Creating Psychological Safety with Kara Riley

Kara RileyGlobal Vice President People, Culture & Belonging

Today’s guest is the inimitable Kara Riley, Global VP of People, Culture and Belonging at Elite Model World, here to talk to us about her work and achieving workplace equity. In this episode, we dive deeply into what makes Kara Riley tick, how she has risen through the ranks to where she is today, and some extremely valuable and hard-won advice for those wishing to follow a similar path. 


Episode Transcript





[00:00:05] RS: Welcome to Talk Talent To Me, a podcast featuring the most elite talent leaders on the front lines with modern recruitment.


[00:00:12] SPEAKER 1: We actually want to understand the themes of someone’s life. We want to understand how they make decisions. Where are they willing to take risks? And what it looks like when they fail.


[00:00:22] RS: No holds barred, completely off-the-cuff interviews, with directors of recruitment, VPs of global talent, CHROs, and everyone in between.


[00:00:29] SPEAKER 2: Once I went through the classes and the trainings and got the certifications through diversity and inclusion, I still felt like something was missing.


[00:00:39] SPEAKER 3: Talent acquisition, it’s a fantastic career. You are trusted by the organization. You get to work with the C suite and the security at the front desk and everybody in between, and everybody knows you.


[00:00:52] RS: I’m your host, Rob Stevenson. And you’re about to hear the best in the biz. Talk Talent To Me.




[00:01:00] RS: Joining me today on what I’m certain is going to become an instant classic edition of Talk Talent To Me, is the global VP of People, Culture, and Belonging at Elite Model World, Kara Riley. Kara, welcome to the podcast. How are you today?


[00:01:13] KR: I’m great. I’m so excited to be here. I, like you, have been excited with bated breath to connect and share my story, and just you know, get a pulse of what’s out there.


[00:01:23] RS: Yeah, I’m so glad you said that. I’m so glad you’re here. I have so many questions for you, Kara. Where should we start? First, I guess let’s just learn a little about you. Where are you broadcasting in from today?


[00:01:31] KR: Yeah, so I am Southern New Jersey. So I’m calling in from Southern New Jersey, very close to Philadelphia. I’m the crazy person that does the two-and-a-half-hour commute to New York. Sounds crazy, but there’s a lot of us that do it.


[00:01:44] RS: That is wild, especially in this world we live in where people are saying that a commute is no longer part of the reality. Your day is like five hours longer every day. Is that right?


[00:01:54] KR: Absolutely. That’s on a good day. Traffic and everything, I’ve got it down to like the millisecond.


[00:02:00] RS: Are we at a place now because of remote work where candidates could be like, “You know what, that five hours, that’s your time. That’s my time I’m selling you, company, I expect to be compensated for that.” Do you think that could be part of an offer?


[00:02:12] KR: I definitely do. I think you have to factor that in as you’re engaging with future employers like, “What am I worth?” That number should be in your head at all times. And what are some things that are some non-negotiables, and some things like time management, having time with your family, being home by six o’clock to make dinner or watch your favorite movie, or do your yoga class. There are going to be some things that you need to negotiate. But I think my biggest recommendation to anybody is, have that number in your head and go for it. You’re not going to get it if you don’t ask.


[00:02:46] RS: Yeah, that’s great advice. I think it’s okay to bring up in the offer process, mentioning things like, “Hey! I like to be doing yoga at this time every day. And if I take this job, that means I can’t do that.” Right? You’re not saying yes or no, but you’re sharing with a company, this is what you’re contending with, right? You have to make the offer more attractive than me being able to do yoga every day at 4:00 pm, which it may not be.


[00:03:09] KR: I think values have come up a lot into this COVID and pandemic time, and there’s a lot of sensitivity around what people’s values are. I think organization’s values and how they position people as a priority, people over profit. I think now more than ever, it’s going to be easier conversations that you could have with the hiring manager, or with your HR representative or talent acquisition rep that you’re engaging with. Share common values and have those organic conversations. You’ll know very soon if this will be the organization that you can thrive in, and be successful in, and really align, in terms of your overall daily goals and career goals.


[00:03:50] RS: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here, Kara. We kind of jumped right in here. I would just love to get a little bit of background about you before we surge forward with undaunted resolution here on this episode. Would you mind sharing a little bit about your background? And then we can kind of get into how you wound up at Elite Model World.


