Written by Jacob Yoss
Sheree Atcheson has worn many hats, including the Global Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Peakon, Forbes contributor, keynote speaker, Women Who Code Advisor, and now author. The underlying thread in her successful career is championing inclusion and facilitating necessary conversations.
Sheree recently met with our Content Creator, Jacob Yoss, to discuss how her new book, Demanding More, expands her work to help people better understand what it means to be inclusive.
How did you get involved with Women Who Code, and what has your journey been like with the organization?
I’ve been part of Women Who Code for over seven years now. When I first graduated with my computer science degree, I was keenly aware of the lack of women in the technology industry. Our absence became even more apparent when I became a software engineer in Northern Ireland. There were no groups for women to come together that failed to work somewhere else already, didn’t charge a fee, and that included people from all corners of the industry. There are so many ways to be technical, but no group was all-encompassing.
I conducted some research and stumbled upon the Women Who Code website. It was a tiny little website at the time without much presence, but I reached out to Alaina Percival, the CEO, on a whim. I told her, “We don’t have anything like your organization where I live, and I’d like to do something here. Can we do it with Women Who Code?” She answered, “Why not?”
So, we made it happen. I remember spending countless hours on calls in San Francisco time, which were very late at night for me. We had to take care of all the marketing, designing posters, setting up a network website, and various other details. I was instrumental in branching Women Who Code over to Belfast first, then to Bristol, Edinburgh, London, and several other cities throughout Europe.
I recently found an old CV of mine from 2014 or 2015. Naturally, it references Women Who Code, but it mentions how we only had around 5,000 members globally at the time — and here we are with over 250,000! Finding that CV reminded me of why I wanted to get involved with the organization in the first place: I sought to bring local role models and free resources to people who had never had those things before. My mission was close to my heart because I grew up with parents on government benefits and had to take advantage of free, school-provided opportunities. I didn’t want barriers to stand in anyone’s way.
I eventually transitioned from being a local leader to a global ambassador for several years. I brought up Women Who Code at numerous conferences and to anyone who would listen. Now, I’m an advisory board member and get to strategically shape the organization alongside Alaina and the rest of the board. It’s been quite the journey over seven and a half years.
That’s incredible to hear. So, tell me about your book: what inspired you to write it, and what is it about?
An important piece of context is that when I started this project, I never imagined the Financial Times would list me as one of the most influential leaders or that I’d have an awards cabinet in my living room at 29 years old. My journey with Women Who Code — it’s impossible to overstate this — has been unexpected in a truly remarkable way. I learned how to be a strong leader at a young age and actively practice it in a realm where most people like me aren’t able to do so.
My work with the organization connected me with various platforms. I first started to write for the Huffington Post, and now I write for Forbes on topics including privilege, anti-racism, and more. However, writing articles and blogs is dramatically different than writing a book. People want information very quickly from the former and don’t want to digest every word, whereas people allow themselves that space with the latter.
As a woman of Color in senior leadership, most people in the rooms I’m in are either White, a man, or both, and usually from an affluent background, which I don’t have. A publisher reached out to me at the beginning of 2020 and asked If I wanted to write a book about my experience that many people can and could relate to. I eagerly said yes.
The reason I wanted to write Demanding More is because people so often view inclusion as something that happens nine to five in an office or a passive activity where you can say, “Oh, I’ll go to a Pride, Black History Month, or ERG event.” In reality, inclusion is about how you live day-to-day. It’s about how you interact with the people around you, who you trust, who you spend your time with, how you spend your money, and so forth.
What I want to do with Demanding More is to educate people about how much of the world is purposely and deliberately designed to exclude people. We aren’t in a position where organizations like Women Who Code are necessary by accident. It’s the result of choices made over the years. Next, I want people to know what to do about it beyond fluffy PR. How can they be intentionally inclusive in a meaningful way? How can they embed inclusive frameworks and be mindful of intersectionality in their lives inside and outside of work?
