A “lifetime’s amount of work”: How the principles of LeadBoston continue to help this 2013 alum evolve as an inclusive leader
When Aaron Remorenko, LeadBoston Class of 2013, took a major career step, he did not realize how much he would utilize what he learned during LeadBoston. Previously, he had worked for seven years at Liberty Mutual Insurance, an institution he feels deeply values diversity, equity, and inclusion. In transitioning to a small, startup artificial intelligence company, Deep Labs, he has found that his LeadBoston experience has helped him work toward equity in a workplace with a rapidly evolving culture and less established approach to building DE&I mindset among employees.
During LeadBoston, YW Boston’s inclusive leadership program, mid- to senior-level participants spend the year building skills that enable them to analyze root causes of diversity, equity, and inclusion challenges faced by their organizations and communities. Each class member completes the program by developing a project that will drive equitable change within their organization. In doing so, LeadBoston participants learn how to apply what they’ve learned, and become more effective in driving their organizations’ inclusion work forward.
As Aaron recently shared during our conversation with him, LeadBoston taught him that inclusive leaders don’t shy away from not knowing all of the answers. Instead, they rise up to the challenge of learning more and exploring what a more equitable workplace can look like. Learn more from Aaron’s experience.
For Aaron, joining LeadBoston meant incorporating the values of his personal life into his professional life.
Two years before Aaron Remorenko joined LeadBoston, he and his family decided to move back to Boston from Pittsburgh. He came to realize how much he appreciated Boston – such as the city’s commitment to education and its focus on providing social safety nets. He felt this was a city culture he wanted his kids to be immersed in. In choosing Boston, he realized he should commit to learning about the city and supporting its progress beyond Back Bay where he worked.
During our conversation, Aaron mentioned having been moved by his uncle’s participation in the Civil Rights Movement. “I always had an appreciation for that work and wanted to honor it and continue it,” he said. “I think of it as almost economic theory to say that prosperity should be shared broadly—and you do that by opening the doors as broadly as possible and putting people on equal footing, regardless of where they came from.” Aaron knew these were his values, but it took him some time to understand how he could make an impact through his professional life. This was especially the case in his time before joining Liberty Mutual, when he rarely saw diversity, equity, and inclusion work woven into corporate spaces.
He credited Dawn Frazier Bohnert, who joined Liberty Mutual Insurance in 2013 as SVP, Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, for jumpstarting DEI work at the company. Aaron described a massive growth in support for DEI work through the company, including new opportunities such as participating in LeadBoston. Aaron recognized LeadBoston as a space where he could build on his personal values and have open and honest conversations about equity in Boston.
Immediately upon joining the LeadBoston Class of 2013, Aaron found there was much to learn about Boston. In previous years, when the LeadBoston program has met in-person, the class would take part in an activity where they commuted by public transportation and explored a part of the city with which they were unfamiliar. Aaron and his group traveled to Mattapan and learned that it can take an hour and a half, or more, to travel from there to Back Bay. He knew how difficult it already could be, managing family life with his own 30-minute commute. As he shared, “it was immediately evident to me that there are so many factors that come into opportunity,” such as how your Boston neighborhood and the surrounding infrastructure can determine what jobs you can feasibly apply for. Throughout his year with LeadBoston, experiences such as these helped Aaron better understand others’ experiences at work, which in turn equipped him to be a more empathetic coworker and supportive manager.
His experience in LeadBoston led Aaron to feel more comfortable speaking about and promoting DEI at Liberty Mutual.
As a result of participating in LeadBoston, Aaron felt he had the skills he needed to align his professional presence with his values. He shared that he felt “more confident in integrating those two lives and to proactively” speak up in a way he wasn’t able to earlier in his career. He found he was better able to speak about DEI with authenticity and in a way that he could connect with his fellow employees. He brought foundational knowledge about inequities in Boston acquired through LeadBoston and a better understanding of strategies for improvement.
He worked alongside Dawn Frazier-Bohnert to make LeadBoston a more established program for advancing leadership at Liberty Mutual. He also brought his expertise to speaking engagements and panels, encouraging leaders to open themselves up to new experiences and ways of understanding the world.