[00:04:08] KR: Yeah, absolutely. I’m a first-generation college and graduate school graduate. I knew very early on that my place was to help people, cultivate people, and really cultivate an organization. HR and Business Management checked all the boxes. I’m a Philly girl and I live in South Jersey, and come from very humble beginnings. I had a great opportunity to get an internship at Macy’s, where I was able to go through their executive leadership program and see all areas of the business. Once I really got in my niche in understanding how HR is not just a people-focused organization, but really cultivates the return on investment that organizations are pouring into, I knew very quickly that’s where I wanted to be. I was able to get a job at Bloomingdale’s, for all my fashionistas out there, and worked at some really other interesting organizations like Powerhouse, Comcast, global brands like Burberry, and now at A&E Networks, a pillar in television, and now at Elite Model World.


[00:05:11] RS: Kara, for the folks at home who are thinking, “Why do I know that name, Elite Model World? It’s like in the tip of my tongue. Where’s that from?” They may recognize you from your appearances in the Netflix show, My Unorthodox Life, this huge show about your founder and her journey to end up founding this company. As a result, I’m sure, more so than most, your LinkedIn DMs are just an unmitigated disaster of inbound. Probably loads of people are in there. What are people going to ask you when they see you in this visible role? You are this global VP, they have a visibility into your role because of this Netflix show. What do people want to know when they’re asking you about your own journey and kind of how you’ve developed your career?


[00:05:53] KR: Yeah. No, great question. I think the number one thing outside of questions is just the sense of gratitude that they see a woman and a person of color in a leadership role at a very large or global organization. The DMs, and the emails, and the Facebook’s, and everything, messages that I received is at, “Wow! Your work that you’re doing is important and you don’t realize how much it means to me to see, again, a woman of color, a black woman doing such a big job.” It’s aspirational for them and it’s inspirational as well. I would say that’s the most exciting thing that I’ve gotten out of being on this show, to be quite honest with you, is to build a bridge of visibility, but then also build a bridge of hope for young girls and women out there trying to succeed in corporate, or global America or just really globally, to think bigger and do well.


[00:06:46] RS: Yeah. Representation matters and it matters on every level. It matters when it’s like, “Oh! Here’s an example of someone who looks like me showing that you can succeed at this high level, and it also matters at a more micro level at your own individual organization, looking around your company and seeing that, “Oh! This is a place where someone who looks like me can succeed, whose unique perspective is taken into account.” I think that that’s wonderful. Are people asking you in addition to just saying, “Hey! I love seeing you up there.” Are people asking you for advice or people saying like, “How do I get like you?”?


[00:07:16] KR: Yeah, definitely. I’m so humble and just unassuming. When they say, “Oh my God! I want to be like you” or “Oh my God! What’s your path?” I often tell them, “It’s been a long fucking path. Like it’s been a complete road. I’ve taken my share of lumps. If you think at all it is easy, it is not.” I would say right now, I’m the most energized that I’ve ever been in my career. Because globally, corporations and companies are asking themselves the tough questions, right? Are we creating an equitable and safe space for people of color or underrepresented groups? 


I hate to say underrepresented. I’m going to flip it on you. I’m going to say, often underestimated groups, right? Because the underestimation that a woman, or if somebody in the LGBT community, or that person who’s returning from the workforce is going to be a right cultural fit. I’ve heard that to me so many times on why I didn’t get the job, or just in general, how I should act in a role.


Just going back to your question is, it’s been about being real with them, and showcasing the blindsides that maybe they wouldn’t necessarily see through their own career progression, and given them the confidence to have a voice to share things that matter. For me, that has been the most, again, additionally to the “Oh my God! But those types of questions and me really leaning in and being authentic has been a very rewarding experience that has come out of this show.


[00:08:45] RS: That’s interesting. Your point about the phrase underrepresented, that sort of whitewashes it not to be too on the nose there. It also – it lets people off the hook. It’s like, “Oh! Kara, people like you are underrepresented.” It makes it sound like it’s your fault. It’s like, why don’t you represent yourself better, right? As opposed to like, Oh, well – like because of decades, centuries of bias, these people aren’t in these positions, right? It’s not like, “Oh! Why don’t you just represent yourself?” It’s not that easy. I think yeah, maybe we could change the verbiage there. I like that.


[00:09:14] KR: Absolutely, Rob. I’m so happy that you said that and I appreciate the – I would say the humility I guess, whitewashing it, because it is just that. It is as if it was our fault that a woman, a black person, somebody in Latin A community or someone in the LGBT community isn’t at a senior level because of themselves. It’s really about the obstacles and hurdles that they had to go through and possibly some landmines that they hit on, as I did in my career as well. But you know, all of that has proven to be learnings for me. to be able to be agile, and able for me to have a stronger voice, and have some executive presence, and really be an advocate for myself.


