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Episode 55 / June 6, 2022

Episode 55: Championing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Your Event Strategy with Rachel Heller

Bizzabo’s Rachel Heller talks about how to ensure every corner of your event strategy champions diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) — authentically.

Rachel Heller podcast episode

Bizzabo’s Rachel Heller talks about how to ensure every corner of your event strategy champions diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) — authentically.

Shownotes: Season 3, Episode 5: Rachel Heller

Senior Event Content Manager Rachel Heller is an event content professional with more than a decade of experience working in the technology space on events ranging from 50 to 50,000 attendees.

Heller leads content strategy for Bizzabo-hosted events and contributes to programming for additional thought leadership initiatives. She is a member of the Event Content Council and has held event content strategy roles at Sage Intacct and PTC. She is passionate about crafting diverse, equitable, and inclusive speaker lineups and providing attendees with engaging content.

In this conversation, we talk with Rachel about how to champion DE&I at every stage of your event plan. Here’s what you’ll hear about in this conversation:

  • How to ensure DE&I hits every corner of your event strategy
  • How to choose a diverse and inclusive speaker lineup
  • How to ensure your event is a reflection of your attendees
  • Simple ways to get started weaving inclusion into your event

Mentioned in This Episode


[00:00:00] Erik Fisher: Welcome to Event Experience by Bizzabo. I’m your host, Erik Fisher. And this is the podcast where we bring the best and brightest Event Experience Leaders together to share stories, tips, and lessons learned from creating some of the world’s biggest events. This week I’m excited to share with you a conversation I had with Rachel Heller.

[00:00:26] She’s an event content professional with over a decade of experience, working in the event, and technology space, both in-house and on the agency side. On events ranging from 50 to 50,000 attendees. She’s currently the senior event content manager for Bizzabo-hosted events and contributes to programming for additional thought leadership initiatives. She’s passionate about diverse, equitable, and inclusive presenter lineups, and providing attendees with engaging content. When she’s not thinking of new session format ideas or searching for the best speakers, Rachel enjoys hiking around New England baking, restoring furniture, and trying to beat her fastest time solving the New York Times crossword puzzle. In this conversation, I talk with Rachel about diversity, equity, and inclusion and how to champion DE&I at every stage of your event plan. We talk about delivering DE&I to every corner of your event strategy. And we dive specifically into how to choose a diverse and inclusive speaker lineup.

[00:01:32] Ensuring your event is a reflection of your attendees and simple ways to get started in this process if you’ve never done it before. As well as getting stakeholder buy-in from those that matter most. I know you’re going to enjoy this conversation, so let’s get into it. 

[00:01:59] This week, I’m excited to share with you a conversation with Rachel Heller. Rachel, welcome to the show. 

[00:02:06] Rachel: Thanks for having me, Erik. 

[00:02:08] Erik Fisher: I am thrilled because we are entering into a new season of events. And along with that comes responsibility towards our attendees. And before we get into that and talk about the DE&I of it all.

[00:02:24] I’d love for you to give maybe your events industry superhero origin story.

[00:02:33] Rachel: Yeah, no happy to share a little about that. So my entire career has been in events and specifically in event content. it’s been a little over a decade now. The origin story is I was hired right out of college at a company called EnerNOC, which is now. known as another business NLX, but it’s an energy efficiency software company.

[00:02:54] And at the time, I just had a role. I had a role in marketing and the company was starting its own events program and I studied communications in college. Specifically public speaking. So my boss at the time, sort of recognized my interest and my ability to be very organized and type A and said, Hey, Rachel, do you want to manage the speakers for our new event called Energy Smart?

[00:03:19] And I said, yeah, sure, that sounds fun. And little did she know? She kind of set me on this path, of being really passionate about event content. I think it really combines creativity and that you’re having to think of new session ideas and, creative ways of conveying content through presentation and through programming.

[00:03:40] As well as having to be very project management, oriented and structured. And there are a lot of logistics that go into managing an event content program. So, I thrive in both of those environments. And I think it’s been a really great career for me. And I really just enjoyed bringing all of that knowledge to Bizzabo because I get to live and breathe events every day. 

