Nick Erby and Joe Puchala: Building Workplace Equality with MARC
I met Nick Erby and Joe Puchala, the co-chairs of Men Advocating Real Change (MARC) at 84.51°, on a Saturday morning at their office on West Fifth Street. MARC is a way to help men in the workplace understand their role in achieving equity in the work environment. Founded by Catalyst, a company operating out of New York, many offices now have a MARC branch training men to alleviate the many challenges women face. MARC also works in conjunction with Women’s EDGE, meaning Engage, Develop, Grow, Empower. Women’s EDGE, which is specific to Kroger, is dedicated to creating a community which uplifts both men and women in their careers, as well as amplify awareness of issues within the workforce. MARC’s goal is to supplement the already existing Women’s Edge in order to involve men more directly in the process of improving the quality of life for women in the workforce.
The interior of 84.51°, Kroger’s data analytics firm, highlights the collaborative and modern nature of this workspace: The elevators we took to the ninth floor sported chic and simple signage, declaring the Kroger customer as “the heart of everything we do,” and the ninth floor lobby was less of a lobby and more of a lofty space with lounge chairs and round high-top tables, full of natural light streaming in from towering windows and parts of the glass ceiling, high above our heads.
Nick and Joe quickly and easily began sharing their passion for the MARC group they co-lead, as well as their gratitude for the women who have influenced them along the way.
In the spirit of full disclosure, Madeleine Meeks is also an employee of 84.51°.
Where are you from? And tell me a little about your families.
NE: I’m Nick Erby, I was born in Overland Park, Kansas. I went to college at Ohio University. My wife Elizabeth, also a part of the Kroger family, works for the digital group. I have two boys, a five-year-old named Aiden and a three-year-old named Archer.
JP: I’m Joe Puchala, I was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and I went to Miami. I have two daughters: Aurora who’s five and Cecilia who’s about to turn three. My wife Allison works down at P.N.C.
What’s your day-to-day role here at 84.51°?
NE: I’ve done a few roles with the company. I currently lead a team in our communications and media group that consists of consultants who work selling media, advertisement, and co-branded ads with the suppliers.
JP: I’m on our science team; I do research and development on a forecasting system. This system predicts expected sales in stores. For example, it says, “Hey, we think you’re going to sell ‘x’ number of boxes of Cheerios over the next 14 days.” The stores can use that information to order what they need to stay in stock. [Laughing.] I usually just tell people “supply chain.”
NE: Joe’s the brains of the business. We’re all going to work for Joe one day.
How did you get plugged into the MARC group? Did you know each other beforehand?
NE and JP (same time): Yeah, we didn’t know each other at all.
JP: It was all through Edge.
JP: And we were in different groups of Edge too, we weren’t even interacting through Edge.
NE: We were informed of one another (laughing) I just remember Kim Busdieker saying, “You’ve got to meet Joe, you’re cut from the same cloth.”
JP: I think she set up a meeting with us to form a subcommittee of Edge.
NE: We’re crazy similar in some respects, we even vacation in the same places (laughing).
How long has MARC been around and how many members are involved?
JP: Eighty members right now, mostly men.
NE: Probably 60 men, 20 women.
JP: We started this MARC chapter in 2018; we’re just a little bit over a year old. We announced March 2018 on International Women’s Day.
What’s your goal for MARC?
JP: Originally, we just wanted more men to come to some of these Women’s Edge events because for a lot of it, we talk about workplace change. Only half the company is at these meetings. That’s enough people to change the company, but it’s just a lot harder when you don’t have the whole company at the table. We started talking about what we could do to bring more men, and we talked to some people from Procter and Gamble (P&G) who had a MARC group. We talked about what they were doing to get men involved in D&I (diversity and inclusion). So that’s what spurred us to create our own chapter.
A lot of guys will say, “Well I’m not being a dick.” That’s not enough. You can’t just not be a bad guy. You have to be an interventionist.
NE: I think one thing that brought Joe and I together was motivation to put focused efforts on getting more men to participate and join the conversations, showing them that a lot of the discussion is a two-way street, and we need to be part of the dialogue as well. With that motivation came the whole MARC group.
