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Podcast: Empowering Women in STEM & Building Inclusive Teams through Cooking

MMS Founder
MMS Kimberly Fox

Article originally posted on InfoQ. Visit InfoQ

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Transcript

Shane Hastie: Hey folks, QCon London is just around the corner. We’ll be back in person in London from March 27 to 29. Join senior software leaders at early adopter companies as they share how they’ve implemented emerging trends and best practices. You’ll learn from their experiences, practical techniques and pitfalls to avoid, so you get assurance you’re adopting the right patterns and practices. Learn more at, qconlondon.com. We hope to see you there.

Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture Podcast. Today I’m sitting down with Kimberly Fox from Market to Table Podcast, and bringing some ideas around cooking. So completely different to what’s normal, but I think we’re going to have a great conversation. Kimberly, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

Kimberley Fox: Thank you. I’m really excited to be here.

Shane Hastie: Tell me a little bit about Kimberly. Who’s Kimberly… that Market to Table?

Introductions [01:03]

Kimberley Fox: Yeah, absolutely. So this started… I started out working in analytical chemistry, and I went back to graduate school for food science after six years working in analytical chemistry, and I ended up graduating in May 2020 when the pandemic hit. And there weren’t a lot of food science… there weren’t a lot of jobs in general during that time. And so I ended up starting a food blog and I really enjoyed it, and I eventually moved into a way where I wanted to find a way to monetize it. At the time, cooking classes were really popular because everyone was at home, and people were looking for things to do. And I eventually kind of switched gears and went into the corporate team building space, and now I exclusively do corporate team building and I specialize in empowering women in STEM, and building inclusive teams. So I’m really excited to be able to talk about it.

Shane Hastie: Cooking classes to empower a woman in STEM and create inclusive teams?

Kimberley Fox: Yep?

Shane Hastie: There’s got to be a link there. Please make that link for us.

Making the link between cooking and team building [02:17]

Kimberley Fox: Yeah, so I spent over 10 years in STEM, and at the time when I was looking at corporate team building, that’s not where I went at all. I’ll just be very frank, that is not a connection I initially made. At the time, I was being kind of forced, essentially, to do weekly team building. And I was sitting there one day and I was like, “Why do these suck so much?” I think team building, when you think about it, it’s like forced participation, forced connection… as like an employee, I looked at it as, how can I get out of this? And as a manager, they want your team to work better so that they can create better products so that they can push innovation forward. And then you have the employee on the other end being like, “I don’t want to be here, get me out of here. What do I have to do to get out of here?”

And so that’s one part of why I wanted to pursue corporate team building is because I actually wanted it to be effective. I wanted it to be fun where the whole entire team looked forward to going, and participating, in a team building activity. So that was one part. The other part is that I realized after reflecting over 10 years, I spent some time working in Northern Ireland, and when I was there, they were having the same conversations around women in STEM, that we were having in the US, and it was almost like a light bulb moment for me, where I realized there is nothing wrong with me, and where I’m in a completely different culture and they’re having the exact same conversations of women in STEM.

Creating a culture where women want to stay [03:51]

And so I personally just am really passionate about women in STEM, and it’s about creating a culture at your company where women actually want to stay. Statistically, women leave STEM within five to seven years, and it’s not because of the gender reasons that we usually think of, such as maternity leave, and poor work-life balance, things like that. It’s actually because of lack of communication, unsupportive managers, that’s what women want, and they’re not feeling like they belong to their team, and so they’re leaving. And so part of my “why” as to these corporate classes, is to help managers, help teams create a culture in which women actually want to be a part of and stay.

Shane Hastie: So what does that culture look like?

Kimberley Fox: I think that culture looks like where women are respected, where they’re allowed to talk, they’re not talked over, and their perspective is welcomed rather than not welcomed. And what I mean by that is, a lot of times, especially in male-dominated STEM culture, especially in engineering, is that a woman brings a different perspective to the team. And so she’s the only woman in the room along with all of these other men, and then she says something kind of pushing back and saying, “Well, what about this?” Sometimes her voice isn’t heard because everyone else is thinking the same way and she’s the only one with a different perspective on it. When a leader looks and sees that that one person’s perspective is actually really valuable because she’s seen it in a completely different way than everyone else, then I think that that is what an inclusive culture is. And being valued is what makes a woman want to stay and feels like she belongs and that she’s able to contribute to the team.

Shane Hastie: So how do we say that in this day and age, we want inclusive teams, we know the benefits, and it’s been well researched, it’s been clearly publicized, but we’re still not getting there?

Kimberley Fox: No.

Shane Hastie: What’s going on?

