Teaching organizations to listen: Q&A with HR tech founder Natalie Egan

"When employees feel seen and heard, valued and respected, they're more likely to be retained."

By Keph Senett

When Natalie Egan came out as transgender, she gained a new perspective on the world of technology and business. Where she’d once been a successful player in the tech space, easily raising capital to fund her ventures, she began to experience discrimination, bias and rejection. “Once I figured out the problem, I knew other people really needed help too.” she recalls.

Translator is Egan’s answer to this problem. Working in the diversity, equity and inclusion space (DEI), Translator leverages technology to make DEI training better for participants and more useful for organizations. And it works. Six years into the project, the company is seeing enthusiastic uptake from companies like Claire’s, CBS, PNC Bank and Paramount Global (formerly Viacom CBS).

“This is my second major venture capital-backed HR tech business startup,” the self-described serial entrepreneur says. “I’ve been trying to start businesses since I was a little kid. I joke that I’ve started over 500 businesses. I’ve always been trying to solve problems.”

What made you get into tech?

When I was a kid, all I really wanted to be was a mom. I couldn’t do that, so I ended up taking on this very masculine role. I had two older brothers, and my dad was very successful, so I felt like I had to follow their path. I think that’s probably why I got into business in the first place. It’s what I was “supposed” to do.

I was kind of a geeky kid. I was always into tech, but my career actually took me into hospitality. After getting my MBA, I transitioned my career back into technology and went to work for LinkedIn.

One of my teachers taught me that if you want to start your own business, go to work for a big company and figure out what they don’t want to do. Then go start a business that focuses on that smaller sector. That’s what I did. I left LinkedIn to start PeopleLinx, which helped companies use LinkedIn. We raised a couple million dollars, which at the time was a lot. We had 50 employees at the peak of our game, and then the business came crashing down, and my identity came down with it. I had built a skyscraper with no foundation.

How was the dissolution of your business connected to your identity?

My business and my marriage had fallen apart, and I felt like my life couldn’t get worse. That’s when I figured it out. I ended up coming out as a trans woman in 2016.

I didn’t think I’d ever work again, to be honest. Academically and theoretically, I knew what discrimination was, but I’d never actually experienced the sting of somebody accepting me because of how I look or feeling a threat to my physical or psychological safety just for being me.

I was coming from a background of a lot of privilege. I had presented to the world as a white, cisgender male with a lot of access and resources. I realize that this is how most people are experiencing the world unless they’re at the center of power, which I had been. It was a pretty eye-opening experience for me, and I decided that I was going to do something about it.

I was coming from a background of a lot of privilege. I had presented to the world as a white, cisgender male with a lot of access and resources. I realize that this is how most people are experiencing the world unless they’re at the center of power, which I had been.

—Natalie Egan, CEO and founder, Translator

What did you decide to do?

I started Translator and I officially announced the company on the same day I announced my transition publicly. I changed all my social media handles to Natalie. It was also my 20-year high school reunion [laughs]. I probably wouldn’t do it exactly the same way again.

I was trying to solve the bigger problem of inequity, trying to help people from all different identities and backgrounds and abilities to become more included and potentially—hopefully—celebrated.

At the time, DEI was totally archaic and antiquated. It was being done manually, and it was totally unscalable. There would be a trainer in a room with 50 people. There’s no technology behind it, there’s no way to measure it, there’s no way to scale it, and there’s no way to repeat it.

A prompt from Translator’s mobile app

What’s different about Translator’s DEI training?

Traditional in-person trainings have exercises built into them that are designed to enhance and amplify the learning experience and make you think about your own identity and your own lived experience. An example is the “walk of privilege.” The facilitator will line everybody up shoulder to shoulder and read statements like, “Step forward if both your parents went to college,” or “Step backward if you have a visible or invisible disability.” We digitize those exercises, so we’re eliminating a lot of the inefficient parts and adding all of these other great features like anonymity.

One way to think of Translator would be as a tech tool for DEI facilitators. We’re building technology so they can do their jobs more effectively.

So the technology isn’t replacing facilitators? There are still live facilitators delivering the training?

Absolutely. They’re critical.

How does this compare to in-person DEI sessions?

For participants, they have the ability to ask questions anonymously through the platform and provide feedback to the exercises. We have really good metrics to measure the success of the program, and the numbers are good. Ninety-seven percent of all participants either agree or strongly agree that these exercises have helped them develop more empathy. Ninety-six percent of white men would recommend this to their peers. I think this is because we have a unique approach that allows us to talk about these things without triggering people. That’s part of what the technology does. It takes a lot of the stigma out of it.

We also collect a ton of anonymous data, which is game-changing for our clients. The more employees go through it, the more they’re moving the needle and creating empathy. They also have more data about their employees’ lived experience, which is highly complementary to traditional HR data.

When employees feel seen and heard, valued and respected, they’re more likely to be retained and engaged, and refer their friends.

—Natalie Egan, CEO and founder, Translator

So the programming and exercises are aimed at creating empathy and equity, while the data is useful for the organizations in modifying their systems and processes to make theirs a better place to work.

Yes, DEI is obviously the right thing to do. But it’s also about retention. It’s about engagement. You can’t have empathy unless you have self-awareness, unless you understand your own identity and lived experience. It’s the foundation of empathy. Once you have that, you can start to understand other people. You have the ability to actually listen, right? Now you can hear. That same methodology applies to an organization. The company literally has to understand its own employees beyond just basic demographics. When employees feel seen and heard, valued and respected, they’re more likely to be retained and engaged, and refer their friends.

It becomes a flywheel. Our programs become a regular part of the culture of the organization, and that’s valuable because everyone actually develops empathy. Then the organization can use the data that comes out of the training to make better DEI decisions.

It sounds like you’re proposing a really long engagement with a client. It isn’t just an afternoon of exercises.

It should be a multi-year experience. There will be behavior change nearly immediately for people who go through the programming, but that doesn’t sustain unless it’s reinforced and supported. If you want to see culture change, it will have to be a multi-year commitment. Culture change is how we measure success. We have customers that are now entering their fourth, fifth or sixth year with us, and it’s remarkable. The language they speak is changed, the people look different. It’s just a different organization.

What’s next for you and for Translator?

We’re really focused on scaling right now. Our clients are saying they want their managers to be able to facilitate these sessions, so we’ve been working on an artificial intelligence video co-facilitator that supports the trainer. Then there’s a karaoke-type function that prompts trainers with what to say and when to say it. We want to make it easier for facilitators to facilitate, so we’re making a lot of really cool enhancements to the core of the product.