In my career, my career has been obviously through the voice of others, right? I tell people that often all the time is, it’s not about what you do, but also what you do to make an impact in people and for them to evangelize you, and back you up and give great recommendations. But I will always say that it is because of you, your career progression, you have to take ownership of it, you have to take accountability to it, and you can’t ask, you have to do. Sometimes, ask for forgiveness or ask questions later. I think that has, especially for women, that has been a really difficult mindset to be in, right?


To be that woman that’s just going to go in and do something and just say, “Oh! I didn’t know” or “Oh! I feel really strongly about this.” That typically kind of falls on, from a gender perspective, on one of those alpha or type A male personalities. When women do it, we kind of get chided a little bit. That’s something that I often share with people that are going through their – younger in their career progression, but then also individuals that maybe have come to a standstill, or just kind of say, “Wow! I need to reassess how I do things, or a personality, or how I show up, et cetera.” I just like to be real with people. I think that’s a gift and a curse, right? Wouldn’t you say, Rob?


[00:11:12] RS: Well, it’s a gift for you and it’s a curse for the people who can’t handle it. That is I think great advice on how to reflect on where you are currently and like in your current role, and making sure that you are effective in your organization doing the work that is meaningful to you. I’m also curious, how do you think about when you think back on the times when you have looked for a new role, a new company, h, how do you kind of weigh that decision? 


I think right now, recruiters are at a great place where everyone needs recruiters, everyone needs people, professionals. We’re in this kind of economic green area where there’s lots of offers out there. What do you think of back to the times you have weighed a new job opportunity, looked to move companies? How do you weigh that? How do you put it in terms of your projected career path? I would just love to know your thoughts on all that.


[00:11:59] KR: Yeah, I think for me – again, going back to my pragmatic approach is like, what are the tools that I’m missing in my HR or people operations toolbox, right? Is it that I haven’t worked at a large multinational, or global organization, or maybe I want to get into more exposure into M&A work, and this organization is known for growth due to acquisition? I look at job descriptions of senior vice presidents, EVPs, CHROs, and I weigh that against my own experience. That really then builds, I would say, a path to what you’re trying to accomplish. I think that will also give you clarity in what types of organizations, and opportunities can fill those gaps. 


That’s just a quick tip that I like to give to every person, is to be aspirational, look at those job descriptions, your roles that you want to be in, or those individuals on LinkedIn and see what types of other organizations that they’ve gone through, their path to get to where they want to be. That can, again, give you some clear direction on how you need to hone in again on the companies that you want to target, the roles that you want to target, as well as some continuing education or some learnings that you need to pick up so you can make yourself even more a better candidate for those roles.


[00:13:23] RS: Yeah. I think that’s great advice, because it’s easy to fall into a rut where you look at the company you are joining or are already working for. The pay is where you want to be, the work is okay, the function you have is good, the culture is good, yada, yada, yada. But are you actually developing according to where you want to grow as an individual? We’re creatures of habit. It’s easy to fall into that sort of routine? How do you look at the companies you’re in and start to suss out whether this is a place where you really can grow and this is a place that is going to allow me to get to where I want to be?


[00:13:58] KR: I think number one is the relationship that you have with your manager or your line of communication, or you have exposure to C suite, or senior executive leaders, or mentors or et cetera. I think you have to own your progress, you have to say, “Hey! I have a five-year plan just like how an organization does. I see myself growing here. I see my next job being here. What can I do as Kara to get some more exposure or these are some things that I’m looking into that I think might propel me or position me to be better, and better equipped in my role?” I think you have to ask. Closed mouths, don’t get fed. My grandma, she’s 94, she said that to me every day. She said, “Baby girl, if you want something, you got to ask for it. Sometimes asking for it, people are going to say no. So what is your reaction? Are you going to just say okay and just go away? Or are you going to say, “Well, what I can do or what I think I should have is X.”


I think you always have to go into these types of conversations as a negotiation, and knowing what the outcome that you want to achieve. Sometimes you’re not going to walk away from the conversation, say, “Hey, I got 100% of what I wanted.” But if you got 25%, that’s pretty damn good, right? In terms of investments in yourself. So if it’s a training course, if it’s – you could be part of an enterprise-wide project rollout, you have to ask for those things. 


In addition, I like to say, I like to get in good trouble, like John Lewis. That goes back to my initial comment about doing things and asking questions later, or asking forgiveness later. You can’t be afraid. You cannot. If your organization does not give you that psychological security to not be afraid, then I would reassess, “Is this the right organization for me?”


