AXSChat Podcast

Championing Corporate Inclusion: Amazon's Focus on Disability Equality and Innovation

February 09, 2024 Antonio Santos, Debra Ruh, Neil Milliken talk with Lauren Lobrano
AXSChat Podcast
Championing Corporate Inclusion: Amazon's Focus on Disability Equality and Innovation
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Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers
Embark on a journey with Lauren Lobrano, the Global Disability Inclusion Leader at Amazon, as she unpacks the complexities of creating a workspace that embraces employees of all abilities. Lauren's vast experience, from her invaluable work with veterans to her current role at Amazon, provides a unique perspective on inclusion within a corporate powerhouse. Our conversation traverses her backstory, the global impact of disability inclusion at Amazon, and the nuanced interplay between the disabled community and the corporate world.

As we wade through the waters of corporate responsibility, we emphasize the power of Amazon's workforce diversity, particularly the voices of those with disabilities. Lauren illustrates the transformative nature of technologies like the Echo devices and shares insights into how Amazon's internal advisory groups shape the company's inclusive environment. We scrutinize the accommodations process, focusing on Amazon's dedication to ensuring new employees with disabilities feel supported from the moment they join the team, a testament to the company's commitment to a diverse workforce.

Wrapping up, we celebrate Amazon's proactive partnerships with disability organizations and their triumph in achieving a 100% score on the Disability Equality Index. We'll also ignite your curiosity about Amazon's creative approach to hackathons, fostering innovation to break down accessibility barriers. The collaboration with the Perkins School for the Blind and MIT is just one example of how these events serve as educational platforms for tech leaders while advancing accessibility. Join us for this eye-opening discussion that not only honors Amazon's initiatives but also underscores the ongoing mission to embed true equity and inclusion within every facet of the workplace.

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AXSCHAT Lauren Lobrano

NEIL:

Hello and welcome to Axschat. I'm really, really pleased, genuinely, really pleased to have Lauren Labrano with us today. Lauren is the Global Disability Inclusion Leader within the Inclusive Experiences and Technology Team, which was previously the DEI Team at Amazon. Obviously, we keep talking about Amazon every week because they support Axschat. So thank you for your support. It's great to have you with us. You know, we have been talking offline a lot, not just before this recording but for months and years, beforehand, about the work that you're doing with Amazon. But please tell us a bit about yourself because you have not been at Amazon forever. Tell us a little bit about your journey to Amazon and then also about your role and so on and then we'll move into the conversation.

LAUREN:

Yes. Happy to and as a long-time listener, it's a little bit of a pinch me moment to be here. And you know, we were talking beforehand. I will tell you that just because Amazon is a sponsor doesn't mean that you can't ask me the hard questions. So hit me up right. We are here to answer this question. As Lauren Lobrano. I've been with Amazon for about 15 months. Came in really to start to bring some consistency and scale to our disability inclusion efforts, within our DEI team, which again as you noted we call Inclusive Experiences in Technology. I have the absolute pleasure and honour of working underneath Candy Castleberry and the order she is setting up at Amazon, which I have already seen the impact of her work and her leadership and I think we are just getting started. But my background. I came to this really worked for many years with significantly disabled veterans, really started down a path. I was walk working for the government. I didn't love my job. I found government to be a little bit contentious and wasn't really driving towards the impact that I was hoping to see and that was around that was in the early '00s. So 2003 and 2004 and really thought that what we were seeing happening in our military and veteran community deserved a long-time attention, long term attention. So from there went to work for the American Red Cross, working in military hospitals across the US and overseas, went to work Wounded Warrior Project and developing programmes to honour and empower the most critically wounded. I was based out of Germany. So where all the wounded, ill and injured to the US were flown, working with their family members, caregivers and also the medical community, which just saw the worse of the worse and when you see what people can do to each other, it sticks with you. So developing resiliency programmes for them, making sure that they had the support systems. Random workforce development at Paralysed Veterans of America, which is a vocational rehabilitation programme, just adored that work. It was so engaging. And again, there we tended to work with a lot of veterans who were not service connected and had significant disabilities. So, perhaps they were paralysed and through an accident or a fall or had another disability that was really presenting as a challenge to finding meaningful employment and finding that community and connectivity that we know comes with work, even if it's volunteer work. But don't ever want to discount that because we wanted to do was prevent isolation. So very lucky to be at Amazon. It's a little bit of a jump, in case you can't tell from some of those other words, where they were somewhat small and I would say, deer in a headlight. Probably the first 12 months, as I tried to figure out how to work within a 1.5 million employee organisation that's global. But I'm excited about the work and I will tell you, I think that we have incredible opportunity and not just for our employees and our customers. But to change how disability is perceived and how we work with the disability community. How we lift them up globally. And other companies and other parts of the world, wherever disabled people are.

