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Joanna Peña-Bickley on why design leaders need to prioritize inclusivity

4 min read
Eli Woolery  •  Mar 10, 2020
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As a precocious kid, Joanna Peña-Bickley enjoyed disassembling things around the house, reconceptualizing them, and then trying to sell her inventions at a garage sale. Not much was safe from her clever engineering: She even once had plans to take the engine from her parents’ lawnmower to power up her Big Wheel.

“Had (my parents) not driven to work, you know what, I probably would have disassembled the car,” says Joanna, who is now the head of research and design with Alexa devices at Amazon. She stopped by the latest episode of The Design Better Podcast to talk about the need for more diverse, inclusive, and empathetic design leadership.

Though Joanna had the playful, latchkey childhood typical of Gen X, it wasn’t straight out of an ABC family comedy. Her path to leadership is rooted in her journey with a learning disability. Her dyslexia caused her trouble in school, and she didn’t master reading until the third grade.

“I over-indexed on learning from an auditory standpoint,” she says. “Listening is one of my superpowers.”

From her own experiences and also really listening to many people throughout her life, she deeply understands the power of empathy. She’s an advocate for “neurodiversity,” or the awareness that people’s brains all work a little differently. Designing for a wide range of people—and not treating them like edge cases—has been the key to her becoming a successful design leader, and she says she’s met many designers who also grew up with some type of learning disability and struggled in school.

As an adult, she realized that it was because institutions like schools aren’t designed to include those who think differently. In her career, she’s tried to tackle this top down by teaching big corporations the importance and benefits of inclusive thinking.

“If you thought our institutions for learning didn’t accept people who think differently, certainly our Fortune 500 companies don’t, and we’re at a time when we really do need to think differently.”

In general, diversity and inclusion is a passion point for Joanna, who identifies as a Latinx Mexican-American Jewish woman. She says her personal mission is to bring diverse people into leadership with her. She says we must have a bias for action for minority outreach—if she looks around the room and sees a homogenous group, she’ll ask why. If she doesn’t receive a valid answer, then she’ll go out and begin networking in underrepresented communities and bring them to the table.

“When you’re sitting at the table as a leader with privilege and you sit silent, you are complicit in the problem,” Joanna says.

While it’s a people problem, it’s also ultimately a product problem. Without diverse representation in design leadership, she says, there’s no room for innovation: You can’t design for people you don’t know or understand.

Want to hear more of Joanna’s experiences? Listen to the full episode here—and remember to subscribe so you never miss a new release.