JP: The big impetus for us was just getting more men involved. We think men have skin in the game; we think they care. We’re not totally sure why they don’t get more involved, but we find that if you ask them to get involved they normally do. So we just want to say, ‘Hey, this is important, you should come be part of the change.’
What is MARC about, and who do you aim to target?
JP: Our main pillars are awareness, advocacy, and community. We want the people in our group and the whole company to be aware of the issues around D&I, how it affects people, and what’s the result in the workplace. We want them to feel empowered to be advocates for change. We also want to create a community because I think lots of times when you stand up for this at work, it can feel really isolating. So we want them to know, ‘Hey there’s a bunch of other people out here who believe in this too. You’re not alone; you can stand up for it; you’re not going to be shunned for it.’
NE: I think it’s hard for a lot of white men to embrace what we’re trying to do. It’s difficult for them to bring to the surface some of the difficult topics and hard dialogue to have with your peers and superiors in and out of the workplace. I personally feel that it’s very much about owning some of the responsibility. Looking at it as, ‘it’s not my fault that there are inequalities, but it is our responsibility to be a part of helping to resolve some of that.’ You have to do more; you have to take action. We like to joke that watching documentaries on Netflix that’ll inform you ain’t gonna help.
JP: Watching Spike Lee movies is not enough.
NE: Yeah, you’ve really got to take action.
JP: A lot of guys will say, ‘Well I’m not being a dick.’ That’s not enough. You can’t just not be a bad guy. You have to be an interventionist.
NE: And I think it’s just helping people be aware of some of the privilege you have as a white man. I know when I first joined Women’s Edge, it was one of the rare opportunities as a white, heterosexual man in Cincinnati to be a minority on a regular basis. Being the only man in multiple meetings with strong women who are discussing difficult topics, and you’re trying to understand their point of view put me in a situation I’d not been in before.
Is it uncomfortable to be on the hot seat sometimes in these minority situations, where you’re expected to be a spokesperson for your race or your gender?
NE: I leave meetings sometimes feeling an obligation to apologize on behalf of all men. Women don’t agree with that. It’s just…the way it is. You do feel responsibility for it. To me, it just makes me scratch my head. I can’t believe some men are doing some of the things that my peers at my office have to put up with. It’s mind blowing.
Data and facts show that companies with diverse cultures and full-brain thinking are going to provide advancements for the business and allow for positive evolution and growth.
JP: You can be on the hot seat. It might be uncomfortable, but the reality is as soon as that meeting’s over, we can get back into a place where it’s mostly all men, if we want that. It’s a lot easier for men to check out of this conversation when they want to. It’s a lot easier to blend in, when you want to as a man, than some women and people of color.
I want to talk about race. I know a big part is gender, but is race a part of the conversation?
JP: When MARC formed, we asked our members, “What do you want to focus on?” and they said, “We want to tackle everything. We want to talk about gender, we want to talk about race, we want to talk about sexual orientation, it’s all stuff we want to deal with.” If you look at our programming, a lot of it right now is gender focused because our Women’s Edge program is so strong. But it’s definitely not just about gender.
NE: I know the company has taken concerted efforts – like our Director of D&I, Terron Wilson, is now recruiting from historically black colleges and universities – to increase the diversity we do have. That is absolutely the right thing to do because data and facts show that companies with diverse cultures and full-brain thinking are going to provide advancements for the business and allow for positive evolution and growth. I’m motivated by the company making sure that they are focusing efforts there and making decisions to grow those numbers where appropriate.
What MARC events have happened in the past and will happen in the future?
JP: A lot of our events have been discussion sessions where we’ll just bring up a topic — like case studies of situations at work — and present some supporting material, and then in small groups discuss it among ourselves. We had a gender bias panel where people talked about their experiences and then allowed the group to reflect on that. And we get involved in the conversations, we feel like it makes it easier to accept the information if you’ve had a chance to talk about it.
NE: We’ve definitely seen success with small group discussions. I think it allows men to be a little bit more open because they feel more comfortable. It’s not trying to get 30 to 40 of them in a room and lead a group dialogue. We cascade information, and then they break out into their five to six person groups. There’s more intimacy, and the feedback we got from members is that that’s much preferred.
