In Conversation with Dr. Akilah Cadet
The founder and CEO of Change Cadet is transforming workplace culture and effecting positive change one company at a time by insisting that everyone, “Be uncomfortable. Do the work.”
It is inspiring and rare to meet someone who you know made a huge impact on multiple lives earlier that day, and is going to head out the next day to do the very same thing. Dr. Akilah Cadet is one of those people, and I am honored to call her a friend. As the founder and CEO of Change Cadet, an organization that provides a broad range of services to individuals and companies that support anti-racism, diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging, she took the discrimination she experienced in the workplace and set out to try and ensure that it didn’t happen to others. The powerful tagline on the Change Cadet website reads, “Be uncomfortable. Do the work.” Her understanding of the challenge inherent in unlearning something that you might not even know you know, coupled with her bravery and honesty has helped my own team to do the work. She is also the chief creative officer at REP CO (Represent Collaborative), a storytelling collaborative that gives greater voice to Black and BIPOC stories across major media platforms, beautifully capturing the many ways activism can manifest.
As you’ll see, she is someone who has such clarity around what her work in this world is, and, luckily for all of us, is determined to show up for that calling every day. I’m excited to share our conversation and grateful you are here for it.
You and I know each other through your work and your workshops. I would love for you to explain a bit about your work for our community.
So, a little bit about me. I am Dr. Akilah Cadet in the streets, but I'm also just Akilah. I am the founder and CEO of Change Cadet. We are an organizational development consulting firm that specializes in diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and anti-racism. We do everything from restructuring to crisis management and recovery. My company is six years old. It is my second favorite child after my dog, Marley, who's sleeping on the floor behind me. We work with companies and nonprofits all over the world, including Vintner’s Daughter.
Having worked with so many organizations, has there been a client or situation that you found most challenging?
The most challenging clients are the ones who are performative, so their actions and words aren't matching. They’ll say, “We are so excited to do this.” Then we come in and use our slogan, “Do the work.” They're like, “Oh, no. Not like that. Actually, what can you do for my comfort?” We work exclusively with leaders and executives, and it can be a struggle for some to use their power for good. If they feel that things are uncomfortable for them, the tendency is to retreat into a place of comfort for their benefit, even though they hired us to make sure that women, LGBTQ+, BIPOC, Black, Indigenous and people of color have an opportunity to grow and thrive in their company. Those are the most difficult clients to work with.
How do you approach that? What do you do?
Well, we practice what we teach our clients: accountability, communication and transparency. We teach our clients how to act as a leader, act as an employee, act as a person, act with each other. We model that. I'm very transparent in saying, “Hey, it's very clear that you don't want to do this. And if you don't want to do what we've agreed upon then you're only going to get this far. If you're only going to go this far, which is just performative, you have to communicate that to your workforce because you did this whole pomp and circumstance of Change Cadet's coming, or Dr. Cadet is going to be on this project, and then you do nothing. That is not me, that is you.”
They have to take ownership of that. I would say 90% of the time that's where a light bulb will come on, and then we can make change. Sometimes we'll pause for things to get aligned and then go back into making change. We've probably had maybe, in the six years, two clients just be like, “We can't do this. We just can't,” and walk away. That hurts in the sense that the employees were hopeful of something and we do our best to provide recommendations. We also encourage them to come back. We will encourage the people who are leading the work but may not have all the power, so the chief of people and culture, HR, chief of diversity, when they just see these roadblocks with the CEO or COO or whomever it is. We try to encourage them as much as possible because we don't want them to regress. But overall, people are open and willing to embrace patience along with the change that needs to happen for the leadership, the team, the culture, the consumer.
And you're a resource at every step.
