AXSChat Podcast

AXSChat Podcast with Catherine Nichols, VP of the Office of Accessibility at Salesforce

February 04, 2023 Antonio Santos, Debra Ruh, Neil Milliken talk with Catherine Nichols
AXSChat Podcast with Catherine Nichols, VP of the Office of Accessibility at Salesforce
AXSChat Podcast
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AXSChat Podcast
AXSChat Podcast with Catherine Nichols, VP of the Office of Accessibility at Salesforce
Feb 04, 2023
Antonio Santos, Debra Ruh, Neil Milliken talk with Catherine Nichols

Catherine Nichols is the VP of the Office of Accessibility at Salesforce and an experienced disability rights advocate. At Salesforce, her teams strive to ensure its products, workplaces, and virtual experiences are accessible to all.

Connect with her on LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/in/catherinecnichols/ 

Find out more about the Office of Accessibility at Salesforce.com/Accessibility and join the conversation on Twitter @SalesforceA11y

 

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Captions are kindly provided by MyClearText.

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Show Notes Transcript

Catherine Nichols is the VP of the Office of Accessibility at Salesforce and an experienced disability rights advocate. At Salesforce, her teams strive to ensure its products, workplaces, and virtual experiences are accessible to all.

Connect with her on LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/in/catherinecnichols/ 

Find out more about the Office of Accessibility at Salesforce.com/Accessibility and join the conversation on Twitter @SalesforceA11y

 

AXSChat is Supported by Amazon. 

Captions are kindly provided by MyClearText.

Support the Show.

Follow axschat on social media
Twitter:

https://twitter.com/axschat
https://twitter.com/AkwyZ
https://twitter.com/neilmilliken
https://twitter.com/debraruh

LinkedIn
https://www.linkedin.com/in/antoniovieirasantos/
https://www.linkedin.com/company/axschat/

Vimeo
https://vimeo.com/akwyz




This is a draft transcript produced live at the event and corrected for spelling and basic errors. It is not a commercial transcript. AXSCHAT Catherine Nichols

NEIL:

Hello and welcome to Axschat. I'm delighted today that we are joined by Catherine Nichols, who is a VP of the office of accessibility, Salesforce. Catherine, great to have you with us. We know Salesforce does loads of stuff and is particularly active in accessibility, you've got a whole bunch of things going on. But, let's step it back a little bit and find out a bit about your background. How you came to work in accessibility before we go to work in full throttle into your commitments to the Valuable 500, your work with the DEI etc. So, tell us a bit about how you came to work in the field?

CATHERINE:

Yes, I'd love to and thanks for having me here today. This is a story that I really enjoy telling, so I appreciate the opportunity to share. It's kind of an interesting story which I'm sure we all have of where we end up in careers and what we do over time and it's hard to predict where we'll end up years from then. But, I started at Salesforce a little over 16 years ago and I was working in an area of risk management, this is continuity, crisis management, health and safety, a lot of enterprise risk management work. But also, during that time, my personal affiliation with disability is that my father was paraplegic, and so, I learned through him and his experience, the accessibility and inaccessibility of the world and he also was a writer and he shared with the local newspaper at Denver, Colorado an article called Curb Cuts, where he documented the things that he found to inaccessible around him in the world and whether it was not shovelling your sidewalks during snow terms so that he wasn't able to get to the bus to get to work. Lots of inaccessible parking for his accessible van with hand controls they used and really just saw through his eyes the ways that we could do better, as a world for many, many people. And when he passed away about five years ago, I joined the employee resource group or what we call Equality Group at Salesforce, called Ability Force. That is for people with disability and their allies, parents of children with disabilities, caregivers, just a really great community at Salesforce, where we can share experiences, give back to the world, learn from each other and really connect and be allies and during that time I met some wonderful people. I learned a tonne because in my experience, I knew one person who utilised a wheelchair and their experience obviously which was different from others and then also, the breadth and depth of disability and how impactful it is for so many people in so many different ways and through that work I became the VP of the Ability Force Group and worked in that area and it was really a grass roots effort from Ability Force to launch what we now have as the Office of Accessibility at Salesforce. And the office started three years ago. So, it was at the very beginning of 2020. But, there was a lot of time spent leading up to that where teams across salesforce were working on accessibility but there was no coordinated effort from an Office of Accessibility and we also found that volunteers were doing a lot of the work that the business should be doing whether it was making Dream Force, our conference for customers, accessible or advocating for accessibility aspects in our offices. It was really coming from the volunteers. And so, we put a proposal, the Ability Force leadership team and advocates put a proposal in front of our leadership saying we needed this office. And we put together a whole plan of what that office would look like. What is a three-year, five-year plan? How we would build that out. What the staffing model would look like. What the goals would be. What the areas of focus would be? And our leadership saw that it was not only good for our employees but it was also going to be a really great aspect for our business and for our customers and for our partners and for our entire Salesforce eco system. So, they put the sponsorship, the financial sponsorship, the dedication, the executive sponsorship behind this office and in that time, I applied to lead the office of accessibility and made a career shift into making this work my full time job of launching this office and leading this office, going into today.