NEIL:

Yes. Debra, I think you have a question right?

DEBRA:

I do have a question and Lauren, welcome to the programme. We really are very grateful that Amazon has been supporting us. That was a real blessing to us and to the community so, thank you for that but I also want to say as a fellow American that we talked it before we went on air. But I don't know how we would have fared in the United States, just speaking from my own experience, during the Pandemic. If we didn't have Amazon. And so, we like in the United States, to criticise Amazon. We love Amazon and we hate Amazon. It's just very interesting. But I remember because I've had the pressure of working with Amazon as a vendor and somebody said, well you know, everybody, our customers love us and I said I know, I'm one of your customers, I've loved Amazon for so many years. I do all my shopping on. I really do. I do all my shopping on Amazon. But at the same time, you all really have done some very powerful things and like you said, I love your background because I also have supported our veterans over the years and I am very proud to be a military family. My father, my father-in-law, my brother, my sister. I was not in the military but I've a lot of family members that are. And so, making sure that you take care of our wounded warriors, I think are very powerful but at the same time, something else you said really struck with me because Amazon is a gigantic brand with 1.5 million employees. There is actually employers that have more employers than Amazon but, not a lot. And so, if you could get it right with our wounded warriors. If you can get it right in areas and pockets, you can then take it and expand it out like you said globally because you know we are over a Billion Strong, but we are not a very discoverable community. So, I appreciate, first of all, everything Amazon is doing. We've known about Candy's work when she was with Twitter. I think that Amazon was lucky to get somebody as talented as Candy, so kudos to them also. But it is a huge, huge undertaking and I just wonder how the community can help you, Lauren do your job. Especially the time when no matter what you all did you're going to be attacked whether it's good or bad. You're going to be attacked and it's going to be a vicious attack. I mean, just because of the state of the affairs, so I'm glad you're on the programme so we can start talking about what you're doing, but I still find that a lot of people including me don't really understand a lot of the impact that you're actually having. So, I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about it but also think about maybe through the interview; how do we help you as a community?

LAUREN:

Okay. No, I love that. So first thing I will tell you, Amazon has guided all employees as an organisation, we make all decisions, according to our leadership principles. I mean, you can find them online. And within those leaderships’ principles, we talk about customer obsession. It's foundational for us and we also really focus on the fact that we are successful and we have scaled. And that really brings broad responsibility. It means that we have to think about the impact of what we are doing and how we are doing it. So for me, in my role, one of the things that I wanted to do is make sure, one, I'm open to feedback. I'm open to ideas. I've people who find me on LinkedIn and raise concerns and the good and the bad and we wanted to hear those things because that's how we iterate. When we think about an organisation of our size, If I want to build a deaf and hard of hearing inclusion programme that started in one fulfilment centre and one location, would I need to figure out is how do we scale that: right? So, how do I, if it's taking a lot of manual work, what can we use to bring technology in to help us scale a programme to provide the guardrails to somebody so that they can implement at their site and what I really want people to do is have that ownership of taking the programme and implementing it and not needing my approval, not needing my oversight but knowing that I'm here to consult should they have questions. But it really comes down to giving people some parameters. So that they can innovate with what is going to work best. I mean Richmond is going to be different than Cork. So I want to give some flexibility as we design those programmes for those adjustments. But I want to make sure again that we are working from core foundational knowledge around the disability community. And that is really important because this is a generational challenge that we are facing in some ways. I mean I'm not as young as I once was. I did not go up and go to school when the US, the ADA I think I was 14 or 16, when the ADA was signed. 16. So my formative years, I didn't necessarily have a lot of children with apparent disabilities around me. So it's a learning. I had a lot of non-apparent but they weren't recognised or they weren't diagnosed or we didn't know about neurodiversity at that point. So what part of my job is to make sure that we are spreading information, we are educating, we are providing resources to our managers, to our other employees. So that they understand what consistency looks like and then we can scale. So that is part of a challenge. I mean, I can empower Amazon's disability community. But what I really want to do with great partners that I have is talk to our managers and educate our managers because that's where we are going to really see the most impactful change is when they understand more. So that's been my approach in my 15 months here, develop some resources for them. They are all internal. But that's where I am going. We are redoing some educational courses again. A pan Amazon disability fundamentals course, where we are talk taking an off the shelf course and making it Amazonian, because the knowledge was there but I need it to resonate. So, yes, does that answer some of your questions and I am happy to talk all day long about our successes. But I will say, when you have incredible success in some areas, it brings spotlight and attention. It's never okay to have one employee having a bad experience, but it's also really hard to prevent that. If people aren't going to tell me about it and I need to put in place, so that I'm not dealing with one employee at the time but again bringing the consistency and scale.

