Wendy Hanson 0:24
Welcome everyone. So happy to have you here today. And I am exceptionally excited today, because we're going to be talking about individual and teams around the world that have tough road in many instances since the since the pandemic began. We all have had some tough times, but there are other groups that have really been challenged. Whether your teams are fully remote hybrid or heading back to the office, it's been a challenge for everyone. We often don't see the mental health issues such as strength, stress and anxiety that our team members are facing. And I think this has been a huge part of the pandemic issues. Today. I am so grateful to talk with a fabulous CEO who has led many tech content and product teams in her career. Tara mais passion in her new role at Aspiritech has brought together all her experiences as she builds this organization, which focuses on the talents of neurodiverse employees. Let me tell you a little bit about Tara before I bring her on. Tara started as CEO of Aspiritech in April 2022. Prior to joining Tara was EVP of media and Chief Digital Officer at wind site, as well as VP of content and product strategy for patch media. She helped launch 900 Hot hyperlocal sites for the AOL network, as well as a digital local news product for Chicago Tribune. Tara's career is focused on using technology and product innovation to drive growth. She is a sought after speaker on user experience and digital transformation. She's overseeing large and small teams with a focus on career development, and leading with kindness. She resides in Lake County, with her husband and teen and tween children. She is personally committed to embracing neuro diversity in all aspects of her work and life. Welcome, Tara, so great to have you here.
Tara May 2:31
Thank you, Wendy. I'm excited to be here. And a little bit
Wendy Hanson 2:35
of full disclosure, you and I have actually had a past life together at patch and AOL and have worked together. So I have, I've been so fortunate to be able to know you for such a long time and admire you. And so I'm really so pleased with the the leadership that you're taking in this field right now.
Tara May 2:54
Well, thank you, Wendy. Your leadership coaching changed my life. And I'm not just saying that I tell people that regularly.
Wendy Hanson 3:00
Oh, well, thank you. And we even worked with you more at BetterManager, you know, in your last iteration. So all as well. Yes. So Tara, tell us about Aspiritech, how you join the organization. And what makes it so unique.
Tara May 3:18
Aspiritech is a fantastic, incredibly unique organization, as you say, it's part business part nonprofit. So it's business in the way that it operates almost completely on client revenue, with people on the spectrum, doing quality assurance, testing, data services, accessibility testing, and other tech services. It's nonprofit, by tax status, and by mission, in that more than 90% of our team members are on the autism spectrum. So we hire people, specifically with with autism, and we teach them quality assurance. We give them training on the projects that we're doing, whether they're data services, or accessibility, and then they're employed for us doing client work just like any other business. So it's a little bit of a hybrid model. We're also unique and we'll talk a little bit more about this throughout the podcast, in that we have an entire team devoted to mental health in the workplace as part of our organization. So it's very cool. I'm very passionate about it. I'm brand new. I've only been CEO for about four months. I've taken over for the incredible founders who grew this organization from their kitchen table into a $6 million business with their son at the heart of it. They were really looking for employment for him, and I understood that he was capable of so much more than he was doing at his current job. They modeled this after a Danish company, and it grew and grew in America and is increasing credibly successful today. And they were ready to retire. They had put in 15 years and devoted their lives and are having a well deserved retirement at this point. And I'm so excited to be the person that was chosen to take it to its next level.
Wendy Hanson 5:16
Well, I love your passion for both for both the business side and the passion for the people, because you do lead with kindness. And this is a really important piece. Now, since you've joined as the CEO, how has business been like? What are you noticing? Because some companies are going up and down and, and are your team's remote hybrid? How does that all work?
Tara May 5:39
So the pandemic was difficult on Aspiritech, like it was difficult for all organizations, revenue took a hit. And we had to move from an in person model to a completely remote model overnight in March of 2020. So you can imagine all the challenges that came with that, because everyone had to experience that it was craziness for all of us. But since then, we have been thriving in the post pandemic world. And I think, you know, if you can say one good thing came out of this crazy COVID-19 experience, which I hate to say. But if you can, it would be this changing notion of what work can look like. And so for us moving to remote, and now embracing hybrid has been incredibly meaningful, because for many autistic team members, this means they have a better life experience, they're better able to focus at home, they're better able to take care of their own mental health needs at home, they don't have to put in a painful and expensive commute in many cases. So I think this is true for people in the workforce all over America and the world. I wouldn't call it exclusively an issue that neurodivergent people deal with. But I would say it's exacerbated in their case. And so it was wonderful for us to understand that they could thrive in a hybrid environment and continue to give them the flexibility to work wherever they're the happiest and most productive. Yeah,
Wendy Hanson 7:16
I think it's so true that this has happened to so many companies. And in many ways, people are really I like this new world the way it is, you know?
