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Stellar Women: Active Allyship with Mike Gamson

Mary Rechtoris

Allyship is crucial to achieve equity. That is why our Stellar Women program is intended for female leaders, and our male friends and allies. We all must work together to create a more equitable field. And when it comes to allyship, there is a difference between being a passive or active ally.

That distinction is what Mila and I chat with Relativity CEO Mike Gamson about in our latest episode. Action is really the key word here. Mike shares the moment that launched his journey toward active allyship, how he is an active ally in the tech community, and what a more equitable world looks like to Mike Gamson.  

Mike Gamson

Mike Gamson



Mary RechtorisHey Stellar Women fans. I’m your host, Mary Rechtoris. 

Mila Taylor: And I'm your co-host, Mila Taylor. Stellar Women shines a light on female leaders making their mark in tech.  

MR: We are really excited today. We have a special guest on the podcast to talk about allyship: our CEO, Mike Gamson. 

Mike Gamson: Hello. Hello. Thank you so much for having me. It's great to be here.  

MT: Thank you so much for joining us.  

MR: Mike, we did say we were going to throw some curveballs your way. We have a new section on the Stellar Women podcast to start us off on a high note. And it's called our Highlight of the Week. Given it is Tuesday, you can also share your highlight of the weekend. I'll share my highlight of the week thus far. I did a little bit of spring cleaning this weekend. My partner and I are moving to the suburbs. It felt so good to de-clutter, get rid of some stuff, and get ready for our move.  

MT: I'll go next. My highlight happened just before this call. My parents are obviously in Australia and I haven’t been able to see them for what feels like forever. They just got their first vaccination appointments for this weekend. So I'm one step closer. 

MG: I love it. All right. I'll take the vaccination hand-off there. My wife and I are now fully vaccinated and we went out for the first time on Saturday night. It was doubly joyful because we went outside with six or seven couples [who are our] friends. We hadn't seen [other] human beings in a long time. The other amazing thing for us as partners, we have three kids. Our youngest one is six. The older kids put to bed the younger kid, and that was a big deal. So being out, no babysitter, big time. We’re living big here people.

MT: Mary and I and the rest of the Relativity are fortunate in that we get to hear from Mike regularly so we know how important allyship is to him. If you've heard Mike speak, you definitely know that as well. And if you haven't heard Mike speak, you are in for a treat. So my first question is about your why when it comes allyship. What inspires you to be an ally for female professionals and also for marginalized communities?  

MG: Yeah, I would say there's a few things. One, I'm definitely in the category of people who truly had a lightning bolt moment in my life, which was shameful and I'll explain in a sec. That really was for me a literal turning point moment in my decision to become active in both shedding as many of my biases as I could—those of which I could identify—and do something about and deciding to be a proactive ally. That’s the biggest piece. The second piece is that I have come from a background of privilege and by privilege, I don't mean came from great wealth. I mean that I came from a home where I had two parents who loved each other and me and my sisters. I'm a brother between two strong women, both of whom are super intelligent and badasses in their respective careers and lives. My mom is a very strong person and my great grandmother, Pearl, is the matriarch in our family. She was a 16-year-old immigrant [and came] by herself to the US. She has one of those kinds of stories. She is just an incredible person who made it work. We named our daughter after her. Since I was born, I’ve had nothing but incredibly strong examples of what it means to be a capable, assertive, and successful woman in many different manifestations of that. And yet, I fell into the same trap as so many white, straight men like me who have come from privilege unaware of that and how much I've been running downhill with the wind at my back my whole life until I had this really shameful moment that was my turning point. I was at my last employer and we were at a big internal event. It was one of those like really high energy, fun, rah-rah type of events. I was a host for my big global team, and this is about 10 years or so ago. There was a woman on my team with whom I was close and she was a pretty senior woman on my team. She came up to me afterwards and said, “Mike, how do you think that morning went?” And I thought I crushed it and that we crushed it. I thought it was amazing and a great morning. And she was letting me speak and I was walking into a hole. She said, “You know, I'm not sure if you noticed, but it was all guys on stage. It was an all-guys parade.” I said two really bad things after that. The first thing was I didn't notice. I literally did not notice that every speaker that morning was a guy. And the second thing, which is even worse, is I said, “It was just a department head meeting and those are the department heads.” And she's like, “That's my freaking point. This is the problem and you don't know it. So, you are a big part of the problem.” And thankfully, I had her in my life to speak truth at me. I sat there and I just felt so ashamed. I literally had one of those moments where I recounted my life quickly in my mind and I was like, “Oh my gosh, how could I have become that person who squandered an opportunity to build an organization…” I had an opportunity to build organization from scratch that became a large entity so I thought, “How did I squander an opportunity to just start from the beginning to do this correctly and evenly?” And because I didn't, it took me the next many years to undo much of that work. It took an extraordinary effort among a large number of leaders across that team to change that flow. That's my why. It is because I was struck by lightning, thankfully, early enough in my life to do something about it. I have decided to never again be a passive professional along that journey, but to be really outspoken and specific about it.  