[00:04:02] Erik Fisher: Awesome. And again, like I said, I’ve seen you in action, both behind the scenes, working with speakers and their content and getting that in, but then also seeing what they deliver and knowing that there’s a lot more behind it than just the work the speaker put into it. It’s also you and your expertise.

[00:04:20] So thank you so much.

[00:04:21] Rachel: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you for that. It’s such a pleasure to see it all happen live to see the work that you’ve done come to fruition. 

[00:04:28] Erik Fisher: Yeah. So, so what we’re going to talk about today though, is essentially DE&I, and a lot of people don’t know necessarily what that means, but thankfully Bizzabo has a guide for that. I’m going to say the How To Build a DE&I-driven Event Strategy. And the subtitle for that guide is “learn how to champion diversity, equity, and inclusion at every stage of your event plan.” So I just called out what DE&I is diversity, equity, and inclusion. Can you dive into each of those words a little bit and explain what we at Bizzabo mean by that and what people are talking about when it comes to that?

[00:05:11] Rachel: Yeah. Sure. So just to give another plug for the guide. I’ve read dozens, if not hundreds of articles on DE&I for events and listened to webinars, and attended sessions, and I’ve never seen something this comprehensive. So I just have to share, that it is something that you should run to download. Finish listening to this episode and then go download the guide. 

[00:05:36] Erik Fisher: We will have that linked up in the show notes for you, by the way.

[00:05:39] Rachel: Yes. So, from an events perspective and also from an event content perspective, the way that I think about diversity, equity, and inclusion is diversity is really representation. So it’s making sure that your speaker lineup, your sessions, your attendees are represented in a diverse way.

[00:05:59] From attendee background and ethnicity to gender, but also ability, learning preference, you are taking all of these different needs into account and, and perspectives into account when you’re creating an event content program. Equity has to do with creating sort of fair and accessible opportunities to participate. So you can invite a diverse range of speakers, but you also have to make it easy for them to participate in your event. Whether that’s compensation or having a virtual event, so it’s easy for them to participate if they can’t travel for some reason. That’s what usually I mean by equity or what I think of as equity. And then inclusion is providing an environment in which people can bring their whole selves to your event and feel comfortable. And then another word that is often thrown around in the DE&I space is belonging. So belonging exists when you’ve done the work to create a diverse, equitable, and inclusive program. 


[00:06:53] Rachel: So, that’s how I think about DE&I in the space of events before we really jump into the meat of the conversation, I do want to call out the fact that, we are two white people talking about this. While we have a perspective, it’s not the only one, and I wanna make sure that we’re making space for others who are doing a lot of really important work in this industry around DE&I and events, and just a few organizations to call out.

[00:07:21] Dozens more, but these are just a few that I’ve turned to. are black speakers collection, Madison Butler’s doing incredible work, creating a database of speakers who have a wealth of knowledge to bring into your event. Innovation women, shine bootcamp, global diversity CFP day, women bypass and inclusivity speaker initiative, which has over 5,000 members on Facebook.

[00:07:45] Rachel: Women talk design. And as well as the event leadership Institute, they have an event DEI strategist certification that I recommend checking out and it’s taught by Zelle Moore. So that’s just a few places to start. But again, these are folks doing a lot of great work in this space who deserve a shout-out. 

[00:08:02] Erik Fisher: Perfect. Thank you for bringing that up and drawing attention to them. And we will make sure to link up to all of those in the show notes. You, as a listener, don’t have to go do the research right now and find that we have done it for you. Let’s jump in real quick. I want to give like a 30-second synopsis of my experience with diversity, equity, and inclusion at events.

[00:08:23] And that is that I’ve done social media for a major event, many times in my previous roles. I’ve always as monitoring social, there are two different sides to it. The people on the, behind the scenes of social and the front lines of social, and I’ve been on front lines and I’ve looked at the speaker lineup and I’ve seen, oh, it’s a lot of white males again.