[00:15:44] RS: I’m glad you brought up the notion of psychological safety. It came up a bunch when I was doing the Ally Series and another episode since. Feel free to stop me and correct me when I start getting this wrong. But my understanding is that when it comes to belonging, it’s not just about making the hire, about making representation happen. You have to create an environment where individuals can thrive. 


I remember an individual, a chess Avant Garde, said to me that, “We can’t even have a conversation about communication, I’m not going to talk to you about systemic racism.” Which I thought summed it up beautifully, which is like, “Hey! We don’t have an organization. You don’t know me like that.” It was basically what he was saying, right? Like, we can’t have that kind of conversation.


I think you’re in a role, where it’s probably your responsibility to create an environment that is psychologically safe. And that where you could, for example, talk about systemic racism, or any other issue that plagues an individual based on their unique background? How can you create an environment like that that is psychologically safe, enables all of your employees to bring all of their concerns to the table and be heard and addressed?


[00:16:47] KR: Hmm, great question. Not an easy feat to do and it’s always going to be a work in progress. But I think you have to – for my opinion, you have to start what your leadership team. If your leadership team doesn’t even know what these often-underestimated groups are going through in the workplace or going through in the world in which we live in, how the hell are you going to be able to speak to it? How the hell are you going to be able to make people feel secure if you don’t know what’s going on? 


Having that awareness, and that education, and having those conversations with executive leaders, that starts, that’s paramount, number one. Number two, you have to say, what do we want to represent? How do we want the world to see us? Right? Not just the best-in-class employer to work for, not just at Elite Model World and having the best talent on our roster. But how do we want to show up in this global community? That’s the big question. Then how are we going to hold ourselves accountable to it? That’s the prize, right? That’s it right there.


From there, you’re able to come up with, I don’t want to say frameworks, but just come up – just have those – get into the rigor of having those conversations with senior leaders. Because this is a new landscape for them too, right? Where before, these types of topics were taboo in the workplace. Oftentimes, will get you fired in the workplace. You know, that to me create safety at the leadership standpoint, safety in terms of saying, “We’re going to have these conversations. We don’t all have to agree. It’s not a kumbaya moment. It’s going to be times when we’re going to exercise a muscle, and it’s going to be tough and people are going to be scared. That’s a part of the process.” If you’re doing it in a way where everybody’s walking out of the room, and holding hands and singing Kumbaya, then you weren’t doing the work. And you guys are probably, again, to your phrase, whitewashing a situation. I think that’s number one.


Number two, once you get all the learnings, and the findings and everything, I say this often to leaders that have reached out to me via LinkedIn. Do not expect the underestimated groups, and I mean, the people of color, the LGBT community, BIPOC, I don’t want to forget my military, and my enabled individuals, and those returning to work individuals. I like to be as inclusive as I can. But don’t expect them to tell you what the company needs to do better and what the company is doing wrong. Okay? Do not do that. Don’t do that. That literally is triggering for everyone. 


And again, I go back to my phrase that I just said, typically, these are taboo subjects and maybe Sally Sue or John two years ago brought those topics up and you don’t see John anymore. John got a package to get out of the organization or maybe he was chastised so much where they moved on or whatever the case may be. The desired outcome wasn’t what the intention was. But do not put this work on the backs of those individuals, because it is not their job to fix it, and it’s not their job to tell you that what the company is doing wrong. I feel very passionate about that.


I say that all to say, is that, we should have a listening tour. We should you know really tap into ERG, so employee resources groups, so that they can come together and be that communal voice for those groups that they represent. But also, having an executive sponsor sit in on those groups, because that executive sponsor is going to be able to help them navigate, move initiatives forward, really go back to the leadership team and saying, “This is what our employee populations want. This is what we need to create safety in our space. These are the gaps that we have, and how we need to possibly move forward in a different direction or, et cetera.” That was my long-winded answer, but I think it’s a multi-prong approach, and it’s not going to be an easy one, and it damn sure isn’t going to be fast.


[00:20:45] RS: Yeah, of course. No, that was a great answer. How do you conduct a listening tour while also not putting the burden on the backs of the individuals who you’re trying to assess? 


[00:20:56] KR: Yeah. I think you have to be, that’s when again, maybe I’m getting down to my operational hat. That’s when you have to engage with your corporate communications team. You have to engage with your leadership team and your people team to say, “What’s the message that we want to get out there to our employee population? How can we be humble, show humility, show that we have some back gaps at work as an organization? But we are in a learning phase and we want to be inclusive to voices that we wouldn’t necessarily have heard from before, and create an open door. Create a path or a door that an individual would want to walk through, and be a part of the journey too. 