Kimberley Fox: I know. We’re not. And what blows my mind is that this past summer I worked with a lot of nonprofit organizations who work with women in STEM. There’s women in data, there’s women in engineering, there’s all of these nonprofit organizations that are working to try to help women in STEM. And yet when you get in the company, we’re still struggling to create inclusive cultures for women. And in these nonprofit organizations, women feel more comfortable coming out and expressing what their frustrations and what they’re experiencing as a woman in STEM. And it’s like, why is this still a big issue?

And I think part of the reason… I’ve been on teams where we know what’s going on, we know that women aren’t being, their voice isn’t being valued. We know that they’re being overheard, but no one does anything about it. And I think one of the best things leaders can do is say, “This is not tolerated”, and kind of emulate how the team should work as a cohesive unit. And so in that respect, I really do believe that it comes from the leader. I’ve been on a team where the leader had zero tolerance for any sort of gender related comments or anything like that. And as a result, had an extremely inclusive team in which everyone’s voice was heard and there were no stupid ideas.

Shane Hastie: So creating that space where every voice is heard, and every voice is not just heard but welcomed. So how does a cooking class help that?

Cooking classes to help build collaborative culture [07:46]

Kimberley Fox: Yeah. And so I was very intentional on how I designed these classes because I knew what outcome I wanted, but I needed to be able to design an experience in which that it resulted this outcome. And so what I did was, is that I started studying a lot of people who are experts, who gather people. That is their main job is to gather people. And I looked at how they gathered people, and so I used cooking and cocktails to connect people. The cooking and cocktails is just fun, but it’s really about how the team connects throughout this experience that is the magic of it. Of course, they leave with a cocktail, of course, they leave with a delicious meal. And so I do it from a personal story and a personal experience perspective, is being able to engage with each individual throughout the class.

And also we do an activity where I ask people to gather and share some personal experiences, and I create a theme for each class depending on where the team is at. And I say this because, someone who is hiring a new employee and wants to bring them into the fold of the team, is going to be a lot different vibe and dynamic, as a team that just went through a merger and they need to work together as a team. They’re two completely different reasons to gather, and they’re both really good reasons. And so when I’m working with leaders to design the experience, these are the kind of questions that I ask so that I can tailor the experience to where their team is at, at that time.

Shane Hastie: What about the team that is distributed?

Kimberley Fox: Remotely?

Shane Hastie: Yeah.

Doing these activities remotely [09:33]

Kimberley Fox: Yes, that is actually, which I should have mentioned is, so these are virtual. I do in-person locally where I live, but the majority of what I do is virtually, because tech is virtual right now, and people love working virtually. And that is the future. And so everyone comes, everyone is in their own kitchen on screen, which is fun. And we all cook together virtual, and we all cook together virtually. So I’m in my kitchen, everyone else is in their kitchen. And the classes are designed so that if you’ve never cooked before, if you hate cooking, that you’ll be able to still make a standout dish at the end. So there’s no pre requirements for taking the class.

Shane Hastie: Building on that remote experience and possibly the hybrid, this adds an extra layer to the cultural complexity today.

Kimberley Fox: Yes.

Shane Hastie: How do we overcome that? How do we weave this into the effect?

Don’t put the burden of communication on a new team member [10:30]

Kimberley Fox: It absolutely does. I think the example that I can think of right off the top of my head is that if you’re hybrid, or if you’re on a team where the majority of people are in-person, but you’re a remote worker, or your whole entire team is remote, how does that remote person know who to contact for what, and how do they learn to work with different people when they’re not physically running into them in the office? And a lot of people say, “Oh, reach out and ask for coffee dates with each person.” And when I think of that, I think, well, now you’re just putting the burden back on the new employee to reach out to all of these people that they’ve never met, to ask for a coffee date. And on the other side, they might be really introverted and be like, “I’m not going to do that. That’s not something I would enjoy.” Or you’re asking another person who wouldn’t enjoy that either.

And so I think that in a remote environment, we need to bring people together. We need to have some structure when we bring people together so that people can connect. I like to call it like a non-workplace because we have to create those fun online spaces for people just to have fun and be able to enjoy one another. And that’s another reason why this team building kind of fits that. But there’s so many other ways that you’re able to just bring people together online so that they can just enjoy each other’s company. And I know people have been constantly thinking of new ways to do this because they really see the value in just being able to gather and not necessarily have an agenda.

Shane Hastie: Gather without an agenda in a space where we can have fun.

Kimberley Fox: Mm-hmm.

Shane Hastie: How do I make sure that that gathering without an agenda in a space where we can have fun is truly inclusive?

