How we show up in the workplace is not only determined by our life experience, but it’s also heavily influenced by the culture that leaders build for us in these work spaces. Arezoo Riahi, Head of Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity at Waymo, an autonomous driving technology company, is no stranger to connecting the dots of her own life. This led to a dynamic leadership position where she uses her background to cultivate change for people inside and outside the corporate sphere. I sat down with Riahi as she recounted her experience merging her passion for connection and representation with creating a revolutionary product that will shape the future.
Remington Bennett: We want to first learn more about you. Who is Arezoo Riahi?
Arezoo Riahi: Growing up, I always dreamed about being a diplomat. In college, I applied and received an internship opportunity with the State Department in Geneva, Switzerland. One day I had lunch with a mentor from the Embassy and she told me, don’t ever do this work. It was so brutally honest. She said, “this is a really hard job for a woman because you have to change where you live every four years and partners have a really hard time with that. You’re picking a life where you have to be comfortable with not having a long-term relationship or a family.” This conversation had a big impact on me, and I ended up pivoting to a focus on policy and human rights advocacy. After grad school, I joined a nonprofit organization called the Institute of International Education (IIE), and I worked on managing the Fulbright Program.That turned into an incredible 10-year run where I had the opportunity to lead programs designed to uplift and empower women around the world. Along the way, I met what I’m going to call a sponsor. He was the first head of Diversity and Inclusion at Autodesk. He saw that the work I was doing at IIE was something that could be beneficial in-house. He was willing to teach me about the intricacies of the space, and five years later, here I am.
RB: I think it’s very important that you brought up how your mentor at the time encouraged you not to move forward in the path of diplomacy, and I’m sure a lot of women can relate to receiving similar advice in their careers. Were you scared to move forward?
AR: While some 20-year olds might be thinking about marriage and family, that wasn’t even on my radar. I had to face my future self, just like she was facing her past self. When I look back and think about it today, I can’t help but wonder what my career and life would look like had I continued on that path. Maybe if I was given this advice now, I wouldn’t get as discouraged as my younger self. But I also couldn’t be more grateful, as it brought me to where I am now. I think about this a lot: If I had tried to create a specific map to get to where I am today, I never would have been able to construct that. At some point, all of the pieces in my life started to make sense as it related to my career journey. My advice is that when you’re in a place of ambiguity, try to embrace it and consider it an opportunity to get to know yourself.
RB: You are the first Head of EID at Waymo. Has your definition of diversity evolved since you took on this role, or even just from the beginning of your career to now?
AR: I’m not sure it’s the definition of diversity that has changed because diversity, to me, is pretty practical. It’s ultimately about who is in your workforce. If there’s anything that’s changed over the years, it’s how critical it is to have a culture of belonging. We live in a world where there’s so many polarizing issues or things happening in our personal lives, but we don’t know how to talk about them. We have a conflict, but we’re so nice to one another, it becomes challenging to have open communication and the courage to share what may be upsetting. When you create a culture where you can have psychological safety, feel included, and bring the truest version of yourself, it doesn’t matter what your experiences or background are. In that environment, the lines of communication open and we can allow ourselves to be vulnerable and offer humility. We all benefit from that.
RB: Addressing a company’s progress in DE&I can open up honest and vulnerable discourse. How would you challenge executives and leaders to get comfortable with having those uncomfortable conversations?
AR: In order to have a space where people can get uncomfortable, you have to have a culture that allows for mistakes. You have to have a culture that allows for grace and a goal of, not necessarily coming to the table to change someone’s mind, but a goal to build mutual understanding. I find that it can be really hard for us to offer grace because we’re so intent on proving our point. We’re not listening. Also, it’s hard to be open and to share our thoughts when there is such high risk of saying the wrong thing and being canceled as a result. That’s how I think about the evolution of DEI cultural competency efforts and what is needed to drive sustainable behavior change and impact.
RB: Can a company’s culture transform a product’s success? Do you think the two can be related?
AR: They have to be! If you have a culture where people can’t speak up and are not representative of society, how are you going to get folks to challenge one another? How are you going to get different ideas in the room? How are you going to be able to solve the most complex challenges of our time? At Waymo, we are doing something that’s never been done before. This is the epitome of innovation. It’s really one of the main reasons why I wanted to join the company… because it’s so exciting and the responsibility to make a positive impact is tremendous. You’ve got to get the brightest minds all thinking about the problem from different perspectives and enough trust to be able to share. If you don’t have a culture where the people around the table are bringing different perspectives into the room, you’re not going to have an inclusive product. You’ll know that when you’re surprised months later uncovering a blind spot that was missed.
RB: In the past, you’ve spoken about how working in previous rolesallowed you to grow and embrace your unique experiences. What advice do you have for women combatting “imposter syndrome” in environments that may not be as open-minded or inclusive?
AR: Whether the environment is supportive or not, all we can do is be ourselves. I spent a lot of time and energy trying to be like a prior boss or somebody else that I looked up to. But I can’t show up in the exact way they did. I can only show up the way I do. I think releasing that pressure from yourself goes a long way. You start to realize some of your own superpowers that come with simply being you. They’re great. They’re simple. They’re authentic to who you are. I know how lonely it can be when you’re the only one in the room. You feel the pressure of how to show up and you feel like you’re carrying the weight of everybody in your demographic group. I know it’s really hard. But if we have to be trailblazers for everybody else, so be it.