MR: With allyship, this isn’t male intent. Sometimes you just don't know what you don't know. There are times where you may feel embarrassed or ashamed that you didn't act in a way that was supportive of marginalized communities, but own it. Sit with your shame a little bit, but then you have to do something after that. We've all had that and I imagine we'll continue to have that as a whole since we’re all learning. So thanks for sharing. Mike, you're in a very unique position, being the face of Relativity. You’re a senior leader at a large tech company and in a lot of ways. all our eyes are on you. And you're very vulnerable and transparent. How do you navigate being an ally and knowing there might be moments where you don't always get it right?  

MG: I try to forgive myself ahead of time. I know I'm going to make mistakes and I know this ship is a minefield fraught with problems. When you're a public-facing person, the likelihood that you make a public-facing problem is pretty high. I don't know if this is what everyone's strategy is in my position, but what I try to do is just get really clear with myself with what's in my heart and what I am trying to achieve. Then, I try to ask my network if I'm uncertain about something. As an example, I'm a feminist and I am now comfortable saying I'm a feminist. I didn't know a few years ago if I was even allowed to say I'm a feminist. Was it a word that was reserved exclusively for women to speak with pride about their predisposition? I don't believe so. So I asked a number of my women friends and said, “I feel like I'm a feminist. If a feminist means someone who believes that women and men should be equal, then I am that. But I don't hear a lot of men saying that. Am I allowed to say it?” So, sometimes I'll just ask my network and I'll check in ahead of time and I'll make my mistakes in private. Same thing among other communities of my Black friends or other friends in groups that are often marginalized, where there's often a lot of tension in the language of a majority straight white man speaking about something where the price of a mistake is significant. So, I ask my network. I'm okay with making some mistakes. And I know that on the 20, 30, 40-year arc of my career, I want to be great at this and I don't know how to be great at anything without making mistakes. If someone says they want to be great at something but they're not willing to make a few mistakes along the way, maybe I should train under that person? I don't know how to do that. 

MR: It's a great point in having that network of people you trust. As a white woman, I obviously have a lot of privilege where a Black professional might not have that same privilege. Sometimes I worry, am I using the right verbiage? Having those people that you can talk to and course correct if necessary is a huge step in the right direction.  

MT: We talk a lot on this podcast about what Maribel Rivera said which was, “Be the CEO of your own life.” In that way you should have this board of advisors who you check in with regularly on all kinds of decisions. With my involvement on this podcast, we've come to learn and discuss that diversity and inclusion goes so much further than just gender. It’s important to have these people who cover as much ground as possible. Obviously, it's really hard to touch every single group. But, if you're engaging with as many people as possible, I think you're setting yourself up for success. That resonated with me. Okay, switching gears to maybe a time when you have gotten it right. Can you tell us a bit about a time when you were an active ally and what motivated you to show up in that way?  