Tara May 7:25
Wendy Hanson 7:29
It is, I can't imagine how we would run BetterManager a global company, if we have, we have like one co working space for our program team on the East Coast. And then we go to once a week, you know, and that's it. And so many companies and individuals have experienced this. So we need to understand and and for the folks that are in your company, boy, it's really makes much make such a difference. It makes
Tara May 7:54
such a difference. And I would add to for for working parents, right? I mean, I'm an executive who often puts in 1011 hour days. And I'm not saying that to brag, I don't think that's a point of bragging. But what I can do now as a parent is, you know, skip an hour to go to their tech camp or see their play, or whatever it might be, and continue to put in those hours. As soon as I get back. Right. I'm not commuting back and forth. And it just makes me so much better of a parent and Oh, leader.
Wendy Hanson 8:26
Yes, yes. Great point. Now, why is it important that everybody really understand neuro diversity from any company? And what are you learning that would help other folks? Because I know there are, you know, there are folks in every company, and we just haven't identified them nor nor even provided enough resources for them.
Tara May 8:48
And I think even the word neurodiversity probably needs a little bit of explanation for some people, because it's a new term. And the vernacular is constantly evolving and changing. So neurodiversity refers to this idea, right? That everyone has different kinds of brains, everyone's brain works differently. And some people's brains work. So outside what we consider quote unquote, typical that that we then refer to them as neuro divergent. Neuro divergent means things like having ADHD, having or being on the autism spectrum, right. And so you're so outside of quote unquote, typical that you're neuro divergent. And then, for us, specifically, we're talking about employees on the autism spectrum. So why is it important to understand neurodiversity? Now that we've done a little bit of defining the word, it's, to me, part of the breadth of the human experience, and we should work hard as workplaces and as humans and as members of society, to understand the full breadth of the human experience. Identity so complex, whether it's your racial identity, your socioeconomic status, or how your brain works, we are all complex, nuanced humans. And we are humans 24 hours a day, including in the workplace. So the more a professional environment can understand and be understanding of the complexity of being human, and everything that means that we take to work with us every day, the happier and more productive we can help our team members be. And as leaders, that's part of our responsibility. So I view embracing neurodiversity as part of embracing all kinds of diversity, and all the intersections of identity that make us who we are. Now, that said, specifically with neuro diversity, it is increasingly diagnosed and understood that one in 45 people are on the spectrum. So you probably have people on the spectrum, or people with ADHD, or any kind of neuro divergence in your workplace right now, whether you know it, or you don't, some people are comfortable disclosing it, and others aren't. But if you can understand how to help all sorts of brains, and all sorts of people be successful, that is going to help your organization overall. And so I think it's an incredibly important learning, and I hope that that neurodiversity language becomes more and more commonplace in the future.
Wendy Hanson 11:36
Yes, and, and for people to understand the spectrum itself is huge, from people that are diagnosed with autism and those that that really, you would never be able to guess that somebody was on the spectrum. You know, except maybe some behaviors that might show up versus somebody who, I have a background in special education for 20 years. So we back then it was really, you know, we were wondering, why are all these people all of a sudden getting diagnosed. And now, thank you for that 145.
Tara May 12:08
And it is a spectrum for a reason. And it is a wide spectrum, right. And for a lot of people, it means a lot of different things. Some people on the spectrum are incredibly social. Some people on this spectrum are introverts. Some people on the spectrum are highly visual, others are very sensitive to sound, right? So it means a million different things and manifests itself a million different ways. And so for us to make assumptions about what it means for one person doesn't work. One of my favorite quotes, it's a saying that goes, if you've met one person on the spectrum, you've met one person on the spectrum. And isn't that true of all of us? If you've met Wendy Hanson, you've met Wendy Hanson. Right? We're all individuals, and we're all complex.
