In this episode, we talk to Madison Eker, Founder and CEO of Sum of Us, about improving your company culture to be more inclusive, welcoming, and supportive. Visit thriver.com/podcast to listen to the episode.
Olivia Bortolazzo: Hello and welcome, everyone. My name is Olivia Bortolazzo and I’m the Marketing Manager at Thriver. This week, I’m excited to introduce to you a trailblazing powerhouse of a woman, Madison Eker. Not only is she a proud provider of Thriver, she’s also the founder of Sum of Us, which is a leading producer of diverse and inclusive events around North America. Hi, Madison. Thanks for joining us today and welcome.
Madison Eker: I’m so happy to be here! Thank you for having me, Olivia.
Olivia Bortolazzo: No problem. So, today’s topic is how Sum of Us is helping to create positive change in corporate spaces by focusing on inclusive-specific learning experiences. Our goal today is to provide you, our listeners, with insights and tips you can apply right after you finish this episode. Madison, to get started, can you share a bit more about yourself?
Madison Eker: Sure! My name is Madison Eker, my pronouns are she/her, and I love people. What I don’t love, though, is when people feel out of place — I think that’s how my mission has come to fruition.
Olivia Bortolazzo: Thanks for sharing. My first question for you is: how did Sum of Us originate? Can you share with us the story?
Madison Eker: Actually, we started as a live festival. I don’t think most people who work with us even know that. We came up with the concept in 2018 because the LGBTQ+ community — my community — needed more options for safe spaces. Historically, the LGBTQ+ community has met in secret, after hours in bars and nightclubs. It makes sense that we continue meeting in those places, but I wanted to provide other options for safe spaces. This is especially important because we still face discrimination around the globe. Sum of Us essentially started for that marginalized group — to be a reimagined space where LGBTQ+ community members could meet friends on a deeper level, find connections based on shared passions and, most importantly, learn about themselves together. Then we had a big pandemic pivot, but that is how we started.
Olivia Bortolazzo: Great! When you started, or when you were just talking about building this community, did you think that Sum of Us would be where it is today? Or did you have a different vision?
Madison Eker: I definitely had a different vision. The intention was to keep Sum of Us going as a yearly live festival and for people to call it their home — their safe space. I didn’t expect us to pivot to become virtual, but this did end up being the most fortuitous thing that has happened to us. I’m grateful for that, even though it didn’t start as gracefully as it’s going now.
I didn’t expect us to pivot to become virtual, but this did end up being the most fortuitous thing that has happened to us.
Olivia Bortolazzo: What was the moment that you realized that you needed to make that shift. Was it scary? Did it seem easy? What exactly did the transition look like?
Madison Eker: It was actually super challenging! We had put two years of planning and production into the live festival — the cancellation was devastating. Not only did it cost us a lot and we accrued a lot of losses, it meant that our original dream of a safe space wasn’t going to happen. That was really hard. But I wanted to keep the mission alive. And the team wanted to keep the mission alive. To do this, it was important to figure out a new vehicle to provide this safe space for the community.
We were reading all of these studies, including from Women in the Workplace, that LGBTQ+ women were twice as likely to cite mental health issues as their number one challenge during the pandemic. We knew we needed to keep our community together somehow. We decided to search for virtual options, which is how we came up with the virtual festival. Although nothing could replace being with each other physically, the virtual festival was extremely successful.
In fact, we were able to expand our community nationally across the U.S. and internationally into Canada and Mexico. That’s also how we ended up entering the corporate world — getting businesses to expand their safe spaces virtually, provide much-needed Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training, and teach various allyship seminars to build bridges and progress understanding. It was a progression of many things, but it didn’t start how we initially expected it to.
Olivia Bortolazzo: Well, that’s typically how it is in life! You can have this vision of which way you want to go, but life is the driver — it might take a left turn when you want to go right. This is a great example of life telling you to go left, and you said, “Well, we’ve got to go left, but how can we still make this a positive experience?”
On top of that, I love that you branched out. You’re still creating a safe space for LGBTQ+ people, but you’re also creating an educational space for people who don’t identify as LGBTQ+. I love how you’re spreading this knowledge, this learning, this understanding, and connecting people from all walks of life.