[00:08:45] And then I’ve heard that in response, especially like on Twitter. Where people say, oh, I took a look at the speaker lineup and it’s all white males again. I have seen it change or start… seen the dial move, I should say. Because I don’t think that we’ve seen it move all the way to where we want it to be or where it needs to be.

[00:09:06] But I can say I have, in the past 10 years, seen the dial move though slowly. Rachel, what’s been your experience?

[00:09:14] Rachel: Yeah, So I think I agree, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. But in the past, in the 10 years that I’ve been doing this, I think for me, the big change is, that I don’t have to fight as hard to make the case for having a diverse speaker lineup. It’s now just assumed that that’s what you need to do.

[00:09:36] And again, that’s because of a lot of the great work that’s been done by the groups that I just recognized. Another organization that I am happy to call out as Gender Avenger. They were known originally for sort of calling out all-male panels at events in a very public way.

[00:09:51] Rachel: And now they’ve grown to, just have a really large following and are doing a lot of great work. But I think groups like that have really pushed us forward in just it being the norm that your event lineup needs to be diverse. And again, we’re not where we need to be yet, but that’s been the big change that I’ve seen.

[00:10:11] Just that it’s assumed now that your event needs to be diverse. What else are you doing on top of that? Are you compensating speakers if you can? Or you don’t have necessarily a speaker budget for breakout speakers, what else could compensation look like for them? And are you exploring those options? Is your content strategy itself diverse and accessible? Are you providing captioning? Are you potentially employing sign language interpreters, not just for your in-person events, but also for your virtual events? We have a great partner KUDO who can provide that service.

[00:10:45] So you just looking at all these different ways in which content strategy is accessible? Are you thinking about different learning preferences? We did that for our virtual Event Experience summit. So continuing to grow and I’m very happy about it and very happy to be part of that movement.

[00:11:03] We did a LinkedIn poll on the Bizzabo account a while ago. Because we wanted to get a pulse of where the event profs were when it comes to this topic. And we basically asked, “Hey, compared to five years ago, how do you think the event industry is handling diversity in speaker lineups?”

[00:11:22] Erik Fisher: And that’s just one aspect of DE&I. And we got about a hundred responses to the poll and we had three choices for the options of which, The first one was “made a lot of progress.” The second choice was “some progress, but not enough.”

[00:11:38] And then the third choice was essentially, “not very much progress at all.” And the breakdown was that the top choice was some progress, but not enough. And I think that’s exactly where I voted. I said I’ve seen some progress, but not, not nearly enough. And then the second option was not much progress at all.

[00:12:00] And then “made a lot of progress.” What was the least chosen in terms of that poll? Where Rachel, where would you have voted? I’m curious.

[00:12:10] I’m with you. I think we’ve made progress, but not enough. I look at events every day, multiple times a day, I’m constantly scouring the internet for events in our industry and who’s speaking, and what their speaker lineups look like. And many events still have a diversity problem and their speaker lineups don’t reflect their audiences and that at the end of the day, that’s why we do this.

[00:12:31] Rachel: It’s to make sure that people who are interested in attending your event, see themselves reflected in the lineup. And if you aren’t doing that, then those people aren’t going to feel comfortable attending your event. And as I said earlier, I think a big difference here is that I don’t have to make the cases as much as I used to.

[00:12:49] It used to be a real battle to make sure that the keynotes we were recruiting or, the panels we were putting together represented a diverse group of people. And now I don’t have to make that case. I don’t have to make it, I don’t have to make it a Bizzabo, but in other roles I’ve had recently, I have not had to make that case either.

[00:13:08] And I, I hope that that’s the case for other event content professionals as well. Kind of what I said earlier, I think now that we’ve all recognized that there is a diversity problem and we are actively working to solve it. The next step is inclusivity and equity. So you have to do the work to make it easier for speakers to participate in your event, that’s using tools that allow them to be self-sufficient. Providing them with speaker training, or, and paying them and at least acknowledging that if you can’t pay them, what else might compensation look like for them?