Yes. So, the way we work is that we have four main pillars. One is strategy. That can mean we're doing a survey for them, or we can do focus groups. We can do an audit of policies, practices, procedures. We can help them develop either a diversity roadmap or overall strategic plan. Then the second is that we do executive coaching. Executive coaching is super important because leaders have the most power, and when leaders have the most power, they can create and enact the most change. If they're role modeling the behavior, if they're doing things and holding people accountable, it shifts the whole culture. So, we do that for executives individually and as teams. Then, the third one is we talk a lot and facilitate discussions. We'll do workshops and a keynote speaker to help with shifting ideas and mindset. And the fourth, my favorite thing to do, is crisis management and crisis recovery. That usually starts with, “Uh-oh, we did something bad,” either internally, externally or both. We help them recover and heal from that, and that can turn into strategy or that can turn into coaching.
I bet you're so good at that. So, we just completed The Nudge. Can you explain what The Nudge is, which literally anyone can participate in. I thought it was amazing and my only complaint is that it ended.
Oh yay. Good. And good news, I'm also launching my own educational platform so there will be other ways to continually learn, which will be out in the next couple of months. So, a couple of things here. We, as a company, acknowledge that we have to find lots of different ways for people to learn and unlearn. Learning we all know. But unlearning is letting go of what you thought was true. A lot of us have a lot of unlearning to do because a lot of the stuff we learned in school from K-12, or for those of us who were privileged enough to go to college, there's a lot that we didn't know. We are recording this after the Fourth of July. A lot of people didn't know the history around the Fourth of July. So, there's a lot of unlearning.
We also wanted to provide opportunities for autonomous learning, for people to do it in bite sizes and to do it in a place that made them feel comfortable and safe to lean in, learning how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. The Nudge reached out to us and we created The Ally Nudge, which is a four-week program. You receive a couple text messages during the week, an AM text message that is an educational prompt and a PM text message on the same day that's an action prompt of what you can do about the thing you just learned about, and it is something you can do within the week. Neither The Nudge or Change Cadet had ever done anything like this before and people were excited about it. Some people formed book clubs, using the content to come together and talk to friends and family.
We, as a company, acknowledge that we have to find lots of different ways for people to learn and unlearn. Learning we all know. But unlearning is letting go of what you thought was true.
Do you feel your work has always been valued and accepted?
Absolutely not. I always get the question, “Why did you start Change Cadet?” I'm like, spoiler alert, I was discriminated against in the workplace. I was discriminated against either as a woman, as a black person, as a black woman, as someone who's funny and attractive. It got to the point where I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder from the harassment, discrimination and bullying I was experiencing. I knew I had to find another place to work, which I did, but unfortunately, I ended up having a racist, sexist boss. A white male who looked at me in a one-on-one meeting and said, “I didn't think you were that smart when I interviewed you, but you are smart.” This is in a doctoral preferred position and me as an executive at a really big organization being told that. My predecessor had a doctorate as well, so it was nothing new. I asked him, “Why did you say that? That is offensive and hurtful and I'm going to need to rebuild my trust with you.” I knew what I needed as far as boundaries and a healthy work environment because of the toxicity of the previous one. His response was firing me the next week. I had never been fired in my life. It was pretty awful.
At that point I knew that there was a risk of going back into a toxic environment. For anyone who's been there, it is a horrifying place to be. I had started Change Cadet after leaving my previous job because of discrimination and harassment. So, I thought, “Okay. Well, I'm almost a doc. (I was finishing school at the time.) Will people pay me as a pretend doc?” And the answer was, yes. I was doing little projects here and there and then I decided to take a chance on myself and leaned in fully to build this business full-time.
And what year was that?
That was six years ago, so 2015. I cashed out 95% of my retirement and funded myself until I was able to get some projects going.
I imagine this work can be incredibly energy zapping. How do you take care of yourself? How do you re-energize and recharge?
