Interview with Jenna Cotton: Pride in work and life
Jenna Cotton Assoc CIPD is a results-oriented, driven HR professional, currently heading up Culture, People and Talent at Dexory – she also happens to be part of the LGBTQ+ community. Here she talks about recruitment, diversity red flags and what Pride Month means to her, with Johanna Hamilton MBCS.
Tell me about your career?
The past 10 years, I have been heavily involved in people centric roles, supporting companies to build and scale successfully. My previous role was as Head of People for an amazing company supporting on mentoring and with a particular focus on under-represented talent. I had been with them for nearly six years and had learnt a lot from the early stages of a startup through to significant scale up. As with any role, there does come a time where you reflect upon your journey, where you have come from, how much you have gained in that experience and look ahead at where else you can develop. After six years it became apparent that a new challenge was on the cards.
The opportunity with Dexory came to me, and I consider myself fortunate to have been approached. Upon speaking with and meeting the three founders, I was immediately captivated by their unwavering passion, motivation and ambition to build upon the wonderful foundations of a company that they had set out. Their vision to combine AI, logistics, and robotics was truly inspiring. This, coupled with their commitment to creating an enjoyable work environment, made me instantly believe in the organisation and accept the role without hesitation.
As the Head of Culture, People, and Talent, I have been entrusted to support the company in shaping its culture to attract and support top talent and create an environment of high performance, through creating an empowering, engaging and fun place to work. It is my responsibility to ensure that we not only attract exceptional talent, but also create a sense of belonging from day one. This involves assessing our culture, defining the ideal candidates, sourcing from diverse talent pools and establishing an effective onboarding process.
While bringing talented individuals on board is crucial, it is equally important to engage and retain them. We strive to foster an environment where everyone feels comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work, embracing their unique backgrounds and perspectives. Diversity, equity and inclusion is key to our next stages of growth and I actively contribute to fostering these principles from the C-Suite down to our newest team members.
Tell me about Dexory?
We’re a little bit different to a lot of robotics companies out there. We offer a 360 solution – from building our robots right through to testing, deploying and capturing data for our clients. We’ve just opened a new warehouse in Oxfordshire and that’s where we will start to look at scaling up our production.
Imagine you are in a vast warehouse. There are 100s, if not thousands, of boxes of varying shapes, sizes, content and so forth. Taking a daily stock take on all of these items can be exceptionally time consuming and often warehouses encounter errors, misplacements and other costly mishaps. By deploying our robotics, we can scan a whole shelf in a fraction of the time and communicate that information to a client’s warehouse management system in an instant. The time saved can lead to huge cost savings and efficiency gains.
Alongside this we have DexoryView, this is our new platform which automates data collection and builds real-time digital twins that allow a client to see what is going on, across all levels of the warehouse.
How did you research Dexory’s diversity?
Initially I was lucky enough to be approached by a headhunter for the role by going through a third party. It meant that I could ask them a lot of questions about the company and keep coming back with more if I felt the need. A lot of the questions that I asked were around the culture, the people, their values, vision, mission, how they treated their team, what they thought success looked like, what the next 12-36 months looked like and what they expected from the role of Head of Culture, People and Talent.
I had been inspired by each of the founders after speaking to them but really loved the fact that there was a female leader in Oana, clearly a successful and very driven woman in this space. They knew and know how important it is to keep pushing on diversity – women in tech being one – but diversity in general needing to be a key focus in any organisation. This instantly grabbed my attention. Ultimately, it is so important to me personally that you want to be going into a company where you can gain a clear sight of inclusion and a sense of belonging. I felt that instantly at Dexory and very much still do.
It’s Pride month. What does that mean to you, personally?
There are always going to be very opposing opinions to Pride month. Some people who are from the LGBTQ+ community are very happy and proud to have and to be part of Pride month – others less so, for a lot of different reasons. Those who embrace Pride month see it as an opportunity for individuals to take pride in who they are, to talk about it, share stories and have the conversations that might not ordinarily have been had.
For me, it’s really a time to think about and celebrate the trailblazers who have prepared the ground for us. People who have helped us get to where we are now, to have the rights that we have, to push on equality and acceptance. There are lots of countries where it’s completely forbidden to be openly gay. We need to remind ourselves how fortunate we are today. Obviously, it’s a time to celebrate and be grateful for how far we’ve come, but also to remember the individuals who are still struggling to come to terms with their sexuality. There are still people who feel they can’t come out because they fear the reaction of family, friends and society.
There is still a long way to go before everyone celebrates Pride – and that’s unfortunate, but I hope one day, it is something everyone is able to enjoy freely.
Do you have to be the change you want to see?
I think you do. If you want to cause a movement, if you want to call in the change, you have to get behind it. Even when I was very young, Kelly Holmes was always a big role model for me. I was super proud when she came out not so long ago. I think that was a pivotal moment. I think everybody knew how hard this was for her to do after so many years of battling with her sexuality, alongside injuries, mental health troubles and being in the spotlight. The fact she went out there and said, “look, I want to confirm this” was very positive. I think that, for me, that was something that made me really push forward and made me proud of who I am. So, yes, role models are so important. We just need more role models out there to inspire, support and promote equality and of course to educate society more widely.
