Karen Catlin built a powerful platform for change by starting with a Twitter handle.
There are many lessons in Karen’s story, but the most powerful may be this:
You don’t have to start with a grand gesture or big commitment.
Maybe you begin with something small—a Twitter handle. Maybe you start by addressing your small corner of the world, in a way that makes sense to you. Maybe you leverage your viewpoint and your opinions in an empathetic way to influence others’ behavior.
Are you inspired yet?
Listen to her description of her journey (or read the transcript below.)
Read Karen’s book Better Allies.
Transcript of the Karen Catlin’s Interview
Anne: We have talked over the last couple of years about your journey with Better Allies, which became the book. But I want to get the whole story, understand it from the beginning. What motivated you to start your Better Allies project, which I’m going to say is bigger than the book itself?
Karen: I’m glad we’re starting there because it’s important to understand the whole progression. Late 2014 is when I started the Twitter handle @BetterAllies. At the time, what was going on for me is, I had left my career in tech. I had been a vice president of engineering. I had been building software products. I’d been doing that for a long time. But I became very passionate about initially gender diversity in tech. I left building software products behind so I could start helping women who were in the field grow their careers, learn leadership skills, and most importantly not drop out because they felt they couldn’t get ahead in a male-dominated field like tech. I wanted to help retain those women. I wanted to help them grow their careers. I wanted to help them be successful.
I had left my career behind and started a new career as a leadership coach. That was about in 2012. I soon realized that I had a problem. Even if I was great at helping my clients learn these new skills and lean into their careers—and they were, they were amazing women—all of them were working in tech companies that the closer you got to the C-Suite, the maler and paler it got. I say that with all due respect to male and pale people. I’m pale myself. That’s what the demographics showed. They were facing challenges that their industries, their companies were not meritocracies, because the demographics weren’t showing that.
I decided that I wanted to help all of tech be more inclusive so my clients could get ahead. At the time I was thinking, “What does anyone do when they want to change the world these days? They start a Twitter handle.”
I started the Twitter handle @BetterAllies. I wanted to reach primarily men that I wanted to have all of them understand more, raise awareness for men working in tech, small actions they could take to be more inclusive. I was thinking that, based on my experience working in tech and talking to people, a lot of men either don’t see what they could do, and therefore don’t take action, or they’ve taken action in the past because they do see what they can do, but they haven’t quite taken the right action and they’ve been chastised, had their hand slap—had some interaction that has caused them to pull back. I wanted to change both of those things and show a path forward.
It was over five years ago now. At the time, I was thinking, I want to be showing this in a first-hand way: things I could be doing if I were a man working in tech. The Twitter handle from the beginning had very much a first-person voice of: I pledge to do this, I’ll look out for this, I will do this—things like: I will notice when interruption happens in a meeting and redirect the conversation back to the person who was interrupted. Or, at the next all-hands meeting, I will ask a question about what we are doing about pay inequity and fixing those inequities.
Those things aren’t necessarily a man speaking, per se, but I did start channeling men I knew in tech that I respected. How would they approach this? What would this say? It was all first person. I did cross the line at times in terms of really assuming a male persona when I would say things like “I refuse to speak on all male panels.” As a women, I’d be great on an all-male panel for diversity. I kept with the voice in terms of I will do this, I strive to do these things. Really thinking, I want to reach the men. I want to have a male voice to break it down and show them a path forward.
This little Twitter handle, anonymous, kept growing in popularity, being that people would find it, follow—which for any Twitter person is amazing, getting new followers. Then people would start tagging their friends, “Hey, I just found the @BetterAllies handle, they’re great, you should follow them.” That was great, they’d tag a bunch of friends and that would increase followers. I knew when Better Allies work was mentioned at a conference because I whole bunch of people from a different discipline, like astrophysicists or something like that, would all follow me in the same one- or two-hour period. I’d be, “I think I just got a shout-out at a conference.”
It started growing. Then, Anne, I started getting speaking requests to this anonymous handle . They typically went like this in a Direct Message: Does anyone at the Better Allies initiative do any speaking? Because we have an event, we’d like you to speak at our company or conference. Now, can you imagine my reaction when I read “someone from the Better Allies Initiative?” I wasn’t doing this full-time, I have a coaching business I’m running. This is something, every now and then I’d think of something or spot some research in the news and tweet. So that was cool.
