Natalie Yee Wants You To Know DEI Is More Than An INITIATIVE: It's A Lifestyle

At Holistic, we love to feature and showcase individuals who embody diversity and inclusion. We believe that diversity and inclusion are more than attributes HR professionals and companies can embrace. Every person, in every industry, and from every walk of life can have a diverse and inclusive lifestyle.

One individual that truly reflects a diverse and inclusive lifestyle is Natalie Yee. Natalie is a Senior Experience Designer at Nerdery where she also helps lead the diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative, along with the head of HR. Nerdery is a digital business consultancy. Nerdery takes companies from today to their digital futures, working at the leading edge of strategy, design, and technology to help clients evolve and thrive.


Holistic was able to interview Natalie to find out more about her background, work with Nerdery, and involvement with the DEI community.


What motivated you to get involved in this type of work?

It actually started when I was working at after college. I was in merchandising and didn't really know anything about digital. Our website was, to put it nicely, a mess. Back then it was really hard to find things. The navigation was poor. It was hard to even buy anything, and I recognized that this was a huge issue. With the role I was in, I wasn't able to really fix that problem. So, around that same time, I started realizing maybe there's a job where you fix these problems. My future graduate school reached out to me and said, “We're the field of information. Have you heard of it?” And I hadn't, and that's when I learned about UX, and decided I wanted to make a career change to be in the type of role that could fix the problems that I was seeing. When I I discovered what UX was and that I had a passion for solving those types of problems, I decided to go to a full-time graduate program at the University of Michigan. After grad school, I joined Nerdery.

How does technology play a role in the work you do at Nerdery?

A huge part of what I do is helping our clients understand the different constraints and what technology both can afford them, and what it limits. I focus primarily on native mobile apps, these are apps built specifically for iOS or Android. A lot of it is helping clients understand the user need, the pattern that Android or iOS already provides, or doing something customized to provide different features. I help them understand both the hardware and the software. Between iOS or Android, there's a lot of nuances, so a lot of what I do is bringing forward information of here's what you can do, and then helping them figure out what to do within those bounds.

In your overall career, what challenges have you faced aside from not being able to take action on certain issues?

I think the biggest one is working in client services. There are a lot of pros and cons. The pros are that I get to work on a lot of different types of projects, I get to learn about different fields. Some of the cons are the constraints of working with clients. I believe strongly in inclusive design and ethical design and designing for good and being really aware of how things you design can be harmful. Thankfully I have had a lot of clients that care about that. They want to do a lot of usability testing, they want to go beyond really narrow personas of who's using the product. But sometimes when there's budget constraints or timeline, that's not always something that can be the forefront of the work that we do. 

Nerdery has changed a lot in recent years. We are doing much longer partnerships, so that helps. I've been with the same client now for over a year and a half and we are able to have that as part of our work so, I think we're moving in that positive direction, but it is sometimes hard when you have really strong personal values when it comes to design. Keeping that part of the process when you're working with a client. 

Tell me a little bit more about your role in the diversity, equity, and inclusion area in your company, the city, and the community.

My role with diversity, equity, and inclusion started really informally, it was summer of 2017 right around when the Google manifesto came out, and we weren't really talking about it at Nerdery, and I wanted to be. So I found an old Slack channel that no one had posted on in a year, I think, called diversity and inclusion and I just put out a hello and shared some articles and there were people that wanted to talk about it as well. That turned into a monthly meeting that was open to anyone, and we would just talk about different articles we read or other topics in general. After a few months of that, the leadership team at Nerdery realized that this needed to be something a bit more formal. DEI was then made into a formal strategic initiative to be recognized company-wide. I've been made the owner of that initiative, and our leadership team sponsor is the head of HR. 

We have a team of about 10 people working on trying to first bring awareness to diversity, equity, and inclusion at Nerdery. Why it's important, why you should care, areas of opportunity that we have. Really in the beginning stages still. 

Community wise we are in four locations, so Nerdery's headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and then we have offices in Kansas City, and Phoenix. We really do want to be involved in all of those local communities. Thankfully, Chicago is a great place for that so we've held a few different meetups that were DEI related, once about design and inclusion, which I did, and then a panel of experts so that's been good to connect with the community and I've also found a lot of support locally here through other people who are DEI professionals, either in an HR role or doing it in addition to a different role like me. There's been a lot of opportunities. 

What would you say is a key component to living an inclusive life and implementing that every day?

It takes more of a social justice angle, I would say, in my personal life compared to doing it within a corporate setting. Some things that have come out for me recently are really recognizing my own privilege. I am half Asian, but I benefit hugely from white privilege and from model minority-ness. I'm outspoken as an Asian woman and people are like, “Oh wow, she's really outspoken, that's great.” Whereas a Black woman is going to get a different response. I've been doing a lot of personal growth work, both to help what I'm doing at Nerdery and in my day to day and that's been hugely impactful.

The second thing is really putting a name to what you're seeing. For a long time, I spoke in a circle around, “I care about DEI,” but if challenged to answer, “What do you mean?” I probably couldn't answer it, so I've been working really hard on saying, “This is racism, this is antisemitism, etc.” Really putting a name to things and not shying away from actually what's happening.

Lastly, I really want to be listening to and centering people of color, specifically Black people, and indigenous people, and women. There are so many women in those two groups who are educating and sharing on social media.

What are your goals and vision for the future of DEI? 

I would love to get to a place where we don't need to have these special committees and having DEI be a separate task force. I would also love to see that individuals and companies are just diverse, and inclusive, and equitable from the start. I think we're a long way off from that, so I think shorter term, what I was talking about for my own personal growth, waking up to my own privilege and to what's happening in the world around me. I really want that to happen for people at Nerdery, specifically our leadership, and our managers and to pop that bubble that we've been living in and really gain awareness and get people to really care and say, “This is not okay. We need change."

Who is someone that you admire that you’ve encountered during your time in Chicago?

This may seem biased, but I do think Tom Alexander is on the list. To me, he's both been extremely welcoming and has really helped me as a mentor. I think he really embodies how a white man should be an advocate in this space. I've been incredibly impressed with the way he brings up topics, the way he recognizes that he is a person who can make a fuss about certain things because he says, “I am privileged.” The way he advocates for others and puts people like me into the spotlight is an example for other people who may have a similar identity to him who don't know how to get into this work.

I mentioned earlier that I go to a DEI professionals meet up and that's run by Michelle Bess who is at Sprout Social and she has been hugely impactful for me. When I'm getting discouraged or thinking things are changing really slowly or things are too hard, I just need to go to one of her meet ups and I instantly feel better. There's a huge community of people that want to help and the way that she fosters that and how she really shows diversity, equity, and inclusion through her meetings and through how she builds this community has been really amazing.