This is the ninth post in our “Project Your Voice” series.
In this Q&A, we sat down with Ashley T. Brundage, an award-winning Leadership & Empowerment Expert and author of Empowering Differences: Leveraging Your Differences to Impact Change. Ashley has spent more than a decade in the DEI space; in the last few years, she has turned her attention to events, with a focus on creating communities where everyone feels safe and empowered.
Q: How did you get started in the meetings industry?
A: I have always had a predilection for organizing events and bringing people together. In fact, I often talk about my very own [imaginary] meeting planner that sits on my shoulder, Holly. When I released my book in 2020 and it started to get traction, she started planting the idea that I should speak at large meetings and hold my own events to bring my readers together. She kept hounding me, sending me ideas and plans. That was really the entry point for me, when I became entrenched in the meetings industry.
Previously, I worked for PNC Bank as the VP of Diversity and Inclusion. We held events, of course, and I managed their annual DEI conference, so I was very familiar with certain aspects of the industry, like destination selection, RFPs and RFQs.
I had also begun volunteering in my community, running the Tampa Bay LGBT Chamber. At one point, they wondered if the national organization would consider holding their event in Tampa, so I immediately began learning the process and eventually won the bid for the event, along with the $10 million economic impact that came with it.
Since I had been exposed to so many different working parts of events, from running a national convention to operating community partnerships, Holly’s insistence made a lot of sense. I dove in and became a speaker for IMEX and a PCMA Best in Class Speaker. I also started hosted The Empowerment Summit, where I bring people together from around the world to talk and learn about how to drive empowerment. We are currently putting the finishing touches on an upcoming event in Thailand. Since I have become involved in the meetings and events industry the opportunities have really snowballed, and I owe it all to Holly nudging me towards that path.
Q: What part of your work are you most proud of?
A: The 90-second digital live engagement-style assessment that we do is so exciting.
We use ten characteristics that we call differences––physical abilities and attributes, age, social/economic class, education, ethnicity, gender, language, religion, race and sexuality. We invite the audience to rate each difference as it applies to themselves on a scale of zero to one hundred, with zero being the least empowered and 100 being the most empowered.
This is an aspect of DEI that is rarely tracked, benchmarked or compared over time, and that means we are leaving opportunities to drive empowerment on the table. Empowerment is a really emotional topic, so when we put numbers behind it in these assessments, it is really interesting. Based on the results (and the size of the group), I can offer insights for how those differences are impacting the community and make instant recommendations for actions that people can do to drive more empowerment in the future. For example, if a majority of people in the group feel disempowered due to social/economic factors, the action that can be taken is improving access. They can offer more inexpensive resources, fund trips to industry events, increase budgets where possible, etc. It almost always takes more than one action.
Just like most aspects of the meetings industry, these assessments are about building a connection and showing people how to do their jobs better through empowering others. It makes a rapid impact, which is awesome to see.
Q: When you entered the meetings space, what opportunities did you see for expanded acceptance and empowerment?
A: The lowest hanging fruit, because of who I am, is to have a conversation about the transgender community. I try to not center my work about that, but at the end of the day, it’s one of the social-identity groups that I belong to, and it’s one of the ones that is most hotly contested. Unfortunately, if we don’t talk about it, we end up with a lot of misinformation.
One aspect of my work is advocating for more understanding around legislation and the impact that can have on destinations. For example, some people feel that due to certain laws or policies, meetings should not be held in a given city or state. But the reality is, the most marginalized identity groups that live in that location not only have to live with those restrictive laws, but then are also deprived the opportunity to attend an important event and lose out on the potential income that comes from the influx of people to their area. This means those groups are being hurt multiple times. My work in the advocacy space surrounding legislation and impact is a big part of what I have been doing for lots of years.
Q: What are the top misunderstandings you face as a transgender woman?
A: There are five top areas that seem to come up again and again: sports, bathrooms, healthcare, schools and drag. Every bill involving trans people involves at least one of those five things. Legislation is created when people are threatened or fearful, so I work on spreading factual information and scientific data to help people move towards understanding.
Q: Was there a person who helped guide you when you were making the transition to this industry?
A: David Jefferys helped me get a lot of direct exposure. He is currently the executive director for the Global Diversity Alliance, an organization that works to make sure DEI is embedded in the meetings and events industry around the world. I met him when he was with another organization, and he really championed me to get on the stage at IMEX and PCMA.
Q: Where should people look for mentorship?
A: My favorite advice to give someone looking for a mentor is to find someone who has nothing in common with you. That’s when you really learn something.
