Natalie Edwards exemplifies the successful AWE-client partnership. From Director of I&D in the beauty business to CDO in the utility sector, Natalie has partnered with AWE to support her professional growth. She recently sat down with AWE CEO & Founder, Meiko Takayama, to discuss their long and productive relationship and mutual admiration.

MT: You know I love your story, Natalie, so let’s start at the beginning. Can you share how you got introduced to AWE and joined AWE Accelerator?

NE: I joined The Estee Lauder Companies in late May 2018 and the Executive Director of Inclusion & Diversity at the time, was due to retire at the end of June. One day, during those intense training weeks, she said to me, “We’re going to an AWE event tonight.”.

The event was for AWE Leaders, so I was the most junior person in the room. An announcement was made during the event for the launch of AWE Accelerator, and my Executive Director nudged me and said, “You should do that.”

MT: What a great sponsor moment! What was your AWE Accelerator experience like?

NE: As a Black woman, I realize now that I would get out my emotional armor when I went to a women’s event or development program. However, when I walked into AWE Accelerator, I remember hearing people speak different languages, they were from different industries, there were different shades of skin, different histories, so I didn’t feel different there. It was such a refreshing change from the lack of diversity that a lot of women’s initiatives had – and unfortunately still do, to this day – that I felt really empowered from the beginning.

I remember all the activities we did in the breakout sessions, the LinkedIn refresh, learning about the importance of a professional brand, and verbalizing my career goal. I remember saying out loud for the first time that I wanted to be a Chief Diversity Officer.

MT: We’ve had the honor of speaking and working with thousands of executives like yourself, and 90% of the time when we ask the question, “What’s next for you?”, there isn’t a concrete answer. Had you previously thought about becoming a CDO?

NE: I had thought about it, but I also had a lot of internalized limiting beliefs and I lacked the confidence I could make it a reality. I didn’t have any examples of what it was like to be a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) other than my boss, and I was unclear about the career path to get there. Accelerator felt like an empowering space that gave me the permission to pursue the role. Also, the industries represented were a mix of heritage companies like American Express and very new companies like Spotify so there were other people in the room with me that were navigating uncharted waters. Some of us are working in rapidly changing industries and we don’t know what our career is going to look like five years from now, or if the job we want today will be completely different in ten years. It’s important to have a community that affirms you and allows you to pivot.

There were so many tangible things I took away that helped elevate my career. I had the time of my life and felt empowered, welcomed, uplifted and affirmed and I’ve been sending people to AWE Accelerator ever since.

MT: I’ll never forget that the first thing you said to your AWE Accelerator cohort was, “I hate public speaking” and then you wouldn’t stop talking! [laughter] But seriously, you brought to the cohort great insights and a strong voice, so how do you feel about public speaking now?

NE: I’ve always been afraid of public speaking. In business school, if I had to present something, my knees would shake. I mean I was just terrified. At the same time, I have always felt like I’ve had a lot to say. What helped me get past it was that AWE Accelerator was a safe space where I felt I could disarm myself a little bit. I realized I could admit the fear and get better at public speaking in front of everybody versus not saying anything at all. In the past few years, speaking has become so important to me, not only in meetings but also in how I represent myself and the company externally.

Part of being ready for the top job is having and being able to express a viewpoint. In the past year particularly, it’s become more common to see not just CDOs but CEOs, writing op-eds in The New York Times or on LinkedIn about George Floyd or voting rights or major societal issues, and so AWE Accelerator was a great opportunity for me to get comfortable with my biggest fear.

MT: You’re now the Chief Diversity Officer in an entirely new industry – congratulations! How has the transition been?

NE: Thank you and I would not be a CDO right now if it wasn’t for AWE. After AWE Accelerator, because of my position, I was eligible to join the AWE Leader program. Throughout my partnership with AWEyou helped me see what I wanted to do, and then gave me the support to go for it.

When I was thinking about taking this job offer, I got coaching to figure out what this transition would look like. My AWE coach asked me to take out a notebook and write down all the traits of a job where I’d be successful, then write down all the traits of a job where I’d thrive, and then told me that I needed to be clear on the differences before I made any decision. That was really eye opening for me because my generation thinks about title, we think about salary, we think about paying back our student loans, we think about seniority. It had never occurred to me to assess a job offer based on questions like, am I going to get a team? What’s my quality of life going to be like? Do I have to commute? How often will I be traveling? How on board are senior leaders with what I do? And do I feel a sense of peace working there?

Those things are so beyond the job description but affect me every day. I wouldn’t have even known to think about them if it wasn’t for AWE. So, I’m one of those unique cases where I went from AWE Accelerator, went into the Leader program, changed companies, and now the future is bright.