ZJ Hadley of Tulip Retail on harnessing the power of a non-traditional background and standing up to ask for what you want

ZJ Hadley works in Employee Success at Tulip Retail, a mobile application provider focused on empowering workers in retail stores. ZJ is a passionate advocate for cultural change centered around Diversity and Inclusion in the Toronto tech scene and is on the forefront of how organizations can build more inclusive environments. ZJ is the epitome of what can be achieved through grit, passion and hard work having held senior management positions in the music, entertainment and hospitality industry and was previously the Director of Operations and HR at Sampler.      

Looking back ten years, where did you think you’d be by this point in your career? How did you get here?

When I was a little kid, I was the kind of girl who loved to play office so I’m not all that surprised that I ended up where I am today in the long run. That being said, I was brought up in the foster care system in a rural town and was emancipated when I was 16, so I didn’t have any real career support or examples of really successful career people in my life during the early days. The idea of working in tech didn’t seem accessible to me because I was focused on making ends meet while holding down three jobs at once. There were some hard times where I found myself having to walk from one job to another for about an hour because I couldn’t afford transit. I didn’t, however, let my circumstance stop me from wanting to accomplish something important.

After dropping out of college due to financial constraints, I eventually moved to Toronto and started working in the music business. I spent five years there and that’s where I really learned about business. During that time, I also worked really hard to build my business character because given my background, it wasn’t something that came naturally to me. Eventually, I made my way into tech after going to every networking event in Toronto and cold emailing a number of tech CEOs, asking them for advice. While only one of the individuals I emailed wrote back, they ended up hiring me on the spot, which ultimately led me to where I am now.  I’ve actually never really applied for a job. To this day and including the role I have now, I’ve sold others on the work that I’ve wanted to do for them and have gotten hired as a result. Taking this approach hasn’t always worked out, but after knocking on a lot of doors, getting laughed at a few times and working through a bunch of no’s, things ended up falling into place.

What were some of the most important business lessons you have had to learn the hard way? How have they enabled your success?

The hardest thing I have had to learn was understanding the balance between working really hard and being taken advantage of. Looking back, if I had been a better advocate for myself and had more confidence or knowledge of the market in terms of compensation, I could have been a lot further ahead than I am now. While I definitely believe you need to work hard and hustle to get where you want, there comes a point where you need to recognize that you have value and stand up for that. You can’t get locked into the idea of grinding it out and hope that someone will stand up for you. You need to ask for what you feel you deserve. I often find that women and people of minorities struggle with things like negotiations because they can be seen as undervalued. Despite this, one should never be afraid to ask for what you want. It’s something that is important to learn.

From your perspective, how is the world of work changing and what do businesses need to be thinking about to stay relevant to employees today?

This is really a great time to be an employee. Things are moving so quickly and the world is changing so fast that there are lots of opportunities to carve out your own path. The key thing from my perspective is that organizations need to be highly focused on the growth of their people and providing them with meaningful work. Those things always supersede pizza Fridays or having kegs in the office. There are lots of studies that show that having meaningful work is one of the main drivers of employee happiness in the workplace. Organizations also need to broaden their scope in terms of where they look for great people. Looking at people with non-traditional backgrounds can do a company a lot of good because nowadays, every company out there is fighting over the same computer science graduates from the University of Waterloo. There are so many talent pools out there and we need to cast a wider net.

Where else do you recommend companies look for talent?

There is a huge opportunity to leverage the great people who are coming into our country as immigrants but we also have a ton of talent right here at home. There are lots of people who are being trained in boot camps around this city and companies should be tapping into that. The Bridge, which is being run by Rangle.io, is a great example. It is a program that is teaching women how to code who have around 6-12 months of experience in the tech industry for free. Those are the kinds of people who often have the grit that today’s companies need to be successful.

What does leadership look like to you and how can the next generation start thinking differently about what it means to be a great leader?

I truly believe that everyone responds to leaders differently and there is no real single archetype of a leader. The people that I’ve found to be the best leaders are those who have been willing to give me their time and be available. For them, their time is so valuable and I’ve been very thankful to have a number of people give that time to me.

What does diversity and inclusion (D&I) look like in practice, and how do you build an effective D&I strategy?

There are a few key areas that organizations need to get clear on: focus, data, recruitment and culture. Firstly, organizations need to understand where they are going to focus efforts and make a plan to address their chosen areas. At Tulip, D&I is a core value of our company so if it seems like we are doing something that is not aligned to what we say we believe in, our team calls us out very quickly. Next, benchmarking staff to see where there are over representations and under representations must be done. These kinds of activities give you lots of valuable data to help establish a baseline. Regarding recruitment, everything from the way a job description is written to how a hiring portal is designed, should be inclusive and accessible to everyone. Lastly, D&I needs to be woven into the culture of the organization. Managers need to understand it and celebrate it; the environment that is created on a daily basis must be welcoming and supportive and D&I must be seen as something that drives financial value. At Tulip, we’ve developed employee led resource groups for those who identify with different kinds of communities. We’re talking more about mental health and focusing on building an employment brand that is focused on diversity and inclusion.

What would be your one piece of advice for those in the workforce today to get ahead in their careers and find work that is fulfilling?

Networking has been everything for my career. It’s how I’ve gotten all of my positions and is now an amazing source of information to get questions answered. You need to invest in your network every day and for someone like me who is introverted, this can be really hard. Don’t be afraid to send the cold emails to people and invite them for a coffee.

Aubrey Chapnick