In particular, he found that he could make a large impact on recruiting and hiring at Liberty Mutual. He consistently incorporated an understanding of unconscious bias into hiring discussions, to ensure decision-makers were proactive in not letting it impact their decision making. While these biases cannot be completely eliminated, awareness of biases is key to inclusive decision-making. As he explained, people are often not aware that they are “evaluating a candidate for a job based on an archetype,” even if we aren’t conscious of that mindset. He found that people were more likely to describe women candidates and candidates of color as less likely to advance in their careers, simply because they hadn’t seen it happen. In explicitly naming what had been implicit, Aaron finds this to be a fulfilling way to work toward DEI, because removing common narratives and archetyping is a tangible way to make a difference. He recognizes it is a “lifetime’s amount of work […] to remain accountable on that front.”
In shifting careers, Aaron found himself in a culture less experienced with DEI work, and leaned on his LeadBoston experience to facilitate progress.
In 2020, Aaron joined Deep Labs, an early stage artificial intelligence company, as their Head of Growth Strategy. In making the switch, he realized that the culture of DEI he had grown accustomed to at Liberty Mutual was not universal and not integrated into every workplace. While leadership at his new company espoused belief in the value of DEI work, there was not a dedicated program in place designed to integrate DEI into the workplace. It was a sort of wake-up call for Aaron, that not every organization is apace with the progress he saw at Liberty Mutual, and not every individual has had the opportunity to benefit from a robust corporate approach to DEI work . “The process is lumpy. When I joined Deep Labs, it became evident that while most of the people and interactions were good, there were still opportunities for me to help the company progress on their DEI journey.”
He credited his experience with LeadBoston with giving him the understanding to peel these experiences back and speak with his colleagues about the nature of their comments. Ten years ago, before LeadBoston, he would not have known where or how to start. So far, he has found his colleagues to be very receptive to the conversations he initiates about using more inclusive language, and the culture at Deep Labs has rapidly coalesced around a stronger focus on DEI mindset and inclusion.
Aaron also explained that, at startups in particular, the all-consuming focus on building the business can limit the time and resources available for DEI commitments. At companies similar to his own, he urges for full senior leadership buy-in for DEI, which can help these efforts become “systemically protected.” One of the benefits of being in an early stage growth company is that individual efforts can have a big impact in creating an inclusive culture that benefits a rapidly growing team. This was recently evidenced in the wake of the Atlanta spa shootings, as members of the Deep Labs team of Asian descent were comfortable opening up about the discrimination they have experienced over the course of the last year, and the CEO, Scott Edington, sent a note to all employees firmly stating that the firm’s culture embraced people of all backgrounds and aspires to create a safe, collaborative space in which diversity is celebrated.
He recommends that others with privileged identities such as his own commit to staying curious and learning about other experiences, a key aspect of LeadBoston.
Aaron shared that one of his primary takeaways from LeadBoston is that leaders don’t have to have all of the answers. Instead, he saw the value of continuing to explore and fostering a learning culture for his full team. He was inspired by his LeadBoston classmates, some of whom were older and more experienced than himself, truly listening and trying to understand his experience, just as he was trying to understand theirs. In his head, he told himself, “This person knows a lot and they are still listening to me. That’s something I can learn from.”
While speaking about the panels that he has taken part of to promote the value and necessity of DEI work, Aaron recognized that he has spoken to a number of people of a similar profile to him. As he explained, many of them are White, are men, and may lead a relatively sequestered life in the suburbs where they don’t interact with other races and ethnicities. He has used these forums to say, “Stay curious and learn about the experiences of others. Be open to that and, in a way, use your confidence to not be scared to have those experiences and break down those barriers.” This also includes learning about one’s own privilege to better understand what avenues one can take to create a more equitable society.
LeadBoston serves as an opportunity for mid- to senior- level professionals to commit to learning and action. With a firm grasp of how institutions impact and are impacted by systems, leaders can make decisions that help their workplaces and communities thrive. Learn more about how you or someone you work with can benefit from joining the LeadBoston Class of 2022.
Become a part of YW Boston’s LeadBoston program and join a network of over 1,000 inclusive leaders in Boston. During this 11-month program, participants explore and learn how to address barriers to inclusion through facilitated dialogue, expert speakers, and peer learning. Through experiential activities, participants delve into the social, political, and socioeconomic realities of Boston and explore innovative solutions to inequity. Interested in learning more? Reach out to Rachael McCoy, LeadBoston Manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions about the program.