I have some pretty strong boundaries. For one, I don't work on Fridays, so I have a four-day work week. In this type of work, we're dealing with change, so there’s a lot of resistance there, since people generally don't like change. People who are open to change are like, “That's outside of my control. So, all I can do is control my feelings and emotions. All I can do is show up in a way I can show up.” Which is another part of boundaries in doing this work because we deal with organizational change. We also deal with diversity and anti-racism. Another important thing that I do for self care is I will not tolerate any type of disrespect. I've had clients who have been very disrespectful and I make it very clear that that's not okay. And then I no longer work with them. I either terminate the contract or other people on my team will work with them. The last thing I do is basically one day a week, Sunday, no one can talk to me. I'm literally on my couch all day and I will binge watch something.
What was the last thing you binged?
Hacks on HBO, which is pretty great.
When you think about beauty, what pops up for you?
When I think about beauty, I think about confidence. Beauty isn't always a space where confidence is in the forefront, but beauty honestly is what you make it. I have worn stuff that people don't understand, but it's bringing me joy and I'm confident in it. And I feel great and I look great. It could be a lip color, it could be a sweater, or glasses. Whatever it is, it’s for me. Beauty is something I do for myself and no one else.
Exactly. I think about this a lot because of the world I'm in and the aspects of it that I do not want to participate in. So much is just there to create fear and insecurity and to sell you more stuff. The reality is, beauty is what you just defined, that innate confidence, that innate sense of self-worth no matter what. I love that. How have you gotten there?
I identify as a woman so I've done all of the things, like thinking I should probably lose weight or should dress a certain way. But I was doing that for other people. Then six years ago my twin, who I had lived with for seven years, moved. She has a different look than me, but she's always put together. When she left I missed her, and I started leaning into fashion and being more expressive. It was a way to have her with me. I would send her pictures saying, “What do you think of this?” And she'd say, “I like it, but try this shoe.” It was a way to stay connected. The more I expressed myself through how I presented myself, either through what I wore or my approach to beauty, the more I was able to lean into being my true, authentic self. I was able to realize that I'm actually creative.
Beauty isn't always a space where confidence is in the forefront, but beauty honestly is what you make it. Beauty is something I do for myself and no one else.
I'm glad you did. Tell me about the beautiful film project that you produced.
That was The Black Truth Project. I am an ambassador for Lululemon and it was a project they sponsored that I did in collaboration with my other job as the chief creative officer of Represent Collaborative, a storytelling platform that highlights Black and BIPOC voices through partnerships with your favorite media outlets. I had this idea of having real, dope black people tell their story, the good and not so great, about being black in America. We all came together to do The Black Truth Project.
The content is extraordinary and it's beautiful storytelling too.
Okay, time for the quick fire questions. What is something that people would be surprised to learn about you?
That's a tie. Either that I'm a twin or that I have a disability. I have what’s called coronary artery spasms. My body thinks it's having a heart attack everyday so it mimics the symptoms of a heart attack, shortness of breath, chest pain, numbness on my left side. I was also recently diagnosed with Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, or EDS, a rare connective tissue disorder where joints don't work properly. I'm sure you've seen me walking with a cane at times and that's because either my knee or my ankle, or both, don't want to work that day.
What would be your dream holiday destination?
A tropical island somewhere. I am Caribbean and we do love the tropics. And I would stay at a hotel. I know people are into Airbnb but I like room service. I like to go to the spa and I like to hang out at different pools. Basically, any bungalow over the water at a resort where I can choose the pool and choose the beach.
That sounds really good. So, you're a self-admitted shopper. What are you coveting right now? What's something that you're on the hunt for?
That is a challenging question. Being a homeowner now, I'm looking for specific vintage glasses in different colors. I'll know when I see them. I also love and have some Estelle colored glasses. There's that for the home. As far as fashion goes, I'm obsessed with Christopher John Rogers. I have a couple of his suits which I'm proud of. And I’m always open to vintage, whether it's from my mom's closet, something I see online, or through the relationships I have with local vintage stores. Hello Vintage is my favorite.
Last question. If you could have anyone's singing voice, who would it be?
Beyoncé. She has that range. And hey, do you want to rap a little bit? Also, Beyoncé. That's why I’ll go with her. Plus, as a Virgo, I just love that I can see someone and really understand the why of their work.