VentureFizz: Where did you grow up and what were you like as a child? What did your parents do for work?
Michelle Jarmon: I was born in Houston, TX and raised in Sugar Land, TX. My mom worked as a Division Order Analyst in the oil and gas industry before transitioning to becoming a legal assistant. My dad was a Marine who fought in Vietnam. He worked for Southern Pacific Railroad as one of the first black boilermaker apprentices, then transitioned to engine inspections before an early retirement in 1990.
My parents would describe me as energetic, happy, inquisitive, and bright as a child. In middle school, my science teacher recognized my affinity for science, and submitted me to a summer science program at Duke University. Since I was only 12 years old, my parents worked with my teacher to enroll me in Texas Southern University’s Science & Engineering College Preparatory Program for four years. I began ballet, tap, and jazz at the age of 6, and evolved into pointe, competition dance as a dance officer of my high school dance team, and taught for a summer dance camp organization until I was 24. I was always involved in dance, performing arts, church, or school activities. I had the opportunity to teach dance to the youth ministry and have always been passionate about giving back to the community.
VF: Where did you go to college? What did you study and what did you do after graduating?
MJ: I received a Bachelor of Fine Arts with an emphasis in Acting from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. After graduating in 2006, I moved back home with my parents in Sugar Land, and began working at the local CBS news station trying to find my professional path. After recognizing that the recession completely changed what companies were willing to take risks on, I realized that I wanted to grow in ways beyond what Houston could offer, I moved back to Fort Worth where I worked in hospitality to save for a move to New York. I moved to New York in 2012 and began working as a fraud analyst on the customer support team at my first startup, Fab.com. In the last eight years, I have had the opportunity to grow my career in the HR industry from client operations to facilities management and people operations. I have always had a passion for roles that allow me to serve and advocate for others.
VF: What inspired you to get into the tech industry?
MJ: I realized that I wanted the opportunity to work with organizations that are more forward thinking and innovative. The tech industry allowed me the chance to grow with an organization in its beginning stages, and develop a clearer understanding of the different phases within an organization’s life cycle. In my experience, I enjoy working with organizations where their mission is centered around improving the standards by which we live and work; they create a sense of ease for the user. These types of organizations tend to automate, streamline, or improve processes and quality of life for their employees and customers.
VF: What has your career path looked like in tech and the various positions you’ve held before joining Namely?
MJ: Fab.com was my first venture into the tech and startup space in the Customer Support team. While at Fab.com I discovered the People Team’s function and impact on the overall culture of an organization. It was this experience that motivated my career transition into the HR industry. My first opportunity in HR came when I joined the Glossier team in their beginning stages, I learned the basics of the human resources, talent acquisition, and facilities. After Glossier, I worked as an HR Consultant with Sotheby’s, and eventually transitioned into a Senior Manager HR role with a health and wellness tech startup, shortly before joining the Namely team.
VF: Can you share the high-level responsibilities of your current position as People Operations Manager at Namely?
MJ: As a People Operations Manager at Namely, I help with streamlining and improving processes and programs within the organization. I also act as a People Business Partner for employee relations to managers and employees. I help our employees with professional scenarios, and consult with management on employee feedback. I work closely across departments with diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
VF: What has attributed to your success thus far and what types of obstacles have you had to overcome along the way as a Black professional?
MJ: Perhaps my success is rooted in my perseverance. I consider success a continuous path. As a Black woman in the tech space, I have experienced both micro and macro aggressions - from the typical doubt of credibility that comes with working in the corporate space to encountering the double standards of expectations from leadership, or managers using diminishing or demoralizing tactics in group settings.
In navigating sensitive scenarios (i.e. leadership having the expectations of unspoken acts of servitude) I have learned to set and communicate clear professional boundaries with precision and without ego. Through all of these situations, I’ve recognized that many of these actions are done to push a person towards acquiescence. Instead, I continue to be vocal, advocate for myself, allowing my work and thirst for knowledge and growth to remain the focus of the conversation.
VF: What types of programs and initiatives does Namely have that support diversity, equity, and inclusion?
MJ: Namely offers many programs and initiatives that support diversity, equity, and inclusion. From our Parental leave policies, to the organization’s stance on equality, Namely’s leadership aims to create an equitable work environment for all. You can see our company’s commitment to equality here.
When I first joined Namely, I had no experience with diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in the workplace. I was invited to join the grassroots employee resource group DiveIN. DiveIN is an employee-led community of advocates focused on empowering employees in their professional careers at Namely, as well as the surrounding community. In working with this ERG, I had the opportunity to help found and lead the Black Professionals at Namely, ERG and extend support the growing ERGs in the organization - Asian Pacific Collective, PrideIN, Hispanic Alliance for Career and Employee Resources, WomenIN, RemoteIn, ParentIn. These groups aligned to create camaraderie in the workplace and develop spaces to share feedback, host educational events, and promote intersectional inclusivity to benefit the employees of Namely.
Namely’s reverse mentorship program was established in 2018 to aid in career development, foster diversity of thought, and continue to develop cross-functional collaboration, communication, and transparency. I was fortunate to have the CEO as my mentor, which further enhanced my understanding of the layers of the organization, while creating a space to explore ideas and professional development. More recently, Namely offers a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) mentor program, focused on improving career advancement and equity opportunities.
I also co-lead a speaker series called SpeakHer Mind ™ where the mission is to amplify the voices of women, and share practical and positive steps each of us can take to deliberately build the workplace environments that empower women to achieve their potential. We’ve had phenomenal speakers from NYT Best Selling author Luvvie Ajayi, to Wharton Professor Adam Grant. This idea began as an internal initiative focused on supporting Namely employees, that has grown into a social movement during unprecedented times.
VF: What advice would you give to other Black professionals who are interested in joining the tech industry?
MJ: I would advise that you have a clear understanding of your goals and timeline as you work on your transition into the tech industry. Do your research on industries, organizations, and individuals that model the career that you seek. Given that there are so many options, there are a few questions I would ask myself:
- What state is your career in, currently?
- What type of role are you looking to transition into?
- What are your deal breakers? (i.e. base salary, culture, certifications, etc.)
- Can you connect with anyone in your network to get more insight?
I also recommend you set your own timelines. Don’t compare your journey and timing to others. You cannot always see the work that brought an individual to their present day situation, so keep working toward your version of success.
VF: While general awareness of the problem of diversity in the tech industry is a step forward, to make a lasting change, real actions need to be taken. Do you have any ideas or suggestions on what companies or employees can do to step up and make a difference?
MJ: I’m really thankful for my experience with diversity, equity, and inclusion with Namely. I’ve learned that employees can impact real change within an organization, and it can be a powerful effort if diversity, equity, and inclusion is equally important to the executive leadership team. Now, more than ever, leadership is listening. Connect with your organization’s executives and senior leaders on ways that you can work together to hold one another accountable for taking actions that will lead to long lasting change. As a recent example, during one of our erg lead meetings our CEO, Larry Dunivan, asked how he could make a difference and support our employees in the midst of racial injustice across the country. I mentioned what acknowledging Juneteenth as a holiday would mean to the black community, and now Namely recognizes Juneteenth as an annual company holiday and has inspired other companies to follow suit. We all seek to make those big changes, but the small changes matter as well. Constantly educate yourself, and share that knowledge with those around you.