ZJ Hadley from Tulip: Rising Above Adversity and Championing Diversity

ZJ Hadley: Employee Success Business Partner at Tulip, a mobile application provider focused on empowering workers in retail stores. Fiercely passionate woman.  And vocal diversity advocate changing the tech culture in Toronto… and beyond. With all odds stacked against her, ZJ rose above adversity through hard work, grit, and an unwavering understanding of and commitment to what is just and moral. Sometimes with less than $20 in her pocket.   

1. Tell us about your non-traditional background. 

In a small town in rural Ontario, I grew up in the foster care system, eventually became my own guardian. I finished high school by myself, before ageing out of the system.

My innate drive to ensure no one is excluded started early. I started diversity clubs in school. I grew up very close to a lot of LGBTQA+ youth who were also faced with the realities of having no family. I started college but dropped out to support myself, and struggled with being precariously housed and homeless for years. I hustled to get out of poverty and find a career I loved. I gradually moved up, leveraging success in one job for another, while volunteering in the community with all my spare time. I worked hard and pushed myself. I was determined and strong-minded – and still am.

I decided to learn about wine to have talking points in conversations with guests at events where I was volunteered. I’ve loved it so much that I recently wrote my first test through the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and I’m on the path to becoming a sommelier, a trained and knowledgeable wine professional.

I share my history and background now, but for a long time I didn’t. I didn’t want people to feel pity for me, so I lied and said I had a family. Only in the last two years I have felt comfortable talking about – and embracing – my difficult past, and what I have gained from it.

2.  How has your background contributed to your success?

I’m not afraid of taking big risks for high rewards – this comes from being at rock bottom. I know I can get back on track on my own and I have confidence from overcoming adversity.

I was forced to develop as a self-starter and didn’t have anyone championing me. In fact, my guidance counsellor in high school told me I’d never get anywhere because I had a bad attitude. I had to seek out opportunities for advancement on my own. Now, I see other people not doing enough to advance themselves – they toil away at their job and they don’t get promoted. From my experience, this isn’t the ideal way to manage your career. The self-starter in me doesn’t let me sit back and wait for things to happen.

3.  You are clearly passionate about creating and fostering a company culture centred around Diversity & Inclusion (D&I). Where does this passion come from? 

Coming from a different and challenging background, I’ve seen how difficult it can be to emerge from poverty – and we know for a fact that poverty effects some demographics disproportionately. There are a lot of high potential people that talent professionals are currently missing out on because of all the hurdles these individuals are facing.

Once in a role earlier in my career, my boss told me to take a cab to a meeting and expense it. What he didn’t know was that I didn’t even have $20 in my bank account – so I walked for hours and lied about it. I’ve job hunted when it was a struggle just to keep one clean outfit. And when I finally thought I had made it and was sent to San Francisco for business the first time, I didn’t even have a credit card!   

I’m committed to finding people who deserve better, and helping them overcome whatever hurdles are in their way. We judge people based on names, the school on their resume…we judge women and people of colour especially. They are expected to have 1.5 X more education to get to the same place as their peers. I simply can’t NOT pull my weight to make a change.

4. Please give us a tangible example of D&I in action at Tulip.

I’m very excited to share that Tulip is hosting a program called Bridge, a free coding school for women, Agender, and non-binary individuals. Bridge was developed by Rangle, an agency focused on app development, under the leadership of Emily Porta. One of the key problems the program is tackling: women get into junior development jobs but then attrition out. Plus, of course, we are aiming to diversify the tech ecosystem – one professional at a time.

Before piloting it with us, Rangle executed the program with three cohorts and it was extremely successful. Tulip is the first company to pilot the program.  

The cohort kicks off on June 5 and consists of 12 students (out of 200 applicants) at similar technical levels. They will work through an 11-week coding boot camp (focusing on React, a specific coding language), taught by Tulip developers (a few incredible male feminists!) all volunteering their time. While this is new and exciting, and we will certainly learn along the way, we hope to continue hosting cohorts in the future.

The Bridge program benefits everyone involved – the participants, the broader tech community, the Tulip team members who volunteer their time, and Tulip as an organization.  

5.  Tell us about the work you are doing with #movethedial.

I help organizations like #movethedial to achieve their diversity goals and reach the right communities by offering my advice and experiences. I’m excited to be part of #movethedial for Everyone, a committee focused on ensuring #movethedial includes and inspires women of colour, Indigenous women, women in the LGBTQA+ community, disabled women, and women in all other minority groups.

6.  What has been the biggest surprise in your career so far? 

The day I realized that no one knows what they’re doing. Up to that point, I thought I was catching up. The reality? Everyone is making it up as they go along. We don’t have to know 100% of something to voice our opinion, apply for a dream job, or take on a new challenge.  

7.  What’s one piece of lasting advice you’ve received? And how have you have applied it?

I heard a quote about 10 years ago when I was in my early 20s: Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. I had so much anger and was an unhappy, bitter young person because of what had happened to me up to that point.

After I heard this saying, I started to turn my life around and let go of all the anger. I could continue to punish myself, or decide to be successful and happy. I chose to be happy.

Guest writer: Jori Lichtman 

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