For me, that has been my approach, and in every organization it is going to be different. But I think it’s really about setting the tone, the why in which we want to do it, the value that we believe that these individuals can provide to us, and say, “This is not a moment in time. This is not a capturing of information and we’re going to do something – we’re going to capture the information, we are going to do something but it’s going to be sustainable. We’re going to have goals to back it up.” I think you need to start off the conversation with the table stakes, what we’re trying to accomplish by doing these things and having these questions asked. 


[00:22:13] RS: Getting diversity right at the beginning is easier, right? Because diversity begets diversity. Your referrals will look more inclusive, et cetera. But for the companies who haven’t gotten it right early, the opposite is true as well. Heterogeneity begets heterogeneity as well. So if you are at a company who hasn’t gotten this right, who didn’t prioritize this from the beginning, and is now staring down the barrel of a workplace that doesn’t look the way you want it to, that isn’t as inclusive, that doesn’t have as much psychological safety. How do you get around the trailblazer issue? 


What I mean by that is like, “Oh, hey! Kara, you’re the first person who looks like you that joined our company.” Right? So you know that you are going to have to go through all this bullshit, right? You are going to have to be the person who makes it better for the next person who looks like you. You are the trailblazer. Is that a role that you necessarily want? Is that a role that anyone else who is the first person who looks like them in a company wants? How do you recruit around that as you’re trying to build your company?


[00:23:13] KR: Great question and it’s a tricky question. I’m going to try to navigate around the landmines, Rob. I’ve often, throughout my entire life, I’ve been one of one. In my MBA class, I was the only black female. Often in my roles, I’ve always been the one black person that’s going to be sitting and presenting in a room of nothing but older white men. I’ve often been that person. I don’t mind being the trailblazer. I often believed the person who goes through the wall takes it the hardest. I love actually doing that, because it creates space and pathways for other individuals behind me. 


I often think to my 94- year-old grandmother who grew up in the rural south, and for her to see me ascend to where I am now and to have my own home, to be working at a VP level role, et cetera, I think that that’s a huge responsibility. I think, as a black woman, you can’t shy away from it. I say this to say, as an organization, you need to be able to lean in differently. If you don’t have representation – how can I answer that question, Rob? I’m kind of –


[00:24:29] RS: Is it about just being frank with that first person being like, “Hey! We understand you’re going to be the trailblazer. That’s not for everyone. If you don’t want to do that, we get it”? How do you make sure that person is supported, I guess?


[00:24:43] KR: Yeah. No, I wouldn’t say that at all. I would say the candidate that you’re bringing on, if it’s the one of one, if it’s the first one, it is, this person has to be securing themselves. They’ve had to go through life, and their career and take it a little bit of lumps, and be able to articulate the value that they will bring to the organization. And the value of perspectives to the organization. And how are we going to be fishing from different watering holes to find great talent, not just looking at the same big four companies or from the same Ivy League Colleges that everybody thought was the only places where you can find black people or people of color. Or even HBCUs, and I don’t say that to say, play down HBCUs. But there are other colleges, other than historically black colleges where black people and people of color are. You don’t have to just target the low-hanging fruit.


I say that to say, organizations need to be – have some audacious goals, and perhaps even working with a consultant to help you navigate through some landmines or just landscapes that you’re not familiar with. I think that’s okay too. 


Don’t think that you have the answer. If you haven’t been able to find the answer in the 30 years or the 15 years that you had the organization open, you damn sure not going to have it on your own. You need to enlist people who are subject matter experts or who can help shepherd you through the process, and really define the process with you. And keep you honest along the way.


[00:26:10] RS: Kara, that’s a great answer. This has been an episode. I’m so pleased I got to learn from you today and have you here on the show. At this point, I would just say thank you so much for joining, and for being yourself, and for sharing your expertise and experience. I really loved chatting with you today.


[00:26:23] KR: Thank you so much, Rob. This was totally a lot of fun. I hope we can do it again soon.


[00:26:27] RS: We’ll have you back on anytime, but not too soon because I don’t want to dilute the Kara brand, right? We don’t want you to be too accessible. Thank you so much, Kara.


[00:26:35] KR: Thanks, Rob.




[00:26:39] RS: Talk Talent To Me is brought to you by Hired. Hired empowers connections by matching the world’s most innovative companies with ambitious tech and sales candidates. With Hired, candidates and companies have visibility into salary offers, competing opportunities, and job details. Hired’s unique offering includes customized assessments and salary bias alerts to help remove unconscious bias when hiring.


By combining technology and human touch, our goal is to provide transparency in the recruiting process and empower each of our partners to employ their potential and keep their talent pipeline full. To learn more about how we can help you find your next great hire, head to