they had an anchor into Salesforce like they do now with this Office of Accessibility. So they were kind of already on their way. And then we grabbed them and are here to help.

Jeffrey Howard 21:50 | As you talk with other people in the tech industry, when they interact with you or former employees of Salesforce, are we at a point where most other tech businesses assume that a former Salesforce employee's going to design with accessibility first? Or are there still a lot of tech businesses that are a little bit behind the curve there?

Catherine Nichols 22:16 | That's a great question. I think we're all a little behind the curve. Still, [Jeffrey interjection: That's fair], which is really late in the game. And I'd say—I'll tell you my personal story, I have a degree in Computer Information Systems. And I'm in my mid-40s. And when I went to college, there was nothing in my engineering program that mentioned, talked about, referenced accessibility. There was no mention of screen readers, there was no mention of designing with accessibility, it was completely left off the table. I went to a school that was that's known for computer science, right? So we're talking about a lot of folks like myself, who will have had to gain that knowledge later on—on-the-job experience, knowing someone with a disability, having an executive or leadership within their product team who says this must be accessible, and this is how. Somehow gaining that idea of designing with accessibility that was not from the education [inaudible]. I've seen more now from graduating students, that there's more emphasis on accessibility within the design process, but not a tremendous amount. So I think we're doing what we can at Salesforce, and we'll continue to do so to train our product managers, train our engineers, make sure that it's shifted left—that accessibility is thought of from the very beginning, not added on later, because someone mentioned that it's not accessible and a bug gets locked, right. But I also think it's important that we are influencing educational system, and from an early age of disability awareness, language, disability inclusion, from the very young age, all the way through the college-age of how to design and implement, whether it be real estate, digital experiences, products with accessibility in mind. And one partnership we have is with Teach Access, and that's something that is part of their mission and what they're working on, is making accessibility part of the curriculum at universities for students.

Jeffrey Howard 24:39 | Obviously, we're way behind as institutions, businesses, culturally, when it comes to being accessible—there's some momentum, we're making progress, but we have a long way to go. What do you see being some of the common reasons given or that are preventing tech companies from embracing greater inclusion and accessibility?

Catherine Nichols 25:06 | It's hard to know where to get started, right? And I think it can be overwhelming because there is so much work to be done. And I think what's hard is realizing that you're never gonna get any of it done though unless you get started. So there's always something you can do to take those first initiatives to being more accessible, whether that's on your recruiting website, and your job posting site, asking candidates if they need accommodations during the interview process—like that's something you can do. There's also making sure accommodations are available once the person is hired into the company, as well. There's language training, and awareness training, and disability bias—anti-bias training that can be done at your company. So there's things that can be done without having to boil the ocean. So I think what stops people from getting started is that it can be very overwhelming at how much there needs to be done. And I think it's just important to take those first initiatives.

Jeffrey Howard 26:17 | And a lot of those initiatives, well, some of those are a little bit pretty simple and straightforward things that you can do. Like you mentioned: some of the language you use in job descriptions of asking people to include what accommodations they might need is a very simple signal to let people know, we prioritize accessibility as an organization, and we want to make sure it can be as inclusive as possible.

Catherine Nichols 26:43 | Yeah, definitely.

Jeffrey Howard 26:45 | When you're interacting with people in the business world, specifically, tech and you find someone who's maybe lukewarm or hesitant to really prioritize accessibility, inclusion, what's your pitch? How do you try and persuade them a little bit to change their mind to really champion some of these causes?

Catherine Nichols 27:08 | Yeah, and it definitely takes collaboration and partnership. As I was mentioning before, we need to bring people along with us in order to make this significant change. What we've found really helpful is the human experience and the storytelling. So that's where I'm going back to InclusionHub, we can go and send links and share those stories of the experience of people with disabilities and people with disabilities at Salesforce, to really bring that compassion and that empathy and that awareness along to other people. Then it becomes more of a conversation around how we're making experiences better for everyone at Salesforce. So there may be one year, let's say our biggest conference, Dreamforce, where we do something, where we have, to use an example, captioning provided for our live keynotes on stage, you know, in the room, not just online, but captioning in the room. We'll get feedback from our attendees, not only d/Deaf and hard of hearing attendees, but attendees from other countries who where English is not their first language, where they sat way far in the back because those keynotes are heavily attended, and get feedback that the captioning was so useful for them to follow along with what was happening on stage. And when we have those stories from these universal design-lived experiences, then it's influencing our event leads to even add more the next year, and more the next year, of these accessible layers because they're seeing this benefit that they're having overall as a large conference for all of their attendees, and for everyone to be included in the event. And so it's really that concept of bringing people along and showing the lived impact that they're having by making these accessible changes.

Jeffrey Howard 29:20 | I'm reminded of earlier in my professional career, I had a co-worker who used a wheelchair and you talked about the lived experience and the human story and the exposure and a lot of people who have not either not experienced a disability themselves or been close to someone who has that, as I worked with him—this is a time when I was helping design hybrid online in-person education experiences—and in working with him, it helped me to think much more at the beginning, how our designs were either including or excluding, not just people who use wheelchairs but people living with a bunch of different, other disabilities, and that was something that has stuck with me because it was a very concrete thing that I encountered with someone I had a relationship with. And I think that's one of the more profound things that happen is by removing barriers and the professional world, that we then enable more people with disabilities to be in the professional world that then invite more of us to have these learning experiences and really catalyzes more and more change.