My next thought was, I want to stay anonymous, so how do I handle this? I’d respond to them and say, “Yes, one of our contributors does do public speaking, and we’ll put you in touch with her.” Then I’d go to my personal Twitter account and reach out to them, and say, “I’m Karen Catlin, I contribute to Better Allies and I love public speaking, what do you have in mind?”
I started doing some speaking and sharing this message of everyday, simple actions people could take in the workplace. Again, I want to emphasize that I expanded beyond supporting women to supporting other members of underrepresented groups, whether racial minorities or members of the LGBT community, older workers, different abilities, and so forth. I tried to be more expansive than my initial focus. My lens, personally, is being a women in this male-dominated field.
I started to some speaking. Every time, during the question and answer period, someone would ask the question that went like this “Hey Karen, we want more of this. Do you have a book?” For a long time, I was saying, no, I don’t have a book. And I knew I had to it. So I did finally write the book. The book is called Better Allies. It came out January 2019, about a year ago now.
Anne: And it has your name on it, so the curtain is pulled back.
Karen: Absolutely. Oh my gosh. As soon as I published that book, I don’t remember exactly when I claimed I was the person behind the Twitter handle, but it was definitely leading up to the launch of the book, if not at launch day. As you know, writing a book is a lot of work, and I did want to get the credit for that. And frankly, I love speaking about this, so I wanted to build more of the repertoire around this concept. Putting my name on that book was very important.
I shifted my voice on Twitter. It does still say “I pledge to do this,” but it does say that the Twitter account is curated by Karen Catlin.
Anne: The book was the thing that changed it. I can understand what you were doing, trying to put the words into the mouths of your readers. Did it feel different writing the book in your own perspective? Because the book is very person. I’ve read the book, it’s wonderful and beautifully write, and it’s very personal to you. I can see your personality in the book as it is written. Did it feel, did you even consider trying to write the book in a different persona?
Karen: No, it didn’t make any sense. There are a lot of first-person stories I share about my own experience, or my perspective on things as I have come across them. I can’t imagine having to write that in third person.
Anne: No, it would be like ghost-writing for someone who’s not real.
Karen: I have read the book by the person who has the Twitter handle TheManWhoHasItAll. That’s a funny Twitter handle that turned into a book about taking these everyday things that are usually through a woman’s lens, and writing it as a man. It’s like “the woman who has it all, she has a career and family…” but it’s the man who has it all. It flips your perspective on things. I can’t do it justice. It’s worth looking at. The person who writes that Twitter handle and wrote the book stayed anonymous. They didn’t want to come out in terms of owning who they are.
Anne: So, you started with Twitter. Then Twitter built the speaking. People may or may not know, but you are also co-author of the book Present, a Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking. So, clearly you’re a skilled and well-practiced public speaker. I know you have a newsletter with Five Allie Actions every week. That started before the book?
Karen: That did start before the book, I believe a year or a year and a half before the book. That newsletter, 5 ally actions, was written anonymous. I had not yet written the book, so it was anonymous in terms of “do this,” There was a lot of “we” I started to use: “we here at better allies believe this…” It wasn’t signed by anyone, it was Better Allies.
I sent it out every week. It wasn’t until my book Better Allies had been out a week, I had claimed ownership of my work, it wasn’t until a year later when I read your third edition of Subscription Marketing, one of the pieces of advice you have is to make communication like newsletters be very personal. Make sure there’s a person behind it that people can related to. Here I am trying to put in words what I took away from your book, I’m sure you can explain it more eloquently. But I took a pause at that and thought, oh my gosh, am I making a mistake with my newsletter that I’ve never shifted to be first-person, from Karen Catlin?
Now, my newsletter grows every week. I’m very proud of it. It gets shared at companies and I hear from people. It’s meeting a need. But you kind of wonder, what would be different if I were doing this from my voice? So, it’s only been a couple weeks now, I have shifted to be from me. The very top says that it is curated by Karen Catlin. I write in first person now, what I’ve learned, what I’m doing, what I recommend. At the bottom, I sign it Karen Catlin, founder of Better Allies. So, we’ll see. It’s a work in progress now.