NEIL:

Great super. So, I mean so, you have actually shifted from risk to opportunity.

CATHERINE:

Yeah. I'll use that going forward.

NEIL:

So long as I get a small cut, that's fine.

CATHERINE:

Yes, I will.

NEIL:

Because I do think that accessibility represents untapped opportunity. We are tapping into all of this hidden potential, as Debra's book of a long time ago said. I'm getting old now. Anyway, so, you know, obviously as a large provider of services and systems and everything else then and insights Salesforce has the ability to help businesses maximise their productivity and so on and so forth and on top of that, you know, you need to do it for your own employees, and it's great that you mentioned the fact that it was a recognition that it needed to be a paid role and it can't just be reliant on volunteer work all the time. The volunteers are super important. We love ours.

CATHERINE:

Yes, we're still very connected with Ability Force. I should make that clear that the Office of Accessibility works in partnership with Ability Force, in the context of,'Say nothing about us, without us.'

NEIL:

Yes, absolutely. So, I know Antonio and Debra has a question. I think Debra is up first. But 2020 that was the launch of Valuable 500. I know Salesforce were part of the earlier doctors of Valuable 500, was that something that was a sort of meeting of the lining of the stars, as you like, because you know, lots of CEOs were being courted and so on and timed nicely with your business proposals because I mean that three year plan, five year plan, that long term vision is exactly what you know, CEO's, really like to hear to take things forward.

CATHERINE:

Yes, and our partnerships that we have with the office of accessibility with Salesforce, our external partnerships are really, really critical in the way that we make this work happen and with the Valuable 500, you're right, the stars aligned. You have the launching of the Office of Accessibility. We have the Valuable 500 say hey, companies, come and make a public commitment to accessibility, disability and inclusion. And we said, let's do it. Less commit that we are going to have this office of accessibility that we are going to source it, that we are going to put the executive sponsorship behind it, that we are really going to put the work in and let's tell the world about it and make a public commitment. And the Valuable 500 was a great platform and partnership to do that, in partnership with all these other companies that are working towards a similar goal. And something that we talk about is that we really can't do this work alone. We need to do with government, with partners, with non-profits, with other companies. Salesforce alone cannot solve the disability crisis of unemployment and we need everyone to go ahead and be part of this mission and that's what the Valuable 500 drives. We also do it on the Salesforce front is that we work with our customers and even our competitors to share best practices and really work towards a common goal of disability inclusion and a more accessible world.