Catherine Nichols 30:33 | Definitely. And that's why representation matters. That's why we want diverse teams and diverse voices, and in every room, because we want a world that's designed with these perspectives that maybe I wouldn't have because I don't identify as ‘X,’ ‘Y,’ and ‘Z.’ So my lived experience is going to be completely different from someone else's. And how cool when we bring both of our lived experiences together to create a space, to create a product, to create a digital environment, to create a feedback system, then we can really engage with all sorts of people and really start to build these broader, best use inclusive design communities.

Jeffrey Howard 31:19 | Catherine, I want to sort of round out on a really hopeful note, when you look around the many organizations, businesses you partner with, look at the tech industry as a whole. What gives you the most hope? Where do you see companies improving, really making progress toward being much more inclusive and accessible?

Catherine Nichols 31:46 I mean, Salesforce and Microsoft, we're competitors, right? We're coming together all the time to solve for solutions around accessibility and disability inclusion. Because we really have companies that both have this value of wanting to make a more accessible and inclusive world. So we're at a point in time where companies are all around the world are coming together to solve these big problems. They're doing it at the World Economic Forum, they're doing that with the UN, they're doing it with these partnerships that I mentioned before. We're not only working together, we're friends, we're colleagues. And we're really trying to solve these problems as a greater kind of tech community. I don't think that was happening before. I don't think those conversations were happening before, I don't think that work was happening before. And I don't think that there were paid roles at companies where that was the focus of that role. So I think that that is a big leap forward—that's overdue—but it's happening. And I also get a lot of hope from the incoming workforce, and how aware they are of what they need in order to be successful in their jobs. And there's a lot more communication at a younger age, talking about what a disability is, what a learning disability is, and what it is that you need to be successful in your education and in your work. And they're bringing those to the company and saying, 'Hey, I want to work hard for you and I want to do my best job, and here's what I need to be successful. And they're demanding that. And I think we're all better for it. People have more of the language, more of the ability to ask for what they need, and the technology is getting better, too. There's a lot more technology out there that has this inclusive design of text-to-speech, keyboards, all sorts of things that we utilize—audiobooks—that were all designed for, and by people with disabilities.

Jeffrey Howard 34:03 | So you're telling me, businesses working in the same space, competing for the same market share, do not have to always be competing with one another?

Catherine Nichols 34:14 | This is not a zero-sum game.

Jeffrey Howard 34:18 | That is good to hear. Catherine, thank you so much for coming on the podcast and from InclusionHub Podcast and all of our other Founding Partners, thank you so much for all you do to advance the cause.

Catherine Nichols 34:30 | Thank you. Thank you for your partnership.

Jeffrey Howard 34:35 | Wow, what a great conversation and what an extraordinary company. I particularly found Catherine's explanation of Salesforce's commitment of bringing everyone along with us especially inspiring and kind of reminds me of the running theme that has been sewn into so many of our episodes, and that's 'community.' We're all human and we're all in this together and no one should be left behind. I want to give a big thank you to Catherine Nichols for taking the time to talk with us about that concept and all the amazing things that are going on at Salesforce. So much of what they do is focused on creating positive and lasting social change, and it's incredible to watch. Whether they're working to improve digital accessibility across the web or digital inclusion in the workplace, it's obvious they are committed to the cause. I also want to shout out and give a big thank you to all of you. Thank you for joining us and all of InclusionHub's Founding Partners. Thank you, as we collectively strive toward a more inclusive world. Please be sure to visit InclusionHub[dot]com if you haven't done so already, we have a wide range of resources on there that are all in alliance with this mission. And that includes insightful articles. We have a useful directory for businesses and organizations that are committed to helping to improve digital accessibility and inclusion, and so much more.

Jeffrey Howard 36:08 | Now, as Catherine mentioned in the episode, InclusionHub serves as a platform for a diverse range of voices, and among these are people who are living with disabilities, and work at Salesforce. They and so many other people have shared their stories and been featured on the site and I encourage you to check all of them out. Also, while you're there, go ahead and learn more about our Founding Partners and all the people who make this podcast possible. And that includes leading customer relationship management software provider Salesforce, who we just talked about. HubSpot partner agency Morey Creative Studios, which is where I work, leading accessibility testing platform Fable, which you will recognize because that's where long-time host of the podcast Sam Proulx works as Accessibility Evangelist, and Be My Eyes, a free app connecting blind and low vision people with sighted volunteers. I've used it myself, it's a really cool opportunity if you're looking for chances to volunteer and support other people in the broader community. Please, before you go, subscribe to the podcast, rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts—it really does help us to grow the community and to grow the cause. And if you haven't done so already, check out all of our previous episodes. We have a lot of good stuff in there. Lastly, on behalf of the entire Morey Creative Studios and InclusionHub Founding Partner family, I'd like to express our sincerest condolences and enduring love for disability and human rights icon Judy Heumann who recently passed on. We consider ourselves lucky and honored and truly blessed to have spoken with and included her in several episodes of the InclusionHub Podcast and she will forever remain in our hearts as an inspiration and guiding light as we continue to try and help illuminate the many causes she's so relentlessly fought for throughout her entire life. And on that note, I’ll end this episode the way we've ended all of our episodes, with a final important reminder from Sam and that is to remember: A more accessible and inclusive world is a better world.


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