Besides the small group discussions, we’ve held a fireside chat where about 200 people joined us from Kroger and 84.51° to discuss D&I with Rodney McMullen [C.E.O. of Kroger] and Stuart Aitken [C.M.O. of Kroger and C.E.O. of 84.51°]. It was a really good session; it was a really powerful day. It was inspiring to interview two of the most powerful men in the company in front of our wives and peers and friends, and have those leaders really open up.
JP: We got really lucky in that Milen Mahadevan [C.O.O. of 84.51°] was very excited and involved in the group. I don’t think we would’ve ever thought about asking them to speak but Milen had the connection to bring them over. We got a chance to really dig into their personal stories and hear a lot more of the details.
Just be aware of the people around you and how you’re affecting them. Think about how your actions are affecting others; ask others how your actions are affecting them.
NE: I really think the audience was blown away with how intimate and real Stuart and Rodney got. It was powerful to see the leaders of the company getting choked up at times over the stories they were telling; about the things they’d heard or seen. This event was really authentic. It wasn’t candor and mindless dialogue. They were really opening up and showing how they truly feel.
One of the best moments was the story Rodney shared about ex-felons – people who had done prison time – how they’re out and reestablishing themselves in society, and how Kroger is hiring them into a production facility. Rodney toured the production facility and the facility encouraged him to look at these people and consider hiring them on full time to do this work. And we’ve done that. It’s upwards of 30 different employees who have gotten hired into Kroger stores, coming out of this program, making good money. Rodney’s hearing feedback from those people’s kids about how Kroger helped them get their lives back together and helped them get a second opportunity.
What are your struggles in MARC?
JP: One place where I struggle is I find it really hard to tell if we’re making a difference. We’ll get positive feedback from people saying, ‘I really enjoyed this’, even ‘I really think this group is important’. Okay, yeah, but how do you measure if you’re becoming more inclusive? I don’t know how to do that. So I put these events on, and hope they’re going to make a difference, then I leave them and have no idea how you measure it, especially since I’m presenting to a crowd that has self-selected to attend an inclusion training. Am I just talking to people who already want to hear this, without making any change at all? I worry about that, but I feel like I would rather try to make a change and fail than do nothing.
NE: We also really try to challenge members and people who are regular attendees of the events to bring someone with you – somebody, anyone – who believes in what we’re doing, who doesn’t believe in what we’re doing. It doesn’t matter. Just get them in the room to hear what we’re talking about.
JP: Our biggest challenge is ignorance. If you don’t know anyone from that particular group, you get whatever narrative you first heard. For very natural reasons, you grow up around people like you because your family’s like you. So then you’re not exposed to other things and what you don’t know can be scary. It’s just a matter of getting to know other people and realizing they’re just people: Some are good, some are bad, some are fun, some are annoying.
What’s MARC doing well and what could you improve?
JP: I think one of our biggest opportunities is creating more people into proactive D&I advocates. I think there are a ton of people who will do the right thing, but we want them to pay it forward. We want more people to start a similar effort – maybe like what we’re doing – somewhere else. If we have a good program and reach ten of our members, we want those ten members to reach ten other people.
Active listening and self-evaluation are two of the biggest things in becoming a D&I advocate. Just be aware of the people around you and how you’re affecting them. Think about how your actions are affecting others; ask others how your actions are affecting them. I think as we become more aware of how others feel, and how we feel about them, and how our actions make them feel, we will just self-regulate to being better people. I think a lot of it is just awareness of others and awareness of yourself.
Who is an influential woman in your life?
NE: I have predominantly worked for women throughout my entire career, and I really think that’s been a benefit to me. I self-identify my leadership characteristics with traditional female leadership characteristics. I have very high empathy; I bring others along; I want everyone to be involved in the conversation and the dialogue. I think all the different women that I have been led by over the course of my career have been very influential and motivating. My mom, of course; my wife Elizabeth is very influential; women leaders in the business – and in this company as well – they’re motivating.
JP: My mom, my older sister, and my wife have been people I’ve spent a ton of time with, and who’ve had a huge impact on me in just how I view the world.