[00:13:42] Is it a dual promotion? Is it involving them in your content strategy in some way? Is it, partnering with them after the event for some kind of post-event promotion plan, whether it’s including them on your podcast, co-branding and a guide with them, or just something that gives them some extra exposure, and helps their personal brand? Just considering those options and as well as the fact that diversity just doesn’t mean gender, race, and ethnicity, it can also mean age. It can mean sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, neurodiversity, as well as the diversity of perspectives and ideas.

[00:14:16] So we at Bizzabo know that DE&I should inform your event strategy. That’s why we made a guide all about it. As someone who plans events for Bizzabo, do you do to make that a reality in your event content strategy, as well as our speaker lineups?

[00:14:33] Rachel: That’s the question, isn’t it? We know this is an issue, but how do we actually work to solve it? And I’m going to start by dispelling the fact that we have a pipeline problem. I’ve worked in male-dominated industries and who’ve had to recruit speakers in those industries. 

[00:14:50] You just have to do the work that folks are out there, you just have to find them. If you want to bring new faces to your event, put on your recruiter hat. Get real comfortable with LinkedIn. If you launch a call for speakers, promote it everywhere you can. What I have done in the past year, some examples is, I joined a ton of LinkedIn groups in the industry for which I was creating an event for. And I would literally just go down the list of members and look at people’s profiles and reach out directly to folks who have the experience you’re looking for and encourage them to apply. In the same way, a recruiter would look at someone’s background and reach out to them about a specific role.

[00:15:30] That’s the kind of work you have to do as an event content professional. Get on Twitter, get on other social networking sites and share and empower others to share your call for speakers on your behalf as well. Something I’ve done is internal. So when I worked for a company that was putting on their annual event, and we were kind of seeing the same employees every year speaking, so I did a little road show.

[00:15:54] So I went to all of the different employee resource groups that you know, represented different backgrounds. And I asked for a 10-minute slot and their next meeting and I pitched them on applying to the call for speakers. my services to help them with that. So again, the equity portion. It’s saying, yes we want you, but also here are ways in which we can help you.

[00:16:16] Those are just some ways to do it. Something else you can do is really invest in a speaking coach. It’s worth taking a chance on someone who maybe has never spoken before. If they have a really great idea and they’re really passionate about it.

[00:16:29] Provide some opportunities for coaching for them. I’ve seen countless times where someone it’s their first time speaking and they do an incredible job because you’ve provided training for them. And they’ve also put the work in. 10 out of 10 would rather have a new speaker who’s willing to do the work versus someone who’s spoken for decades and it’s just phoning it in.

[00:16:51] I know a lot of these things are kind of associated with costs. There are actually really great speaking tools that are free. SPEEKO is an app that I recommend to people that’s spelled S P E E K O. And YOODLI is another one, Y O O D L I. Those are both free online tools or apps that help with public speaking that you can recommend to your speakers to use. 

[00:17:15] Erik Fisher: Brilliant. Thank you for sharing that again, we will make sure to link to those in the show notes. 

[00:17:21] Rachel: One last thing to think about too, if DE&I am in your content, is that it goes beyond your speaker lineups. So again, as your content accounts for different learning preferences, are you coaching your speakers to make sure that they’re not inserting any sudden loud sounds or flashing lights into your presentation?

[00:17:39] Is your virtual content being captioned? Can you incorporate virtual sign language interpreters in some way? When putting together panels, obviously we want to avoid an all-male panel. You don’t want the manel problem, but are you also including people of color in your panels?

[00:17:54] Rachel: I don’t consider an all-female, all-white panel diverse. Are you making sure again, that speakers are thinking about their attendees as well? Are they using plain words? Are they not incorporating a lot of jargon into their presentation? It’s just something, in addition, to be thinking about, as you’re developing your content strategy. 

[00:18:16] Great information. So that’s the content strategy side of things and the speaker lineup side of things. And I know you were starting to bridge into the attendee experience. So are some factors that we need to consider if we’re creating a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable experience for our attendees?

[00:18:36] Erik Fisher: And I’m talking not just virtual, but also in-person.