DEBRA:

I have a lot of comments, questions, but I'll try not to take all the time. But I just want to say a couple of things. In the first place, so much of what you just said, but when you were talking about the disability crisis in employments. Of course, this crisis is much bigger than employment. It's about true inclusion. It's about making sure that we are really meaningfully included in society, understanding who we are. All that stuff as you said Catherine, we can't do this alone. But I just want to make a few comments in that all three of us were very involved in trying to help Caroline Casey with the Valuable 500. We believe getting CEOs to the table wakes the CEOs up and helps the organisation be successful. But I do want to give you a big, big shout out of love because when Salesforce stepped up and joined the Valuable 500, it was early on and I was seeing a lot of resistance from American based corporations joining. And when Salesforce stepped up and did it as an almost 8 billion dollar brand, it just really, really helped us convince other people. And none of us get paid helping with this but we knew if we could get the boys to the table to commit that you know, it was a benefit for all of us. But I also want to applaud Salesforce for what you were saying, in that you had all these powerful voices of Salesforce employees that want Salesforce to be inclusive. They want everybody to be able to use Salesforce. They want to do the right things. But I like that the leadership listened to the voices because we have seen other groups, that are pretty much running from the ERG's, the leadership groups, where leadership is not listening and we have actually seen talented people leave because they were not being listened to by the brand. So, I think Salesforce gives us another opportunity to show why it works when we really truly include the entire community. And the last thing I want to say is, I think your story about your father was so beautiful and so powerful. And you must have gotten such a powerful upbringing by being raised by your dad. I don't know your dad but I wish I could've met your dad because he sounds like an amazing man but I'm just curious how he must, at the same time as you were growing up watching this, have been underestimated often. And I was just curious how that particular thing impacted you. And I see, a little bit that I miss my dad too and I just lost my husband. But I know you miss your dad. But I just want to say, what you have done for your dad, I just, he must be so proud. I just want to applaud you and ask you if you saw some of that. Sorry, Catherine to make you cry.

CATHERINE:

It's okay, it's just so sweet.

DEBRA:

Well, it's true. He will appreciate what you've done. God bless you and your dad.

CATHERINE:

Thank you so much. Thank you. I think what's interesting is, with my dad there were yes, all the aspects of making our house a different way, right? To be more accessible for him and like really adjusting the whole system and the life and the everything that was there through a whole new lens of what that would look like and that brings in the whole concept of like inclusive design, right? So, I look at the full remodel that my parents did on their home to make it more accessible for my dad and it's honestly a way better house now for everyone. And it was just for him. It's gorgeous, right, and free flowing and all the things, so there is that concept of the inclusive design. And I think everyone's story is going to be different, right? So, there is the concept that there were a lot of people who once, my dad was paralyzed later in life and there was this idea of, well there are all these options and we can get you skiing and we can get you paragliding and you can do all these amazing things just because you're paralyzed doesn't mean you can't do all that stuff. And he was like I didn't do that before why do I've to do that now. Like why do I have to do those things, right? I don't need to go be this amazing paraglider now that's not my

DEBRA:

Right, but did he need to be able to get inside his bedroom or the bathroom?

CATHERINE:

Yes, yes.

DEBRA:

Yes, I know you can paraglide, woo hoo!

CATHERINE:

Yes, exactly. So, everyone's story is different. You know? And then, on the flipside, I am a skier and I do go skiing and there is a great programme for kids and adults with disabilities to teach them to how to ski, for those that are interested in that. But everyone's story is different and we have to be open to those differences and the main thing is we try to focus on that basic level of accessibility and liveability and independence that we need to reach as well.

NEIL:

So, as a large federated global organisation that acquires other companies. How does the office of accessibility cope with that complexity because, large organisations I know, I'm in one too, are complex and you can fix one thing and you can be really fantastic and do a great job on accessibility in certain areas. How do you do it systemically and how do you take that into account as you acquire new ones.

