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Strangers: An Employee Initiative at Babbel Tackles Difference and Diversity

Lars from Babbel’s Didactics team reflects with us about diversity, innovation and highlights from our inaugural The Stranger Talks salon.
Strangers: An Employee Initiative at Babbel Tackles Difference and Diversity

Toward the end of 2017, a number of Babbel employees launched an ongoing series of internal presentations now known as The Stranger Talks – a sort of salon aimed at highlighting difference and diversity as ways of innovating and transforming how we work. The inaugural talk, given by Lars in our Didactics team, served as an introduction to the project’s central themes. We sat down to chat about it, and reflect on its impact.

What was the vision behind setting up this project at Babbel?

I would say it’s more a feeling. Vision is something concrete. And I still don’t know what the final outcome might be. I just had this feeling that even though we’re pretty diverse at Babbel, it’s not something that generates an adequate awareness or culture. Being aware of that diversity should strengthen and draw us closer, but at the moment we’re just diverse. In some ways it separates us. That happens everywhere, of course. But Babbel is not immune. Just because I’m comfortable doesn’t mean everyone is. Standing up and pushing us to explore why diversity matters was my way of expressing solidarity.

Were there particular conversations you were part of that inspired it?

I brought in a bit of outside inspiration. In July, I attended a weekend workshop on “Transpolitics in Germany”. About 80 transgender people from across Germany who are fighting for equal rights for transgender people on the regional and federal level were discussing current problems and making decisions on next steps. One of the takeaways was the importance of using gender-neutral language. I learned a lot during those three days.

In your talk, you put real emphasis on people sharing stories as a step toward strengthening a culture of diversity. Why do you feel that’s so particularly important?

The initial idea for the sessions was to start by talking about LGBTQI identity. After preparing for several days, I realized that’s just a small part of a much larger meta-topic –issues that come up when people talk about diversity– and we needed to do a deeper dive into that. If you want to learn to scuba dive, you need training. Winging it is incredibly dangerous. In my presentation I tried to emphasize the fact that talking about diversity will sometimes be painful, because it’s an extremely personal and sensitive topic. To start telling our own stories we have to make ourselves vulnerable. We can’t ask others to do that, if we’re not doing it ourselves. To begin those conversations we need to be meeting each other unguarded. Telling stories helps us get there.

How’ve you felt about the response?

It was great to get such immediate, positive feedback from colleagues afterwards. And as a result, because of this initiative, I’ve gotten to know colleagues I’d never talked to before. Some of them approached me right after the presentation, some emailed me in the days that followed. All of them emphasized the importance of addressing these things at Babbel and wanted to contribute to the project. For me it was encouraging that these were colleagues from different departments: HR, Country Management (Marketing), PR, Didactics, etc. That cross-departmental interest enables us to take action across the company. Another thing I learned from their feedback is that the importance of this topic is probably self-evident for the people who studied social sciences but may not be for those who studied natural or formal sciences. If you’ve never faced these things in your private or professional life, then how you can be aware of or address it? That cross-departmental interest at Babbel is critical.
Another thing I learned is that the personal, private approach we created on the stage was really appreciated. Other “Strangers” who helped me on the presentation teamed up with me, and we did a coming-out scene on stage: a very intimate moment that apparently really resonated with the audience. It underscored for me that making ourselves vulnerable brings us closer to each other, opening the channel for trusting communication.

One of the discussions that’s come out of your talk is whether diversity is the right word, or aspiration — whether it’s adequate. Has that affected how you think about the project?

Opening discussions and forcing ourselves to begin thinking about the topic is the actual goal of the Strangers series, I think. The term diversity is controversial. The point should be that it brings us together, rather than separating us. Learning from the life experience of another person enriches us, makes us more self-confident and stronger. 
As for the right word… What is the right word? Every word is multidimensional, it depends on one’s perspective, what meaning you see in it. More perspectives – more meanings! I’m all for that.

Why do you think it’s important that this effort come from employees, rather than management?

We feel differently about a painting we’ve gotten as a gift, and one we’ve painted ourselves, no? You create your own experience, feeling out your own boundaries, sometimes with real discomfort. On that journey you have to talk to your friends or to the strangers who join you. It’s only when you’ve made the path yourself that you’re really going to learn anything deeply.