[00:18:40] Rachel: For in-person events, you can start with registration and your registration price. Equity is not the same thing as equality, meaning that if you’re charging for registration, you shouldn’t be charging the same thing for everyone. Are you giving different options for those who might need assistance to attend your event, whether that’s students or folks from various socioeconomic backgrounds?

[00:19:03] Are you providing, I talked about bringing your whole self to an event. Are you providing opportunities for attendees to do that? Can they share their pronouns in an easy way? Do you have gender-neutral bathroom options? Are you taking into consideration different dietary preferences and holidays when you’re scheduling your event?

[00:19:20] Rachel: Is your venue ADA compliant? Will you have a sign language interpreter or materials in braille, if you need to? Can you provide a quiet space for new parents or those who just need a break from the crowds and just need to be in a sort of in sensory overload and just needs some quiet time.

[00:19:38] And finally you should make sure your venue allows for service animals. Those are just a few things. I’m sure I forgot something, but these are just things that myself and my team are thinking about we’re evaluating our in-person event experience and planning for that.

[00:19:52] For virtual events. So something to think about is your website design. There’s something called the web content accessibility guidelines. WCAG and it allows for folks of all abilties to easily register for your event, access on-demand recordings or attend virtually, are you making sure your web design is aligned with those guidelines?

[00:20:14] I mentioned about captioning for on-demand content for your in-person event, but are you also making sure you’ve got captioning for the virtual content itself? If you have a virtual event and investing in virtual sign language interpretation if you can. Something that we piloted actually at the EventExperienced Summit and I’m curious to see in the survey results if this is recognized at all, is we actually asked speakers to describe themselves for those who are visually impaired. So what that might look like is saying, Hey, I’m Rachel, I’m coming at you here for. And I’ve got brown curly hair. I’m wearing glasses, I’m wearing a green sweater. And then I have behind me a print with flowers on it. Something like that to just help visually impaired attendees sort of orient themselves around who’s speaking. And then again, I mentioned this earlier for in-person events, but it’s true for virtual. Are you taking into consideration cultural holidays when scheduling your event?

[00:21:07] It’s really frustrating for folks if an event is scheduled during a really important time in their lives and they can’t participate.

[00:21:14] Erik Fisher: So I want to call back out that, asking the speaker to describe themselves because that just caught me off guard in terms of something that’s so simple and like it’s low-hanging fruit yet obvious now that you’ve said it. But before you said it, that was not an obvious thing to me. And I hope not to the listeners as well.

[00:21:37] I’m hoping that’s just another amazing, again, super-specific nugget that they can act on. You just gave us a lot that we can do throughout all those different things. So in light of that, how do you think we should be prioritizing our time and especially limited resources as event profs?

[00:21:57] Rachel: I can totally relate to not having an unlimited budget, and that we as event professionals need to prioritize how we spend our money. Honestly, these sorts of initiatives, getting the ax when you have to think about feeding people and, especially with everything now, with all the additional health and safety protocols that are needed for in-person events. cost money. And I can understand how some of these initiatives seem lower priority. I think what you need to do is you need to ask your attendees what they need. Whether during the registration process or even beforehand, even before you launch registration. Whether it’s on the tail end of your previous event in your post-event survey, or a few weeks registration survey your database and say, “hey, we are planning this event for you. We want to make sure that you feel like you have what you need to attend.” Then you’ll have a better understanding of what they need to have a productive and comfortable experience at your event. And you can prioritize how you can support that. When it comes to speaking or content-related tips I gave, most of those don’t cost a lot of money. Yes, there is speaker coaching that can cost money. But again, I gave some cost alternatives. I am also more than happy to get on the phone with anyone who wants to brainstorm or workshop or talk through some of these ideas. You have to start somewhere.

[00:23:22] We’re not saying you have to do everything, but, you do have to do something. Hopefully, by listening to this podcast and taking a look at the guide, you’ll come away with a few ideas of where to start, and then you can just build upon them from there. But nobody is expecting you to do all of these things all at once.

[00:23:39] Erik Fisher: You can’t do all the things …  

[00:23:41] Rachel: Yeah. 

