What does it mean to be your whole self at work? Is it showcasing your allyship button or favorite tattoo? Is it wearing your natural curly hair or dressing more casually? For most, being their authentic self is an expression of their culture, identity, language, experience with power dynamics, and more. Employees feel included, seen, heard, and valued when they are empowered to show up as their authentic selves.
During Global Diversity Awareness Month, it’s important to highlight how authenticity and belonging in the workplace affect employee engagement and well-being. I recently spoke with Dr. Ángel Vélez (He/Him/His), DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) Consultant at Cisco. For him, authenticity and belonging are critical to achieving Cisco’s collective purpose of Powering an Inclusive Future for All. With over 12 years of DEI experience, Dr. Vélez intentionally shows up as his full self to serve as a blueprint for others who may not feel empowered to do the same.
Tell us about yourself.
My name is Dr. Ángel Vélez (pronounced: Ah-n-hell Veh-lez). I’m a cisgender Afro-Puerto Rican man born and raised in Yauco, Puerto Rico, but currently living in Chicago, Illinois. I take pride in being a first-generation college graduate, which fuels my drive to address the many disparities that prohibit equitable access to quality education. I’ve taught courses in African/African American Studies, Latin/Latin American Studies, and Asian/Asian American Studies and led support programs for first generation underrepresented students of color.
October is Global Diversity Awareness Month. What does Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion mean to you, and what inspired you to work in this field?
DEI concepts represent the cornerstone of a just and fair society where everyone is valued, respected, and empowered to thrive. My firsthand experiences of growing up low-income, Black, and Puerto Rican have ignited my passion for working in DEI. Having witnessed the profound impact of discrimination and exclusion on myself and others, I am committed to creating a more equitable and inclusive world.
- Diversity involves recognizing and celebrating individual differences, such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic background, disability, and more.
- Equity goes beyond equality and acknowledges that everyone has unique needs and challenges to overcome. It aims to create fair and just systems that provide equal opportunities for everyone to succeed. By dismantling the structural and systemic barriers that hinder specific individuals or communities, equity ensures everyone can access resources, support, and representation.
- Inclusion creates spaces where everyone feels a sense of belonging, regardless of their backgrounds or identities. It fosters a culture of respect, openness, and acceptance, where diverse voices are heard, actively sought out, and valued.
How do you show up authentically?
My tagline on LinkedIn is “Skilled at Being Authentic” because I believe I’ve mastered being comfortable in my skin. Although I am here now, that wasn’t always the case. For years, I over-emphasized my appearance to look “less threatening” in professional spaces. Showing up authentically means showing my tattoos, wearing Jordans, speaking in Spanglish, and using urban culture and expression everywhere I go.
I began to flourish once I acknowledged there was nothing inherently wrong with growing up poor and urban. Like Tupac’s poem once said, “I am the rose that grew from concrete.” It serves as a metaphor for individuals who rise above challenging circumstances and succeed against all odds.
Why do you believe there is resistance that prevents folks from showing up authentically in the workplace–especially for historically excluded and underrepresented communities?
Fear of change is one of the primary reasons for resistance to DEI solutions. It can be uncomfortable and threatening for those who benefit from existing systems of privilege and control. Additionally, many people fail to recognize the benefits of diverse perspectives, such as better business outcomes and higher performing teams.
In addition, unconscious biases, deep-seated stereotypes, and prejudices can create obstacles for individuals to express themselves authentically without fear of judgment or discrimination. This includes things like microaggressions, which are subtle yet damaging discriminatory comments or actions that undermine the sense of belonging and authenticity of people with varied identities.
Lastly, the fear of retaliation or reprisal for speaking up about DEI issues can prevent individuals from showing up authentically. This fear may arise due to concerns about job security, professional reputation, or adverse consequences within the workplace.
What advice do you have for people not feeling empowered or welcome to show up as themselves?
- Identify communities where you can find support and connect with individuals who share similar experiences, which can provide a sense of belonging and empowerment. Cisco’s Inclusive Communities space is a great place where I am comfortable being myself. As an Afro-Latinx man, I enjoy spending my time with the Connected Black Professionals (CBP) and Conexión.
- Find allies, mentors, and sponsors who can guide, advise, and advocate for you in the workplace. Having leaders who can use their social capital to help amplify your voice and your career is critical. At Cisco, our sponsorship solution, The Multiplier Effect (TME), holds leaders accountable for sponsoring diverse Cisconians who are different from themselves.
- Focus on your strengths, accomplishments, and the value you bring to the workplace. Confidence in your values can help you overcome barriers and show up authentically. I am my greatest advocate because I know what I bring to the business.
Be You, With Us
Don’t wait to unlock your full potential. Join over 2,500 Cisconians who have used DEI Events & Programs and accumulated an estimated 34,000 hours of structured DEI learning. Cisco’s Commitment to DEI is designed to help you embrace your authentic voice and be your best self.