I don’t think I’d go back to doing it more anonymously. I think I was trying to have the illusion of “this is bigger than just me.” But hey, it’s me. I get help with it. I have an editor and someone who helps with the mechanics of sending out a newsletter. But it is me behind it. I should own that.
Anne: Does it feel any different? You sent me a ping about it, so I had to ask you.
Karen: It is a little easier.
Anne: I love the progression. So we begin with Twitter. We add a newsletter. It’s all organic growth in the sense that it’s being driven by the responses you’re getting. You’re proving the market, you’re building the platform Tweet by Tweet. It’s such a great story. Then there’s a book. And now, again, people said “we need to apply this to the hiring process” so you’ve come out with the Better Allies Approach to Hiring.
So the whole thing has been driven by you engaging with your audience.
Karen: Yes. I started out to change the world, yes, but I had no idea I would speaking, writing a book or two, and having this newsletter. I had no plan, really. It has been organic. It has all grown from this initial thought of, “I want to help men understand the role they have to play and can play, and what they can do about it.”
Anne: It went from your motivation to inspire change, in a concrete way, and how that unfolds is being driven by the people you’re trying to reach. It’s so cool. Such a great story. You would never have plotted it out this way in 2012.
There’s a moral in here somewhere for people who want to make some change. You can start with Twitter. You can start with 140 characters at a time, because I imagine in 2014 it was still a 140 character limit.
Karen: Yes, it was. It was hard.
Anne: It makes you be very concise about your thoughts, and that’s good. But you can start with that and see what happens as you go.
Karen: Definitely. This may be a little off the topic, but it’s like the trend these days about taking a small step toward a new habit. Like standing on one foot while you’re brushing your teeth to improve your balance, for example. Look for something small that you can start doing. Maybe there’s some connection there.
Anne: Yes, BJ Fogg’s new book on Tiny Habits. One of the things that tiny habits show us is that sometime our behavior can drive our beliefs. If I’d said, Karen, can you make a huge impact on the tech industry and its treatment of women, in 2012, you’d say, “Phht. But, I can put out a Tweet! And I can build a Twitter platform. I can try that.” As you do it and see you’re making an impact, it gives you inspiration to continue.
Karen: Definitely. The positive reinforcement I get when I do anything is really important to me. It’s what drives me to keep pressing forward, to get creative, to stick with something when it’s hard. I need that positive reinforcement, and let me tell you, I do get it on Twitter, even though people think it’s like this cesspool. It’s amazing, the positive reinforcement I get.
Anne: And that your mission has grown as you encounter more people, in the sense of looking at underrepresented groups as a whole, not just women in tech.
Karen: Building on that, I never anticipated the following: I’m starting to get interest from outside tech. I only know tech. That’s where I grew up. That’s my career. But I have speaking engagements at apparel manufacturers. I’m speaking at a credit union. I got feedback from a medical doctor saying how important my book was to her, as a woman in a medical office but also as a doctor who needs to treat patients from underrepresented groups. I am so excited. I never anticipated that my focus on tech could be applied to all of these other professional areas, and have that impact multiplied further. It’s really exciting for me.
Anne: That is very exciting. Alas, tech is not the only industry in which women and minorities are underrepresented. The physicians thing, looking at it not as an employer, but how do I treat my patients? That’s a twist.
It’s a great story. It’s inspiring. The interesting twist on it for me is that you started by writing about what you knew, the tech industry, but not in your own voice. You chose a persona that was people you did know. You could put yourself in the mindset of colleagues you worked alongside for years, no doubt. And that helped you get started, and find a place to contribute in a way that made sense. Great story.
I can hardly wait to see what you do next.
Karen: Me, too. There’s no game plan.
Anne: It’s what evolves. I think, people like to say with hindsight, “My master strategy…” We look at other people and figure they must have master strategies.”
Karen: So many of us don’t.
Anne: Just reacting, and paying attention, and living a purpose. Thank you, Karen, for sharing your story.
Karen: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you. And thank you for the positive reinforcement.