CATHERINE:

Yes, we are not perfect. Progress not perfection and prioritisation. We want to do everything, that would be wonderful. But, we can't. So, we need to chip away at it and not try to boil the ocean. Because otherwise you get completely overwhelmed. So, I see companies coming and be like we can't, we can't do it. There is too much to do. I'm like well you can do something. You can start with something. And once you start with something, then it's something else and it's something else. But you have got to make those first priorities of doing something with what you have. And, the way that we are working towards trying to scale that is, as I talked about our customers, our partners, our competitors, our key to this, so, we actually work hand in hand with Microsoft. And they have a great model of this, hub and spoke model and we thought that was great and we worked with them to implement the same here at Salesforce. So, we are a smallish team and we really work on enablement materials to make it so other teams embed accessibility and disability inclusion into their work, whether it's marketing, HR, finance, you know, real estate, business technology, procurement. You name it, we are working with all of those teams to embed accessibility into their own practices for them to take it forward because we don't have, in charge of the accessibilities of marketing or the accessibility of really estate or the accessibility of so on and so on. We have team members who put together materials and sessions and enablement training and office hours and all the things to make it so that it's distributed across the organisation.

DEBRA:

I think that Antonio still is having technical problems. So, Antonio, if you can hear us, let us know because we definitely want to hear from you. But in the meantime Catherine, another thing that you know, once again I love that Salesforce has the community engaged because every single corporation has a community and part of it is just whether or not you're engaging and really making value. But, I really appreciate the efforts that you're making. I just would be curious and this might be sort of a question to ATOS as well as Salesforce, another billion dollar brand. But how do you teach the community, this is a great question, how do you teach the community to be patient with all of the moving parts, all of the process, all of the objects. So, we can say, I cannot believe YYZ is not accessible. How, do brands have a responsibility or something that they can to do to join the community to help us understand it does take time. And every time, for example Salesforce acquires another company, it has to be blended in, in a way. But these are such big topics, how? What responsibility do you all think the gigantic brands, the Salesforce, ATOS and others, a lot of them join the Valuable 500, have to help us what we understand what role we need to play to make sure you are all successful and that it's not just one time done. Now, you know we see. And it looks like Antonio is getting a little better. So, I'm going to let you Neil answer that question and then we'll let Antonio go again or try to go.

CATHERINE:

Something we have had at Salesforce, which we have, which was at the beginning of Salesforce is how the company was even started which is something called a V2 MOM, and that's our vision, our methods, our obstacles, our measures and our values. And, we do that every single year and we put forth what it is that we plan to do that year. And it comes from top down. And so, it's all aligned across CR and it's also aligned sideways, right? So, we work to put on to influence groups to put on their V2MOM their accessibility work for that year. It's aligned to our priorities for that year as well. And then it goes up to the executives who put on their V2 MOM their commitment to accessibility as well. So, you can follow that commitment from all the way down, to all the way up and back down and sideways and so, we use that every year and sometimes we use a V2 MOM for a project. Sometimes we use it for a three-year plan, a five year plan. But it keeps us all aligned and engaged on the same values and vision and moving forward.

NEIL:

I think that's interesting and I think it's quite a US type model and we are a European company that we had a slightly different model. So, we have raison d'etre, we are French and this is our sense of purpose and it's actually something that's voted on by our shareholders and inclusion is part of that. So, that isn't a yearly plan kind of thing. It's really a sort of statement of intent and it does get updated. The planning cycles and so on are more granular and they are not things that the shareholders would vote on but every sort of large French organisation or French owned or based organisation is required to have these raison d'etre to have a plan and on top of that, it's sort of built into our ESG metrics and our targets. And so we are essentially you know mapping all of that and measuring all of that and working our way, as you say, horizontally and vertically around the organisation. It's not easy to do all of this, you know. It's an exercise in plate spinning and coordination and like you said, not every department is going to have an accessibility expert but what we do have, across the organisation is over 150 Accessibility Spock's who are people, who are the interface for the accessibility programme and those various different areas and then they are the ones that are working on the team for the work stream whether procurement or improving our marketing and communications accessibility or looking at different aspects of recruitment and retention and data gathering and all this kind of stuff. So, every organisation has, of the size of scale of the organisations that we are in. Where we have got tens of thousands of employees, is in an exercise in complexity and every single one is going to have an approach to doing it. I think that and that takes time. And so, what we have is, for what we can say to the community and what we do need to engage with the community is that while it may take us a long time to do things but we are like an oil tanker and once you start turning the oil tanker it's pretty inexorable, it's not going stop. So, you do need to be patient with us, but expect us to bring about, collectively bring about systemic change.