What challenges do you think the LGBTQ community still face today?
In a lot of environments, such as manufacturing, I think it’s still quite difficult to have those conversations. It is still very male dominated. As a woman you’re probably going to feel pretty excluded. Often colleagues will be totally unaware they are doing it so we need to change that. I think you’re unlikely to have the sort of water cooler conversations that you might from other, less homogenous industries.
In my previous company they were really good at supporting, mentoring and making sure they were getting in front of universities and schools to promote opportunities to underrepresented talent. They were also excellent at facing it head-on, saying “if you’re female, if you have a disability or if you’re from an ethnic minority background, it doesn’t mean you can’t do this”. Opening up those conversations is that first and most important step.
Also, getting the team talking and involved in events, that’s super important as well. We actually participated in The Big Logistics Diversity Challenge this month which is where you compete in a series of physical, mental and skill challenges. We had a team of 10 and really enjoyed participating alongside so many other companies who are advocates of DEI. Things like this bring people and communities together. It shows that the company is willing to really put themselves out there.
How do you combat the unconscious bias?
It’s a big educational piece. I think it would be great if one day I could introduce myself and for somebody not to say to me “so, do you have a husband or a boyfriend?” That’s automatically makes things awkward as you then have to navigate the conversation, thinking how can I not offend this person, or make them feel a little silly and without causing any bad feelings in a brand new relationship, in a brand new environment.
But educating them means they’re not going to end up doing that to somebody else and putting them in that uncomfortable position again. So that’s a great example of that education. But it comes down to being open and honest. It comes down to talking about it. Getting the team involved directly with you, but also getting yourself out there.
Unconscious bias training was a thing of the past but seems to be coming back again. You may have friends who are gay or are from minority ethnic groups but do you actually know what that means to that individual? How their lives are? What’s different from them to you? The challenges that they face? Without knowing those challenges you can never know what it’s like for them.
Educating people then getting them to be allies is crucial. In my one of my previous roles, I had a conversation with someone who said “it’s Pride Month, we need to sing and dance about it”. He was well-meaning but ultimately he couldn’t see what Pride was really about because he wasn’t educated. By the time he had participated in Pride month he came away from it with a completely different perspective – and is now able to make a much more useful contribution. It’s not always just doing something for the sake of it, it is finding the deeper meaning within it.
How do you make recruitment more LGBTQ+ friendly?
I think it starts from the very beginning. You have to think about your plan, your recruitment strategy, where are you going to look for candidates? You have to think about what language is going into your adverts? What language is on your website or your company literature? Are you being inclusive? Are you not being inclusive? That’s super important because you could be missing a whole group of individuals because of the language you’re using.
There are recruitment agencies that use positive CV screening practices to recruit, which is great and drives the “women in tech” piece forward – but there are a lot of others that just blanket advertise.
Showing our own LGBTQ+ community is equally important and we have a good representation of diversity as a whole when we attended The Big Logistics Diversity Challenge, which I hope will encourage others to join in next year and of course, might consider Dexory as their next employer of choice.
What red flags are there when you’re looking for companies to work with?
Go on to the website. We were researching a company we wanted to do business with a few weeks ago and found that in a team of 60, they had put their 10 or so diverse employees at the front of their company picture. So, yes, you want to see diversity, but equally when it’s completely forced, that feels quite negative too.
Also look on review sites such as Glassdoor. That will give a warts and all picture of what the culture is like. Look at their people on LinkedIn. Look at the articles they’re putting out. Is there any thought leadership? What events are they attending? What do they do to promote culture? If there aren’t people who you feel you can connect with, or people who have the same values, you’ve got to ask the question “would I be comfortable working there?”
Have you mentored? Do you think mentoring is important?
I have recently signed up to a tech platform for mentoring – that will support me as a mentor but also offer advice for how to encourage more people into this space. It’s about combining “why should I work in tech” with DEI strategy. In my last role, it wasn’t just about putting target figures down on a spreadsheet. It was also asking the question do we have the tools in place to support diversity, what does that look like, how do we train and coach our managers to be able to support a wide variety of individuals with very different needs? What tools do they need?
I think it’s very easy to get people in, but if the door is shut on them for advancement within the company, then there’s always going to be that question mark – is it because I’m diverse that I’m not getting this promotion? We have to make sure we are being equal and fair across the board, not only in recruitment but in retention.
Is Dexory recruiting at the moment?
We’re recruiting rapidly and aggressively – we want more diverse talent coming through the doors! We are actually recruiting for almost every role you can imagine from software developers and hardware right through to marketing and sales. If you’re interested in working at Dexory please do reach out and take a look at https://www.dexory.com/join-us