Madison Eker: Thank you for that! I’ve learned there’s a difference between your mission and your vehicle — the way your mission transpires. I feel like as an entrepreneur or business owner, provided you keep your mission alive, however you want to do that, it will still work out in the end. What matters is you’re still doing what you’re meant to be doing. You’re still providing the service you want to be providing. That was a big learning experience for me, as originally I was so stuck on the idea of the live festival. Once that was no longer an option in 2020, we had to look for other vehicles, which allowed us to enter other spaces and get creative.
Olivia Bortolazzo: Yeah, that’s great! Actually, this is a great way for us to transition, as my next question has to do with your mission: what is the ultimate goal of Sum of US when working with organizations? When you’re working with teams, when you’re producing events for companies to help their employees understand each other, what is your main mission?
Madison Eker: Our main mission is to be the bridge for companies to ask questions without fear of saying the wrong thing. We recognize that there’s a positive intention. Companies come to us because they want to learn (and we want to help them) provide a better work culture for their employees. We want to build a safe space in the workplace to ensure customers and employees feel welcomed within the company. Overall, that creates better working conditions and increases productivity and profitability for the company itself.
Our main mission is to be the bridge for companies to ask questions without fear of saying the wrong thing.
Olivia Bortolazzo: That’s great! So, you don’t typically host all these events, right?
Madison Eker: I’m not the speaker at the events. We find and partner with top facilitators around the globe to make sure we have the best person to speak on a particular topic. For example, we’re currently working on disability allyship, and we believe the best information will come from the horse’s mouth. We want to find someone who has experience of what it’s like to be disabled, tell their story, and share what an ally looks like to them. The reason I don’t speak about many of these topics is because I wouldn’t be the right fit.
Olivia Bortolazzo: That’s such an important detail, and I think it can be overlooked with events — and with any kind of spaces where we need to relearn or unlearn. I love the detail that you put into Sum of Us to make sure the education is coming from the horse’s mouth. I also think that makes it more inclusive. Learning from someone of the same minority can be empowering.
Madison Eker: One-hundred percent. These seminars and sessions are all about creating empathy and awareness by understanding other people’s backgrounds. If the person speaking doesn’t come from the background we are educating the audience about, it won’t be as effective. We do our best to be super intentional about the facilitator we pick and the content provided. This helps attendees get the most out of the sessions and really feel like they’re learning to become better allies.
Olivia Bortolazzo: I want to dig a little deeper here. Let’s say there’s a company that has never thought about LGBTQ+ allyship (because I know you have a great event for this), but they want to learn. They want to start implementing a form of education — perhaps an event, maybe ongoing or maybe just a one-time thing — for their employees. What are some tips you have for a company that has never thought about this before? How can they go about creating such a space? I know it’s a big question, but I think it’s an important one for companies that have never done this before.
Madison Eker: That is a great question. Kudos to any company that would ask a question like you just asked. Allyship in all diasporas allows employees to feel safe, which allows them to focus on their jobs instead of feeling out of place. If a company came to us wanting to learn LGBT!+ allyship, I would say, “We’re so proud of you for wanting to take that step.”
To get started, I think it’s important for the company to be aware that there’s more to allyship than just changing the logo to a rainbow. Although this can look like support, and initially make LGBTQ+ employees and customers feel welcome, it’s important to take steps beyond that to ensure people can really tell where the company stands. I think having that awareness is step number one: that allyship goes deeper than visual appearance. I have five actionable steps that I would prescribe to make a company an LGBTQ+ ally. I’m happy to share those, if you’d like.
Olivia Bortolazzo: Absolutely! Yes, please share.
Madison Eker: Okay, number one is to ensure that company funding is not supporting anti-gay government policies. Of course, we can never know where all funding is going, but if a company actively supports an anti-gay policy, it’s not an LGBTQ+ allyship type of company. Claiming it is wouldn’t be authentic.
Number two is to hold seminars and educational workshops to increase understanding and empathy. This is so important, as we can’t expect employees to be allies without any education.