Gathering without an agenda in a space where we can have fun in a truly inclusive way [12:25]

Kimberley Fox: That’s really hard, right? And that’s a really good question. It’s because with holiday parties, they say, “Oh, we want everyone to gather.” But then it doesn’t end up being inclusive because people just go and talk to the same people all the time. And it doesn’t really create a new dynamic. And so, when I say not an agenda, I meant not a work agenda, not that you should just bring people together randomly and not have some sort of structure to what you’re going to do. If everyone really likes board games, you could do a virtual board game or something like that, so that it creates just enough structure so that people know what to do or where to go, but not so much structure where they’re in that situation that you just described. It doesn’t feel inclusive, and it actually ends up having the opposite effect of isolating people.

Shane Hastie: The other point that you touched on when we were chatting earlier was, empowerment. How do we create an environment where people can feel empowered.

Enabling people to be empowered [13:33]

Kimberley Fox: I think it starts with having some empathy and kindness. And the reason why I say that and from a women’s perspective, is that we have a lot of unconscious bias. I don’t think the majority of people are biased. I think the majority of people are very humble, and they want women to feel included. They want everyone to feel included, and they don’t actually realize when they might have a bias towards something. And so as a woman, and this is just an example, is that I was in a really heated conversation one time with my male coworker, and he put his arm out in front of me to move me aside to show me, and I’m putting quotes up the “right way” to do it. And I looked at him and I was just like, “Would you ever do that to a man?” And he looked at me in all of the blood just drained from his face. And he had this a-ha moment where he goes, “Oh my gosh, I am so sorry.” Genuinely sorry that that’s what he did, because he realized that he wouldn’t, and that it felt very biased to me.

But in that situation, it’s like I felt his embarrassment that he did that. And so shaming him in that instance, being like yeah, you did, don’t do it again, or something like that, isn’t going to make him feel good. It’s not going to make my working relationship with them any better. But instead, you respond with empathy in these situations, say, “We’re all learning, you didn’t mean to do it.” And it can be a positive experience. And so that’s another thing that I do bring into my cooking classes is that, just try and bring in some empathy and understanding of where people are in their lives, and bring in some personal experience because that is really how we connect. And that actually leads to empowerment, because if everyone feels like they belong there and that their voice is heard, then they’re going to feel empowered to speak up and share their perspectives and be able to contribute to the team, which ultimately leads to more growth for the company because the team’s working better.

Shane Hastie: Kimberly, some really interesting thoughts here… some good advice. You do cooking. Give me a recipe. What’s your favorite recipe that I can listen to and-

A recipe for Graham Cracker Peach Crumble [16:01]

Kimberley Fox: I’ll give you… okay, on my site, there is a Graham Cracker Peach Crumble that it’s chef’s kiss. Like I developed this thing, and I gave it to all my neighbors. I gave it to everybody, because I’m so proud of this Graham Cracker Peach Crumble. And so if you’re looking for just a standout, it’s going to work, and I’m going to impress people dish, that’s where I would send you. And it’s a one bowl, one pan dish, which makes it very approachable for hopefully all of the listeners.

Shane Hastie: So do you want to talk us through?

Kimberley Fox: Sure, absolutely. I like peeling peaches. You don’t need to do it, but I don’t really like the fuzziness. And so you slice up the peaches, you mix it with a little bit of sugar, and then you top it with the graham cracker crumble, and the graham cracker crumble has brown sugar, crushed up graham crackers, a little bit of flour, and a very healthy dose of salt, which creates that sweet and salty combination that I particularly enjoy. And so you’ve spread that over the peaches and you bake it in the oven probably for, I think it’s about 40 minutes. And then the peaches bubble underneath and the top gets really nice and crisp, and then you just… I recommend a little scoop of vanilla ice cream on tap so that it melts on the tap and it’s quite delicious.

Shane Hastie: My mouth is watering.

Kimberley Fox: I saw you perk up when I said peaches. So it really is a very different recipe that I haven’t really seen anyone do before, and it’s absolutely outstanding. So I hope you have an opportunity to try it.

Shane Hastie: I will indeed. And listeners, if you try it, let us know what it’s like. Kimberly, thanks so much. And yeah, this has been fun. If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?

Kimberley Fox: You can go to my website frommarkettootable.com where you’ll also find the recipe for the peach crumble, but it has all the information about my corporate cooking classes. And if you’re someone who is like, I want to create an inclusive team, or you already have an inclusive team, but you just want to create a non-workplace environment that we talked about, I would love to hear from you. And you can also email me directly at Kimberly@frommarkettotable.com.

Shane Hastie: Thank you so much.

Kimberley Fox: Thank you.

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