Wendy Hanson 12:57
Yeah. Great point. Yes. Now, your company has has created even prior to your coming because of its wonderful founders. And it was great to hear that story has created many practices around mental health, to support the people that you work with. And you know, you have teams, you have everything. Give us give us a rundown of some of the services that you provide that enables people to be so good at their jobs so that other companies can look at that and say, maybe we need to do some of this mental health support. So I want
Tara May 13:33
to give a shout out here to Brenda and motional Whitesburg who are the founders who put so much of this in place. Because I walked in the door, Wendy, after 20 years in the for profit world 20 plus years, I don't want to age myself here. thought, oh my gosh, these practices, these things that they're doing to support their team members at Aspiritech are things every company in the world should be doing. So kudos to them for, you know, leading the way in what mental health practices could look like in the workplace. So I'll talk about a couple of them. I won't go on and on because I could. But one of the most fundamental things that we do is we have a support team. We call them employment support specialists. There are five of them on our team. So you can imagine for 125 ish employees, there are five support specialists. So it's a ratio of about one support specialists for every 25 team members. And their job solely, is to support employees to support mental health in the workplace, to check in with them to be there when they give outreach and say I need help with something. Sometimes it's technical support. You know, I'm having trouble with my computer doing this or I don't understand what's being asked of me on this project. Sometimes it's personal support. This is happening in my personal life, and it's affecting me today and I'm having trouble concentrating. Sometimes it's anxiety. Sometimes it's being overwhelmed. Sometimes it's having trouble focusing. It's all the things that impact us all every day, except for we create a space where someone can talk about it. And that's so imperative to mental health, just having the safety and the space to be able to talk about it. Another thing these team members do that I think is just so so incredible leadership is a survey goes out every morning to all the employees, it only has one question on it. And the question is, how is stress impacting your day today, and you rated on a scale of zero to five. Now, if someone says a four or five, they immediately get a check in. Now, I saw this and thought, well, that's a great practice for a spear tech. But I should have been doing that with my team members for years. Because, of course, I want to know if stress is impacting their day, I want to know if something personal that's happening to them is making it hard for them to do their job that day. I want to know if stress at work is causing problems, and maybe I can do something to eliminate it or to help overcome those obstacles. I thought, gosh, that is just the most incredible practice.
Wendy Hanson 16:31
And all managers could be asking that question on their team, you know, absolutely. Because this isn't something the ratio in HR, like working with folks just doesn't allow for that kind of interaction, it's a, it's a great thing for a manager to be able to do to really connect with somebody.
Tara May 16:52
Absolutely, I think it's an incredible management and leadership practice. One other thing that we have in our in office workspace, is a sensory break room. So we have a quiet, softly lit place where someone can go have a few minutes of privacy. It has pillows, it has a massage chair, it has fidget toys, it has a lamp that you can turn down as low as you like, it has blankets. So if you need to escape for a few minutes, have a few minutes to yourself because you're anxious or overwhelmed or need to take a difficult phone call, or because a client drove you absolutely crazy, which doesn't that all happened to us. Sometimes you have a space where you can do that and get away from the hubbub of the office for a minute. So I think that's one of the important things we do. The other thing we do, is really have a lot of social programs built into our workplace. So we really try to create a sense of community, for our team members. This is important in every workplace, but it's especially important at Aspiritech, I did a listening tour with all of our employees. So I spent half an hour with each and every team member to meet them as part of starting as CEO. And one of the things I heard over and over again, was how important it was that these team members were able to work with other people like them. And over and over again, Wendy, I heard, this is the first place I ever felt like I fit in. And isn't it important, so important for all of us to have that place in the world where we feel like we fit in.
Wendy Hanson 18:44
And I believe that there are people out there, I know this that are not on the spectrum that don't feel like they fit in, you know. And so we need to take these kinds of what some companies might look as radical moves, to be able to make sure that everybody feels that way. Because if we feel like we're part of a community, we feel safe, we have a voice, even when we're not doing good. There's somebody we can share that with that makes a big difference on productivity, you know, if you want to think of just productivity, you can help that so much by being able to engage in some of these activities with folks.
Tara May 19:20
I completely agree Wendy and I had this fantastic conversation with a researcher in Australia, who looked at neurodiversity, but also looked at all sorts of kinds of identity in the workplace. And he said, he told me that he had conducted this wide study that showed that women often walk into a workplace and don't feel like they fit in. And that that really affects their productivity, their happiness level, their engagement level. They look around and they see men in leadership. They don't feel like they're part of the culture, and they end up leaving, and I thought that was so That's so incredible to hear. And he said, you know, that mirrors itself in neurodiversity, it mirrors itself in gender identity, and people who consider themselves either trans or non binary. And he said, you know, across all three of those kinds of identity, people walk into a room and just feel automatically, like they're not part of the culture. And I know everyone in every workplace has someone who is LBGT, neurodivergent, or a woman? Absolutely, they do.