NEIL:

Sorry, I know Antonio has got a follow up. I just wanted to address the management topic. And also to pay tribute to someone that, who I am about to quote and that's Fleur Bovwick talked about the perma frost of middle management and how we needed to engage them because that would unlock inclusion within an organisation.

LAUREN:

Mm hmm.

NEIL:

Now, unfortunately Fleur recently died suddenly and so just wish to publicly pay tribute to Fleur and her contribution to the disability community, former guest here. But what you're doing in terms of engaging the managers is really important. It's something that we are also trying to do within our organisation and getting those managers to be disability role models themselves.

LAUREN:

Yes.

NEIL:

Because the likelihood is that a significant portion of them have lived experience and are hiding it.

LAUREN:

That is right.

NEIL:

And it's when they start feeling comfortable talking about their own experience of disability that you have that rapid growth in confidence of others.

LAUREN:

Yes.

NEIL:

That they are safe enough to talk about their experience. So it's a sort of snowball effect in terms of doing that. So, I fully agree with you that engaging the management is a really important thing. I know you work with grassroots as well, clearly. And there is a huge amount of grass roots at Amazon given your size but it's that multi-pronged approach to engagement that really helped you do that stuff at scale. And so congratulations on that.

LAUREN:

Absolutely. We'll see. We'll see what happens.

ANTONIO:

All right. So I have two questions. Amazon has successfully scaled business in different areas digital, you know, consumer, you know, you were able to scale quite successfully in those areas. How can you use that experience also to scale within accessibility because sometimes we see organisations talking about diversity, disability, accessibility, from a very central space and then you have employees somewhere around the world, oh, that's really nice. That is taking place in our Head Office. But here in my corner of the world, nothing really happens, so how can we scale it.

LAUREN:

Yes, so a couple of thoughts on that. First, Antonio it is a great question. What I will tell you is one of the things that's foundational to us that comes with our customer obsession is that listening, we start everything by listening. We have we give our internal employees who have disabilities as seat at the able so that they can advise us. It's one of the reasons that our devices and services and I won't say her name because she is sitting on my desk right now. But it's one of the reasons that our Echo devices and things like that are so accessible and aren't just accessible but are providing services that empower the disability community. We are doing things like, how can we use these voice assistants to understand people whose voices may not be traditional, right. May not sound like ours do on this call. Maybe they have a speech impairment or something like that. How can we make sure that these devices work for them because they are empowered then. So we always make sure we are giving our employees with disability a seat at the table so that we can introduce our best practice solutions and watch innovations and that's part of what I do. I was very lucky when I started. I found a core group of people whose job has nothing to do with building disability inclusion at Amazon but they all have disabilities and they are throughout the organisation and we are talking about a few executives. We are talking about some filament centre associates and I call them my kitchen Cabinet, which is a US Presidential term, where they are my advisors and they are quiet, like you may not, I give them recognition but they are the people I go to and say well, can you took a look at this, what are your thoughts on this? Tell me about this? Tell me about this problem you're having? What is it like? What are you hearing about managers about the accommodations process and then I'm really lucky that I have strong partners around me. Megan Smith who runs our global accommodations and people accessibility process, an amazing collaborator and friend and colleague. Somebody who is always open to advice. So that again, we can take it and start to scale it but the truth is, is listening to the community. Often they have solutions that they want to present to us determining how can I scale it and then scaling it. I don't need to come up with every solution myself. I just need to make sure that I'm listening to individuals who will give me answers and I found that throughout my career. I'm not a veteran, I work very successfully within that community by listening to them and their needs and determining how to bring consistencies.

ANTONIO:

Lauren, you brought the topic of accommodations, can you go on in detail about you know, let's say a new employee, first day at Amazon, what can they expect at that level.