Number three is to ensure that policies and language in the workplace are inclusive. This means no gendered dress codes where men must wear pants and women must wear skirts. Instead, the company can say that all employees must dress to meet professional standards, but without saying who wears skirts and who wears pants. Plus, gender-neutral bathrooms to give people access regardless of gender. That’s very important for people to feel safe outside the binary. As for inclusive language, acknowledging that there are more genders than men and women. Instead of saying things like “Hi, guys” and “Hello, ladies and gentlemen,” saying things like “Hi, all,” “Hello, everyone,” and “Hi, team/friends/folks.” Those are all words that make everyone feel included. These are just some examples of language that could be implemented into handbooks to make the company LGBTQ+ friendly. Finally, respecting pronouns is a very big one.
Number four is about amplifying queer voices and giving back to the communities that contribute to the fight for equality and justice.
Then, number five is to do inclusive marketing year round, not just during pride. This could mean showing relationships besides just the heterosexual couples we commonly see in marketing. To have that year round — outside the one month where everyone is trying to be super inclusive — makes for really great allyship.
Olivia Bortolazzo: Wow, those were very detailed tips. Hopefully, our listeners will be able to take those points away. I think applying even just one to start is a big step — they don’t necessarily need to do them all. I think baby steps are still more important than showing that you’re right.
Madison Eker: Yes, exactly. Even just understanding that allyship means more than saying “I’m an ally” or “Our company is an ally.” The community you are trying to be an ally with has to tell you that you’re being an ally — you can’t just define yourself. Any one of the tips would help a marginalized community (like the LGBTQ+ community) recognize that a company is trying its best to show allyship, and therefore we would term the company as an LGBTQ+ ally. So, just like you said, you don’t have to do all of the steps. They’re just some ideas for things you can do to become more LGBTQ+ inclusive and friendly.
Olivia Bortolazzo: That’s great! I have a question about some of the events being virtual. Do you find that virtual learning is inhibiting organizations and their company culture? I’d love for you to provide some insights based on your experience with virtual.
Madison Eker: That’s a great question! It’s such a big conversation, since now we’re seeing restrictions being lifted and experiences open up again. But I truly think that virtual learning is helping. I think there are a lot of wonderful things that virtual learning gives access to that in-person events don’t. For example, teams can show up remotely and log in from anywhere, which is wonderful. It’s really helpful for the disabled community. It’s a lot easier for people who have chronic pain or chronic illness to tune in virtually than to come to a live experience. Plus, it’s usually better for the company when the budget doesn’t need to cover convention expenses and hotel rooms. And, we can speak to teams around the world. It’s given us a much broader, global perspective, which I think is really beautiful.
It’s really helpful for the disabled community. It’s a lot easier for people who have chronic pain or chronic illness to tune in virtually than to come to a live experience.
Olivia Bortolazzo: Have you had any onsite experiences with Sum of Us?
Madison Eker: We haven’t yet, but we are set to go live for the inaugural festival that Sum of Us originates from. So, that will be happening. We are actually speaking right now to Thriver about offering all of our sessions in person as well, wherever the facilitators are located. We are definitely interested in onsite experiences, but I do think that — for larger businesses — virtual is much more cost effective and can be the way to go.
Olivia Bortolazzo: And it can be quite intimate, too. Do you create separate sessions or breakout rooms?
Madison Eker: Yes, exactly. I think it’s important to provide time for the attendees to speak — voice their opinions and ask questions. We use a tool called Slido for interactive polling during our sessions. Pretty much constantly when we’re speaking, attendees can say what they think, submit answers, and ask their own questions. It’s a safe space to avoid participants feeling like if they say the wrong thing, they’re going to be judged. And we also provide breakout rooms to allow people the chance to really speak. Like you said, it can become an intimate experience. I mean, there are pros and cons to both virtual and in person, but I’ve found that virtual can be just as great as a live experience.
Olivia Bortolazzo: I have a couple more questions for you. I know you touched on this briefly at the beginning, but I want to just return to it one last time. Why do you think practicing allyship is important? And why is implementing and maintaining inclusive spaces important for every aspect of your organization’s life and of your employees’ lives?