Wendy Hanson 20:39
Yeah. I love that you brought that up, because I think this will have people understand a little better, because we know that women don't feel you know, really fit in many times in the workplace and for for people to get their mind around this. Wow, we've got this problem in a in a number of places. So reiterate like, what's the benefit for companies like to follow a model like yours of really being able to open up to mental health and provide support? What's the benefit?
Tara May 21:10
Well, I'll talk about this in a really pragmatic way, I'll move to my business side of my brain a little bit. Fundamentally, as business leaders, we are taught, and it is ingrained in us to think about return on investment. How does this move the needle in terms of both revenue and profit and growth. And one of the things I've learned and led the way in, in my career is, every company in the world today is a digital company. Now, we're all being asked to move at the pace of digital. If you are standing, still you are falling behind. And so companies are working hard and investing in creating cultures of growth and innovation. You have to constantly be innovating. You have to constantly be evolving. Team members only innovate, innovate and evolve and grow. If they feel safe, we talk about failing fast. A lot of times as leaders fail fast, move fast, try things. But people don't try things if they're in a culture where fingers get pointed, where blame is placed, where mental health is not valued and appreciated, because human beings aren't valued and appreciated. So if you want your company to have higher profits, higher revenue, new products, growth and innovation, and tell me a leader, Wendy, who doesn't want all those things, then care about mental health in the workplace, care about your team members create an environment where they not only fail fast, but when they fail, you cheer them on, pick them up and send them on their next adventure. That is the kind of workplaces where people thrive, ideas thrive, and successes found.
Wendy Hanson 23:07
Yes. And I think that's the kind of workplace we all want to be part of. That's kind of workplace I want to be part of. Absolutely. And we need to learn some lessons from this, because you know, even so many companies are not doing it. And you also talk about, which is so related to this a culture of kindness. How does that fit in?
Tara May 23:32
Well, I'll tell you one way it fits in. When I was in the corporate environment, when I would talk about a culture of kindness or people would see the way I treated my employees. I would sometimes get pushback, right? Not from everyone, but certain people. I mean, I remember one older male employee sort of looking at me condescendingly and saying, Well, I have high expectations for my team members. And I said, I have incredibly high expectations for my team members ask them, I expect them to speak up with ideas, I expect them to move quickly. I expect them to innovate. I expect them to bring their best. But when they mess up, I say that's okay. Let's not talk about whose fault it was. Let's talk about how we prevent it going forward. Let's talk about how we lift each other up. Let's talk about how we create more space for more growth and innovation. Rather than put each other down, disparage each other. One of the most interesting studies I read I believe it was the Harvard Business Review was that negative feedback almost never does any good. It either tells people to be resentful, or it tells them not to try that or not to do that again. but it doesn't tell them what to do. I found Wendy that usually people want to be successful in their jobs, they want to do a great job. So what we should do with feedback is flip it on its head, tell people what we want them to do, and then praise them when they do it. And they go above and beyond when they think of new things that we didn't think of praise is infinitely more powerful than criticism. And if more leaders understood that business would move faster and better, but that culture of kindness would also result in profits and growth. And I think fundamentally, we need to embrace that idea. If we want to create a more progressive workplace, and a happier one for people, people overall. That's why I talk about a culture of kindness. I think it matters. So so much,
Wendy Hanson 25:55
Tara and I agree with you 1,000%. Because I think we have as managers and leaders, kind of a tool in our toolkit that doesn't always come out, which is the praise, and the, what I really appreciate about what you did was this, even when something didn't go, right, and being able to call that out, catch people in education, we used to be like, catch people catch kids doing it, right, you know, instead of doing it wrong, and that's if we had more of that, then I know what I did was something that was you know, when you talk to one of your team members and say, What I loved is that you did this, you know, we know all know, our the dopamine goes up, and we're able to say, ah, that felt good. So I want more of that, you know, because and that's what you're creating in the environment that you work in.
Tara May 26:48
And it's scientific rights. I mean, it's Pavlovian. What is rewarded is repeated. So why don't we reward people, you know, little things I used to send people when I saw a lot of potential in them, I would send them one of my favorite leadership books with an inscribed notes, you know, saying I see so much potential in you. And I helped people go from $40,000 a year individual performers, to executives, leading a company forward, that is something special, there is something rewarding in that. But it's also darn good business. Yeah.