Each chapter is paired with an interview from a senior leader in the industry. For example, one person I featured is Brian Reaves, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Dell. He shared how he brought inclusion to life within the company as the first person to hold that title. Another interviewee is Anne Boden, the CEO of Starling Bank, which is one of the challenger banks here in the UK (and, as it happens, the only challenger bank to turn a profit). I included people like them because I want people to read this book and take away something useful they can apply to their home or work life. It’s important for readers to feel like they’re doing something impactful instead of merely reading a book, putting it down, and forgetting about it.
That’s awesome. How did you go about procuring those interviews?
I believe one of the most significant privileges one can have is being listened to. I write a lot about being under-represented and privileged — both still apply to me in many ways, so it’s rare to see someone like me in senior leadership — but I am in a senior leadership position, and I am listened to, so my platform connects me to all sorts of incredible people doing amazing work. I was pretty cheeky about it; I’d approach them and ask, “I love the work you do, may I interview you because I think people will glean a lot from what you have to say?”
The interviews in Demanding More aren’t solely focused on the business side of things. Brian, for example, shared about growing up Black in America and how people treat him differently as soon as he puts on a suit. Without it, people treat him as, in his words, another Black man. Kate Robertson, the CEO of One Young World (one of the largest organizations dedicated to youth leadership), talks about being raised during apartheid in South Africa with racist parents. She had to actively deprogram herself as a White woman to make sure she wouldn’t perpetuate racism.
The book incorporates some powerful, engaging, meaningful, and vulnerable stories. I reached out to these particular people because I knew they had so much to share about topics we don’t hear enough about. We get the business side more often, but I believe one way to engage people with the subject of inclusion genuinely is to provide meaningful and action-based ways to make things better, both personally and systemically. It must be actively and purposefully done — assuming you’re inclusive because you’re “a nice person” isn’t good enough.
Who would you say your primary audience is: people who are currently on their journeys toward understanding diversity and inclusion, people entirely new to the subject, or folks who have pondered certain things but need a bigger push?
The audience is wide-ranging. I wanted to write something that truly engaged people because a great deal of DEI work is only surface level. It doesn’t address what intersectionality means, either in definition or in practice. For example, some people may be inclined to think, “Oh, if I run an International Women’s Day event and have an LGBTQA+ woman on the panel, then that makes it an intersectional event.” No, that’s not it! The book will clear that up for people who are on their journeys and need help bolstering their efforts, as well as educate people who maybe don’t know what the big deal is around inclusion and want to learn more.
While writing this book, something important to me was that I wanted people to be able to pick it up regardless of where they are in their career or DEI journey. One of my biggest problems with the working world is that it positions DEI as something that is entirely focused on how we work when it actually encompasses how we spend the rest of our time, how we live with people, how we vote, and countless other aspects of our lives. So, readers could be CEOs or interns; anyone can read it and take away something valuable.
That’s fantastic. Can you tell me what your writing process looks like?
I certainly didn’t intend to sign a book deal right before a global pandemic, so it was different from what I expected from myself! I’m a very focused person, which is why I believe I’ve accomplished a lot before turning 30, so I treated writing this book the way I approach my job. What do I want to say, and how do I want to communicate it? I know some people can churn out a book right away, but I work much more efficiently when I build a skeleton and flesh it out later. The progress I’ve made from writing blogs to writing books is enormous because it’s not my skill set, but I’ve learned a great deal and am proud of the reviews Demanding More has received.
Have you said all you wanted to in this book, or will you write another?
I told my partner how excited I was about my book launch, and he replied, “Your first book launch.” It occurred to me that he’s probably right; I do think I’ll write something else that focuses on my personal story as a person who’s adopted from a country with mostly Brown people to a predominantly White country and how it affects the way I experience the world. I’ll get to that eventually, though — for now, I’m going to enjoy this process and let Demanding More speak for itself.