Breakthrough Champion: Kristine Biagiotti-Bridges on ability diversity as a path to innovation

How a Dell IT project manager helped shine a light on neurodiversity and inclusion to create lasting change.

By Sara Alvarez Kleinsmith, thought leadership, Dell Technologies

When Kristine Biagiotti-Bridges interviewed for Dell Technologies (then EMC) in 2003, she didn’t know her career journey would place her on a path to advocacy. But in her nearly 20 years with the company, she’s made an impact far beyond business. As the co-founder of the True Ability employee resource group (ERG) and Dell’s Neurodiversity Hiring Program, she’s used her life experiences to empower others to break through barriers in multiple meaningful ways.

Inspired by her daughter, Kayla, who has mitochondrial disease and Trio Gene Mutation, Biagiotti-Bridges has rallied to create policy change on a state and federal level, as well as within Dell, so that families can find the resources they need. She’s a Breakthrough Champion for her work as an advocate for the differently abled, the ongoing courage she’s possessed through adversity and her ability to balance a career and caretaking. She described what motivates her to create change and the support she’s relied on to help her succeed.

Can you talk about the beginning of your career journey at Dell?

Members of Dell’s True Ability ERG at DisabilityIN Conference 2022

I came to Dell (EMC) in 2003 as a contractor as part of the technical publications’ organization. I had been approached by someone who told me that Dell had an opening. They thought I’d be a great fit. But I was apprehensive because I had a young, medically complex child who frequently needed care—sometimes in a hospital. I was very upfront about my personal situation. I told them I had a daughter with special needs, and that I needed flexibility. I shared about my life because I didn’t want them to be surprised once they hired me.

This was the early 2000s, when it was progressive for any company to provide this kind of flexibility to employees, regardless of the circumstances. But the hiring managers told me they believed I could do the job, and they’d make it work. In 2005, I became a full-time employee, and a month later, my husband died tragically and unexpectedly. I then had to learn how to be a single, full-time working mother of a medically complex child. The support of the company was instrumental in helping me stay on track in my personal and professional life, as all of Kayla’s care was dependent on me.

What led to the creation of the True Ability ERG?

Because of the flexibility and support Dell provided, my career was going well. In 2009, I moved from the engineering space to supporting software development from the IT perspective. But there was a need for a place where people could collectively go to find the resources they needed. If an employee had a family member who had an illness or disability and needed support or information, we wanted to be able to provide that. So, we started True Ability.

In the beginning, it started out as a small grassroots group of people sharing a like interest, and it quickly grew to something bigger than that. We did a lot to help shape our benefits. We asked what our employees and their families needed and how we could provide better support as an organization. As True Ability grew, so did our relationships with community partners like HMEA, the Arc of the Capital Area, and Neurodiversity in the Workplace.

How did Dell’s Neurodiversity Training Program begin? Can you talk about the impact it’s had on the hiring process?

In 2009, I met my husband, Brian. We got married in 2014. He has two boys who became my stepsons. At the time, my stepson Matthew was four. He’s on the autism spectrum. He’s verbal and curious, but I saw his struggles in the traditional education system. He and Kayla inspired me to think about their future, and what can be done to support these kids as they grow older and enter the workforce.

The traditional hiring process is intimidating for neurotypical people, so just imagine what it’s like if you’re differently abled. I approached our executive leadership and began to ask questions about our interview process when it comes to neurodiversity. We sought to make that process better. Rather than having to sell yourself in a two-hour interview, the program is a skill-based hiring model that allows candidates to showcase their skills through project work rather than the traditional interview. Through that alternative interview experience, we also learn about how they work best to ensure that they’re set up for success when they’re hired on, as well as how they prefer to be managed.

We learned from our community partners, who came in and learned about Dell’s culture and how we could create a program that would provide accommodations to our traditional hiring program. Now Dell is known as a tech leader that prioritizes finding talent among the neurodiverse with specialized onboarding processes.

According to Dell’s Breakthrough Study, there are four types of working styles. Can you talk about how neurodiversity can serve organizations and how leaders can support all employees to innovate?

I think of one of our program’s first hires, CJ Surrett. Not only are they neurodiverse, but they’ve also experienced some vision loss. They are self-taught and very intelligent. CJ joined a software development team and brought a different perspective on how to do things. Their manager assigned them a project he thought would take six weeks. CJ was able to do it in two weeks. You never know what people are capable of until you meet them where they are. Innovation can take place if people are prioritized.

As far as what leaders can do, it’s important to remember that not all disabilities are visible. Not all disabilities are permanent. A mother with postpartum depression returning from maternity leave may need extra support. It’s the same for someone who’s suffered a head injury from a car accident. Leaders must practice not only empathy— feeling for someone else—they must always practice compassion—putting that empathy into action by helping their people get what they need. Whether the need is patience, more training or better communication, it’s important to consider special abilities as a part of what makes someone who they are. And who they are is a person who can add value to your company culture and your ability to innovate as an organization.

What advice would you give to other working caretakers or family members on how to find support and excel in their careers?

The first thing I recommend is communication. I’ve worked for this company since my daughter was eight years old. She’s 27 now. This long tenure began when I told my managers and coworkers what my personal life was like. I leaned on them for help and communicated my needs clearly. This set expectations and allowed us to collaborate more effectively.

The second thing is education. I’ve made it my mission to educate myself and others about special abilities. My experience and struggle have lit a fire within me to change the status quo, hoping to make lives easier for people like Kayla and Matthew. Educating organizations, people and leaders by sharing our story and information about disabilities will change how we do things—for good.

Finally, use the resources available to you. Whether it’s an ERG, a support group or a lending hand—don’t go through things alone. Rely on those around you to help get you through. Step away once in a while. Go for a walk. Read a book. Take time for yourself. Find your people—the people who share your passions and can support you in what you’re going through. And if you’re able to, support others through what you’ve experienced. That way, the good grows.

Breakthrough Champions is a series on Perspectives profiling ordinary Dell employees doing amazing things to advance digital transformation. The series is inspired by Dell’s “Breakthrough” platform and the belief that progress happens at the intersection of people and technology.