Wendy Hanson 27:22
Yeah. And that book sat on their desk, they were they had it all the time. It inspired them, whatever it was, because you cared enough to make that move. And those little things. Yeah, I know those little things make a difference. Ah, and what about recruiting? How was recruiting different for Aspiritech maybe than other companies. So one of
Tara May 27:48
the things that's unique about Aspiritech is that people on the spectrum are often either unemployed or underemployed. Their skill sets aren't valued, in part because the interview process caters to neurotypical people. So at Aspiritech, we don't have a labor crisis. Like many other industries, right now, we have an abundance of people who would love to do this work and be part of our organization. So we have a pipeline of candidates waiting to come in. We're also expanding geography geographically, because of this new embracing the hybrid model notion that we're taking on. So that opens up the door for us to give meaningful employment to people on the spectrum, hopefully, from all 50 states one day. So you can always go to our website, Aspiritech.org. We accept applications, we have a non traditional onboarding process, we do a two week academy where people can both train for the skills and see if they like the work. We truly believe interviewing should be a two way process where we're found finding out if you're right for us, and you're finding out if we're right for you. And so recruiting is unique and interesting, and in my opinion, awesome at Aspiritech, and you can absolutely check it out if you know someone on the spectrum who is interested in work, or if you think your talents and skill sets, even as a neurotypical person could lend themselves to helping us grow our organization.
Wendy Hanson 29:22
That's great. Yeah. What, what a different perspective, even I love the two way interview, you know, everybody needs to have that thought in their head that how are we going to get chosen as the company of choice, and I think we're doing that more because we're feeling a little more depth, desperate at times to bring people on? Absolutely. So what should I have asked you that I didn't ask, you know, what did we cover that you think is important?
Tara May 29:51
Well, you're a wonderful interviewer. So I don't know that you skipped anything important. But I would say that I would love to give a little pitch for what Aspiritech does in case anybody out there could use our services, or believes in our mission. So Aspiritech provides quality assurance testing, both for audio and equipment and devices, as well as software websites, apps. So if you're looking for on shore QA, we're a great resource. We also do accessibility testing for websites, which is so important for both ethical and legal reasons, right, you want people to be able to access your digital tools, if they have disabilities. And so we do testing to make sure it's friendly for that, but also compliance with national laws so that you don't get sued, which is great. And we also provide a wide array of data services. So whether that's data migrations, data, normalizations, looking at your Salesforce instance and doing cleanup, that sort of thing, if you have a project that could use some data organization, where your people, so we provide a lot of on demand services, as well as staff augmentation. So if you just need to bring someone on to help for a few months, we do project based work, as well as long term work. So always happy to hear from someone who needs those services, or someone who believes in our mission cares about meaningful employment for people on the spectrum. And just once a capabilities presentation, we're happy to do those as well and just figure out what the best way to work together is,
Wendy Hanson 31:33
Oh, that's great. It gives such a such a spectrum of opportunities that that people can use, so that they can come back to you. There's so much q&a Work out there, and being able to have a resource like yours, and that that just is wonderful.
Tara May 31:51
I love dropping in the spectrum puns, Wendy?
Wendy Hanson 31:55
Yeah, that was the only word that could come to me at that moment. Yes. Given our conversation, so Tara, I know that there are many people that are going to want to learn more and talk to you. So give us give us a sense of what's the best way to reach out and learn more. And if they want to have a conversation with you maybe as a speaker and talk about that too.
Tara May 32:15
Absolutely. I love to talk about mental health in the workplace. I love to talk about neurodiversity. The best way to hit me up is my email, Tara dot May at Aspiritech.org. But you can also visit our website and we have a contact us form. And it is checked daily. So we will absolutely get back to you quickly Aspiritech.org is our site. And I'm sure since it's difficult to spell Wendy, you'll make it available for people to be able to check it out.
Wendy Hanson 32:42
Yeah, yes, yes, we'll have all of that in the show notes so that people will be able to look it up. Yes, and other social media links and things. And we'll we'll have this up on LinkedIn so that people will be able to find you.
Tara May 32:56
Fantastic. Thank you for having me today.
Wendy Hanson 32:59
Oh, thank you this was so this is such an important conversation on so many levels. So on behalf of everybody at BetterManager, I appreciate what you do and what you're doing for the world and what your team is doing. And your business is going to just keep growing and growing. Because the intentions are just unbelievably good and important and are going to help us in the future. So thank you, Tara. Thank you, Wendy. All right, everyone. This is really, I hope you are really listening to this and really can can take some forward steps in terms of your company and how we need to talk about mental health because there are so many ways that we can help do things that will help people be happier at work and therefore more productive. So if you have any questions for me or want to learn more about BetterManager, please send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org Or just go on to our contact page on the BetterManager site. And looking forward to bringing you more wonderful people to talk about how we're going to make a difference in the world and how to be better managers. So thank you again, Tara. Have a great day, everyone. Thank you.