My second piece of advice is to consider what you are asking for, and make sure you are providing something of value in exchange. Mentorship is a big commitment to take on. If you are thinking of asking someone to be a mentor for you, consider how you can take something off of their plate. That will be a much faster way to get to yes. Mentorship is one of the top 10 actions for empowerment, and it is all about a shared journey and partnership experience. You have to make sure you are making as much of an investment in your mentor as they are in you. Because if it doesn’t go both ways, it is not empowering. Both parties have to be getting something out of a mentorship commitment for it to actually really work.
Q: What do you love about this industry, and what do you find most challenging?
A: I love building relationships with people. The people in this space may change the brand they represent or the position they hold over time, but most remain in the space in some capacity. The partnerships you form can last your entire career, and that’s a great feeling.
The worst part for me is that, when choosing venues, someone has to lose. Your event cannot possibly be held everywhere, so when you make your decision, someone will be disappointed. I have learned over my career that the real winners are the people who take something away from every interaction, understand what they could do better, and learn from that. They will go on to win bids from other organizations.
It’s hard for people to realize that sometimes. You almost have to be on the losing side first. There was a time in my life when I was homeless, going through harassment and discrimination, trying to find a job as a proud, out, transgender woman in Florida (in 2010). I got a lot of rejection and went through a lot of losses before I started building the resources and the confidence to get to a yes. Every time I lost during an interview, even the ones where they wouldn’t let me, called the cops or slammed the door in my face, I learned something from every single one of those losses. That’s how humans move forward.
Q: What is your advice for others who are considering choosing a path in this industry?
A: Make sure you are passionate about what you’re doing. Make sure you love that product, destination or association to pieces. If you love it, and you believe in it, it will be a lot easier to sell it and build on it.
Q: Is there anything that you wish you would have done differently in your career?
A: I wish I would have published my book a lot sooner. I was waiting for permission from PNC Bank, and I had this idea that I needed to have 100,000 words for my book to be reputable, which I now know isn’t necessarily true. I ultimately wrote a book about DEI, but we call it empowering differences; that distinction is important – and was purposeful – because empowerment is important to everyone in the world, and the differences are applicable to all people. There are 8 billion different people on the planet, and no one will argue that they aren’t different from everyone else, even identical twins. Those two things will always remain true, so my work will always be relevant. I provide people the opportunity to choose how they exist in the world. What they do with that choice is up to them.
DEI has changed its name many times. It has been diversity, affirmative action, equal employment opportunity, civil rights, accessibility and suffrage–that was probably the first diversity movement in the US. Before that, the understanding that we must learn about differences in order to market to certain groups and capitalize off of their wants and desires was simply called leadership.
If we want to be successful in the DEI space, we should flip the script and call it what it really is. As long as we are carving out specialty events on DEI, the only people opting into those spaces are the people who already get it or are on the path to getting it. But if the same industry event starts to share the message of empowerment on the main stage, and calls it a leadership opportunity for everyone, think about the demographics of the people who will click that registration button. That is how we need to brand our DEI efforts for success.
Q: What is your hope for the future of the events industry?
A: I just hope that we move towards DEI being considered leadership and nothing more. Good leaders are the ones learning about differences, realizing they can profit from this space by selling to everyone. DEI as leadership is the secret sauce.
Q: Is there anything else you want to share with our audience?
A: What motivates me to do this work is really my kids. I’m so fortunate to have Bryce (18) and Blake (16) in my life. They are amazing and always in my corner. Blake travels with me quite a bit, and he loves seeing new places and meeting people in the industry. My favorite title is that of ‘mom,’ and getting to involve my kids in the stuff I do is really special.
If you or anyone from your organization would like to be a contributor to the “Project Your Voice” series, please let us know at email@example.com.
More from “Project Your Voice”
[Part One] Talking About Inclusion, Diversity and Finding Your Niche with Josh Henry, SPIE
[Part Two] Talking About Connection and Responsibility with Cassie Mancera, AAOMS
[Part Three] Talking About Making a Collective Impact with Paula Eichenbrenner, AMCP Foundation
[Part Four] Talking About Growth Through Facing Down Your Fears with Yolanda Simmons Battle, AHIMA
[Part Five] Talking About Putting Mental Health First with Dana Johnston, IDSA
[Part Six] Talking About the Power of Meetings with Karen Cuviello, Projection
[Part Seven] Talking About Inspiration, Change and Inclusivity with Angie M. Gates, Events DC
[Part Eight] Talking About Planning for Accessibility with Rosemarie Rossetti, Rosetti Enterprises LLC