Madison Eker: This is such a good question! So, allies are the bridge walkers, and no movement has ever happened without them. It’s important to practice allyship because it expands our understanding and our empathy. It allows us to relate to others better in all facets of life. This applies even if we’re not talking from a company standpoint — if you’re just talking about yourself. Trying to become a better ally to marginalized communities helps you become a better person. If we are talking about the workplace, it makes coworkers feel safer and happier. It leads to stronger teams, less turnover, and a better work morale.
Allyship shows you care about your marginalized customers and your friends: you care about their backgrounds, you understand them better, and you understand that their experiences may be different than yours. Allyship also allows employees to focus on their jobs, rather than feeling out of place, which is really important. And companies that are better allies have more diverse workforces. They make better decisions because they have more diverse perspectives. Companies like this are 43 percent more likely to experience above-average profits. Allyship, in general, is so important in the workplace and outside it.
Olivia Bortolazzo: I’m curious to know: if someone wants to be an ally but is afraid of not knowing enough or not knowing how to use their voice, what would you recommend? What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a good ally for a teammate? What things can they do on an individual level?
Madison Eker: That’s a great question, too! We’ve been speaking about allyship more from a company standpoint and why that’s important. Individually, though, I would say the simplest way to be an ally is to be affirming. If somebody says, “This is my experience,” offer affirmation. Say something like, “I understand how you’re feeling” and listen to them. That would be the first step. Being an ally is all about listening and affirming, never negating someone else’s experience. Some other tips I have are to stand up for people and be empathetic, but listening and learning are key.
I would say the simplest way to be an ally is to be affirming. If somebody says, “This is my experience,” offer affirmation.
Olivia Bortolazzo: Affirming. I feel like that’s so simple and it’s such a good takeaway for our listeners. Thanks for all this great information! I’ve loved hearing about Sum of Us — and I love talking to you in general, too, because it’s just fun. I do have one more question, and it’s more of a personal one. So, if you’re okay with getting a little vulnerable, my question is: did you always see yourself going into this profession? And if you didn’t, can you find a connection with being the founder of Sum of Us to your childhood? Any aspirations you had growing up that mirror your current career?
Madison Eker: I haven’t been asked that question before, so I’m going to dig deep and go for it. I think the reason why this work is important is that no one wants to feel like they’re not included. Providing inclusivity is, to me, the best thing you could do for somebody. No one wants to not be invited to that party; no one wants to feel like they’re out of place. I’m really fortunate — privileged — to have felt included a lot in my life, but I have definitely felt not included at many points. For instance, in my teenage years when my friends were invited to a birthday party and I wasn’t included; after coming out and not being included for being queer.
I would say that, just from a personal standpoint, inclusivity really draws on some strings in my heart because I know what it’s like to feel out of place. I don’t want anyone to feel like that, and that’s where my empathy comes in. But I did not expect to be doing this as my life’s work. As a kid, I thought I’d be a singer or an artist — something like that. And singing is probably the worst skill I have!
But my family are in the events world. I think merging the pain points I have — of inclusivity and wanting to make the world a better place for people — with events makes sense.
Olivia Bortolazzo: I like that connection — how the word “inclusivity” ties into your childhood. Life is so layered, and it overlaps with a lot of the choices you’ve made for the development of Sum of Us, which is very rooted in inclusivity. Thank you for sharing that and being a little vulnerable with us. We love to ask this childhood-aspirations question because it allows our listeners to understand our guests on a human level. I really appreciate you sharing.
Madison Eker: That was a good question, for sure!
Olivia Bortolazzo: I think that’s all the time we have today, but thank you so much, Madison, for sharing and being vulnerable with us. I really enjoyed our conversation and I’m sure you’ve made a huge impact on our listeners. For anyone who wants to connect, reach out, or follow, where can they go?
Madison Eker: You can find us at sumofus.co. We’d be happy to chat with you and find out what you’re looking for.
Olivia Bortolazzo: Awesome! Thanks again, Madison!
Madison Eker: Thank you, Olivia! It was a pleasure.
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Thriver Podcast is the leading company culture podcast, where each unique episode brings you engaging topics that new hosts and guests will connect on. Learn what drives a strong workplace culture through leadership, diverse experiences, personal stories, and much more.