MG: Yeah, absolutely. So an example is I was speaking with friends maybe four or five years ago about female representation on boards of tech companies. I know there's a much broader conversation about gender imbalance in positions of power generally across industries and in executive suites and boards. What I know are tech companies. Outside of my work at Relativity, I also do a fair amount of tech investing and I used to be a very active board member and advisor over the last 10 years or so. I've had the opportunity to be in those rooms where it happens. The rooms where it happens are dominated by men and often, they're exclusively men. I was talking with a friend about this and it dawned on me that I actually have the opportunity to be more influential in those parts of my life than I had been aware of. When you end up in a position of influence—and I’m speaking for myself and not for anyone else—but for me, it wasn't a planned or strategic thing. It just evolved. When you're the person inside of that, you can sometimes forget that you have influence and you're just a person doing your thing in your life. You forget that you can be influential outside of the core and obvious areas. Let's say at work, that is hierarchically. What I decided to do was, rather than just suggesting to the companies in which I had invested or where I was on the board that it'd be a good idea for you to do something more to balance out your boardroom, I decided to go further and as a mandate said: “I'm no longer going to participate on any board or any panel that doesn't have women represented on it.” At the time, I was on a lot of boards, like almost 10, I think. I called the CEOs of all the companies that I was on the board of. I said, “I don't want it to sound like an ultimatum, but it's kind of an ultimatum. I need you to make sure that you have more of a balanced board or else I’m going to need to resign.” The conversation was not quite as truncated as that, but it was as clear as that. Every one of those boards has women on it now. Some of the processes there were easy and some of the process was hard, but it all happened. What’s even more interesting and I think more impactful for me, and satisfying, was that a few of those fellow board members were venture partners at Chicago companies that I do a number of things with. They decided that across their whole portfolio, they're going to mandate that. So, a call-out for folks who are listening and thinking about their lives and their circles of influence: Sometimes the action you take can be amplified in impact by what it does and snowball in other actions in others. Something we think, “Gosh, I can take this action, but it takes a lot of effort or it's socially risky or there's maybe adverse effects.” But, if we only think about the potential net benefit as being the direct next benefit, it can seem like the equation doesn't make sense to pursue. It’s too risky. But if you think on the knock-on effect of all the other people who may be positively impacted as a second and third degree from your action, it increases the benefits so much that it allows you to consider taking on more risk and still have it make good sense. That was a really satisfying thing. And now four or five years later, I can see the results from it.  

MR: How do you navigate those conversations, whether it's a panel or a board, when someone says, “Look, the industry is not very diverse. We have a lot of white men, I don't want to be tokenistic about this.” How do you navigate those convos? 

MG: Oh, the “no talent pool” argument? Yes, totally, and by the way, that’s a very standard and well-intentioned answer. I mean, my opinion about the whole problem of representation, whether we're talking about a man or racial representation, is it's mostly well-intended people that just either don't have the tools or don’t know how. I’ve never encountered people in a room who say, “Let’s never let any women in here ever.” They may exist. I haven't encountered them. [I’ve encountered] well-intended people who say, “The most qualified candidates we've seen are these men.” My normal argument is the following, and it depends on who I'm talking to. I'm not a sports person, but, if I'm talking to someone who is a sports person, I'll use a sports analogy. And oftentimes the guy who's giving me that answer is a sports person. So I'll say something like this. Let's say that you were the coach of a basketball team. That basketball team wins when you have a few shorter and fast people, one really tall person in the middle and two mid-tall people. They have different attributes. But together the team functions better. (By the way, that's like a very shallow understanding of a basketball team because I really don't know the answer. But, you know, you get it.) The team functions together better when there is a diversity of attributes, collectively making the whole better and more able to win. If you were to only be hiring that next player on a shooting percentage or on some single attribute and you hired your whole team on those attributes individually, you would say, “I hired the best person.” But collectively, you'd have a worse team. And that's what I think you're doing with this board or with this team inside the company. You're not thinking about hiring for the team. You're exclusively thinking about hiring for that one role as if you weren't building a team. And it's usually that kind of path [that gets people to say], “Oh, I get it.” If I think about attributes and backgrounds and perspective and world views as the things that I need to build a complementary set of in order to most effectively govern the company, reduce risk, pursue growth, whatever the goals are, then that's something that begins to make sense.  

MT: So, you can take this question as philosophically far as you want to go. What does a more equitable world look like to Mike Gamson? 

MG: I'm a big believer that talent is distributed evenly across the world and opportunity is not. Let’s pull apart those two statements and examine them individually. First, for talent to be distributed evenly, that means that there's a lot of talent which is innate. That’s whether you were born on the right side of the tracks, on the wrong side of the tracks, whether you're born a man or a woman, or whether you have any number of capabilities or challenges. That talent is distributed evenly. The opportunity to manifest that talent stems from the very beginning, the environment in which you are as a small child, and relates to your educational system and to the people who reached out a hand and got you that first internship—to those who helped you not fail out of school, who pulled you over but didn't take you to jail or worse. All of those things that can derail a life or keep it on the rails, that’s not even. That’s not fair. And so for me, a more equitable world is where someone's talents, regardless of into which body they were born or what side of the tracks or what city, state, or county, they have an equal chance of manifesting the full potential of those talents.  