ANTONIO:

Okay. Catherine.

CATHERINE:

Welcome back.

ANTONIO:

Thank you, I am curious to see, what type of conversations, from the moment that you established the office of accessibility and from the moment that you, Salesforce went more public about the work doing in accessibility, what conversations have this sparked with your customers? And even within your own employees, that I'm very curious about that particular area?

CATHERINE:

Yeah, that's great. I mean customers as you know, huge area of our work and our passion area is that we want to make sure our products are accessible and that we are working with customers on the accessible implementation of Salesforce and management of Salesforce and how it gets implemented and used and Neil is right here as a customer and so, we worked with them recently and love partnering with customers. We meet with customers. We get feedback from customers. We launched a customer support desk for accessibility that's something new in the last couple of years, where you can actually go log tickets with an accessibility support desk, with professionals who understand and know about accessibility of Salesforce and can work with our product teams to make changes to the product or to answer questions about the product based on those tickets and so, we are aligned across our product teams. Our product accessibility team. Our product support team. And we all work together to support our customers and our implementation partners on the product side.

ANTONIO:

Have you observed any changes from the side of the Salesforce employees, you know, I want to learn more about accessibility. I want to change my career path and I really want to work with this space.

CATHERINE:

Yes, yes. We have had quite a few team members within Salesforce who have specific jobs who now work in the office of accessibility or the accessibility support desk or the accessibility support desk or the product ally team and you know, and many, many more, who reach out to me all the time and I wish I had a million more open spots to hire these individuals. There is a huge amount of interest in working in this space. And, I'm hoping even now for future or now in the present that there is more built into it in like the higher education too. So, digital accessibility and the higher education. Accessibility in your marketing practices, in your architecture practices. Disability awareness and inclusion in general. I have, I personally have a degree in computer science and even though it was some time ago, there was no mention of accessibility in any of my computer classes and nothing and I think that that is still somewhat the case when people come to Salesforce is that they are learning on the job and through partner organisations about accessibility from us an education that we are providing. But, I would love to see more built into the education system going forward. And I can tell you, I'm going to meet with the local Girl Scouts organisation in a few weeks and just do a disability awareness training for them and at least about language, right? And just start embedding it into our education system.

NEIL:

So, that's great. I fully agree we need to more in education I think we need to and when you're aiming at the Girl Scouts, I think you're aiming in the right place because we need to go much earlier than when you have got to the point of taking a degree. So, the kids innately get it and kids understand and have a sense of fairness that we kind of drum out as we get older and more cynical because we learn systems and we learn inequality of systems that we then have to unlearn.

DEBRA:

They have awareness. I've three young girls myself and their awareness of what disability is and where they need accommodations and learning supports in order to be their best self and best student and learn in the best way, is way more, I mean, a thousand percent more than when I grew up. So those kids, young people are coming into the workforce and saying, here's what I need to be successful and here's where you need to provide these things to me. So that I can give you all of this brain power, all of this amazingness to make your company better and companies really need to tune into that because the students really are tuning into it. And that's how you're going to get your best talent.