LAUREN:

Yes, so some of the things we are continuing to innovate around is how do we be day run ready for our employees and again, that's challenges with an organisation of our size and Debra, you talked this, COVID I mean, we scaled so rapidly at COVID. We were innovating faster in some instances than we could almost keep up but our accommodations team does a really good job at iterating; right. So we have a day one mentality, is what we say here where we take an entrepreneurial approach. So just because we have something established doesn't mean that it's done. So when we look at the data and we look at the feedback to understand what somebody is need for day one start. I will tell you, one of the things that we have encountered that I've seen firstly since I've been here is our hiring process, especially at that associates level where people are working in our fulfilment centres and delivery stations, is so accessible that sometimes people start on day one and that haven't told us about a disability that they have that requires a specialised accommodation because they just assume that it's going to be there. And that's a great problem to have; right? I mean it's great that our systems are so set up to be accessible. What our accommodations team is doing right now is checking up with that process. So if we find out that there is somebody who is going to start, what is the package that needs to be available for them on day one? What is the equipment? And again think globally here. It's a huge it's a huge challenge to do that but there are ways that we can do it. And again, when we get it right other people will follow, which benefits the entire disability community because for us and for me, I am obviously here, I love Amazon. I love working here. I love our employees. I love our customers. I love the Amazonians that I get to work with, but I want to have a global impact on the broader disability community and we can do that when we lead from the front and share advice and guidance to other organisations.

DEBRA:

I want just to add a couple of more points for people that are listening to this that are not in the States, when we are talking about accommodations. We also call them adaptions in other parts of the world.

LAUREN:

Yes.

DEBRA:

Just so everybody knows what we are talking about. I also want to I appreciate everything you all are doing on day one. It's interesting though to say that, I've not started a new job in many, many years and I certainly have worked for very large corporations in my career but it's funny to say be ready on Day 1. I think of all of the stuff you have to do to try to be ready working for a gigantic corporation, ready on Day 1. That's just those are scary words that you got to do Lauren, but anyway , I also want to say, I'm sort of shifting a little bit but I've mentioned, we have worked with Amazon in the past, and I would say that officially because of actually a reporter wrote up about, wrote about us . So everybody knows about this. I mean anybody that's paid attention. But the thing that I also find really challenging, we were talking about that word that I can say because she is not in my room where I am is the Alexa of the world and yes, it might go off in your device as well.

LAUREN:

Yes, my headphones.

DEBRA:

Something that we are seeing from almost a different side of the coin that Amazon has to be concerned about and also deal with is that I know that a lot of people with disabilities, a lot of disability organisations are not necessarily technology experts. It's just, maybe it's not their field. So we see legislation happening all over the world but certainly here in the States, where we are trying to control Amazon because it's so big and we are nervous but actually some the things that legislators are proposing will actually hurt our community. So that was one reason why my company and Billion Strong also, a nonprofit I created worked with Amazon to stop some of the legislation happening in California , that was coming out as privacy issues. Well, the privacy issues I disagreed with. First of all because they'd already been addressed in other legislation but this is the point that worried me. The point that worried me was that Amazon had gone and these legislators had gone to disability groups to say, is this a concern, will this affect you and the groups did not understand the technology enough to realise that what they were proposing to do would actually have made Alexa much, much, less accessible to people with disabilities that are using it to stay independent. So, I just also want to note that while you have all these other challenges, you also have the challenges of making sure that Alexa or you know the Echoes, they work for all of us, especially as more or more we are counting on our solutions to allow us to age in place and be independent. So it's a much different thing that we are talking about other than being ready on day one for us. But yes, I just want to explain, I want to make sure the audience understands the complexity of this that Amazon is dealing with and that once again, it is important for us, as us as the community to get behind brands like Amazon that are trying to include us and make sure they can meaningfully include us and that lawmakers don't step in and hurt us being able to use these tools that we need to stay independent.

NEIL:

Yes, I think okay, thanks everyone. I think it's really interesting, I think there's a lot in the present moment about tech lobbying against government legislation but sometimes lobbying can be positive as well.

DEBRA:

Yes.

NEIL:

I know that we talked offline and as a topic I would like to cover before we hit the buffers on our timing and that was around benchmarking, your engagement with various different disability organisations.

LAUREN:

Yes.

NEIL:

So, tell us about how you addressed the fact that Amazon scores 100% in the disability equality index. We know, as large, you know, working in these large complex organisations that you know, they've still got lots of things to do.

DEBRA:

Yes.