MR: Great and Mike, something we like to do is provide our listeners tangible resources or next actions for them. So for those that are looking to become a better ally or spread the knowledge with their peers and colleagues, what are some of your go-to [resources[ to make sure you're evolving as an ally for marginalized communities? Books, podcasts … Any suggestions?

MG: Well, certainly this podcast is amazing. If you haven't already, tune in, listen to the back catalog, and subscribe. You’re missing out because there is serious knowledge and wisdom dropped here frequently. I'm also really passionate about local communities. So I think there's an incredible organization called Bonfire here in Chicago and a partner organization called the Athena Alliance, which is specifically focused on helping women find board seats. I recently participated in a group called Him for Her. It specifically links corporate executives with women who aspire to be on boards for small-scale dinners. This was Zoom for me, but it usually is over a dinner. We have honest conversations about what it takes to do that. I think there's some fantastic organizations that are explicitly focused on that. But for me, the most impactful above and beyond everything else is just consciously extending my network with people who are not like me. I make sure that I'm making the time to develop real friendships and real relationships with folks that did not grow up down the block and with folks who don't share all of my interests and where I can both share with them and they can share with me. We make each other's lives a lot richer from that difference of perspective and background and thought.

MR: And that's why I love the CRGs at Relativity because that's something I realized by joining CRGs. My network was people who grew up in the same neighborhood or socioeconomic status. Almost everyone was white. And I think, I didn't realize that my perspective was so limited and I’ve really expanded that by joining resource groups. I know not everyone has those, but different companies have different programs. And I would encourage people to look into them because it's broadened and kind of changed my life.  

MG: I agree.  

MT: I agree. I’m semi on the receiving end. I grew up in a very same kind of thing. Everyone was white and Jewish. I went to a Jewish school. Growing up and then moving to Chicago, I met people who hadn't met that many Jewish people and were interested to learn about it. I was like, “Oh, how interesting that someone wants to learn about what I know, because it just seemed so mundane.” As you said, those friendships and those relationships are so much richer because you're constantly learning and growing and that's what life is all about. Plus that one. Okay, so going to close out with one question, and that is: If you could share some wisdom with your 18-year-old self about allyship, what would you say? 

MG: My 18-year-old-self ... I don’t know if he was ready to receive wisdom, so let me just kind of, like, own that honestly. My 18-year-old-self had a very, I'd say, evolved sense of ambition and a not yet evolved sense of compassion. So I'm going to assume we caught that guy on a good day and that he was open to some advice. I think it would be to take advantage of the opportunity that I had. I was around so many amazing people when I was 18 in retrospect. They were extraordinary and such a diverse group of people. Take the opportunity to go beyond the most comfortable relationships and actually have one-on-one conversations with people. I’m an end-of-spectrum extrovert, and I tend to always roll in a group, which is for me a ton of fun. But groups rarely end up being the environment in which really delicate subjects and intimate exchanges of feelings and information are passed. So to my 18-year-old-self, I would say: Seek out people who aren't like you and create a scenario for more one-on-one conversations where you can ask more.  

MR: I love that and I've realized that with friends too. It’s always fun to have a group setting and definitely leads to a lot of laughs. But you don't really get into how people are doing because it's hard to engage on that level yet.  

MG: Yup. 

MR: Well, Mike, this has been a pleasure. We've loved having you and have learned a lot. We appreciate you joining us. 

MG: I so appreciate both of you. I mean, you are such great examples of leading women at Relativity who are doing amazing, creative, and impactful work like this. Thank you. It really is a wonderful part of our culture that you are adding to all of us. Thank you so much.  

MR: Of course. And for Stellar Women, I'm Mary Rechtoris. 

MT: And I’m Mila Taylor. 

Both: Signing off.

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Mary Rechtoris is a senior producer on the brand team at Relativity, where she's always collaborating and looking for new ways to develop and socialize stories.