NEIL:

So, again this is getting boring, I'm agreeing with you. But, so the kids and the young people that are coming into companies, yes, they have got the awareness of their own needs and how to self-advocate and stuff like that. I think when we look the at people that are working in technology, a lot are self-thought because a lot of stuff that's thought in universities are not business relevant and the skills that people come out with are not business relevant. I work, it's okay, I'm working with a whole bunch of universities, they know they are not business relevant and sometimes that's okay. Actually, I'm a historian and an Arts major by background and Antonio is a sociologist and those skills have a value for business too. But in terms of technical skills, a lot of those are self-taught and therefore the materials that you produce in things like Trailhead for accessibility are really important because, if they are not being taught here at university. They are not being taught here at bootcamps, then it has to be something in the materials of the things that they are learning in order to get jobs. Because you can come out of university and if you're lucky, if you're a superstar and mega brain and you might get picked up in the special recruitment rounds from some of the top silicon valley companies. But the rest of the world us normies, essentially, we are going to go out there and apply for jobs and we may learn through experience and we may start working our way up towards the kind of jobs we really like and therefore what you're doing with the external materials, I think is really important.

CATHERINE:

I appreciate that because, yes, we have some amazing trails on Trailhead that are open for anyone to take and we have one recently that was launched that's like hiring and teaming with people with disabilities that is on there. We have the basics of web accessibility. And there is a bunch more that are available that the office of accessibility or the product accessibility team have put a lot of time and resource behind and once again working with partners who are specialised in these spaces to launch these trails externally to help our customers and our partners and our eco system with this work. So, I'm not going to get all the trails names right but if you go to Trailhead and search disability accessibility, you'll find a good amount of material and we are continuing to develop material to launch for the greater public as well.

ANTONIO:

And I know that there is a strong developer community that works on a regular basis with Salesforce. How does this impact that community of external developer that are out there developing different solutions for small, medium, large companies?

CATHERINE:

Yeah, at Dream Force this year, was our first time where we had a dedicated accessibility track at the conference and that was for our eco system, as we call it, of Salesforce developers, administrators and partners, customers to learn from us and our partners and our community about the accessibility of sales force and we hope to continue that breath of education at our conferences as well. Another really full partnership that we have is with the Blind Institute of Technology, which is located in Denver. And we work their certified Salesforce Trainer for administrators and developers and specifically teach to the development and administration of Salesforce utilising a screen reader and then teaching towards the Salesforce certification. And we provide grants for them and vouchers for the certification, for on the job experience. So, the individuals in that programme can go and work for our non-profit customers and learn how to do the administration the development on the Salesforce system while being paid for their work via our grants. And then also, what we get from that is key feedback from people who are using Salesforce with a screen reader, on what is and is not accessible. And just recently we were able to launch a, in the modules in Trailhead, there are direct links now at the bottom of each page that link out to the specifics on how to do that work, utilising a screen reader. And then, you can go right back to the trail again to finish up like the questions and the other material in there. And you can just easily go back and forth to find out the details of how to do it with the screen reader and we are continuing our partnership with the Blind Institute of Technology and enhancing Trailhead and enhancing our product and working with our non-profits and really trying to development our workforce development programme.

NEIL:

That sounds excellent and I'm really interested in skills development and I like the double win aspect of this, where you're giving something to the charitable community through them getting better websites and intelligence and ability to fundraise through using your tools and at the same time, you're giving people business relevant skills. So, I think that's super.

CATHERINE:

And our non-profits get some work done too.

NEIL:

Exactly. That's what I mean. They get work done. They get systems improved. They get improved systems and probably improved revenue. Definitely a double win. I think we pretty much reached the end of our time, despite everyone disappearing having internet failures and choking on their drinks.

CATHERINE:

My air pods falling out.

NEIL:

We persisted. It's been great talking with you. I really looking forward to our community engaging with you on Twitter shortly. So, thank you very much, Catherine. It's been wonderful having you on. I also need to thank MyClearText for keeping us captioned and accessible and Amazon for supporting Axschat. So, thank you.

CATHERINE:

Thank you. Right, bye.