LAUREN:

That's a great question and I, you know, we have strong partnerships with a number of organisations and Debra, to your point, we do partner with a lot of non-profits to make sure that when we are building our devices and services that they are not just accessible but again, serving a need for the community and part of the reason that we're now no longer called the global diversity, equity and team and inclusive experiences in technology is because of that responsibility around DEI work and technology. And how do we use it for good and how do we address the things that we are concerned about going on. How do we ensure that AI is inequitable. So you know and we have strong partnerships, again, Neil, Business Disability Forum, the first time I think we officially met was at their award ceremony last year, where, we were thrilled to take home the disability Smart Technology Award for work making accessible devices and services. And we do partner closely with Disability In, who runs the Disability Equality Index. And I understand the challenges around the fact that you can get a score of one hundred on these, I get that. I understand it and I will tell you, from my perspective how I use this and I talk to Disability In about this, to me, it's a tool that I can use by which to measure things that we are doing well and then inspect and dive deep. So even if we scored one hundred the last two years, it's a weighted score. There are things on that survey that we are not doing and so, I use it and one of my goals this year is that everything we answer, no. I have to exit 25% of those and get them to yes by the time we submit the next survey. So for me it's a way I can go and talk to individuals and supplier diversity, talk to individuals and other parts of the organisation and say, hey listen, I want to show you the survey. I want to show you how we use it and what it measures and what it means and I want to see how this is a question that they are asking us and we never have done this. How can I work with you to design a policy or a solution so that I can get to yes on this, that's how I use the survey. I will tell you I am proud of our work and I'm proud of the fact that we get a hundred but that doesn't mean that I wake up, every morning I wake up and say, that is great and I appreciate it but it does not mean that all of our employees feel like they have an equitable experience and that's what I worry about, every single day. It's how do I bring the consistency and scale. We took a moment to celebrate last year and then we got right back to work and started diving in. So, they are helpful tools and again, I don't want to downplay because we worked hard to get from, you know, the first year we did it and then we got an 80 and then we got a hundred. We worked hard to get a yes to those things. But it doesn't mean it's felt all the way down and I want everyone to feel, I want every employee to be able to hold that place and feel like it represents their experience and until that's the case, I am going to keep working.

ANTONIO:

All right. Before the Pandemic, I was part of a team that organised several hackathons in Dublin focus on accessibility and we use the hackathons, not just as a place to find solutions but also a way to bring the community together and let the people could learn with each other by the fact that they were in hackathon. I know that you're organising one. Can you tell us about when it is going to happen? What is the purpose and how can people join and participate?

LAUREN:

Yes, I love this. So we are working closely with the Perkin's School for the blind and the innovation centre at the Perkin's School and How Innovation Centre at the Perkin's School for the blind and MIT Computer Science and Artificial Laboratory to host a hackathon for 150 technology students and Antonio, you're exactly right. While, we have eight innovation challenges, everything from Indoor Way finding to outdoor way finding, to emotional perception and this one of my favourites because when you work with individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, they may not hear the tone. And you can see a little bit of a high energy tone is how I communicate some things. So how can we use AI to translate tone and the critique part of this is, I think we are going to get a solution, I think we are going to get a successful prototype around one of these innovation challenges. What I am most excited about is the 150 students, who are going to come and learn more about the disability community, learn more about accessibility: right. This could be the next Andy Jackson sitting here and it's not all, we bringing in MBA students, we are bringing in computer science, you know, students of varying degrees and pursuits and that's what we need because for Amazon to be successful, it has to start at the top and it has to, you know come from the bottom or the middle where I am; right? It's going to take all of us to do this. So that's one of the things I will, you can go to the Perkin's School to find more information. The Perkin's School website. I can drop it into you all, to put up on your website, if you want. But it's February 25th, 23rd to 25th at Cambridge. But we are also bringing in 20 Amazonians of varying backgrounds to be mentors because I want them to learn and take what they learn back to what they do every day. That's how you change things. You immerse people.

NEIL:

Absolutely and we know that when you bring in those cross functional teams and they come together to innovate and problem solve and learn that you have really you know, got them for life.

LAUREN:

Yes.

NEIL:

Because once they have understood, you know you have got that passion and you grow that community. We've hit the buffers on our half hour.

LAUREN:

It goes quite fast.

NEIL:

So, good excuse for us to get you back again.

LAUREN:

Yes.

NEIL:

It's been a great pleasure. So it remains for me to say, thank you to our friends Amazon and My Cleartext for keeping us On Air, keeping us captioned and we really look forward to continuing the conversation on social media. Thank you very much Lauren.

DEBRA:

Thank you, Lauren.

LAUREN:

Yes. Thank you. Appreciate the time.

Disability Inclusion Efforts at Amazon
Accessibility and Listening to Disability Community
Amazon's Impact on Disabled Community
Disability Engagement & Accessibility Hackathon
Mentoring Program and Community Growth