[00:23:41] Erik Fisher: You can of the things and at least you can start. And that DE&I guide is a great place to start. It’s called the guide. I love saying the guide. The guide to building a DE&I-driven event strategy. Learn how to champion diversity, equity, and inclusion at every stage of your event plan. And with that guide, you’re gonna be able to ensure that your event is a reflection of your attendees and that you’re gonna be able to deliver DE&I to every corner of your event strategy. And whether that’s again, your sponsors, your vendors, your exhibitors, a diverse and inclusive speaker lineup.

[00:24:24] All of the different pieces that come together. And by the way, I do want to shout this out. We’re recording this a week after the Event Experience Summit, which is an event that Bizzabo put on. And I got to see from both onsite behind the scenes at the studio where the content was being broadcast live, as well as then seeing it digitally, virtually on my screen at the same time, it’s kind of a weird hybrid model there.

[00:24:52] I think you probably felt that as well, but probably much more so because you helped make a lot of that happen and saw a lot of what we’re talking about today. Integrated into the Bizzabo work ethic and values.

[00:25:14] And I just got to say one, kudos to you and the rest of the events team. But part two to that is what did that do for you and your soul and your career and your good, like, how did you feel coming away from that event in light of this topic?

[00:25:28] I mean, I think you’re speaking to a feeling that a lot of event professionals can relate to. This is said time and time again around how high stress being an event profession is, it’s one of the highest stress jobs ever. It ranks shortly under the sort of ER doctor and emergency first responder. It always me laugh a little bit when I see that.

[00:25:56] I think we do it for that feeling. For that feeling of seeing everything, you’ve done happening in real-time. I’ve worked you’re planning this event for a year and then it’s a week and then it’s over. And so in that week, you’re soaking up all of the feelings that people are having because of the work you’ve done. And it’s such a joy.

[00:26:21] Rachel: It’s such a joy for me. A specific example was I produced one of our sessions. So I was on the back end kind of making sure that speakers were on stage when they needed to be in that the slides were on stage when they needed to be and so on and so forth. And I was just looking at this panel of three people who I handpicked. I identified them as, Hey, you should be on this panel for this reason. I reached out to them. I recruited them, we had a few prep calls and then they were there doing it. And it was just really cool seeing my vision coming to life and seeing all the people in the comments.

[00:26:58] It’s just such a good feeling of bringing people together. The dividends that it pays for those speakers, for their careers, those attendees, for what they’ve learned, and then what they can put into practice, as an event professional you are a creator of those moments.

[00:27:12] Rachel: You’re a creator of those experiences and it’s a really special thing and something I never get tired of. 

[00:27:20] Erik Fisher: Rachel has been great talking with you. Thank you so much for being here. 

[00:27:23] What a great conversation with Rachel Heller. Thank you again, Rachel for sharing your insight and your expertise and your experience. There’s so much wrapped up in this topic. And again, I’ve said it many times throughout this episode, but Bizzabo has a guide for you. It is the guide to building a DE&I-driven event strategy.

[00:27:48] There’s so much in it. It is linked up in the show notes. We also have our blog posts specifically on choosing diverse event speakers. As well as all the tips and tricks and references that Rachel made throughout in terms of people that are working and championing this initiative. As well as a link to the book Event Success – maximizing the business impact of in-person virtual and hybrid experiences, the new book by Alon Alroy, Eran Ben-Shushan, and Boaz Katz. The three founders of Bizzabo. If you do not have a copy, click the link in the show notes to make sure to go grab your copy now. It is a must-read if you are in the events industry. Again, thank you so much for listening. If you would do the favor of sharing this episode with somebody you know needs to hear it. I know there are event profs out there who have not begun to think about or tackle this topic. And this is a great starting point for them as well. Hit the share button in your podcast player app of choice where you’re listening to this to share it. Or head on over to the show notes or visit Bizzabo/podcasts where you can find this and other amazing episodes to share.

[00:29:07] Thank you for sharing. Thank you so much for listening and I will see you next episode.


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